Question: When the Bhagavad-gita is revered by millions worldwide, why would anyone mistake it to be an extremist book? Is there anything in the Gita itself that lends itself to an extremist interpretation?
Answer: The Bhagavad-gita, far from being an extremist book, is a book of wisdom and a message of love. It reveals divinity’s love for humanity; it is only our extreme disorientation from divine love that makes us imagine that the Gita is an extremist literature.
Let us first understand the Gita’s essential message of love and then analyze some of its aspects that may seem to belie this message and may, if taken totally out of context and wildly misinterpreted, be seen as extremist.
A Message of Love
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 lasting love, but we seek it on the material platform that is inherently fleeing. The Gita’s philosophical wisdom of our eternal spiritual identity creates a lasting foundation on which we can build an edifice of love that the storms of time will never bring crumbling 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 drops clues that the path of love is the best path. As the Gita progresses, the clues become more and more explicit; the secret secret becomes an increasingly open secret till its emotional climax at its end (18.64-66), There, Krishna bares his heart’s love in a disarmingly sweet revelation, “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.”
Thus, the Gita is essentially a revelation of divinity’s love for humanity as well as a love call for humanity’s reciprocal love for divinity.
Potential Misunderstanding about the Gita
Let us now look at three aspects of the Gita that are at times misunderstood.
a. The Battlefield Setting of the Bhagavad-gita
The Bhagavad-gita is sometimes misunderstood as calling for violence due to its battlefield setting. 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 these three purposes:
1. The practicality of spirituality: Many people feel that spirituality is too other-worldly and so is impractical or irrelevant given the urgent practical demands of this world. To address their concern, the Bhagavad-gita’s spiritual message is delivered on a setting that is eminently this-worldly and calls for the most urgent practical action: a battlefield. By showing how its spiritual wisdom solaced and empowered a responsible head of state, Arjuna, who broke down on a battlefield, the Gita illustrates poignantly the universal applicability of its teachings. If a person on a battlefield spared time for gaining its spiritual wisdom and found it relevant, practical and empowering, then no one needs to doubt the practicality of the Gita’s message and no circumstance needs to warrant relegating the Gita’s message to the “to be done later” category.
2. 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 at large can benefit from its message only when the prevailing sociopolitical order fosters moral and spiritual integrity. When the ruling heads of state are morally and spiritually depraved, as they were before the Kurushetra war, assertive action is essential to prevent people from being exploited, abused and ruined. The Mahabharata sections preceding the narration of the Gita describe vividly
- The multiple injustices and atrocities committed by the ruling heads of state, the Kauravas
- The repeated efforts of the victims, the Pandavas, to restore justice and morality in a peaceful way
- The utter disdain with which the Kauravas rejected all the attempts for peace, thus making a peaceful solution impossible
For those victimized by massive injustice, the Gita doesn’t condone a passive spectator role 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 last expression of such assertiveness – and never anything other than the last – is illustrated by the exhaustive peace efforts that preceded it. The very fact that several globally acclaimed champions of non-violence like Mahatma Gandhi found inspiration in the message of the Gita demonstrates that violence is not its 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 this message on a battlefield, the Gita illustrates that even those who consider life’s ultimate goals to be other-worldly have a this-worldly responsibility to contribute to establishing and protecting the moral and spiritual fabric of society.
3. 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 for – its historical context. Then, the battlefield setting, in addition to its historicity, represents our internal consciousness that features the battle between godly desires 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 and not 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 the case with the godly Pandavas fighting the ungodly Kauravas, the Gita’s setting conveys the morale-boosting reassurance that when we harmonize our godly desires with God’s will, then his supreme power will empower 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 thoroughgoing spiritual activism.
b. 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 the jurisdiction of God. 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 to 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 therein 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 re-direct Arjuna to the beauty of Krishna, similarly, the Gita teaches us, that the destruction and death that beset the world can serve to re-direct our heart to the eternality and the beauty of Krishna.
c. 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 and the philosophy, we will often find that the philosophy has a sense of its own. And once we understand the philosophy, we will find that its resulting values are not so different from our own. Then, with this intellectual framework in place, the value judgments will become at least intelligible, even 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 the 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 even animals and plants. Only recently and nascently has our political correctness started waking us up to animal rights. But thousands of years ago, the Gita confers upon all subhuman beings (or the more politically correct “nonhuman beings”) the spiritual right of integral and eternal membership in the family of God.
Further, the Gita (4.7-9) describes that God so loves all his children that he personally descends to this world –not just once, but periodically again and again and yet again.
Moreover, the Gita (9.32-33) by its universal and accessible gospel of devotion opens the doors of redemption for one and all, irrespective of caste, gender or other such worldly designations.
This universality and accessibility of the Gita’s message has been appreciated by many eminent thinkers. Here’s Aldous Huxley’s quote as an example: “The Bhagavad-Gita is the most systematic statement of spiritual evolution of endowing value to mankind. It is one of the most clear and comprehensive summaries of perennial philosophy ever revealed; hence its enduring value is subject not only to India but to all of humanity."
We may wonder: if the Gita advocates such lofty values, then why does it –and its teachers – hand out blunt value judgments to the godless?
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 and paths. According to their level of spiritual evolution, the Gita assigns them an appropriate position on a universal continuum that extends downwards to total spiritual ignorance and upwards 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 broad-minded, 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 downwards on the spiritual continuum.
Thus, the Gita reveals a vision of a broad-minded God comparable to a compassionate doctor who is so extending as to open his clinic to all patients, no matter how sick, and to offer them treatment tailormade to their inclinations, no matter how reluctant they may be. At the same time, the Gita’s doctor doesn’t equate a mortally sick person’s condition with that of a vibrantly healthy person. Such equalization would condemn the sick person to perpetual sickness in the name of open-mindedness and would be a vintage example of empty-minded brainlessness.
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 a sickness for the soul, a sickness that is easily and thoroughly curable by the therapy of devotional service. 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 judgmental words like fools Srila Prabhupada was known to use the word “rascal” quite often, but his use follows in the compassionate not condemnatory spirit of the Lord Krishna, as is evident from the following quote, “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 that saving the rascals.”
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. Let us therefore take the interest stimulated in the Gita by the banning controversy to deepen our own understanding of its message and to share that deepened understanding with others.
The metaphorical interpretation of scripture known as gauna vrtti (secondary meaning) as contrasted with mukhya vrtti (primary meaning) was reserved for the special contexts like those where:
- The direct meaning would result in obvious absurdities. The standard example for this in Indian philosophy is the sentence “His house is on the river.” As no house can lie on the river, this has to be interpreted as meaning “his house is on the banks of the river.”
- The direct meaning could be supplemented – but not supplanted – with an additional meaning obtained by looking at the implied symbolism. Here are a few examples of the use of this approach by eminent Vedic teachers:
Sripad Madhvacharya in his well-known analysis of the Mahabharata, the Mahabharata Tatparya Nirnaya, states that the Itihasas like the Mahabharata and the Ramayana can be understood at three levels:
- The literal: The events described in these literature happened historically as they were described,
- The ethical: These historical events serve as moral benchmarks to guide us in our present-day ethical decision-making.
- The metaphorical: These historical events symbolize truths relevant to seekers on the spiritual path.
Madhvacharya is quick to emphasize that the literal understanding is the most accurate and the other understandings are only to gain additional, esoteric insight that is consistent with – and not contradictory to – the literal understanding.
- The metaphorical understanding is also used by Sri Vedanta Deshika, a prominent teacher in the line of Ramanujacharya, with regards to the Ramayana and by Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura, a pre-eminent preceptor in the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition to which ISKCON belongs, with regards to Krishna’s Bhagavatam pastimes in his Krishna Samhita (Chapters 4-6) and also Chaitanya Shikshamrita (Part 5, Chapter 6).
- Srila Prabhupada himself used the metaphorical interpretation of the Kurukshetra war occasionally, as in his talk while giving initiations for the first time in America in 1966 at New York, as quoted in The Hare Krishna Explosion by Hayagriva Dasa.
“Krishna and Arjuna sat in the same chariot. But Arjuna knew that Krishna is the Supreme. We are also in a kind of chariot with Krishna. That chariot is this material body, and within the heart Lord Krishna is present as the Supersoul, witnessing all our activities. Even though He accompanies us within the material world, Krishna is never attached.” Paraphrasing Srila Prabhupada, the author further writes, “He then reminds us that we should never fret when confronted with adversities, for we should always know that Lord Krishna is driving our chariot.”
Srila Prabhupada rejected time and again the metaphorical interpretation of the Kurukshetra war when it was used as a substitute for the literal interpretation, as a means to deny the historicity of the Mahabharata war, as a tool to explain away into non-occurrence the violence that occurred there.