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Book Review: The Legend of Bagger Vance  
Author: Steven Pressfield
Publisher: Bantam Books, London, 2001
ISBN: 0-553-81307-2

Steven Pressfield's The Legend of Bagger Vance is a novelised retelling of Bhagavad-gita. The heroes of the novel are Rannulph Junah (R. Junah, representing Arjuna) and Bagger Vance (representing Bhagavan, Krsna).

Having heard a little of this book before it landed on my desk, I was fearing a slavish re-presentation of Bhagavad-gita in which the gurus become golf coaches and the conch shells become golf clubs. This isn't the case, The Legend of Bagger Vance has its own story to tell, which in itself has various benefits and pitfalls.

In short, the story is that of Rannulph Junah, veteran of the First World War, who bears physical and psychic scars from his experiences. Junah is steamrolled into representing his hometown in a championship golf match and in the process becomes enlightened by the instructions of his guide and friend, Bagger Vance, who has also agreed to be his caddie. Readers of Bhagavad-gita will already begin to see the parallels and differences between the two texts.

From my reading I could gather three levels of correspondence between the two books. First of all there were the clear parallels: The names of the central characters; the division of the philosophy into discipline, wisdom and love (karma, jnana and bhakti); Junah's acceptance of Bagger Vance as guru; Junah ordering Bagger Vance to drive his car between the massed armies (of golf fans), where he laments: 'What good will any of it do me, or anyone attached to it?'

The second level was more suggestive. The general commotion before the big match suggested the tumult before the battle of Kuruksetra; Junah's stance of not wanting to carry the fight echoes that of Arjuna but contains very different reasoning; and the narrator is suggestive of Bhagavad-gita's narrator, Sanjaya, in that he is fully witness to events that other spectators are not; however, he plays a more active part in the story than does Sanjaya.

The third level is one of no correspondence. Our first encounter with Junah is as a dead-drunk semi-recluse haunted by personal ghosts - not really Arjuna at all. Vance's tale about the golf course being the site of a battle on the Land of Mu, 21,000 years ago, didn't ring any familiar bells either. These are not necessarily criticisms. The author has his own stories to tell - as appropriate for a novel - but it does raise questions about the philosophical content.

Generally in Indian traditions, texts such as Bhagavad-gita are understood through ­parampara (a succession of gurus and disciples). This system attaches great importance to the idea that knowledge is handed down from guru to disciple, who himself becomes guru and hands down that knowledge unchanged but explained according to contemporary conditions. Novelists, on the other hand, attach great importance to the idea that whatever enhances the story is fair game. Therefore we wouldn't expect philosophical rigour to stand in the way of a good story.

These waters are further muddied by the fact that there are many different schools of interpretation of Bhagavad-gita from which Pressfield could draw. While traditional Indian methods may lead to finding the one teacher who explains it best, Western minds are more inclined to look at the many explanations and try and understand selectively. This means in practice that one is never sure which school, if any, Pressfield is representing on any particular point or if he is importing philosophies from wherever it suits him (as is his right as a fiction writer). This license seemed to be most employed in his various expositions on the Authentic Swing. At times it read like a beginner's Bhagavad-gita (discipline, wisdom and love) while at others it contained a more homemade philosophy (golf as a metaphor for the search for identity).

The author does make some basic points very nicely: the idea of stripping away external designations in an effort to discover the self, for example. Bagger Vance instructs:

Are you your roles, Junah? Scion, soldier, Southerner? Husband, father, lover? Slayer of the foe in battle, comforter of the friend at home? Are you your virtues, Junah, or your sins? Your deeds, your feats? Are you your dreams or your nightmares? Tell me, Junah. Can you hit the ball with any of these?

More problematic, from a Vaisnava perspective, are the occasional brushes with impersonalism. What happens when all these designations are stripped away? According to Vance and Junah: 'There's nothing left'.

I only played golf once and found it boring and frustrating, so I was a little apprehensive about reading a 'golf' novel. However, these sections were written with such enthusiasm and skill that the latent sports fan was soon immersed in the world of mashies and niblicks (whatever they might be) with a genuine interest in what would happen at the next hole.

This is a well-written novel, not Bhagavad-gita for Beginners or A ­Golfer's Companion to Bhagavad-gita. I would not recommend it to anyone wanting to learn about Bhagavad-gita but would happily recommend it to anyone who likes a little thoughtfulness in his or her novels. I would particularly recommend it to anyone who needs a sugar-coated introduction to the idea that there is more to life than matter.

Lyall Ward

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