The Bhagavadgita in the Nationalist Discourse

Item Code: NAC438
Publisher: Oxford University Press, New Delhi
Author: Nagappa Gowda K.
Language: English
Edition: 2011
ISBN: 9780198072065
Pages: 296
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 9.0 Inch X 5.8 Inch
Weight 480 gm
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Book Description
From the Jacket

The Bhagavadgita has lent itself to several readings to defend or contest various views on life, morality, and metaphysics. This book explores the role of the Bhagavadgita in the formation of nationalist discourse.

It examines the ways in which the Gita became the central terrain of nationalist contestation, and the diverse ethico-moral mappings of the Indian nation. Focusing on Bankimchandra Chatterjee, Balgangadhar Tilak, Swami Vivekananda, Aurobindo Ghose, Mahatma Gandhi, Vinoba Bhave, and B.R. Ambedkar as the representatives of different strands of nationalist discourse, this volume probes their reflections on the Gita.

The author also discusses issues such as the relation between the nation and the masses, renunciation and engagement with the world, the ideas of equality, freedom, and common good, in the context of a nationalist discourse. He argues that the commentaries on this ‘timeless’ text opened up several possible understandings without necessarily eliminating one another.

This book will be of considerable interest to scholars and students of religion, philosophy, and modern Indian history, particularly those concerned with the nationalist movement.

Nagappa Gowda K. is Associate Professor Department of Political Science, Government Women’s First Grade College and Post-graduate Centre, Ajjarakadu, Udupi.



This book is an attempt to explore the varied ways in which the Bhagavadgita has been inducted to participate in the making of Indian nationalist discourse. I was nudged into studying the theme sometime in 1995 when I was reminded by a Kannada work that ‘Bbagavadgeeteya chintane bharatada rashtriya baravanigegala pradaana aakarshaneyaagittu,’ or ‘that nationalist writings were often fascinated with and drawing from the ideas and teachings of the Gita’. After some initial study of its viability and scope, I realized what rich maze of a subject I was stepping into. I worked on the theme for my doctoral thesis in Mangalore University under the supervision of Valerian Rodrigues. But I have since interrogated my own initial findings and opinions, visited other sources of insight and arguments and revised my views to present them in this book.

The Gita is a much-adored and much-interpreted ‘Song Celestial’. It has lent itself to several readings to defend or contest various views on life, morality and metaphysics, to the sectarian claims, to universal truths. In the eighteenth century when modern Hinduism was ‘discovered it nearly achieved the status of the Bible. Not surprisingly it became an unfailing source of nationalist imagination and sustenance. The nationalist engagement with the Gita was both emotional and intellectual, since nationalism expressed itself, whether as sui generic or as a response-product of engagement with colonialism, at those levels. Locating the source of nationalism in the Gita was a way of rejecting the Western claim that nationalist impulse and ideology were its exclusive gift. It also meant sanctifying a modernist project with the words of God, and with the ethico-moral prescriptions excavated from the Gita. It was a way of nationalizing the Bhagavadgita. In fact, the nationalist dialogue with the Gin went beyond the sectarian universals that India was traditionally wont to look for. It sought out the various socio-political projects for the country, and people seeking freedom and change. That the Gita was able to yield such variety of answers to different interrogators is as much a measure of the rich variety of questions with which they went to the Gita as the conditions and compulsions that spawned the questions. Such dialogic possibilities have given the Gita an aura of a timeless text. This book presents the various styles and moods in which such nationalist dialogues were held in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, producing different hues of ideological sanctions. Sure, they are available to further dialogues.

I am indebted to a number of people and institutions during the course of my study and writing of the book. First, I should record my gratitude to my teacher and research guide, Valerian Rodrigues, for introducing me to the dazzling richness of social science research and guiding me through it when I could well have lost my way. I also thank him for his continuous support even from Delhi, where he is at present. I am indebted to B. Surendra Rao, formerly of Department of History, Mangalore University, who generously spared his time to read the manuscript and suggest corrections. His trenchant critique has added a historical perspective to my study. I am also thankful to Kesavan Veluthat, Sudipta Kaviraj, Thomas Pantham, Rajarani Tolpady, Lokesh, Udaya Barkur, Devinder Paul Kaur, and Arun Kenta jana for their valuable comments and suggestions at various stages of composing or amending my ideas for the book. I also owe a debt of gratitude to my uncle, K, Chinnappa Gowda, presently the Registrar, Mangalore University, for his financial and moral support.

I thank Mangalore University, particularly its library and staff for supporting my academic pursuit. I thank the Oxford University Press and its indefatigable editorial team for seeing the book through in print. I gratefully appreciate the unfailing affection, patience, and support I have received from my wife Beena and the many pleasant distractions from my naughty little daughter, Varshini, providing relief from the grim profundities I had dared to dabble with.



Nationalism can be an authentic experience that eludes easy understanding or simple definition. It is as much an assertion as it is an excavation. It seeks to surge ahead by constantly looking backwards. It cries for change while being narcissistic. It finds its history by constructing it and its heritage by defining it. It discovers its cultural opulence, its common spiritual reservoir, and its vast, untapped inner strength as assurance of its infinite possibilities of progress and insurance against the forces that undermine it. It hopes to conquer its weaknesses and humiliations of the present by invoking and drawing on the constructed memory of its past successes against such weaknesses and humiliations.

Drawing on religious texts—and in the process nationalizing them—is not an unfamiliar practice in the construction of nationalism. It more than fulfils the need for constructing a history and owning it. It transcends the mundane, daring to touch the spiritual and the divine. It explores and vindicates the ethico-moral realms of aspirations and achievements, traces the contours of social relations, and even looks for assuring, if hazy, political blue-prints. Invoking religious texts or harnessing them to the nations cause confers on the project a halo of sanctity that conspires to make nationalism mote than just a mundane scheme, However, this does not guarantee consensus, either of intentions or strategies, much less of its results, It can be a held of contest, of fierce or sober interpretations, of pious manipulations, and of quiet interpolations or polite erasures. This should not be construed as violence done to the text. In fact, this is the way religious texts are formed. Commentators and their exegeses have constructed the texts by deconstructing them, by reading meanings into them. In the context of nationalism, religious texts have attracted new commentators and produced new exegeses. It is not a break in, but a continuation of the fortunes of the religious text. No religious text has been as frequently invoked or as passionately deployed by Indian nationalists as the Bhagavadgita. It was not that there were no other parallel texts at hand; India had obviously produced an abundant of non pared literature at different times such as the Srutis, Smritis, Puranas, political tracts like the Arthasastra, Darshanas, and even rich Sanskrit writings. Certain social reformers had even suggested the Vedas and Upanishads with their stress on monotheism and universalism as the constitute basis of a renewed India. But no other text has attracted the heed of the nationalists as the Gita did. In fact, nationalists of different stripes, including exponents of modern Hinduism, critical modernists, ethical and spiritual nationalists, seem to agree that they could all draw sustenance and seek vindication from the Song Celestial. After all, Lord Krishna did not address his words to Arjuna alone. Besides, the Bhagavadgita claims to be the quintessence of all the Upanishads of the best and the noblest of all Indian thoughts.’ The greatest of the acharyas, including Sankara, Ramanuja and Madhva, had interpreted or invested meanings into it. However, these credentials alone did not make the Gita the religious text par excellence of the Hindus. The context of colonialism and the making of colonial knowledge provide a clue to the new status which the Bhagavadgita acquired in the eighteenth century.

The European interface with India triggered off a passion to explore its religion and culture, producing sometimes overlapping and at other times conflicting results. Some did so out of personal or academic curiosity and others as part of the larger project of colonialism. Religion, particularly of others, can be both a matter of curiosity and of ready judgement. The European notion of religion with which they explored and evaluated other religions, was rooted in the making and practice of Semitic religions. Central to it are the notions of the Revelation, the Prophet, and the Book. Looking for these constituents, they found them in what the native informants told them as to what the sources of their religion were. ‘The native informants were the Brahmins—a small, literate monopoly class in the country, who thus became the sole spokespersons of religion, and Brahmanical religion became the Hindu religion, and Brahmanical texts became the official Hindu texts. Of them Krishna and his Song Celestial seemed to meet the Semitic notion of a revealed religion. Here was an incarnation, a saviour, who not only fulfilled the purpose of his earthly descent but bequeathed to posterity His Song Celestial to guide it. He revealed Himself through His Words. He seemed to fit into the Semitic pattern the Europeans knew of. Krishna became to Hinduism what Jesus was to Christianity, and the Bhagavadgita the Hindu Bible. The Orientalists and Sanskritists hastened to translate it into English, the first one being that of Charles Wilkins in 1785. It was to showcase the glory of Sanskrit and the loftiness of the Hindu thought although, as Thomas Trautmann shows, some of them like Sir William Jones could not help but link the Hindu thought with the Mosaic tradition. The Bhagavadgita won ecstatic plaudits from European Romantics like Schopenhauer, which was good advertisement for the Orientalists.

However, for strategic reasons the Christian missionaries preferred to latch on to their own constructed image of the ‘Hindu Prophet Krishna to compare him with their own Son of God. in their writings and preachings and in their roadside harangues they revelled in projecting Krishna as a cad, a prankster, a philanderer, a trickster, and a wily politician. His life had nothing gracious or divine about it and everything of an impostor.

He could not be remotely compared with the noble Jesus who lived and died for the salvation of the human race. The missionaries could reject such things in Hinduism as polytheism, karma, rebirth, and so on, but these debates would not make much sense to their target groups. As a propaganda strategy they thought the best way to go about it was to show that people had been hitherto misled by a false prophet. How could an impostor like Krishna gift mankind anything remotely true and divine other gods in the Hindu pantheon too came in for their share of derision and repudiation, but Krishna remained the fvourite punching bag. They also made fun of, and poured scorn over, the fabulous chronology and geography of the Puranas—their outrageous time-spans, their seas of milk and treacle, their jostling gods who could outdo even the worst sinners in their immoral pranks and foolish escapades, and who habitually fought with the demons and were as habitually beaten by them. The utilitarians like James Mill had distanced themselves from both the Orientalists and the Evangelical groups although they too, like the latter, did not have much to say in favour of Hindu religion or the scriptures that revealed it. Mill felt that they were responsible for the creation of despotism in thought and practice which had been the bane of India for centuries, and which was the duty of Britain to eradicate through education and legislations. Many of the debates around the religion and culture of India took place in the pages of Asiatic Researches and later Indian Antiquary. They fulfilled the intellectual urges of the colonial rulers as much as they allowed immense space for intellectual resolutions of their wish-fulfillment.

Thus, in the eighteenth century, we see both the Orientalist and missionary discourses (without conflating the two in the Saidian sense) nudging the Bhagavadgita and its author to the centre stage of attention and engagement. The Bhagavadgita became the text for Hinduism and Krishna the Prophet. India did not see it as a reductionist exercise but as a context of respond to. If nationalism is a response to the various colonial demands and challenges, the nationalist preference for the Bhagavadgita as the site for constructing their thoughts and schemes should not come as a surprise. It became a destination and sometimes a defense, of both the Prophet and his words. The Bhagavadgita became the reference point of Hindu wisdom, its timelessness and its perennial court of appeal. It became something of a symbol of Hindu conscience, The Orientalist applause and the missionary denigration had both projected it as the scripture par excellence. The reformers who wanted the society to change, slowly or in a hurry appealed to it. So did die-hard conservatives. Raja Rammohun Roy had use for it in his campaigns for the abolition of sati; his opponents too swore by Lord Krishna’s words. Even Ambedkar, who repudiated nationalist status to the Gita on the ground that it offered a cogent defence of the brahminical point of view and hence constituted the central text of the counter-revolution against Buddhism, had used it in his nationalist discourse based on Buddhism. Everyone seemed to seek endorsement from the Gita. It seemed to speak, rising above partisanship, parochialism, and sectarianism, the universal language of wisdom. Krishna seemed to be with everyone who sought Him, as He was with everyone of the adoring gopis in Brindavan. He did not even mind the occasional anger among His devotees!

This study is an attempt to explore the different strands of nationalist discourse based on the Gita by Bankimchandra Chatterjee, Balgangadhar Tilak, Swami Vivekananda, Aurobindo Ghosh, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Vinoba Bhave, and B.R. Ambedkar. However, this is not to suggest that all those whose writings on the Gita has been taken up for study fir snugly into one mould. Their temperament and nationalist agenda differed. The contexts of their projects differed too, If Tilak went to the Gita in a quiet mood of critical introspection and vindication of his political activism, Aurobindo sought to suffuse its spirituality into a nationalist project. Vivekananda’s thoughts on the subject are dispersed but not any less intense, and they have to be gleaned from his lectures and writings often addressed to the Western audience. Vinoba’s views on the Gita too were expressed in his lectures. Gandhi did not write an exegesis on the Bhagavadgita but it was his constant companion and intimate counsel. Bankim was more analytical on the subject and more combative, which is indicative of his response to the missionary aggressions and provocations. He needed to prove the historicity of Krishna to match the historical presence of Jesus in the armoury of the missionaries. The contexts in which these persons dialogued with Gita influenced their views, and they go into their analyses. Together they reveal the myriad hues and moods that constituted Indian nationalism In fact, the nationalist dialogues with the Bhagavadgita show that the text was frequently and compulsively contextualized and in the process, constituted. The study also unfolds the several national questions eager to find endorsement from the Gita, which was really their way of seeking the nation’s approval. Dialogue with the Bhagavadgita was indeed a dialogue with the Self in the context of the Universal Self, which the nation stood for. They belonged to the rate moments when nationalism was sliding into spiritual realms. These moments could be fleeting and yet real.

Apparently Ambedkar’s views on the Gita do not seem to fit into the conventional nationalist framework. He had rejected the brahminical hegemony in India and all those scriptural props that sustained it. His critical engagement with the text and authority of Bhagavadgita was designed to question and reject the social inequities and injustice which it legitimized or sanctioned. His notion of nationalism went beyond the immediacy of anti-colonial struggles. The salvationary potential or efficacy of nationalism could be tested only if it could uplift millions of the downtrodden in India and give them freedom and justice, Nationalism was not a stagnant category; it had engaged in constant review of itself to renew itself. Spiritualism, political activism, pacifism, and even revolutionary extremism could be located in, and retrieved from, the Gita no doubt, but it could also be subjected to a critical social audit. Instead of looking at it as the timeless words of God, it can be seen as a hegemonic text that ordered and sanctioned hierarchies, subordination, and exploitation in society. Marxist scholars like Kosambi had found in Gita the reflections of feudal ideology and the society that produced it. Ambedkar’s dialogue was that of a person whose nationalism was rooted in a critical appraisal of Hindu society with a view to changing it. In rejecting the conventional affirmative evaluation of the Bhagavadgita, Ambedkar gives another dimension to its understanding.




  Preface ix
  Introduction 1
1. Culturing the Nation; Bankim’s Reading of the Gita 9
2. The Sthitaprajna as the Foundation of the Nation: Tilak and the Gita Rahasya 50
3. Nishkama Karma and the Masses: Vivekananda’s Understanding of the Gita 90
4. Nation in Spiritual Quest: Aurobindo and the Gita 124
5. Anasaktiyoga and the Nationalist Imagination: Gandhi’s Interpretation of the Gita 168
6. Svadharma and the Nation: Vinoba’s Reading of the Gita 205
7. The Gita and Ambedkar: Buddhism as the Alternative 222
  Conclusion 236
  Appendix: Aurobindo Versus Ethicists 248
  Glossary 253
  Bibliography 265
  Index 283

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