The timeless spiritual wisdom demands timely expositions. It is no wonder Bhagavad Geeta has emerged as the Spiritual fountainhead of Bharat’s Struggle for Independence, inspiring both Satyagrahis and Revolutionaries
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Time am I, destroyer of the worlds, and I have come to engage all people. (Bhagavad Geeta: 11;32)
The Bhagavad Geeta is a timeless text, as famous thinker Aldous Huxley termed it, one of the most clear and comprehensive summaries of ‘perennial philosophy’ ever revealed. The spiritual classic had myriad interpretations, Bhashya in Vedic parlance, which sought to comprehend the timeless wisdom encapsulated in the 700 verses or suktas, which means ‘well-spoken’. As the timeless spiritual wisdom demands timely expositions, especially at the critical junctures of history in the Bharatiya context, it is no wonder Bhagavad Geeta has emerged as the most lethal weapon in the hands of revolutionaries and nationalists during Bharat’s struggle for Independence.
The Bhagavad Geeta has become a sine qua non for establishing a school of thought among intellectuals since the time of Sri Adi Shankaracharya, who wrote the Advaita Bhashya on Prasthanatrayi, collectively referred to the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Geeta and the Brahma Sutra. Following Adi Shankara, the founders of the two other major schools of Vedanta, Madhvacharya and Ramanujacharya, wrote bhashyas on the Geeta. Since then, the Bhagavad Geeta has been widely subjected to interpretations and translations as it has become essential for a new school of thought to interpret Bhagavad Geeta to establish itself. This tradition continues even now. The Geeta has, thus, elevated itself to the status of Shruti from a Smriti over the years.
Among the major interpretations of Bhagavad Geeta which shook the nation during freedom struggle are Srimad Bhagavad Geeta Rahasya by Lokmanya Bal Gangadhara Tilak and Anasakta Yoga by Mahatma Gandhi, along with a pioneering translation of Bhagavad Geeta by Annie Besant. Annie Besant was the first woman to translate Bhagavad Geeta in 1893, in the same year Swami Vivekananda delivered his epic speech at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago. She treated the Geeta, naming it ‘The Lord’s Song’, as purely a sacred book. Even though Ms Besant was yet to join the freedom struggle at that time, her translation inspired many learned Bharatiyas who later declared war against the British. “It has been said that Annie Besant’s translation may be the one that Aurobindo read while in the Alipore Jail in 1908,” Meghnad Desai writes in his book ‘Who wrote Bhagavad Geeta?’ Aurobindo’s ‘Essays of Bhagavad Geeta’ later became one of the most important spiritual and scholarly expositions of Bhagavad Geeta.
Before Annie Besant’s translation became popular, Bhagavad Geeta had become ‘the standard text of India’s independence struggle’, with the commentary of Swami Dayananda Saraswati and Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay’s patriotic novel Ananda Math. Swami Vivekananda did not write a commentary of Bhagavad Geeta. However, he eloquently quoted the Geeta throughout his speeches and writings that have been later compiled into a volume published by Ramakrishna Mission.
Srimad Bhagavad-Geeta Rahasya
Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s acquaintance with the Geeta started at the age of 16, as he used to read out Suktas from a Marathi translation to his bed-ridden father. Lokmanya Tilak’s Srimad Bhagavad Geeta Rahasya is considered to be the ‘first complete modern Bharatn treatise on the Geeta’. A scholar of great eminence and the nationalist face of Bharatiya freedom struggle, Tilak considered Bhagavad Geeta as a source of inspiration for the masses and wanted to situate it in a spiritual as well as political context to redefine the destiny of the nation. The massive two volumes of Geeta Rahasya, originally written in Marathi, spread across 1210 pages with a 123-page index extra. He wrote the book in just 105 days (November 1910-March 1911), when he was in solitary confinement in Mandalay prison.
Geeta Rahasya is perhaps the most spectacular illustration of Tilak’s wisdom and scholarship of Hindu and Western philosophy and theology. The book, written in two parts, covers almost all major commentaries of Geeta and offers a comparative study of Bhagavad Geeta and other religious texts like The Bible. While the first part deals with the philosophical interpretation of Geeta and scholarly analysis, the second part is the translation of the text. According to Tilak, as the subtitle of ‘Srimad Bhagavad Geeta Rahasya’ denotes, Geeta is nothing but ‘Karma Yoga Sashtra’. He explained the teachings of Geeta in the light of Karma Yoga, one of the four spiritual paths that preach one to act according to dharma without being attached to the fruits. He defended the ethical obligation to the action and justified selfless defence and offence, without any personal interest or motive. We would see later Mahatma Gandhi also agreeing with this idea, unlike the popular narrative of his philosophy of Ahimsa.
Anasakta Yoga by Gandhiji
Mahatma Gandhi wrote an introduction to the Bhagavad Geeta in Young Bharat in June 1931, which was later reproduced in his commentary, in which he said that his first acquaintance with the Geeta began in 1888-89 with the translation by Edwin Arnold. Close on the heels of Lokmanya Tilak, Gandhiji also believed that the sannyasa of the Geeta will not tolerate complete cessation of all activity. “The sannyasa of the Geeta is all work and yet no work. Thus the author of Geeta, by extending meanings of words, has taught us to imitate him. Let it be granted that according to the letter of the Geeta, it is possible to say that a warfare is consistent with renunciation of fruit,” he wrote, giving a new meaning to Bharat’s freedom struggle. “But after forty years’ unremitting endeavour fully to enforce the teaching of the Geeta in my own life, I have in all humility felt that perfect renunciation is possible without perfect observance of Ahimsa in every shape and form,” he went to explain the profound influence of the Geeta in his life and shaping his ideology.
Anasakta Yoga becomes the fundamental writing of Gandhiji in contrast with other multiple volumes he penned, when we find he sought to bring more clarity to his idea of Ahimsa in the second chapter of the book, casting away all ambiguities surrounding his philosophy, which were rather ascribed to his philosophy by his modern-day followers. “Even if we believe in non-violence, it would not be proper for us to refuse, through cowardice, to protect the weak. I might be ready to embrace a snake, but if it comes to bite you, I would kill it to protect you,” Mahatma Gandhi explains his philosophy of Ahimsa, which sanctions the right to self-defence of an individual or a nation. Going deep into the Geeta, he analyses the real point of Arjuna Vishada, which many a commentator completely missed out, “The question which Arjuna asks Shri Krishna is not whether it is right for him to kill. His question is whether it would be right to kill his kinsmen.”
Aurobindo had severely criticised the efforts of a section of interpreters to despiritualise the teachings of Geeta by misinterpreting it as a text of non-violence during the challenging times of Independent struggle. “Non-violence is not in the Geeta. If, as some people, including the Mahatma, say, the Geeta signifies a spiritual war or battle only, then what of Apariharyerthe and Hanyamane same “inevitable circumstance” and “body being killed”? What of the Shloka the sorrow, for those who are dead? To me such a reading seems the result of a defect in their mental attitude,” Aurobindo said, while answering a question pertained to Ahimsa and Geeta in 1923, notably, much before Gandhiji’s Anasakta Yoga came to light.
Geeta: Before and After Independence
In Bengal, the spell of Geeta was more visible among the youth and revolutionaries than any other parts of the nation. Khudiram Bose, the young Bengali revolutionary who was hanged to death when he was hardly 18 years old, died with a Bhagavad Geeta slung across his neck on the gallows! When the offices of Dhaka Anusheelan Samiti, the revolutionary organisation which led an armed struggle against the British, were raided, the British police recovered dozens of copies of Bhagavad Geeta. That was the astounding degree of influence of Bhagavad Geeta on the revolutionaries during the freedom struggle.
Among the other major works on Bhagavad Geeta by the leaders of the national movement are Bhagavad Geeta by C Rajagopalachari and Bhagavad Geeta and modern life by Kulapati KM Munshi. Notably, all the commentators of Geeta laid stress on Dharma. All notable interpretations of Geeta, written after Bharat became Independent, including those of Dr S Radhakrishnan, Swami Chinmayananda, Swami Ranganathananda etc, gave shape to our national conscience towards national reconstruction and became guiding lights on the path to decolonisation.
The Book of ‘NOW’
Eminent diplomat and former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in one of his latest books, World Order: Reflections on the Character of Nations and the Course of History, acknowledged the role of Bhagavad Geeta in offering an ethical outlook for the modern strategic world. “While Lord Krishna’s appeal to duty prevails and Arjuna professes himself freed from doubt, the cataclysms of the war — described in detail in the rest of the epic — add resonance to his earlier qualms. This central work of Hindu thought embodied both an exhortation to war and the importance not so much of avoiding but of transcending it. Morality was not rejected, but in any given situation the immediate considerations were dominant, while eternity provided a curative perspective,” Kissinger summarises the teachings of Geeta as he understood. Kissinger is just a name amid other modern thinkers, management experts, strategists, scientists and global leaders who drew inspiration from Bhagavad Geeta. They laud the Geeta as the book of ‘Now’, the immortal words of Bhagawan Krishna who addresses the present.
Bhagavad Geeta’s timely expositions are bound to happen until the human civilisation ceases to exist, as the holy text continues to inspire generations in an unparalleled way. Let us hope the world explore the immense spiritual,
philosophical, psychological, ethical as well as strategic potentials of Bhagavad Geeta for building a future of
peace and harmony.
The Bhagavad Gita by Annie Besant
Srimad Bhagavad Gita Rahasya by Lokmanya Bal Gangadhara Tilak
Anasakta Yoga by Mahatma Gandhi
Bhagavad Gita by C Rajagopalachari
Bhagavad Gita and Modern Life by KM Munshi
Bhagavad-Gita: The Song of God: Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood
Essays on Bhagavad Gita by Sri Aurobindo
Who wrote the Bhagavad Gita by Meghnad Desai