Some people are attracted to the Gita because they think it is a religious text, others are put off by just that. Some appreciate it because it is in Sanskrit, others hate just that; they think Sanskrit is an oppressive language dominated by Brahmin culture. Some find the Gita open-minded, presenting a multiplicity of paths. Others hate just that, they find it confusing. The Gita’s politics seem two-faced—does Krishna ask Arjuna to kill the enemy, and is this the message? But Krishna also tells Arjuna, “you are your own worst enemy, you are your own best friend, you can either lift yourself up, or push yourself down.” (6.5). Is Krishna anti-egalitarian when he says the four varnas sorted by traits and tasks are issued by him, and that you should do the duty you are allocated? But can you help notice that Dronacharya, a Brahmin by birth, is on the battlefield like a Kshatriya, and also that Krishna says all devotees matter equally to him? How do we reconcile these contradictions? Do we need to?
History shows the Gita has meant different things to different people. M K Gandhi regarded the war in the Gita as an allegory: in True Meaning of Bhagvad Gita’s Teachings, he describes the battle as the “war going on in our bodies between the forces of good (Pandavas) and the forces of evil (Kauravas)”. Gandhi read the war as a struggle between dharma and adharma and the central message of the Gita as “anasakta (detachment)”. He reasoned that by following the true message of the Gita, one would be automatically non-violent. But on the November 8, 1948, Gandhi’s assassin Nathuram Godse also quoted from the Gita at the Punjab High Court deposition. Whose understanding was right? We would only ask this question if we seek a simplistic moral compass in the Gita.
The problem is not in the Gita but in our partial reading of it; our notion that it’s only a religious text; our expectation of a singular doctrine from it; and our refusal to remember its context. Peace talks having failed, war becomes the context in which the Bhagavad Gita occurs. Having come as far as the battlefield, participation and action is recommended by Krishna, who explains an idea we already know from our Upanishads, that ‘atman’ is indestructible. The Gita’s subject matter is not only about ‘atman’, it suggests how to live—what is yoga, how to cultivate equanimity, how to seek the divine and even advice about diet, and how that can influence one’s personality. A reader who is put off by the Gita’s storyline or perceived message in a few verses will end up ‘throwing out the baby with the bathwater’ and lose out on the rest of it. If we consider the Gita as history, we don’t have a problem with it, for that is what occurred. If we consider it literature, we don’t have a problem with it, for that is what is narrated. It is only when we think of it as a canonical and representative text of Hinduism that shackles are raised. Chances are those who use the Gita as an incendiary tool would have persisted in their stance, with or without the Gita. Why blame the Gita for what is done in its name? Not reading the Gita also means losing out on the literary merits—the friendship between Krishna and Arjuna, the ‘vishwaroopam’ section, the analogies that help explain the concept of ‘atman’, these are some of the most dramatic and lyrical passages of poetry in Indian literature. Sadly, most translations and commentaries ignore the literary texture and take the reader away from the luminous wordplay and memorable rhythms of the composition.
The Gita is a highly mediated text, usually studied with the help of a teacher, commentator or translator. The Gita is a tradition in itself, a palimpsest, with layers of voices, voices that are interpretive lenses. And each commentary and translation becomes a part of the tradition for the next commentary and translation. The Bhagavad Gita is not only God’s Song, it is also the Guru’s Gita, Commentator’s Gita, and the Translator’s Gita. Centuries of interpretations have insinuated themselves in our memories, often without our awareness. Even when we (think we) read the original Gita verses directly, we already have our own perspectives and preferences, perceptions and attitudes that colour our understanding, and trigger our reactions. A simple example: we know the Gita discusses ‘karma yoga’. What is karma yoga, and how do we understand it? For a pujari, karma yoga could mean rituals; for Gandhi, it means service; for Bhaktivedanta, karma yoga means devotion. Therefore, the smart reader will be alert to the ideology, doctrine or philosophy of the translator or commentator.
In case of the Gita, if the interpretations form a tradition, they do not erase the source-text. The Sanskrit Gita continues to persist alongside its translations, and is easy to find online along with Gita dictionaries, interlinear translations and discussions. As a 700-verse, short and accessible work, it needs no abridgment, you can read the full text a few times to reflect upon it, and to think with it. Then, as Krishna says in verse 18.63, you may ‘think it over/all of it/ then do as you wish’. Gita is not a commandment.
Mani Rao is a poet and a translator of the Gita. She blogs on www.manirao.com