Answering common objections
against Bhagavad gita As It Is.
Vedic scholars all over the world accept the Bhagavad gita as one of the most important transcendental literatures originating in India. It talks about the all encompassing Absolute Truth. It’s simple, but profound. It’s easily accessible, yet
mystical. The Bhagavad gita continues to be the subject of myriad interpretations about what exactly its conclusion is. However, since the Bhagavad gita talks about the Absolute Truth, it must have only one ultimate conclusion, since the Absolute Truth is one.
Srila Prabhupada chose to name his commentary on the Bhagavad gita as an “as it is” commentary Bhagavad gita As It Is. This presumptuous sounding title puts many off. A common retort is “How can one man have a monopoly on what the Bhagavad gita means?” However, by using this title, Srila Prabhupada wants to highlight that the Bhagavad gita has a very specific message. And even more importantly, by using this title, Prabhupada wants to indicate to the readers that his commentary presents that specific message as it is, without change.
IS BHAGAVAD GITA AMBIGUOUS?
One common objection to identifying a single conclusion of the Bhagavad gita is that the Bhagavad gita itself is ambiguous, and that it can be interpreted in multiple ways. Some point to some verses which can be easily interpreted in multiple ways. Without denying that, one can still clearly understand the ultimate conclusion of the Bhagavad gita from its own unambiguous declaration of it.
Bg. 18.64 69: “Because you are My very dear friend, I am speaking to you My supreme instruction, the most confidential knowledge of all. Hear this from Me, for it is for your benefit. Always think of Me, become My devotee, worship Me and offer your homage unto Me. Thus you will come to Me without fail. I promise you this because you are My very dear friend. Abandon all varieties of religion and just surrender unto Me. I shall deliver you from all sinful reactions. Do not fear. This confidential knowledge may never be explained to those who are not austere, or devoted, or engaged in devotional service, nor to one who is envious of Me. For one who explains this supreme secret to the devotees, pure devotional service is guaranteed, and at the end he will come back to Me. There is no servant in this world more dear to Me than he, nor will there ever be one more dear.”
There cannot be any other interpretation of the above series of verses but that about becoming a pure devotee of Krishna and surrendering oneself completely to His sweet will. The above verses come at the very end of the Bhagavad gita, and can therefore be considered the conclusion of the Bhagavad gita. Since this is the Bhagavad gita’s supreme instruction, all other instructions in the Bhagavad gita must be subservient to and be pointing to this single instruction of becoming a pure devotee of Krishna. Not only that, the word guhya tamam (“most confidential”) have been used thrice in the Bhagavad gita Bg. 9.1, Bg. 15.20, and in Bg. 18.64 above. In all three places these words are used to describe knowledge about unalloyed devotional service to Krishna.
Srila Prabhupada highlights this clear specific message bhakti all throughout his commentary. But some others contend that the Bhagavad gita talks about other spiritual paths as well like karma yoga (the process of developing detachment from the results of one’s work), jnana yoga (the process of mental and philosophical speculation aimed at being able to clearly discern between what is material and what is spiritual), and dhyana yoga (the process of meditation eventually leading to the realization of the self and God). How then can we say that unalloyed devotion of Krishna is the conclusion of the Bhagavad gita? Apart from the fact that the Bhagavad gita itself declares so unequivocally (as noted earlier in this article), an even slightly deeper study of the Bhagavad gita reveals that all other processes described in it depend on bhakti for their practice as well as their fruition. Here are a few examples:
Karma yoga (Bg. 3.30): “Therefore, O Arjuna, surrendering all your works unto Me, with full knowledge of Me, without desires for profit, with no claims to proprietorship, and free from lethargy, fight.”
Jnana yoga (Bg. 7.17): “One who is in full knowledge and who is always engaged in pure devotional service is the best. For I am very dear to him, and he is dear to Me.”
Jnana yoga (Bg. 7.19): “After many births and deaths, he who is actually in knowledge surrenders unto Me, knowing Me to be the cause of all causes and all that is. Such a great soul is very rare.”
Dhyana yoga (Bg. 6.47): “And of all yogis, the one with great faith who always abides in Me, thinks of Me within himself, and renders transcendental loving service to Me he is the most intimately united with Me in yoga and is the highest of all. That is My opinion.”
Thus, we see that whether it be karma yoga (Bg. 3.30 above), jnana yoga (Bg. 7.17, 19 above), or dhyana yoga (Bg. 6.47 above), all of them depend on devotion to Krishna. We find such references all over the Bhagavad gita. On the other hand, at the end of the Bhagavad gita, as its supreme instruction (Bg. 18.64 69), bhakti is declared to be its single supreme conclusion, independent of any other process.
WHAT ABOUT INTELLECTUAL FREEDOM?
Despite the evidence given above, some people refuse to accept that the Bhagavad gita has just one conclusion; they think that accepting this premise would preclude any intellectual discussion on the Bhagavad gita. Fortunately, that’s not true. Even though the conclusion is beyond all philosophical discussion, being as bright and clear as the sun on a cloudless day, the complete text of the Bhagavad gita is like a gem studded highway leading up to the final conclusion. Each verse is profound and can provide deep realizations, all in line with the final conclusion. In fact, as one continues to practice the principles of the Bhagavad gita, the realizations become deeper and deeper still, each coming along with the thrill of a new discovery. Also, understanding the concepts of the Bhagavad gita decidedly stimulates the intellect. Figuring out how one concept leads onto another, how the various concepts are interrelated, how one concept is used to explain another, and so on, is an intellectual adventure replete with astonishing discoveries and unexpected surprises.
For example, while one is wading through the marshy land of so many types of faiths, through the fog of so many clouding philosophies, trying to reach a clear conclusion about what exactly is faith, the sunlight of transcendental knowledge imparted in the seventh chapter of the Bhagavad gita, regarding faith in different personalities, shows us the way. Then, the solid ground of the fourteenth chapter regarding the three modes of nature (sattva, rajas and tamas) assures us that dry land is near. And finally, the discovery of the seventeenth chapter regarding faith in the different modes takes us safely out of the marshlands of confusion, high and dry, with a clear understanding of faith. One’s faith is guided by the modes of nature, but the results of any kind of faith are bestowed by Krishna alone. Thus, the best faith is that which is reposed in Krishna.
Such philosophical and intellectual exertions are very helpful in realizing the final conclusion of the Bhagavad gita. But the beauty is that even those who are not intellectually very gifted are not bereft of the ultimate conclusion of the Bhagavad gita, because a sincere student is rewarded by Krishna with the required intelligence to realize the highest conclusions about the Absolute Truth (Bg. 10.10).
Thus, intellectual pursuits are certainly not thwarted even if the unambiguous final conclusion of unalloyed devotion to Krishna is accepted in the very beginning. On the contrary, the Bhagavad gita is an intellectual’s treat as he wrestles using his intellectual muscles to try and grasp the ever deepening profundity of the message of the Bhagavad gita. His sincerity and devotion to Krishna attract Krishna’s mercy, which then bestows the fruits of his intellectual labors. Krishna encourages such use of intelligence by declaring that one who studies the Bhagavad gita is actually worshiping Krishna by his intelligence. (Bg. 18.70)
FAITHLESS MAL INTERPRETATIONS
Some people think that the words of the Bhagavad gita just can’t be literally true, and hence open to more than one interpretation. They find it hard to believe some of the things mentioned in it for example, the Bhagavad gita talks about heaven, hell, and the spiritual world, all three of which are not perceptible to the general populace. But, taking the Bhagavad gita message “as it is” implies accepting the existence of heaven, hell, and the spiritual world as truths. One of the most important messages in the Bhagavad gita is about getting out of the cycle of repeated birth and death in the material world and going back to the spiritual world.
Bg. 9.3: Those who are not faithful in this devotional service cannot attain Me, O conqueror of enemies. Therefore they return to the path of birth and death in this material world.
Those who understand this goal would never propagate anything less in the name of the Bhagavad gita. But since many shun the literal meaning of its words, there are so many commentaries on the Gita that do not highlight this goal. Instead, they use the Gita concepts as mere management tips for becoming better leaders in this material world. Although the Gita can certainly help us manage our lives better, that is not its ultimate purpose. None of these commentaries are “as it is.”
There is another reason why some people don’t accept the message of the Gita literally. The reason is that these people believe that the Absolute Truth is impersonal. Therefore, when Krishna speaks of Himself (the person) as the== highest Truth, they take Krishna as a mere instrument that metaphorically represents the impersonal Absolute Truth. This distorts the “as it is” meaning of the Gita text.
These philosophers can’t fathom how Krishna, whose inconceivable opulence and powers are described in the Bhagavad gita, can be a person. For example, how can an entity always be everywhere yet be a person? Krishna explains that He is everywhere always in His unmanifest form, i.e. in the form of His unlimited energies. At the same time, since He is the source of everything, He is always aloof from His creation (Bg. 9.4 5). Just like the sun, which is situated in one place in the sky, but whose energies pervade all creation, Krishna is situated aloof from His creation, but still pervades it.
Overwhelmed by such mystic powers of Krishna, unable to fathom them, such philosophers try to hide their bewilderment by lowering the status of Krishna from being the all powerful person whose energies are all encompassing and everywhere, to being just a representation of an all pervading impersonal entity. However, as soon as this is done, the message doesn’t remain “as it is.”
Bg. 7.24: Unintelligent men, who do not know Me perfectly, think that I, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Krishna, was impersonal before and have now assumed this personality. Due to their small knowledge, they do not know My higher nature, which is imperishable and supreme.
The “as it is” meaning of “I” used by Krishna throughout the Bhagavad gita is quite straightforward. Only a person (not an impersonal entity) will speak in terms of “I” and “mine” the way Krishna does all throughout the Gita. Moreover, only if Krishna is accepted as a person (and not as a mere metaphorical instrument), does the final conclusion of devotion to Krishna makes sense. How can one love something impersonal? Thus, by not accepting that the Absolute Truth is the person Krishna, such philosophers are forced to forego the literal meaning of the Bhagavad gita text, and are also forced to interpret it in many concocted ways.
“AS IT IS” WHY?
Some may raise the objection: why must one take the Bhagavad gita message “as it is”? This is like asking why should one take the doctor’s prescription as it is? The answer is simple; a concocted interpretation would keep us away from the desired goal. Arjuna accepted the words of the Bhagavad gita “as it is” (Bg. 10.14), so should we if we are interested in achieving the desired result of studying and following it. The desired goal of the Bhagavad gita is to get out of the cycle of birth and death in this material world, by reviving our dormant love for Krishna.
THE ESSENCE OF “AS IT IS”
Some people object to Srila Prabhupada’s seemingly presumptuous use of “as it is” in the title of his commentary because it seems to imply that only his Gita commentary is accurate, or that it’s better than everyone else’s. But any commentary on the Gita that sticks to Krishna’s clear message is “as it is.” Thus, all commentaries by Vaishnava acharyas like Sripada Ramanujacarya, Sripada Madhvacarya, etc. are “as it is” commentaries. Although the commentaries by the different Vaishnava acharyas seem to differ, since all of them conclude with unalloyed devotion to Krishna, they are all “as it is” commentaries. Different acharyas preach the message of the Gita in different social and intellectual climates, and therefore emphasize the philosophical and practical details that most suit the times in terms of effectiveness in bringing the general mass of people towards the ultimate conclusive principle of the Bhagavad gita unalloyed devotional service to Krishna.
There can be many concocted conclusions of the Bhagavad gita. But when one is clear about its “as it is” conclusion, one can easily identify those conclusions which are not “as it is”. Srila Prabhupada deliberately used the phrase “as it is” in the name of his Bhagavad gita commentary, not in defiance to the revered Vaishnava commentaries which are all “as it is”, but in defiance to all those others which did not highlight unalloyed devotion to Krishna as the only conclusion of the Bhagavad gita. Prabhupada’s commentary title continues to shake up and entice all those who come in contact with it.
In today’s world, freedom of expression is the mantra. Although the Absolute Truth is not subject to personal opinions, it has still become a matter of choice rather than a matter of fact. In such a setting, Prabhupada’s Bhagavad gita As It Is is an outright challenge to the incumbent intellectual scene of the world. One can’t resist getting intrigued by such audacity. Only one who has something awesomely powerful up his sleeve can take on the whole world in this manner. Don’t miss this opportunity. Take up Prabhupada’s Bhagavad gita As It Is and see for yourself how Prabhupada’s commentary lives up to its catchy name.
Abhijit Toley did M.Tech.in Computer Science from IIT Mumbai and is presently working as a Senior Software Engineer in an MNC in Pune. Check his blog at http://thebandwagonofmoltengold.blogspot.com