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Monthly Archives: October 2016

The Question of Hindu, Hinduism et cetera – Part Two

Continued From Part One

For my learned friend Prof. Dr. DMR Sekhar

As observed by the Supreme Court of India while dealing with the case of  ‘Bramchari Sidheswar Shai and others Versus State of West Bengal’ (1995) the word ‘Hindu’ derived from the name of the river Sindhu originally referred to the region along the river Sindhu (now called the Indus) as also the people residing in the Sindhu region.

It is explained that Persia, in the ancient times, was the vital link between India and the Greeks of Asia Minor. In the Avesta of Zoroaster, what we today call as India is named as Hapta Hendu,   the Avesthan for the Vedic Sapta Sindhavah – the Land of Seven Rivers, that is, the five rivers of the Punjab along with the Sarasvati ( a river which has since disappeared) and the Indus. The word ‘Sindhu’ not only referred to the river system but to the adjoining areas as well.

And again, by about 516 B.C.E, Darius son of Hystaspes annexed the Indus valley and formed the twentieth satrapy of the Persian Empire. That became the twentieth Satrapy, the richest and most populous Satrapy of the Persian Empire. The inscription at Nakshi–e-Rustam (486.BCE) refers to the tributes paid to Darius by Hidush and others vassal such as Ionians, Spartans, Bactrians, Parthians, and Medes. 

The name of Sindhu reached the Greeks in its Persian form Hindu (because of the Persian etymology wherein every initial ‘S’ is represented by ‘Ha’).The Persian term Hindu became the Greek Indos / (plural indoi) since the Greeks could not pronounce ‘Ha’ and had no proper ’U’. The Indos in due course acquired its Latin form – India. Had the Sanskrit word Sindhu reached the Greeks directly, they might perhaps have pronounced it as Sindus or Sindia.

All this was to explain that the word ‘Hindu’ originally referred to the river system; and to the adjoining areas; as also to the people residing in that region. The term was employed to denote regional and cultural affiliation; but, not a religious identity.

**

In the ancient times the concept a distinct ‘religion’ as opposed to other ‘religions’ did not seem to exist. The Rig-Veda or the Upanishads or even the Buddha do not refer to a ‘religion’ or speak in ‘religious terms’. Even the later texts such as the Arthashatra of Kautilya or the Indica Megasthanese  do not mention a religion per se that existed in India of their times.

Even otherwise, what has now come to be categorized as ‘Hinduism ‘does not satisfy or fall within the accepted definition of a ‘religion’?

For instance; it has no Prophet or a Originator; its origin cannot be pinpointed to a time or place;  it has no single source-text or the Holy Book; it is not identified with a particular symbol or an emblem; it does not prescribe (injunctions or list of Do-s – thou shalt) or proscribe (prohibitions or list of don’t-s- Thou shalt not) a set of beliefs or rules of conduct;  it does not lay down a particular system of faith , dogma or worship ;  there is no single Authority to issue mandates or edicts (Fatwa)  for regulating or governing religious faith  of its people; one cannot be excommunicated from its fold ; and by the same token one cannot m strictly speaking , converted to its faith; in fact it has no global ambition, intending to conquer the world;  those within it have the absolute freedom to accept/reject/ abuse any or   all of the gods ;  any or all of the texts; one can accept or reject a superhuman controlling power according ones will;  one can observe the time-honoured accepted customs , ceremonies and rituals or reject any or all of it with impunity and still profess to be a ‘Hindu’; and so on…

Further; what is now called Hinduism was not made; but, it has grown over the centuries. And during its long and circuitous route, in its metamorphosis,   it has imbibed within it several tribal cultures  by absorbing, transforming and reforming various cult and tribal beliefs and practices, many of which were vague and amorphous,  ranging from sublime to grotesque . The Hinduism, as practiced today, is a continuing amalgam of hundreds of tribal cultures.  The Hindu culture, philosophy and rituals are greatly enriched by such countless tribal cultures. But, all the while it did retain the ancient concept of an all-pervading, Universal entity from which everything emanates and into which everything eventually returns. Some describe Hinduism as an inverted tree or a jungle; but not a strictly planned structural building.

Thus what has come to be regarded as Hinduism is a peculiar, open-ended system that rejects all sorts of restrictions and defies a specific definition. That perhaps is the reason why the Supreme Court observed:  ‘Hindu religion not being tied-down to any definite set of philosophic concepts, as such’.

The ‘Hindu’ view of life accepts – rather celebrates the pluralistic nature Truth or Reality, which cannot be , dogmatically, restricted or diminished to a particular single position. The ‘Hindu’ traditions have always tried to adopt the concept of Anekāntavāda which, essentially, is a principle that encourages acceptance of multiple or plural views on a given subject. It believes that merely judging the issue from individual (separate) stand points of view would lead to wrong conclusions; and, it would be prudent to approach each issue from more than one point of view (aneka-amsika). It also marks the tendency to harmonize opposing views as distinct parts of a larger whole whose fullness lies well beyond the reach of mere perception or reason.

Then the Question is: how did such an open concept that vaguely meant a geographical or a cultural association was brought down and restricted to mean a particular religious group as distinct from other such rival groups or sects.

 

***

Catherine A. Robinson, a Professor on the Study of Religions at the Bath Spa University in the introduction to her celebrated Book Interpretations of the Bhagavad-Gita and images of the Hindu tradition investigates and  discusses , in fair detail , the course of  ‘the changing meaning of ‘Hindu’ whereby an original ethnic and cultural meaning was much later superseded by a religious meaning’. Much of what follows hereunder is based on her work.

The very notion of religion (dian definiri religio), commonly translated as ‘a feeling of absolute dependence’,’ to tie or bind’, is primarily a Western concern. It is the product of the dominant Western religious mode; the theistic inheritance from Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The basic structure of such theism is essentially a distinction between a transcendent deity and all else; between the creator and his creation; between God and man.

 [On October 25, 2016, a Seven-judge Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court of India  headed by Chief Justice T S Thakur which had taken  up   a review of the judgement handed down by its Three-judge Bench  in 1995, among other things , observed:

“It is difficult to define religion. There will be no end to this”. ]

 

According to Ms. Robinson: ‘Hindu’ did not, originally, designate religious significance or affiliation; nor did it distinguish among affiliations to what are now regarded as different ‘religions’. ‘Hinduism’, she says, is to be understood as a modern Western concept adopted and adapted by ‘Hindus’. And,  it is , therefore, important to differentiate between ‘Hinduism’ as a contemporary phenomenon with ideological power and practical implications and the historical process that produced it, imbuing it with an appropriate past and aura of antiquity.

The change in the meaning of ‘Hindu’ from the ethnic and cultural to the religious occurred in two important phases during which ‘Hindu’ was defined negatively through the exclusion of Muslims ; and,  then  during the Western period , positively through the association of those identified as ‘Hindu’ with a single unified ‘religion’.

In the medieval period, in Islamic usage, ‘Hindu’ tended to denote an Indian who was not a Muslim. It was a negative criterion – non-adherence to Islam; as also a demarcation of the indigenous inhabitants from the foreign or invading populace in terms of ethnic, cultural or even religious distinctions. And later, a ’Hindu’ came to mean one who was not affiliated to any of the identifiable cults, beliefs and practices prevalent among the indigenous population.

In the modern period, as per the Western usage, initially, and in general, ‘Hindu’ signified   an ethnic and cultural identity associated with the indigenous civilization of India. Later,   ‘Hindu’, in particular, tended to denote an Indian who was neither a Muslim nor a member of another sect recognized as a ‘religion’

Let’s look at these phases in a little more detail.

***

Al-Biruni (973-1048) a Muslim scholar of Iranian descent is regarded as one of the greatest scholars of the medieval Islamic era, who distinguished himself as a historian and versatile linguist,.  He arrived in India during 1017; and spent here number of years learning the local history, culture and languages. He also collected books on Indian philosophies, mathematics, medicine, astronomy and art, as practiced in 11th century India. During his stay, it is said, he learnt Sanskrit, befriended number of Indian scholars, and had discussions on verities of subjects.

Al-Biruni in his book Tarikh Al-Hind (History of India) , wrote about his impressions on almost every aspect of life in the India of his times (early 11th -century) as also about its history, geography, geology, science, and mathematics.

He observed: ‘the Hindus entirely differ from us in every respect’ they totally differ from us in religion; alongside in general cultural practices, language and custom’. The Hindu, in his work, generally denoted non-Muslims. And his description of the ‘Hindu’ was not particularly in terms of ‘religion’. It was meant to highlight the differences in the culture; rather than in religious beliefs and practices.

And within the hierarchy of ‘religions,  as derived  from the criteria that were close to Islam, those religious groups without a revealed book or fixed laws were  ranked  lowest.

The later medieval Muslim scholars adopted a similar approach. They too referred to the whole of the non-Muslim population as the Hindu; and, they did not seem to be aware of the diverse sects and cults within it or outside of it.

Accordingly, the medieval Islamic view of ‘Hindu’ was primarily to designate indigenous non-Muslim population and their way of life.

**

Medieval Church

 It is said; according to medieval Christian belief, the entire population of the world was classified into four major religious groups: ‘lexchristiana, lexiudaica, lexmahometana and lexgentilium’; that is, Christians, Jews, Muslims and the rest ‘Heathens’. The ‘idolaters’- of any sort -, who were said to form roughly nearly two-thirds of the world’s population, were also grouped under ‘heathens’ (gentilium). It is explained; the concept of ‘heathen’ was derived from such Christian-world view; and its fourfold classification.

By about the sixteenth century, the native population of India (other than Jews and Muslims) were categorized by the Church and by the Europeans, in general, under lexgentilium- heathens and idolaters. And, till about the Eighteenth Century, the term Gentile, Gentio or heathen was applied to identify the Hindus and to distinguish them from the Moors (Muslims) of India.

Gentoo

The Portuguese (who perhaps were the earliest to colonize India) after they landed on the West coast found that the native inhabitants of India also included Jews and the Moors (Muslims). They did not quite know what those other indigenous pagan religious groups were called. But, the Portuguese named them as Gentoos – the native heathens. It is said; the Portuguese word ‘Gentoo’ is a corruption of the Gentio, meaning a gentile, a heathen, or native. 

Thus, as early as in the sixteenth century, Gentoo was a term commonly employed, basically, to distinguish local religious groups in India from the Indian Jews and Muslims. The Oxford English Dictionary defines Gentoo as ‘a pagan inhabitant of Hindustan, a heathen, as distinguished from Mohammedan’.

***

East India Company and the Code of the Gentoos Law

 

With the rapid spread of the British colonial environment and the rise of the East India Company, the British courts in India had to adjudicate on increasing number of legal disputes among the locals. The Court of Directors of the East India  Company decided  to take over the administration of civil justice ; and, felt that it would help its business interests if it could involve in what they termed as ‘Hindu learning’ to decide on civil matters. Accordingly, Warren Hastings who was appointed as Governor General of Bengal in April, 1772 was asked to execute the Company’s decision; and, interalia come up with a ‘Judicial Plan’. His immediate object thereafter was to devise an arrangement to dispense law/justice to the Indian litigants in ways that are as close as possible to their own customs, in matters of person and property; and, particularly, on matters considered as religious. But, the dispensation of justice had to be according to the British norms and by British Judges; and it was made   explicitly clear that employing the Indian scholars or pundits as judges was totally out of question.

By August 1772, Warren Hastings submitted his ‘Judicial Plan of 1772’. It  declared that ‘in all suits regarding inheritance, marriage, caste, and other religious usages, or institutions, the laws…of the Shaster with respect to Gentoos shall be invariably adhered to’.

[Pitt’s India Act 1784 or the East India Company Act 1784 was passed in the British Parliament to rectify the defects of the Regulating Act 1773. It resulted in dual control or joint government in India by Crown in Great Britain and the British East India Company, with crown having ultimate authority. The relationship between company and crown established by this act kept changing with time until the Government of India Act 1858 provided for liquidation of the British East India Company; and the transference of its functions to the British Crown. On November 1, 1858, at a grand Durbar  held at Allahabad, Lord Canning released the royal proclamation which announced that the Queen had assumed the governance of India.

Under the provisions of the  Royal Titles Act 1876 , Queen  Victoria assumed  the title “Empress of India” , effective from 1 May 1876.. The new title was proclaimed at the Delhi Durbar of 1 January 1877 ]

queen-empress-of-india-1878

Till about the eighteenth century, the native population of India (other than Jews and Muslims) were labelled by the British as Gentoos. That is the reason why the first digest of the Indian legislation drafted by the British in 1776 for the purpose of administering justice and to adjudicate over civil disputes among the people of India belonging to local religious groups was titled as A Code of Gentoo Law.

The English version A Code of Gentoo Laws or Ordinations of the Pundit was published in 1776 to serve as a source for ’legal accomplishment of a new system of government in Bengal, where, it was said :  ‘the British laws might , in some degree, be softened and tempered by a moderate attention to the peculiar and national prejudices of the Hindoo ; some of whose Institutes, however fanciful and injudicious, may perhaps be preferable to any which could be substituted in their room’.

In the introduction to the Code of the Gentoo Laws(pages xxi-xxii) it was explained that the terms ‘Hindustan’ and ‘Hindoo’ are not the terms by which the inhabitants originally called themselves or their religion. In fact, in very distant past when their books were created, the religious distinctions as we know did not yet exist. And, their land was originally called as Bharatha-khanda or Jamboodweepa, in Sanskrit. Hindustan is a Persian word unknown to the original inhabitants of the land.   It was only since the era of Tartars (Muslims) the name Hindoos came into use to distinguish them from the Mussalman conquerors. Thus, the term ‘Hindoo’ was employed mainly to demarcate some class of natives from some other class of natives. The translators, therefore, decided to reject the term Hindoo; but to retain Gentoos which term was then in common use among the Europeans.

It was only later when the British realized that the Indian Gentoos had numerous religious groups and sub-groups among them, the term ‘Hindoo’ came to be used in place of the Gentoo. Accordingly, in the British official records, ‘the religion of the Hindoos’ gradually displaced ‘the religion of the Gentoos’. The word Gentoo later became archaic and obsolete,

Until then, what is now called as Hinduism was officially referred to by the Europeans as the religion of the Gentoos. In the early years after that change, which is till end of    early nineteenth century, the word ‘Hinduism’ was in common currency; and, it largely meant ‘the primal and ancient religion of the subcontinent’.  But in the later years, the scope of the term Hindu as a religion was restricted to cover non-Muslims and non-Christians.

It was only later that ‘Hinduism’ came to acquire specific religious connotations and characteristics; and, having an assortment of beliefs.

**

Administration of Temples and religious institutions

The intervention and supervision by the British over the implementation of the Hindu Personal Law led to their gaining direct and indirect control over administration of religious institutions, deciding on religious matters ; as also to officially categorize  issues and classify them as ‘religious’ or secular.

[With the advent of the British and their judicial system, an increasing number of litigations were brought before the Courts on all sorts of secular and religious matters, including petty ones. The better known among the religious issue, though a petty one, was Vadakalai Vs Thenkalai namam dispute of 1776 concerning the shape of the namam to be placed on the elephant at the Kanchipuram temple; and, the appeal filed thereafter in 1795. Baron Robert Hobart, 4th Earl of Buckinghamshire, who was then the Governor of Madras (1794- 1798), advised the warring Sivaishnavas:

“The Board of Directors of the Company do not think it is advisable to interfere in the religious disputes of the natives, lest by giving a decision on grounds of which they are not certain, it might become the cause of dissentions serious in their consequences to the peace of the inhabitants”.

Despite Governor Hobart’s sensible advice, disputes on the namam issues continued to be brought before the Courts. (Source: Madras, Chennai: A 400-year Record of the First City of Modern India, Volume 1; edited by S. Muthiah; pages 100 – 101)]

 

As the British began defeating the local Kings and gaining control over their territories, they naturally stepped into the shoes of the erstwhile rulers; and inherited the special privileges they were entitled to. 

In the olden days, the King as the ruler of the state exercised authority and also assumed responsibility of protecting temples. He was accorded special regard and honors at the temples. The East India Company, as the rulers, too had to maintain such relations with the temples.  In the process, the British gained control over the management and administration of the temples.

But some modifications in the relations between the ruler and the temple became inevitable under the Company rule.

In that context, the Madras Endowments and Escheats* Act of 1817 (particularly Regulation VII) came into force. Under this Regulation, the Madras government enabled itself to administer all the religious institutions in the Presidency. Apart from overseeing the temple administration, maintenance of its buildings and management of its finances, the British also had a say in ritual and worship activities.

[*Escheats – Where a person dies interstate and without leaving legal heirs, all his property shall be escheat and shall belong to the Government]

The involvement of the East India Company in temple activities was viewed by the   British public opinion, back at Home,   as supporting native heathen religion. The Anti-Idolatry Connection League (AICL) protested against such anti-Christian activities.  East Indian Company came under heavy criticism for adopting and supporting a non-Christian creed.

The connections between of the Company with religious institutions in India also became a matter of dispute between  politicians  and the high officials of the Company in England on the one side;  and administrators of the East India Company in India on the other side.  Whereas the latter justified the support of the religious institutions like the temples with pragmatic political arguments…the former strongly opposed these links with moral and Christian missionary arguments and condemned it as state sanction of idolatry. 

On August 8, 1838, the Court of Directors transmitted the following instruction: We more particularly desire that the management of all temples and other places of religious resort, together with the revenues derived therefrom, be resigned into the hands of the natives; and that the interference of the public authorities in the religious ceremonies of the people be regulated by the instructions conveyed in the 62nd paragraph of our despatch of 20th February, 1833.

Thereafter, in 1843`, the Madras Government of the East India Company finally bowed to the pressure from the British at home ; and ended its participation in the ritual activities of the temples , while retaining its control of the religious endowments. And, again in 1863, the power over endowments was also given up.

[The case on the point was that of the celebrated temple atop the Tirumala Hills.

Prof. S. K. Ramachandra Rao in his very well researched work The Hill Shrine Of Tirupati ( Surama Prakashana – 2011) while chronicling the history and traditions of the Tirupathi-Tirumala Temple , spread over long centuries, makes a mention of the involvement of the East India Company in its management and administration.

The East India Company was in direct control of the Tirumala temple , its management, administration and its finances for about forty long years, from 1801 to 1841.

After the defeat of Tippu Sultan (1799) almost the entire South India came under British control. As regards the Arcot region which fell within the Madras presidency, the British gained control over the territory in a rather contrived manner.

After the death Chand Sahib, the then Nawab of Arcot, the British installed Md. Ali Khan Wallajah (1717 –1795) as the next Nawab of Arcot, during 1760. But, they demanded a price: Wallajah and his succours should serve the British as vassals; and that British would be paid certain amount of money for their efforts- (for services earned with blood and presence, and that at the risk of losing our trade on the Coramandel coast).

Later, again, in 1780, the Nawab had to seek help from the British in defending his territory from attacks carried out by Hyder Ali of Mysore. The British East India Company agreed to provide the Nawab, for his safety, ten battalions of its Army stationed at Madras. For its services and also as the Royalty, the Company demanded, as its price, 400,000 pagodas (about £160,000) per annum.

Since Nawab Wallajah was unable to come up with the money demanded, he ran into enormous debts to the British. The Nawab had to borrow very heavily East India Company as also from financiers in England

Thereafter, an arrangement was devised through which the British would be able to recover their dues. Under that arrangement, Nawabs of Arcot assigned to the East India Company the revenues of the temples in their territory, including that of the temple at Tirupathi, to enable the Company to recoup the expenditure it incurred in safeguarding the territory of the Nawabs of Arcot, and also to recover the amounts that were promised to them, earlier, by Md. Ali Khan Wallajah for installing him as the Nawab.

The first Collector of Chengalpattu, Lionel Place, noted in his Report of 1799 that, soon after he became the Collector, he took over the ‘management of the funds of all the celebrated pagodas’ into his own hands and allotted the expanses of the temples for their festivals and maintenance.

And, by 1801, the British East India Company deposed the Nawabs of Arcot and annexed their territory. Thus, in 1801, the East India Company stepped into the shoes of the Nawab of Arcot as the De Jure ruler of the territory; and took direct control of the Tirupathi-Tirumala temple for the sake of garnering income of the temple. The object of the Company in taking over Tirupati temples was to generate fixed revenue, by organising its working, through systematic administration, and by preventing misappropriation and pilferage of temple funds.

In 1803, the then Collector of the Chittoor Mr. Sutton, sent a report to the Board of Revenues of the Company detailing the full account of the Temple, together with the schedules, pujas, expenses, and extent of lands held by the temple etc., This report came to be known as Statton’s Report on the Tirupati Pagoda; and, formed the basis on which the Company controlled the temple till 1821.

(According to the Report , the temple owned 187 villages of which 40 belonged to the various temple functionaries and 124 were under the management of palayakkarars )

Between 1805-16, many instances of misappropriation and misuse of temple-funds were brought to the notice of the Company. Thereafter, the British East India Company passed the Regulation VII of 1817 to check such abuses. That paved way for the Company to interfere in almost every aspect of the Temple administration.

And again during 1821, Col. Bruce the then Commissioner of the Chittoor District came up with a code of rules for  guidance and conduct in the management and administration of the Tirumala Temple. His code which came to known as Bruce Code  , was said to be in use till   the Tirumala-Tirupati Devasthanams Act of 1932 came into force.

The Bruce’s Code of 1821, formed in terms of regulation seven of the Madras Regulation Act 1817, was essentially a set of rules for the management and administration of temples at Tirupathi and Tirumala.  These were  well-defined rules formulated as a code having Forty-two provisions to guide the administration of temples of Tirumala and Tirupati on the basis of customs and previous usages , (including payment of salaries to staff ) without , however, interfering in its  day-to-day affairs. It also prescribed a Questioner (Saval-Javab- Patti) and time-table and regimen for conduct worship and other services for each day of the year.

Under the recommendations of the Bruce Code, a District level official working under the Revenue Board of the Company was appointed to look after the income, expenditure, administration and management of the temple on behalf of the Company.  He was assisted by a Tahsildar, Siristedar and four clerks. It is said; the annual income from the Tirumala temple  which in 1749 was Rs.2.50 lakhs  was increased to more than Rs.3.50 lakhs in 1822; and the  the expenses in 1822 amounted to  about Rs.0.30 lakhs.

The protocol for the entry of the pilgrims as also for collection of offerings and accounting was also laid down :

Passing through the Bagalu vakili or silver porch the pilgrims are admitted into a rather confined part and are introduced to the God in front of whom are two vessels, one called the Gangalam or vase, the other Kopra or large cup and into these things the votaries drop their respective offerings and making their obeisance pass through another door. At the close of the day, the guards, both peons and sepoys round these vessels are searched. Without examination of any sort offerings are thrown into bags and are sealed…after which the bag is sent down to the cutcherry below the hill Govindarauz pettai. At the end of the month, these bags are transmitted to our cutcherry… and there they are opened, sorted, valued and finally sold at auction. However during the Brahmotsavam either the collector or a subordinate must be on the spot due to the value of the offerings…

The East India Company was in direct charge of the Tirumala Temple until 1841, when its Court of Directors in England strongly resented “the participation of the Company’s officers and men in the idolatry conducted in Hindu temples by reason of its management of these religious institutions and ordered its relinquishment of their administration of religious endowments”.

Thereafter, in 1843, the East India Company decided to move away from direct involvement in temple administration; but, to ‘outsource’ the Temple –administration by introducing the system of appointing a Mahant. Under that system, the Mahant would administer the Temple on behalf of the Company; and would remit to the Company a certain specified amount, regularly each year.

The first of such Agent appointed in 1843 was a Mutt named Hathiramjee Mutt, belonging to the   Vaishnava Ghosai tradition of North India. The first Mahant so appointed by Hathiramjee Mutt was Seva Das (1839-1860). He was succeeded by Mahant Dharma Das (1860-1870). During their tenure, many temples atop the Hill affiliated to the main temple of Tirumala were renovated; and the restoration and improvement of the temple-tank was also undertaken (1846).

The Mahant system was in existence until the Tirumala-Tirupati Devasthanams Act of 1932 was enacted. That Act was replaced by the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act of 1951.]

But, withdrawal of the Company from the direct involvement in the administration of the temples did not seem to matter much, because by 1863 all the ‘Hindu’ religious institutions had been brought under the control of the East India Company. And the Government had to continue to be involved in litigations concerning the temple properties, which by- the-way, produced body of case laws based. And, the Government had to bring into force additional legislative provisions to govern the temples more effectively.

Such legislative measures were intended to take care of varieties of issues and problems not only in the day-to-day administration but also on matters impinging upon the control and ownership of the temples. For instance; the rules specified the conditions under which the Government could take control over the temple; the extent of such control; measures to combat pressure-groups that posed threats to the temple; as also the tactics of the vested interests to influence the direction of the Government policy etc.

It was during the course of such measures and steps taken by the British in the administration of ‘Hindu religious institutions’, the concept and identity of ‘Hinduism’ as a legal entity and a public cause took concrete shape.  Thus, ‘Hinduism’ which till then was rather amorphous, began to gain a structure as litigation after litigation  were brought before the courts.  The events that followed advanced the process.

***

The Census of 1871

But, it was the Census of the 1871 that formally, officially and legally categorized Hinduism as a religion.

The 1871 census, the first comprehensive   census to be conducted on All-India basis, set out to gather data on religion in order to analyze and interpret data categorized under various heads. Apart from supplying factual information to the government, the Census helped in objectifying   the concepts used to compile the data collected. As a result, these concepts – one of which was the religion – acquired a new reality and relevance beyond the census figures and bureaucratic reports.

Not only did the Census reports accord increasing importance to ‘religion’ both as a subject in its own right and in relation to other subjects, but also as a conceptualization of ‘religion’ in terms of community, membership of which could be established by reference to certain criteria , and conduct ; and , hence compared with membership of such other communities .

The inclusion of religion and the role assigned to it posed a problem to the enumerators and analysts when it came to identifying ‘Hindus’ and hence ‘Hinduism’. In order to avoid complicated tabulations, the enumerators adopted a short method or a thumb rule. They went by the rule that anyone who was unable to identify himself with a known sect was to be classified as a ‘Hindu’. This was also the method adopted for tabulating most of the tribal people, nomads and low caste

And that brought focus on the contentious question of determining who was a ‘Hindu. It also went into exercise of classifying religious movements as “Hindu’ or; non-Hindu’.

While enumerating ‘Hindus’ , the Census made judgements about the limits of ‘Hinduism’ that in turn became focus of controversy , thereby establishing how official use of certain categories to classify ‘religion’ promoted the reification of ‘Hinduism’, which is rendering the complex idea of Hinduism into something recognizable and easier to identify.

Thus, the British imperialism played a key role in the concretisation of ‘Hinduism’ as an identifiable religion. This led to transformation of an abstract idea into a practical ‘religion’ distinct from other religions.

**

Divide and Rule

At times, the cultural and linguistic differences among the local populations were exploited by the British to accentuate the ‘Hindu’ divide.

For instance; the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh was a large and heterogeneous territorial unit of British India. The rural areas, in general, were dominated by Hindu folk traditions. The fairly large Muslim minority of the United Provinces (about 17 per cent of the population) was mostly settled in the towns (about 44 per cent of the urban population).

The differences between the two were reflected in their language and literature: Urdu, the lingua franca of the Mughal empire, was associated with urban Muslim culture; while, Hindi and its many dialects was the idiom of the rural Hindus.

Movements such as that for the recognition of Hindi in Devanagari script (i.e. the Sanskrit alphabet) as an official language in the Urdu-dominated courts of law (where proceedings were recorded in Persian characters), as well as campaigns for the protection of the sacred cow from the Muslim butcher, merged into a general stream of Hindu nationalism in the late nineteenth century.

The British decision to replace the use of Persian in 1842 for government employment and as the language of Courts of Law caused deep anxiety among Muslims of the sub-continent. This development greatly alarmed the Muslims and gave rise to communal conflicts.

The British had certainly not created these conflicts, but they took advantage of them in line with the old maxim ‘divide and rule’. The British seemed to favour the minority Muslims who looked to them for the protection of its interests against the Hindu majority.

The British established a Muslim college at Aligarh, near Agra, which was designed to impart Western education to Muslims while at the same time emphasising their Islamic identity. This college, later called Aligarh Muslim University, became an ideological centre whose influence radiated far beyond the province in which it was established.

Challenged by the foundation of a Muslim university, the Hindus soon made a move to start a Hindu university which was eventually established at Benares (Varanasi) and became a major centre of Western education.

The establishment of two sectarian universities in the United Provinces was characteristic of the political and cultural situation in that part of India, also clearly demarcated the ‘Hindu’ from the rest.

***

Role of the Missionaries

If the British imperialism played a leading role in the construction of ‘Hinduism’, the role of the Christian Missionaries was no less important.

Because of the effort of the group of Evangelicals led by William Wilberforce, the British Parliament resolved that Christianisation of India was the solemn duty of the British Government. This led to the unrestricted ‘opening’ up of India to missionaries with full freedom to condemn and malign Hindu religious practices and institutions. It also led to the setting up of the Ecclesiastic Department as a part of the Government of India.

The Christian Missionaries, thereafter , enjoyed a special and a privileged relationship with the British Government. Britain was seen the ‘Mother Country’ of Empire whose official religion was Christianity. The British rulers in India viewed themselves as the servants and protectors of the Mother country as also of its religion. The Missionaries could preach and propagate Christianity under the protective canopy of the British Raj.

The Missionary activity earnestly picked up strength since 1813 under the aegis of the East India Company. Even later under the protective canopy of the British Raj, the Missionaries could preach and propagate Christianity as the ‘true religion’; and denounce Hinduism as a ‘compound of error, c corruption and exaggeration’ and as a false religion.

With such propaganda, a clear line was drawn between Hindu and non-Hindu religions.

***

Oriental Scholars of the West

The oriental scholars were also influenced by the British government and by the Church.

There were the Oriental scholars, funded by wealthy private patrons, who carried forward the Missionary agenda. Lt. Col. Boden of the Bombay Native Infantry endowed a Chair in the Oxford University for propagating Christianity in India through Sanskrit. Sir Monier Williams became the second-Boden Professor of Sanskrit at Oxford University, England. He studied, documented and taught Asian languages, especially Sanskrit, Persian and Hindustani.

He made it clear that his interest in preparing dictionaries was primarily to translate the Bible into other languages. He said that he would initially fulfill the wish of Col. Boden to translate the Bible into Sanskrit ‘in order to enable his countrymen to proceed in the conversion of the natives of India to the Christian religion’. Monier Williams, eventually, compiled a Sanskrit-English dictionary based on the earlier Petersburg Sanskrit Dictionary which was published in 1872. A later revised edition was published in 1899 with collaboration by Ernst Leumann and Carl Cappel.

In his writings on Hinduism, Monier Williams argued that Hinduism is a complex ‘huge polygon or irregular multilateral figure’ that was unified by Sanskrit literature. He stated that ‘no description of Hinduism can be exhaustive which does not touch on almost every religious and philosophical idea that the world has ever known’.

Monier Williams taught Asian languages, at the East India Company College from 1844 until 1858, when the rule of the East India Company in India ended, after the 1857 rebellion. He came to national prominence during the 1860 election campaign for the Boden Chair of Sanskrit at Oxford University, in which he stood against Max Müller.

After his appointment to the professorship, Williams had declared, from the outset, that the conversion of India to the Christian religion should be one of the aims of orientalist scholarship.

*

Max Müller (1823 –1900) considered that Hinduism which was characterized by superstition and idolatry needed to be reformed just in the manner of Christian Reformation.  In his letters to the Dean of St. Paul’s (Dr. Milman) of February 26, 1867, Max Muller wrote: I have myself the strongest belief in the growth of Christianity in India. There is no country so ripe for Christianity as India, and yet the difficulties seem enormous.

In a letter to his wife, Max Muller wrote: “It (The Rig-Veda) is the root of their religion and to show them what the root is, I feel sure, is the only way of uprooting all that has sprung from it during the last three thousand years.”

In one of the letters, he says, “Ah! We have found the key to Christianize India.” And the key, according to him, was the Brahmo Samaj, in which the missionaries reposed great hope as the intermediate station for the Hindus of Bengal to become Christians. They had their hopes, in particular, on Keshav Chandra Sen, who was heading the Brahmo Samaj then.

 Later he also wrote to the Duke of Argyle, the then acting Secretary of State for India: “The ancient religion of India is doomed. And if Christianity does not take its place, whose fault will it be?”

In his 60s through 70s, Max Müller gave a series of lectures, which depicted his view of Hinduism. That somehow was followed by others of his time.

*

Many have argued:   “The term ‘ism’ refers to an ideology that is to be propagated and by any method imposed on others for e.g. Marxism, socialism, communism, imperialism and capitalism but the Hindus have no such ‘ism’. Hindus follow the continuum process of evolution; for the Hindus do not have any unidirectional ideology, therefore, in Hindu Dharma there is no place for any ‘ism’.


They point out that ‘Hinduism’ that the western world perceived was essentially the construction of the British imperialism, the nineteenth century western scholars and the Missionaries. Such constructions were made to suit their own agenda.

***

 

 ‘Hindus’ and ‘Hinduism’

As we saw, the concept of Hindu and Hinduism that emerged during the Nineteenth century was mainly in terms of the notions imposed by imperialism, missionary impulse and western scholarship.

Many educated Indians of the nineteenth century, therefore, mounted a counter attack on the Christian Missionary propaganda against Hinduism, adopting their own (missionary) methods and style.

There were also those who sought to remedy the flaws through which others tried to expose and exploit Hinduism, by revaluing the ancient texts, by reforming the Hindu practices and such other radical explanations.

In addition, there were the Indian elite who somehow seemed to be apologetic about Hindu beliefs and practices; and brought in social and cultural reforms. A Bengali Renaissance tried to usher in a new type of philosophical Hinduism tinged with a romantic nostalgia for some of the nobler forms of Vedic traditions.

At the same time, many cast doubts upon the conclusions of the oriental scholars, pointing out the flaws in their sectarian stance and arguments and dogmatic approach .

There was another set of Indians trying to make use of the religious enactments passed by the Government and take control of the religious institutions; while at the same time protesting against threats and encroachment on Hindu interests.

The construction of Hinduism thus arose out of encounter and interaction with the West. And it owed much to the Indian elite.

Such assortment of   ’ Hinduism’, thus, was mostly the creation of the nineteenth century Indians as a response to or in confrontation with the Western interpretations. Their reaction also to an extent contributed to the shaping of Western perception of ‘Hinduism’.

 

**

Some of the influences that shaped and re-shaped the concept of ‘Hinduism’, during the nineteenth century, were obviously religious; and, in addition there were also social, cultural and political organizations that projected their concept of ‘Hinduism’.

Raja Ram Mohun Roy and Brahmo Samaj looked down upon the current practices as corrupt and degenerate. The Brahmo Samaj harked back to the ancient and pure ways of the Upanishads, formulating an enlightened creed of ‘Hinduism’.

Swami Dayananda Saraswathi also aspired to bring back the principles and practices of the Vedic times. He called upon all Indians to study Vedas.

Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, a mystic seer, through his own experiences declared the oneness of all religious   paths ‘and took a ‘universal’ view of all religions and varied paths leading to same goal.

Jatiya Mela and Jatiya Sabha  of Bengal came together, (renamed as Hindu Mela, in 1867), in order to promote a distinct identity of the ‘Hindu’ and a sense of pride in being a ’Hindu’

 

There were also movements of emerging popular ‘Hinduism’ floating their own pet brand of ‘Hinduism’.

*

In the political terms, the concepts of ‘Hindu’ and ‘Hinduism’ got entwined with nationalistic ambitions of several organizations.

Some of those nationalists portrayed the land Hindustan as the holy Motherland of the people of India.  For instance; Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay (Chatterjee) (1838-1894) raised Nationalism to the level of religion by identifying the Motherland with the Mother-Goddess. The tremendous impact and thrilling upsurge that Anandamath and Vandemataram  had on the Indian National Movement is indeed legendary.  He came to believe that there was “No serious hope of progress in India except in Hinduism-reformed, regenerated and purified”. With that in view, Bankim Chandra tried to reinterpret ancient Indian religious ideals by cleansing them of the accumulated floss of myths and legends.

Aurobindo Ghosh and other revolutionaries acknowledged Bankim Chandra as their political Guru and followed his ideals of India and ‘Hinduism’.

The Hindu Mahasabha founded in 1909 by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar was based in the idea of Hindutva. It called upon Hindus to fight for the freedom of Motherland and to consolidate the Hindu nation.

That movement fell into decline rather soon. And, its place was taken by Rastriya Svayamsevak Sangh (RSS) inspired by the ideals of the Anushilan Samiti , was established by Dr.  Hedgewar (1889 –1940)  in 1925 with the ideal to ‘unite and rejuvenate our nation on the sound foundation of Dharma’.

Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS) the political offshoot of RSS carried a similar ideal.

The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) a cultural organization with undertone of Hindu religion vowed to protect Hindu religion from encroachment by other religions.

These movements also contributed towards identification and demarcation of ‘Hinduism’ where “Hinduism’ was broadly associated with nationhood.

**

Hinduism variously conceived

Variously conceived, ‘Hinduism’ was generally regarded as the ‘essential religion of India’. And yet; the views on the quintessence of Hinduism varied greatly. The question got complicated by the presence and practices of immense varieties of beliefs and plurality of perspectives. But, yet there have also been efforts to equate ‘Hinduism’ with a particular version of it. There are also those who wish to treat Hinduism as a group of ‘religions’ or a socio-cultural unit or civilization which consist a plurality of distinct religions

There are also different versions of ‘Hinduism’. Sri Sankara’s non-dualistic Advaita philosophy takes a broad view and reconciles the apparently conflicting beliefs within the ‘Hinduism’ as a system. Then there is the Vaishnava theology centred on devotion on a personified God. There are also affiliate home-grown religions such as Jainism, Buddhism and Sikh-religion. There is also the juxtaposition of foreign faiths such as Zoroastrianism, Christianity and Islam.

*

The acceptance of the Vedas and their authority has been cited by the Supreme Court as one of the characteristics of Hinduism.

It is no doubt that Vedas are the roots of Indian ethos, thought and philosophy. They are of high authority, greatly revered and very often invoked. But, their roots are lost in the distant antiquity. The language or the clear intent of those texts is not easily understood; its gods and its rites are almost relics of the past. They no longer form active part of our day-to-day living experiences. The worship practices followed by the common Indians of the present day differ vastly from the rites prescribed in the Vedic texts. The gods worshipped by the present generations too vary greatly from the Vedic gods .  In today’s world, it is the popular gods, modes of worship as in the duality of   Tantra that has greater impact on socio religious cultural practices than the Vedas. The living religion of ‘Hindus’, as practiced today, is almost entirely in the nature or the version of what appeals to each sect,  or  to each individual .  

[Most of the Western Scholars consistently draw a distinction between the Vedic tradition and the ‘Hinduism’.]

*

There is also a claim to adhere to Sanatana Dharma (eternal law), an equivalent of perennial philosophy of the West, where all ‘religions’ are unified. This is despite the fact that the meaning and scope of the term Dharma is far wider than ‘religion’; and is not restricted to religion or sect.

But, the term Sanatana Dharma is perhaps used to signify orthodoxy as opposed to reformed ‘Hinduism’. That is based in the belief that ‘Sanatana Dharma’ though of great antiquity is indeed an ongoing process that changes while retaining continuity. Yet, it is rooted the aspiration of attaining liberation (Mukti) from all sorts of confines and limitation.  It is all-inclusive in nature and not shutting out new ideas and concepts; it is also not regimented by fixed set of rules or commandments.

The proponents of  Sanatana Dharma concept assert that ’Hinduism’ is a recent construct, which was  introduced into the English language in the 19th century to denote the religious, philosophical, and cultural traditions native to India. Despite that rather newly coined epithet, they point out, it essentially refers to a rich cumulative tradition of texts and practices that date back to a very distant past. And, they quote The Supreme Court which said that Hindu does not signify a religion but a way of life; and represents the culture of India, and of all people of India, whether Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, etc.

 .

***

At the End

Thus, though the word Hindu (not originally Indian) might have, in the past, referred to a geographical region (Hindu-stan), a cultural association, or language (Hindu-stani) or to a common religion of the land etc, yet, it has, over a period, come to acquire specific religious connotations and characteristics. Consequently, the concept of the ‘Hindu religion’, that is ‘an Indian religion with a coherent system of beliefs and practices that could be compared with other religious systems’ got established.

Now, generally, one is understood to be a Hindu by being born into a Hindu family and practicing the faith, or by declaring oneself a Hindu. It has been used as a geographical, cultural, or religious identifier for people indigenous to South Asia. In any case, Hinduism is now a nomenclature for the religious tradition of India and the suffix ism is hardly noticed. Not many have qualms in accepting ‘Hinduism’ or being a ‘Hindu’.

***

A Hindu is a Hindu not because he wanted to be distinct and created a room and put a door around him. But, because others started constructing walls everywhere, and at some point of time, the Hindu found that the walls other constructed somehow became his boundaries as well.

– Julia Roberts

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Sources and References

  1. Interpretations of the Bhagavad-Gita and images of the Hindu tradition by Catherine A. Robinson
  2. A History of India by Hermann Kulke and Dietmar Rothermund ; Fourth Edition; Routledge ; 2004
  3. The Hill Shrine Of Tirupati by Prof. S. K. Ramachandra Rao (Surama Prakashana – 2011)
  4. https://selfstudyhistory.com/2015/09/30/al-birunis-india/
  5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bruce%27s_Code
  6. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Census_of_India_prior_to_independence
  7. https://tamilbrahmins.wordpress.com/2015/09/13/temples-and-the-state-in-india-a-historical-overview/
 
 

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The Question of Hindu, Hinduism et cetera – Part One

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The Newspapers have been reporting that a Seven-judge  Bench of the  Supreme Court Of India headed by the Chief Justice T S Thakur  has since 18 October 2016 taken up a review of a judgement handed down by a Three-judge Bench  of the Supreme Court in 1995.

The uncomfortable issues questioning the legitimacy of the statements made by political parties canvassing for votes in the name of religion had since been coming up before the Apex Court. The present Review, it is said, had become necessary for arriving at ‘an authoritative pronouncement on electoral law categorising misuse of religion for electoral gains as corrupt practice”.

The 1995-Judgment that the Newspapers have been talking about refers to the famous case of Manohar Joshi vs. Nitin Bhaurao Patil & Anr (citations: 1996 AIR 796, 1996 SCC (1) 169) delivered on 11 December, 1995 by the then chief justice of India, J S Verma . Please click here for a copy of the judgement.

The judgement handed down by a bench of three  judges  of the Supreme Court led by the then chief justice of India, J S Verma was examining the question regarding the scope of corrupt practices mentioned in sub-section (3) of Section 123 of the 1951  Representation of People Act  and its interpretations. The Court in its ruling found that that statement by Manohar Joshi that “First Hindu State will be established in Maharashtra did not amount to appeal on ground of religion”.

The court had held that seeking votes in the name of Hinduism is not a “corrupt practice” under Section 123 of the Representation of the People Act; and , it would not result in setting aside the election of winning candidates.

This ruling delivered in 1995 which earned the nickname ‘Hindutva judgement ‘ held that ‘Hindutva/Hinduism is a way of life of the people in the sub-continent; it represents the culture of India, and of all people of India, whether Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, etc.;  and ‘is a state of mind’.  

And, the Judgement concluded that ‘Hinduism’ was “indicative more of a way of life of the Indian people and is not confined merely to describe persons practicing the Hindu religion as a faith”.

 

In effect, the 1995-Verdict was taken to interpret that seeking vote in the name of ‘Hindutva/Hinduism’ did not prejudicially affect any candidate

However, the issues regarding the interpretations of the sub-section (3) of Section 123 had been coming up before the Apex Court quite regularly. Three election petitions are pending on the subject in the Apex court. The questions raised were: whether a politician can legitimately seek votes in the name of ‘Hinduism’; whether will it amount to corrupt practices under the Representation of People’s Act; and, whether will it subsequently attract disqualification.

The issue for interpretation of the sub-section (3) once again arose on January 30, 2014, before a five-judge which referred it for examination before a larger bench of seven judges. The apex court in February 2014 had decided to refer the matter to a seven judge’s bench.

Now about two decades after that 1995-Judgment, a Seven Bench Judges of the Supreme Court of India has taken up  this contentious ruling, commencing from 18 October 2016.

On October 19, 2016 the Supreme Court asked the Counsels if non-contesting spiritual leaders or clerics could be held accountable for corrupt practices under electoral law for asking voters to vote for a particular party or candidate; and how such appeals seeking votes would fall foul of the RP Act.

The proceedings are on .

Let’s wait and watch the final outcome.

[ Update

On October 25, 2016 , a Seven-judge Constitution Bench headed by Chief Justice T S Thakur said that for now it will not touch on its 1995 definition of “Hindutva is a way of life and not a religion” and also not ban its use during elections.

At this stage, we will confine ourselves to the issue raised before us in the reference. In the reference, there is no mention of the word ‘Hindutva’. We will not go into Hindutva at this stage.

The SC said that it would not examine the larger issue of whether Hindutva means Hindu religion, and whether the use of Hindutva in elections is permissible.

“It is difficult to define religion. There will be no end to this ”

The 7-judge bench, however, said it is looking into the nexus between religious leaders and candidates and its legality under Section 123 (3) of the Representation of People Act; and, whether seeking of votes in the name of religion will amount to a corrupt practice under the Representation of the People Act warranting disqualification.

But , asserted that asking for votes in the name of religion was ‘evil’ and ‘not permissible’ ]

***

[ Further Update:

A seven-judge-bench of the Supreme Court of India in its judgement delivered on 02 January 2017, by a 4 to 3 majority view, enlarged the scope of Section 123(3) of the Representation of People Act 1951. The Section 123(3) defines as ‘corrupt practice’ appeals made by a candidate or his agents to vote or refrain from voting for any person on the ground of ‘his’ religion, race, caste, community or language. The court  has  now interpreted Section 123(3) of the Representation of People Act to mean that this provision was brought in with intent ‘to clearly proscribe appeals based on sectarian, linguistic or caste considerations”.

The reference to the seven-judge bench had become necessary in view of the conflicting rulings in the previous judgements. In that context, the present Constitution bench explained the meaning of the term ‘his’ since that was relevant as to whose religion it has to be when an appeal is made.

 In substance, it ruled that an election could be annulled if candidates seek votes in the name of their religion or that of their voters. Till now, soliciting votes on the basis of religion and other such considerations was restricted to that of the candidates alone. 

The latest ruling is significant in the sense that any attempt to canvass for votes on the ground of religion or other such parochial identities – either of the candidates’s or on behalf of his agents or groups or his opponents – would invite the provisions of the Representation of People Act.

*

In their majority view, Chief Justice T S Thakur, Justices Madan B Lokur, S A Bobde and L Nageswara Rao ruled in favour of a ‘purposive interpretation’, stating that the term ‘his’ would mean the religion of the candidate, his agents, voters as well as any other person who, with the candidate’s consent, brings up religion or such subjects in an election

“An appeal in the name of religion, race, caste, community or language is impermissible under the Representation of the People Act, 1951, and would constitute a corrupt practice sufficient to annul the election in which such an appeal was made regardless of whether the appeal was in the name of the candidate’s religion or the religion of the election agent or that of the opponent or that of the voters,” the majority view held.”

The Chief Justice said in his separate verdict:

 “The state being secular in character will not identify itself with any one of the religions or religious denominations…The elections to the state legislature or to Parliament or for that matter any other body in the state is a secular exercise just as the functions of the elected representatives must be secular in both outlook and practice,”

**

Dissent

Justices Adarsh K Goel, Uday U Lalit and D Y Chandrachud, however, dissented with the majority’s view, holding that the expression ‘his’ used in conjunction with religion, race, caste, community or language is in reference to the candidate, in whose favour the appeal to cast a vote is made, or that of a rival candidate when an appeal is made to refrain from voting for another. 

His’ in Section 123(3) of the RP Act cannot validly refer to the religion, race, caste, community or language of the voter.

To hold that a person who seeks to contest an election is prohibited from speaking of the legitimate concerns of citizens that the injustices faced by them on the basis of traits having an origin in religion, race, caste, community or language would be remedied is to reduce democracy to an abstraction,” the minority judgement held”. ]

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In this context , while on the question of ‘Hindu ‘and ‘Hinduism’ I would like to draw attention to another important judgement of the Supreme Court , also of 1995, which somehow seems to have been forgotten. I am referring to the case  ‘Bramchari Sidheswar Shai and others Versus State of West Bengal’ in the matter of the Ramakrishna Mission’s petition to be declared a non-Hindu, minority religion under the Indian constitution. Please click here for the full text of the judgement that was delivered on July 2, 1995 ; delivered by Justice N. Venkatachala.

The judgement, interalia, discussed the intent and connotation of the term Hindu; and also identified Seven Defining Characteristics of Hinduism. The petition filed by Ramakrishna Mission was denied.

 

The following are the observations of the Supreme Court of India while dealing with the term Hindu:

 (27). Who are Hindus and what are the broad features of Hindu religion, that must be the first part of our inquiry in dealing with the present controversy between the parties. The historical and etymological genesis of `the word `Hindu’ has given rise to a controversy amongst indologists; but the view generally accepted by scholars appears to be that the word “Hindu” is derived from the river Sindhu otherwise known as Indus which flows from the Punjab. `That part of the great Aryan race”, says Monier Williams, which immigrated from Central Asia, through the mountain passes into India , settled first in the districts near the river Sindhu (now called the Indus ). The Persian pronounced this word Hindu and named their Aryan brother Hindus. The Greeks, who probably gained their first ideas of India Persians, dropped the hard aspirate, and called the Hindus `Indoi’.

 (28). The Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, Vol. VI, has described `Hinduism’ as the title applied to that form of religion which prevails among the vast majority of the present population of the Indian Empire (p.686). As Dr. Radhakrishan has observed: `The Hindu civilization is so called, since it original founders or earliest followers occupied the territory drained by the Sindhu (the Indus ) river system corresponding to the North-West Frontier Province and the Punjab . This is recorded in the Rig Veda, the oldest of the Vedas, the Hindu scriptures which give their name to this period of the Indian history. The people on the Indian side of the Sindhu were called Hindu by the Persian and the later western invaders [The Hindu View of Life by Dr. Radhakrishnan, p.12]. That is the genesis of the word `Hindu’.

 

On the question of Hinduism, the Supreme Court of India discussed in detail the nature of Hinduism, citing several references and authorities.

While laying down the characteristics of Hinduism, the Hon. Court observed:

Features of Hindu religion recognized by this Court in Shastri Yaganapurushdasji (supra) as coming within its broad sweep are these:

(i) Acceptance of the Vedas with reverence as the highest authority in religious and philosophic matters and acceptance with reverence of Vedas by Hindu thinkers and philosophers as the sole foundation of Hindu philosophy.

(ii) Spirit of tolerance and willingness to understand and appreciate the opponent’s point of view based on the realization that truth was many-sided.

(iii) Acceptance of great world rhythm, vast period of creation, maintenance and dissolution follow each other in endless succession, by all six systems of Hindu philosophy.

(iv) Acceptance by all systems of Hindu philosophy the belief in rebirth and pre-existence.

(v) Recognition of the fact that the means or ways to salvation are many.

(vi)  Realization of the truth that Gods to be worshipped may be large, yet there being Hindus who do not believe in the worshipping of idols.

(vii) Unlike other religions or religious creeds Hindu religion not being tied-down to any definite set of philosophic concepts, as such.

While drawing up the criteria for indentifying Hinduism, the Court relied heavily on the views of Swami Vivekananda and Dr. Radhakrishnan that stressed tolerance, universality and a search for a fundamental unity as the virtues of Hinduism. It also relied on B.G. Tilak’s view: “Acceptance of the Vedas with reverence; recognition of the fact that the means to salvation are diverse; and realization of the truth that the number of gods to be worshipped is large, that indeed is the distinguishing feature of Hindu religion.”Even in the earlier case (Yagnapurushdasji) the “acceptance of the Vedas” was a key element in the court’s decision.

The criteria drawn up in the Brahmachari Siddheshwar Shai v. State of West Bengal case is taken as a working rule evolved for a limited purpose. It is not construed as the definition of Hinduism; because, Hinduism is described on various occasions depending on the context. Each time a ‘context- sensitive’ interpretation has been put forth.

It was therefore said: All definitions of Hinduism are indeed  ‘context –sensitive’; and there is no absolute and precise definition.

For instance:

: – In the Indian Constitution, Explanation II appended to Article 25 says that the “reference to Hindus shall be construed as including a reference to persons professing the Sikh, Jain or Buddhist religion”

: – The Hindu Code Bill (which comprises four different Acts), too, takes an undifferentiated view of Hinduism: it includes anyone who is not a Muslim, Christian, Parsi or Jew under ‘Hindu’ as a legal category.

: – Any reform movements, including Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism, were seen as merely different sects within Hinduism.

: – There are legal pronouncements that Hindus are Indian citizens belonging to a religion born in India. This means Buddhists, Sikhs or Parsis, even those who did not recognize themselves as Hindus, are to be considered Hindus.

The Supreme Court of India dealt with the meaning of the word ‘Hindutva’ or ‘Hinduism’ when used in election propaganda. The court came to the conclusion that the words ‘Hinduism’ or ‘Hindutva’ are not necessarily to be understood and construed narrowly, confined only to the strict Hindu religious practices unrelated to the culture and ethos of the People of India depicting the way of life of the Indian people. Unless the context of a speech indicates a contrary meaning or use, in the abstract, these terms are indicative more of a way of life of the Indian people. Unless the context of a speech indicates a contrary meaning or use, in the abstract, these terms are indicative more of a way of life of the Indian people and are not confined merely to describe persons practicing the Hindu religion as a faith. This clearly means that, by itself, the word ‘Hinduism’ or ‘Hindutva’ indicates the culture of the people of India as a whole, irrespective of whether they are Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and Jews etc.”

***

Incidentally the Seventh in the list of criteria drawn up by the Supreme Court in Brahmachari Siddheshwar Shai v. State of West Bengal case leaves me a little perplexed. It reads ”Unlike other religions or religious creeds Hindu religion not being tied-down to any definite set of philosophic concepts, as such”. This in a way sums up the position; but, at the same time, it appears to knock down the earlier six criteria.

Perhaps it is because of this view ( of not being tied down to any definite set of concepts)  that many say “The term ‘ism’ refers to an ideology that is to be propagated and by any method imposed on others for e.g. Marxism, socialism, communism, imperialism and capitalism but the Hindus have no such ‘ism’. Hindus follow the continuum process of evolution; for the Hindus do not have any unidirectional ideology, therefore, in Hindu Dharma there is no place for any ‘ism’”

**

That leads us to the question: how did a ‘way–of-life’ that was not tied down to an ‘ism’ came to be known as Hinduism, a religion?

Tracing such process that led to tagging or assigning a name to a ‘way of life’ is, no doubt, an elusive exercise.

It is explained that the name Hinduism was coined by the foreigners as an operative term; points at a much larger entity; but, does not exactly stand for it.

I sometimes wonder whether even in the distant past it ever had a specific name or did it needed one, perhaps because of the absence of a rival. It is also plausible there was none.

For instance:

: –  The ancient Indian texts such as Vedas and Upanishads do not talk in terms of a ‘Religion’.  

 : – The Buddha also does not name, refer to or attack the religion of the day though he criticizes the Brahman attitude, the rituals; and discourages its ungainly speculations. He sometimes referred to his disciples by their sect as Brahmins or Kshatrias. He addresses some of them by their Gotra like Vaccha (Vatsa), Kassapa (Kaashyapa), and Mudgala (Maudgalya) etc. Some of the disciples address the Buddha by his Gotra- Gautama.

Buddhism did not start as a religion. The Buddha intended to offer true interpretations of the Dharma. (That perhaps was how his sect was named.) It started as a free-thinkers-moment that attracted the seekers and the lay intellectuals; in much the same way as the Ramakrishna moment did at a much later time. During the Buddha’s time it was not a religion yet; the rituals related to births, deaths and weddings were presided over by the Brahmin priests. The Buddhist rituals and practices (vinaya) were collated from the teachings and the incidents in the Buddha’s life at a much later time, after his death.

What set apart the Buddhism and other school of thought was is emphasis on compassion towards all and ethics in all walks and modes of life.

:- Megasthenes (Ca. 350 BCE – 290 BCE )- the Greek explorer who became an Seleucus I Nicator to the Court of Chandragupta Maurya in Pataliputra –  in his  the work Indika , though mentions Brahmins and Sramanas does not  talk about the name of any religion.

 : – The Arthashastra of kautilya makes frequent references to classes of people within its society; but does not refer to a Religion in particular.

 

Perhaps it was this factor of the absence of a Religion per se in ancient India that largely guided the Supreme Court of India in listing some criteria for Hinduism while handing down the ruling in Brahmachari Siddheshwar Shai v. State of West Bengal.

 

**

Here, in these references by the Apex Court,  the term Hindu had somehow travelled a full circle and came back to the original view of territorial and not creedal significance. It implied residence in a well-defined geographical area.

But now, generally, one is understood to be a Hindu by being born into a Hindu family and practicing the faith, or by declaring oneself a Hindu. It has been used as a geographical, cultural, or religious identifier for people indigenous to South Asia. In any case, Hinduism is now a nomenclature for the religious tradition of India and the suffix ism is hardly noticed. Not many have qualms in accepting “Hinduism.

**

How did this transformation of ‘Hindu’ which originally referred to an inhabitant of the subcontinent into one of   religious identity take place? It is t important to learn the changing meaning of ‘Hindu’ whereby an original geographic , ethnic and cultural meaning was much later superseded by a religious meaning.

It is a long story. Let’s read that in the next part.

 flower design.jpg

Continued in Part Two

 

References and Sources

  1. Manohar Joshi vs Nitin Bhaurao Patil & Anr on 11 December, 1995(Equivalent citations: 1996 AIR 796, 1996 SCC (1) 169) Author: J S Verma

https://indiankanoon.org/doc/1215497/

  1. Bramchari Sidheswar Shai and others Versus State of West Bengal (in the supreme court of India ; civil appellate jurisdiction;  civil appeal nos. 4434a-34d of 1986 with civil appeal nos. 4937/85, 5676-78/85; with I.A.No. 1 in C.A. Nos. 5676-78/85 and CMP  No. 23111/86 in C.A. No. 4937/85  https://www.hinduismtoday.com/modules/smartsection/item.php?itemid=5047
  1. Newspaper reports
 
 

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Bhagavad-Gita Multiple interpretations- Part Four

Continued from Part Three

bhagvat_geeta

Among the translations of the Bhagavad-Gita that appeared during the closing decades of the nineteenth century, the one rendered in verse by Sir Edwin Arnold (The Song Celestial) – was widely read and well accepted by all the sections of readers. Apart from gaining great fame as a wisdom-text, it also exerted influence on Theosophists, thinkers and ardent seekers of the Truth, the most notable among who was MK Gandhi. Edwin Arnold’s translation gained greater significance as it brought its influence on Gandhi; and, through Gandhi and his non-violent protests on India’s struggle for freedom.

edwinarnold

[Sir Edwin Arnold (1832-1904) was an English poet, teacher and journalist. After leaving the University of Oxford, Arnold worked as a schoolteacher in Birmingham before becoming the Principal of the British Government Sanskrit College at Pune India, in 1856. He returned to England in 1861 to join the staff of the Daily Telegraph, where he was  its Chief Editor from 1873 to 1889.

The years that Arnold stayed in India proved to be a highly significant part of his life. Here, he was drawn to the Eastern traditions. He learnt Sanskrit and gained familiarity with ancient texts. After returning to England, he wrote a series of books in prose as also in verse  on   the great personalities and the well known texts and songs of the East.

He also published several volumes of shorter poems as well as collected essays Japonica (1892). His other works included : The Light of Asia (1879 an epic poem in blank verse describing the life and teachings of the Buddha; Pearls of the Faith (1883), on Islam; The Light of the World (1891) on life of Jesus; The Song Celestial (1885) translation of the Bhagavad-Gita; adaptation of the Japanese play Adzuma or The Japanese Wife (1893);  The Tenth Muse (1895) – adaptations of Japanese poetry;  With Sadi in the Garden (1888); Potiphar’s Wife (1892);  and Indian Poetry (1904).

His fame as a poet rests mainly on: The Light of Asia subtitled The Great Renunciation ( Donohue, Henneberry & Co , London July 1879) – a narrative poem; a free adaptation of the Lalitavistara a Mahayana Buddhist  Sanskrit text compiled, in both prose and verses,  around the beginning of the Common Era  describing the life of Gautama Siddhartha who attained enlightenment and became the Buddha, the Awakened One; and on The Song Celestial   or  Bhagavad-Gita   (From the Mahabharata)  Being a Discourse Between Arjuna,   Prince of India, and the Supreme Being  Under the Form of Krishna (Trubner & Company London,1885 )]

 

The Song Celestial 

In 1885, exactly one hundred years after Sir Wilkins’ English translation of the Bhagavad Gita was published, Sir Edwin Arnold’s blank verse rendering of the Sanskrit text appeared as The Song Celestial.  He dedicated the Book to India and to England:

 So have I read this wonderful and spirit-thrilling speech;  By Krishna and Prince Arjun held, discoursing each with each; So have I writ its wisdom here,—its hidden mystery; For England; O our India! as dear to me as She!’

Sir Arnold also published an edition dedicated to the American people ‘with all gratitude and attachment ‘(Boston; Roberts Brothers; 1885). It enjoyed wide circulation and many scholars of the Gita acknowledged its influence on readers.

By the time The Song Celestial appeared in 1885, Edwin Arnold was already a highly regarded Victorian poet, well known for his oriental verse The Light of Asia.

In the preface  to The Song Celestial , Arnold  recalled the translations of the Gita made earlier in European languages  – by Burnouf (French); Schlegel (German);  Lassen (Latin); Stanislav Gatti (Italian); Galanos (Greek) ; as also the English translations of Thomson, Davies ( in prose) and that by Kasinath Telang. He acknowledged with gratitude the help derived from their works; and, added that ‘English literature would certainly be incomplete without possessing in popular form a poetical and philosophical work so dear to India’.

The two factors that distinguished Arnold’s translation of the Gita from the earlier ones were: he chose the poetic form and within it he adopted the blank-verse form; and, the other was that rather than reproducing the literal Gita,  he brought out the substance and intent of the original verse in an easy-to-read narration.

Thus, Arnold succeeded, in some measure, not only in maintaining the fidelity of the oriental text, but also in bringing the original closer to the reader.  His rendering of the Gita was described as ‘smooth, eloquent, and reliable’.

In the preface to his work, Arnold explained:

 “The Sanskrit original is written in the Anushtubh metre (Chhandas), which cannot be successfully reproduced for Western ears. I have therefore cast it into our flexible blank verse, changing into lyrical measures where the text itself similarly breaks.  For the most part, I believe the sense to be faithfully preserved in the following pages.”

The blank verses in late Victorian English lent the Gita a new look; and made it easy for the English-knowing persons worldwide to read and to recite the Gita. That helped to enhance the appeal and acceptance of the Gita among the general readers both in the West and in the East.

The Gita was no longer a religious text; but had become a sort of romantic universal, non-denominational viewpoint of the world and of life at large. Arnold’s poem allowed the Gita to be received by a new public audience. The Song Celestial gathered appreciation across England and Ireland, while at the same time acknowledging Arnold’s contribution in making Eastern texts accessible to a broader spectrum of readers.

Within a month of its appearance in print, it had become the most sought after book in the Leeds Public Library. A large part of the general readers of the nineteenth and early twentieth century was composed of borrowers of books and journals from local libraries. It was this readership that gauged the popularity or otherwise of a Book.

Many of his verse are often quoted; For instance:

: – It is better to live your own destiny imperfectly than to live an imitation of somebody else’s life with perfection. 

: – A gift is pure when it is given from the heart to the right person at the right time and at the right place, and when we expect nothing in return

: – It is true that the mind is restless and difficult to control. But it can be conquered, through regular practice and detachment. Those who lack self-control will find it difficult to progress in meditation; but those who are self-controlled, striving earnestly through the right means, will attain the goal.

:- If one ponders on objects of the sense, there springs Attraction: from attraction grows desire; Desire flames to fierce passion; passion breeds Recklessness; then the memory—all betrayed— Lets noble purpose go, and saps the mind, Till purpose, mind, and man are all undone

:- In all things, in all natures, in the stars; Of azure heaven, the unenduring clouds, In flower and tree, in every pebbly stone ;That paves the brooks, the stationary rocks; The moving waters, and the invisible air, and utter in humble adoration, We, who from the breast ; Of the frail earth, permitted to behold ; The faint reflections only of Thy face Are yet exalted, and in soul adore..!

 

Symbolism and Allegories

The early commentators of the Gita belonged to certain specific Schools of philosophy or traditions; and, their view of the Gita and their interpretations depended upon their concept of the Supreme reality, the individual and the world; and the nature of relationship between these entities.

Edwin Arnold stayed clear of such medieval interpretations of the Gita; but at the same time, he brought into his rendering the symbolisms and allegorical representations that he saw in the Gita. In a way of speaking, it could be said that Edwin Arnold revived; breathing a fresh life into the tradition of the allegorical interpretations of the Bhagavad-Gita that somehow was fading away. Where Arnold succeeded was in communicating those symbolisms and allegories and their universal nature, in a lucid, eloquent form that could be enjoyed by the general-reader.

Since the early periods, the allegorical interpretations of the Bhagavad-Gita have been in vogue, by looking upon Kurukshetra as not a mere geographical region or a historic battle. For instance; Abhinavagupta, in his Gitartha-sangraha, a commentary on Bhagavad-Gita, refers to a tradition of interpreting Kurushetra as zone of war that takes place between the righteous and un-righteous tendencies within the human body-mind complex.  According to him, Kurushetra is something more than a geographical venue where a battle took place among the cousins and their supporters.

Similar allegorical interpretations of the Gita became quite a regular feature by the turn of the nineteenth century; and , it has been carried forward ever since.

Edwin Arnold referred to Kurukshetra as human body, the field where Life disports.

Yea! Son of Kunti! for this flesh ye see
Is Kshetra, is the field where Life disports;
And that which views and knows it is the Soul,
Kshetrajna. In all “fields,” thou Indian prince!
I am Kshetrajna. I am what surveys!

For Sri Aurobindo, ‘the physical fact of war is only an outward manifestation of a general principle of life. The war symbolizes all aspects of struggle that takes place all the time, both in our inner and outer living.. Life is a battle and a field of death; this is Kurukshetra’.

For Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Kurushetra signified Dharmakshetra, a just war against oppressive foreign rule.

The theosophists and through them Gandhi followed Arnold’s interpretation that Kurukshetra is where an eternal struggle is taking place within us. Such an interpretation gained greater acceptance starting from the end of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century and later.

Gandhi gained acquaintance with the Bhagavad-Gita through Edwin Arnold’s The song Celestial; and, he accepted and adopted the allegorical interpretation of the Gita as rendered by Arnold. And , that  left an everlasting influence on his outlook, his ways of thinking and devising his struggles, and on his very life. 

Gandhi esteemed the Song Celestial as the best translation of the Gita. And, it became a source of inspiration; and to his lifelong study of Gita in his search for Truth.

In his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth (Part I, Chapter XX – Acquaintance with Religions) Gandhi wrote about the Song Celestial with glowing admiration of the book:

The book struck me as one of priceless worth. The impression has ever since been growing on me with the result that I regard it today as the book par excellence for the knowledge of Truth. It has afforded me invaluable help in moments of gloom. I have read almost all the English translations of it (the Bhagavad-Gita), and I regard Sir Edwin Arnold’s as the best. He has been faithful to the test, and yet it does not read like a translation.

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How Gita came into Gandhi’s life

Gandhi came upon Bhagavad-Gita through the Theosophists and The Song Celestial of Sir Edwin Arnold, while he was a student in London during 1899.  In his Autobiography, Gandhi talks, in fair detail, about how he was introduced to the Gita ; and , the influence it cast on his outlook and on his life in total.

The young Mohandas Gandhi, not yet twenty, arrived in London in 1888   to study Law in order to become a Barrister. He was venturing out of home and out of India for the first time; and, was terribly ill-adjusted to the alien world. In particular, he sorely missed the home-cooked Gujarati vegetarian meal.

gandhi_student

Lonely and starving, the young Gandhi was happy to find a safe haven in the London Vegetarian Society (LVS). Here, he befriended many vegetarian reformers and writers of the day like Henry Salt, Anna Kingsford, Dr. Allison, Joshua Oldfield and Edward Maitland.

gandhi-1890

Through his association with the members of the LVS, Gandhi came to know the prominent Theosophists of the day, such as Madam Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, the Olcott brothers, and Annie Besant, who would later become an important leader in the Indian independence movement.

[In his autobiography, Gandhi mentions that the Theosophists friends who introduced him to Arnold’s poem also introduced him to Madame Blavatsky and Mrs. Besant. He ‘politely declined’ his friends’ invitation to join the Theosophical Society, though he read, at their instance, Madame Blavatsky’s Key to Theosophy.]

Gandhi’s theosophist friends in the LVS —the two Olcott brothers— who were studying the original Sanskrit text of the Gita alongside its rendering in English by Edwin Arnold (The Song Celestial) approached Gandhi for help in reading text and in understanding the meaning of certain Sanskrit words in the text, perhaps because Gandhi was from India and he might know Sanskrit. But, Gandhi had neither read the Gita nor did he know Sanskrit. Gandhi was embarrassed; and, as he confessed in his Autobiography;

 ‘I felt ashamed, as I had read the divine poem neither in Sanskrit nor in Gujarati… I was constrained to tell them that I had not read the Gita, but that I would gladly read it with them, and that though my knowledge of Sanskrit was meager, still I hoped to be able to understand the original to the extent of telling where the translation failed to bring out the meaning. I began reading the Gita with them’.

Determined to prove himself, Gandhi succeeded in turning that sense of ‘shame’ into a strong motive to take up the study of the Gita.

‘My first acquaintance with the Gita began in 1888-89 with the verse translation by Sir Edwin Arnold known as the Song Celestial. On reading it, I felt a keen desire to read a Gujarati translation. And I read as many translations as I could lay hold of ‘.

Talking about his encounter with the Song Celestial, the book that “stimulated in . . . the desire to read books on Hinduism, Gandhi wrote an article in his nationalist weekly journal Young India (1925)

“My first acquaintance with the Gita was in 1889, when I was almost twenty. I had not then much of an inkling of the principle of Ahimsa . . . Now whilst in England my contact with two English friends made me read the Gita . . .My knowledge of Sanskrit was not enough to enable me to understand all the verses of the Gita unaided. . .They placed before me Sir Edwin Arnold’s magnificent rendering of the Gita. I devoured the contents from cover to cover and was entranced by it. The last nineteen verses of the second chapter have since been inscribed on the tablet of my heart. They contain for me all knowledge . . .I have since read many translations and many commentaries, have argued and reasoned to my heart’s content but the impression that first reading gave me has never been effaced” .

Gandhi read the Gita as one would do a literary work, rather than as a religious text. Further, he pictured the Gita as an elaborate allegory.

And who are Dhritarashtra and Yudhishtira and Arjuna? Who is Krishna? Were they all historical characters? . . . I regard Duryodhana and his party as the baser impulses in man and Arjuna and his party as the higher impulses. The field of battle is our body. An eternal l battle is going on between the two camps and the Poet seer has vividly described it. Krishna is the Dweller within, ever whispering in a pure heart.

A-himsa – Nonviolence

 

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Among all leaders of the Indian independence movement, none was more devoted to the Bhagavad Gita than Gandhi. He called it his ‘dictionary of daily reference’; his ‘spiritual reference book’; and, his ‘Mother.’ He spoke and wrote widely on it throughout his life. Gandhi, in contrast to other major nationalist leaders, held no commitment more important than his principle of non-violence.

But, he ran into a serious interpretive problem, because in the course of the Gita Krishna persuades the reluctant warrior Arjuna to take part in an internecine disastrous battle.

The question whether the true teaching of the Gita favors violence or non-violence became vitally important to Gandhi. He needed a clear , firm and an honest answer to anchor his faith in his struggle for India’s freedom ; to provide a principled public resistance; and, above all to ensure the authenticity of his inner spiritual life.

Gandhi believed that the message of the Mahabharata itself was the virtues of non-violence; and , the Gita which was but a small segment of it carried a similar message. He wrote:

 The author of the Mahabharata has not established the necessity of physical warfare; on the contrary he has proved its futility. He made the victors shed tears of sorrow and repentance; and has left them nothing but legacy of misery. At the end of the Mahabharata, nearly everyone on both sides is killed.

According to Gandhi, Gita which is embedded in Mahabharata also demonstrates the futility of violence. The true message of the Bhagavad-Gita, Gandhi asserted, is non-violence and peace.

Gandhi chose to view the Kurukshetra battle as an allegorical- ethical struggle between Dharma and A-dharma.  He wrote in his Autobiography:

‘Even in 1888-89, when I first became acquainted with the Gita, I felt that it was not a historical work; but that, under the guise of physical warfare, it described the duel that perpetually went on in the hearts mankind, and that physical warfare was brought in merely to make the description of the internal duel more alluring. This preliminary intuition became more confirmed on a closer study of religion and the Gita.’

Gandhi admits that verse 2.37 and those around it seem to approve violence

हतोवाप्राप्स्यसिस्वर्गंजित्वावाभोक्ष्यसेमहीम् |

तस्मादुत्तिष्ठकौन्तेययुद्धायकृतनिश्चय: || 37||

Hato vā prāpsyasi swarga jitvā vā bhokhyase mahīm

Tasmād uttihha kaunteya yuddhāya kita-niśhchaya

 सुखदु:खेसमेकृत्वालाभालाभौजयाजयौ |

ततोयुद्धाययुज्यस्वनैवंपापमवाप्स्यसि || 38||

 Sukha-duḥkhe same kṛitvā lābhālābhau jayājayau

Tato yuddhāya yujyasva naivaṁ pāpam avāpsyasi

 BG 2.37: If you fight, you will either be slain on the battlefield and go to the celestial abodes, or you will gain victory and enjoy the kingdom on earth. Therefore arise with determination, O son of Kunti, and be prepared to fight

 G 2.38: Fight for the sake of duty, treating alike happiness and distress, loss and gain, victory and defeat. Fulfilling your responsibility in this way, you will never incur sin.

But he argues that the later verses that speak eloquently about equanimity and self-control cancel the violent aspects of these verses.

Gandhi came to believe that without total observance of Ahimsa (non-violence) in every form it would not be possible to gain freedom from attachment.

And, that led Gandhi to offer a particularly distinct interpretation of the Bhagavad-Gita, where Krishna instead of asking Arjuna to fight the war, instructs him to ‘fight the battle within the self; to battle passion and selfishness’.

The Bhagavad-Gita, he explained, repeatedly, is not about the battle that is waged on the field of dirt soaked in blood; but, the Kurukshetra – Gandhi argued, must be taken as an interior one, where the forces of good and evil are locked in never-ending struggle.  He said: When Krishna tells Arjuna to fight, he is telling him to overcome any self-interested inclinations; and, to carry out his own righteous duty. Gandhi based his authority as an interpreter of the Gita on his personal endeavor ‘to enforce the meaning in my own conduct for an unbroken period of forty years.’ Gandhi also claimed that the Gita was not a Hindu work, but rather one of “pure ethics,” which a person of any faith might read’

The following is an extract from Gandhi’s interpretation of the Gita’s position on violence:

I do not believe that the Gita teaches violence for doing well. It is pre-eminently a description of the duel that goes on in our own hearts. The divine author has used an historical incident for including the lesson of doing one’s own duty even at the peril of one’s life. It inculcates performance of duty irrespective of the consequences; for, we mortals, limited by our physical frames, are incapable of controlling actions save our own. I do not agree that the Gita advocates and teaches violence in any part of it. See the concluding discourse at the end of Chapter Two. Although that chapter lends itself to a violent interpretation, the concluding verses seem to me to preclude any such interpretation. The fact is that a literal interpretation of the Gita lands one in a sea of contradictions. “The letter killeth, the spirit giveth life.”

[It appears that Gandhi was not the first to reject war and violence amidst which the Gita was born. And, even during the medieval times there was a certain uneasiness in accepting the necessity of war in solving disputes

There is an interesting passage in the Bhagavata Purana (dated perhaps around sixth century) which explains how that Purana came to be composed by Vyasa.  In the Fifth Chapter of the First Canto of the Bhagavata Purana, Sage Narada admonishes Vyasa for justifying violence and glorifying terrible acts of war fought in the name of the Dharma, causing death and destruction of countless lives. Narada points out the danger that some misguided readers of Mahabharata might come to believe that it is not wrong to indulge in violence if it could serve the interest of what they deem to be Dharma, honor etc. Narada advises Vyasa to try to undo the damage he had caused by composing a work that preaches the virtues of devotion, love and peace. That was now, it is said, Bhagavata Purana came to be composed.

Though both Narada and Gandhi abhorred violence, their view on Mahabharata differed.  Narada was unhappy with violence and destruction being shown as the way to resolve disputes. But Gandhi argued that that the true message of Mahabharata was indeed the futility and the condemnation of violence.

Perhaps no one else before Gandhi had explicitly said that the message of the Mahabharata and the Bhagavad-Gita, truly, is non-violence.]

Gandhi pointed out that Gita in fact holds out a method by which truth-force (Satyagraha) could be achieved.  Gandhi was now determined that if one has to fight, one should fight non-violently.  Thus, Violence and denial of violence became major issues for debate and action.

Gandhi’s faith in Ahimsa as the core of the Gita gave rise to Satyagraha as an effective means to express one’s protest; and, to offer resistance without indulging in violence.

According to him, a Satyagrahi should be willing to die like a soldier (Kshatriya) for the cause of India’s independence. Satyagraha was Gandhi’s unique contribution to fight against oppression and injustice.

It has been my endeavor, as also that of some companions, to reduce to practice the teaching of the Gita as I have understood it. The Gita has become for us a spiritual reference book. I am aware that we ever fail to act in perfect accord with the teaching. The failure is not due to want of effort, but is in spite of it. Even through the failures we seem to see rays of hope.

This was in sharp contrast to the interpretation offered by the leaders of India’s nationalist movement such as Sri Aurobindo and others to fight a just war for liberating the Motherland. Sri Aurobindo viewed Nazis as agents of ’negative spiritual forces’ in the world working against the evolution of humanity towards freedom and dignity. He called upon Indian people to support the war efforts of the British in their fight against the fascist Nazi Germany.

I am not sure which of these two positions – of Gandhi or of Sri Aurobindo- is nearer to the true teaching of the Bhagavad-Gita..!

[But, the justification that Gandhi gave for not supporting the British in the war against the Nazis; and some of the things he said in that context is really hard to digest. Among other things, he cited his principle of non-violence as the reason for not agreeing to go for a War. Further, in a highly controversial letter addressed to Martin Buber during the gruesome period of the holocaust of the Jews, he advised that it would be better in the long term if the Jews practiced non-violence in response to their exterminators.

“The Jews of Germany can offer Satyagraha under infinitely better auspices than the Indians of South Africa.” “The calculated violence of Hitler may even result in a general massacre of Jews (but) to the God-fearing, death has no terrorNo person who has faith in a living God need feel helpless or forlorn. ” (1938)’.

In his reply, Buber made it clear that it was simply wrong of Gandhi to assume his struggles in South Africa for justice and India for independence were comparable to what the Jews were facing in Germany.

Buber was quick to expose the limitations of Gandhianism before a state ideology as brutal as Nazism: “Do you think perhaps,” he asked, “that a Jew in Germany could pronounce in public one single sentence of a speech such as yours without being knocked down?”

Buber also raised the age-less question of non-violence and the Bhagavad-Gita, and the Mahabharata; and, questioned Gandhi’s statement about India being “by nature non-violent”.

Please click here for Martin Buber’s spirited and eloquent reply to Gandhi.

Please also read Avner Falk’s article : Buber and Gandhi

Gandhi, of course, did not reply to Buber, thereby bypassing  a potentially interesting conversation about ways to resolve  complex moral and political dilemma.

However, in May 1947, Gandhi addressed his last words on the subject to Jewish militants who had resorted to terrorism against their former British patrons as well as Arabs: “It has become a problem which is almost insoluble. If I were a Jew, I would tell them: ‘don’t be so silly as to resort to terrorism, because you simply damage your own case which otherwise would be a proper case.’

But having said that, one has also to acknowledge that even after seven decades of partitioning the adjacent lands into India-Pakistan; Israel- Palestine, violence has not helped in resolving their disputes.  The peaceful coexistence of the warring neighbors is still a distant dream. ]

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Sthitaprajna

Gandhi regarded the eighteen verses (from 55 to 72) of the Second Chapter of the Bhagavad-Gita which describe the nature and characteristics of a sthitaprajna (sthita: steady or established, and prajna: wisdom), the one who has achieved control over his inner self, as the essence of the Gita. For Gandhi, the rest of the Gita was a commentary on this passage, which in his view was ‘the essence of dharma’.

In support of his argument, Gandhi often quotes the last twenty verses of the Second Chapter of the Gita which describe a person who has attained equanimity and control over his inner self; and, does not cling to anything.

He in particular admired the verse at 2.64::  ‘One not joined by passion and hatred, always moving in the sphere of the senses by the senses, the one who thus restrains the Self , and who governs the Self attains peace.’ This verse is explicitly about self-control and could an argument for the Gita really being about non-violence, about negating violence, as Gandhi thought.

 रागद्वेषवियुक्तैस्तुविषयानिन्द्रियैश्चरन् |

आत्मवश्यैर्विधेयात्माप्रसादमधिगच्छति || 64||

 Rāga-dveha-viyuktais tu vihayān indriyaiśh charan

Ātma-vaśhyair-vidheyātmā prasādam adhigachchhati

BG 2.64: But one who controls the mind, and is free from attachment and aversion, even while using the objects of the senses, attains the Grace of God.

This section of the Gita speaks about the qualities, values and attitudes that a wise person should strive to develop in all aspects of her/his life.

The key qualities of a sthitaprajna include: abandonment of all worldly desires and attachments to sense-objects and pleasures, to attractions as well as repulsions: to lust, anger, greed, envy, fear and such other things that destroy reason. The often quoted verses 62 and 63 of chapter two contain the psychological truth and wisdom that guide the wise both in the everyday life as also in spiritual quest:

ध्यायतो विषयान्पुंस: सङ्गस्तेषूपजायते |
सङ्गात्सञ्जायते काम: कामात्क्रोधोऽभिजायते || 62||

dhyāyato vihayān pusa sagas tehūpajāyate
sa
gāt sañjāyate kāma kāmāt krodho ’bhijāyate

While contemplating on the objects of the senses, one develops attachment to them. Attachment leads to desire, and from desire arises anger.

क्रोधाद्भवति सम्मोह: सम्मोहात्स्मृतिविभ्रम: |
स्मृतिभ्रंशाद् बुद्धिनाशो बुद्धिनाशात्प्रणश्यति || 63||

krodhād bhavati sammoha sammohāt smiti-vibhrama
sm
iti-bhranśhād buddhi-nāśho buddhi-nāśhāt praaśhyati

Anger leads to clouding of judgment, which results in bewilderment of the memory. When the memory is bewildered, the intellect gets destroyed; and when the intellect is destroyed, one is ruined.

“Man, musing on the objects of senses, conceives attachment to these; from attachment arises desire, and from (frustrated) desire arises anger (v. 62); anger leads to confusion and confusion to the lapse of memory; from the loss of memory one’s reason is destroyed, and once reason is destroyed, one perishes (v. 63). Besides cultivating non-attachment to sense-objects and desireless-ness for them, a person must also be equipoise in pleasure and pain, happiness and misery (v. 55 –vita-          raga-bhaya-krodhah); such a person remains unaffected by honor or dishonor, praise or blame, success or failure (v. 38: sukhe dukhe same krutva labha labhau jayajayou). A sthitaprajna must be in control of his mind and senses; should be free from ego, treat everyone equally, and not differentiate between a piece of gold and one of iron’.

Gandhi asserted that a person embarking on Satyagraha, rooted in the principle of non-violence must inculcate the virtues and attitudes of a Sthita-prajna. According to him, one who has achieved such self-control is the true Jnani.

[The Lord said:  A man is called one whose insight is firm when he forsakes all the desirable objects that come to his mind, Partha, and is sufficient unto himself. Not distressed in adversities, without craving for pleasures, innocent of passion, fear and anger, he is called a sage whose insight is firm. Firm stands the insight of him who has no preference for anything, whether he meets good or evil, and neither welcomes nor hates either one. When he entirely withdraws his senses from their objects as a tortoise withdraws its limbs, his insight stands firm. For an embodied man who does not eat, the sense objects fade away, except his taste for them; his taste, too, fades when he has seen the highest.

— Translation by J.A.B. van Buitenen]

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Anasakti

Gandhi regarded Anasakti or non-attachment to the fruits of one’s actions is the principal message of the Gita. Gandhi believed such Disinterestedness is a state of mind; and, it can never be attained and cultivated without exercising self-control and developing a sense of renunciation. He said: ‘One whose left hand does not know what his right hand does, such a one knows what is to be equal-minded. Our yardstick is the ability to see others as ourselves. We should think whether we should be happy if others are did to us what we did to them’.

Anasakti yoga that Gandhi developed and advocated is essentially an attitude of non-attachment to objects as also to the results of one’s actions. It is about letting-go (as in Zen) and internal renunciation.

 Gandhi believed that the Gita does not favor renunciation or total withdrawal from the world resulting in inactivity, nivritti. Instead the Gita teaches the Jnana that endorses renunciation of desires, of fruits of action. It promotes activity pravritti the opposite of renunciation of action.

The Anasakti that Gandhi advocated is not Sanyasa, the renunciation of the world; but, a sort of detached attitude that is not glued to its objects and to the outcome of one’s action (Karma-phala) while being actively engaged in the world and participating in its ongoing process.

While explaining the principle of Anasakti, Gandhi clarifies: “In no way it means indifference to the results of one’s action. The renunciation (Karma-phala-tyaga) denotes absence of hankering after fruit;  because, attachment, worry, haste affect our nervous system and upset the balance of our mind” (Anasaktiyoga, 7). It is not unnatural to feel happy about the good outcome of one’s hard work, but it is wasteful, both spiritually and psychologically, to invest all one’s emotions and energy in fretting over the results instead of focusing on perfecting the work’.

The Anasakti, Gandhi said, is the way of the Karma Yogi a man of action. While remaining active in the world, he performs his  duties  in the spirit of ‘nish –    Kama- karma’, that is, without desire for the fruits of action, as in the spirit of   ‘sthitha-prajna’– a person well-established in wisdom—who is equipoise, detached, desireless, and dedicated to God.

This principle of renunciation of the desire for the fruits of action recurs like a refrain throughout the Gita; it is particularly emphasized in Sankhya Yoga (Ch. 2, v. 47): ‘karmanye vadhikaraste ma phaleshu kadachana ‘: your business is with the action only, never with its fruits; in Karma Yoga (Ch. 3, v. 19): ‘tasmat asaktaha satatam karyam karma samachar’: therefore, perform action constantly without attachment; in the Jnana-vibhaga Yoga (Ch. 4, v. 20): ‘tyaktva karmaphalasangam’: abandon attachment to the fruit of action; and in the Bhakti Yoga (Ch. 12, v. 11): ‘sarvakarmaphala-tyagam tatah kuru yatatmavan’: renounce therefore all fruit of action with self control.

Gandhi’s appreciation of the Gita

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Gandhi, over the several articles he published in The Young India, mentions of the unique features of the Bhagavad-Gita that led him to revere it. To put those virtues in a summary form, the following, according to Gandhi are the admirable merits of the Gita:

Universal – Perennial Philosophy beyond geographical, racial or religious limitations;

Eternal- true for all times;

Free from dogma – it is non-sectarian, and is also not a collection of ‘dos and don’ts’;

Appeals to the head and the heart – knowledge, technique and devotion;

Multi-dimensional – it offers multiple choices for the ardent seeker to choose according to disposition (Prakrti) from the path of knowledge (Jnana) or discrimination between the Real and the seemingly real; the path of action (Karma) or selfless action for the good of all; the path of Devotion (Bhakthi) surrender in absolute faith and immense love to the will of God; the path of Yogic discipline (Raja-yoga)

Practical text – (Sadhana Tantra) – practical-ethical guide for a worthy life – it does not ask you to run away from the world- it does not approve escaping from the world (nivrtti) and from your  responsibilities in your  spheres of associations, but asks you to perform your  duties diligently (pravrtti)

Selfless action – Nish-Kama-karma -to perform ones duties and actions in a selfless manner (Anasakti) and in equipoise (Sthita-prajna) not attached to the fruits of action;

Reference Book- one can always turn to Gita in dark moments, crises of faith and through all the trials and tribulations of life ;

The Mother- just as the mother it protects, nurtures and supports ones faith in life and in its true values ; provides comfort when in distress; and leads from darkness to light;

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References and sources

  1. Interpretations of the Bhagavad-Gita and Images of the Hindu Tradition: by Catherine A. Robinson
  2. The Bhagavad Gita and the West: The Esoteric Significance of the Bhagavad-Gita by Rudolf Steiner
  3. Exploring the Bhagavad Gitā: Philosophy, Structure, and Meaning by Ithamar Theodor
  4. The Bhagavad Gita: A Text and Commentary for Students by Jeaneane D. Fowler
  5. Fighting Words: Religion, Violence, and the Interpretation of Sacred Texts by John Renard
  6. The Failure of Allegory: Notes on Textual Violence and the Bhagavad Gita by Laurie L. Patton
  7. A Comparative Study of the Commentaries on The Bhagavadgītā by T. G. Mainkar
  8. Bhagavad-Gita in Mahabharata Translated and Edited by J. A. B. van Buitenen
  9. My Gitaby Devdutt Pattanaik
  10. The Bhagavad-Gita and modern thought introduction by Shruti Kapila and Faisal Devji
  11. The quest for objective truth – Modern Indian Interpreters of the Bhagavad Gita Edited by Robert Neil Minor
  12. Who Wrote Bhagavad-Gita by Meghnad Desai
  13. Da’ud ibn Tamam ibn Ibrahim al-Shawn – The Bhagavad Gita interpreted – Edited by Daud Shawni
  14. A History of Indian Philosophy, Volume 2 by Dr. Surendranath Dasgupta
  15. A Companion to Translation Studies edited by Sandra Bermann, Catherine Porter
  16. The “Bhagavad Gita”: A Biography by Richard H. Davis
  17. Bhagavad Gita; the song celestial by Sir Edwin Arnold

https://archive.org/details/songcelestialor00arnogoog

http://wn.elib.com/Library/Religious/BG/BhaGit_preface.html

  1. The Gita according to Gandhi by Mahadev Desai (First Published: August 1946)

http://www.mkgandhi.org/ebks/gita-according-to-gandhi.pdf

     19.Mahatma Gandhi and the Bhagavad Gita by Dr. by Uma Majmudar

http://americanvedantist.org/2014/articles/mahatma-gandhi-and-the-bhagavad-gita/

  1. Interpretations of the Bhagavad-Gītā and Images of the Hindu Tradition By Catherine A. Robinson
  2. ALL PICTURES ARE FROM INTERNET
 
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Posted by on October 17, 2016 in Bhagavad-Gita, General Interest

 

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Bhagavad-Gita Multiple interpretations- Part Three

Continued from Part Two

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Bhagavad-Gita in translations

As mentioned in the earlier part, the influence of the Bhagavad-Gita began to spread far and beyond Asia following its translations into English and other European languages during the latter part of 18th century, The Bhagavad-Gita captured the attention of the western scholars, intellectuals as also that of the general-readers. That, not merely widened the extent of its readership but also lent it the scope for deriving varied interpretations

In 1785, the Gita became the first Sanskrit work to be translated into English; and, it provoked widespread excitement among English Orientalists, German Romantics, and American Transcendentalists. By about 1890, the Gita was accessible to average European and American; and, it came to be regarded as India’s national or spiritual symbol

In its extended life, the Bhagavad-Gita was enriched with new meanings and new relevance in new settings. Different aspects of the work came to the fore.   The new hearers and new readers found in it  the ways to answers  their varied concerns.

The translations of the Bhagavad-Gita have a very interesting history. Ms. Mishka Sinha in her A History of the Gita’s Transnational Reception, 1785-1945 has very ably chronicled the saga of Gita’s translations  and interpretations during and after the eighteenth century. She writes in the introduction to her paper: ‘the Gita as a received and translated text was significantly altered (during this period) in certain specific ways which continue to influence its present understanding both in the West and in India’. Much of this installment of the article is based on Ms. Sinha’s paper.

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Code of the Gentoos Law

With the rapid spread of the British colonial environment and the rise of the East India Company, the British courts in India had to adjudicate on increasing number of legal disputes among the locals. The Court of Directors of the East India  Company decided  to take over the administration of civil justice ; and, felt that it would help its business interests if it could involve in what they termed as ‘Hindu learning’ to decide on civil matters. Accordingly, Warren Hastings who was appointed as Governor General of Bengal in April, 1772 was asked to execute the Company’s decision; and, interalia come up with a ‘Judicial Plan’. His immediate object thereafter  was to  devise an arrangement  to dispense law/justice  to the Indian litigants  in ways that are as close  as possible to their own customs, in matters of person and property; and, particularly, on matters considered as religious. But, the dispensation of justice had to be according to the British norms and by British Judges; and it was made   explicitly clear that employing the Indian scholars or pundits as judges was totally out of question.

 [The criminal cases were to be decided according to British laws.]

By August 1972, Warren Hastings submitted his ‘Judicial Plan of 1772’. It  declared that ‘in all suits regarding inheritance, marriage, caste, and other religious usages, or institutions, the laws…of the Shaster with respect to Gentoos* shall be invariably adhered to’.

[* A brief explanation about the term ‘Gentoo’ appears necessary here.

It is said; ‘Gentoo’ is a corruption of the Portuguese word Gentio, meaning a gentile, a heathen, or native. The Portuguese (who perhaps were the earliest to colonize India) after they landed on the west coast found that the native inhabitants of India also included Jews and the Moors (Muslims). They did not quite know what those other indigenous pagan religious groups were called. But, the Portuguese named them as Gentoos – the native heathens. Thus, as early as in the sixteenth century, Gentoo was a term commonly employed, basically, to distinguish local religious groups in India from the Indian Jews and Muslims. The Oxford English Dictionary defines Gentoo as ‘a pagan inhabitant of Hindustan, a heathen, as distinguished from Mohammedan’.

It is explained; that such concept of ‘heathen’ is derived from the Christian-world view. According to medieval Christian belief, the entire population of the world was classified into four major religious groups: ‘lexchristiana, lexiudaica, lexmahometana and lexgentilium’; that is, Christians, Jews, Muslims and the rest ‘Heathens’. The ‘idolaters’- of any sort -, who were said to form roughly nearly two-thirds of the world’s population, were also grouped under ‘heathens’ (gentilium).

Till about the eighteenth century, the native population of India (other than Jews and Muslims) were labelled by the Europeans as Gentoos. That is the reason why the first digest of the Indian legislation drafted by the British in 1776 for the purpose of administering justice and to adjudicate over civil disputes among the people of India belonging to local religious groups was titled as A Code of Gentoo Law.

In the introduction to the Code of the Gentoo Laws, (pages xxi-xxii) it was explained that the terms ‘Hindustan’ and ‘Hindoo’ are not the terms by which the inhabitants originally called themselves or their religion. In fact, in very distant past when their books were created, the religious distinctions as we know did not yet exist. And,  their land was originally called as Bharatha-khanda or Jamboodweepa, in Sanskrit. Hindustan is a Persian word unknown to the original inhabitants of the land.   It was only since the era of Tartars (Muslims) the name Hindoos came into use to distinguish them from the Mussalman conquerors. Thus, the term ‘Hindoo’ was employed mainly to demarcate some class of natives from some other class of natives. The translators, therefore, decided to reject the term Hindoo; but to retain Gentoos which term was then in common use among the Europeans.

It was only later when the British realized that the Indian Gentoos had numerous religious groups and sub-groups among them, the term ‘Hindoo’ came to be used in place of the Gentoo. Accordingly, in the British official records, ‘the religion of the Hindoos’ gradually displaced ‘the religion of the Gentoos’. The word Gentoo later became archaic and obsolete,

Until then, what is now called as Hinduism was officially referred to  by the Europeans as the religion of the Gentoos. In the early years after that change, which is till end of    early nineteenth century, the word ‘Hinduism’ was in common currency ; and , it largely meant  ‘the primal and ancient religion of the subcontinent’.  But in the later years, the scope of the term Hindu as a religion was restricted to cover non-Muslims and non-Christians.

Thereafter, the word Hindu (though not originally Indian) which till then commonly referred to a geographical region (Hindu-stan), a cultural association, or language (Hindu-stani) or to a common religion of the land etc came to acquire specific religious connotations and characteristics. Consequently, the concept of the ‘Hindu religion’, that is ‘an Indian religion with a coherent system of beliefs and practices that could be compared with other religious systems’ got established.]

That Declaration led to taking up the huge task of building a body of jurisprudence to serve as the source of indigenous case-laws. Hastings, for that purpose, ordered Nathaniel Halhed (1751-1830), an orientalist as also a philologist, to supervise the task. Halhed, who was well versed in Persian and Bengali started with compiling Hindu legal code from a Persian version of the original Sanskrit.

Thereafter, a panel of ten pundits was commissioned to compile a digest of ‘Hindu’ legal literature based, mainly, on the body Dharma-shastras from the original Sanskrit texts. The digest compiled from various sources was named Vivada –arnava- setu or the sea of litigation.

The process had to be hastened with the establishment of Supreme Court in 1774, as an Appellant Authority

And, for the benefit of the English Judges ignorant of Sanskrit, it became necessary to prepare a translated version of the compilation made by the Pundits (Vivada –arnava- setu) in addition to that of the  selected ancient Sutras relating to civil matters of person and property (Vyvahara).  Such translated compilation/ compendium were made in two versions; one in English and the other in Persian. The task of translation and its publication was entrusted to Nathaniel Halhed. The English version of the digest was titled A Code of Gentoo Laws or Ordinations of the Pundits; and, was published in 1776 to serve as a source for ’legal accomplishment of a new system of government in Bengal, where, it was said :  ‘the British laws might , in some degree, be softened and tempered by a moderate attention to the peculiar and national prejudices of the Hindoo ; some of whose Institutes, however fanciful and injudicious, may perhaps be preferable to any which could be substituted in their room’.

That gave birth to the concept of a Hindu Personal Law.

[Attempts were also made to codify the Shastras and to establish the chronological sequence of the texts in order to trace the authority to a single original source. Such attempts were not successful; and, an agreed sequence of authoritative chronological order of the ancient Dharma-Sutra texts could not be established. However, by 1864, the long years of these exercises yielded a peculiar kind of case law in the form of a chain of interpretations by the English judges based on what they thought were the authoritative portions of the Hindu texts. That completely transformed the “Hindu Law” into a form of case law, as the British Judges of the Colonial India saw it fit. What we have today is a forest of citations referring to previous judges’ decisions- as in Anglo Saxon – derived legal systems; and it is left to the skills of the judges and lawyers to find the precedent and to make the law. Those precedents are again those that were set up by the English judges. What started as a search for the “ancient Indian Constitution” ended up with English law for India and Indians made by the British – just what Indians would have wished to avoid.]

Such projects could not have been carried out successfully without the cooperation of the unacknowledged “native pundit” who provided the all-important linguistic expertise as well as cultural and historical context surrounding the texts in translation. But, sad to say they did not seem to have been treated fairly. Unacknowledged on title pages of translated texts, these scholar-translators were often portrayed as crafty Brahmins deliberately misleading; offering “obscure” textual interpretations; and possibly jeopardizing translation projects.

Bhagvat-geeta or Dialogues of Kreeshna and Arjoon

Following his involvement in the compilation of a digest of ‘Hindu’ legal literature based mainly on translations from Sanskrit texts, Warren Hastings asked Charles Wilkins , a merchant in the service of the East India Company to attempt translate Bhagavad-Gita , the most well known Hindu Book , into English. 

NPG D7848; Sir Charles Wilkins by John Sartain, published by  Moon, Boys & Graves, after  James Godsell Middleton

[ Charles Wilkins (1749 –1836), who was trained as a type-setter and printer, came to India during 1770, while he was about twenty years of age; and, joined the service of East India Company as a writer, or junior clerk. He learnt Persian and Bengali; and, was soon appointed as Company’s official translator of Persian and Bengali. He was also the first to attempt to design the typeset of the Bengali script, which task he completed in 1778 with the assistance of a gem-engraver and the expert blacksmith, Panchanana Karmakara.  Charles Wilkins assisted William Jones (1746 –1794) a scholar and Judge in the Supreme Court in Bengal, to establish the Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1784. Wilkins moved to Varanasi to learn Sanskrit from Kasinatha Bhattacharya recognized as Sarva-shastra-guru – Master of all Shastras.  During this period, he attempted translating portions of Mahabharata into English under the guidance of his teacher (though he did not credit or acknowledge Kasinatha in his published translation). Wilkins’ translation of Mahabharata remained incomplete. He, however, could complete the translation of Bhagavad-Gita, a segment of the Mahabharata.

For more: please check:

Sir Charles Wilkins’ Basic Contribution to Indology in the West By Swami Tathagatananda ; and

Wilkins, Kasinatha, Hastings, and the First English Bhagavad Gita by Richard H. Davis]

Warren Hastings had a great fascination for the Gita; and, was thrilled by Wilkins’ translation. He persuaded the Court of Directors of the East India Company to publish the work at the company’s expense. Charles Wilkins’ English translation of the Bhagavad-Gita was first brought out under the auspices of the Asiatic Society, Calcutta in November 1784. And, it was only later that it was published from London in 1785.

In his preface, Warren Hastings, praising the literary merits of Wilkins’ work, described it as: “a performance of great originality, of a sublimity of conception, reasoning and diction almost unequaled, and single exception among all the known religions of mankind of a theology accurately corresponding with that of the Christian dispensation and most powerfully illustrating its fundamental doctrines.”

Hastings asserted that the study and true practice of the Gita’s teachings would lead humanity to peace and bliss. In his Introduction , Hastings while quoting  few translated verses said :

‘Among many Precepts of fine Morality I am particularly delighted with the following, because it has been the invariable Rule of my latter Life, and often applied to the earlier State of it, before I had myself reduced it to the Form of a Maxim in writing. It is thus:

: – Let the Motive be in the Deed, and not in the Event;

: – Be not one whose motive for Action is the Hope of Reward. Let not thy Life be spent in Inaction. Depend on Application;

:- perform thy Duty, abandon all Thought of the Consequence, and make the Event equal, whether it terminate in Good or Evil; for such an Equality is called Application;

William Hastings was confident that Gita ‘will survive when the British domination in India shall have long ceased to exist’.

The Bhagavad-Gita rendered into English by Charles Wilkins Charles was formally published in 1785 under the elaborate title: Bhagvat-geeta or Dialogues of Kreeshna and Arjoon; in eighteen lectures; with notes; translated from the original, in Sanskreet, or the ancient language of the Brahmans; (London: C. Nourse, 1785). It earned the reputation of being the first widely known text to have been directly translated from Sanskrit into a European language. And, that brought Gita to the attention of Europe and other regions.

[Later, Wilkins’ translation went into several improved and revised editions in 1809; 1849.1885; 1959; and 1970]

In his preface, Wilkins mentioned that his objective in translating the Gita into English was:’ to encourage a form of monotheist “Unitarianism” and to draw Hinduism away from the polytheism ascribed to the Vedas’.

However, both Charles Wilkins and Warren Hastings had anticipated that the British interest in Gita would most likely be generated from ‘curiosity towards a strange cultural object’. They surmised, unerringly, that this aspect would ultimately prove the most significant attraction for their readers in England.

Accordingly, in England, Gita initially gained publicity mainly as a curious cultural object retrieved from the unknown past of the distant East or as a glimpses of the ‘ immature and primitive stage of human civilization..  The majority of general readership in Britain was primarily interested in traveler’s tales, however wild and fanciful.

As an early review put it; ‘Ultimately, the Gita’s importance lay not in any intrinsic quality it may have possessed, but in its value as “a curious specimen of mythology and an authentic standard of the faith and religious opinions of the Hindoos’.

In the eighteenth and early nineteenth century the Bhagavad-Gita was treated as either poetry, song or as literature of philosophical nature rather than scripture.

Apart from the general readers, Wilkins’ work attracted the attention of Christian Missionary who sought to use it to counter Hindu arguments; and to down-size Krishna as an Indian copy of Jesus. Gradually, the Gita spread to the writers and authors looking for the exotic. William Blake the celebrated Romantic poet in his picture The Bramins (1809) depicted Wilkins and Brahmin scholars working on the translation. Blake’s drawing suggested that the importance of the Gita lay ‘in its significance as an object of secret knowledge recovered through intellectual labor and imperial triumph from its hitherto unknowable form within a previously hidden tradition’.(Sadly, Blake’s drawing of The Bramins is said to be lost) 

Despite a fairly favorable initial reception, Wilkins’s translation did not achieve much significance in its early decades. Gradually, the  curiosity gave place to serious study by the scholars. William Jones advised all those who wished to “form a correct idea of Indian religion and literature” to forget “all that has been written on the subject, by ancients and moderns, before the publication of the Gítà” (Jones 1799: 363).

Other translations

Within a decade after its publication, Charles Wilkins’s translation gained wide publicity; and, it was further translated into French (Le Bhaguat –Geeta ou Dialogues de Kreeshna et d’Arjoon ..) by Abbé Parraud (1787); followed by translation into Russian by Nikolay Ivanovich Novikov (1787) – which is said to have inspired Count Leo Tolstoy; and into German (Der Bhaguat-Geeta, oder Gesprache zwischen Kreeshna und Arjoon)   by Friedrich Von Majer (1802).

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(Said to be world’s first French translation of the Bhagavad Gita by Parraud. Please click here to download the Book in PDF format)

There were also other translations.

Friedrich Schlegel (formally: Karl Wilhelm Friedrich; 1772-1829) a German poet, philosopher and Indologist in his monumental work, Über die Sprache und Weisheit der Indier (On the Language and Wisdom of India) – Heidelberg, 1808, observed the similarities in the grammatical structures of Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, Persian and German . He argued that a people originating from India were the founders of the first European civilizations. He came to the conclusion that Sanskrit was the earliest form or the source of all the other classical languages.

Friedrich Schlegel’s study of the India and Indian languages inspired his elder brother August Wilhelm von Schlegel to move to Paris in order to study Sanskrit. The Schlegel-brothers, particularly the elder Friedrich, came to be regarded as the founder of the Romantic school, which profoundly influenced the development of German literature since the beginning of the 19th century.

August Wilhelm Von Schlegel (1767-1845), who was the Professor of Indology and Sanskrit in the University of Bonn, published the Latin version of the Gita with original Sanskrit text (1823). This was the first direct translation of the Gita into a European language.

Between 1820 and 1830, August Schlegel published Indische Bibliothek, a collection of Indian texts. He is considered the founder of Sanskrit philology in Germany. His praise for the Bhagavad Gita was: If the study of Sanskrit had brought nothing more than the satisfaction of being able to read this superb poem in the original, I would have been amply compensated for all my labors. It is a sublime reunion of poetic and philosophical genius.

As a result of the early German philosophical engagement with the Bhagavad-Gita, the text not only continued to be translated by European,  British and Indian scholars but was also accorded a Bible-like status..

A few years later, a French translation of the Gita was made directly from Sanskrit by Jean-Denis Lanjuinais (1832); and published Posthumously. He had remarked that it was a great surprise to find among these fragments of an extremely ancient epic poem from India . . . a completely spiritual pantheism . . . and . . . the vision of all-in-God’.

Another direct translation into French was made by Émile-Louis Burnouf in 1861- (La Bhagavad-Gîtâ, ou le Chant du Bienheureux, poème indien).

And, a Greek translation by Demetrios Galanos was published posthumously by in 1848.

[Another translation of the Bhagavad-Gita into German by Dr. Franz Hartmann, a German medical doctor, theosophist and occultist , gained much attention , perhaps for wrong reasons. [ Bhagavad Gita, Die [nach diesem Titel suchen, White Lotus, Leipzig, 1924 ]

Heinrich Himmler was a Nazi , often described as the architect of the Holocaust. He was a very complex person indeed.  According to Felix Kersten (his personal massage therapist), from 1941 until his death four years later,  Himmler carried a copy of the Bhagavad-Gita in his pocket; and,  read passages from it regularly every night. The book was a translation of the Gita  by Dr. Franz Hartmann.] 

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Other English translations

In 1882, John Davies, Member of the Royal Asiatic society, of the Cambridge philological Society, came up with a prose translation of the Bhagavad-Gita published by the English and Foreign Philological Library; London Kegan Paul , Trench, Trubner  & Co, 1882 with an elaborate title : Hindu Philosophy The Bhagavad Gita or the sacred Lay, a Sanskrit Philosophical poem. Edwin Arnold in the preface to his translation the Gita (The song Celestial) lauds the prose transcript of Devies as being ‘truly beyond praise for its fidelity and clearness.’

The Davies’ translation was followed, in 1885, by that of   J. Cockburn Thomson—a former student of H. H. Wilson, the first Boden Professor of Sanskrit at Oxford produced an improved translation of the Gita from the original Sanskrit text as The Gita or a Discourse between Krishna and Arjuna on Divine matters (a Sanskrit philosophical poem translated with copious notes, an introduction to Sanskrit philosophy and other matters); published by Stephen Austin, Hertford- 1835. According to Thomson, Wilkins translation was “far from giving a clear idea of the work … and still less of its philosophy.”

Charles Johnston, a retired English civil servant in Bengal and a Sanskrit scholar, brought forth a translation in 1908 in Flushing, New York of the Bhagavad Gita: “The Songs of the Master.” Johnston, in his lengthy Introduction paid rich tribute to the ancient text: ‘The Bhagavad Gita is one of the noblest scriptures of India, one of the deepest scriptures of the world. . . . a symbolic scripture, with many meanings, containing many truths. . . . [That] forms the living heart of the Eastern wisdom’.

A feature of these early English translations was to present the Gita as an expression of higher, abstract philosophical ideas within Hinduism, as distinct from its lower, popular, superstitious forms.

And, One hundred years after the publication of Wilkins’ translation Sir Edwin Arnold translated the Gita into blank verse – The Song Celestial (1885).  It achieved great fame as the most important and most widely-read version of the Gita. It also inspired Gandhi into the life-long study of the Gita. (Let’s talk more of these in the next Part)

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Spread of Gita’s influence

Wilkins’s translation made its way throughout Europe, and across the Atlantic, where it became a key scripture for American Transcendentalists. Carlyle presented Ralf Waldo Emerson with a copy of Wilkins’ translation of the Gita which proved to be his greatest source of inspiration. That also influenced the Concord (Transcendental). All other similar movements in America, in one way or the other, are indebted to Concord. Henry David Thoreau, living at Walden Pond in 1846, wrote of ‘bathing his intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagvat-Geeta.’

From about 1880 the number of translations of the Gita began to raise steeply, both in English and in other European languages, while translation into Indian vernaculars also increased at the same time. At this juncture the text began to occupy a new cultural space within a broader context, and ignited intellectual debates in the West. Such translations and commentaries mainly focused on the allegorical or symbolic aspects of Gita and on the universal relevance of the text.

The participation of Swami Vivekananda at the World Parliament of Religions in 1893 and his subsequent series of talks in various cities of America also introduced the Bhagavad-Gita in particular and Vedanta studies in general to the western world. By then, the Gita was beginning to gain   considerable significance in India’s struggle for freedom, where some groups interpreted as a call for armed protest against British Rule in India. At the same time, there were also others like Gandhi, preaching the values of a self-disciplined, non-violent struggle against oppression.

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Approach of the translators

Since then, the Gita has been translated into more than seventy-five languages. There have been hundreds of commentaries in Eastern and Western languages. Outside of India, the Gita is regarded as the first and the foremost work opening the way to understand Hinduism. The Gita has continued to live through the responses and interpretations of generations of readers.

As Richard H. Davis writes in the introduction to his The “Bhagavad Gita”: A Biography:

 ‘The work has lived a vivid and contentious existence over the centuries since, through readings and recitations; translations and commentaries that have transcribed this classic into many currents and disputes.

Thus , the medieval  Hindu Gurus, British colonial scholars, German romantics, Globe-trotting spiritual speakers, Indian anti-colonial freedom fighters, western students and spiritual seekers all have engaged in dialogue with the Gita, each in his/her own manner’

But, again, there was a basic difference between the attitudes and the approach of the western scholars and the Indian translators/ commentators.

For most of the Western academics and researchers, ‘the translated Bhagavad-Gita was a proof of an ancient and glorious civilization; and, they  believed that the work was culturally important.  Almost all such translations of the Bhagavad-Gita during the nineteenth and the early twentieth century, treated it as a literary work, a song or as a philosophical poem; but , not as scripture.  For example; Bhagavad-Gita or The Sacred Lay -A Sanskrit Philosophical Poem (J Cockburn Thompson 1855); Hindu Philosophy The Bhagavad Gita or the sacred Lay, a Sanskrit Philosophical poem (John Davies,1882)  ; and, The Song Celestial or Bhagavad-Gita (Edwin Arnold,   1900 ).  Edwin Arnold, in the preface to his translation, refers to Bhagavad-Gita as ‘famous marvelous Sanskrit poem in which in plain and noble language it unfolds a philosophical system ‘. He observes that when translated it would enhance English literature’.

And, for the Christian Missionary translators it was a philosophical text that needs to be countered; but, surely, not a ‘sacred scripture’. They consistently made a distinction between the abstract philosophy of the Bhagavad-Gita and the superstitions of the Hindu mired in mythology of gods ‘stained by cruelty and lust’ (John Davis 1882). Thus while the high philosophy of Bhagavad-Gita might approximate somewhere near to Christian principles, it would not be adequate to redeem the lost souls of the Hindu.

The primary purpose of missionary writings on Hinduism  and the Gita was to understand the beliefs of the peoples they were seeking to convert, so that future missionaries could come well-prepared to defend Christianity The noted examples of such early works were: De Open-Duere tot het Verborgen Heydendom [1651- The Open Door to Hitherto Concealed Heathenism] by Abraham Roger (d. 1649)  ; and, ‘Genealogy of the Malabarian Gods from Native Writings and Letters’ by Bartholomaus Ziegenbalg(1682–1719). Such missionary interest in “heathen” Hinduism continued in the following century with William Jones’s essay, “On the Gods of Greece, Italy and India” (1788) and William Ward’s A View of the History, Literature, and the Mythology of the Hindoos (1815-18).

[ Hephzibah Israel, a Lecturer in Translation Studies, University of Edinburgh, in her well researched paper Translating the Sacred: Colonial Constructions and Postcolonial Perspectives writes :

Thus, apart from Christian missionaries and Orientalist scholars, a whole range of Europeans – travelers, traders, colonial administrators – translated sacred texts of various kinds and for a variety of purposes. These translations were “speech acts” from different perspectives, sometimes working at cross purposes, sometimes colluding to produce convenient stereotypes of native cultures. Translation became a key mode of interpretation for these diverse interests. Common evaluative tools of textual interpretations and exegeses were employed across textual genres for the purpose of translation. The result was a shared archive of translated knowledge of what came to be termed the “Hindu mind” in colonial parlance

Although missionary and imperial interests did not always coincide, such translation activity helped to build a corpus of knowledge regarding key aspects of Indian “culture” that both could draw on and use for their respective purposes: shared methods of interpretation, shared attitudes toward languages and their interrelations, and shared translation techniques contributed to a shared understanding of their non-European “Others.”]

*

But, for the Indian translators, the Bhagavad-Gita was a sacred scripture, a Holy Book and one of the three fundamental texts (Prasthana-traya) of the ancient Dharma. They write in a tone that respects the Gita’s resilience and acknowledges the reverence it commands from its adherents. They have the faith that the Gita is still vibrantly alive, and “will continue to reincarnate itself in new ways’. Translating the Gita, and explaining the ‘inner-meaning (Anthara-artha) was an act of fulfillment, of educating fellow Indians; and as a duty to spread the truth. It was also an attempt to present Gita as a Universal message; and Hinduism as an open-ended outlook of life in contrast to other rigid religious faiths.

A significant number of Indians engaged in translation, offered the Bhagavad-Gita as an example of the highest Hindu philosophical thought. For instance ; Tiruvalum Subba Row’s Discourses on the Bhagavat Gita (1888) and  R. Sivasankara Pandiyaji’s  translation, Bhagavad Gita Sara Bodhini or The Essential Teaching of The Bhagavad Gita (1897)  sought  “to help students in studying its philosophy” and to “lead them back to a purer faith”.

Even among the Indians, particularly of colonial India of early 20th century, the nationalists promoted the Gita as a central work of an emerging Indian national ethos.  According to them, the new battlefield was the British Raj, calling for concerted social and political action. The form of such action was , however, a matter of debate – violence Vs non-violence.  

[The Gita Press at Gorakhpur did remarkable work, in the early twentieth century, in spreading the message of the Gita among the common people. It widely distributed copies of Gita translated into Hindi and other languages. And, during the turbulent period of resistance to colonial rule, Gita , somehow,  came to be seen as a symbol of’ ‘nationalism’. And, during that period, anyone possessing more than a single copy of the Gita was suspected by the British as a ‘trouble-maker’. In a move to resist or even overwhelm the British, the Gita Press during 1927 distributed , freely or at a nominal price  , copies of ‘Gita Diaries’ , which also featured selected  verses from  the Gita spread  over the whole year; along with  verses for  daily meditation .]

***

Kashinath Trimbak Telang

kashinath-trimbak-telang

The first Indian to translate the Gita into English was Kashinath Trimbak Telang (1850-1893) a Sanskrit scholar of merit, an Indologist and a Judge at the Bombay High Court.  He first published the translation of the Gita in verse form during 1875. Later in 1882, his prose-translation was brought out as Vol. 8 of the ‘Sacred Books of the East ‘series edited by Max Muller with the title The Bhagavadgita with the Sanatsugatiya and the Anugita (Oxford, The Clarendon Press, 1882).The volume of Telang’s translation of the Gita included his translations of the Anugita* and Sanatsugatiya**.  

Kashinath Trimbak Telang was one of the only two Indian scholars invited by Max Muller to contribute to the ‘Sacred Books of the East ‘series; the other being Sir RG Bhandarkar. Telang’s Gita, scholarly and methodical, turned out to be amongst the more popular books in India, selling over two hundred copies (the practice of the readers of those times was to borrow books from the library than to buy). But sadly, Telang’s translation did not receive serious reviews in England. Edwin Arnold, in the introduction to his translation of the Gita wrote:’ Mr. Telang has also published at Bombay a version in colloquial rhythm, eminently learned and intelligent, but not conveying the dignity or grace of the original’.

 [* Anugita (that which follows the Gita), appears in the Ashvamedha Parva of the Mahabharata, as a sequel to the Bhagavad-Gita. It again is a conversation between Krishna and Arjuna. It takes place at the Pandava’s palace in Indraprastha, as Krishna was on his way back to Dwaraka after helping to restore the kingdom of Hasthinapur to the Pandavas following their victory in the war at Kurukshetra.   

**The Sānatsujātiya     appears in the Udyoga Parva   of Mahabharata as teaching imparted by the sages   Sanat-sujāta    to the blind king   Dhṛtarāṣṭra. It is a philosophical classic   , composed in five chapters (Adyāya 41-46).]

**

The Theosophists

The Theosophists came upon the Gita by about 1890s. Apart from providing explanations in theosophical terms, they highlighted the allegorical representations of the Gita. Shri T. Subba Row, an early Indian initiate into Theosophy, explained that Krishna in the Gita represented Logos the objective expression of the Absolute; while Arjuna represented the monad, Nara, the individual soul Jiva   in conjunction with Buddhi and Manas.

Mohini Chatterji, in her translation of the Gita (1888) and William Quan Judge, in his Essays on the Gita (1890) presented an entirely allegorical interpretation of the Mahabharata. Annie Besant extended the allegory to India’s struggle for freedom.

According to Besant’s interpretation, the struggle by Arjuna was “to destroy a usurper who was oppressing the land; and, it was his duty as prince, as warrior, to fight for the deliverance of his nation and restore order and peace’.  The parallel she constructed between Mahabharata war and the Indian freedom struggle came to be widely accepted; and, influenced the political stance of many leaders including Tilak. Besides, Annie Besant pointed out to the universal nature of the Gita, saying: ‘To speak of the Gita is to speak of the history of the world’.

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The Gita in the twentieth century

There have also been valued translations by western scholars such as Franklin Edgerton, Robert Charles Zachner, Kees W Bolle, JAB van Buitenen and W Douglass P Hill.

However, two translations that appeared in 1935 and 1944 which brought together Indian and prominent western scholars are regarded very significant in asserting to the spiritual authenticity of the East and upholding the Universal relevance of the Bhagavad-Gita. Both translations were rich in allegorical interpretations and symbolic possibilities of the text.

These two translations, Ms. Mishka Sinha writes:

‘these two translations of the Gita reveal the influence of the inherited ideas and interpretations from the nineteenth century. Each is the product of collaborations between Indian and Western translators, and the authors of each unquestioningly accept the assumption of universal relevance that the Gita began to acquire in the period between 1880 and 1910.

Both translations were concerned with the symbolic possibilities of the text; however, the  interpretation  accompanying the second translation represents the culmination of the process begun by the literary an d allegorical interpretations of Arnold, Gandhi and the Theosophists, by turning the ordinary, surface meaning of the Gita on its head

Each could lay claim simultaneously to the spiritual authenticity of the East, and the cultural authority of the West, by bringing together Indian translators—Hindu swamis visiting the West—and prominent Western authors.’

The Geetatrans. by Shri Purohit Swami (London: Faber & Faber, 1935)

Shri Purohit Swami (1882-1946) a Hindu monk came to Britain 1931, at the instance of his Guru Shri Bhagwan Hamsa. He began with delivering a series of lectures on Indian philosophy and on Bhagavad-Gita. He became involved with British ‘spiritualists’ who helped him set up an Ashram in London. The Swami came in contact with the noted Irish poet, dramatist and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature (1923), William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), who had a deep interest in spiritualism. He had been introduced to Hindu philosophy in 1886 through the Theosophical Society.

purohit_swami yeats

WB Yeats wrote introductions to Purohit Swami’s two books: An Indian Monk, with introduction by W. B. Yeats (London, Macmillan, 1932); and, Bhagwan Shri Hamsa, The Holy Mountain, trans. by Shri Purohit Swami, with introduction by W. B. Yeats (London: Faber & Faber, 1934)

At the instance of WB Yeats, Purohit Swami wrote a commentary on Bhagavad-Gita in a manner that could be understood by the British general reader. He avoided overuse of ancient Indian concepts and Sanskrit terms that might be unfamiliar to English-speakers. Yet, he managed to translate every word of the text into English.  Yeats took upon himself the task of helping the Swami publish his work. For that purpose, Yeats approached the well known publishing house the Faber & Faber, where the poet-scholar T. S. Eliot was the Editor. He was hoping that Eliot would also write an introduction which would enhance the prestige and acceptability of the Book. But, Eliot was reluctant to oblige Yeats and the Swami. Despite Eliot’s reservations, Faber took on the publication of four books by Purohit Swami, with the rider that they be either introduced by or in some way associated with the name of W.B. Yeats. However, the Book was published without an introduction by Yeats.

In 1935, the Swami’s translation of Bhagavad-Gita was published by Faber & Faber under the title The Geeta; The Gospel of the Lord Shri Krishna (1935). The Swami dedicated the Book ‘To my friend William Butler Yeats’, on his seventieth birthday.  Thereafter, the association between Purohit Swami and WB Yeats flourished. Yeats devoted much of his last years to the publication and promotion of Purohit Swami’s works. The two worked together to produce many books of great merit. In 1935, the Swami published a translation of the Mandukya Upanishad, for which Yeats provided an introduction. Later in 1938, they brought out the translations of Patanjali’s Aphorisms of Yoga (Faber & Faber, 1938); as also the translations of The Ten Principal Upanishads (Faber & Faber, 1938). Yeats wrote introductions for both the Books. And, Yeats included the Swami’s translations in the Oxford Book of Modern Verse 1892–1935.

The Song of God: Bhagavad-Gita, trans. by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood, with an Introduction by Aldous Huxley (Hollywood: M. Rodd Co., 1944)

In 1944 the Gita appeared in a translation by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood

swami-prabhavananda christopher-isherwood

Swami Prabhavananda (1893-1976) a monk of the Sri Ramakrishna Order arrived in the USA during 1923. Initially he was attached to the Vedanta Society of San Francisco. After two years, he established the Vedanta Society of Portland. In December 1929, he moved to Los Angeles where he founded the Vedanta Society of Southern California in 1930, which grew into a very influential organization.

The Swami was a learned scholar who wrote number of commentaries on Vedanta and other Indian philosophies.  He attracted the attention of several scholars like Aldous Huxley, Gerald Heard, Frederick Manchester and Christopher Isherwood.

[ Christopher Isherwood (1904-1986) was an English novelist, playwright, and screen-writer. After leaving Cambridge University in 1925, Isherwood in company of his school-friend WH Auden ( 1907-1973),  who was also a poet, travelled over Europe and then on to China (1938). Isherwood, Upward, and Auden formed the early core of the Leftist literary thirties generation in England. In January 1939, Auden and Isherwood (homosexual mates)  set sail for the United States. While living in Hollywood, California, as a screen-writer, Isherwood befriended Aldous Huxley with whom he sometimes collaborated. It was through Huxley that Isherwood came into contact with Swami Prabhavananda, head of the Vedanta Society of Southern California; and, became his disciple. With Swami Prabhavananda, Isherwood made a new English translation of the Bhagavad Gita, published in 1944. 

Though Isherwood did not become a monk, he remained a Hindu for the rest of his life, serving, praying, and lecturing in the temple every week and performing many literary chores for the order, including writing a biography, Ramakrishna and His Disciples (1965). His last book, My Guru and His Disciple (1980), records his conversion to Hinduism and his devotion to Swami Prabhavananda. ]

Of the many books authored by Swami Prabhavananda, his translation of the Bhagavad-Gita in collaboration with Christopher Isherwood (The Song of God: Bhagavad-Gita,) published by M. Rodd Co, Hollywood, in 1944 is most well known. It carried an introduction with by Aldous Huxley. The Time Magazine (1945) in its review lauded the translation as’ a distinguished literary work” that was “simpler and freer than other English translations (three of which have been published in the past year)’.

Huxley’s introduction to The Song of God: Bhagavad-Gita, which explained the allegorical interpretations of the Gita in various layers, became as famous as the Book itself. In it, he expounded the Universal ‘perennial philosophy, of the Gita. He said: :“The Bhagavad-Gita is perhaps the most systematic scriptural statement of the Perennial Philosophy [for] a world at war it stands pointing, clearly and unmistakably, to the only road of escape from the self-imposed necessity of self-destruction.”

As the Swami’s translation appeared in 1944, which was just after the end of World war II, the questions of war, violence gained special significance. Writing in the midst of a war of destruction and violence on an unprecedented scale, Huxley reread and re-imagined the Gita in a mode which rejected the utter need to kill. He, like Gandhi, emphasized that the true message of the Gita is not violence; but, on the contrary, the futility and uselessness of violence, self-destruction; and, the harm it can bring upon whole generations. 

The other noted translations

The Bhagavadgita in the Mahabharata- A Bilingual Edition – Translated by J. A. B. van Buitenen, edited by James L. Fitzgerald. The University of Chicago Press,  Chicago, 1981

A. B. van Buitenen (1928-1979), a traditional scholar-translator, was an Indologist and Professor of Sanskrit in the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago. Towards the end of his rather short life he focused primarily on the study of Mahabharata.

His translation of the Bhagavad-Gita edited by James L. Fitzgerald and published posthumously (1981), is rated very highly by the scholars and ardent students of the Gita. His translation, based on the critical text and   studded with an in-depth scholarly introduction and many useful footnotes, is praised for its authentic presentation and illuminating clarity. It’s acclaimed for its accurate rendering and retaining the directness of the original text.

 The Bhagavad Gita (Classics of Indian Spirituality) by Eknath Easwaran; The Blue Mountain centre of meditation; 1985

Eknath Easwaran (1910-1999) was a scholar and a spiritual teacher who wrote several books on meditation. He is also known for his translations of the Bhagavad-Gita, the Upanishads and the Dhammapada. It is said; Easwaran developed interest in the Gita under the influence of Gandhi whom he met in his young age.

Eknath Easwaran’s translation of the Bhagavad-Gita is rendered in clear, beautiful English; and is easy to read. Easwaran also wrote a three volume commentary, The Bhagavad Gita for Daily Living, as well as a simpler commentary called Essence of the Bhagavad Gita In his Essence of the Bhagavad Gita, Easwaran explains the  teachings of the Gita in a modern context and comments on the Gita’s view of the nature of reality, the illusion of separateness, the search for identity, the meaning of yoga, and how to heal the unconscious. The book views the key message of the Gita as how to resolve our conflicts and live in harmony with the deep unity of life, through the practice of meditation and spiritual disciplines.

The Bhagavad-Gita by Georg Feuerstein, Brenda Feuerstein; Shambhala Publications; 2011

A more scholarly translation of the Gita comes from Georg Feuerstein. His translation with detailed notes is good for academic study. The left-hand page contains the Sanskrit in both Devanagari and transliteration, while the right-hand page contains a very literal translation, usually with several footnotes. A section in the back contains a word-by-word literal translation.

[There is also a first-ever translation of the Bhagavad-Gita into Maltese  by Dr Michael Zammit, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Malta; published by PIN Publications, Herbert Ganado Street, Pieta, PTA 1450, Malta. The audio version,  Bhagawad Gita ta’ Wjasa, Dr Zammit’s translation is being webcast on the University of Malta’s website. Please also read Dr .Zammit’s interview with Ms. Venetia Ansel the noted scholar , writer and publisher.]

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Mishka Sinha mentions that of all the translations and the commentaries on the Bhagavad-Gita published between 1880 and 1910, Telang’s translation; Edwin Arnold’s The Song Celestial; Translations by the Theosophists; and Gandhi’s Gita are notable for the influence they exerted as also for the explanations of the universal relevance, the allegorical and symbolic significance of the text.

Let’s talk about Edwin Arnold’s translation and about Gandhi on Gita in the next part.

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Continued in Part Four

References and sources

  1. Interpretations of the Bhagavad-Gita and Images of the Hindu Tradition: by Catherine A. Robinson
  2. The Bhagavad Gita and the West: The Esoteric Significance of the Bhagavad-Gita by Rudolf Steiner
  3. Exploring the Bhagavad Gitā: Philosophy, Structure, and Meaning by Ithamar Theodor
  4. The Bhagavad Gita: A Text and Commentary for Students by Jeaneane D. Fowler
  5. Fighting Words: Religion, Violence, and the Interpretation of Sacred Texts by John Renard
  6. The Failure of Allegory: Notes on Textual Violence and the Bhagavad Gita by Laurie L. Patton
  7. A Comparative Study of the Commentaries on The Bhagavadgītā by T. G. Mainkar
  8. Bhagavad-Gita in Mahabharata Translated and Edited by J. A. B. van Buitenen
  9. My Gitaby Devdutt Pattanaik
  10. The Bhagavad-Gita and modern thought introduction by Shruti Kapila and Faisal Devji
  11. The quest for objective truth – Modern Indian Interpreters of the Bhagavad Gita Edited by Robert Neil Minor
  12. Who Wrote Bhagavad-Gita by Meghnad Desai
  13. Da’ud ibn Tamam ibn Ibrahim al-Shawn – The Bhagavad Gita interpreted – Edited by Daud Shawni
  14. A History of Indian Philosophy, Volume 2 by Dr. Surendranath Dasgupta
  15. A Companion to Translation Studies edited by Sandra Bermann, Catherine Porter
  16. The “Bhagavad Gita”: A Biography By Richard H. Davis 
  17. ALL PICTURES ARE TAKEN FROM INTERNET 

 

 
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Bhagavad-Gita Multiple interpretations- Part Two

Continued From Part One

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As mentioned in the prior part of this article, the Bhagavad-Gita is a many splendored marvel. It could be read and understood in any number of ways. And yet; according to TG Mainkar: ‘no single commentator has been absolutely faithful to the Gita’. The scholarly opinion is that each commentator seemed to have been keen on championing his preferred view of the text. And, in that process he subordinated certain verses of the text to the verses of his choice.

It is said in the ancient days; Bodhayana, the Vrittikara (the commentator – around the early centuries of the Common Era) had accepted the plurality of the text of the Bhagavad-Gita; and, did not uphold a single view above all the other plausible meanings/interpretations. He is said to have preached the doctrine of ‘Jñāna-Karma-Samuccaya’ – the doctrine that synthesizes Jnana and Karma.

The Brahma Sutras the highly condensed summary of the Upanishads   are open to multiple interpretations; and, each interpretation is valid in its own context. And, in a similar manner, the Bhagavad-Gita which also is considered to teach the essence of the Upanishads is amenable to varied interpretations. The pluralism of the interpretive approaches to Gita is truly interesting.

The Acharyas

The early commentators of the Gita belonged to certain specific Schools of philosophy or traditions.  And, their view of the Gita and its interpretations depended upon the concept of the Supreme reality, the individual and the world; and the nature of relationship between these entities espoused by his School.

In the classical commentaries (Bhashya) produced by the Revered Acharyas, the interpretations and the related discussions were mainly in terms of the triad themes of: Jnana, Karma and Bhakthi. The paths (Yoga) associated with each of these    held the complete attention of the commentator.

 Each of the Acharyas insisted on providing a particular, single-pointed interpretation (Bhashya) to the text, championing the  principal philosophical precept of his School of thought; sidelining the other plausible interpretations ; and, subordinating the rest of the text to his chosen verses .

 Sri Sankara

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For instance; Sri Sankara (Ca.8th century) in his commentary on the Bhagavad-Gita argued that the prime or sole point of dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna was jnana marga (the path of knowledge) and giving up the path of action (karma marga).

He focused particularly on the verse 4.33: Son of Pritha all action is fully contained in knowledge; the Yajna of knowledge is better than Yajna of action, scorcher of enemy.

श्रेयान्द्रव्यमयाद्यज्ञाज्ज्ञानयज्ञ: परन्तप |

सर्वंकर्माखिलंपार्थज्ञानेपरिसमाप्यते || 33||

Śhreyān dravya-mayād yajñāj jñāna-yajña parantapa

Sarva karmākhila pārtha jñāne parisamāpyate

 BG 4.33: O subduer of enemies, sacrifice performed in knowledge is superior to any mechanical material sacrifice. After all, O Partha, all sacrifices of work culminate in knowledge.

 Sri Sankara saw the true object of knowledge as Brahman

 For Sri Sankara, the attributes of Krishna, so wonderfully discussed in Chapters 10 and 11 represent the relative aspects; and, not the all-encompassing Absolute reality, the Brahman.

In Sri Sankara’s view, any verse of the Gita that did not engage in pursuit of Jnana was secondary to other verses that did. Such verses are, at best, incidental (prasangika) discussing worldly matters (laukika nyaya); but, not directly engaged in pursuit of Jnana, the knowledge of self, which is the main intent of the Gita.

The other commentators, of course, disagreed with Sri Sankara’s view of the God and the Universe. They staunchly believed that the personified Brahman (Isvara) was real; and , could be attained and experienced in that form.

Sri Ramanuja

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Sri Ramanuja argued that the intent and the message of Gita was not what Sri Sankara had supposed. He advocated the path of devotion (Bhakthi marga), which was rather more important than the path of knowledge. For him, the Bhakthi Yoga, the path of devotion, as detailed in chapters 12 and 18 that sing the glory of the God in his all encompassing magnificent splendor are indeed the true force and intent behind the teachings of the Gita. Krishna’s display of his most wonderful Universal form (Vishwa rupa) represented the true manifestation and the transformative reality of the God. Sri Ramanuja saw particularly the later chapters as being crucial to its central meaning of the Gita : Son of Bharatha go with your whole being , to that One alone ; and from that Grace you will reach the eternal dwelling place (BG : 18.32).

 अधर्मंधर्ममितियामन्यतेतमसावृता |

सर्वार्थान्विपरीतांश्चबुद्धि: सापार्थतामसी || 32||

 Adharma dharmam iti yā manyate tamasāvitā

Sarvārthān viparītānśh cha buddhi sā pārtha tāmasī

BG 18.32: That intellect which is shrouded in darkness, imagining irreligion to be religion, and perceiving untruth to be the truth, is of the nature of ignorance.

According to Sri Ramanuja, Krishna’s exhortation to Arjuna in verses 2.37-38 ( highlighted by Sri Sankara ) , is not a way of dispelling fear as Sri Sankara claimed ; but,  it is  merely a way of arguing that Atman is real.

Sri Madhva

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Sri Madhva  (late twelfth century ) who argued that one should maintain strict dualism between God and the world, held the view that both the path of devotion and the path of knowledge were central to the teaching of the Gita; and that one should not put one above the other.

According to him, the relation between the Lord and the created world is not one of absolute realty and mere illusion. It was rather more like relation between a man who does not need a stick to walk, but still uses it rather playfully. Following that , one of the central verses in the Gita , for his school , was the verse 9.8 : Born up by my own material nature (prakrti ) , again and again , I send out by the power of material (prakrti) , this whole collection of beings which is , in itself , powerless.

 सर्वभूतानिकौन्तेयप्रकृतिंयान्तिमामिकाम् |

कल्पक्षयेपुनस्तानिकल्पादौविसृजाम्यहम् || 7||

प्रकृतिंस्वामवष्टभ्यविसृजामिपुन: पुन: |

भूतग्राममिमंकृत्स्नमवशंप्रकृतेर्वशात् || 8||

 Sarva-bhūtāni kaunteya prakiti yānti māmikām

Kalpa-khaye punas tāni kalpādau visijāmyaham

Prakiti svām avahabhya visijāmi puna puna

Bhūta-grāmam ima kitsnam avaśha prakiter vaśhāt

 BG 9.7–9.8: At the end of one kalpa, all living beings merge into my primordial material energy. At the beginning of the next creation, O son of Kunti, I manifest them again. Presiding over my material energy, I generate these myriad forms again and again, in accordance with the force of their natures.

According to this school himsa or violence necessary for Arjuna is a part of the reality of the world, the stick that one must use to walk.

Abhinavagupta

abhinavagupta

Abhinavagupta (Ca. 11th century), the great light of Kashmiri Shaivism, developed a mystical allegorical approach to Gita. He said that he intended to bring to light the hidden or esoteric meaning of the Gita. According to his commentary (Gitartha-samgraha – the summary of the true meaning of the Bhagavad-Gita), knowledge and action, essentially, are not different. The framework of his approach is – jnana-karma-samucchaya – the reconciliation of the paths of knowledge and action. Abhinavagupta advises that while knowledge is important, action should not be sidelined. The two are equally important; as both emanate from consciousness (ज्ञानक्रियामयत्वात् संवित्तत्वस्य).  It is essential that involvement in action does not bind one to the mundane (कर्मणां ज्ञाननिष्ठतया क्रियमाणानामपि    बन्धकत्वम्).

 The jnana, bhakthi (devotion) and karma also called vijnana. Actions are modified and transformed by knowledge, so that they are no longer necessary.

According to Kashmiri Shaivism, the highest reality is the light (Prakasha) of pure consciousness; and it is manifested through Vimarsha. In the process of expansion of consciousness (creation), Vimarsha gives rise to powers of Iccha (will), Jana (knowledge) and Kriya (action). It maintains that the activity (Kriya) of Shiva is his very nature; and, is the result of his absolute freedom (Svatantra-shakthi).   It asserted that Universe is real and is not an illusion.

As Abhinavagupta puts it:    actions flee before knowledge of Brahman like gazelles in the forest when the lion roars.

He found the verse 6.31 of the Gita very apt for liking: the follower of the Yoga who resorts to Me as One who abides in all beings, abiding in oneness existing in all ways, that one dwells in Me.

 सर्वभूतस्थितंयोमांभजत्येकत्वमास्थित: |

सर्वथावर्तमानोऽपिसयोगीमयिवर्तते || 31||

 Sarva-bhūta-sthita yo mā bhajatyekatvam āsthita

Sarvathā vartamāno ’pi sa yogī mayi vartate

G 6.31: the yogi who is established in union with me, and worships me as the Supreme Soul residing in all beings, dwells only in me, though engaged in all kinds of activities.

For Abhinavagupta, even as God the Supreme consciousness is non-dual, its opposite the illusion Maya, is not negative, as Sri Sankara implied, but is also the free play of consciousness.

Abhinavagupta visualizes the battle between Pandavas and the Kauravas as the conflict between knowledge and ignorance. And, through that he understands the related dualism of the body and spirit; passion and equanimity. Here, the Kauravas stand for ignorance and the Pandavas stand for knowledge. Arjuna’s battle has thus to be seen as the fight for knowledge, resulting in the free play of consciousness. Thus, all the verses, including 2.37-38, are interpreted in the light of this extended metaphor. One must cultivate the patience, energy and courage in this larger spiritual process whereby ignorance is eliminated.

Santa Jnanesvar

Jnaneswar2.jpg

The Jnaneshwari (Bhavarth Deepika) is one among the most celebrated commentaries on the Bhagavad-Gita. It was composed by Santa Jnanesvar or Jnanadeva (1274-1297) the boy saint – poet – philosopher- Yogi of Maharashtra belonging to the Natha tradition of Siddhas.  He composed this magnificent work while he was a lad of thirteen years. Jnaneshwari is revered as crest jewel of Marathi literature.

Jnanadeva compared the Gita to Chintamani – the legendary multifaceted wish-granting-gem. He considered Bhagavad-Gita under three broad divisions. The first three chapters of the Gita, according to him, relate to karma-yoga; the next eight chapters (from four to eleven) are devoted to Bhakthi-marga combined with action (karma); and the third segment of the Gita (from chapters twelve to fifteen) describes the Jnana marga.

Jnanadeva considers that Bhagavad-Gita, proper, per se, ends at the fifteenth chapter.  The chapter sixteen, he says, merely points out the qualities that help or hinder the path of knowledge. The last two chapters (seventeen and eighteen) are incidental, clearing some doubts raised by Arjuna. Besides providing such clarifications, the last chapter serves also as the pinnacle of the Gita –text- structure (Kalasha-adhyaya).

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The narrative presentation of the Jnaneshwari is quite dramatic. Here, Jnanadeva seated on the south bank of the Godavari River, with his Guru, Nivrittinatha, talks about the Bhagavad Gita. Jnanadeva addresses his immediate audience, and the audience listens attentively. And, a scribe named Sacchittananda writes down the whole conversation.

In his oral discourse, Jnanadeva assumes the voices of all the characters of the Gita: Sanjaya, Dhritarashtra, Arjuna, and most of all Krishna. And, it is with Krishna that Jnanadeva gets totally involved. He becomes one with Krishna and speaks in his voice.  The Krishna of the Jnaneshwari is an Eternal and Universal Being living in the past, present and future; ever active and communicating with the world. Here, in Jnaneshwari, Krishna comments and explains, employing delightful metaphors and analogies, on concepts, ideas and practices that were not mentioned in the Bhagavad-Gita. For instance; Jnanadeva speaks of the virtues of Nama-japa ceaselessly repeating (chanting) of the holy name of the Lord, with faith and devotion; and, he also brings in the yogic discipline of the Natha School of the Siddhas explaining the processes of awakening the Kundalini within the subtle body.

 And, Bhagavad-Gita for Jnanadeva is a living and a vibrant text that is relevant for all times, reinventing itself all the time.

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Jnanadeva was basically an Advaita-vadin [though he sharply differed from Sri Sankara on his concepts of Ajnana (ignorance) and Maya]. Janadeva was in some ways, closer to Abhinavagupta. 

According to Jnanadeva, Reality is beyond relative knowledge and ignorance.   He adopts the theory of Chid- vilasa which maintains that the universe is the expression of the Absolute Reality. He asserts that though the Absolute Reality is beyond being (sat) and non-being (a-sat) it has its own glory.  It surely is not void. While addressing the Supreme Self, Jnanadeva employs such terms as omnipresent (vishwarupa), having the form of the universe (vishvakara), and soul of the universe (vishvatman), Lord of the universe (vishwesha), existing in all forms (vishuamurti) and the one who pervades of the universe (vishvavyapaka)

Jnanadeva asserted that the true knowledge consists in realizing Supreme Self in the non-dual form; and, that devotion should culminate in Advaita Bhakti. He taught that the path of loving and guileless devotion (Akritrim Bhakthi) and self-less action as  the  way to attain that goal. He said that everyone should perform his duty lovingly as a Yajna and offer his or her actions as flowers at the feet of the Lord.

Infinite Love of God is the central reality (Chid-vilasa) of which His power and wisdom are but aspects. According to Jnanadeva; it is through such Bhakthi and Bhakthi alone that the Supreme Reality can be realized. In the ultimate, the devotee merges with his God; but, yet remains distinct.  He emphasizes Upasana (service) and Bhakthi (loving-devotion) not merging with the Absolute while not losing one’s identity.

The Jnaneshwari which advocates the path of Bhakthi provides the philosophical basis for the Bhakthi sect which flourished in Maharashtra. It is worshipped as one of the three sacred books (i.e.the Prasthanatrai of Bhagawata Dharma) along with Eknathi Bhagawata and  Tukaram Gaathaa.

navamallika

 Colonial period

In 1785, the Gita became the first Sanskrit work to be translated into English; and, it provoked widespread excitement among English Orientalists, German Romantics, and American Transcendentalists. By about 1890, the Gita was accessible to average European and American; and, it came to be regarded as India’s national or spiritual symbol.

Following its translations into European languages, during the 18th century, the Gita gained a sort of territorial transcendence, spreading its influence beyond Asia. The Bhagavad-Gita captured the attention of the western scholars, intellectuals as also that of the general-readers. That not merely widened the extent of its readership but also lent it the scope for providing varied interpretations.

Apart from its mythological, historical and linguistic interpretations, the Gita came to be regarded as a text of universal relevance having an allegorical construction, which uses symbols and metaphors to put across hidden truths of spiritual significance.

In its extended life, the Bhagavad-Gita was enriched with new meanings and new relevance in new settings. Different aspects of the work came to the fore.   The new hearers and new readers found in it ways the answers to their varied concerns.

Thereafter, the discussions about Bhagavad-Gita were no longer limited to the classical terms of Advaita – Dvaita. The commentaries based solely in such theological doctrines, somehow, became rather rare.

In the next phase of its unfolding, the Gita was discussed in terms of   Jnana-Karma-Bhakti Yoga. That was before it slid into the uncomfortable question of the relevance of violence in dealing with the problems of existence.

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Yoga-s

The commentaries of the eighteenth and nineteenth century asserted that the Gita does not seem to favour renunciation or total withdrawal from the world resulting in inactivity, nivritti. Instead, it was said, the Gita teaches Jnana that endorses renunciation of desires, of fruits of action. It advocates activity pravritti the opposite of renunciation of action.

 The general drift of the explanations was:

The term Yoga used in the Gita is not confined to mean a discipline as developed by Patanjali. Yet, it includes some refined processes that pre-date Patanjali.  Yoga is used in Gita in a variety of senses. It might mean a deliberate process; the instrument chosen by a person committed to it; or, the prospect of one’s goal. The text calls itself Yoga-shastra – the science and knowledge of Yoga .The term Yoga is the path or marga; be it the path of knowledge (Jnana-yoga), devotion (Bhakthi-yoga) or the path of action (Karma-yoga). In all these paths the essential message of renouncing the fruits of action is stressed. The Gita does not explicitly support one Yoga over the other. It rather extols one Yoga then another or a combination of Yogas. It is understood as a many-sided system with various elements harmonized.

Just as the Bhakthi-marga, the Karma-marga too involves Jnana (wisdom, knowledge) in order to acquire the right perspective of what the action should be. Karma-yoga takes the view that it is impossible to totally avoid action in any manner, simply because we are a living organization.

Karma-yoga that Gita talks about , basically, has two dimensions: action without attachment; and, action without desire or attachment for results. Gita terms it as ‘inaction in action and action in inaction’ (4.18).

Karma-yoga of Gita is not opposed to Jnana, but does not approve of Jnana that breeds inaction.  It reconciles Jnana, action and complete inaction. It is essentially the desireless-action, nish-kama-karma (which term was not used in Gita, but coined in later times)

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Moksha

Chapter 12 of the Gita is devoted to Bhakthi. It does not say that the path of Jnana is inferior; but, merely points out that it is more difficult (12.5). The Bhakthi here is supreme love, of surrender, trust and adoration. It is assisted by knowledge. But, there is a dual relation between the devotee and the object of his/her devotion, even after liberation (Moksha) is achieved.

Moksha, generally, is liberation from the coils of the world and the release from cycle of births. The Moksha is not something that can be reached or acquired, because the individual (Atman) is already free. It is merely the realization of one’s essential true nature and experiencing it.

The differences among the various Schools of Indian Philosophy all stem from ways or paths for attaining such realization: whether it is by Jnana, Bhakthi, Yoga or Karma. The Gita attempts to synthesize all such diverse paths; and says, the liberation need not be brought about by one single path; but, it could be arrived at by their harmonious combination or even independent of such ‘paths’. But, it is essential to give up frits of action; but, not actions per se.

The liberated one is characterized by ‘equanimity, balance and steadfastness of judgment; clarity of vision; seeing One in all; independence of external limitations; and utter joy in self’. The liberated self rises above sense of pain and pleasure and all such pairs of opposites with equanimity, and acts without motives of gain or reward. 

The principle of desireless-action was taken up by many social reformers, including Swami Vivekananda, in the nineteenth and twentieth century India. The message of the Gita came to be regarded as practical Vedanta or Vedanta in practice.

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Comprehensive treatment of the Gita

Of all the translations and interpretations of the Gita that I have come across, I find Dr. D V Gundappa’s Srimad Bhagavad Geeta Tatparya or Jeevana Dharma Yoga; and Acharya Vinoba Bhave’ s Talks on Gita or (Gita-Pravachan) as among the best , taking a comprehensive view of the text and its relevance to day-to-day life .

:- Dr. D V Gundappa steers clear of sectarian interpretations; and, attempts to bring out the relevance of the Gita to the common man in his everyday life.  He talks about the values in life; and the Dharma which can guide, comfort, sustain and strengthen the individual. According to Dr. Gundappa, the Gita deals with the challenges that both the individual and the society have to contend with in their meaningful existence; and provides the way in the maze of actual life.

: – Vinoba Bhave’s Talks on Gita or (Gita-Pravachan) is a lucid and logical interpretation of the Gita.  Its narration is simple and direct. He asserts:  the Gita is a scripture intended for ordinary men, living their daily lives in the world. The Bhagavad Gita is for the whole world. Its Paramartha, the higher knowledge, teaches us how by keeping our lives pure, we can attain equilibrium and peace of mind. The Gita tells us how our lives can be kept pure. It comes to your help in whatever you are doing , and particularly during the conflicts in your life.

He interprets Gita as a gospel for self-less action (A-karma) In the introduction to the Book, Vinoba wrote:  ‘When I was studying the meaning of the Gita, it took me several years to absorb the fifth chapter. I consider that chapter to be the key to the whole book, and the key to that chapter is in the Eighteenth verse of the Fourth chapter: ‘inaction in action, and action in inaction’. The meaning of those words, as it revealed itself to me, casts its shadow over the whole of my Talks on the Gita’.

कर्मण्यकर्म : पश्येदकर्मणि कर्म : |
बुद्धिमान्मनुष्येषु युक्त: कृत्स्नकर्मकृत् || 18||

 karmayakarma ya paśhyed akarmai cha karma ya
sa buddhimān manu
hyehu sa yukta kitsna-karma-kit

 Those who see action in inaction and inaction in action are truly wise amongst humans. Although performing all kinds of actions, they are yogis and masters of all their actions.

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Father Thomas Merton

Father Thomas Merton (1915-1968) was a Roman Catholic monk and mystic of the of the Abbey of Gethsemane, Kentucky. He wrote avidly about peace and justice during the 1960s. Thomas Merton also wrote about the Gita. The introduction he wrote for the ISKON edition of the Bhagavad-Gita (1968) is worth quoting for his understanding, guided his own mystical experiences. Here is a brief extract:

 The Gita sees that the basic problem of man is his endemic refusal to live by a will other than his own. For surviving to live entirely by one’s own individual will, instead of becoming free, man is enslaved by forces even more exterior and more delusionary than his own transient fancies. He projects himself out of the present into the future. He tries to make for himself a future that accords with his own fantasy; and, thereby escape from a present reality which he does not fully accept.

And yet, when he moves into the future he wanted to create for himself, it becomes a present that is once again repugnant to him . And yet, this is what he had ‘made; for himself – it is his Karma.

It is in surrendering a false and illusory liberty on the superficial level that man unites himself with the inner ground of reality and freedom in himself which is the will of God, of Krishna , of Providence , of Tao .These concepts do not all coincide  exactly ; but they have much in common.

It is remaining open to an infinite number of unexpected possibilities which transcend has his own imagination and capacity to plan that man really fulfils his own need for freedom’

[Source: The Bhagavad Gita and the West: The Esoteric Significance of the Bhagavad-Gita by Rudolf Steiner]

 

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In the next part of this article, let us talk about the translations of the Gita and their varied influences.

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Continued in Part Three

References and sources

  1. Interpretations of the Bhagavad-Gita and Images of the Hindu Tradition: by Catherine A. Robinson
  2. The Bhagavad Gita and the West: The Esoteric Significance of the Bhagavad-Gita by Rudolf Steiner
  3. Exploring the Bhagavad Gitā: Philosophy, Structure, and Meaning by Ithamar Theodor
  4. The Bhagavad Gita: A Text and Commentary for Students by Jeaneane D. Fowler
  5. Fighting Words: Religion, Violence, and the Interpretation of Sacred Texts by John Renard
  6. The Failure of Allegory: Notes on Textual Violence and the Bhagavad Gita by Laurie L. Patton
  7. A Comparative Study of the Commentaries on The Bhagavadgītā by T. G. Mainkar
  8. Bhagavad-Gita in Mahabharata Translated and Edited by J. A. B. van Buitenen
  9. My Gitaby Devdutt Pattanaik
  10. The Bhagavad-Gita and modern thought introduction by Shruti Kapila and Faisal Devji
  1. The quest for objective truth – Modern Indian Interpreters of the Bhagavad Gita Edited by Robert Neil Minor
  2. Who Wrote Bhagavad-Gita by Meghnad Desai
  3. Da’ud ibn Tamam ibn Ibrahim al-Shawn – The Bhagavad Gita interpreted – Edited by Daud Shawni
  4. A History of Indian Philosophy, Volume 2 by Dr. Surendranath Dasgupta

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Bhagavad-Gita Multiple interpretations- Part One

 

bhagavad-gita-nishkama-karma

Bhagavad-Gita, by all accounts, is rather an unusual text.

Bhagavad-Gita, is revered as one among the exalted triad of the fundamental philosophical texts (Prasthana traya) of the Sanatana Dharma; the other two being the principal Upanishads and the Brahma Sutra which is the condensed essence of Upanishads . The Gita is accorded the position of Sadhana Prasthana (practical text); and, is regarded as the starting point of remembered tradition the Smriti Prasthāna.

[Sruti is the directly perceived truth, hence more authoritative. Smriti is the heard or meditated upon tradition that follows the Sruti.]

: – And yet; the Bhagavad-Gita is located within the Mahabharata, an Epic which is classified as Ithihasa, a narration of the past events. The Gita is conceived and developed as a solution to the climax of a Dharmic dilemma that emerges during the course of the Epic. As van Buitenen said; it was not an independent text that somehow wandered into the epic.  Mahabharata as Ithihasa is classified as Smriti, while the Bhagavad-Gita imbedded within it is assigned a superior and an exclusive position of a Sruti, though it deviates, in some respects, from the traditional Sruti format.

[However, the famous philosopher Dr. Surendranath Dasgupta in his monumental History of Indian philosophy makes an interesting observation. In the Rig Veda, he observes, Vishnu is called as Gopa, Sipivishta, Urukrama, etc., but not as Narayana. Then he goes on to say, similarly, Bhagavad Gita does not use the term Narayana; but, the Mahabharata identifies Narayana with Vishnu. This, according to him, could show that Bhagavad Gita was composed much before Mahabharata tale was reduced to writing. He opines, Bhagavad Gita was composed when Narayana was yet to be equated with Vishnu.

In contrast to that, Eknath Easwaran asserts that the Gita was composed much later under the realities of a new age. It ‘is not an integral part of the Mahabharata. It is essentially an Upanishad, and my conjecture is that it was set down by an inspired seer and inserted into the epic (later).’]

: – Though Bhagavad-Gita appears as a part of the Mahabharata, it is studied and commented upon as an independent text, complete in itself. All the Acharyas who wrote Bhashya-s (commentary) on the Gita regarded it as a Sruti; and a source text of valid knowledge.  It was even considered as the fifth Veda (Panchama Veda); and, cited as a Pramana (a text of undisputed authority) on a range of questions.

: – The conversation (Samvada) that takes place in the Gita is not very lengthy, not exceeding 700 verses; and yet, it caused thousands of commentaries over the centuries.

[The Gita of about 700 verses appears in the third section of the Sixth Parva – the Bhishma Parva spread over 117 Chapters – ‘A little shrine within a vast temple’.]

:-  Gita regards the Absolute Reality  as Brahman to which nothing can be attributed ; as well as Saguna Brahman , a divinity with most adorable qualities; and also as an ideal human being in the form of Krishna, the manifest Brahman. Gita refers to all the three forms without contradictions. They all are viewed as the different aspects of the One or THAT which is beyond –Tat Param

[Gita does not mention the term Avatar at all. Perhaps the concept of Avatar was then yet to be evolved. But, the seeds of an idea of a God who descends and takes forms on earth are present- sambhavami  yuge-yuge.]

: – As a philosophical text, Bhagavad-Gita is a part of the basic source-book of the Vedanta which speaks in terms of Brahman, the Absolute, infinite and eternal. But as a religious Book, it could even be reckoned as a Vaishnava text, since it regards Vishnu (Krishna) as the Supreme Lord of the Universe. And, it is closely associated with the Srimad-Bhagavata and related traditions of Vaishnava doctrine. Thus, Bhagavad-Gita is not only the revelation by Krishna, but also the revelation of Krishna as the Supreme Being.

 [However , the scholars of the Kashmir Shaiva School, such as Rajanak Ramkanth (Sarvatobhadra – 850 AD); Bhatta Bhaskara (Bhagavad-Gita Tika – 900 AD); and, Abhinavgupta (Bhagavadgitarth Samgraha – 950 to 1050AD) interpreted Bhagavad-Gita from the Shaiva point of view and regard it as the one among the Shaiva-Agama class of texts.]

: – At another level, the Gita could even be seen as a personal god in conversation with a human being. The involvement of a divine being (as an inspiring leader) on an earthly battlefield and asking the warrior to carry on the fight is truly interesting. It, somehow, seems to mark the limits of the human; and , to point to the nature of war, prompted by god, as an avoidable necessity for restoration of moral order (Dharma) on the earth.

This view, needless to say, is highly debatable.

[The Samkhya concept of the Purusha and Parakrti; the passive and the active; the   inspirer and the doer, runs throughout the Indian texts in one form or the other.  The Nara-Narayana is the classic model of this concept. Here too, Krishna (Narayana) does not fight; but, motivates Arjuna (Nara) the warrior to carry on the fight. Krishna is the awakener (the Sun).]

:-  The  religion , which for whatever reasons,  is known as ‘Hinduism’ does not have a Book  per se;   but therein , the Gita has come to be recognized as a Holy Book upon which one swears to ’tell the truth , the whole truth and nothing but truth’.

: – Further, while the other ancient Indian texts are gradually fading out of the discussions among the common people, the Bhagavad-Gita and its ‘message’ is still being debated, with some fervor . And, no other Sanskrit work approaches the Bhagavad-Gita in the influence it has exerted in the West as the chief philosophical statement of Hinduism.

: – The narrative structure of the Gita is rather peculiar, as the scholar Devdutt Pattanaik points out in his My Gita:

dritharastra-sanjayaWe never actually hear what Krishna told Arjuna. We simply overhear what Sanjaya transmitted faithfully to the blind king Dhritarashtra in the comforts of the palace, having witnessed all that occurred on the distant battlefield, thanks to his telepathic sight. The Gita we overhear is essentially that which is narrated by a man with no authority but with a distant sight (Sanjaya) to a man with no sight but with full authority (Dhritarashtra). This peculiar structure of the narrative draws attention to the vast gap between what is told and what is heard.

Krishna and Sanjaya may speak exactly the same words, but while Krishna knows what he is talking about, Sanjaya does not. Krishna is the source, while Sanjaya is merely a transmitter. Likewise, what Sanjaya hears is different from what Arjuna hears and what Dhritarashtra hears.

Sanjaya hears the words, but does not bother with the meaning. Arjuna is a seeker and so he de-codes what he hears in order to find a solution to his problem. Arjuna, during the ‘conversation’, asks many questions and clarifications’, to ensure that the he properly understands the purport of the ‘discourse’.

 In contrast, Dhritarashtra remains silent throughout. In fact, Dhritarashtra is not interested in what Krishna has to say; but is rather fearful of what Krishna might do to his children, the Kauravas.

: – As regards the treatment of its subjects, the Bhagavad-Gita describes itself as the essence of all the Upanishads. The Upanishads by their very nature are philosophical speculations transcending the physical world. The Gita on the other hand teaches about living a worthwhile, meaningful life in the world among fellow beings – Jivana- Dharma – Yoga.

:- Further, the Upanishads which aspire to understand the essential nature of all things in the Universe and in the individual, as also the relation between the two , emphasize the superiority of knowledge (Jnana) over action (karma). In the Gita, Krishna on the other hand, asks Arjuna to follow the path of action and to act decisively. The confused Arjuna, naturally, queries Krishna for a clear direction: ’Oh, Janardhana, if you consider Knowledge (Jnana) to be superior to action, why then do you instruct me to perform this terrible act?’   (BG.  3. 1 – 2).

The Gita does not seem to favor renunciation or total withdrawal from the world resulting in inactivity, nivritti. Instead the Gita teaches a sort of Jnana that endorses renunciation of desires, of fruits of action. It advocates activity pravritti with the renunciation of the fruits of action. Gita terms it as ‘inaction in action and action in inaction’ (4.18). That is, performing acts according to ones calling, with equanimity; and, relinquishing the fruits of one’s actions.

anaashrita karma phalam kaaryam karma karoti yah
sa sannyaasi ca yogi ca na niragnir na ca akriyaha

One who does not depend on the fruits of action but does the work which is his duty. He is a sanyaasi and also a yogi, not the one who has renounced fire (rituals) and not one who (merely) does nothing (Bg. 6.1)

yoga yukto vishuddhaatmaa vijitaatmaa jitenriyaha
sarva bhutaatma bhutaatmaa kurvan api na lipyate

He who  by following Yoga, has purified the mind; has controlled the mind;  has controlled the senses; sees his own Self in all beings; and, does not get tainted even if he does work (Bg. 5.7)

 [Krishna, of course, succeeds in reconciling the deep chasm between the two paths or approaches (Jnana and karma) by introducing the unique concept of internal renunciation, as opposed to external renunciation.

By reconciling otherwise two contradictory ideas, Krishna offers a realistic system which intertwines performance of one’s responsibilities in life without getting too attached to it. It cautions that an un-restrained desire for the fruits of one’s action, more often than not, leads to major blunders in decision making, both in personal and social life.

In this way, the Bhagavad-Gita adheres to both the ideals. It supports involvement in the performance of one’s social and moral responsibilities according to ones Dharma in life; and, at the same time it endorses the Upanishad ideal of self-realization which leads to liberation from confines of relative existence.  ]

lotus-design

Manifold paths

The Gita begins with a response to Arjuna entering a state of despondency just at the time when he was required to perform. This is the initial problem of the Gita. Krishna’s teaching will, in later stages, cover several other paths or approaches to life; but, the initial focus is on the problem of action, with Karma Yoga as the solution. It is self-less performance with equanimity; equal acceptance of pleasure and pain; and, renouncing fruits of one’s action.

Jnana Yoga is the discipline of knowledge of Self; recognizing ones true identity. It also means knowing clearly; realizing one’s own divinity; and, also seeing the divine in human and the earthly.

The first-half of the Gita essentially teaches a combination of Karma-yoga and Jnana-yoga – to act selflessly with true knowledge of the reality. Here, Equanimity serves as a foundation standing upon which one can look beyond and reach for a reality that is totally different, the Absolute.

Though the wise one fights battles, he does it with composure and with lack of enmity or hate or self-interest. The enemy, after all, is as much a manifestation of God as the warrior is.

The Bhakti-yoga is the path of love, complete surrender in guileless faith, and absolute devotion to the divine. It aims to experience the splendor of the divine in all its manifestations (Lila), and immerse in its delight (Ananda).

The Dhyana–yoga or Raja-yoga, the Royal way, is the discipline of meditation, withdrawing the senses, calming the mind and clearing it of confusions and other delusions. It seems to be based in the eight-fold (Astanga) Yoga system of the Sage Patanjali, though there are no explicit references to  it; and, there are also no separate verses or chapters devoted to this discipline

Arjuna begins in bewilderment and depression; and at the end, stands up to fight his cousins with composure.

[One of the commentators observes: assuming that the Gita was an insertion into the Epic; and, given the fact that the great battle did eventually take place, the outcome of the Gita could not have been different. Arjuna had to fight, in any case.]

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Synthesis

It appears that the Bhagavad-Gita was composed during a vibrant period when growing verities of options for attaining liberation (Moksha) from confines of human limitations were hotly debated and ardently explored.

Bhagavad-Gita frequently refers to the fundamental philosophical concepts of Smakhya and Yoga Darshana-s. It is also based in many Upanishads providing verities of solutions to human predicaments, as also suggesting pointers to the understanding of the Universe, the individual and the relation that  exists between the two. The Bhagavad-Gita, in that process, draws upon many sources.

In that progression, the Bhagavad-Gita elaborates on the varied disciplines and paths of Jnana (knowledge), Karma (action), and Bhakti (devotion) as also Yoga for attainment of the highest good. The text calls itself Yoga-shastra – the science and knowledge of Yoga.   The term Yoga is used in Gita in a variety of senses. And, Yoga here also stands for Marga, the path; be it the path of knowledge (Jnana-yoga), devotion (Bhakthi-yoga) or the path of action (Karma-yoga). In all these paths, the essential message of renouncing the fruits of action is stressed. The Gita does not explicitly support one Yoga over the other. It rather extols one Yoga then another or a combination of Yogas. It is to be understood as a many-sided system with various elements harmonized.

Does not seem to favor a particular path

The discourse on those subjects, however, is not arranged in a systematic manner. The Gita gathers and combines different trains of ideas just as it finds them in traditionally accepted Schools, without much effort to harmonize them. The text does not seem to hold up a single discipline or path as its ‘true message’. And, such ambiguity in its ‘message’ or the adaptability of ‘its message’  to different Schools of Philosophy and to the circumstances in life  has led to plethora of interpretations, each claiming that it has certainly grasped the ‘true message ‘of the Bhagavad-Gita.

One can even say that the scope for deriving varied types of  interpretations becomes possible mainly because of the unique virtue of the Gita which allows each reader  to discover its essence, in his or her own manner, at his or her own pace and terms.

Deciphering its meaning and its ‘true’ philosophical intent is neither easy nor simple. Some of the greatest minds have grappled with the philosophical problems present in it.

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The ways of reading the Gita

There are several ways of reading Bhagavad-Gita. It can be read as a literary work or poetry of merit with allegorical imagery; it can be read as a part of Oriental studies; and, it can also be read as a philosophical work.

As a work of literature, its literary or poetical aspects would be discussed and the allegories would be highlighted. As a work of Indology, its historical background and linguistic aspects would be examined. Such a scrutiny would focus on the date of its composition; on speculations about its plausible author or author/s; or on the question of its relation to the context of the Mahabharata-events. 

But, it is the study and explanations of Gita’s philosophical outlook, its conceptual structure and speculations about its ‘true message’ that has given rise to diverse stand points and multiple interpretations. Such interpretations over the centuries have been so diverse and   so complicated, one wonders whether they all were referring to one and the same text.

The Gita’s adaptability to different kinds of philosophical interpretation is partly caused by the effort of its composer/s to bind within it the tenets of several philosophical schools (Darshana-s) including Samkhya, Yoga and the devotional aspects of the then emerging Bhakthi traditions. That, to an extent, injected ambiguities and incompatibilities in reading and interpreting the text.

The phenomenon of multiple interpretations of the Gita has continued over the long centuries. At different times or phases in the history, fresh interpretations of the ‘true message ‘of the Gita sprang up, each in the context of its own times, environment and preferred attitudes. Each successive interpretation of the Gita was at variance with its previous one.  And yet, what is most amazing is that each of those varied interpretations is valid in its own context.

That is to say; each commentator has diligently gone about in putting forth his honest understanding of the ‘true message’ of the Gita. Each commentary of the Gita is thus a subjective view of the text. The ‘message of the Gita’ might indeed be all of those assorted interpretations; and, even be more.

The quest for objective truth or the real truth of the Gita is still very much on, even thousands of years after it was uttered on a distant battle field, amidst two huge armies raring to go at each other.

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Quest for objective truth

The quest for objective truth – (what did Krishna say, exactly?) – is another cause for emergence of multiple interpretations and countless number of commentaries. In the zeal to uphold his own interpretation as the objective truth of the Bhagavad-Gita, each commentator, somehow, seemed to get intolerant of the ones that differed from his own. That, in a way, is rather uncharacteristic of the Indian tradition which accommodates within itself and harmonizes various seemingly contrary positions.

All the branches of Indian traditions, notably the Jain, have always tried to adopt the concept of Anekāntavāda which, essentially, is a principle that encourages acceptance of multiple or plural views on a given subject. The Buddha too said that merely judging the issue from individual (separate) stand points of view would lead to wrong conclusions; it would be prudent to approach each issue from more than one point of view (aneka-amsika).

[Devadatta Kali (David Nelson) in the introduction to his very well written work Svetasvataropanisad: the Knowledge That Liberates writes:

Although the Indian thinkers are not immune to disputation , by and large , their culture has valued the principle of accommodation and acceptance…Throughout the centuries of Indian philosophical traditions , the differing views have often been seen as just that – as differing views of a single reality that lies beyond human power of articulation. The tendency has often been to harmonize opposing views as distinct parts of a larger whole whose fullness lies well beyond the reach of mere perception or reason. It needs to be stressed that the primary purpose of sacred literature is to impart spiritual knowledge, not to fuel intellectual or sectarian debate – or to create confusion.]

The basic idea here is that the reality could be perceived differently from diverse points of view; and, that no single point of view should be taken to be the complete truth, to the exclusion of all others. The varied views could either be taken together to comprise the complete truth or as different dimensions of a single reality.

Bhagavad-Gita is a multi-layered text with many avenues for exploration.  I, therefore, reckon that an Anekāntavāda approach would be more appropriate in understanding its manifold message, rather than steam- pressing it into a particular mold.

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Is there a need to seek for the ‘objective-truth?’

That again begs the question: is there a need to seek for the ‘objective-truth’ of the Gita? Because, there is a danger that such monolithic one’s own ‘objective–truth’ might shut out the options of myriad other plausible meanings. Thus, a purely objective view, despite its merit, seems to limit itself to a particular slot.

There is, therefore, surely some merit in subjective approach to the study and understanding of the Gita. In fact, some have suggested that each could try to compose his own Gita according to her/his own understanding and inclination. As Shri Devdutt Pattanaik observes: The quest for subjective truth (how does The Gita make sense to me?) allows each (after listening to the various Gita-s around him/her) to discover one’s own Gita at his or her own pace, on his or her own terms.

The Gita itself seems to advocate subjectivity. Bhagavad-Gita in its structure and narration adopts the idea of free-will.   At the conclusion of his discourse, Krishna counsels Arjuna to reflect on what has been said, and then do as he rightly feels.

For instance; Krishna says that his teaching can be perceived directly (Pratyaksha-avagamam) according to one’s understanding (BG.9.2)

And again, in Chapter 12 of the Gita, Krishna counsels:

Fix your mind on me alone, and absorb your consciousness in me; thus you shall surely abide in me. If you cannot fix your consciousness steadily upon me, then aspire to reach me through repeated yoga practice. O Dhananjaya, if you are incapable of even that, embrace the path of action, for which I am the highest goal, since by acting for me you shall attain perfection. But if you are unable to follow even that path of refuge in me through acts devoted to me, then give up the fruits of all your actions, thus restraining yourself. Knowledge is superior to practice; meditation is superior to knowledge; and, relinquishing the fruits of action is higher than meditation, as tranquility soon follows such relinquishment.

What really is the true vision or Darshana of this ancient, sacred and marvelous treatise named Bhagavad-Gita, the song celestial?

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Pluralism of the Gita

The multiple interpretations or pluralisms of approaches in understanding the Bhagavad-Gita have an extensive and illustrious history. During that long period, different aspects of the Gita came into the fore; new meanings were read into its passages; and attempts were made to adopt its ‘message’ to suit new or emerging situations.

The history of the interpretations of the Gita can broadly be considered under the following heads:

: – The Acharyas

The medieval period starting with Sri Sankara ( 8th century)  followed by  the  Bhashyas of Sri Ramanuja , Sri Madhwa and other Acharyas as also  that of Abhinavagupta analyzed and commented upon the Gita in terms of the traditional Vedanta concepts of Advaita, Visistadavaita and Davaita;   and assigned primacy either to Jnana (knowledge) or to  Bhakti ( devotion) or to Karma ( action) . Each scholar went  according to the  principal philosophical precept of his School of thought , while sidelining the other plausible interpretations .

Santa Jnanesvar or Jnanadeva (1274-1297) of Maharashtra in his celebrated rendition of the Bhagavad-Gita – Jnaneshwari (Bhavarth Deepika) – taught  the path of loving and guileless devotion (Akritrim Bhakthi) and self-less action as the true way. He said that everyone should perform his/her duty lovingly as a Yajna and offer his or her actions as flowers at the feet of the Lord. According to Jnanadeva; it is through such Bhakthi and Bhakthi alone that the Supreme Reality can be realized

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: – The Colonial period

The period starting with the middle of the 18th Century when the English, German and French translations of the Bhagavad-Gita , captured the attention of the intellectuals as also that of the general-readers, widened the range of its readership as also the scope for its varied interpretations. Initially, Bhagavad-Gita gained publicity mainly as a rare cultural object retrieved from the unknown past of the distant East; and , in particular , as ’a curious specimen of mythology and an authentic standard of the faith and religious opinions of the Hindoos’.

: – That was followed by study of the Gita as a literary work. It proved to be a major influence on Romantic literature in Europe and Britain.

: – And, to the intellectuals and philosophers in the West, the Gita provided a perceptive view of the Hindu philosophy.  Among the scholars, the linguistic study of the Sanskrit text of the Gita; the historicity of the Mahabharata event; the questions of its authenticity and its date; the enquiry into its plausible author /authors and so on were widely discussed.

:-  The Gita evoked a different sort of reaction among the Christian Missionaries , They saw in it a possibility ’ to encourage a form of monotheist ‘Unitarianism’ ; to draw Hinduism away from the polytheism  ascribed to the Vedas’;  and,  to pave  way to spread Christianity in India.

:-  As the English and French translations of the Gita began to gather attention from among the educated class of the Colonial India of the 19th Century , it led to review and re-assessment of the principles of the Hindu philosophy and the practices of its faiths . The Western educated intellectuals and social reformers such as Raja Ram Mohun Roy regarded it as the essence of all Shastrus; and. interpreted Gita as a message for self-less action.

Though the Brahmo Samaj did not seem to have got the Gita translated , Debendranath Tagore tried interpreting Gita , in the Biblical mode,  as a sort of allegory depicting  the final battle (Armageddon) between the forces of ‘good’ and ‘evil’.

: – The Western scholars

Following its translations into European languages, the Gita gained a sort of territorial transcendence, spreading its influence beyond Asia. The Gita came to be regarded by the western scholars as a universally acclaimed text.

Among the Western scholars, the Bhagavad-Gita came to be looked upon as the authentic essence of Hinduism. And, and it became the most influential work on Indian thought. The German philosopher William Von Humboldt called Gita: the most beautiful, perhaps the only true philosophical song existing in any known language –the deepest and most elevated text the world has ever seen.  He was fascinated by its concept of Dharma delineated in various layers.    Similarly, TH Griffith saw Yoga taught in the Gita as the discipline of life, giving a deep insight into the ebb and flow of human desires and aspirations. And, the German Indologist JW Huer described Gita as a ‘work of imperishable significance’ calling upon people to ‘master the riddle of life’.

Max Muller too believed ‘that textual authority of Gita should have pride of place in official knowledge about India’; but, he placed Gita next to Vedas in its authority and importance.

 

: – The Theosophists

The Theosophists recognized the Bhagavad-Gita as one of the major spiritual texts of the world.  Among the Theosophists, the allegorical approach with its esoteric and philosophical interpretations gained more importance. The historical and mythological context was kept in the background just to explain the context of the Gita. According to them, Krishna in the Gita represented Logos the objective expression of the Absolute; while Arjuna represented the Monad, Nara, the whole of mankind rather than as a single person.

They explained life as an evolutionary process in which an individual evolves from lower to higher, from grosser physical forms to subtle spiritual forms of beings. The Gita, according to Theosophists is a framework for such a progression.

Theosophists interpreted the concept of one’s duty in terms of the Sva-dharma. They presented the world as a conditioned reality similar   to a huge game in which each piece must move in accordance with the rules governing its movements in order to keep the game going.

: – Swami Vivekananda

Swami Vivekananda while in the West compared Krishna’s teachings to that of Jesus. And, while at Home   he spoke about the inner battles in human heart and mind. And he also described Krishna and Arjuna as men of action who could provide inspiration to reform and rejuvenate the Indian society that was fast degenerating into chaos and confusion. He also called for resistance against British oppression.

While laying more importance on the Gita’s larger allegorical meaning, Swami Vivekananda acknowledged the validity of historical research. But, he also said that mere discussion on   the historical aspects of the Gita cannot help one in acquisition of dharma, or moral righteousness’. The idea is: the Bhagavad-Gita is not merely a historically specific conversation; but, it is an ongoing teaching that has universal relevance. It is a process taking place all the times in each ones heart.

 He remarked:

 “One thing should be especially remembered here, that there is no connection between these historical researches and our real aim, which is the knowledge that leads to the acquirement of Dharma. Even if the historicity of the whole thing is proved to be absolutely false today, it will not in the least be any loss to us. Then what is the use of so much historical research, you may ask. It has its use, because we have to get at the truth; it will not do for us to remain bound by wrong ideas born of ignorance.”

: – The Nationalists in the Freedom movement

While the Theosophists tried to provide allegorical and esoteric interpretations of Gita as spiritual struggles, the Nationalists in the Colonial India of the 19th and early 20th century mainly from Bengal and Maharashtra saw it in quite another manner.

The freedom movement gave a great impetus to the study of Gita. Many saw it as national symbol that held within its bosom answers to the burning questions of colonial India. The Key word from the Gita taken by the nationalists was Loka-sangraha – welfare or involvement in the world. That phrase occurs only two times in the Gita (3.20, 25). Then,  there also came into use an  expression that is not found in the Gita . It gained much currency in the 20th century – Nish-Kama-karma, self-less action. Linking of these concepts with national movement for Independence and social reforms did much to bring forth Gita into popular debates. The nationalists promoted Gita as a central work of a rising Indian national ethos.

It is indeed remarkable that so many of India’s political and intellectual leaders of the last century and a half wrote detailed and extensive commentaries on the Gita. There were two broad categories of interpretations. One; as a sort of romantic allegorical  visions of the battle against forces of lower tendencies such as greed, ego, selfishness etc; and, the other, as an authentic source of state craft that prompted to reconsider the nature of politics itself . The latter, led to gathering support for reform efforts and for justifying a fight against the British rule for attaining independence.

Among the former category, Bamkim Chandra Chattopadyaya (1836-1894) provided great inspiration for the National movement, giving impetus to the concept of Motherland as the Goddess India, Mother India. He also depicted Krishna as the ideal person who exemplifies human virtues – a god-like person who was earthly wise and sublimely spiritual in his core. He projected Gita as an answer to West’s technological domination; and as India’s stand  asserting  the merits of  ancient wisdom in the face of colonial oppression.

Sri Aurobindo, who followed Bamkim Chandra, regarded Gita as an absolutely splendid revelation holding forth a Universal message.  He advised that Gita should be approached by forgetting all the religious and academic arguments that highlight or decry one Yoga (paths) or the other. The integrated vision of the Gita, he said, transcends all such limited interpretations.  He envisioned  Gita as a divine action, where the battle field (Krukshetra) is in the heart and soul of every human being. Each one of us, potentially brave, fights in his or her own way with the confronting doubts, desperation, fears and frustrations. Krishna is the one, hidden behind the veils of our psyche and mind, who reveals the mysteries of life. Sri Aurobindo stressed that in the present age it was necessary to understand the Dharma, Karma and Yogas in contemporary sense.

The more militant among the Indian nationalists projected India as the Motherland and Krishna as Avatar who rescued the nation from jaws of A-dharma and to establish Dharma. They accepted the call of the Gita for righteous struggle for national independence, even if it might require violence.  The new battlefield, according to them, was the British Raj; and , they found in Gita a strong support for engaged social and political action, the karma yoga.

Lokamanya Bal Gangaadhar Tilak, who at that time was imprisoned in Burma, presented Gita as an allegory for fighting a just war that historical circumstances had forced upon Indian nation and Indian people.

Even  while calling for a just war (Dharma-yuddha), these commentaries  did maintain a sense of composure and detachment. Just as Arjuna did not regard his warring cousins as foes, the British were also  not targeted as the ‘enemy’; not because of fear but in the interest of generating a broad theoretical principle for establishing a basis  for their political ideology and its strategy. Such an approach allowed Indian leaders to outline a political framework that would serve them well even beyond and after imperialism.

At the same time, at the ground level, there were also groups, organized or otherwise, that believed in disruptive violence as the effective means for overthrowing the alien imperialist power. 

In either case, the Gita provided a stable point of conceptual references, even while there was a range of multiple interpretations on the related issues.

: – Gandhi

Though all the nationalist leaders agreed that purposeful action was needed to attain independence, the form that such action should take, however, remained a point of heated contention. This is where the faith and the views of Mohandas Gandhi become very significant.

Gandhi called the Bhagavad-Gita his ‘dictionary of daily reference’ and his ‘Mother.’ He spoke and wrote widely on it throughout his career. Gandhi, in contrast to other major nationalist leaders, held no commitment more important than his principle of non-violence. But, he ran into a serious interpretive problem because in the course of the Gita Krishna persuades the reluctant warrior Arjuna to take part in an internecine disastrous battle.

Gandhi believed that the message of the Mahabharata itself was the virtues of non-violence; and, the Gita which was but a small segment of it carried a similar message. He wrote:

the author of the Mahabharata has not established the necessity of physical warfare; on the contrary he has proved its futility. He made the victors shed tears of sorrow and repentance; and has left them nothing but legacy of misery.

The question whether the true teaching of the Gita favors violence or non-violence became vitally important to Gandhi. He needed a clear , firm and an honest answer to anchor his faith in his struggle for India’s freedom ; to provide a principled public resistance; and, above all to ensure the authenticity of his inner spiritual life. The Gita, as he understood and practiced, was the foundation of his struggle without hatred, without passion (Nish-Kama-karma) with the attitude ‘mine is but to fight for my meaning, no matter whether I win or lose.’

And, that led Gandhi to offer a particularly distinct interpretation of the Bhagavad-Gita, where Krishna instead of asking Arjuna to fight the war, instructs him to ‘fight the battle within the self; to battle passion and selfishness’.

According to Gandhi, Gita demonstrates the futility of violence; and its true message is non-violence and peace. At the end of the Mahabharata, nearly everyone on both sides is killed. Supporting  Gandhi’s view, ‘The epic’, writes Amartya Sen, ‘ends largely as a tragedy, with a lamentation about death and carnage, and there is anguish and grief … It is hard not to see in this something of a vindication of Arjuna’s profound doubts.’

The battlefield, Gandhi argued, must be taken as an interior one, where the forces of good and evil are locked in never-ending struggle.  The Bhagavad-Gita, he said, is not about the battle that is waged on the field of dirt soaked in blood; but, it is about the ever going conflict within the human heart between the forces of good and evil.

Gandhi said; when Krishna asked to fight, he meant fighting ones lower impulses and not to cling to its rewards; to overcome any self-interested inclinations; and,  to carry out his own righteous duty. One must be equally disposed to ones enemy as to oneself.

Gandhi based his own authority as an interpreter of the Gita on his personal endeavor “to enforce the meaning in my own conduct for an unbroken period of forty years.” Gandhi also claimed that the Gita was not a Hindu work, but rather one of “pure ethics,” which a person of any faith might read and follow.

Gandhi firmly believed that complete renunciation is not possible without total observance of Ahimsa (non-violence) in every form and shape.

Gandhi said that if one has to fight, one should fight non-violently.  Thus, Violence and denial of violence became major issues for debate and action.

Gandhi’s faith in Ahimsa as the core of the Gita gave rise to Satyagraha as an effective means to express one’s protest and to offer resistance without indulging in violence. According to him, a Satyagrahi should be willing to die like a soldier (Kshatriya) for the cause of India’s independence. Satyagraha was Gandhi’s unique contribution to fight against oppression and injustice.

This was in sharp contrast to the interpretation offered by the leaders of India’s nationalist movement such as Sri Aurobindo and others to fight a just war for liberating the Motherland. In fact, during Second War Sri Aurobindo called on Indian people to support the British in its war efforts and fight along with the British against fascist Germany.

: – Aldous Huxley

Similarly, in Aldous Huxley’s famous introduction to the translation of the Gita by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood (The Song of God: Bhagavad-Gita, Hollywood: M. Rodd Co., 1944) which was published just after the end of World War II, the questions of war, violence gained special significance. Writing in the midst of a war of destruction and violence on an unprecedented scale, Huxley re-read and re-imagined the Gita in a mode which rejected the utter need to kill. He, like Gandhi, emphasized that the true message of the Gita is not violence; but, on the contrary, the futility and uselessness of violence, self-destruction; and, the harm it can bring upon whole generations.

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: – Allegorical Interpretations

Since the early periods the allegorical interpretations of the Bhagavad-Gita have been in vogue, by looking upon Kurukshetra as not a mere geographical region or historic battle.

Abhinavagupta, in his Gitartha-sangraha, a commentary on Bhagavad-Gita, refers to a tradition of interpreting Kurushetra as zone of war that takes place between the righteous and un-righteous tendencies within the human body.  According to him, Kurushetra is something more than a geographical venue where a battle took place among the cousins and their supporters.

Similar allegorical interpretations of the Gita became quite a regular feature by the turn of the nineteenth century; and it has been carried forward ever since. Such interpretations fall in to two broad categories: One, to battle against forces of lower tendencies such as greed, ego, selfishness etc; and, the other, to gather support for reform efforts and for justifying a fight against the British rule for attaining independence.

For Sri Aurobindo, ‘the physical fact of war is only an outward manifestation of a general principle of life. The war symbolizes all aspects of struggle that takes place all the time, both in our inner and outer living.. Life is a battle and a field of death; this is Kurukshetra’.

For Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Kurushetra signified Dharmakshetra, a just war against oppressive foreign rule.

Edwin Arnold too referred to Kurukshetra as human body, the field where Life disports.

Gandhi followed Arnold’s interpretation that Kurukshetra is where an eternal struggle is taking place within us.

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The present-day

In the present day, the discussions about Bhagavad-Gita in terms of Advaita – Dvaita; or Jnana-Karma-Bhakti have become very rare. The focus is now more on Gita’s stand on the question of violence; whether it advocates or shuns violence; the efficacy or the moral justification for resorting to violence as a vehicle for expressing one’s protest against the establishment.

There are a notable few who adopted the Gandhian method of Ahimsa to fight against oppression. The celebrated ones among such votaries of non-violence are:  the HH the Dalai Lama the spiritual leader of the displaced Tibetans who firmly believes that the all-embracing ‘concept’ of Ahimsa is the proper solution for any human conflict; Dr. Martin Lather King who led the civil disobedience movement against racial discrimination; and, Aung San Suu Kyi the Burmese nationalist leader who influenced by the philosophy of non-violence of the Buddha and of Gandhi chose non-violence as an expedient political tool in her struggle for democracy and human rights.

In India, we have the dauntless lady Irom Sharmila from Manipur who during August 2016 quit  her 16 long years of fast demanding repealing of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act.  We also have Anna Hazare who largely adopted non-violent protests and hunger strikes (a la Gandhi)   in his struggles to promote rural development, to increase government transparency, and to investigate and punish corruption in public life etc.  And, there is Medha Patkar, the resolute social activist and social reformer, ever engaged in various protests.  These and such other well-meaning protesters, sadly, have not met with much success.

Apart from these and few others there is hardly any who has earnestly adopted Ahimhsa in her/his struggle against injustice. The Gandhian way seems to be losing its ground in India. This seems to reflect the state of our being; the times we live in; and, the values we cherish.

Let’s take, for instance, the Indian situation.

The India of the present-day is no longer under foreign rule. It is now governed by the political parties elected by the Indian citizens. The question is:  whether one is entitled or justified for expressing dissent in a violent manner. The question was answered by a resounding YES by the Naxalite and such other militant groups. They sought to find moral justification for taking up arms by quoting Bhagavad-Gita.

A similar justification is made out by the Jihadist terrorist groups who, strangely, also quote the Gita for carrying out their violent attacks.

Even the protests involving inter state river-water disputes, social injustice etc is marked by violence and vandalism destroying public property.

: – There are also those who denounce the ‘message of the Gita’ for various reasons.

For instance:

 Mahatma Jotiba Phule (1827-1890) who was a pioneer in raising awareness of the rights of the Shudras and Ati-shudras (OBC and SC, as classified now) regarded Manu Smruti and the Gita as signs of slavery (Gulamgiri).

Dr. BR Ambedkar, in his essay, Krishna and His Gita, wrote, ‘The philosophic defense offered by the Bhagavad Gita of the Kshatriya’s duty to kill is, to say the least, puerile.’

The infamous Wendy Doniger has said: “The Bhagavad-Gita is not as nice a book as some Americans think. Throughout the Mahabharata, Krishna goads human beings into all sorts of murderous and self-destructive behaviors such as war. The Gita is a dishonest book.”

And, Meghnad Desai, economist and politician, in his Who wrote Bhagavad-Gita, declared the Gita as ‘unsuitable to modern India’ whose Constitution commits it to ‘a world of social equity and democratic freedoms. The Kurukshetra war was fought over land dispute and Krishna’s sermon to Arjuna to fulfill his caste obligation. The message of the Gita is casteist and misogynist and as such profoundly in opposition to the spirit of modern India.’

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: – The other views

There have, therefore, been many intellectuals who condemn what is presumed to be ‘the message of the Gita’.

They question:  how can a spiritual being command one to wage a war knowing well the disaster that a war would bring upon the society at large and on the women and children in particular?

As regards the question of Nishkama karma (selfless action), as the scholar Easwaran writes:

the Gita’s focus is relentlessly on the doer’s attitude while he dispenses his Dharmic duty, not on what he actually does to others and its human impact. Krishna is thus able to ask Arjuna to perform ‘all actions for my sake, completely absorbed in the Self, and without expectations, fight!’

As VR Narla put it, ‘while action without seeking some personal gain can be noble, action without any care for its evil consequences to other men [is] reprehensible, even diabolical.

In The Idea of Justice, Amartya Sen too finds this problematic: ‘Krishna argues that Arjuna must do his duty, come what may, and in this case he has a duty to fight, no matter what results from it … Why should we want only to “fare forward” and not also “fare well”?

Many wonder, how could the essential teaching of the great scripture be as simple and blatant as to favor war and violence? These wise scholars sought to encourage the readers/listeners to look beyond the obvious; to delve deep; and , to un-fathom its metaphorical allegorical message.

Such bewilderment stems essentially from anxiety, dilemma and loss of direction; but not necessarily from fear or cowardice.

*

Apart from the questions of violence and war, the Gita is of much  significance to the present-day world – a reflective person cannot act confidently without a thorough knowledge of the rightness of the motive and effect. Action and knowledge are very efficacious when combined with love or devotion.       

 [Abhinavagupta in his Bhagavadgitarth Samgraha asserts that Jana and karma are not two things.]

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The Dynamic way

Whichever way you look at it, the Gita is admirably amenable to multiple interpretations.   Its ‘real meaning’ (whatever be it) need not be restricted to either Jnana or Karma or Bhakti or even to violence or non-violence. The Gita could very well be read without imposing upon it one’s own interpretations. One needs:  to be aware of; to recognize; and, to acknowledge its various other plausible interpretations.

Laurie L .Patton in her essay: The failure of the Allegory – Notes on Textual Violence in Bhagavad Gita ( see under section titled  Beyond Allegory: Toward a Dynamic Interpretation of the Exhortation to Fight) included in the book Fighting Words: Religion, Violence, and the Interpretation of Sacred Texts edited by John Renard , speaks about a ‘dynamic way of reading ’ where one would be constantly aware of the other plausible interpretations  as one chooses a particular interpretation. She concludes her very scholarly discussion on varied interpretations of the Gita with the words:

Read in this way, one can engage many possible meanings of the Gita within the clear boundaries of the verse. However, a reader would not be obsessed with the “real” meaning, nor would she be trapped by the literal meaning or the spiritual meaning, or any other possible meaning in between.

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The Bhagavad-Gita is not an abstract theological valuable story, but is a discourse through which are woven many insights, allegories and directions which provide a broader and a meaningful vision of life. It is particularly relevant when one is placed in the very cauldron of life; facing conflicting situations; and when one is confronted with multiple choices.

 When a society enters chaos it does not usually return to its earlier status; but, will re-invent itself; and, ushers in a new society with its own moral, cultural and social references.

In the next segment of this article, let us discus in fair detail each of the above streams of the interpretations of the Bhagavad-Gita.

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Continued in Part Two

References and sources

  1. Interpretations of the Bhagavad-Gita and Images of the Hindu Tradition: by Catherine A. Robinson
  2. The Bhagavad Gita and the West: The Esoteric Significance of the Bhagavad-Gita by Rudolf Steiner
  3. Exploring the Bhagavad Gitā: Philosophy, Structure, and Meaning by Ithamar Theodor
  4. The Bhagavad Gita: A Text and Commentary for Students by Jeaneane D. Fowler
  5. Fighting Words: Religion, Violence, and the Interpretation of Sacred Texts by John Renard
  6. The Failure of Allegory: Notes on Textual Violence and the Bhagavad Gita by Laurie L. Patton
  7. A Comparative Study of the Commentaries on The Bhagavadgītā by T. G. Mainkar
  8. Bhagavad-Gita in Mahabharata Translated and Edited by J. A. B. van Buitenen
  9. My Gitaby Devdutt Pattanaik
  10. The Bhagavad-Gita and modern thought introduction by Shruti Kapila and Faisal Devji
  1. The quest for objective truth – Modern Indian Interpreters of the Bhagavad Gita Edited by Robert Neil Minor
  2. Who Wrote Bhagavad-Gita by Meghnad Desai
  3. Da’ud ibn Tamam ibn Ibrahim al-Shawn – The Bhagavad Gita interpreted – Edited by Daud Shawni
  4. A History of Indian Philosophy, Volume 2 by Dr. Surendranath Dasgupta

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Posted by on October 14, 2016 in Bhagavad-Gita, General Interest

 

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