Gita and the Indian secular press

Introduction

I came across a Kolkata Telegraph editorial on the Gita. The editorial criticizes Judge Srivastava for his suggestion that the Gita should be made a national text. The editorial then goes on to make certain remarks about Hinduism and the Gita. I would in this article only discuss the points made by the editorial about Hinduism and the Gita. I will first present the entire Telegraph editorial, then present the key ideas of the editorial, compare and contrast these ideas with the Gita and then make some general comments on our secular press.

Telegraph editorial

OF ONE AND THE MANY

Only a person who knows very little about the Bhagvad Gita, and is utterly insensitive to the pluralist nature of Indian culture, can put forward the proposal that the Gita should be considered the national religious text. Yet such a proposal was put forward by a learned judge of the Allahabad high court, J.N. Srivastava, albeit a few days before his retirement. For one thing, it is difficult to think of any country that has a national religious text. The Quran and the Bible are the holy books of Muslims and Christians respectively. No one has ever tried to restrict these two texts within national boundaries. Mr Srivastava's proposal is based on two erroneous assumptions. One is that he believes, like the advocates of Hindutva, that India is a country of and for the Hindus; therefore a Hindu sacred book should be the national religious text. The other assumption is that, according to him, all Hindus view the Gita with the same veneration.

The assertion that India is a Hindu country is empirically and historically wrong. A large majority of people living in India, apart from Muslims, Sikhs, Christians and others belonging to different faiths, are not Hindus. The reference is to the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, who are the outcasts of Hindu society. Historically, Indian culture has absorbed influences from various cultures and faiths. This has given Indian culture a variegated and plural character. To equate India and Indian culture with one faith is to vacate it of its richness. Looking at Mr Srivastava's assertion
from the narrow point of view of Hinduism, it should be noted that no one, not even the most devout Hindu, has ever argued that Hinduism's rich tradition can be captured in one book or text. Indeed, the argument has always been that Hinduism is a dharma, a way of life and not a mere religion. Practices based on a variety of texts, rather than a single authoritative text, are the guide to a Hindu way of life.

All this is not to deny the significance and the beauty of the Gita. Yet the Gita is not a text without any controversy around it. It was probably not the work of a single author. It is usually read as a part of the great epic, the Mahabharata. But there is a large body of scholarly opinion which argues that
the Gita is a much later interpolation into the Bhisma parva of the Mahabharata. The message of the Gita is focussed on the gospel of renunciation: human beings are told to be unaffected by joy and to be dispassionate in grief, for everything in life is predetermined by the divinity. This is what Krishna told Arjuna when he shied away from killing his close relatives. This message could have had a relevance at a time in history, but can in no way be the guiding principle of a modern nation. Human agents, conscious of the impact of their own actions, make a modern nation. A modern India cannot afford to be fatalistic.

Key ideas of the Editorial on Gita

The editorial makes the following points:

(a) Gita is not an authoritative text for Hindus. Practices based on a variety of texts, rather than a single authoritative text, are the guide to a Hindu way of life.

(b) Gita as a text is surrounded by controversy; Gita may have been written by more than one author; Gita is a later interpolation into Mahabharata according to some scholars;

(c) The message of the Gita is focussed on the gospel of renunciation: human beings are told to be unaffected by joy and to be dispassionate in grief, for everything in life is predetermined by the divinity; and hence Gita's message is fatalistic.

Is the Editorial correct?

Let us first take a look at the first claim (a). The claim that the Gita is not an authoritative text for all astika Hindus is definitely a bogus one. Gita is one of the prasthana traya (triple canon) of the Vedanta school which is the most popular school among Hindus today. All the Acharyas who founded the major Vedanta schools have commented on the Gita. Gita's 700 verses are thought to give a succint summary of astika Hindu thought as expressed in the Sruti (Upanishads). It is true that Hindu practices are indeed based on a variety of texts. Nevertheless, Gita captures the essence of the theory behind Hindu practices. Otherwise the major Acharyas would not have written elaborate commentaries on the Gita. Gita is the only smriti that is considered to be on par with the Sruti.

The points outlined in (b) seem to be a complete non sequitur. Does it matter if different western scholars have created controversies about the Gita? Why should these artificial controversies affect the status of the Gita among the astika Hindus? It seems to me that whoever wrote this editorial wanted to show his erudition.

The meat of the editorial's downgrading of the Gita as a relevant text for todays Hindus is in the points made in (c). It is absolutely correct that the central message of the Gita is renunciation. It is absolutely true that renunciation implies living in the world without attachment and desire for the fruits of the work. Gita itself sums up this message of tyaga in the last chapter in the following verses:

Abandonment of all desire-prompted actions is Samnyasa (renunciation) according to the wise. Men of discernment speak of the abandonment of the fruits of all actions as Tyaga (relinquishment). (Gita 18.2)

O the best of the Bharata race! Hear my conclusive view on the subject of Tyaga (relinquishment). It is said that there are three types of Tyaga. (Gita 18.4)

Works like sacrifice, charity, and austerity should not be abandoned. They should be performed; for sacrifice, charity, and austerity are indeed purifying for the wise. (Gita 18.5)

O son of Prtha! Even these works are to be performed without attachment and desire for their fruits. This is my settled and decisive view. (Gita 18.6)

It is not at all proper to renounce works that ought to be done as duty. Their abandonment out of delusion is considered to be of the nature of Tamas. (Gita 18.7)

Those who give up work out of a dread of physical suffering, out of a feeling that it is painful, they, performing relinquishment of a Rajasa nature, do not obtain the results of the relinquishment. (Gita 18.8)

But, O Arjuna! That relinquishment is considered as Sattvika, which consists in giving up attachment and thoughts of returns in respect of works and what is done with the feeling that it is an obligatory duty that must necessarily be performed. (Gita 18.9)

It is not indeed possible for any embodied being (i.e. one with body consciousness) to abandon works in entirety. So all that one can do is to abandon the fruits of action. One so doing is called a Tyagi (a relinquisher). (Gita 18.11)

Regarding those who have not relinquished their desires, they reap after death the fruits of their action performed with desire. They are of three sorts – 'unpleasant' like degradation of animal life or stay in Naraka for the very wicked; ' pleasant' like attainment of heavenly felicities for the virtuous; and 'mixed' as in human birth, for those who have karmas of both these types to their credit. But Sannyasins (true renouncers) will have none of these. (Gita 18.12)

The question is, however, whether Gita says that everything is predetermined by the Divine and hence Gita's teaching is fatalism as claimed in the Editorial. I would argue that it does not say that everything is predetermined and that its teaching is fatalism. It is true that Sri Krishna says in the
Gita:

I am the mighty world-destroying Time, engaged here in annihilating all beings. Even without you, not one of all the warriors arrayed in these rival armies shall survive. (Gita 11.32)

It will not, however, be correct to use this verse in support of the claim that everything in life is predetermined. In fact this verse says the exact
opposite. Gita admits that Arjuna is indeed free not to fight and hence not to kill the Kourava warriors. It is, however, saying that even without Arjuna
those warriors will die eventually. There is no predetermination or fatalism here. Gita is being realistic here since it is guaranteed that all of us will
eventually die. The claim that Gita is teaching fatalism is also contradicted by the fact that Gita teaches the theory of Karma as is clear from Gita 18.12 quoted above. If everything is predetermined in life then there will be no point in freely choosing among different options since all options will lead to the same ending.

Some final comments

This editorial encapsulates all that is wrong with the secular English language press in India today. The editorial is correct to state that a nation
can not be guided by the Gita or any other religious text. Instead of simply stating that, the editorial then goes on to make unwarranted and dubious
comments on the Gita, something the secular press will not do with non-Hindu religious texts.

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