Friday, June 6, 2008

Meaning of Gita

A correspondent had written to Gandhiji and had argued that chapters I and XI of the Gita did not seem to support Gandhiji’s view that it taught nonviolence. Gandhiji replied the corresspondent and wrote an article in Navjivan. I here present only that part of the article which directly deals with the topic. In the text before this article Gandhiji had written about how he got introduced to Gita, he confessed to meat eating and killing insects and bugs, and his thinking for violent ways to end the Raj and how he realised that he was mistaken. He then explained the discipline required to understand the Shastras completely and then goes on to give examples from Ramayana. Finally he starts explaining the meaning of Gita which I produce here. The complete article can be found in CWMG Vol. 033, Art no. 50, pg. 83.


Let us now examine the Gita. Its subject-matter is simply the realization of Brahman and the means thereto; the battle is only the occasion for its teaching. One can say, if one likes, that the poet used it as an occasion because he did not look upon war as morally wrong. On reading the Mahabharata, I formed quite different impression. Vyasa wrote his supremely beautiful epic to depict the futility of war. What did the Kauravas’ defeat and the Pandavas’ victory avail? How many among the victors survived? What was their fate? What was the end of Kunti, mother of the Pandavas? What trace is left today of the Yadava race?

Since the Gita’s subject is not description of the battle and justification of violece, it is perfectly wrong to give much importance to these. If, moreover it is difficult to reconcile a few of the verses with the idea that the Gita advocates non-violence, it is still more difficult to reconcile the teaching of the work as a whole with the advocacy ofviolence.

When a poet composes his work, he does not have a clear conception of all its possible implications. It is the very beauty of good poem that it is greater than its author. The truth which a poet utters in his moment of inspiration, we do not often see him following in his own life. Hence the lives of many poets are at vari-ance with the teaching of their poems. That the overall teaching of the Gita is not violence but non-violence is evident from the argu-ment which begins in Chapter II and ends in chapter XVIII. The in-tervening chapters propound the same theme. Violence is simply not possible unless one is driven by anger, by ignorant love and by hatred. The Gita, on the other hand, wants us to be incapable of anger and attain to a state unaffected by the three gunas1. Such a person can never feel anger. I see even now the red eyes of Arjuna every time he aimed an arrow from his bow, drawing the string as far as his ear.

But, then, had Arjuna’s obstinate refusal to fight anything to do with non-violence? In fact, he had fought often enough in the past. On the present occasion, his reason was suddenly clouded by ignorant attachment. He did not wish to kill his kinsmen. He did not say that he would not kill anyone even if he believed that person to be wicked. Shri Krishna is the Lord dwelling in everyone’s heart. He understands the momentary darkening of Arjuna’s reason. He, therefore, tells him:”You have already committed violence. By talking now like a wise man, you will not learn non-violence. Having started on this course, you must finish the job.” If a passenger travelling in a train which is running at a speed of forty miles an hour suddenly feels aversion to travelling and jumps out of the train, he will have but committed suicide. He has not in truth realized the futility of travelling as such or of travelling by train. Arjuna was in a similar condition. Krishna, who believed in non-violence, could not have given Arjuna any advice other than what he did. But to conclude from this that the Gita teaches violence or justifies war is as unwarranted as to argue that, since violence in some form or other is inescapable for maintaining the body in existence, dharma lies only in violence. The man of discriminating intellect, on the other hand, teaches the duty of striving for deliverance from this body which exists through violence, the duty, that is, of striving for moksha.

But whom does Dhritarashtra represent, and likewise Duryodhana, Yudhishthira, or Arjuna? Whom does Krishna represent? Were they historical personages? Does the Gita relate their actual doings? Is it likely that Arjuna should suddenly, without warning , ask a question when the battle was about to commence, and that krishna should recite the whole Gita in reply? And then, Arjuna, who had said that his ignorance had been dispelled, forgets what he was taught in the Gita, and Krishna is made to repeat his teaching in the Anugita2.

Personally, I believe that Duryodhana and his supporters stand for the Satanic impulses in us, and Arjuna and others stand for Godward impulses. The battle-field is our body. The poet-seer, who knows from experience the problems of life, has given a faithful account of the conflict which is eternally going on within us. Shri Krishna is the Lord dwelling in everyone’s heart who is ever murmuring His promptings in a pure chitta3 like a clock ticking in a room. If the clock of the chitta is not wound up with the key of self-purification, the in-dwelling Lord no doubt remains where he is, but the ticking is heard no more.

I do not wish to suggest that violence has no place at all in the teaching of the Gita. The dharma which it teaches does not mean that a person who has not yet awakened to the truth of non-violence may act like a coward. Anyone who fears others, accumulates possessions and indulges in sense-pleasures will certainly fight with violent means, but violence does not, for that reason, become justified as his dharma. There is only one dharma. Non-violence means moksha, and moksha means realizing Satyanarayana4. But this dharma does not under anycircumstances countenance running away in fear. In this world which baffles our reason, violence there will then always be. The Gita shows the way which will lead us out of it, but it also says that we cannot escape it simply by running away from it like cowards. Anyone who prepares to run away would do better, instead, to kill and be killed.

If the verses cited by the correspondent cannot be understood even after this explanation, I cannot explain them. I am sure no one doubts that God, who is omnipotent, is, and must be, the Creator, the Preserver and the Destroyer of the Universe. He who creates has certainly the right to destroy. Even so, He does not kill, for He does nothing. God is so merciful He does not violate the law that every creature that is born will die one day. If He were to follow His fancies and whims, where should we be?

[From Gujarati]
Navajivan, 11-10-1925

1 Sattva (purity or clarity), rajas (restlessness) and tamas (torpidity)
2 Epilogue to the Gita
3 Mind-stuff
4 Truth as God; God in the form of Truth

--------------------------CWMG Vol. 033, Art no. 50, pg. 83.----------------------------

1 comment:

vivek said...

Mahatma Gandhi's brief remarks on Gita are eloquent in their own way, however, I think it behoves us to study the actual text more carefully. This is because, contrary to Gandhiji's suggestion, Gita is not a poet's effusion containing all manner of contradictions but rather a coherent and rigourous, pathway to Truth. The occassion for the utterance of Gita was Arjuna's vishada (despondency or depression). Modern medical authorities have given a subtle explanation of this condition. We need to read Gita in this light. Furthermore, Gita is not cut off from the rest of Mahabharata nor is Mahabharata- even what seem irrelevant interpolations!- cut off from the golden thread that runs through Veda. Only by proper analysis and scholarship of sacred texts can we gain an understanding of how great teachers comments on the Gita should be interpreted and applied.