The supreme message of peace was spoken just before the beginning of the world's greatest battle.
Over the last few weeks due to the unsuccessful attempt in Russia to ban the Gita as a terrorist book, the question came up repeatedly on Google and in the media: “Is the Gita an extremist book?” On looking at the many voices that opposed the “extremist” labeling, I found that most of the voices that defended the Gita, though well meaning, appealed to respect for cultural and religious sentiments and freedom of speech but lacked intellectual depth. So I feel driven to write an article that presents the traditional devotional understanding of the Gita with sensitivity to contemporary intellectual concerns. Such an article, I feel, would not only address the limited, time-specific “extremist” accusations against the Gita but serve the more enduring and universal purpose of offering a glimpse into the profundity of its wisdom. So here we go.
A Message of Love
The Bhagavad-gita, far from being an extremist book, is a book of wisdom and a message of love, especially of the Divine’s love for humanity. It’s only our extreme disorientation from that divine love that makes us imagine the Gita an extremist literature.
Let’s first understand the Gita’s essential message of love, then analyze some of its aspects that may seem to belie this message and may, if taken wildly out of context and misinterpreted, be seen as extremist.
Krishna starts His message of love by enlightening Arjuna: we are all souls, spiritual beings (Gita 2.13), entitled to rejoice in eternal love with the supremely lovable and loving God, Krishna. All of us long for a love that lasts, but we seek it on the material platform that is, inherently, filled only with the fleeting. The Gita’s philosophical wisdom about our eternal spiritual identity creates a lasting foundation on which we can build an edifice of love the storms of time will never bring down.
In the Gita Krishna offers a concise overview of the various paths for spiritual progress karma-yoga (the path of detached action), jnana-yoga (the path of analysis), dhyana-yoga (the path of meditation), and bhakti-yoga (the path of love). Simultaneously throughout the Gita (2.61, 3.30, 4.3, 5.29, 6.30, 7.1, 8.14, 9.26–27, 10.9–12, 11.53–54, 12.6–7, 13.18, 14.27, 15.19, 16.5, 17.26–27, 18.64–66), He hints, indicates, states, asserts, and proclaims that the path of love is the best. As the Gita progresses, the hints become more and more explicit; the secret becomes increasingly open until its emotional climax (18.64-66) where Krishna bares His love in a disarming proclamation of love and an endearing call for love.
Thus the Gita is essentially a revelation of the Divine’s love for humanity as well as a love call to humanityto reciprocate with the Divine.
Potential Misunderstandings About the Gita Let’s now look at three aspects of the Gita that are at times misunderstood.
1. The Bhagavad-gita’s Battlefield Setting
People sometimes misunderstand the Bhagavad-gita as calling for violence because it is set on a battlefield. However, the Gita uses that setting to demonstrate that its call for transcendence is practical, responsible, and dynamic. Let’s see how the setting serves this purpose:
Practical spirituality: Many people feel that spirituality is too otherworldly and so is impractical or irrelevant given the urgent demands of this world. To address their concern, the Bhagavad-gita’s spiritual message is delivered on an eminently this-world setting, forcing the most urgent,
practical action. By showing how the Gita’s spiritual wisdom solaced and empowered a responsible head of state, Arjuna, the Gita poignantly illustrates that its teachings are universally applicable. If a person standing on a battlefield spared time to gains piritual wisdom and found the Gita’s teaching relevant, then no one needs to doubt the practicality of the Gita’s message, and no circumstance warrants relegating the Gita’s message to the to-be-done-later category.
The social responsibility of spiritualists: While the Bhagavad-gita offers a message that can guide any individual in any circumstance to personal transcendence, peace, and fulfillment, it also recognizes that people can benefit from its message only when the prevailing socio-political order fosters moral and spiritual integrity. When the ruling heads of state are morally and spiritually depraved, as they were before the Kurukshetra war, assertive action is essential to prevent people from being exploited, abused, and ruined. The Mahabharata sections preceding the narration of the Gita vividly describe:
a. the multiple injustices and atrocities committed by the then ruling heads of state (the Kauravas);
b. the repeated efforts of the Kauravas’ victims (the Pandavas) to peacefully restore justice and morality;
c. the utter disdain with which the Kauravas rejected all attempts at peace, thus making a war inevitable.
For those victimized by massive injustice, the Gita doesn’t condone a passive, spectator’s role, one that reduces noble pacifism to impotent and suicidal utopianism. Instead, the Gita advocates pragmatic assertive action for protecting basic human rights. That violence should be the very last expression of such assertiveness is illustrated by the exhaustive peace efforts that preceded it. The very fact that several globally acclaimed champions of nonviolence like Mahatma Gandhi found inspiration in the Gita’s message demonstrates that violence is not the Gita’s core message. Of course, those who find the battlefield setting discomforting have tried to explain it away in metaphorical terms, but such an explanation undoes the intrinsic pragmatism that makes the Gita’s message of transcendence so appealing. By delivering its message on a battlefield the Gita illustrates that even those who consider life’s ultimate goals to be otherworldly have a this-worldly responsibility to contribute to establishing and protecting the moral and spiritual fabric of society.
The inner dynamics of spirituality: The metaphorical interpretation of the Gita’s setting is not wrong, but it best harmonizes with the overall spirit of the Gita when seen as a supplement to and not a substitute forits historical context. Then, the battlefield setting, in addition to its historicity, represents the battlefield of our internal consciousness with our warring godly and ungodly desires. Each of us needs to win this inner battle if we are to play our part in establishing moral and spiritual integrity in society; we cannot let our ungodly attachments to selfish interests sabotage our godly aspirations for personal integrity. Even when our godly aspirations are outnumbered by our ungodly attachments as was symbolized by the godly Pandavas fighting the ungodly Kauravas, the Gita’s setting conveys the morale-boosting reassurance that when we harmonize our desires with God’s will, then His supreme power will allow us to attain inner victory and self-mastery.
To summarize, the Gita’s battlefield setting, when seen in its historical and philosophical context, reveals itself to be a call not for blanket violence but for spiritual activism.
2. The Vision of God as Destroyer
The eleventh chapter of the Gita describes the universal form of God, which emits blazing flames of destruction and devours all directions. Though such a conception of God may seem brutal and ghastly, it underpins a subtle but essential truth: the destruction and death that inevitably characterize the world are not outside God’s jurisdiction. God is not primarily the destroyer but the restorer; when the temporary stands in the way of the eternal, as it does for all of us who are infatuated with the temporary and neglectful of the eternal, God destroys the temporary to make way for the eternal. Moreover, a careful reading of the full eleventh chapter reveals its essential import. Arjuna asks to see the universal form of God, becomes terrified on seeing the destruction there, and immediately changes his mind, asking to be shown the beautiful two-handed form of Krishna once again. Just as the destructiveness of the universal form serves to redirect Arjuna to the beauty of Krishna, so the Gita teaches us that the destruction and death that beset the world can redirect our hearts to the eternality and beauty of Krishna.
3. Blunt Value Judgments
Some of us may be disturbed when we encounter in the Bhagavad-gita words that indicate strong value judgments: fool (mudha: 7.25), lowest among human beings (naradhama: 16.17) and so forth. To gain a proper understanding of why they are used, we need to contextualize them philosophically.
Value judgments emerge from values, which in turn grow out of a philosophy. If we go beyond the value judgments to the values themselves and the philosophy behind them, we will often find the philosophy has a sense of its own. Once we understand the philosophy, we find that its resulting values are not so different from our own. With this intellectual framework in place the value judgments become intelligible, if not acceptable. In other words, we need to judge the values before we judge the value judgments.
Let’s therefore look beyond the value judgments to the values and philosophy of the Bhagavad-gita.
The Gita (14.4) advocates a remarkably ecumenical worldview in which God accepts as His own children all living beings not just humans, but animals and plants as well. Only recently has our political correctness started to wake us to animal rights. But thousands of years ago, the Gita conferred on all subhuman beings (or the more politically correct, nonhuman beings) the spiritual right of integral and eternal membership in God’s family.
Further, the Gita (4.7–9) describes that God loves all His children so much that He personally descends to this world not just once, but again and again and again.
Moreover, the Gita (9.32–33) by its universal and accessible gospel of devotion opens the doors of redemption for all, irrespective of caste, gender, or any other worldly designation.
Many eminent thinkers have appreciated this universality and accessibility of the Gita’s message. Here’s Aldous Huxley’s statement as an example: “The Bhagavad-gita is the most systematic statement of spiritual evolution of endowing value to mankind… its enduring value is subject not only to India but to all of humanity.”
We may wonder: If the Gita advocates such lofty values, why does it hand out blunt value judgments?
Open-minded, but not Empty-minded
The Bhagavad-gita presents an open-minded worldview that integrates all people, no matter how diverse their values, goals, or paths. According to their level of spiritual evolution, the Gita assigns them an appropriate position on a universal continuum that extends downward to total spiritual ignorance and upward to complete spiritual realization. The Gita also offers them versions of spirituality customized to their levels so as to inspire and facilitate them to rise higher on the spiritual continuum.
The Gita is broadminded but not empty-minded; it does not imagine vacuously that all levels on the spiritual continuum are the same. That’s why the Gita (16.7–20) disapproves unequivocally mindsets and lifestyles that violate one’s spiritual integrity and propel one downward on the spiritual continuum.
The Gita considers godlessness not as an intrinsic quality of the soul but as an extrinsic infection acquired by unwholesome contact. According to the Gita godlessness is soul-sickness a sickness easily cured by the therapy of devotional service. The Gita doesn’t equate a mortally sick person with a vibrantly healthy person, for that would condemn the sick person to perpetual sickness and distort laudable open-mindedness into deplorable empty-mindedness. Its value judgments are like the exasperated outbursts of a caring doctor dealing with a suffering patient who stubbornly refuses to take the treatment.
Seen in this light, the Gita’s value judgments are not expressions of condemnation but of compassion. The Gita uses strong words like “fools” and naradhamas. Srila Prabhupada, as the preeminent modern-day Gita exponent, was known to use the word rascal quite often. But his use follows in the compassionate spirit of Lord Krishna, as is evident from the following statement, “The only concern of the devotees is that so many rascals are suffering in the concocted civilization of illusory sense enjoyment how can they be saved? So our Krishna consciousness movement is made for saving the rascals.”
Fathoming by Tuning
Perhaps it is fitting to sign off with an apt quote of the Austrian philosopher Rudolph Steiner, “In order to approach a creation as sublime as the Bhagavad-gita with full understanding it is necessary to attune our soul to it.” Attuning our soul to the Gita can be best done by understanding the Gita from those who have tuned their soul to it and are living its essential message. A prime example of a Gita teacher who was first and foremost a Gita liver and a Gita lover was Srila Prabhupada. His translation and commentary on the Gita, Bhagavad-gita As It Is, is not only the most widely distributed and read English commentary of the Gita, but is also the Gita commentary that has brought about the most transformative effect among its readers. By understanding the Gita from Gita lovers like him, we can not only dispel “extremist” misunderstandings about the Gita, but, more importantly, can also acquire essential understanding of the Gita.
To conclude, while it is certainly important to defend the Gita so as to prevent it from being banned officially in any part of the world, it is equally, if not more, important, to understand the Gita so that we don’t ban it unofficially in our own lives by mistaking it to be incomprehensible or irrelevant.
Caitanya Carana Dasa is the associate-editor of Back to Godhead (US and Indian editions). To subscribe for his daily Bhagavad-gita reflections, please subscribe for Gitadaily on his site thespiritualscientist.com.