Tuesday, December 2, 2014

'The Bhagavad Gita: A biography'

  Across the ages and cultures books have wielded an enormous influence as vehicles of ideas by seeping into the cultural consciousness and in due course dominating the intellectual climate. Religious books, more than any other, have an unparalleled capacity to influence millions over many centuries. Yet, many religious texts originate in antiquity and obscurity and evolve into a force of nature shaping entire nations, cultures and peoples. To unravel the mystery of how a complex philosophical treatise became a canonical text is the task of a literary detective. Richard Davis, professor of religion at Bard College, in an exceedingly well written book, "The Bhagavad Gita: A biography", traces admirably how a compact text evolved into the conscience of a religion and a people over many centuries.

What Davis does not do in the book is as significant as what he sets out to do. Davis's goal is to write a 'biography' of a book as one would write a biography of a person. Though Davis explains in shining succinct prose the themes of Gita, the various interpretations, socio-political changes that are reflected in how Gita was assimilated and propagated, he does not engage in philosophical discourse on the Gita itself. The book is not a philosophical treatise of Gita or analyses of its philosophical in a compare and contrast approach. Davis restricts himself, a tad too strictly, to his role as a tour guide in the life of a book.

Set in a battlefield, the Gita, is a call for action and duty, albeit with a crucial distinction. Krishna calls upon  Arjuna to do his duty, that of warrior, but free himself from the 'bondage of action' by actively dissociating his soul from the fruits, victory or defeat, of his action. Davis points out that in classical India the notion of Karma, literally meaning action but amorphously signifies the stain of 'persisting moral consequences of actions' which was said to cause a cycle of births. Krishna then details the then prevailing 'schools of knowledge' to attain detachment. Without endorsing or the other school of thought Krishna focuses on 'the psychological consequences for one who adopts that perspective'. Tamil writer and exponent of Hindu philosophy, Jeyamohan, and Davis concur that Krishna does not offer a didactic singular prescription but gives 'heuristical validity' to the various paths 'insofar as it leads one toward equanimity'.

Arjuna witnessing Krishna's Viswaroopam (courtesy Iskcon images)
The 'path of devotion',bhakti, Davis says, was a new idea to Sanskrit literature. Devotion 'requires a worthy recipient' and Krishna 'reveals himself as exactly that worthy recipient'. 'Any act, no matter how modest, can become an act of devotion'. 'One can abandon all personal attachment to the fruits by redirecting that action into a devotional service to Krishna'. Though Davis uses Western theological terms very apatly in places to describe a notion from Gita he studiously avoids any attempts in comparative philosophical discourse and steers clear of controversies regarding how the East and West influenced each other theologically. Reading the passage on devotion I was reminded on Milton's immortal concluding line in the sonnet 'On his blindness', "they also serve who only stand and wait".

While holding the practitioner of discipline of devotion superior to others Krishna sounds egalitarian when he enjoins that 'this path open to all:Those who take refuge in Me, even women, Vaishyas, Shudras, or those born impure, they nevertheless reach the highest destination'. In a telling contradiction the same Krishna also admonishes that "it is better to do your own duty, even poorly, than to perform tte duty of someone else well". Wendy Doniger who reviewed the book for New York Review of Books mistakenly accuses Davis of omitting that famous passage and for being too deferential to the Gita and sternly says that such deference does not behoove scholarship. Her larger point, that Davis did not even glance at the harm such passages have done to lower castes, is true and is indeed one of the few glaring omissions in an otherwise very well written book.

Though Gita focuses on action and duty Krishna reveals the 'biggest mystery of all" towards the end when he exhorts Arjuna to "abandon all your duties and take refuge with me alone". Davis beautifully labels this as an 'antinomian escape clause for the true devotee'. Dictionary.com defines 'antinomian' as a 'person who maintains that Christians are freed from moral law by virtue of grace as set forth in the Gospel'. Though probably tempting Davis refrains from meandering into discussions of philosophical parallels between the two religions.

When Krishna tells Arjuna that he is but a 'mere instrument' of Divine providence. Krishna stresses all "battle heroes are slain by me. You kill them". This part and the Karmic law always troubled me for the denial of 'free will'. Also I wonder what then does an individual take responsibility for? Can we blame the victims of Holocaust deserved it due to their Karma? Should Eichmann have not been hanged after all since he was but a 'mere' instrument of divine providence? Actually the Nuremberg trial hinged on whether the Nazi officials can be acquitted on the grounds that they were following orders. Incidentally, to my mind, the idea of Karmic preordained fate skates close to the Christian notion of original sin.

How popular was the Gita and the worship of Krishna in medieval India? Not much says Davis citing a survey of "800 panels of Indian sculpture dating from 500 to 1500 CE", by John S Hawley. Only three refer to the Gita. The commentaries on Gita by Sankara, Ramanuja and Madhva went a long way in popularizing the Gita. Writing commentaries for complex philosophical texts was, Davis says, more prevalent in Sanskrit literature than in any other.

In the most lucidly written chapter of the book Davis explains the differences between the various commentaries while summarizing them with crystal clarity. Davis cites a 'soteriological' issue in deciding who exactly Krishna was and 'what is the nature of god'. Soteriology is the Christian doctrine of salvation through Christ and Davis uses the term to refer to Bhakti tradition with devotion to Krishna. Only an admirable wordsmith and only one who is conversant with multiple theologies could've used the word with effectiveness.

In Sankara's 'ontological order' Krishna is less than the absolute Brahman due to his corporal incarnation as human being. 'Sankara insists not only that knowledge is superior to action as a means to religious attainment but also that true knowledge involves abandonment of action'. So why is Arjuna compelled to act? Sankara suggests that Krishna was merely tailoring his argument to suit his audience, namely, a warrior. Gandhi would later use the same argument to discard the call for violence and focus on just the call for action.

To Ramanuja knowledge is insufficient and he calls for 'full devotion to God' in order to achieve oneness, not as equals, but in a 'relationship of divine dependence'. The Marathi Jnanadeva takes the devotion aspect further and urged 'repetition of God's names, nama-japa. In Jnanadeva's Jnananeshvari "the style of bhakti proclaimed is closer to the fervent emotional devotion of the Bhagavata Purana than to the intellectual bhakti of the Gita".

Jeyamohan in one of his many commentaries on the Gita bemoans how the Semitic mind in its quest for a 'canonical text' latched onto Gita and turned it erroneously as the Bible for Hindus. For that we can thank the British, in particular, Warren Hastings and Charles Wilkins.  In his impeachment oration against Hasting Edmund Burke would thunder that Hastings had sullied the honor of India and trampled upon the rights of Indians. Yet, it is Hastings who had concluded that to rule India he would turn to India's own intellectual heritage in search of a legal framework. This led to the advent of Indology as a discipline and British administrators of Bengal to study Sanskrit.

The seat of East India Company was in Calcutta which, in the 18th century, was less Islamized than Delhi. Also, it is probable that the Christian West wanted to shun Islamic tradition which though had taken root in India was in competition with Britain elsewhere unlike Hindus. Unfortunately Davis does not dwell on the political significance of Hastings and his administration choosing to study Sanskrit instead or Urdu and choosing Hindu legal heritage over Islamic heritage. This choice restored Hindu India to a political prominence that they had lost under the Islamic rule for nearly 300 years. Elsewhere Davis notes that the "European quest for origins, "India" bcame confined" to Sanskrit and Hindu works.

Wilkins went to Benares to study Sanskrit and encountered Brahmins who "esteemed this (Gita) work to contain all the grand mysteries of their religion". A 'Sanskrit mad' Wilkins published his translation in 1785 and Gita took the Western world by storm. In US Walt Whitman, Thoreau and Emerson fell under the sway of Gita. Whitman reportedly died with a copy of Gita under his pillow. A quibble here. I am sure Indian readers, especially of the Hindutva variety, would brim with pride at that anecdote little realizing that we don't know of any Indian who died with Plato's Republic or King James Version or Koran under his or her pillow.

Davis, a modern academic writing a book for Princetion University Press, could not help complaining that Wilkins failed to credit his Sanskrit teacher Kashinatha for the help he rendered with his list of a ten thousand word vocabulary of Sanskrit verb roots. The academician further cautions that the view point of Benares Brahmins in considering Gita as supreme should not be considered the view point of all Hindus but "rather of a particular class of Sanskrit teaching Bramin pundits in Northern India". It was in Germany that Gita found the best soil in all of West. With their propensity for wooly thinking that nation of Kant and Nietzsche embraced Gita with zest. Humboldt and Hegel battled over Wilhelm Schlegel's translation of Gita. Humboldt declared in a lecture that the Gita is "the most beautiful, presumably the only real philosophical poem of all known literatures". In concluding the chapter Davis details how Swami Vivekananda arrived in Chicago to speak at a World Congress and humbled his hosts of their superciliousness towards non-Christian religions.

Not all translations of Gita during the colonial era was out of a benign motive. Christian theologians would selectively accept Gita in portions where they saw parallels with the Bible while ignoring or deriding the other parts.

The quest for freedom from colonial rule saw a resurgence in the interest regarding Gita. It served a double purpose. The philosophy of action was conducive to the need for agitation and as a text that could serve to unify the majority who were Hindus against the Christian ruler Gita was indeed God given to the likes of Tilak and Gandhi. Several leaders in the pantheon of freedom fighters wrote commentaries for Gita, of course colored by their own agendas.

Tilak, a Chitpavan Brahmin by birth, who organized Ganesh rallies as a tool for political unification, argued that Krishna's call for Arjuna to act as a Kshatriya, a warrior class, was suited to all Indian citizens irrespective of their caste because the colonial rule essentially made all into Kshatriyas.

The question of Krishna's historicity continues to be a matter of debate. Lala Lajpat Rai while languishing in a British prison in Mandalay wrote a commentary on Gita holding up the mature Krishna as an ideal human being while excoriating those who laid accent on the adolescent philandering Krishna of Bhagavata Purana. To Gandhi and Jeyamohan Krishna's historicity is of trivial relevance. Gandhi considered the battlefield as allegorical and asserted that only non-violence can help achieve the kind of 'detached-action' that Krishna called for. Mahabharatha, Gandhi insisted, appropriately, showed the futility of war.

"In whatever way men resort to Me, even so do I render to them". Tilak interpreted that as "I'll do unto you as you do unto me". Where Tilak used Gita to argue for retributive violence Gandhi directly contradicts the interpretation to assert that Krishna "will worship a person as the latter worships him". Gandhi went on to interpret that "if we are attached to winning liberty, we shall not hesitate to adopt bad means". 'Detached-action' to Gandhi meant that one is detached enough not to pursue any means to justify the ends. Conversely, without being a detached actor, a anasakthi yogin, one cannot be a non-violent Satyagrahi.

Wendy Doniger in her review contends that Davis's citation of an obscure intelligence report saying that mercenaries swore to end colonial rule with Gita in one hand and revolver in the other hand. That said the Gita was the favorite book of those who went to the gallows as martyrs. Khudiram Bose and even Gandhi's assassin Godse took it with them to the gallows.

Doniger acutely observes in her book review that while Davis uses quotes from all who lavished praise on Gita he nonchalantly paraphrases the Gita's most severe Indian critic, B.R. Ambedkar, who was born into what Hindus consider a low caste and therefore had to suffer the barbs of casteism. Ambedkar, Davis's paraphrase, says that Krishna appropriated lot of Buddhist teachings but the book is nevertheless an attempt to uphold Brahminical tenets and supports genocide. Ambedkar, who later converted to Buddhism, "proposed that Buddhism offers a superior ethical foundation for Indian nationhood".

Amongst the modern commentaries and translations Davis selected Dr S.Radhakrishnan's and Prabhupada's books. Amongst the many operatic performances of Gita, mostly Western, Davis cites warmly a rendition by South Indian singer K.J. Yesudas.

Out of curiosity I checked out Jeyamohan's website for his blogs on Gita before I wrote this blog. Davis's book and many of what Jeyamohan wrote are in consonance. That is a testimony to Davis's, a western academic, research credentials. I've not read Jeyamohan's commentary on Gita as a book but where Davis scores is in the lucidity, preciseness and, however few, his academic quibbling in places.

On one count Jeyamohan undoubtedly scores over Richard Davis. The Gita was a later addition to the Mahabharatha, that much everyone agrees. Davis does not dwell at length on that issue beyond a simple discussion on the probable dates of composition. Davis, being an academic and teacher of religions, is crimped by his discipline to stick with historical analyses. Jeyamohan, a towering presence in contemporary Tamil literature as author and more importantly as student of philosophy tutored by Nithya Chaitanya Yathi, brings to bear his literary acumen to the debate of whether Gita was an addition in tune with the larger corpus of Mahabharatham or an intrusive inclusion with a hidden agenda as Marxist Indian historians allege. Jeyamohan points out that Arjuna behaves post-war as he was pre-war as if the epochal tutoring amidst a battlefield never happens. Considering the Mahabharatha as a work of literature Jeyamohan contends that such characterisation of Arjuna proves that the Gita was a latter day addition. He however rejects that it was an ill-fitting intrusion by pointing out rhetorical and philosophical continuity.

I am not a big fan of theology masquerading as philosophy. Nataraja Guru threw out of a car window Radhakrishnan's book on Gita because Radhakrishnan refers to it as 'Hindu' philosophy. Narayana Guru was angered that Radhakrishnan bracketed Gita into a strait jacket of religion. Actually Radhakrishnan did not do so. He was just using terminology that was in vogue then and even Jeyamohan himself characterizes it so in one of his blogs. The otherworldliness of Gita is undeniable and as such it is, in my opinion, theology just as much as the Sermon on the Mount is theology.

The phrase 'detached-action' sounds lofty but is practically impossible. Jeyamohan himself is the prime exhibit for that. He is now engaged with writing a multi-volume multi-year magnum opus of Mahabharatha. Of course he has his share of detractors and naysayers. Far from ignoring his naysayers Jeyamohan actively derides and ridicules them without exception. He tars all his naysayers with the same brush alleging envy, mired in mediocrity, unable to accept that such an opus is being created etc. Sure, there is some of it or even lot of it but that is not all of it. That a man who has written copiously on Gandhi and Gita cannot tolerate his naysayers in a way illustrates, if not the impracticality of Gita, at least the Himalayan discipline required to adhere to it.

I chanced upon a very interesting blog on Jeyamohan's site. Aravindan Neelakandan, a militant Hindutva proponent (Jeyamohan called him a purveyor a Hindutva hatred), wrote an email to Jeyamohan on Tilak's commentary of Gita. Neelakandan says that Tilak could not outgrow his Brahminical roots and the he opposed the lower castes from learning Vedas.

In my college days at a literary forum I had quoted Spinoza to argue the impracticality of detached-action. "Reason without passion is dead and passion without reason is blind". Of course when passion enters there can be no detachment.


1. Wendy Doniger's review of 'The Bhagavad Gita: A biography' in New York Review of books http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2014/dec/04/war-and-peace-bhagavad-gita/
2. Jeyamohan's links on Gita:
    a. Is Gita an addition    http://www.jeyamohan.in/265
    b. Gita an intellectual heritage http://www.jeyamohan.in/569
    c. How to read Gita and why http://www.jeyamohan.in/35
    d. On the historicity of Krishna http://www.jeyamohan.in/8201
    e. Aravindan Neelakandan on Tilak http://www.jeyamohan.in/275
    f. Narayana Guru throwing out Radhakrishnan's book http://www.jeyamohan.in/410
    g. Is Gita a philosophy book http://www.jeyamohan.in/639


prabhu said...

Aravinda..while detached action doesnot sound feasible...... the takeaway as told by many current day enlightened masters/philosophers is.. dont attach feverishness to the future result/outcome.... when one of the masters was asked what is the secret of success, he said, drop the feverishness for the success... another interpretation is.. expectation of a consequence - reduces joy it can otherwise deliver...

கிறுக்கன் said...

Thoroughly enjoyed reading. Thank you.