How Steven Pressfield Sold America the Bhagavad Gita

Photo by Damir Spanic on Unsplash

Steven Pressfield would call it the dumbest idea he’d ever heard — but I’ll wager that was probably before Robert Redford got involved.

Pressfield’s idea blossomed into the novel that became his first commercial success, The Legend of Bagger Vance. Unsatisfied, the idea morphed into a movie starring Will Smith and Matt Damon — and directed by Robert Redford.

If only my dumb ideas performed so well.

Sourcing perspiration and inspiration

Pressfield read the Bhagavad Gita on airplanes. “I figured, if the plane was going to crash, I wanted to be reading something spiritual as we were going down.”

Commoly referred to as the “Hindu Bible,” the Bhagavad Gita is the best-known and most famous Hindu text. Mahatma Gandhi called it his “spiritual dictionary.” At some point — either on the ground or at 30,000 feet — Pressfield was inspired to update the Bhagavad Gita.

After a very Hero’s-Journey-esque moment where he doubted himself and his idea and debated if anyone else would be interested in the story, he got to work. “The idea had seized me,” Pressfield said. “I had to do it.”

Let’s take a look at what he did.

Swapping metaphors

At a certain level, Pressfield, who inverted the title of Sun Tzu’s military treatise The Art of War when he dubbed his own manual for defeating writer’s block The War of Art, was up to his old tricks here. Only this time, instead of swapping words, he swapped metaphors.

In the Bhagavad Gita, war is the metaphor for life. In Bagger Vance, golf is the metaphor for life. In his own words, Pressfield’s “dumbest idea” was to

…rip off the structure of the Gita and do a modern version, only instead of a troubled warrior I’ll make it a troubled golf champion, and instead of him receiving spiritual counsel from his charioteer, he’ll get it from his caddie.

If you prefer a visual, check out the notepad on Pressfield’s website (not an affiliate link) showing how Pressfield adapted the novel from the legend. (I would include the image here, but I don’t have the rights to it.) Comparing the loglines of the legend and the novel makes the relationship between the two crystal clear:

Bhagavad Gita: Arjuna, a troubled warrior-hero and champion archer, loses his “universal form” and receives spiritual advice from his charioteer, who happens to be Lord Krishna, to regain it.

The Legend of Bagger Vance: R. Junuh, an alcoholic war hero and golfer, regains his “authentic swing” and sorts out his life by following the advice of his caddie, the mystical Bagger Vance.

Pressfield stated explicitly that Bagger Vance represents Lord Krishna.

Well, I certainly didn’t create Bagger. He just kind of came along on his own. Of course his original incarnation, as you know, was Bhagavan (Lord) Krishna, hence “Bagger Vance.

Swapping metaphors did more than enable Pressfield to wrap an ancient, unfamiliar text in the trappings of a sports story, a genre well-known to American audiences. Going with the golf: life metaphor also hooked Robert Redford.

“Sport is a wonderful metaphor for life. Of all the sports that I played — skiing, baseball, fishing — there is no greater example than golf, because you’re playing against yourself and nature.” — Robert Redford

Redford expanded on that idea as it related to The Legend of Bagger Vance:

The ‘Legend of Bagger Vance’ is not just a golf story. It’s about a character who loses his swing, his authentic swing, and has to find it again. And in that sense, it’s universal because we all lose our swing in one way or another at some point in our lives. We’re all tested by adversity and I suspect that all of us have at times hoped for someone like Bagger to come along and help us through.”

Staying true to the journey

While he swapped metaphors, Pressfield stayed true to the underlying framework of the Bhagavad Gita, which, like many of humankind’s greatest stories, is a variation of the hero’s journey, as identified by Joseph Campbell.

Sticking with this framework allowed Pressfield to swap the metaphors so easily. That’s why humans created the hero’s journey — to share knowledge about life with one another. Because the greatest stories are always about life, no matter what happens in the plot.

One of the hallmarks of the hero’s journey is that the hero is tested and uses his new knowledge to pass the test. In other words, for Bagger Vance to be more than a golf story, Junuh must prove he has learned the lessons Bagger Vance, a.k.a Krishna, taught him.

And so Pressfield tests his hero. On the third day of the tournament, Junuh is contending for the victory when overconfidence causes him to ignore the teachings of his mentor. His play falters. He hits a ball deep into the woods, where he has a spiritual crisis — a flashback to the war.

Then, he inadvertently moves his ball attempting to clear an obstacle. This represents a moral crisis. Golf rules require that he penalize himself a shot, but doing so endangers his chances of winning. Junuh, the hero, is being challenged morally, spiritually, and physically.

He responds by recalling Bagger Vance’s words. He controls his emotions. He shows moral valor by penalizing himself a stroke. This costs him a chance to win the tournament but proves he has learned valuable life lessons.

At this point, Bagger Vance mysteriously disappears. The hero has demonstrated that he has learned what he needed to learn. The mentor’s job is finished.

Junuh, now on his own, sinks an improbable putt. The tournament ends in a harmonious three-way tie, completing Junuh’s hero’s journey Pressfield’s adaptation of the Bhagavad Gita.

Takeaways

The Hero’s Journey is designed to tell stories about life. Within this framework, every story becomes a story about life.

Even established artists doubt their ideas. Go ahead and doubt yours — but pursue them, too.

Notes:

A much fuller comparison between The Legend of Bagger Vance and the Bhagavad Gita can be found in Steven J. Rosen’s book Gita on the Green, for which Steven Pressfield wrote the foreword (not an affiliate link).

Pressfield’s novel follows the Bhagavad Gita more closely than the movie does and delves more deeply into the spiritual concepts of the legend.

It’s also worth noting that The Art of War is full of golf stories.

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