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 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 .
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-yajñaḥ parantapa/ Sarvaṁ karmākhilaṁ 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, in his Gita Bhashya, 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||
Adharmaṁ dharmam iti yā manyate tamasāvṛitā / Sarvārthān viparītānśh cha buddhiḥ 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 (late twelfth century) , in his Bhashya and Tatparya Nirnaya on Bhagavad-gita, argued that one should maintain strict dualism between God and the world; and, 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 prakṛitiṁ yānti māmikām / Kalpa-kṣhaye punas tāni kalpādau visṛijāmyaham
Prakṛitiṁ svām avaṣhṭabhya visṛijāmi punaḥ punaḥ / Bhūta-grāmam imaṁ kṛitsnam avaśhaṁ prakṛiter 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 (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 न 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-sthitaṁ yo māṁ bhajatyekatvam āsthitaḥ / 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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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 य: पश्येदकर्मणि च कर्म य: | स बुद्धिमान्मनुष्येषु स युक्त: कृत्स्नकर्मकृत् || 18||
karmaṇyakarma yaḥ paśhyed akarmaṇi cha karma yaḥ / sa buddhimān manuṣhyeṣhu sa yuktaḥ kṛitsna-karma-kṛit
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.
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]
In the next part of this article, let us talk about the translations of the Gita and their varied influences.
Continued in Part Three
References and sources
- Interpretations of the Bhagavad-Gita and Images of the Hindu Tradition: by Catherine A. Robinson
- The Bhagavad Gita and the West: The Esoteric Significance of the Bhagavad-Gita by Rudolf Steiner
- Exploring the Bhagavad Gitā: Philosophy, Structure, and Meaning by Ithamar Theodor
- The Bhagavad Gita: A Text and Commentary for Students by Jeaneane D. Fowler
- Fighting Words: Religion, Violence, and the Interpretation of Sacred Texts by John Renard
- The Failure of Allegory: Notes on Textual Violence and the Bhagavad Gita by Laurie L. Patton
- A Comparative Study of the Commentaries on The Bhagavadgītā by T. G. Mainkar
- Bhagavad-Gita in Mahabharata Translated and Edited by J. A. B. van Buitenen
- My Gitaby Devdutt Pattanaik
- The Bhagavad-Gita and modern thought introduction by Shruti Kapila and Faisal Devji
- The quest for objective truth – Modern Indian Interpreters of the Bhagavad Gita Edited by Robert Neil Minor
- Who Wrote Bhagavad-Gita by Meghnad Desai
- Da’ud ibn Tamam ibn Ibrahim al-Shawn – The Bhagavad Gita interpreted – Edited by Daud Shawni
- A History of Indian Philosophy, Volume 2 by Dr. Surendranath Dasgupta
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