(Cross-posted on 3 Quarks Daily, where it has received many comments.)
Why the Bhagavad Gita is an overrated text with a deplorable morality at its core. This is part two of a two-part critique (Part 1 is the appetizer with the Gita’s historical and literary context. This is the main course with the textual critique).
The Bhagavad Gita, less than one percent of the sprawling Mahabharata, contains 700 verses in 18 chapters. It opens with Arjuna’s crisis on the battlefield, right before the start of the Great War. Turning to his friend and charioteer, Arjuna cries out,
‘O Krishna, I see my own relations here anxious to fight, and my limbs grow weak; my mouth is dry, my body shakes, and my hair is standing on end. My skin burns, and the bow Gandiva has slipped from my hand; my mind seems to be whirling.’
Arjuna is one of the bravest warriors alive and this visceral physical response, it is amply clear, is not due to performance anxiety, or fear of injury or death. Rather, it arises from Arjuna’s grave doubts over whether he is doing the right thing. He and his Pandava brothers wanted a minimally fair share of their material inheritance, but the devious, stubborn, and unjust Kauravas rebuffed them repeatedly. Though his cause is righteous enough, Arjuna now feels that the ends do not justify the means. He continues,
‘O Krishna, I have no desire for victory, or for a kingdom or pleasures. Of what use is a kingdom or pleasure or even life, if those for whose sake we desire these things—teachers, fathers, sons, grandfathers, uncles, in-laws, grandsons and others with family ties—are engaging in this battle, renouncing their wealth and their lives? Even if they were to kill me, I would not want to kill them, not even to become ruler of the three worlds. How much less for the earth alone? … We are prepared to kill our own relations out of greed for the pleasures of a kingdom. Better for me if the [Kauravas] were to attack me in battle and kill me unarmed and unresisting.’
Who among us can fail to be moved by Arjuna’s anguish? Hopelessly confused, Arjuna pleads with Lord Krishna to show him the way. Krishna obliges, taking on the role of a teacher to help Arjuna figure out the right course of action, which Krishna believes is to fight this war. The wisdom of the Gita—and the claim that it remains a relevant guide to our inner battlefield—is inseparable from Krishna’s advice to Arjuna. So to evaluate the Gita, we need to evaluate the arguments Krishna uses to persuade Arjuna to fight. How good are these arguments?
I’m aware that my reading of the Gita—like every other reading of it—is subjective and selective; I know that there are other ways of reading it. I’ve approached the Gita as expository literature, using the same yardsticks of truth and beauty that I take to other literary texts. I agree with Eknath Easwaran, an admirer and well-known translator of the Gita, when he says, ‘To understand the Gita, it is important to look beneath the surface of its injunctions and see the mental state involved.’ I’ve tried to do the same. I know that the Gita is not ‘mere literature’ to millions of Hindus, including many of my family and friends. It is also sacred scripture, guide to practical wisdom, source of personal and social identity, cultural and national pride, and more. My intention is not to offend but this book review will likely unsettle many; a few will respond in angry and defensive ways. May they find in the Gita the wisdom to forgive my indiscretions.