By Namit Arora
(Why the Bhagavad Gita is an overrated text with a deplorable morality at its core. This is part one of a two-part critique. Part 1 is the appetizer with the Gita’s historical and literary context. Part 2 is the main course with the textual critique.)
In mid-first millennium BCE, a great spiritual awakening was underway in areas around the middle Ganga. People were moving away from the old Vedic religion—which revolved around rituals, animal sacrifices, and nature gods—to more abstract, inner-directed, and contemplative ideas. They now asked about the nature of the self and consciousness, thought and perception. They asked if virtue and vice were absolute or mere social conventions. Personal spiritual quests, aided by meditation and renunciation of material gain, had slowly gathered pace. From this churn arose new ideas like karma and dharma, non-dualism, and the unity of an individual’s soul (atman) with the universal soul (Brahman)—all pivotal ideas in Brahmanical Hinduism.
Some of these innovations in thought soon made their way into the texts we now know as the Upanishads, setting them qualitatively apart from the earlier Vedas. All of this occurred in the context of great sociopolitical and economic changes, marked by the rise of cities, trade and commerce, social mobility, public debates, new institutions of state, and even some early republics. This was also the world of the Buddha, Mahavira, and Carvaka.
The Great War of Yore
By this time, versions of a Mahabharata story had been circulating for centuries. Perhaps inspired by a war that took place c. 950 BCE around modern Delhi (the date is tentative), the story, through oral transmission, took on a life of its own. In The Hindus: An Alternative History (2009), Wendy Doniger writes that the earliest bards who told the Mahabharata story came from a caste of charioteers, who served as drivers, confidantes, and bodyguards to the Kshatriya warrior-castes. While on military campaigns, they recited stories around campfires. (No wonder God is a charioteer in the epic! Even Karna is raised by a charioteer.) In later ages and in times of peace, many bards took their performance art to lay audiences in villages and folk festivals. The story also came to be recited during royal sacrifices, where the Brahmins gradually took over its delivery and evolution, eventually writing it down in Sanskrit. Its “final form” dates from 300 BCE-300 CE and ranges from 75K to 100K verses, seven to ten times the Iliad and the Odyssey combined. (Read an outline of the story here.)
The Mahabharata, writes Doniger, ‘is so extremely fluid that there is no single Mahabharata; there are hundreds of Mahabharatas, hundreds of different manuscripts and innumerable oral versions (one reason why it is impossible to make an accurate calculation of the number of its verses). The Mahabharata is not contained in a text; the story is there to be picked up and found, salvaged as anonymous treasure from the ocean of story.’ While these versions share the same narrative core—the struggle between two branches of a royal family, the Pandavas and the Kauravas, for the control of the Kuru capital, Hastinapura, culminating in a great civil war—around it ‘are piled high many volumes of lore and doctrine contributed by Indian thinkers and storytellers over centuries’, writes Sheldon Pollock, author of The Language of the Gods in the World of Men. Frustrated by this situation, scholars at the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Pune, collated 1259 manuscripts from 1919-66 to produce a critical edition of the Mahabharata with 89K verses; it is this version that most scholars reference today.
The Mahabharata has been variously read as ‘history, poetry, moral law, and scripture’, though its central problematic, writes Pollock, is about power. ‘The dilemma of power—in the starkest terms, the need to destroy in order to preserve, to kill in order to live—becomes most poignant when those whom one must kill are one’s own kin. That is why the Mahabharata is the most harrowing of all premodern political narratives in the world: the Iliad, like the Ramayana, is about a war far from home, the Odyssey about a post-war journey home, and the Aeneid about a war for a home. The Mahabharata is about a war fought at home’, one in which both sides end up losing (to be precise, one side scores a pyrrhic victory). Having read all of these epics, I think another point of departure for the Mahabharata is that the heroes in the other epics are much less reflective; they live by a received heroic code and are not too motivated as individuals to seek self-knowledge or worry about the right thing to do. Which other epic has a hero as introspective and truth-loving as Yudhisthira, or as prone to ethical doubt as Arjuna, or as magnanimous as Karna?
What the Mahabharata does share with the Homeric epics is that it, too, has been reworked so heavily at different times that it is hard to extract reliable historical or sociological data from it. For instance, in 950 BCE, the estimated time of the war that inspired the epic, Kuru society was clan-based; chieftainship was based on both kinship networks and personal qualities; the extent of the Kuru domain, over whose control the war was fought, was a small region of the Ganga-Yamuna Doab. But the bards later injected kings into the epic who went beyond clan chieftains; these kings ruled over bigger territories and practiced heredity succession. The bards even magnified the war to apparently include all of the peoples they knew of. John Keay, author of India: A History, notes that the epic’s royal palaces too were upgraded to those of later times, with ‘pillared pavilions and marble halls, their interiors opulently furnished’, polished and shiny floors, untold wealth, and so on—descriptions that legitimized ‘the grandiose ambitions of later empire builders.’ That said, one aspect of the epic that likely goes way back is its view of the forest-dwelling clans of hunter-gatherers; the epic’s heroes encounter them in exile as rakshasas, or demons, some hostile and some who turn into allies—depictions that seem in line with ‘the presumed pattern of Aryan colonization and settlement’.
Clearly, lots of people contributed to the Mahabharata. Accepting Vyasa as its author has more to do with our need to personalize storytelling. Doniger writes that ‘non-Brahmins, people of low caste, were originally in charge of the care and feeding of the two great Sanskrit poems [the other being the Ramayana], which Brahmins took over only sometime later, one of many instances of the contributions of low-caste people to Sanskrit literature.’ The basis of caste was more fluid earlier, ranging from heredity to personal character, occupation, and even choice. Vyasa, himself a character in the story as the son of a ferryman’s daughter, is a half-caste. All this might help explain the polyphony and plurality of views that have survived in the Mahabharata—in its range of moral dilemmas, ideas of duty, flaws of character, conflicts of virtues and values—and why it continues to have such popular appeal in India. As Doniger writes, the Mahabharata remains a contested text, ‘a brilliantly orchestrated hybrid narrative with no single party line on any subject.’
The Celestial Song of God
The Bhagavad Gita (‘The God’s Song’), widely regarded as the philosophical core of the Mahabharata, was composed much later under the realities of a new age. It was merged into the epic’s later drafts, perhaps as late as first century CE. This means that the philosophy it espouses is often not in accord with the moral ambiguities of the larger epic. Presented as a Q&A style exchange between Lord Krishna and the warrior-prince Arjuna, the Gita channels certain ideas from the Upanishads and the newly ascendant Bhagavata sect (whose devotionalism, notably, is not prominent elsewhere in the Mahabharata). It attempts to render esoteric philosophy more accessible by making it weigh in on concrete dilemmas of war and peace. In doing so, it also strives to privilege certain ideas and values.
In the opening scene of the Gita, Arjuna—repulsed by the thought of killing his kin and elders—suffers an emotional meltdown in the middle of the battlefield, right before the start of the Great War between the Pandavas and the Kauravas. Despite his relatively righteous cause, he cannot see enough moral justification for the war and refuses to fight. ‘I do not see that any good can come from killing our relations in battle.’ (Some have compared this to Ashoka’s turning away from war, which likely preceded the composition of the Gita and may have inspired this framing.) The powerful immediacy of Arjuna’s crisis commands our attention. In about 700 verses that follow—using a dazzling array of ideas and tactics, many of which inspire people even today—Krishna explains to Arjuna why he must fight. Arjuna’s questions are large indeed: How do I know where my duty lies? How can I see the reality that lies beyond my worldly illusions? How can the restless mind attain lasting peace?
The Gita ends with Arjuna regaining his resolve to fight and overcoming his ethical concerns about the war. Eighteen days later, the war ends catastrophically; nearly everyone is killed. If you knew this but haven’t read the Gita, you might suspect Krishna’s ‘wisdom’ and find more instinctive sympathy with Arjuna’s initial doubts about the war. Indeed, the arguments that Krishna employs to persuade Arjuna to fight often seem cold, too distant, manipulative, and even warmongering—unlike the rest of the Mahabharata which comes across as decidedly anti-war. Why then have so many thinkers waxed eloquent about the wisdom of the Gita, including Emerson, Thoreau, Gandhi, Nehru, Vivekananda, Radhakrishnan, Huxley, and Hesse? The Gita in fact occupies a place more exalted than most other religious texts in the world. Most Hindus, even today, accord it the cultural cachet of a work whose philosophical depth and profundity is taken for granted. What then is so great about the Gita?
As with other ancient religious texts—perhaps more so than many others—one can weave a path through the Gita (while willfully avoiding others) that can make it seem deep, inspiring, and even wise. It has some soaring verses that hit just the right universal notes. They emphasize the equal spiritual status of all seekers of truth. They exhort everyone to see the journey as the reward, not the destination. They disparage priestly rituals, and privilege self-awareness as a means of penetrating our veils of illusion—also defining higher and lower states of self-awareness and attributes thereof. Various verses downgrade selfish desire, pride, lust, greed, and the pursuit of power and sensual pleasure. Modern cosmologists may find charming the advice to ‘Seek That, the First Cause, from which the universe came long ago.’
While not so novel in light of other South Asian philosophies of the day, especially Buddhism, such ideas would enhance any world religion. But they are not the whole story; the Gita in fact says a lot more. It promotes a specific ethical and metaphysical worldview, as it tries to answer the age-old question: how to live? To properly evaluate the Gita, this worldview is what we should look at, not isolated verses taken out of context—many of which are flatly contradicted by other verses. What then are the dominant ethics of the Gita? What is the picture of reality that it promotes? Is the Gita as good a guide to everyday life (i.e., to our ‘inner battlefield’) as so many claim it is?
What Song Do the Hindus Hear?
Many Hindus, including Mahatma Gandhi, have done highly selective and allegorical readings of the Gita. Gandhi even made it stand for peace and nonviolence. The message of the Gita, he wrote, is that spiritual fulfillment comes from selfless work; we must cultivate non-attachment to the outcome of our action—which doesn’t mean indifference to the outcome, only the lack of hankering after and brooding over it. If one follows this ‘central teaching of the Gita,’ he added without explaining why, ‘one is bound to follow truth and ahimsa [nonviolence]’. Gandhi translated the Gita from Sanskrit to Gujarati; in his introduction, he writes, ‘Krishna of the Gita is perfection and right knowledge personified.’ Shortly after though, he concedes that the Gita’s stance seems opposed to ahimsa, but then offers a painfully convoluted apology for it, citing different standards back then and calling for poetic license—going as far as saying that we don’t need to probe the mind of the author too much! This suggests that he had at least struggled with the Gita.
Gandhi’s case reminds us that what people take away from a scriptural text is inseparable from who they are and what they bring to it. Which makes me wonder about Swami Vivekananda who seems to have betrayed no struggle with the Gita, let alone the need for an apologia. Instead, with an almost thuggish glee, he coldly rubbished Arjuna’s doubt, calling it a case of fear, jitters, and unmanliness that Krishna promptly fixes by awakening his latent power. Radhakrishnan, beneath his scholarly veneer, is not much better; to him the pursuit of duty for duty’s sake is the unequivocal call of reason, and Krishna is ‘the voice of God echoing in every man’ (why not also the voice of Arjuna?).
Until a couple of centuries ago, only a tiny minority of Indians revered the Gita—mostly Brahmins attached to institutions, the kind Al-Beruni must have interacted with in the 11th century. This changed after modern European scholars, under the auspices of the Honorable East India Company, began investigating Hinduism, mainly because a sound knowledge of Indian history, religions, and customs would help in governing the locals (an impetus that grew after the 1857 revolt), as well as help Christian missionaries identify vulnerabilities in the local religious edifice so they could device their strategies. These scholars, such as William Jones, James Mill, and Max Müller, began researching the past, translating ancient scriptures, and theorizing about ‘Hinduism’ as a coherent religion they could relate to (Mill even wrote an influential history of India without ever setting foot on the Subcontinent). From their preconceived ideas of religion, class biases, reliance on elite Brahmins as native informants, focus on texts, and limited exposure to folk beliefs and lived practices, they began to elevate the Gita as the ‘Hindu Bible’. Not only were they drawn to ‘the monism of the Upanishads’, writes Doniger in On Hinduism:
Some Protestants within the British Raj tried to recast Hinduism as a monotheism, with a Bible: the Bhagavad Gita [which] had never had anything remotely approaching canonical status before this, though it had always been an important text. Other texts—Sanskrit texts like the Upanishads and vernacular texts such as the Hindi and Tamil version[s] of the Ramayana, and, most of all, oral traditions—were what most Hindus actually used in their worship. The British exclusionary focus on the Gita, and on Krishna/ Vishnu, amounted to mistaking kathenotheistic polytheism for monistic monotheism.’ (emphasis added)
In Castes of Mind, historian and anthropologist Nicholas B. Dirks has argued that Müller, who left a strong imprint on later scholarship and even on Gandhi, believed ‘that textual authority should have pride of place in official knowledge about India.’ According to Dirks, Müller held that ‘Indian problems were the result of degradation and corruption from the Vedic ideal.’ Dirks adds that many early- and mid-19th century Orientalists, led by their own dubious reasons to create a particular view of Indian society, and with little knowledge of the social and religious lives of ordinary Indians (unlike that of the elites), also accorded to the Laws of Manu (translated by Jones) an ‘unprecedented status’, a ‘canonic importance’, and a ‘significance it could never have had before’. They also generalized heavily—that Indians lacked a sense of history, took despotic rule as the norm, had no experience of political unity, felt no sense of nationhood, lacked any impulse for self-governance, and were too preoccupied with the next world to pay any attention to this one. Was there any doubt that the Indians needed the resolute sobriety of British rule?
This scholarship both influenced and upset a class of elite Bengali Brahmins like Ram Mohan Roy of the Brahmo Samaj, who came to be called ‘reformist’ and ‘progressive’. These elites, schooled in western education and the English language, took up the work of forging a new ‘Hinduism’ they could be proud of. Not surprisingly, they leaned towards a monotheistic framework based on a ‘classical Hinduism’ and elevated a textual canon—which only a tiny minority of Hindus had ever read or even heard—with a limited set of male gods and rituals over the ‘degenerate polytheism’ of folk religion. While they challenged many European prejudices and pointed out errors, they also fostered an inflated, often mythologized, story of ancient India that began to shape the consciousness of a new elite and provided ideological ballast for a nascent Hindu nationalism. The Brahmo Samaj and other ‘progressive’ elites saw caste, idolatory, and Sati as aberrant practices. Partly in order to recruit the authority of the scriptures in their fight against such practices—but also out of their regard for these scriptures and defensiveness at smug European critiques of Hindu degeneracy—they expended considerable energy on selective readings and establishing the loftiness of the Vedic corpus, the ‘Hindoo religion’, its ‘tolerance’, and ‘the pure spirit of its dictates’. This was the fountainhead of what later came to be called Hindutva and took on a life of its own in the closing decades of the 20th century. Ironically, for all their reformist idealism on caste, as Susan Bayly points out in Caste, Society and Politics in India, even the Brahmo Samaj later became ‘an exclusive and largely endogamous community within Hinduism.’
This helps explain why the Gita, as well as other scriptures, have attracted such little critical attention in modern India—I mean the kind that sacred books of many world religions have. In approaching the text, too few Indians have cut through the fog of reverence that surrounds it. Among them was the historian DD Kosambi (1907-66), who wasn’t too impressed by the Gita. In Myth and Reality (1962), he observed that a ‘slippery opportunism characterizes the whole book’. BR Ambedkar (1891-1956) saw it as Brahmanism’s response to the rising fortunes of Buddhism. In his essay, Krishna and His Gita, Ambedkar wrote, ‘The philosophic defense offered by the Bhagavad Gita of the Kshatriya’s duty to kill is, to say the least, puerile.’ The journalist and secular humanist VR Narla (1908-85) called its moral perspective ‘retrograde’. In The Truth About the Gita, Narla argued that the book condones violence and wholesale slaughter; Krishna was Machiavellian, who employed trickery, deceit, falsehood, intimidation, and blackmail to get Arjuna to overcome his moral qualms. More recently, in Who Wrote the Bhagvadgita, Meghnad Desai, economist and politician, declared the text ‘unsuitable to modern India’ whose Constitution commits it to ‘a world of social equity and democratic freedoms. The message of the Gita is casteist and misogynist and as such profoundly in opposition to the spirit of modern India.’ He suggests ‘that some of the many hypocrisies we observe in Indian life today may have their origins in the way the message of the Gita can be read.’
Written by mere mortals in a political setting but posturing as the voice of God, the Gita strives to imbue the reader with a host of ideas, beliefs, and values. Classics are ultimately defined by their ability to survive criticism. Critiques of the Gita, too, are necessary in every age, if only to know where we stand in relation to this pillar of cultural thought. My engagement with the Gita has persuaded me that it is an overrated text with a deplorable morality at its core, which should be confronted—not explained away or swept under the holy mat (admittedly, this is not as bad as sincerely trying to follow the morality of the Gita). Notably, its reflexive admirers even abound among the modern, educated Hindu upper crust, including those who live in the West.
In Part 2, I’ll probe the Gita more closely and also revive a critique of it that existed over two millennia ago, in the thought of the Buddha and then Nagarjuna. I hope that this line of inquiry will also disarm those Hindu religionists who tend to be ultra sensitive about critiques of their sacred books from Western perspectives (some of which may well harbor Eurocentric biases). Meanwhile, for a quick refresher on the context and the themes of the Gita, watch this 10-minute clip from Peter Brook’s brilliant 1989 adaptation of the Mahabharata.
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