The Bhagavad Gita is a timeless text. Famous thinker Aldous Huxley termed it one of the clearest and comprehensive summaries of ‘perennial philosophy’ ever revealed. The spiritual classic has 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 timeless spiritual wisdom demands timely expositions, especially at the critical junctures of history in the Indian context, it is no wonder Bhagavad Gita has emerged as the most lethal weapon in the hands of revolutionaries and nationalists during India’s struggle for Independence.
Bhagavad Gita has played a crucial role in establishing a school of thought among intellectuals since the time of Sri Adi Shankaracharya, who wrote the Advaita Bhashya on Prasthanatrayi, collectively refers to the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita and the Brahma Sutra. Following Adi Shankara, the founders of the two other major schools of Vedanta, Madhvacharya and Ramanujacharya, wrote bhashyas on the Gita. Since then, the Bhagavad Gita has been widely subjected to interpretations, and translations have become essential for a new school of thought to interpret Bhagavad Gita to establish itself. This tradition continues even now. The Gita has, thus, elevated itself to the status of Shruti from a Smriti over the years.
The major interpretations of the Bhagavad Gita, which shook the nation during the freedom struggle, are Srimad Bhagavad Gita Rahasya by Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Anasakta Yoga by Mahatma Gandhi, along with a pioneering translation of Bhagavad Gita by Annie Besant. Annie Besant was the first woman to translate Bhagavad Gita in 1893, the same year Swami Vivekananda delivered his epic speech at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago. She treated the Gita, naming it ‘The Lord’s Song’, as purely a sacred book, presenting it as a Hindu equivalent of the Bible or the Quran to the West. Even though Ms Besant was yet to join the freedom struggle at that time, her translation inspired many learned Indians 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 Gita?’ Aurobindo’s ‘Essays of Bhagavad Gita’ later became one of the most important spiritual and scholarly expositions of Bhagavad Gita.
Before Annie Besant’s translation became popular, Bhagavad Gita became ‘the standard text of the Indian independence struggle’, with the commentary of Swami Dayananda Saraswati and Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay’s patriotic novel Ananda Math. Swami Vivekananda did not write a commentary on Bhagavad Gita. However, he eloquently quoted the Gita throughout his speeches and writings that have been later compiled into a volume published by the Ramakrishna Mission.
Srimad Bhagavad Gita Rahasya and Lokmanya Tilak
Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s acquaintance with the Gita started at the age of 16, as he used to read out Suktas from a Marathi translation to his bedridden father. Lokmanya Tilak’s Srimad Bhagavad Gita Rahasya is considered the ‘first complete modern Indian treatise on the Gita’. A scholar of great eminence and the nationalist face of the Indian freedom struggle, Tilak considered Bhagavad Gita a source of inspiration for the Indian masses and wanted to situate it in a spiritual and political context to redefine the destiny of the nation. The massive two volumes of Gita 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 Mandalay prison in solitary confinement.
Gita 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 the Gita and offers a comparative study of the Bhagavad Gita and other religious texts like the Bible. While the first part deals with the philosophical interpretation of the Gita and scholarly analysis, the second part is the translation of the text. According to Tilak, as the ‘Srimad Bhagavad Gita Rahasya’ subtitle denotes, Gita is nothing but ‘Karma Yoga Sashtra’. He explained the teachings of the Gita 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 with no personal interest or motive. We later see Mahatma Gandhi also agreeing with this idea, unlike the popular narrative of his philosophy of Ahimsa.
Anasakta Yoga and Mahatma Gandhi
Mahatma Gandhi wrote an introduction to the Bhagavad Gita in Young India in June 1931. It was later reproduced in his commentary, in which he said that his first acquaintance with the Gita began in 1888-89 with the translation by Edwin Arnold. Close on the heels of Lokmanya Tilak, Gandhi also believed that the sannyasa of the Gita would not tolerate complete cessation of all activity. “The sannyasa of the Gita is all work and yet no work. Thus, the author of Gita, by extending meanings of words, has taught us to imitate him. Let it be granted, that according to the letter of the Gita it is possible to say that a warfare is consistent with renunciation of fruit,” he wrote, giving a new meaning to India’s freedom struggle. “But after forty years’ unremitting endeavour fully to enforce the teaching of the Gita 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 Gita in his life and shaping his ideology.
Anasakta Yoga becomes the fundamental writing of Gandhi 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 Gita, 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 the Gita by misinterpreting it as a text of non-violence during the challenging times of Independent struggle. “Non-violence is not in the Gita. If some people, including the Mahatma, say the Gita signifies a spiritual war or battle only, then what of Apariharyerthe and Hanyamane same “inevitable circumstance” and “body being killed”? What of the Shoka the sorrow, for those who are dead? To me such a reading seems the result of a defect in their mental attitude,” Aurobindo answered a question on Ahimsa of Gandhi in 1923, notably, much before his Anasakta Yoga came to light.
In Bengal, the spell of the Gita was more visible among the youth and revolutionaries than in any other part of the nation. Khudiram Bose, the young Bengali revolutionary, was hanged to death when he was hardly 18 years old. He died with a Bhagavad Gita slung across his neck on the gallows! When the offices of Dhaka Anusheelan Samiti, the notorious revolutionary organisation which unleashed violence against the British, were raided, the officers recovered dozens of copies of the Bhagavad Gita. That was the astounding influence of the Bhagavad Gita on the revolutionaries during the freedom struggle.
Among the other major works on Bhagavad Gita by the leaders of the national movement are Bhagavad Gita by C Rajagopalachari and Bhagavad Gita for modern life by Kulapati KM Munshi. Notably, all the commentators of the Gita laid stress on dharma. All notable interpretations of the Gita, written after India became Independent, including those of Dr S Radhakrishnan, Swami Chinmayananda, Swami Ranganathananda etc., shaped our national conscience towards national reconstruction and became guiding lights on the path to decolonisation.
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 Gita 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 Gita as he understood. Bhagavad Gita’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 explores the immense spiritual, philosophical, psychological, ethical, and strategic potentials of the Bhagavad Gita to build a future of peace and harmony.