The Bhagavad Gita’s True Intent

These days when it seems everyone is talking, and everyone else is relaying whatever everyone is talking about, truth seems to be scarce and difficult to find, even at a premium. And since everyone is talking, the media, which once acted as gatekeepers and minders of truths, now find that the only way to get the attention of the jabbering masses accustomed to "free newspapers" and "limitless talking" is to resort to hyperbole, to add "masala" to bland news, and to curry the favors of their distracted and disgruntled "fly by" readers.

And when everyone can weigh in on anything and usually does, the experts, the scholars, and the careful observers also have to do their trapeze acts to get the attention that they once had taken for granted. So it is that I read The New York Times these days with a chuckle, when there is a long analysis on how yoga can wreck your body, and why you better not take it up at all, or whether yoga is for narcissists, and wonder whether the "Old Gray Lady" has just become even more of an old curmudgeon or whether she has begun to wear her blouse low, in her old age, so that like the rest of them, she too can display her cleavage and get some attention from some chance passersby!

And so it is too that I find an economics professor, an Indian to boot, indulging in the kind of juvenile analysis of the Bhagavad Gita that only juveniles do, or either fundamentalist Bible thumpers used to do, or snide "Hinduism experts" did hiding behind "I was misquoted" excuses. The economist and professor emeritus at the London School of Economics, Lord Meghnad Desai, held forth on the sacred Hindu treatise, and questioned his fellow Gujarati, Mahatma Gandhi's, endorsement of the Bhagavad Gita. Desai, an avowed atheist, and now it seems an avowed demagogue, was speaking on "Gandhiji's views on violence," at the twelfth Prof. Ramlal Parikh Memorial Lecture series. We do not know how the old, the wizened, and the very Gujarati audience in India responded to Desai's "literal," and it seems superficial reading of the Gita, or to the criticism of the most well-known Gujarati and proponent of non-violence by a frizzy-haired Gujarati "Lord" of whom very few Indians have heard or know about.

Below is a summary of Desai's commentary on Mahatma Gandhi, and more dangerously, against the Bhagavad Gita:

"Bhagavad Gita justifies violence," he said, and ". . . if it does so, then why did Gandhiji approve of it?"

"Gandhi argued that Arjuna was blinded by his relationship with the opponent during the Mahabharata war, which was nothing less than a holocaust . . . Arjuna (in Gandhi's opinion) deserved to be re-educated by Krishna that killing was his 'Dharma' (duty) and not a bad thing."

"Is there a justification in casting Arjuna as if in darkness? Gandhiji singling out the relationship angle as the objection to Arjuna's doubt is what I find surprising."

"Gandhiji's over-all attack on Arjuna's reluctance to kill is which I think is not proper. . . . Argument that killing does not matter because you are duty-bound to do it is a highly dangerous argument."

One wonders if Dr. Desai did his homework, and if he did, countered the evaluations by men and women greater than him, including Mahatma Gandhi, on the true nature and import of the Gita. Here is just a small selection of what others, more sagacious than Desai, have said about the Bhagavad Gita:

  • "In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita, in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seems puny and trivial."—Henry David Thoreau

  • "The Bhagavad Gita is an empire of thought and in its philosophical teachings Krishna has all the attributes of the full-fledged montheistic deity and at the same time the attributes of the Upanishadic absolute."—Ralph Waldo Emerson

  • "The secret of karma yoga which is to perform actions without any fruitive desires is taught by Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita."—Swami Vivekananda

  • "From a clear knowledge of the Bhagavad-Gita all the goals of human existence become fulfilled. Bhagavad Gita is the manifest quintessence of all the teachings of the Vedic scriptures."—Shri Adi Shankara

  • "When I read the Bhagavad Gita and reflect about how God created this universe everything else seems so superfluous."—Albert Einstein

  • "The Bhagavad Gita has a profound influence on the spirit of mankind by its devotion to God which is manifested by actions."—Dr. Albert Schweitzer

  • "The Bhagavad Gita is a true scripture of the human race a living creation rather than a book, with a new message for every age and a new meaning for every civilization."—Shri Aurobindo

  • "The marvel of the Bhagavad Gita is its truly beautiful revelation of life's wisdom which enables philosophy to blossom into religion."—Herman Hesse

  • "The Bhagavad Gita is the most systematic statement of spiritual evolution of endowing value to mankind. It is one of the most clear and comprehensive summaries of perennial philosophy ever revealed; hence its enduring value is subject not only to India but to all of humanity."—Aldous Huxley

  • "In order to approach a creation as sublime as the Bhagavad Gita with full understanding it is necessary to attune our soul to it."—Rudolph Steiner

There is even a careful thesis on how the Bhagavad Gita influenced Thoreau, and Dr. Desai could have downloaded it on Kindle for a sum of less than ten dollars. In his book, The Gita within Walden, author Paul Friedrich unpacks the connections between these two spiritual classics, Henry David Thoreau's Walden and the Bhagavad Gita. It is said, and there is evidence, that Thoreau took the Gita with him when he moved to Walden Pond. Friedrich argues that Walden and the Gita have "much in common, touching on ultimate ethical and metaphysical questions."

In both books, Walden and the Gita, according to Friedrich, the "fundamental problems of good and evil, self and cosmos, duty and passion, reality and illusion, political engagement and philosophical meditation, sensuous wildness and ascetic devotion" are pondered. Reviewing Friedrich's book, Steven Schroeder observes that in each case (Walden and the Gita), ". . . the poet is a seer, and 'seeing' is a matter not just of the eyes but of the whole body, the whole body of the text, the whole body of a world embodied in text that is self-consciously . . . marked . . . by the interplay of uniqueness and antecedent sources." Thoreau too realizes, just like in the Gita, "violence is bad, but social evil is worse."

Schroeder finds Friedrich's reading of the Gita and the Walden, correct, careful, and sensitive, and " . . . as Gandhi and King would both insist . . . social evil is violence." Social evil is radical violence in the sense that it penetrates to the root of humanity and the violence it breeds will have to be confronted rather than people "simply succumbing to it." This is what Thoreau, Gandhi, and King realized and this is why Lord Krishna warns Arjuna about shutting his eyes to social evil. He tells Arjuna that you cannot afford not to tackle social evil just because it means that you may have to use violence—even using violence against your own kith and kin, if indeed they are the perpetrators of social evil.

Michel Danino too cautions us about the discussion of violence in the Gita, and asks us to think carefully: "The Gita's answer is 'spiritual works.' This means, first, no egoism in our action, no expectation of any gain or reward. . . . Not so easy in practice, yet a most soothing way to admit that our intellect is simply incapable of gauging the workings of the universe. We may erect systems of philosophy and speculate forever, but in the end we cannot know what is really good or bad, right or wrong. We remain pitifully ignorant of what we are or who we are, why we do what we do, and whether our action is of any use at all, or just some passing ripple on the great ocean of life. . . . But 'spiritual works' also means that we must surrender our petty limitations and unite our consciousness with the Divine consciousness in the very midst of action. This surrender to oneness with the Divine vision and action is the cornerstone of the Karmayoga of the Gita. It asks us to be 'with our consciousness founded in the Self, free from desire and egoism'."

Danino has tackled what may seem to some, including the glib Dr. Desai, as well as to Prof. Wendy Doniger, an advocacy of violence in the Gita. The Gita, he reminds us, is not a simplistic and superficial treatise. There are no simple oppositions—good/bad, just/unjust, violence/nonviolence—but to "the Gita the truth is neither one nor the other, but the conscious use of force to protect dharma. This third way is both a noble and a practical solution." Till such time "soul force" can be used to thwart the evil designs of murderous jihadis, for example, what should good people do? That is the fundamental question in the Gita, and Lord Krishna is giving courage to a man who at the point of doing battle is overcome with queasiness about tackling evil.

Alas, for the glib economist it seems that sensing, sense-making, and sensitivity have become alien, and thus, at least going by the media accounts, he has become illiterate too in matters of the grandly spiritual and philosophical.

Did Lord Desai do his homework before he decided to pontificate in a pugnacious way, imitating the other and more well-known British atheist, Richard Dawkins, on the Bhagavad Gita? Dawkins at least has had the wisdom to keep away from Hindu texts and philosophy in his attacks on religion, tackling only Christianity because he is most comfortable and knowledgeable about the history of Christians and their use of the good book to make tall claims. But where the good scientist feared to tread, the pretentious "social scientist" tramples all over the place. Listen to Lord Desai at your own peril. Meanwhile, read the Bhagavad Gita carefully, thoughtfully, fully and come to understand the challenges of being human, of being good, of acting without desiring the fruits thereof.

First published on Patheos,

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