Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi has strongly pitched the Bhagavad Gita as "India's biggest gift to the world". Modi gifted The Bhagavad Gita to the then President of the United States of America, Mr. Barack Obama in 2014 during his U.S. visit.
With the translation and study of the Bhagavad Gita by Western scholars beginning in the early 18th century, the Bhagavad Gita gained a growing appreciation and popularity.[web 1] According to the Indian historian and writer Khushwant Singh, Rudyard Kipling's famous poem "If—" is "the essence of the message of The Gita in English."
Praise and popularity
The Bhagavad Gita has been highly praised, not only by prominent Indians including Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, but also by Aldous Huxley, Henry David Thoreau, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Carl Jung, Herman Hesse, and Bülent Ecevit.
At a time when Indian nationalists were seeking an indigenous basis for social and political action, Bhagavad Gita provided them with a rationale for their activism and fight against injustice. Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Mahatma Gandhi used the text to help inspire the Indian independence movement.[note 22][note 23] Mahatma Gandhi expressed his love for the Gita in these words:
I find a solace in the Bhagavadgītā that I miss even in the Sermon on the Mount.When disappointment stares me in the face and all alone I see not one ray of light, I go back to the Bhagavadgītā. I find a verse here and a verse there and I immediately begin to smile in the midst of overwhelming tragedies – and my life has been full of external tragedies – and if they have left no visible, no indelible scar on me, I owe it all to the teaching of Bhagavadgītā.
Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of independent India, commented on the Gita:
The Bhagavad-Gita deals essentially with the spiritual foundation of human existence. It is a call of action to meet the obligations and duties of life; yet keeping in view the spiritual nature and grander purpose of the universe.
A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, 11th President of India, despite being a Muslim, used to read Bhagavad Gita and recite mantras.
J. Robert Oppenheimer, American physicist and director of the Manhattan Project, learned Sanskrit in 1933 and read the Bhagavad Gita in the original form, citing it later as one of the most influential books to shape his philosophy of life. Oppenheimer later recalled that, while witnessing the explosion of the Trinity nuclear test, he thought of verses from the Bhagavad Gita (XI,12):
दिवि सूर्यसहस्रस्य भवेद्युगपदुत्थिता यदि भाः सदृशी सा स्याद्भासस्तस्य महात्मनः ॥११- १२॥
If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one ...
Years later he would explain that another verse had also entered his head at that time:
We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, 'Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.' I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.[note 24]
Ralph Waldo Emerson, remarked the following after his first study of the Gita, and thereafter frequently quoted the text in his journals and letters, particularly the "work with inner renunciation" idea in his writings on man's quest for spiritual energy:
I owed – my friend and I owed – a magnificent day to the Bhagavad Geeta. It was the first of books; it was as if an empire spoke to us, nothing small or unworthy, but large, serene, consistent, the voice of an old intelligence which in another age and climate had pondered and thus disposed of the same questions which exercise us.
Criticisms and apologetics
The Gita presents its teaching in the context of a war where the warrior Arjuna is in inner crisis about whether he should renounce and abandon the battlefield, or fight and kill. He is advised by Krishna to do his sva-dharma, a term that has been variously interpreted. According to the Indologist Paul Hacker, the contextual meaning in the Gita is the "dharma of a particular varna". Neo-Hindus such as Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, states Hacker, have preferred to not translate it in those terms, or "dharma" as religion, but leave Gita's message as "everyone must follow his sva-dharma". According to Chatterjee, the Hindus already understand the meaning of that term. To render it in English for non-Hindus for its better understanding, one must ask what is the sva-dharma for the non-Hindus? The Lord, states Chatterjee, created millions and millions of people, and he did not ordain dharma only for Indians [Hindus] and "make all the others dharma-less", for "are not the non-Hindus also his children"? According to Chatterjee, the Krishna's religion of Gita is "not so narrow-minded". This argument, states Hacker, is an attempt to "universalize Hinduism".
The Gita has been cited and criticized as a Hindu text that supports varna-dharma and the caste system. B. R. Ambedkar, born in a Dalit family and the principal architect of the Constitution of India, criticized the text for its stance on caste and for "defending certain dogmas of religion on philosophical grounds". According to Jimmy Klausen, Ambedkar in his essay Krishna and his Gita stated that the Gita was a "tool" of Brahmanical Hinduism and for its latter-day saints such as Mahatma Gandhi and Lokmanya Tilak. To Ambedkar, states Klausen, it is a text of "mostly barbaric, religious particularisms" offering "a defence of the kshatriya duty to make war and kill, the assertion that varna derives from birth rather than worth or aptitude, and the injunction to perform karma" neither perfunctorily nor egotistically. Similar criticism of the Gita has been published by Damodar Dharmananda Kosambi, another Marxist historian.
Nadkarni and Zelliot present the opposite view, citing early Bhakti saints of the Krishna-tradition such as the 13th-century Dnyaneshwar. According to Dnyaneshwar, the Gita starts off with the discussion of sva-dharma in Arjuna's context but ultimately shows that caste differences are not important. For Dnyaneshwar, people err when they see themselves distinct from each other and Krishna, and these distinctions vanish as soon as they accept, understand and enter with love unto Krishna.
According to Swami Vivekananda, sva-dharma in the Gita does not mean "caste duty", rather it means the duty that comes with one's life situation (mother, father, husband, wife) or profession (soldier, judge, teacher, doctor). For Vivekananda, the Gita was an egalitarian scripture that rejected caste and other hierarchies because of its verses such as 13.27—28, which states "He who sees the Supreme Lord dwelling equally in all beings, the Imperishable in things that perish, he sees verily. For seeing the Lord as the same everywhere present, he does not destroy the Self by the Self, and thus he goes to the highest goal."[note 25]
Aurobindo modernises the concept of dharma and svabhava by internalising it, away from the social order and its duties towards one's personal capacities, which leads to a radical individualism, "finding the fulfilment of the purpose of existence in the individual alone." He deduced from the Gita the doctrine that "the functions of a man ought to be determined by his natural turn, gift, and capacities", that the individual should "develop freely" and thereby would be best able to serve society.
Gandhi's view differed from Aurobindo's view. He recognised in the concept of sva-dharma his idea of svadeshi (sometimes spelled swadeshi), the idea that "man owes his service above all to those who are nearest to him by birth and situation." To him, svadeshi was "sva-dharma applied to one's immediate environment."
According to Jacqueline Hirst, the universalist neo-Hindu interpretations of dharma in the Gita is modernism, though any study of pre-modern distant foreign cultures is inherently subject to suspicions about "control of knowledge" and bias on the various sides. Hindus have their own understanding of dharma that goes much beyond the Gita or any particular Hindu text. Further, states Hirst, the Gita should be seen as a "unitary text" in its entirety rather than a particular verse analyzed separately or out of context. Krishna is presented as a teacher who "drives Arjuna and the reader beyond initial preconceptions". The Gita is a cohesively knit pedagogic text, not a list of norms.
Novel interpretations of the Gita, along with apologetics on it, have been a part of the modern era revisionism and renewal movements within Hinduism. Bakim Chandra Chatterji, the author of Vande Mataram – the national song of India, challenged orientalist literature on Hinduism and offered his interpretations of the Gita, states Ajit Ray. Bal Gangadhar Tilak interpreted the karma yoga teachings in Gita as a "doctrine of liberation" taught by Hinduism, while S Radhakrishnan stated that the Bhagavad Gita teaches a universalist religion and the "essence of Hinduism" along with the "essence of all religions", rather than a private religion.
Vivekananda's works contained numerous references to the Gita, such as his lectures on the four yogas – Bhakti, Jnana, Karma, and Raja. Through the message of the Gita, Vivekananda sought to energise the people of India to reclaim their dormant but strong identity. Aurobindo saw Bhagavad Gita as a "scripture of the future religion" and suggested that Hinduism had acquired a much wider relevance through the Gita. Sivananda called Bhagavad Gita "the most precious jewel of Hindu literature" and suggested its introduction into the curriculum of Indian schools and colleges.
According to Ronald Neufeldt, it was the Theosophical Society that dedicated much attention and energy to the allegorical interpretation of the Gita, along with religious texts from around the world, after 1885 and given H. P. Blavatsky, Subba Rao and Anne Besant writings. Their attempt was to present their "universalist religion". These late 19th-century theosophical writings called the Gita as a "path of true spirituality" and "teaching nothing more than the basis of every system of philosophy and scientific endeavor", triumphing over other "Samkhya paths" of Hinduism that "have degenerated into superstition and demoralized India by leading people away from practical action".
In the Gita, Krishna persuades Arjuna to wage war where the enemy includes some of his own relatives and friends. In light of the Ahimsa (non-violence) teachings in Hindu scriptures, the Gita has been criticized as violating the Ahmisa value, or alternatively, as supporting political violence. The justification of political violence when peaceful protests and all else fails, states Varma, has been a "fairly common feature of modern Indian political thought" along with the "mighty antithesis of Gandhian thought on non-violence". During the freedom movement in India, Hindus considered active "burning and drowning of British goods" which technically illegal under the colonial laws, were viewed as a moral and just-war for the sake of liberty and righteous values of the type Gita discusses. According to Paul Schaffel the influential Hindu nationalist V.D. Savarkar "often turned to Hindu scripture such as the Bhagavad Gita, arguing that the text justified violence against those who would harm Mother India."
Mahatma Gandhi credited his commitment for ahimsa to the Gita. For Gandhi, the Gita is teaching that people should fight for justice and righteous values, that they should never meekly suffer injustice to avoid a war. According to the Indologist Ananya Vajpeyi, the Gita does not elaborate on the means or stages of war, nor on ahimsa, except for stating that "ahimsa is virtuous and characterizes an awakened, steadfast, ethical man" in verses such as 13.7–10 and 16.1–5. For Gandhi, states Vajpeyi, ahimsa is the "relationship between self and other" while he and his fellow Indians battled against the colonial rule. Gandhian ahimsa is in fact "the essence of the entire Gita", according to Vajpeyi. The teachings of the Gita on ahimsa are ambiguous, states Arvind Sharma, and this is best exemplified by the fact that Nathuram Godse stated the Gita as his inspiration to do his dharma after he assassinated Mahatma Gandhi. Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk and author of books on Zen Buddhism, concurs with Gandhi and states that the Gita is not teaching violence nor propounding a "make war" ideology. Instead, it is teaching peace and discussing one's duty to examine what is right and then act with pure intentions, when one's faces difficult and repugnant choices.
Philip Glass retold the story of Gandhi's early development as an activist in South Africa through the text of the Gita in the opera Satyagraha (1979). The entire libretto of the opera consists of sayings from the Gita sung in the original Sanskrit.[web 5]
In Douglas Cuomo's Arjuna's dilemma, the philosophical dilemma faced by Arjuna is dramatised in operatic form with a blend of Indian and Western music styles.[web 6]
The 1993 Sanskrit film, Bhagavad Gita, directed by G. V. Iyer won the 1993 National Film Award for Best Film.[web 7][web 8]
The 1995 novel by Steven Pressfield, and its adaptation as the 2000 golf movie The Legend of Bagger Vance by Robert Redford has parallels to the Bhagavad Gita, according to Steven J. Rosen. Steven Pressfield acknowledges that the Gita was his inspiration, the golfer character in his novel is Arjuna, the caddie is Krishna, states Rosen. The movie, however, uses the plot but glosses over the teachings unlike the novel.