The accidental Gītā

A strange coincidence surprised me as I designed this spring’s course in Indian philosophy – but one that I suspect is quite significant. The coincidence resulted from three of my primary concerns in selecting content for the course syllabus, and I’ll start with those. One of those was, whenever possible, to focus on primary texts – texts actually written by Indian philosophers.

A second primary concern was to stress the connections between theoretical and practical philosophy. Too often, Indian epistemology and metaphysics are seen as purely abstract activities with little relation to one’s ethical conduct or even one’s ultimate liberation, and Indian reflection on practical matters is taken to have little background in that theoretical work (as in Damien Keown’s needlessly pessmistic reflection that there is no such thing as Buddhist normative ethics). It is no wonder that Indian philosophy is so little studied when even those who study it sometimes think its questions tend not to edification.

My reading of Śāntideva convinced me that this is absolutely not the case. Metaphysics is a pervasive concern of his most celebrated text (and one of the most widely read works of Buddhist ethics), the Bodhicaryāvatāra – not only in the ninth chapter, which focuses on it, but in the other more widely read chapters as well. (I gave a talk on this topic at the SACP a few years ago, and am planning on expanding it into a paper for publication soon.) I have come to believe that this is the case more widely in Indian philosophy as well. It’s not always easy to see what the practical implications of Indian theoretical thought are, but I think that they are there, and it was hugely important to me that my course bring them out.

My final primary concern was to bring in modern Indian philosophy, in order to excite student interest and let them know it is not a dead tradition. For this purpose I had students read the most widely read modern Indian thinkers – Aurobindo Ghose (Sri Aurobindo) and Mohandas Gandhi – as well as Paul Hacker’s provocative “Schopenhauer and Hindu ethics”, to let them know that the continuity between classical and modern Indian thought is not always as clear as it seems. (I read Andrew Nicholson’s Unifying Hinduism just before starting the course, and it occurred to me to try and have the students read some late medieval/early modern thinkers so they could have a chance to see where the real continuities are. But it was hard enough to find half-decent translations of celebrated thinkers like Śaṅkara and Rāmānuja; I couldn’t imagine trying to find something for the students to read from someone as obscure as Vijñānabhikṣu.)

Now to the apparent coincidence. When I had put together a set of readings according to these guidelines, it turned out that the second half of the course content all came back to the Bhagavad Gītā! And that even though I was going to teach the Gītā itself merely in the first half. More than half of the course would relate directly to the Gītā, without my planning this.

Gandhi’s love of the Gītā is well known, and Aurobindo wrote on it as well. Interpretations of the Gītā (especially in Vivekananda and Radhakrishnan play a major part in Hacker’s story of Schopenhauer’s reinterpretation of Hindu ethics. This part is perhaps not so surprising: it is well known that the Gītā has become one of the most prominent texts of modern Hinduism, perhaps the most prominent. (My surviving Indian uncle, an irrepressibly jovial man of whom I’ve always been fond, loves the text so deeply that he named his daughter after it.)

In the premodern setting I wanted to make sure students knew Śaṅkara and Rāmānuja, with their very different visions of human liberation. Both wrote commentaries on the Gītā. Rāmānuja’s theistic but worldly ethics seem like a relatively natural fit for the text. Śaṅkara’s view that the world is illusion seems less so. And yet, while searching for texts in which Śaṅkara most clearly articulates that view, I found it best expressed in his commentaries on the Gītā, on chapters 5 and 13. So, it turned out, we would read Śaṅkara, Rāmānuja, Hacker, Aurobindo and Gandhi, and all of them wrote on the Gītā – this right after reading the Gītā itself!

This all struck me because it has become a scholarly commonplace to say the Gītā is not as important as modern Hindus think it is. Anne Monius, for example, taught an entire course on “Hindu ethics” without any reference to it. But in my own investigation of what is interesting and accessible in Indian philosophy, it turned out that most roads led back to the Gītā. I think this matters.

The Gītā can be a hard text to love. Its most prominent message of “do your duty without concern for the consequences” is a hard sell in a utilitarian society like ours. Kant says something similar, of course, but Kant’s ideal of duty is closely tied to a similarly modern ideal of individual autonomy. The Gītā ties us to duties of caste and social station – and that’s to say nothing of the specific action being urged on Arjuna in the text, of going out and killing all his cousins. (I know one prominent professor, somewhat prone to hyperbole, who has described this as an act of genocide.)

And yet one mustn’t discount just how inspiring its message has been to so many. These days perhaps the most striking is Gandhi himself. Whatever one’s criticisms of Gandhi, one cannot exactly accuse him of being a warmonger. And yet somehow this text that advocates warlike acts was his favourite text and his inspiration. Perhaps more surprisingly yet, this wasn’t even a result of longstanding faith in the traditions he was raised in. He did not grow up with the Gītā; in his autobiography he notes he first read it in England, at the suggestion of the Theosophical Society. He was inspired by the Gītā when he encountered the ideas in the text itself. It seems clear to me that, however much we might disagree with this text, there is something in it well worth our paying attention to.

23 Replies to “The accidental Gītā”

  1. “And yet one mustn’t discount just how inspiring its message has been to so many. These days perhaps the most striking is Gandhi himself. Whatever one’s criticisms of Gandhi, one cannot exactly accuse him of being a warmonger.”

    Gandhi surely was inspired by the message of duty in the Gīta. Indeed he vigorously defended the Indian caste system against attacks by Dr Ambedkar (amongst others). My Dalit Buddhist friends frequently retell the story of how Gandhi threatened to go on one of his famous hunger strike to stop Ambedkar trying to outlaw caste. No love lost for Gandhiji in that quarter!

    It would seem that the Gīta was uppermost in the minds of India’s intellectuals at the time of Independence. But in terms of it’s influence before then I don’t think you’ve made your case here. How much of that I wonder was due to it’s popularity amongst Western Intellectuals like Schopenhauer?

    Still, it is an interesting approach to take a text and it’s commentaries down to the modern era as the basis for a discussion of Indian philosophy. Commentaries often reflect more on the commentator than the text. And shifting ideas expressed about the same text would illustrate that dynamic well. Seeing how each new system reinterprets a text to suit its own agenda would be instructive. And it’s true of so many texts.

    However you also say “Too often, Indian epistemology and metaphysics are seen as purely abstract activities with little relation to one’s ethical conduct or even one’s ultimate liberation…”

    And here’s an interesting quandary. Because if we admit that practical matters are important then we find imperatives to take a stand on ethical matters. In which case I could neither teach, nor spend any significant time studying, the morality of the Gīta because to me it is mistaken in a disastrous way. The ideas epitomised in this text seem to me to have been detrimental to Indian society in so many ways. Unless one agrees with the morality outlined in the text, the only way to treat it is at arms length. So it’s no wonder it’s seen as abstract.

  2. It’s interesting to consider, with Robert Minor in his edited volume, Modern Interpreters of the Bhagavad Gita (1986), that the Gītā played a role in the struggle for Indian independence, as nationalist leaders cited the “exhortation to action” from Kṛṣṇa in their quest for swarāj. Annie Besant, president of the Theosophical Society in 1907, along with B.G. Tilak (and perhaps several others) was instrumental in the founding the All-India Home Rule League in 1915-1916 and in 1917 was elected president of the Indian National Congress. While the Indian nationalists did not agree in their interpretations of the Gītā, what united them was their belief that the text could be cited to counter those Westerners and colonialists who criticized Hinduism as essentially “fatalistic, passive, lacking in concern for social ethics, otherworldly, idolatrous, etc.,” accusations that contained a measure of truth, at least according to Gandhi. It does seem that the karma yoga ideal, at least in some quarters, assumes an unprecedented prominence in this period, only to recede once again with Indian independence.

    Minor’s collection helps us appreciate the possible, even motley ethical (and to some extent spiritual) interpretations of the text. At one end of this spectrum we find the strongly allegorical and “spiritualized” approaches of Theosophists like Subba Row and William Q. Judge, an interpretation that clearly influenced Gandhi. To be sure, Gandhi worked out his own unique methodological or hermeneutic principles for interpreting the Gītā and other religious texts (involving, for instance, the ‘primacy of experience,’ acknowledgement of the ‘historical’ character of religious scriptures, and rejections of propositions clearly contrary to cultivated reason and the ‘first principles of morality’). Gandhi came to view the Mahābhārata itself as an “anti-war” epic “because it described the utter futility of a pyrrhic victory in which both victors and vanquished lose their all” (J.T.F. Jordens). Gandhi’s use of the text places stress on duty largely as svadharma, and then alongside the karma yoga ideal of selfless social service, on the values we’ve come to associate with virtue ethics, like self-control, non-attachment, and sophrosyne (the ideal consisting of steadfastness in wisdom and firmness in judgment).
    Finally, I would urge all those not acquainted with B.K. Matilal’s writings on the Gīta to see the essays collected in the volume of his work on “ethics and epics” edited by Jonardon Ganeri. Matilal confirms the point above about the various possible “readings” of the text: his insights are more-than-plausible and always suggestive, as when he contends, for example, that Arjuna’s moral concerns were belated, having arisen “when daggers were drawn and bows were strung,” giving us sufficient reason to inquire into our warrior’s possible motive(s), realizing that his entire life was in a sense lived in preparation for a battle of this sort and he bore no small portion of “responsibility for it to begin with.” For Matilal, both the Gīta and the larger epic from which it comes are evidence of a tradition that was “very self-conscious about moral values, moral conflicts and dilemmas, as well as about the difficulties of what we call practical reason or practical wisdom.” And importantly, I think, Matilal cites Kṛṣṇa proclamation, “I have created the four varnas in reliance upon the division of qualities and actions,” as a “critique of the birth-based division of caste rather than as an endorsement of it.”

    • Thanks, Patrick. I think it is an important point that the Gītā served well as a call to action at the time of independence.

  3. I recently gave a paper for Anne Monius’s students arguing that (*pace* Hacker) there is ample evidence of an Advaita ethical tradition in medieval India. Vivekananda’s main influence in this was Ramakrishna, not Schopenhauer or Deussen, though they later reinforced this interpretation. Ramakrishna himself was immersed in this form of world-affirming Advaita, influenced by non-dual tantra and Advaita *bhakti*.

    A video of a shorter version of that paper is available here (starts at 32:15):

  4. Thanks for this great post, Amod.

    A few bullet-point thoughts:

    1. I think that there is more to go on with the “devotion to duty without thought of results” theme in karmayoga, and, given enough context (and perhaps, abstraction too), students get the idea. I’ve been lucky enough to teach a range of classes that include elements of daoist thought and stoicism,along with the Gita, and the students who’ve joined me through these adventures have come to argue (to me) that there are powerful threads running through all three, focusing on motivation through the act itself and keeping a very clear eye on what we can influence and cannot, restricting our concerns to the former.

    I know that Chris has put a lot of thought into this topic. I’d love to hear his reflections.

    2. While I was at Texas, I remember a talk about Advaita Vedanta, and someone (perhaps Patrick Olivelle, IIRC) suggested that there wasn’t much of a Vedantic Tradition of ethics. Stephen Phillips responded that there was something powerful in Gita 6.32, pointing to Shankara’s commentary, emphasizing empathy with others through self-analogy (atma-aupamya).

    3. The Gita is remarkable as an early reflection on various dharmas which tries to find truth in all of them without merely saying that they are all the same (pace the perennialist misreading of Gita 4.11), it does make sense that it would be a natural place to find seeds or threads which tie to many other topics in Indian thought.

    4. Following up on some of Patrick’s thoughts on Matilal, I wonder if the apparent divorce of metaphysics and epistemology from ethics, as you note, has to do with an attempt to push back against the “Indian philosophy as a (mere) path of wisdom” approach that Matilal and others wanted to escape. This is a musing and not a claim. I’d need to think about it some more, but some of the pioneers in our field were really fighting against this sort of thing, which may have led them to perhaps go too far in the other direction. Matilal said in his editorial vision for the Journal of Indian Philosophy that “The field of our contributions will be bound by the limits of rational inquiry; we will avoid questions that lie in the fields of theology and mystical experience.” Phillips has criticized what he identifies as Matilal’s going too far in the other direction here: . Of course this has to do with “religion” but I think that it supports the notion that Matilal and others’ pushing back, quite hard, against the old saw about Indian thought may have made it easier for them simply extract the M/E content from the ethical and soteriological concerns within which they are embedded in the original texts.

    • Thanks for the lead to Śaṅkara on Gītā VI.32 – it’s an interesting counterpoint to Hacker, who is right about a lot but way overstated. (I would have responded to that claim very differently – namely that there is a lot more to ethics than altruistic behaviour. It never meant that to Aristotle and I’m not sure why it has come to take on that sense for so many recent thinkers.)

      Your thoughts on Matilal and ethics are fascinating, as is Phillips’s piece. The discussions between Olivelle and Phillips must have been exciting. I remember the one time I met Olivelle before my year at Texas, when I was just starting grad school, and he specifically told me “Indian philosophy is a very technical field. Don’t study it out of any spiritual interest.” One could imagine 20th-century analytic philosophers saying the same about philosophy in general… and pretty much every Western philosopher from every previous century regarding such a claim as completely nuts.

  5. Amod, I like your Gītā course 🙂 It is also my feeling that the centrality of the Gītā has been downplayed in recent scholarship as a consequence of the excessive emphasis on it during the 19th and 20th century. I think it makes sense to mention Abhinavagupta’s commentary to the Gītā (and Rāmakaṇṭha’s one as well) as a further sign of the importance of the text even for sections of the Indian culture that seem to be holding very different views on practically everything. You might think to include some reading of Abhinavagupta’s commentary, as it has been translated into English a couple of times, at least (by Arvind Sharma and Boris Marjanovic, IIRC)…

    • Interesting – I had no idea Abhinavagupta’s commentary had been translated. It’s hard to find good translations of him in general.

      I have thought more than once about doing a whole course entirely on Gītā commentaries. Between Śaṅkara, Rāmānuja, Abhinavagupta, Dnyaneshwar, Gandhi and Aurobindo you would have a ton of starkly different approaches. I’m not in a position to teach advanced courses right now, but I’d love to do that someday…

      • If I remember well (but I probably don’t), the translations are good enough, but a bit too ‘indological’ to be easily read by students completely unacquainted with Sanskrit; but you should definitely have a look yourself.
        Then, in a whole Gītā course, one might also bring in Western commentaries/interpretation from Simone Weil up to The Legend of Bagger Vance (I haven’t watched it yet, but it sounds like fun, especially as a relax-moment/occasion for critical discussion in an undergraduate course).

        • I second your recommendation of Simone Weil’s reflections on the Gita. Seen in light of her general discussion of force and how it dehumanizes us, her notion of seeing the Gospels and the Gita as teachings of how to receive and deploy force, respectively, without losing one’s humanity/spirituality is a very interesting and edifying topic of discussion. I plan to use some of her essays in a course I will teach in the fall on Wisdom Literature. She will be in our portion on “modern wisdom literature.”

          The book *The Legend of Bagger Vance* was a fun, interesting read (I read it about a decade ago, and I liked it a lot though I have no interest in golf). I’ve heard that the movie really downplays the Gita side and tries to play up the golf side. I didn’t bother watching it.

  6. Sri Aurobindo stressed that the Mahabharata and the Gita contain large scale interpolations. Sri Aurobindo’s Essays on the Gita is more famous for his response to other philosophical paths than a literal interpretation of the text. Moreover, care should be taken not to treat it as representative of Sri Aurobindo’s overall philosophy. [TNM55]

      • Essays on the Gita is, in fact, among the bulk of Arya writings that Sri Aurobindo undertook after the arrival of The Mother in India on March 29, 1914. But his writings took a decisive turn after the second and final arrival of The Mother on April 24, 1920. His philosophy of Yoga from 1926 onwards became surrender-to-The-Mother-centric oriented to the imperative of Supramental Evolution. They insisted on leaving behind the past dawns in order to be ready for the noons of the future. Yoga of the Cells for perfection of the body also forms their most ambitious project for future humanity and they desist from enforcing any universal standard of ethics. These, in nutshell, can be said the divergences introduced by Sri Aurobindo into the Indian tradition. [TNM55]

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  9. [Before Tilak and Gandhi wrote and spoke about it extensively, the Gita doesn’t seem to have had much sway in the nation. Today, we repose unquestioning faith in the text and hold it in the highest esteem. In this context, Desai asks us a very pertinent question: Does the Gita’s ‘slippery opportunism’ morally allow us Indians to be corrupt and complacent?]

  10. I think the author does have a good article overall but lacks a grounding in the original notions of the institutions of varna.

    “The Gītā ties us to duties of caste and social station”
    If you look at this in context, you will realise that varna is not caste and not social station. First, caste is a Portuguese word and not Sanskrit. Second varna is not based on birth as the western scholars believe. For example, the sage vyasa was the son of a fisherwoman. The illegitimate son of a fisherwoman. Or in other words a bastard son of a whore. So Hamilton is a Brahmin in my opinion. Also valmiki was originally a hunter robber and murderer. Also Ramanuja took on as a guru kanchipurna a man of “low caste”. The varna was determined by a person’s nature not birth.

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