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)
brahmane gavi hastini
suni caiva sva-pake ca
(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:
(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
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.
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)