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Premnath Bazaz's Introduction to his rare

work of critical analysis of Bhagavad Gita


"The Role Of The Bhagavad Gita In Indian
Life"
In the enormous Indian literature, both sacred and profane,produced from pre-historic age to
contemporary times, no .other book has earned such a tremendous reputation as the poem
of seven-hundred verses entitled the Bhagavad-Gita (Lords Song).
Not long after it appeared in its present form, in the early centuries of the Christian Era, the
philosophy of life contained in the dialogue between Sri Krishna and Arjuna fascinated
the Hindus steeped in social malaise. The poem became the subject of special study by
intellectuals and, in course of time, the most adored scripture of the Hindu community.
Whether or not a Hindu has had the opportunity to read the Bhagavad-Gita, or even to have seen
a copy of the sacred poem, his ideas, conduct and behaviour are deeply influenced by its
teachings because the prevalent Hindu culture is founded on them and the Hindu moral life
draws sustenance from them.
Aurobindo Ghosh says that the influence of the Bhagavad-Gitais not merely philosophic or
academic but immediate and living, and that its ideas are actually at work as a
powerful shaping factor in the revival and renewal of a nation and a culture.
Any book to have become so popular and powerful in shaping the destiny of a people must have
responded to their inner urges and fulfilled their vital social needs. Popular literature is an echo
of national life. If the Bhagavad-Gita secured the highest position in Hindu religious
literature, practically excelling even the Vedas, it must have ably presented crucial human
problems as well as given vent to the excruciating anguishes of the society of the age in which it
was composed and put into circulation. Those problems and agonies must have continued
unresolved through the centuries to maintain the undiminished popularity of the philosophic lore.
What are those grave problems and intense feelings and why did the remedies proposed by the
Bhagavad-Gita fail to resolve them?
This book tries to answer these momentous questions.
No sooner had the Gita achieved the unique distinction of being treated as sacred revelation of
the highest doctrine, than innumerable commentaries, some of them quite ingenious, came to be
written on its contents. It has been translated not only in all regional languages of India, but also
in most of the civilised languages of the world. Hardly a year passes by when a new translation
or commentary is not published here or abroad.
Broadly speaking, Indian scholars have little to offer by way of criticism in their commentaries;
their remarks are usually laudatory and if occasionally some one among them raises a doubt on a

point he immediately covers it up by long explanations to uphold the integrity and sublimity of
the holy teachings.
Hindu writers find the most advanced philosophy in the scripture; to them it is the last word in
human wisdom. Foreign scholars are not uncritical, though some of them are equally lavish in its
praise. In his introduction to a translation of the Bhagavad-Gita produced jointly by Swami
Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood in 1945, Aldous Huxley says: The Gita is one of the
clearest and most comprehensive summaries of the Perennial Philosophy ever to have been
made. Hence its enduring value, not only for Indians, but for all mankind.
But some European commentators have brought a sense of objectivity to bear on their views of
the poem, and while paying tributes to the divine teachings, they have pointed out that the holy
text is not free from those blemishes which are more or less characteristic of all other scriptures.
On the whole, however, it may be stated 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.
It is generally claimed that the Bhagavad-Gita is a treasure-house of profound knowledge and
great wisdom; that it contains the mysterious secrets of spiritual life and is the best moral
code for the guidance of a cultured society. Some of the more enthusiastic Indian writers,
endowed with imagination, have even suggested that the teachings of the sacred poem can help
the world, especially Western nations, now plagued by intractable social and moral problems
born of scientific advance and technological progress. Neither any Indian teacher nor any foreign
scholar, however, has taken the trouble of telling the suffering humanity why the
Indians detonated intellectually and morally, lost freedom, and suffered for hundreds of
years after they had given unstinted allegiance to the doctrines of the Bhagavad-Gita.
There is, I suppose, consensus on two points or facts of history: One, that the Gita has been the
most venerated scripture of Hindus from the fourth century A.C., if not earlier, and two, that
India plunged into a dark age at almost the same time from which she may or may not have
emerged in 1947, when the British power came to an end. Jawaharlal Nehru has drawn a clear
picture of the Indian society in the pre-Gita and the post-Gita periods, though he does not allude
to them as such. Dividing the first thousand years of the Christian Era into two, he says about the
earlier centuries: It is a period of a vigorous national life, bubbling over with energy and
spreading over in all directions. Culture develops into a rich civilization flowering out in
philosophy, literature, drama, art, science and mathematics. Indias economy expands, the Indian
horizon widens and other countries come within its scope. And what happened in the second
half of the millennium when the Gita doctrines had gained the wide acceptance of the people?
Nehru answers: Yet for all these bright patches, an inner weakness seems to, seize India, which
affects not only her political status but her creative activities as the millennium approached its
end, all this appears to be the afternoon of a civilization, the glow of the morning had long faded
away, high noon was pastthe heart seems to petrify, its beats are slower, and gradually
this putrefaction and decay spread to its limbs. The sense of curiosity and the
spirit of mental adventure give place to a hard and formal logic and a sterile dialectic. Both
Brahminism and Buddhism deteriorated and degraded forms of worship grow Up.

Why did this dismal fate overtake the country when it had welcomed and chosen for its guide
the exalted doctrines of the Bhagavad-Gita? Unless and until this riddle is solved any study of
Indian history must remain unintelligible.
Contrary to the view sedulously fostered by Brahmin writers after the downfall of Buddhism that
the idealist or the so-called spiritualist philosophy is the only system of thought evolved
by Indian thinkers since the Vedic Age, the fact remains that for a long period stretching roughly
from 500 B.C. to 500 A.C. the widely accepted philosophy in this country was rationalistmaterialist. It had bred a radically different outlook and effected basic changes in the primitive
social structure raised earlier by Brahmin theology. Notwithstanding persistent efforts made to
ignore or underrate the importance of this revolutionary development, its positive achievements
form an inalienable part of Indian culture. To accurately assess the historical significance of the
Gita doctrines, it is essential to have an understanding of this deliberately neglected part of
Indian study. I have, therefore, endeavored to shed some light on the thought-processes which
led to the unfolding of that glorious era and the main intellectual, social and political features
which characterized it.
The Bhagavad-Gita represents only one aspect-the idealistic-religious aspect-of Hindu culture.
The claim that the poem contains a synthesis of all ancient Indian philosophies is not borne out
by a critical study of the scripture. Moreover, it mostly ignores other aspects of Indian thought
not liked by the author. If, and when, any opponents views are referred to, they are distorted and
presented in a way as to support the authors cherished assumptions. I have, therefore, deemed it
necessary briefly to narrate, in the first part, the history of Indian thought from the early age,
which makes it easier to grasp the underlying purpose of the Gita teachings.
Indian idealist philosophy has developed more from mysticism than common sense, and is
generally beyond the comprehension of the average intelligent person. I have taken pains to
summarise the main theories of the different idealist schools and reduce them to terms which J
can understand, and which, I think, the reader also will be able to understand.
The argument that whereas the Hindus accepted the Bhagavad-Gita as their supreme scripture
and unquestioned guide, they failed to act up to the ideals preached by Sri Krishna does not hold
water. When members of a society apotheosize a person they have the ambition to emulate him
and to fashion their lives in accordance with the principles taught by him, They cease to do so
only when the hero loses charm and fails to captivate. If there is agreement on the statement that
the Bhagavad-Gita has been the most popular scripture of the Hindus for the past fifteen
centuries, it is absurd to hold that the sufferings of the community have been caused not by
the doctrines venerated by them but because they acted in defiance of those doctrines.
A dispassionate and objective study of the Bhagavad-Gita will show that despite the extravagant
claims made on its behalf, it is not an unfailing guide to spiritual freedom or worldly
advancement. It is true that the holy poem mentions some lofty ideals, puts forth a few sublime
thoughts on different aspects of human culture and lays down certain noble precepts for success
in mental discipline. But, on the whole, its teachings can help (and have helped) only to subvert
human progress and nourish social evils. It is a philosophy of the upper classes meant to be
utilized by them as a weapon for maintaining a frustrated society in some sort of stability and

equilibrium by inculcating ideas of patience and contentment in disinherited, exploited and


down-trodden millions.
Since its appearance the Bhagavad-Gita has been repeatedly invoked to fight against the forces
of revolution. If Shankaracharya sought its assistance in the ninth century A.C. to deal a death
blow to declining Buddhism, Mahatma Gandhi utilized its teachings to annihilate the rising tide
of secular democracy. This is true even though Shankara was dubbed as a crypto-Buddhist and
Gandhi acclaimed as the champion of democratic freedom. Not only have the medley doctrines
of the holy poem to be properly analysed by application of reason which is, after all, the one
reliable criterion as well as the supreme court of authority, but we have also to see how Hindus
fared in their personal lives and dealings among themselves and with others, after they came
fully under the influence of the Gita philosophy.
F:om day to day and year to year, for at least fifteen centuries the venerated scripture has been
powerfully exercising the mind of Hindus and making them think and function in a
certain manner, thus leading them towards particular ends. Therefore, the relevance between the
divine teachings and the life lived by Hindus during this long period has to be brought out in
bold relief in order to make history a profitable study.
The history of India written and taught in the past is the history as studied by Brahmin
intellectuals. No efforts have been made to present the common mans viewpoint in it because it
would have been ridiculed and fiercely opposed. When, for the first time, in the beginning of the
present century, T.W.Rhys Davids made an attempt to describe the period during Buddhist
ascendancy from the kshatriya (warrior caste) angle, he was afraid that it would be regarded by
some as a kind of lese majeste. His Buddhist India, however, has become a classic which shows
that the time has come when we may interpret the entire Indian history from a non-Brahmin
stand. The change from the Brahmin stance to the common mans stand in the study of our past
makes every event, development and person in Indian history look entirely different. Leo Tolstoy
(1828-1910) describing the consequences of a radical change in his outlook stated; What had
previously seemed to me good seemed evil, and what had seemed evil seemed good. It happened
to me as it happens to a man who goes out on some business and on the way suddenly decides
that the business is unnecessary and returns home. All that was on his right is now on his left,
and all that was on his left is now on his right. The direction of my life and my desires became
different and good and evil changed places.. While compiling this unconventional study of
Indias past I have had the same experience as the Russian sage.
Like some other advanced languages, Sanskrit can be very difficult and, indeed, many books,
religious and secular, written in it are not easy to understand. The Bhagavad-Gita, happily, is
composed in easily intelligible language; it abounds in poetic art; and its lucid style and musical
sound add to its charm.
Probably, apart from its religious merit, its linguistic beauty helped it to become so popular. The
German Indologist, M. Winternitz, observes: It is on the strength of its poetic value, the
forcefulness of its language, the splendour of the images and metaphors, the breath of inspiration
which pervades the poem, that it has made such a deep impression on the impressionable minds
of all ages. But the commentators have not infrequently projected their own notions and

concepts into the verses of the poem. By doing so they have made the text mystifying and
inexplicable. They have a purpose in doing so.
If studied without aids, while the main theme of the Bhagavad-Gita becomes manifest, its
contradictions and inconsistencies cannot remain concealed from an intelligent student. By
giving far-fetched meaning to words and reading what is not given in the text, the commentators
try to cover up the defects and establish the integrity of the author. Sanskrit is a rich language,
and many words carry dozens of meanings which are sometimes opposed to each other. By
taking advantage of the richness of language the commentators can interpret the poem as they
like and, as a matter of fact, many of these works are full of the preconceived views and strongly
cherished beliefs of the devoted Gita-lovers.
While this device may strengthen orthodoxy and preserve the sanctity of the scripture, it cannot
help in estimating the historical importance of the poem and its contribution to Indian social life.
The Bhagavad-Gita has in the past played a great role in shaping the mind and character of
Hindus and thereby in making the history of India. As long as the social conditions prevail which
gave birth to Gita doctrines, the scripture will continue to play the same role and exercise a
powerful influence.
We can discover the nature of this role and its effectiveness by studying the sacred poem in an
unbiased manner. The poem is entitled to highest respect which it deserves as the
adored scripture of the millions of Indians. But regard for truth demands that we should
rationally analyze the declarations made and the theories adumbrated in the holy poem. It will be
strictly in accordance with our past cultural traditions. Besides, the findings thus arrived at alone
can be conducive to the future welfare of the Indian society.
I was a lad of fourteen years when I first secured a copy of the Bhagavad-Gita with a simple
translation by Mrs. Annie Besant. For the last fifty-three years I have carefully gone through
scores of translations and commentaries which were available to me. I have had discussions with
friendly scholars, both orthodox and liberal, on the philosophical and religious themes dealt with
in the scripture. The conclusions set forth here are the outcome of these studies and discussions.
Being the first attempt to write a critical commentary on the Bhagavad-Gita after hundreds of
books have been brought out by Indians and foreigners eulogizing it, some-circles may
regard my endeavour as presumptuous. It would be an unfair charge and by no means justifiable.
As a free nation we need to develop in us the faculty to criticise not only others (in which we are
lavish and specially adept) but also ourselves-our politics, our religion, our culture, our
institutions and our traditions.
We are woefully lacking in this and have therefore failed to develop on healthy lines and produce
the expected results in various fields of social activity. To be thoroughly self-critical was a trait
of intellectual thinking in the Upanishadic age. It has to be fostered again with the purpose of
guiding India towards an intellectual revolution which is a sine qua non for long-needed social
transformation. Self-criticism is the lever of progress. In critically examining cherished beliefs,
hoary traditions and age-old customs one cannot avoid treading on corns of orthodox scholar

and religious-minded devotee. But the intention far from being to offend anyone is solely to
arrive at the truth by sifting the grain from the chaff. In undertaking this arduous task I have
drawn inspiration from the venerable Upanishads. In the Taittiriya the sage says; ritam
vadishyami Sat yam vadishyami tanmamavato (I will speak of the right; I will speak the truth;
may that protect me). Following in the footsteps of the bold thinkers who proved to be the
harbingers of the great revolution India has ever witnessed in its history, I venture to present this
study in the hope that it might help in instilling a healthier outlook on life among the Indian
people than the prevailing one laboriously nourished through the past ages by the Brahmins
currently called Indian nationalists.