Tag Archives: Gita according to Gandhi

Bhagavad-Gita Multiple interpretations- Part Four

Continued from Part Three


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.


[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 )]

[For more about Sir Edwin Arnold ; please read the article written by Sri K S Ramaswami Sastry , included in the book The eminent Orientalists : Indian, European and American (pages from 218 to 256) ]

Light of Asia, published by Trübner & Co, London, 1889. British Library, C.188.a.211

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’.

song celestial3

Autographed by the Author (as Edwin) on 9 June 1885

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.


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.


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.


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.

Annie Besant clipped (1847-1933)[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


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:खेसमेकृत्वालाभालाभौजयाजयौततोयुद्धाययुज्यस्वनैवंपापमवाप्स्यसि || 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’

[ Richard H. Davis the author of “The Bhagavad Gita: A Biography “: also published as a series of very well researched and candidly written articles , writes under the Section titled  : Krishna , the Gita , and the Indian Nation (in Erenow) :

In 1929 Gandhi composed an introduction to the translation, “Anasaktiyoga” (the discipline of non-attached action), which is his most succinct interpretive statement on the Gita. The introduction and translation were released on March 12, 1930, the day that Gandhi began his salt Satyagraha. Again in prison from 1930 to 1932, Gandhi wrote a series of letters to the ashram, giving a simplified chapter-by-chapter summary of Krishna’s teachings for those who found his earlier commentary difficult to comprehend. His last recorded discussion of the Gita took place with the American writer Vincent Sheean in January 1948, three days before his assassination.

In writing on the Bhagavad Gita, Gandhi does not claim any scholarly credentials for himself. His authority lies rather in his attempt to govern his life according to its precepts. “At the back of my reading,” he writes in his “Anasaktiyoga,” “there is the claim of an endeavor to enforce the meaning in my own conduct for an unbroken period of forty years.”21 Beyond this personal dimension, Gandhi’s interpretation of the Gita is a deeply political act. Writing in the 1920s, Gandhi faces several challenges. Like other activists, he views karma yoga as the most relevant teaching of the Gita. But in light of his own commitment to nonviolence (ahimsa) and his desire to make this a fundamental principle of the Indian independence movement, he needs to counter those like Tilak as well as the revolutionaries who employ Krishna’s teachings to justify the use of violence in a righteous cause. At the same time, he seeks to separate the Gita from the more Hinduist claims on the text, like those of the Hindu Sangathan or the RSS.

Gandhi’s disinterest in historical veracity lays the groundwork for an allegorical reading of the epic and the Gita. Kurukshetra, in Gandhi’s internalist reading, is within each of us. The epic battle is a struggle between dharma and its opposite, between the forces of good and evil. “Pandavas and Kauravas, that is, divine and demoniacal impulses, were fighting in this body, and God was watching the fight from a distance,” Gandhi explains. “Please do not believe that this is the history of a battle which took place on a little field near Hastinapur. The war is still going on. As a non-historical moral allegory, the Mahabharata and its Bhagavad Gita have permanent value.

Gandhi engages Tilak’s interpretation more directly over one particular passage. In Gandhi’s translation it goes: “In whatever way men resort to Me, even so do I render to them. In every way, O Partha, the path men follow is mine” (4.11). Tilak cited this verse to prove that the Gita upholds the principle of “tit for tat,” or retributive violence. We should act toward others as they do to us. The aggressive violence of British occupation, Tilak had argued, may legitimately be met with violent resistance by freedom fighters.

Gandhi counters that the verse cannot be interpreted in this way. We cannot justify retributive violence. The verse lays down God’s law, Gandhi observes, and not a directive for human interaction. Krishna will “worship a person as the latter worships Him.” As Gandhi sees it, the message of the verse is “we reap as we sow.”25

Krishna does not explicitly endorse the principle of nonviolence in the Gita, Gandhi admits. Nevertheless, nonviolence is a corollary of Krishna’s primary teaching—namely, non-attachment to the fruits of action. Any action that cannot be performed without attachment is taboo, and this means that murder, lying, dissoluteness, and the like are disallowed. Although the Gita was not written to justify nonviolence, Krishna takes it for granted. To reinforce this point, Gandhi cites his own experience. Perfect renunciation such as Krishna advocates is not possible without perfect observance of nonviolence.

The principle of non-attachment applies even to the righteous work of the freedom struggle. The danger with nationalist thinking, according to Gandhi, is that it may lead to the adoption of “bad means,” which Gandhi terms duragraha. “If we are attached to our goal of winning liberty, we shall not hesitate to adopt bad means.” Gandhi refers here to all those nationalists who justify acts of vilification or violence by citing noble goals, such as victory, prosperity, and good fortune. By contrast, Krishna recommends that we should not be attached even to a good cause. “Only then will our means remain pure and our actions, too.”26

Gandhi ends his disquisition on the Bhagavad Gita by stressing the value of Krishna’s teachings for the hard work of discipline that he urges on himself, members of his ashram, and all who read his words. He reiterates his conviction that the Gita is a work of universal ethics, not the possession of a particular national or religious community. “This is a work which persons belonging to all faiths can read. It does not favor any sectarian point of view. It teaches nothing but pure ethics.”27 The Gita may be, as Gandhi puts it, a “deity of the mind,” but it is not an exclusive “Hindu Bible.”

Gandhi’s nonviolent and nonsectarian reading of the Bhagavad Gita would prove enormously influential in India, disseminated through his newspapers, publications, and translations into all the vernacular languages. At the time, many Indians fit Gandhi himself into the theological framework of the Gita. Just as Krishna says that he incarnates himself in age after age, whenever dharma is threatened, perhaps Gandhi was the avatar of this age.28

Not all Indians shared Gandhi’s approach to the text, of course, or judged him with such reverence. Ironically, Gandhi’s assassin also saw himself as a Gita-style karma yogin. In January 1948, after Indian independence and the catastrophic communal violence surrounding the partition of the subcontinent, Gandhi began to hold daily public prayer sessions in Birla House, Delhi, reciting passages from the Gita and Quran along with religious works from other traditions. On the evening of January 30, Nathuram Godse interrupted Gandhi at the prayer grounds with two bullets fired at point-blank range.]


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 ( 1.05.08 – 40), 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. You described the war in a mighty manner . 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; and, above all , the glory and splendor of the Lord Vasudeva. That was now, it is said, Bhagavata Purana came to be composed.

yathā dharmādayaś cārthā munivaryānukīrtitāḥ, na tathā vāsudevasya mahimā
anuvarṇitah (S.B. 1.5.9)

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..!

gandhi and martin buber

[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. ]



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 / sagāt 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-vibhramaḥ / smiti-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]



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


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;


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

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

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

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


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