Monday, November 24, 2014

The Bhagavad Gita in the killing fields of the Mahabharata

When I wrote about "do the right thing," I was, of course, channeling a thought from the Bhagavad Gita.  In the conversation that I mentioned in that post, my old friend referred to the Gita and the larger story of the the Mahabharata, as from more than four- or five-thousand years ago.  The nerd that I am, well, even in that friendly conversation I had to hem and haw and dissent about the Mahabharata being way more recent than that.

To engage with a religious text without being blinded by faith is a feature of religious studies.  Religious studies is not merely for those who are religious. If only many more among us studied the religions of the world; but, I digress!

The context for the Gita is far from what an uninformed person might imagine.  It was in the context of one of the biggest battles ever in Hindu mythology.
The text is in the form of a conversation between the warrior Arjuna, who, on the eve of an apocalyptic battle, hesitates to kill his friends and family on the other side, and the incarnate god Krishna, who acts as Arjuna’s charioteer (a low-status job roughly equivalent to a bodyguard) and persuades him to do it.
What might one make of such a setting in which Krishna convinces Arjuna that his duty is to, ahem, kill his friends and uncles and cousins?  What would Gandhi do?
Confronted with Krishna’s exhortation to Arjuna to engage in a violent battle, Gandhi argued that by urging him to “fight,” Krishna meant simply that Arjuna should do his duty. “Fighting” was merely a metaphor for the inner struggle of human beings, and nonviolence was a corollary of nonattachment to the fruits of action; therefore, actions such as murder and lying are forbidden, because they cannot be performed without attachment.
To a true believer, the Mahabharata is not any mythology, and, therefore, the Gita is not anything metaphorical.  Gandhi appears to have waffled there, eh.

Wendy Doniger--yes, that Doniger--has authored an essay reviewing a "masterful new biography of the Gita" from which I excerpted the quotes.  She writes:
How did Indian tradition transform the Bhagavad Gita (the “Song of God”) into a bible for pacifism, when it began life, sometime between the third century BC and the third century CE, as an epic argument persuading a warrior to engage in a battle, indeed, a particularly brutal, lawless, internecine war? It has taken a true gift for magic—or, if you prefer, religion, particularly the sort of religion in the thrall of politics that has inspired Hindu nationalism from the time of the British Raj to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi today.
Doniger sketches how this transformation happened.  I will leave it to the interested to read that argument in its entirety, which is a must-read especially for those interested in the political economy of India and "the role of the Gita in the rise of Hindutva in India today."

I have no doubt that the Gita has plenty of lessons for us mortals to think about in order to lead a good life.  I remember my great-uncle reciting, as he often did, the following verse:

At the source of that image is a translation of the verse:
One who has studied the Bhagavad Gita just a little,
drunk even a drop of Ganga water,
has worshipped Murari (Krishna) just once,
does not meet with Yama (lord of death).
This atheist cares not about worshiping Murari, is convinced that there won't be any encounter with Yama, and will not dare to drink a drop of the highly polluted Ganga water.  But, yes, I believe that I immensely gained from the Gita that I read, even if I understood nothing, way back during my angst-filled undergraduate years.


Anonymous said...

I feel that the Gita is another tool / propaganda of the powers that be to do their duty, be truthful, and not be desirous of the fruition of your efforts. Where as Murari was all but truthful - manipulative, cunning and one of the ruling class.
I guess you can see it if only you are willing to peel off the deep-seated beliefs / indoctrinations.


Sriram Khé said...

Oooooh, a juicy political interpretation that I agree with, of course ;)
But, imagine telling the Hindutva people that Krishna was "manipulative, cunning and one of the ruling class" ;)

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