Interpretations on Gita: A scholarly study


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Interpretations on Gita: A scholarly study
By Dr Vaidehi Nathan
The Bhagavadgita in the Nationalist Discourse, Nagappa Gowda K, Oxford University Press, Pp 286(HB), Rs 695.00

BHAGAVAD Gita the eternal text has been explored and re-interpreted by men since it was originally penned by the great sage Vyasa. Each one has found his/her own meanings and answers from the Gita to quests and queries on life and beyond.

The Bhagavadgita in the Nationalist Discourse by Nagappa Gowda K. has analysed the contemporary understanding of Gita by leaders in 19th- 20th century. Six men have been selected who wrote dissertations on or referred extensively to Gita. They are Bankimchandra Chatterjee, Balgangadhar Tilak, Swami Vivekananda, Aurobindo Ghose, Mahatma Gandhi, Vinoba Bhave and BR Ambedkar. These are all men who influenced the course of the nation — some politically, some spiritually. “The nationalist engagement with the Gita was both emotional and intellectual, since nationalism expressed itself, whether sui generis or as a response-product of engagement with colonialism, at those levels. Locating the source of nationalism in the Gita was a way of rejecting the Western claim that nationalist impulse and ideology were its exclusive gift” says Gowda.

While Bankimchandra saw the Gita as a call for action, for Tilak, as revealed in Gita Rahasya, the appeal was the notion of sthitaprajna, the rejection of sanyasa and a direction for active engagement with life. For Aurobindo, who turned into sage after rejecting active political life, Gita was a text of supreme spirituality, demanding nothing less than total surrender. Gandhi on other hand found in Gita “supreme endorsement of the notions such as non-violence, Swadeshi, Svadharma and Satyagraha.”

interpreted Gita as an embodiment of national culture in true sense. Vinoba Bhave found svadharma as the central theme of Gita. Ambedkar saw Gita in a very different light. He thought it was a text that was trying to revive and justify “the Old Order with a new set of arguments as emanating from the mouth of God.”

Nagappa Gowda says that the Gita came back as a much discussed text of Hinduism because of the interest shown by the westerners in it. According to him, the Europeans, triggered by their eagerness to explore the Indian culture and religion sought out the “native informants.” “The native informants were the Brahmins – a small, literate monopoly class in the country, who thus became the sole spokespersons of religion. Brahmanical religion became the Hindu religion, and Brahmanical texts became the official Hindu texts.

Of them Shree Krishna and his Song Celestial seemed to merit the Semitic notion of a revealed religion… Thus, in the eighteenth century, we see both the orientalist and missionary discourses nudging the Bhagavadgita and its author to the centrestage of attention and engagement.”

Tilak used Gita in the political context. He exalts an all-India-Hinduism, playing down the differences of sect and caste. For Vivekananda the message is beyond India, in a world canvas and it is apolitical. He regards the truth in Gita as universal and not historical, says Gowda adding nishkam karma was the essence of the monk’s message from Gita.

Sri Aurobindo has written extensively on Gita. He wrote 24 essays on the first six chapters, twelve essays on the next six chapters and twelve on the remaining six. The first six chapters, he felt dealt with the notion of karma and its relation with jnana.

Gandhi delivered 218 lectures on the Gita at the Satyagraha Ashram, Ahmedabad over a period of nine months in 1926. He was introduced to the Gita by Edwin Arnold, to an English translation called Song Celestial, when he was twenty years old.

He said, “Only he can interpret the Gita correctly who tries to follow its teaching in practice…it may be a profound one, but in my view the realisation of its profound quality depends on the depth of one’s sincerity in putting its teaching into practice.”

Ambedkar on the other hand saw it as a reiteration of the caste system. The reviving debate on it he said was an attempt at ‘replying’ to the Buddhist preaching, by re-establishing the ‘relevance’ of the caste categorisation. After reading the views on others on the Gita, reading Ambedkar’s gives a feeling of ‘let down.’

One wonders if there was any relevance for his inclusion into this book. For, Ambedkar takes a limited, narrow and constrained attitude towards the text that is widely seen as enlightening, egalitarian and ennobling.

Nagappa Gowda says that the reason why Gita gelled well in the nationalist discourse is that it laid great stress on karma yoga and “undermined the asceticism of the Upanisadic persuasion and emotionalism and devotionalism of the bhakti persuasion.” And also it was seen as upholding a deep commitment to equality.

Gita has been a text of all times. From Adi Shankara, even before him and down the generations men have delved into this changeless doctrine and applied it and explained it as it revealed itself to them.

It has an appeal that has transcended time and space. Nagappa Gowda by contextualising the Gita on the matrix of national movement has given a new perspective worth pursuing. Gowda is Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, Government Women’s First Grade College and Post Graduate Centre, Ajjarakadu, Udupi.

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