Revealing the True Intent and Spirit of the Bhagavad Gita in its Historical Context
Author: Dharma Kāmatā (Dr. K.P.S. Kamath). Pages: 480 (color-coded), Price Rs. 595
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A message to prospective readers…
Readers of any new book should expect to get unique insights into its subject of inquiry. Otherwise, it is like drinking old wine from a new bottle. However, when readers with a deep-rooted belief about a given topic are presented with a point of view not consonant with their belief, they are likely to reject it outright no matter how objective, evidence-based and sensible that might be. An indoctrinated belief is one which one learned from various sources while growing up, without questioning or independently verifying its basis in fact.
This being the case, without any doubt, there is no power within us greater than the ability to transcend our indoctrinated opinions, views and beliefs. It is far easier for us to indulge in automatic behaviors based on them than to question them. More often than not, our ‘clear stream of reason’ loses its way into ‘the dreary sand of dead habit,’ as Rabindranath Tagore put it. Superstitions are products of blind beliefs.
Reasoning is the foundation of all wisdom, and blind faith the basis of all ignorance. This book is written for thinkers who are willing to know the true intent and spirit of the Bhagavad Gita. It is not for those who are perfectly comfortable with their entrenched beliefs and habits based on them. I respect their right to hold on to them, however imperfect they might be in my opinion. But let them know that there is nothing more rewarding for them in this world than keeping their mind open to different viewpoints. At first truth would baffle them, then it would set them free, and finally it would elevate them.
What do Swāmis and religious authorities think of this book?
People often ask me, “What do Swāmis, Āchāryas and ‘authorities’ of Hinduism think of your book?” My response to this question is as follows: First of all, I would not have written this book had I not have something unique to offer readers. Religious leaders and ‘authorities’ are not going to like this book, as it presents evidence that various great medieval Āchāryas as well as modern Swāmis did not know the historical context of the Bhagavad Gita, and therefore they interpreted shlokas related to this context as related to Arjuna in the Mahābhārata epic context. Naturally, most of their interpretations come across as inappropriate. All religious activities of modern Swāmis as well as Hindus are based on these erroneous interpretations. Why would they approve a book that promotes this view? Wouldn’t that make them look ignorant? Naturally, they have vested interest in perpetuating the status quo. Therefore, seeking their approval and appreciation would amount to naiveté on our part. In fact, we should expect nothing but unadulterated condemnation of this book. But freethinking people, though a minority among Hindus, would certainly see merit in it.”
What makes me uniquely qualified to write this book?
Another question that is likely to arise in the mind of prospective readers is, “What makes you uniquely qualified to write a commentary on the Bhagavad Gita?” To this, my answer is as follows: “For forty years I practiced psychodynamic psychiatry. In treating thousands of patients, my job was to carefully listen to their incoherent, inconsistent and self-contradicting life stories, methodically analyze them and interpret them so that they all make sense. It required me to take extremely detailed history of the patient and his or her family, and connect seemingly unconnected dots from a variety of sources. In a sense I was a mind detective.
In reading the Bhagavad Gita over 250 times I was struck by the fact that it is a jumble of shlokas, which come across inconsistent, self-contradictory and blatantly incoherent to any sensible person. Our ancestors were extremely smart people, and it occurred to me that there must be a logical explanation for this, and if I were to make sense of these shlokas I must take detailed history of the Bhagavad Gita. In other words, I needed to know its historical context. This led me to study the Upanishads, the Rig Veda, Buddhists scriptures such as Suttanipāta, Ashoka’s edicts, numerous history books on ancient India, and many other relevant sources.
In the course of my research over a span of fifteen years, I discovered that the current text of the Bhagavad Gita has only 77 shlokas of the Original Gita, known as Arjuna Vishāda Gita. It has two contexts. In its Mahābhārata epic context, prince Krishna flawlessly resolves Arjuna’s crisis on the battlefield by convincing him that he should give up his egoism and perform his Varna Dharma (class-designated duty) based on the Brāhmanic doctrine of Guna/Karma. In the historical context of Arjuna Vishāda Gita, the Brāhmanic scribe attacks Ashoka and his Buddhist cohorts, and pleads with people of all classes not to abandon their Varna Dharma, like these renegades did, and to perform them obediently and faithfully as prince Krishna advised Arjuna to do. The Brāhmanic scribe conveyed his message in numerous secret codes. Its secret codes broken, and shlokas reconstructed in their original sequence, these 77 shlokas make perfect sense.
The rest of the shlokas in the Bhagavad Gita have nothing to with Arjuna even though superficially they seem to. They are related to Upanishadic and Bhāgavata revolutions to overthrow decadent Brāhmanism mired in worship of multiple gods with desire-driven Yajnas tainted by animal sacrifices, known as Kāmya Karma, and inequity of Varna Dharma. Using the Original Gita as vehicle scribes of these two sects added shlokas to overthrow decadent Brāhmanism and promote their a broad-based Dharma centered on One God alone, as declared in the Ultimate Shloka of the Bhagavad Gita: 18:66: Abandon all Dharmas (Brahmanism, Buddhism, Jainism, Lokayata, etc.) and surrender unto Me alone (for, now I am the Dharma), I shall deliver you from all evil (such as decadent Brāhmanism); do not grieve.
What is most fascinating is the fact that the Bhagavad Gita itself is the battleground on which various sects fought among themselves! Hinduism arose from the chaos of this protracted conflict among various sects of ancient India.
The Back Cover of the Book
The Untold Story of the Bhagavad Gita
The Bhagavad Gita has always been interpreted in the Mahābhārata context -as related to Arjuna’s despondency on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. This book interprets this universally acclaimed text in its historical context. It takes into account various historical processes such as decadence of Orthodox Vedic Dharma due to its obsession with ostentatious desire-driven Yajnas (Kāmya Karma), and consequent rise of heterodox Dharmas such as Buddhism and Jainism.
Around the middle of 3rd century B.C. loyalists of Brāhmanic Dharma created the metaphoric parable of Arjuna Vishāda in reaction to ascendance of Buddhism under Ashoka Maurya’s enthusiastic patronage (ruled 272-232 B.C.). Its goal was to shore up the sagging Varna Dharma, and prevent exodus of people, especially Kshatriyas, from Brāhmanism to Buddhism. In fact, in this poetic parable, a grieving Ashoka on the battlefield of Kalinga (261 B.C.) was the model for a sorrowful Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra.
The central message to renegade Kshatriyas in this story was that no matter how imperfect Brāhmanism might be, one should not abandon it like traitorous Ashoka and his cohorts did. Instead one must perform one’s socio-religiously designated duty (Svadharma) as dictated by the Varna Dharma resting on the doctrine of Guna/Karma.
Somewhat later, Upanishadists introduced their doctrines of Brahman and Yoga into the text in an effort to overthrow decaying Brāhmanism, and to reform ritualist Brāhmins and Kshatriyas into Jnānayogis and Karmayogis respectively. Predictably there was Brāhmanic resurgence and backlash. At this point Bhāgavatas entered the fray on the side of Upanishadists. They integrated the basic tenets of all Dharmas of India into the broad-based Bhāgavata Dharma centered onLord Krishna alone, introduced Bhaktiyoga as the alternative to all other modes of worship, and exhorted people of all Dharmas to take refuge in Him alone.
This is how the 77 shloka-long Arjuna Vishāda burgeoned to 701 shloka-long text known as the Bhagavad Gita-Upanishad. When the dust settled, Brāhmanic editor hyper-edited the text to integrate the three diverse doctrines, and to conceal evidence of conflict among them. This is how Hinduism rose like Phoenix from the ashes of Brāhmanism, and the Bhagavad Gita became its somewhat incoherent manifesto.
For us to properly interpret the Bhagavad Gita, we must know its historical context and be able to decipher the secret codes embedded in it. When shlokas, which are related to historical context, are misperceived as related to Arjuna’s sorrow on the battlefield, their true intent and spirit are bound to be lost. Conversely, interpreting its shlokas in their historical context and deciphering the secret codes embedded in them reveals the Bhagavad Gita, perhaps you never knew.
The Background Story of the Untold Story of the Bhagavad Gita
In December 1989, as I was heading to the baggage claim area from the arrival gate at Lambert Airport, St. Louis, Missouri, a casually dressed American gentleman accosted me with a hardbound book wrapped in a multicolored cover in his hand. He gently thrust the book into my free hand saying politely he would appreciate a ten-dollar donation in return. I gave a cursory glance at the book he displayed. It was titled ‘Bhagavad Gita As It Is.’ Its colorful cover picture showed a resolute-faced warrior standing on an ornate chariot drawing an arrow by his right hand from the quiver on his back. Another warrior sat in front of him on the chariot drawn by four magnificent white horses, holding the reigns in his left hand and a white conch in his extended right hand. The author of the book was Bhaktivedānta Swāmi Prabhupāda. I needed no explanation as to who these warriors were. The battle-ready warrior was Arjuna, the middle of Pāndava princes in the epic Mahābhārata, and his charioteer was his friend, brother-in-law, philosopher and guide, Lord Krishna. On an impulse of sympathy for Hinduism, my birthDharma, I exchanged ten dollars for the book. Back at home it promptly went on my bookshelf, and I forgot all about it.
Some time later I got a phone call from an American doctor colleague inquiring if I had a copy of the Bhagavad Gita. I was quite amazed that a Christian physician was interested in this ancient Hindu text. Apparently he was going through a personal crisis, and was desperately looking for answers. He had heard about the Bhagavad Gita, and he thought maybe it might help him. I located the book on my bookshelf, and I gave it to him the next day. I forgot all about it until a few months later when the good doctor gave me back the book with a terse note:
9/10/1990: “Thank you for lending me this book. I found it tough going but interesting. I should probably read it a dozen times to better understand more of it. Thanks. Phil”
In the past twenty years I have met countless Indians who had read the Bhagavad Gita as well as commentaries on it by various Gurus and Swāmis numerous times -not to mention those who listened to ponderous discourses on it by self-appointed Gurus- only to be progressively bewildered by it. Once I met a highly educated Hindu engineer who said, “I have been attending discourses on the Bhagavad Gita for ten years. If you ask me what I have learned, I feel ashamed to say that I have learned absolutely nothing.”
I wondered why an acclaimed text, which boasts to contain the ancient wisdom of India, should be so difficult to understand, and why lengthy and inscrutable commentaries failed to bring its wisdom to the masses. I knew nothing about the Bhagavad Gita except that it consisted of a dialogue between Arjuna and Krishna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra just as the Mahābhārata War was about to begin. Arjuna suffers from grief, fickleness of mind and fear of committing the sin of killing his own people. He struggles with a mental conflict: Should I abandon my own socially designated duty (Svadharmam) in order to avoid killing my own people (Svajanam)? As a result of this conflict, he suffers from what modern psychiatrists refer to as an anxiety attack. Instead of fighting, Arjuna decides to flee. Prince Krishna reasons with Arjuna and convinces him that his allegiance should be to his socially designated duty and not to his own people. If he gave up his egoism of “I, me and mine” and performed his own duty (Svadharmam), he would not incur sin. So far so good.
However, as I read the Gita, I began to notice that Krishna began to lecture Arjuna about the origins of Yajna and the need to perform Yajna selflessly. Also, in the text, He scolds people indulging in selfish Yajna as thieves, ignorant, idiots, stupid, and the like. Naturally, the questions arose in my mind as to what has Yajna to do with Arjuna’s predicament on the battlefield, and who was Lord Krishna scolding. Secondly, Krishna seems to contradict himself throughout the text. To give but one example, in 2:37, he tells Arjuna that getting killed on the battlefield, he would gain heaven; victorious, he would gain his kingdom. Either way he stood to gain something. Therefore he must fight. In the very next shloka (2:38), he says that if he performed his Karma (action) with indifference to gain and loss, victory and defeat, he would not incur sin. Again, in 2:47, he tells Arjuna that his entitlement is only to perform Karma (action) and not to its fruits!
Why is Lord Krishna giving these contradictory advices to a thoroughly confused and dejected Arjuna on the battlefield? Obviously, these two diametrically opposite advices must have two different contexts; must represent two diametrically opposite doctrines; must be addressed totwo different groups of people, and the word Karma must carry two different meanings in these distinct shlokas. Whereas the former advice (2:31-37) was addressed to warriors as per Varna Dharma based on the Brāhmanic doctrine of Guna/Karma (3:5, 27, 33), the latter advice (2:38, 47) was addressed to corrupt Vedic ritualists as per Upanishadic doctrine of Yoga (2:48-51). Whereas in the former case the word Karma meant fighting, in the latter case it meant Yajna or sacrificial rite.
Over the next few years, I read the Upanishads, the Rig Veda, several history books, Ashoka’s Edicts and various commentaries by well-known Acharyas and Swamis. Gradually I began to connect the dots. When all the pieces of jigsaw puzzle fell into place, I decided to write a book about it. The result was The Untold Story of the Bhagavad Gita.