The Agenda of the Gita

Left liberals are likely to denounce the BJP’s support for the Karnataka government’s introduction of Gita classes in schools as an attempt at stifling minority rights and invoke on the separation of the state and the church. The BJP’s agenda, however, goes far beyond just a communal agenda. To decipher that, one has to trace the agenda behind the Gita itself.

The Gita has, in popular belief, symbolized the rejuvenation of Hinduism after a thousand years of Buddhist domination. It was the book that apparently struck the last nail on Buddhist thought by a thirty-something Adi Sankracharya. Sankara advocated the advaita–in other words, a form of subjective idealism. In simple words, what it means is that there is only one entity in the universe, the Brahma. The rest is an illusion. Thus, he reconciled all the contradictions in the world by proclaiming that everything is an illusion, or Maya. A person needs to realize this supposed unity and unless one is able to do so, one remains entangled in the web of illusions, or mayajaal.

The Gita attempted to do the same–reconcile contradictions. It attempted to justify violence in the name of morality. It ordained the caste system, and showed women “their place.” In other words, The Gita is the chariot of Brahmanism and what can be called the ideology of racism ensconced within Brahmanism.

DD Kosambi remarks in his book Myth and Reality that “The Gita furnished the one scriptural source which could be used without violence to accepted Brahmin methodology, to draw inspiration and justification for social actions in some way disagreeable to a branch of the ruling class upon whose mercy the brahmins depended at the moment.”

Ambedkar too had a similar view. Nalini Pandit, in her essay, Ambedkar and the Gita, remarks:

After making a detailed study of the ancient religious texts, Ambedkar came to the conclusion that the Aryan community of pre-Buddhist Aryan times did not have any developed sense of moral values. Buddhism caused a moral and social revolution in this society. When the Mauryan emperor Ashoka embraced Buddhism, the social revolution became a political revolution. After the decline of the Mauryan empire, the Brahmins, whose interests had suffered under the Buddhist kings initiated a counter-revolution under the leadership of Pushyamita Sunga. The counter-revolution restored brahmanism. The Bhagwat Gita, says Ambedkar, was composed to give ideological and moral support to this counter-revolution.

Kosambi also pointed out that those who find inspiration in the Gita invariably are from the leisurely classes. He might have added that they are from the upper castes. Those that come from non- Brahmin castes or articulate their voices tend to ignore the Gita. For example, Kabir, Nanak, Namdev, Chaitenya and Jayadeva did not evince any interest in the Gita. On the other hand, Tilak, Gandhi, Aurobindo and Radhakrishnan- all upper castes, if not brahmins- are the names that are associated with writings on the Gita. The correlation with the caste of those who drew inspiration from the Gita is hard to overlook.

It is very interesting to note that interest in the Gita revived only after the advent of the British and their strategy to espouse communal identities. It is even possible that they just came looking for a book like the Bible or the Koran and the pandits could just think of the Bhagvat Gita as an answer. Ambedkar compares these three seminal works thus:

They (pandits) have gone on a search for the message of the Bhagvat Gita on the assumption that it is a gospel as the Koran, the Bible or the Dhammapada is. In my opinion this assumption is quite a false assumption. The Bhagvat Gita is not a gospel and it can therefore have no message and it is futile to search for one. The question will no doubt be asked : What is the Bhagvat Gita if it is not a gospel? My answer is that the Bhagvat Gita is neither a book of religion nor a treatise on philosophy. What the Bhagvat Gita does is to defend certain dogmas of religion on philosphic grounds. If on that account anybody wants to call it a book of religion or a book of philosophy he may please himself. But essentially it is neither. It uses philosophy to defend religion. (Ambedkar, Revolution and Counter Revolution in India)

Having seen some critical views on the Gita, let us look at a handful of shalokas to substantiate.

Shaloka 9.32 ia particularly illustrative of the contempt in which the Gita hold the broad masses of people, including women.

mam hi partha vyapasritya
ye ‘pi syuh papa-yonayah
striyo vaisyas tatha sudras
te ‘pi yanti param gatim

(O son of Prtha, those who take shelter in Me, though they be of lower birth–women, vaisyas [merchants], as well as sudras [workers]–can approach the supreme destination.)

I have taken the translation from a version that I found on an ISKON site. A better translation, instead of “lower birth” would be “born out of sin” since the word “papa” in Sanskrit means “sin”. Gandhi interprets it more correctly:

“For finding refuge in Me, even those who though are born of the womb of sin, women, vaishyas, and shudras too, reach the supreme goal.”

The different castes are not to be treated equal is made amply clear in other shalokas. Even when there is mention of equality, it is very clear that one needs to reach the stage of sthitaprajana to become a sama darshi. (Sardesai, page 17)

5.18

vidya-vinaya-sampanne
brahmane gavi hastini
suni caiva sva-pake ca
panditah sama-darsinah
(The humble sage, by virtue of true knowledge, sees with equal vision a learned and gentle brahmana, a cow, an elephant, a dog and a dog-eater [outcast].)

The cow, elephant, the dog and the outcast are all clubbed together, and are seen to be equal to the brahmin- but only when one reaches that esoteric stage of the sama- darshi. It is anybody’s guess on how many people actually reached that stage!
Further, shaloka 18.44 clearly ordains the caste duties for the vaisyas and sudras:
18.44
krsi-go-raksya-vanijyam
vaisya-karma svabhava-jam
paricaryatmakam karma
sudrasyapi svabhava-jam

(Farming, cow protection and business are the qualities of work for the vaisyas, and for the sudras there is labor and service to others.)

The caste system is of course, ordained by God himself, in the human form of Krishna (4.13):
catur-varnyam maya srstam
guna-karma-vibhagasah
tasya kartaram api mam
viddhy akartaram avyayam

(According to the three modes of material nature and the work ascribed to them, the four divisions of human society were created by Me. And,although I am the creator of this system, you should know that I am yet the non-doer, being unchangeable.)

The Bhakti Marg:

The way of redemption for the common, unlettered men and women lay in the bhakti marg, advocated by the Gita. It meant unconditional surrender to the God, with profound feelings of devotion. The gyana marg was evidently meant only for those that were lettered, an abysmal minority even till 1947. The Gita, dated to be around 150AD-250 AD, came much after the Upanishads–the harbinger of the “gyana marg” needed this ideology to counter the Buddhist way that appealed to the lower orders because of its simplicity and its stress on morality.

It is indeed possible to give a “humanistic” veneer to the teachings of the Gita, as Gandhi attempted to do by interpreting the Gita not as an invocation to war (which is what it is), but as a struggle within oneself. What, however, cannot be denied is that even those who attempt such “humanistic” interpretations, assume the framework of the caste system (chaturvarnya) to be inviolable. Gandhi, too, is no exception in this regard.

 

References:
1. Myth and Reality, Chapter 1- Social and Economic Aspects of the Gita, by DD Kosambi
2. Marxism and the Bhagwat Gita, SG Sardesai and Dilip Bose
3. Krishna and his Gita, in Revolution and Counter Revolution in India, by Dr. BR Ambedkar
4. Ambedkar and the Gita, by (only 1st page available free online) by Nalini Pandit
5. Bhagwad Gita as it is (online, pdf)
6. The Gita according to Gandhi (online)

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23 thoughts on “The Agenda of the Gita”

  1. Dear Learned Writer,
    I appreciate the trouble you have taken to cite from various books by eminent personalities in your wordy criticism of the Bhagwat Gita. I concur that the Gita may not be gospel and was written as a chapter in a larger treatise of family and political intrigue. It is a paradigm of mankind and discusses morality in a dynamic context: it accepts and reasons with grey areas of personal conflict.

    However, a cursory reading lays bare the fact that it is not the Gita which has a “dogmatic” agenda, but your writing. I observe that while you use generic statements from other reviews of the Gita, you seem to extend them to prove unfathomable arguments. For example, I don’t understand how you can stretch Kosambi’s comment on the readership of the Gita to make an outrageous claim about the lower castes allegedly “ignoring” the Gita. The message of the gurus had a different medium and a different purpose: they were fables and verses about humanity. But I am sure that someone of your calibre is aware of that.

    “Even when there is mention of equality, it is very clear that one needs to reach the stage of sthitaprajana to become a sama darshi. (Sardesai, page 17)”. If you remove the first clause of this sentence, don’t you recognize that the message might very well be that brahmins should aspire to *become* sama darshi? I find it quite ridiculous that you take this to mean that this is the license for all brahmins to practise discrimination!

    I am eager to know your views on my comment.
    Regards.

    1. >For example, I don’t understand how you can stretch Kosambi’s comment on the readership of the Gita to make an outrageous claim about the lower castes allegedly “ignoring” the Gita.

      To my knowledge, the only ‘lower’ caste person to have written on the Gita is Sant Gyaneshwar, and apparently he was not well received by the brahmins. Other than that, almost all those who have been inspired by the Gita or have authored commentaries on it have been brahmins/ upper castes. Please do specify if I have missed out anything and I will be happy to revise my statement.

      > I find it quite ridiculous that you take this to mean that this is the license for all brahmins to practise discrimination!

      The very need of having to become or aspire to become a sama darshi to see everyone as equal is an admission that they are not equal.

    2. Coke wrote, “If you remove the first clause of this sentence, don’t you recognize that the message might very well be that brahmins should aspire to *become* sama darshi? I find it quite ridiculous that you take this to mean that this is the license for all brahmins to practise discrimination!”

      What is obvious is that the brahmins (and other upper castes) did not ever interpret this verse in the Bhagavad Gita, the way *you recommend*, with the advantage of hindsight!. Or else the caste system and untouchability would not have institutionally persisted in India nearly 2000 years after Bhagavad Gita was recognized as holy book by these very upper castes!

      The hard fact is that it was the Bhagavad Gita (and the Vedanta philosophy in general) that did provide “the license for all brahmins to practise discrimination!”. Do you disagree?

  2. Dear Writer

    While it is true that the introduction of The Gita classes in the schools may not be a bright idea, I find the objections raised by the learned writer lopsided. The ‘Varnasrama’ was in vogue during the time the Gita was written and the slokas quoted by the author only goes on to explain the fact that birth plays no role in attainment. (that also includes the Brahmins).

    The Upanishads were more complex and the argument that the introduction of the ‘Gyan Marg’ in Geeta to counter the Budhist influence by the Brahmins during the second century also doesn’t hold much water. In fact, if that was the intention, it wasn’t effective, for Buddhism continued to thrive for at least another seven hundred years. Some scholars believe that the overt practices of ‘Tantric rituals’ by the Hindus (not exactly by the upper class Brahmins) was something that was espoused to counter the Buddhist effect in the society prior to the renaissance of Hinduism by Sankaracharya.

    Regards

    1. >the slokas quoted by the author only goes on to explain the fact that birth plays no role in attainment.

      I believe that 9.32 quoted in the post is quite clear on the birth part. Here it is once again:
      “For finding refuge in Me, even those who though are born of the womb of sin, women, vaishyas, and shudras too, reach the supreme goal.”

      >the overt practices of ‘Tantric rituals’ by the Hindus (not exactly by the upper class Brahmins) was something that was espoused to counter the Buddhist effect in the society prior to the renaissance of Hinduism by Sankaracharya.

      I agree that there were other contending streams during the period of late Buddhism. Even Sankara, I understand, was aware of the later Buddhist practices and ideas than the earlier ones. Buddhism too was in a state of decay towards its later years in India.

  3. I don’t get why Buddhism is any better than Brahminism. You still have caste- indeed, you end up with Brahmins numerical preponderance in the Sangha- indeed, one sect of Brahmins was so favoured by Lord Buddha that they got automatic diksha. Brahmin monks mean Brahmins Uncles and nephews growing fat on the Monastery’s lands- later this class just grabbed the land for themselves and set up as zamindars (one supposed origin of the Bihari Bhumihars).
    I don’t get why being exploited by Buddhists is better than being exploited by Hindus or Xtians or Communist cadres.
    I keep reading that Buddhism was anti=caste. It wasn’t. It helped spread caste and the atrocious practice of untouchability to lands never contaminated by Hinduism- viz. Korea and Japan. Perhaps you are under the impression that Tibet under the Dalai Lamas, or Mongolia under the Boghd Khans, was a paradise for the labouring folk? The licentiousness of the last of the Boghd khans and the cruel methods of torture used by the Tibetans are a matter of record.
    Indeed, Brahminism is preferable to Buddhism because the vast majority of working priests were poor, powerless and (of course) deeply ignorant. When we look at the Valluvars (the hereditary priests of the Pariah community) though the standard of Sanskrit and Tamil learning may be higher than the average for the ‘parpan’ (Brahmin priest) still the casteist attitude and discriminatory practices towards those lower down is just as apparent.
    Kosambi’s dad was a poor Brahmin youth who answered a Divine Call to travel to Buddhist countries and study the religion. Later he was a Prof. in both U.S and USSR. His son well knew that ‘the miserable class’ of poor Brhamins were as much victims of the system they perpetuated as are prostitutes who, to secure their old age, themselves recruit helpless girls into their joyless profession.
    As for the BJP, in Karnataka or anywhere else, keeping up this revolting pretence of caring about Religion and Morality- who really is fooled? The wholesale looting of the natural resources of the state by Crony Capitalists is all too apparent. The fact is, if they now called for the study of Das Kapital, or the Koran, or Playboy magazine, they would still remain a bunch of thieves.
    As you point out, the Gita is just a chapter in a long book about some cousins fighting over who gets to exploit the people. For some mysterious reason, this squalid dynastic squabble is called a War between Righteousness and Injustice. One Prince is talking to another Prince, his ‘sambandhi’, and naturally showing the contempt and loathing people with power (which translates into wealth) feel for those without power and without wealth.
    In the case of Ambedkar, he was aware that the so called upper caste prejudice against the lower castes was often fed by their vegetarian fanaticsm. But that came from the Shraman Religions. Still, the fact is Buddhism and Jainism enjoy great prestige amongst Brahmins- especially those with a little education. Thus the mass conversion he sponsored was a time honoured tactic especially as his own jati had already shown they could beat the high castes in Education.
    Why keep bringing up Buddhism as if it ever helped the labouring classes? They were told that only by giving to the Monks would they get to be re-born as Monk. Only Monks get a shot at Liberation.
    At least, under Brahminism, if you take up arms, you can become a Kshatriya or a Brahmin immediately in this life or even be declared a God or gain bodily ascent to heaven or anything else you want. The reason the Brahmins can do this is because, in nature, there is no such thing as a Brahmin or a Kshatriya or Heaven or being a God so, if someone either bribes you or holds a knife to your throat, you can chant some shite and lo! a miracle has been worked.
    Do please explain why you believe that Buddhism isn’t a load of casteist, exploitative, shite which managed to get the Koreans to take up untouchability.

  4. Dear Bhupinder:

    Many thanks for your thought provoking article. Also a lot of appreciation to the South Asian Observer of Toronto, Ontario, Canada, for publishing it in the July 29, 2011 issue.
    The Geeta was written by Adi Shankaracharya, with no hidden agenda, but the overt intention to generate impetus to kill the sway that the new faith had over Brahmanism. As a man made document, it has to have all the flaws of human thinking, biases, attitudes, leanings etc. I am amazed that Hindus have not learnt the difference between history and mythology. The whole Geeta is a book on mythology, and as such should be classified as fiction. Yet it mesmerizes the most educated Hindu into considering it a revealed book of God, which clearly it is not. B.R. Ambedekar is so right in his condemnation of this book. . Having said this, I salute Buddhism for the reformation it brought in the caste-ridden Brahmin-dominated ancient India.
    I am glad that I belong to a faith where the people will be judged according to their deeds, not color, race, gender, age, language, caste or tribal lineage
    I am also lucky that in my faith there is no ‘original sin’ inherited by me through my great grandparents Adam and Eve, and that unless I undergo baptism to wash it away, I will go to hell. I also don’t have to believe that since Jesus died for my sins, I am not accountable for my deeds.
    Is it any surprise then that despite all the propaganda against my religion, it is still the fastest growing religion in the world? The name of this religion? Islam.
    To compare the Quran to the Christian Gospels, and Hindu scriptures is wrong because only the Quran is preserved without a single dot or comma being changed over the 1400 years since it was revealed by God through Archangel Gabriel to Prophet Mohammed. The Bible and the Geeta are being revised/ corrected every year because they were written by man.

    1. hey gul, why did Uthman burn the DIFFERENT copies of the Koran existing at his time after the death of prophet Mohmad as described in the Hadith of al-Tabari (vol.15 p.156) if you say that the Koran has been preserved without a single dot being changed? where did the DIFFERENT copies of Koran in the HADITH come from? who wrote them? why was Uthman so afraid that he BURNED them? and if the Koran came from god why were there DIFFERENT copies that had to be burned? so is the present Koran the Koran of god or the Koran of Uthman?

  5. Dear Bhupinder,
    Do you really believe that Adi Sankara wrote the Gita? Or do you think this is a ‘popular belief’?
    You write- The Gita has, in popular belief, symbolized the rejuvenation of Hinduism after a thousand years of Buddhist domination. It was the book that apparently struck the last nail on Buddhist thought by a thirty-something Adi Sankracharya.’
    Would it be possible to mention a source for this notion?
    Thanks

  6. Hi Bhupider,

    a nice article, and may i add,well researched…the bhagwat geeta does have a casteist prejudice, along with many books written during those times..these books were written under the influence of a certain societal system, and their ultimate intention was to preserve that hierarchy…However, I dont see any religious text which doesnt promote some kind of hierarchy/bias…Ultimately, all religion is rooted in the principle of expediency…Lets take the Quran…depending on your ideological persuasion, you’ll either dismiss it or praise it….some people say it is a religion of peace. In a certain context, they are correct. Others say it is a violent socio-political ideology. In another context, they are correct too…Religion after all is also subject to the principle of self preservation and hence most religions have come up with a formulation of a ‘just war’.

    At the time bhagwad geeta was written, it wasnt politically unfashionable to support the caste system or patriarchy. They were more or less considered social norms. I should add that I m not defending the Gita or implying that it is correct. To quote Ibn-e-Safi, Life is nothing but action and reaction. The rationalizations we add later.

    1. I get angry at your ignorance. Have you ever read Thirukkural or even heard about it? Gita and Vedas an entire Sanskritan materials are dogmas, casteist and racist materials. If you truly want to see secular material and down to earth thoughts, you have to visit Tamil literature: Thirukkural, Pazhamozhi, Inna Naarpathu, Iniavai Naarpathu.

  7. Gita was , historically , written as a practical “kunji” for/by the temple-brahmins who were too lazy and venal to read the by then distant texts of vedas/upanishads. I thought I will add.

  8. according to me Geeta’s agenda is not relevant in the era of globalization,liberalization and in privitization. We should create new thinking,new ideology and even new method .we are living in the 21 century.the century of the democracy and the century of the freedeom and fraternity.actually geeta’s theory is very backward and sophicated and even outdated .we shoud apply new thoughts and we should proper respect to the nation and the constitution and the every citizen of the nation only then we can became a good citizen and our country can become the develop nation.according to the dream of misile man apj abdul kalam.so in conclusion we should not accept geeta,ramayan,mahabaharat,manusmiriti,vedas,purans because these so called lit. is the bundle of narrowmindeness.so we should adopt anything at the basis of logic,reason and humanism.

  9. So interesting to read about this. I spent some time in India many years ago. Curious how these religious revivals go on all over the world. K.

  10. Interesting and informative article. The Gita certainly defends the caste system and damns the Dalits, Sudras, Tribals and women. It espouses caste duties and defends murder. Ambedkar notes, ‘the philosophic defence offered by the Bhagavad Gita of the Kshatriya’s duty to kill is to say the least puerile. To say that killing is no killing because what is killed is the body and not the soul is an unheard of defence of murder… If Krishna were to appear as a lawyer acting for a client who has been tried for murder and pleaded the defence set out by him in the Bhagavad Gita, there is not the slightest doubt that he would be sent to the lunatic asylum’ (THE ESSENTIAL WRITINGS OF B.R. AMBEDKAR edited by Valerian Rodrigues. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2002., pg 197).

    1. What Philosophical defence??? if that is the case then you also should be of the opinion that we should not be having any army for our nations defence…. again if we have them then we should be training them to use their “politeness” in keeping the enemies away from our land ….. thats completely illogical defence of Dr Ambedkar …. if that is the case then why he did himself “fight” for the rights of the downtrodden….

  11. in these days the controversy over Gita is irrelevanr and illogical .this is the era of globalization and science and tecnology.B.J.P. and R.S.S. is totally neglectening by the the people of india.there have no place of bjp in the politics of India.we should concentrate at the weaknesses of our countryand focus at the basic problem of India only then we can become the develop country of india according to the dream of Prof.Harish saroha.

  12. actually everybody can thik and comment according to mhis or her conscience but it is the duty of every citizen he or she should give original and relevant thought

  13. the agenda of geeta is not only that only do work but take a proper credit also only then u can become asuccessful personality

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