Looking at the Bhagavad Gita in a wider context

The Bhagavad Gita is the most widely known and the best loved Indian scripture, and next to the Bible it is one of the most frequently translated books in the world. It is available through countless editions and commentaries, and millions of copies have been sold by the International Society for Krishna Consciousness alone. Hindus in India and Britain often refer to the Bhagavad Gita, not only to its words but also to its images. Thus, many Hindu temples in Britain have a ‘Gita picture’, usually showing Krishna and Arjuna on the chariot, but also other scenes, and some Indian cities possess an entire ‘Gita Mandir’, built in recent times. Such Gita temples are found in New Delhi, Mathura and Kurukshetra, for example, whilst Ahmedabad, Baroda and Benares have a temple dedicated to the ‘Goddess Gita’. In Britain, some Hindu temples are called ‘Geeta Bhavan’.

People are not always sufficiently aware that this great popularity of the Gita is a modern development. The great esteem in which this scripture is held today by Hindus in India and abroad, as well as by many Christians and people of other faiths, is unlikely to have developed in quite this way without the cross- cultural encounter of India and the West over the last 200 years.

Many readers approach the Bhagavad Gita from a rather limited and too literal perspective, without enquiring either into the history of the transmission and interpretation of this text or into its religious and secular significance in India today. If one wishes to illuminate the richness and complexity of the Gita, it is not enough to discuss its ideas or look at one or two commentaries but one needs to explore a number of different, yet complementary approaches. Historical, exegetical, theological and comparative methods of study are required to develop a much needed, differentiated hermeneutic for explaining the meaning of the Bhagavad Gita and assessing it contribution to our global religious heritage.

For anyone familiar with the literature it is clear that the textual-critical studies of the Gita are still in their infancy. An examination of the cross-cultural influence at work in the modern reinterpretation of the Bhagavad Gita shows that the Gita would not even be known in India in the way it is widely known and quoted today, were it not for the profound historical, social, political and religious changes of the modern period which produced the phenomenon of the ‘Hindu Renaissance’, often called ‘Neo-Hinduism’ rather than simply ‘Hinduism’.

Looking again at the Bhagavad Gita in a wider context, it is important to bring out the continuity and discontinuity between the past and contemporary significance and usage of this scripture. I shall briefly consider some approaches by way of example. (1)

The Bhagavad Gita in traditional India

What were the traditional meaning and importance of the Bhagava Gita in pre-modern times? And how far were these different or similar to those attributed to the text today?

These questions are far too often ignored and it is simply assumed, without being questioned, that the Gita was not an important source for popular bhakti religiosity, the path of fervent devotion to a personal God, as was the case of the Bhagavata Purana and other texts. The Gita is primarily a poem of philosophical discourse which continues to expound many of the ideas of the Upanishads. Together with the Upanishads and the Brahmasutra, the Gita gained its renown as one of the three textual sources of classical Vedanta. As such, it primarily provided a basis for meditation and philosophical commentary, and Vedanta theologians either emphasised jnana-yoga, the way of wisdom (Shankara) or bhakti-yoga, the way of devotion (Ramanuja) as its main message. The contemporary secondary literature on the Bhagavad Gita is very diverse and lacks integration. This shortcoming has been pointed out by the American scholar Robert N. Minor who has produced a very substantial exegetical commentary on the Gita (2) where he makes the important observation that the commentaries which have appeared so far, ‘have often reflected an a priori idea of what the Gita must say, based upon notions of ‘Hinduism’ defined by later thinkers, other commentaries have not given evidence that they are attempting an understanding of the Gita in terms of the early date in which it was written and, thus, prior to the systems of Indian thought. Thus, one misses the historical exegesis of passages and finds instead certain assumptions as to what the text ought to be. The goal of this commentary is to reverse these lapses, and thus to further Gita studies in an informed direction.’ (3)

He concludes his long discussion on authorship, date and other introductory matters by saying: ‘In summary, the Bhagavad-Gita, a text by an unknown author which dates to about 150 B.C.E. and which was added to the Mahabharata probably about that time, is a well-preserved scripture, though assurance of issues of introduction still eludes scholarship. (4) This history of the Bhagavad Gita text and its different recensions forms part of the history of the transmission of the epic and of that of Sanskrit manuscripts. Unfortunately, we know far less about all these than we would like to, nor has anything like the massive research undertaken on Old and New Testament texts ever been matched in this area.

Another question is: What has been the influence of the Bhagavad Gita on Indian society in ancient and modern times?

This approach has been taken by Prem Nath Bazaz’ study The Role of Bhagavad Gita in Indian History (5) which must be read with considerable caution. However, it is worth looking at for the diverse materials it contains, especially with regard to the place of the Gita in Indian nationalism. The author contends that ‘there is not a single thoroughly critical study of the Bhagavad- Gita available for an accurate assessment of the historical role that the great poem has played in Indian society.’ (6) He argues, though not always convincingly, that this role has been largely negative. Although in a minority, he is not alone in saying this in India today.

The Bhagavad Gita in a cross-cultural context Why did the Bhagavad Gita become so popular in modern India? How did it first become known in the West?

To answer these questions, it is important to remember that the Bhagavad Gita was the first Indian religious text ever to be directly translated from Sanskrit into English. Charles Wilkins published his translation in London in 1785. In the preface, the teachings of the Gita were compared to those of the New Testament, a comparison which has been made ever since. This comparison focusses mainly on the person of Krishna rather than on any other aspect of the Gita. Westerners are often drawn to the great theophany of chapter eleven which is comparatively little commmentèd upon the Hindus.

During most of the nineteenth century, the interest of western scholars and especially of Protestant missionaries (7) in the Gita was much greater than that of Indians. Wilkins’ translation never became as popular as the much more poetic rendering of Sir Edwin Arnold’s Song Celestial, published one hundred years later in 1885. But by the late 1880’s a new interest also began to emerge in India with Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s first modern, yet unfinished Gita commentary in Bengali, soon to be followed by other commentaries written by Hindu reformers and nationalist writers. They all differed in what they considered to be the essential message of the Bhagavad Gita but in contrast to the ‘quietistic interpretation’ of the past, which focussed on meditation and devotion, they all emphasised karmayoga, i.e. work and an activist orientation.

This new interpretation centred especially on Krishna’s teaching to Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, on what is often described today and visually depicted as ‘the sermon of the Bhagavad Gita’. Krishna actively engaged in driving Arjuna’s chariot into battle, sometimes shown with the two warring armies drawn up on either side, teaching Arjuna about his duty, has become an important focus for the activist and theistic aspirations of modern Hinduism. Aurobindo consciously chose this scene for the title page of his nationalist journal Karmayogin (1909—10), and it has been used ever since to decorate Gita editions, commentaries, calendars etc.

Krishna, the divine charioteer and teacher, is seen as the ideal karmayogin (8) who encourages Arjuna to engage in active battle. This interpretation provided a powerful inspiration for the development of Hindu nationalism and much of the religious legitimation for the Indian independence movement. What had been a text for meditation and philosophical commentary now became a reference point for political activism and popular religiosity, a symbol of national and religious identity. Gandhi himself was later considered as the living embodiment of the ideal karmayogin.

The devotion to the Krishna of the Gita and to the duty of work can be documented from many contemporary commentaries on the Bhagavad Gita. One can enquire into the Gita interpretation of different Indian nationalists, reformers or modern Hindu missionaries, whether the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Swami Prabhupada or Sri Sathya Sai Baba, but one must keep in mind the radically new context in which the Gita is understood in modern Hinduism. The new understanding is part of a cross-cultural process whereby this scripture, in the words of G. J. Larson, has become ‘a kind of nationalist tract, as well as a symbol of universal spirituality to be used as an apologetic document for the spread of neo-Hindu ideas . . . a rationalisation for radical political action . . . and for the development of a new corporate work-ethic . . .‘ The Gita can thus be seen as both “a neo-Hindu ‘New Testament’, and a symbol of national liberation.” (9)

The Bhagavad Gita in the image world of modern Hinduism

Besides the countless references to the Bhagavad Gita publications and discussions, what other evidence can be found for showing the popularity of this scripture?

Here it is important to take modern iconographic data into account and to realise that illustrations of the Bhagavad Gita are a relatively recent development. The numerous scenes from Krishna’s life found in Indian art, especially in miniature paintings, are based on puranic sources, particularly on the Bhagavata Purana, but not on the Gita. After undertaking a study of the Krishna images in classical Indian sculpture, J. S. Hawley came to the following conclusion: ‘In the past century, both in India and in the West, a great deal of interest has been focussed on the Krishna whom we meet as the teacher of the Bhagavad Gita. We are given to understand that for two millenia the Gita has been India’s most influential scripture. Yet of some 800 panels of Krishna sculpture to have survived from the period before 1500 A.D. only three refer with any clarity to the Gita, but on the whole it is remarkable how indifferent sculptors were to this aspect of Krishna’s life.’ (10)

However, modern illustrations of Krishna, the divine charioteer (Parthasarati) and the teacher of the Gita (Gitacharya) abound and can be found both within and without the context of the scripture. The question arises, then, how to explain the profusion of these illustrations in the present when compared with their absence in the past. It is my contention that the modern emergence of a wealth of iconographic data in relation to the Bhagavad Gita is an additional proof for the new importance and function of this text in modern Hinduism.

The study of iconographic data is important in its own right but it also throws additional light on the understanding of religious ideas and their visualisation. Thus, the religious image-world created around or in conjunction with a religious text not only illustrates and supplements the teachings of the text but it also indicates fundamental changes in the religious world-view.

A number of scholars have dealt with the modern reinterpretations of the Bhagavad Gita but, as far as I am aware, nobody else has analysed the iconographic evidence for the modern popularity of this scripture and its visual contribution to the religious image- world of contemporary Hinduism. Over the last few years I have collected illustrations, objects and slides which show Krishna and Arjuna in a religious or secular setting in different parts of India, and I have discussed their significance at greater length elsewhere.” Suffice it to say that the Bhagavad Gita, like the Upanishads, traditionally remained unillustrated. The abstract philosophical themes of Krishna’s and Arjuna’s dialogue were commented and meditated upon rather than concretely visualised. Initially, they provided little inspiration for artists and painters nor did their subjects become part of the repertoire of the popular devotional art produced at the great Indian pilgrimage centres.

However, the Bhagavad Gita with its setting on the battlefield of Kurukshetra includes a minimal narrative which especially allows the visualisation of Krishna and Arjuna on the chariot, surrounded by the two warring armies, and that of the cosmic form of Vishnu, the great visvarupa, which appears in the theophany of chapter (11). But the latter has not had anything like the impact which the Gitacharya motif has made on the image-world of modern Hinduism. The numerous illustrations of Krishna and Arjuna can he grouped into different scenes: there is the literal chariot scene, referring to the opening chapter of the Gita; or there is the bhakti scene with Arjuna dismounted from the chariot, his weapons lying on the ground, his hands folded in a bhakti attitude; or there is the terrace scene, with Krishna and Arjuna seated opposite each other on a terrace, with neither chariot or armies in sight. This is mostly found in earlier manuscript illustrations and resembles the way Sikh Gurus were painted teaching on a terrace.

These illustrations may be found in the context of Gita editions and commentaries or as devotional pictures and religious icons quite independent from the text itself (oleographs, calendar pictures, temple paintings, (12) Pongal and Divali cards, wall-hangings, inlaid wood pictures, or ornamental chariots in ivory or sandal-wood). The image of Krishna and Arjuna on the chariot, with its most frequently associated message ‘Yoga is wisdom in work’ (BG 2:50) or ‘I come into being age after age (BG 4:8), is now present even in a completely secular context, whether decorating a cinema front, a letter head, a briefcase or a bedspread — I have even found an example of its use in advertising such products as a television set, cement and power engineering.

One can ask what kind of ‘visual theology’ is expressed in these images and also, what do they tell us about the religiosity of modern Hinduism? Here it is important to remember that the popularisation of the Bhagavad Gita is not only a modern, but primarily an urban phenomenon with little impact on village Hinduism. Bharati has maintained that the Gita is overrated as a book of the people at large who know the stories of the Bhagavata Purana much better than the Gita. He has written: ‘When the villagers heard Gandhi speak about the Gita, they heard him, not the Gita, for the holy word has to be filtered through the charismatic. He reached the people, not the book.’ (13)

Theologically, there is much that could be said about the Bhagavad Gita. It seems to me particularly important to explore the religious attraction of the Krishna of the Gitä whose understanding today is based on the fusion of elements drawn from different textual and iconographic traditions, interpreted in a new cross-cultural context. The different levels of meaning found in the imagery of Krishna, the Gitacharya, allow us to obtain an insight into the modern Hindu vision of God.

The Krishna of the Gita is so attractive because he is both human and divine: here is a God who speaks to man and leads him in his actions, even if this meant aggressive action during the independence movement. The dialogue situation of the Gita is also of great importance for it shows that in the midst of battle Krishna is close to human concerns; he is not an abstract God of metaphysics far removed from the daily preoccupations of the multitude. Thinking about the Krishna of the Gita involves thinking about Arjuna in his doubt and fear. Many devotees can closely identify with his situation and Krishna fills them with power to act. Thus, the visual representation of Krishna and Arjuna on the chariot, so widely diffused among Hindus today, reinforces the double sense in which the Bhavagad Gita has been understood in modern times; on one hand, it has been interpreted as a dialogue ‘about things divine’, about the nature of God, soul and salvation, but on the other it has been for countless people ‘a handbook of practical wisdom’ to live and act in the world, understood as ‘a battlefield on which we have to perform our duty.’ (14)

The three aspects under which I have discussed the Bhavagad Gita here present examples of how the study of this scripture can be contextualised and thus be made more rewarding. Other aspects worth pursuing would be the use of quotations or of whole readings of the Gita in contemporary Hindu worship both in India and in Britain, the comparisons made between the Bhagavad Gita and the Bible, or the place of the Gita in current Hindu-Christian dialogue. Yet another fascinating perspective to explore is the popularity of the Gita in the West and the references found to the Gita in western literature. In 1985 several conferences and publications celebrated a double anniversary regarding the Bhagavad Gita; it was then 200 years since Charles Wilkins published his first Gita translation into English, and 100 years since Edward Arnold presented an even more influential rendering of the text. These two translations have been superceded by more recent and accurate ones; and new commentaries begin to appear, among them one by Bede Griffiths. (15) Today the Gita can be studied from many different perspectives, but the most important question of all is to ask what lasting contribution this Hindu scripture makes to our global religious heritage and what it can give us, whatever our background or beliefs.


1. These examples are part of a longer study on which I am still working. Some ideas are based on a paper The Religious and Secular Importance of the Bhagavad Gita in modern Hinduism given in 1983 at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, for a seminar on Hinduism in Great Britain. A fuller version is published as ‘Iconographic Reflections on the Religious and Secular Importance of the Bhagavad Gita within the Image World of Modern Hinduism’ in The Journal of Studies in the Bhagavadgita, Bicentennial Issue, vol. V—Vu, 1985—1987, University of Sydney, pp. 161—188.

2. Robert N. Minor, Bhagavad-Gita. An exegetical Commentary, New Delhi: Heritage Publishers 1982.

3. ibid., p. XI.

4. ibid., p. LII.

5. New Delhi: Sterling Publishers 1975.

6. ibid., p. 6.

7. See E. Sharpe, ‘Protestant Missionaries and the Study of the Bhagavad Gita’. International Bulletin of Missionary Research, vol. 6:4 (1982), pp. 155—159. A larger historical survey is found in E. J. Sharpe, The Universal Gita: Western Images of the Bhagavadgita — a bicentenary survey. London: Duckworth, 1985.

8. I have discussed the writings of Hindu reformers on this in greater detail elsewhere: ‘Who is the ideal karmayogin? The meaning of a Hindu religious symbol’, Religion vol. 10 (1980), pp. 41—59.

9. See G. J. Larson, ‘The Bhagavad Gita as a Cross-Cultural Process: toward an Analysis of the Social Locations of a Religious Text’, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, vol. XLIII: 4 (1975), pp. 651—669. The quotations are on p. 665f. and p. 668.

10. See J. S. Hawley, ‘Krishna’s Cosmic Victories’, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, vol. XLVII:2(1979), pp.201—22l. The quotation is on p. 202.

11. See my article ‘The Iconography of the Bhagavad Gita — The visual theology of a Hindu scripture’, Journal of Dharma vol. VII:2 (1982), pp. 146— 163. I am exploring the possibility whether some of the visual material I have collected on the Bhagavad Gita might be reproduced for the use of pupils and students.

12. For an example from a Hindu temple in Britain see the modern painting of Krishna and Arjuna from the Bradford Mandir reproduced in D. G. Bowen ed., Hinduism in England, Bradford College 1981, p. 43.

13. A. Bharati, ‘Gandhi’s interpretation of the Gita: An Anthropological Analysis’ in S. Ray ed., Gandhi, India and the World, Philadelphia: Temple University Press 1970, pp. 57—70, quoted on p. 68.

14. A description used by Shri Shri Prakash in his ‘Introduction’ to the Bhagavad Gita, Bombay: The Limited Editions Club 1961.

15. See Bede Griffiths, River of Compassion: a Christian commentary of the Bhagavad Gita. WarwicklNew York: Amity House, 1987 (available in Britain from Element Books, Longmead, Shaftesbury).

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