Is ” Does the Bhagavad-gita allow for multiple interpretations?

Scholars all over the world accept the Bhagavad-gita, which talks about the all-encompassing Absolute Truth, as one of the most important books from India. Simple yet profound, easily accessible yet mystical, it continues to be the subject of myriad interpretations. But since the Absolute Truth, the subject of the Gita, is one entity and not many, then logically the Gita must have only one ultimate conclusion.

Srila Prabhupada chose to name his commentary Bhagavad-gita As It Is. This presumptuous-sounding title puts off many. A common retort is, “How can one man have a monopoly on what the Bhagavadgita means?” However, by using this title Prabhupada wants to highlight that the Bhagavad-gita has a specific message. And even more important, by using this title Prabhupada wants to tell readers that his commentary presents that specific message as it is, without change.

Is the Bhagavad-gita Ambiguous?

One common objection to identifying a single conclusion to the Bhagavad-gita is that the book is ambiguous and can be interpreted in multiple ways. Without denying that some verses can be variously interpreted, one can still clearly understand the ultimate conclusion of the Bhagavad-gita from its own unambiguous declaration of it.
Abhay Charan - Back To Godhead
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.” (18.64–69)

There can be no other interpretation of these verses than the obvious one: Become a pure devotee of Krishna and surrender completely to His sweet will. Since this is the summary instruction at the end of the Bhagavad-gita, all of Lord Krishna’s other instructions must support and point to it. Not only that, the word guhya-tamam (“most confidential”) appears three times in the Bhagavad-gita (9.1, 15.20, 18.64), and in all three places the word describes knowledge about unalloyed devotional service to Krishna.

Srila Prabhupada highlights this clear specific message bhakti throughout his commentary. But others contend that because the Bhagavad-gita talks about other spiritual paths, these must be on the same level as bhakti. Lord Krishna does indeed speak about karmayoga (developing detachment from the results of one’s work), jnanayoga (philosophical speculation to discern spirit and matter), and dhyana-yoga (meditation to realize the self and God). How then can we say that unalloyed devotion to Krishna is the conclusion of the Bhagavad-gita? Apart from the fact that the Bhagavad-gita itself declares so unequivocally, as noted above, a study of the Bhagavadgita reveals that all other processes Krishna speaks of depend on bhakti for their practice and success. Here are a few examples:

“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.” (3.30)

“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.” (7.17)

“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.” (7.19)

“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.” (6.47)

Thus, we see that whether it be karma-yoga (3.30), jnana-yoga (7.17, 19), or dhyana-yoga (6.47), all depend on devotion to Krishna. We find similar references throughout the Bhagavad-gita. And at the end of the Gita, Lord Krishna declares that bhakti is the 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 of the book. Fortunately, that’s not true. Even though the conclusion is beyond all philosophical conjecture, 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 to the conclusion. Each verse is profound and can provide deep realizations, all in line with the conclusion. In fact, as one continues to follow 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 stimulates the intellect. Figuring out how one concept leads into another, how the various concepts interrelate, how one concept explains 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 religion, through the fog of so many clouding philosophies, trying to reach a clear conclusion about faith, the sunlight of transcendental knowledge imparted in the seventh chapter of the Bhagavad-gita regarding faith in different types of people shows the way. Then the solid ground of the fourteenth chapter, about the three modes of nature, assures us that dry land is near. And finally, the discovery of Lord Krishna’s discussion, in the seventeenth chapter, of faith in the different modes of nature takes us safely out of the marshlands of confusion, high and dry, with a clear understanding of faith. The essential teaching is that the best faith is that which is reposed in Krishna.

Such philosophical and intellectual excursions help us realize the conclusion of the Bhagavad-gita. And even the less intellectually gifted can understand the conclusion of the Bhagavad-gita because Krishna rewards the sincere student with the intelligence to do so (Bg. 10.10).

Accepting the unambiguous conclusion of unalloyed devotion to Krishna in the very beginning doesn’t thwart intellectual pursuits. On the contrary, the Bhagavad-gita is a treat for intellectuals who, using their intellectual muscles, wrestle to grasp the ever deepening profundity of Krishna’s message. Their sincerity and devotion to Krishna attracts His mercy, which then bestows the fruits of their intellectual labors. Krishna encourages such use of intelligence by declaring that those who study the Bhagavad-gita worship Him by their intelligence (Bg. 18.70).

Faithless Misinterpretations

Some people won’t accept that the Gita has just one message because they think its words just can’t be literally true, making the verses open to more than one interpretation. They find it hard to believe some of the things mentioned in the Bhagavad-gita. Many of the concepts stated simply in the Bhagavad-gita are beyond the common man’s perception. For example, the Bhagavad-gita talks about heaven, hell, and the spiritual world, all three of which lie beyond ordinary perception. But taking the message of the Bhagavad-gita “as it is” implies accepting as true the existence of heaven, hell, and the spiritual world. In fact, one of the most important messages in the Bhagavad-gita is the call to get out of the cycle of repeated birth and death in the material world and go back to the spiritual world. Unless we accept the existence of the spiritual world, how can we take the message of the Bhagavad-gita seriously, or “as it is”?

Anyone who understands that the goal of life as stated in the Bhagavad-gita is to get out of the cycle of birth and death will never propagate anything less than that in the name of the Bhagavad-gita. But since many people don’t believe the literal meaning of the words of the Bhagavad-gita, too many commentaries on the Bhagavad-gita do not highlight this goal enough. Instead, they may use the concepts described in the Bhagavad-gita as mere management tips to become better leaders in the material world. Although the Bhagavad-gita’s concepts can certainly help us manage our lives better, that is not their ultimate purpose. All such commentaries are not taking the message of the Bhagavad-gita “as it is.”

Inconceivable Krishna

Some people don’t accept the direct message of the Gita because they believe that the Absolute Truth is impersonal. Therefore, when Krishna speaks of Himself (the person) as the highest truth, they take Krishna as a metaphor representing the impersonal Absolute Truth. This bias distorts the “as it is” meaning of many Gita verses.

These philosophers can’t fathom how a person could possess the inconceivable opulence and powers described in the Bhagavad-gita. For example, how could a person always be everywhere? Krishna explains that He is everywhere in His unmanifested form i.e., in the form of His unlimited energies and 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 rests in one place in the sky but pervades all of creation, Krishna sits aloof from His creation but still pervades it.

Philosophers overwhelmed by Krishna’s mystic powers and unable to fathom them try to hide their bewilderment by lowering the status of Krishna. Instead of the allpowerful person whose energies are all-encompassing and everywhere, they want Him only to represent an all-pervading impersonal entity. However, as soon as this is done, the message doesn’t remain “as it is.” Lord Krishna addresses this problem: “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.” (Bg. 7.24)

The “as it is” meaning of “I” used by Krishna throughout the Bhagavadgita is straightforward. Only a person (and not an impersonal entity) will speak in terms of “I” and “mine,” as Krishna does throughout the Gita. Moreover, only if Krishna is accepted as a person and not as a mere metaphorical instrument does the conclusion of devotion to Krishna make sense. How can one love something impersonal? Thus, philosophers who don’t accept that the Absolute Truth is the person Krishna must forego the literal meaning of the Bhagavad-gita and interpret it in many concocted ways.

Why Take the Message “As It Is”?

Some may raise the objection that even if the Gita has just one clear message, why must one take that message “as it is”? But that’s like asking why you must take the doctor’s prescription as it is. Why not interpret it the way you want? The answer is simple: Just as misinterpreting a doctor’s prescription won’t cure your illness, misinterpreting the message of the Bhagavad-gita won’t help your spiritual progress. Arjuna accepted the message of the Bhagavad-gita as it is (Bg. 10.14), and 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 by reviving our dormant love for Krishna.

The Essence of “As It Is”

Some people object to Prabhupada’s seemingly presumptuous use of “as it is” in the title of his commentary because it seems to imply that only his 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 acaryas, such as Ramanujacarya and Madhvacarya, are “as it is” commentaries. Although the commentaries by the different Vaishnava acaryas seem to differ from one another in some respects, they are all “as it is” commentaries because their conclusion is unalloyed devotion to Krishna. Different acaryas 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. But they all aim to bring many people to the concluding principle of the Bhagavad-gita: unalloyed devotional service to Krishna.

A person clear about the Gita’s “as it is” conclusion can easily identify commentaries that are not “as it is.” Srila Prabhupada deliberately used the phrase “as it is” in the name of his Bhagavad-gita commentary, not to defy the revered Vaishnava commentaries, which are all “as it is,” but to defy all those that do 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 who come in contact with it.

Freedom of expression is the mantra in today’s world. Even the Absolute Truth has become a matter of opinion rather than a matter of fact. In such a setting, Prabhupada’s Bhagavad-gita As It Is presents an outright challenge to the incumbent intellectual scene. 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 the opportunity to study Prabhupada’s Bhagavad-gita As It Is and see for yourself how his commentary lives up to its catchy name.

Abhijit Toley is a member of the congregation of ISKCON’s Sri Sri Radha-Kunjabihari Temple in Pune. He works as a principal software engineer with Symantec Corporation in Pune.