Through out the ages, in the history of man, books have played an important role. A popular misconception is that books are lifeless, impractical objects fit for desks and the dusty corners of universities, monasteries and other quiet academic institutions, away from the hubbub of daily life, and of least importance to the man on the street.
Throughout history, there is evidence of books which rather than being innocent, unnecessary or insignificant have turned out to be dynamic, sometimes destructive and sometimes capable of changing the entire course of events – either for good or evil. For instance, Hitler's Mein Kampf became the political bible of the German people and guided the policies of the Third Reich from 1933 to the end of World War II. Mein Kmpf's recurring theme is that of race, race supremacy, race purity, and that the German race is the world's strongest and should rule over the inferior races of the earth. It is the privilege of the master race to conquer, exploit, dispossess or exterminate other races for its own advantage.
Norman Cousins said, "For, every word in Mein Kampf 125 lives were to be lost, for every page 4,700 lives and for every chapter more than 1,200,000 lives."
Albert Einstein's paper on relativity published in l905 mentioned a seemingly harmless little equation E = MC2, the most celebrated in history, but it led to the production of the nuclear bomb in 1945, laying forth a nightmarish ball game in destructive weaponry. Obviously the positive aspects of his theories are there and their application has revolutionised physics and given a new understanding of the universe.
A similar effect, the instigation of the American Civil War was brought about by Harriet Beecher Stowe's, Uncle Tom's Cabin, a story depicting slavery in 18th century America. This was greatly due to the fact that there was already great discontent and controversy over the slavery question at the time and the book couldn't have been better timed psychologically. Much earlier a book (47 page pamphlet) entitled Common Sense directly resulted in the proclamation of independence of the United States of America. Ironically it was an Englishman named Thomas Paine who wrote it. Revolution was pointed out by Paine as the only solution of the conflict with Great Britain and King George Ill. He said, "Government by kings was first introduced into the world by heathens... In England a king has little more to do than to make war and give away places... A pretty business indeed for a man to be allowed 8,000,000 sterling a year for, and worshipped into the bargain! Of more worth is one honest man to society and in the sight of God, than all the crowned ruffians whoever lived" Paine continued further, "There is something absurd, in supposing a continent to be perpetually governed by an island. In no instance has nature made the satellite larger than its primary planet." The effect among the American people was immediate and cataclysmic. The continental Congress in Philadelphia announced independence on July 4th, less than 6 months after the first book came off the press.
India's independence was brought about in a similar fashion. In 1907 a copy of Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau fell into the hands of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, then a lawyer in South Africa. Few read the book when it was published in 1849, but in the next 100 years it was read by thousands and affected the lives of millions. Thoreau believed, "That government is best which governs not at all," going beyond Thomas Jefferson's, "That government is best which governs least." Later Thoreau modified this to, "I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government" Thoreau advocated refusal to pay poll taxes – a symbol of disobedience and a method open to every citizen. He said, "to be 'strictly just, the authority of government... must have the sanction and consent of the governed. It can have no pure right over my person and property but what I concede to it." He basically believed that the state, exists for individuals not individuals for the state. A minority should refuse to yield to a majority if moral principles must be compromised in order to do so. The state has no right to offend moral liberty by forcing the citizen to support injustices.
For Gandhi, Civil Disobedience became a bible of non-resistance and phrased an equivalent, Satyagraha, for his followers. His techniques of non co-operation, non-resistance, civil disobedience or Satyagraha paid off in S.Africa when Prime Minister General Smuts yielded to every important demand made by the Indians. On returning to India, Gandhi used and sharpened civil disobedience until 1947 when dominion status was granted to India and Pakistan by Britain.
Books in other fields such as philosophy, religion and literature have also influenced people all over the world, but there's little scope here to review all, The few which have shaped the lives and thinking of millions are, the Bible, the Talmud, the Koran, the Bhagvad Gita, writings of Buddha and Confucius, The Origin of Species by Darwin, the Republic by Plato, Das Kapital by Marx and the Interpretation of Dreams by Freud. ln the literary field many have inspired the world, including the Greek classical writers, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Cervantes, Milton and Goethe.
Certain books though read by only a few and understood by even fewer due to their special nature have indirectly affected us all. But through a filtering or digesting system involving newspapers, magazines, classroom teachings, television and radio, the mass of people have been able to get some inkling about the matter in those books. None of those books would have been best sellers either. Principia Mathematica by Newton for instance was mostly complex geometrical diagrams and in technical Latin: Newton's biographers state that, when it was published in 1687, not more than three to four men living could comprehend it. Who would have thought of forming a law from seeing an apple fall? Well, Newton did just that and his law of universal gravitation was accepted by scientists. One important application of the law was the explanation for the tides. When the moon is fullest, the earth's waters experience their maximum attraction and high tide results. The sun also affects the tides, and when the sun and moon are in line, the tide is greatest.
Some books were written down years after the actual events had taken place, the Bible for instance, as was Shri Krishna's Gita. These are known as scriptures rather than books and millions have obtained, are obtaining and will obtain solace and guidance from them.
The Bhagvad Gita is unique in that it is a dialogue between Bhagwan Shri Krishna and his devotee warrior named Arjuna, taking place on the battlefield, prior to battle. It was penned down later by a renowned sage named Vyas, who incidentally, wrote the majority of the Hindu scriptures. The Bhagvad Gita has had a greater impact in the world, especially in the last one or two hunderd years since printing has facilitated mass production. In times of great unrest and mental tension, people have referred to the Gita which has uplifted them from their troubles.
Thoreau said that his mind had been made by two books, namely, the Bhagvad Gita and Emerson's Essay on Nature. He used to read and immerse himself in the Gita every morning.
Gandhi's achievement of the withdrawal of the British from India, without a firearm being fired, was not without debt to the Gita. He wrote in his autobiography, "The Bhagvad Gita is the book par excellence for the knowledge of truth. Such power as I possess for working in the political field has been derived from my experiments in the spiritual field," and in the latter, "Truth is the sovereign principle."
What is so unique about the Gita that it has appealed to such distingushed people from different cultures? Well, Shri Krishna enlightens the perplexed Arjun that it is his duty (karma) as a Kshatriya to fight on the battlefield even if it is against his relatives, elders and his guru. But he should do it by complying to the wishes of the eternal, renouncing his own logic and perform without the expectations or care for the fruits of his actions.
Shri Krishna also teaches Arjun that, "He who performs actions without attachment, resigning them to God, is untainted by their effects, like the lotus leaf by water
We all know from experience that life is full of difficulties and obstacles, sometimes, seemingly insurmountable but which nevertheless need to be overcome. As Aldous Huxley put it, "There comes a time when one asks even of Shakespeare, even of Beethoven, 'Is this all?' " Today problems of aimlessness, fear, loneliness and aggression are gripping society and those who cannot solve these problems either end up as nervous wrecks or commit suicide. The Gita shows how to extricate oneself from the web that has entrapped him. "Do not give up", says Shri Krishna, fight with dedication, as your karma befits you." He shows the path of action to Arjun thus, "Whatever you do, whatever you eat, whatever you offer in sacrifice, whatever you give away, whatever austerity you practice, 0 son of Kunti, do this as an offering to Me. Thus shall you be free from the bondages of actions that bear good or evil results."
Thus, little wonder that the Gita has been the succour of people everywhere, offering a practical and positive solution for the problems in life.