Section 2.03 Bhagavad Gita – A Non-Hindu Text with Non-Humanist Teachings

During the 2007 attack on Hindu Students Council, Vijay Prashad, one of the founding members of FOIL and who was introduced previously in the report, wrote a Letter to a Young American Hindu,[1] which essentially called on all of HSC’s chapters to dissociate from the National Body and start another organization (Sarvodaya) catering to everyone.  While the letter is written to strike a chord with young Hindu Americans and their understanding of things Hindu, Prashad’s focus quickly turns to ‘Noxious Hindutva’.  He weaves in his own definitions and understandings of Hinduism in this prose.  He agrees that he is not an expert in the Gita[2], but then goes onto make some sweeping conclusions regarding the scripture.  He posits that the Gita was “composed long after the Mahabharata, written in classical Sanskrit in the Gupta era, interpolated into the long epic much later.”[3]  “The Gita is a sublime response to the power of Buddhism with concepts such as karma drawn from it”.[4]  What is the basis from Prashad’s bizarre statements?  Romila Thapar, the Marxist historian discussed earlier in the report, seems to arrive at this conclusion, in her Early India – From the Origins to AD 1300.  Thapar summarizes that the Mahabharata ‘may have been’ a localized feud, and the Bhagavad Gita a wholesale interpolation![5]   Thapar, in A History of India, goes even further and claims that “the Epics had originally been secular… [and were] revised by the Brahmins with a view of using them as religious literature”[6].  The audacity and ridiculous nature of such claims is beyond any comparison.  Nonetheless, such claims are exactly what form the basis of Prashad’s conclusions about the Gita and its teachings.  Anything ‘good’ in Hinduism (i.e. Gita) must have been secular and therefore hijacked by ‘evil’ Brahmins.

Prashad’s and FOIL’s obsession with caste and the ‘Brahminic evils’ again surfaces in his analysis of the Gita.  He mentions that “the genius of the text is that it takes concepts and ideas from these popular traditions [i.e. Buddhism] and brings them into line with some of the central principles of Brahmanism (varna, mainly)”.[7]  So, Gita is looked upon as a mere ‘reconciliatory’ text and the only ‘Brahminic’ concept relevantly synthesized by the Gita is the concept of Varna.  Going by that logic, other important concepts such as Karma, Samsara, Yoga, Sankhya, the concepts of Brahman/Atman, etc. are not part of the ‘Brahminic’ tradition and have really been borrowed from other traditions. So, arguably, the most widely read and widely cherished Hindu scripture is not really Hindu in origin!  In essence, according to Prashad, ancient Hindus are not capable of producing anything fruitful and have continued to steal from other traditions.

He also advises young Hindus to see the Gita as “an experiment in truth”.[8]  So, the timeless principles and profound teachings of the Gita are reduced to mere experiments.  One wonders if Prashad can dare to send such advice in letters to young American Muslims, Christians, Jews or even Sikhs.  What would be the impact of such a letter on Prashad’s reputation?  But, all is fair game when it comes to Hindus.

Prashad describes the philosophy of Bhakti (selfless devotion) as one that “drew out from the oppressed peoples of the subcontinent the ability to challenge those who stood between them and divinity (the Brahmins, for instance) and those who stood between them and a peaceful life (Kings, for instance)”.[9]  His statement sounds more in line with the Marxist concept of rebellions and the Maoist insurgency in India, rather than the saints’ and poets’ understanding of devotion.  Interestingly, he fails to mention that these ‘rebellions’ readily enriched the great fabric of Hinduism.  Hindu temples, Hindu families the so-called ‘upper castes’ of Hindus readily sing the poetry and devotional songs of all these saints.

Prashad would benefit to keep the following words of Kabir in mind:

Bijak/Sakhi 171:

hIrA parA bajAr maiN
rahA chhAr lapaTAy
ketihe murakh pachi mUye
koi pArakhi liyA uThAy

A diamond was laying (sic) in the street covered with dirt. Many fools passed by. Someone who knew diamonds picked it up.

[Those who understand gyan-siddhanta (true knowledge/principles), pause to acquire it]. [10]

Unfortunately, FOIL fails to appreciate and understand the knowledgeable principles found in Hindu scriptures and texts.

Prashad, towards the conclusion of his letter to young Hindus, says: “to keep it alive, Hinduism requires an engagement with its history (which shows us how it evolves and changes) and with its core concepts (what we otherwise call philosophy).”[11]  However, the engagement, according to FOIL is only one way – the ‘outsiders’, like the Western academic scholars discussed above and Indian Communist/Marxists like FOIL, engage Hinduism and shape its definition and history, while the ‘insiders’ (i.e. Hindu practitioners and adherents) should be mute witnesses.  If the insiders attempt to self-define or showcase Hinduism as a dynamic tradition, they are blackballed and labeled as ‘Yankee Hindutvadis’ or ‘Hindu chauvinists’.  Challenges to biased interpretations or alternative engagements of Hinduism are labeled as attacks on free speech.

Balmurli Natrajan, another member of FOIL and the Campaign To Stop Funding Hate, is a professor of anthropology at William Paterson University.  He provides similar example of FOIL’s position on the Bhagavad Gita.  In a Letter to Progressive Hindu, Natrajan takes a particularly peculiar and prejudiced view on Lord Krishna, the Gita and various deities found in Hinduism.  In an appeal to so-called progressive Hindus to reject parts or all of the scriptures as not suitable, Natrajan cites:

An example could be verses 3.22-3.24 from the Gita wherein Krishna, the God who plays the part of a guru, tries to convince Arjuna to do his ‘duty’ on grounds that failure to do so would result in sankarasya or the intermingling or mixture of castes. For, no amount of intellectual camouflaging will be able to answer the question that a progressive Hindu will ask: So, what is wrong if people intermingle (or if sankarasya happens)? Who is bothered with this and why? Why does the Gita dwell so much on not doing another person’s ‘duty’? Who defines this ‘duty’? What, in other words, is the Gita upholding as a social order?[12]

The verse 3.24 that Natrajan cites is not about Arjuna but about Krishna’s role in this universe.  According to the verse, Krishna says: “If I did not perform prescribed duties, all these worlds would be put to ruination. I would be the cause of creating unwanted population, and I would thereby destroy the peace of all living beings.”[13]  Krishna is saying that by not performing his own prescribed duty in this universe, he will be the cause of great discord, because others would follow suit.  In verse 3.25, he also says that “the wise should act without attachment for the sake of leading people on the right path.”[14]  In every culture and in every society, most people follow wise leaders.  Millions of Indians followed Mahatma Gandhi in the Indian independence struggle.  Millions of people followed and still follow the teachings of Buddha, Adi Shankaracharya, Vivekananda, Ramakrishna, Guru Nanak, Guru Govind Singh, Chanakya and many others.  These great personalities led lives of detached action and set examples for people to follow.  Thousands of people also followed and follow Hitler, Stalin, Osama bin Laden and others throughout history and this created major chaos in the world.  So, Krishna’s advice is real and applicable even in today’s world.

Now, let’s turn to Natajran’s question regarding why Gita is dwelling so much on duty.  First of all, the Gita has many different concepts in it, and adherence to duty is just one.  But, it is important in Arjuna’s case because he was the most powerful warrior on the Pandava side and was critical for the success of the war.  Imagine if he did not fight!  Pandavas’ defeat was certain then.  And, not to mention, Arjuna’s retreat would also defame the entire Kuru dynasty and Arjuna personally.   If he had retreated from the battlefield, would he be so famous today?  But, FOIL and Natrajan easily overlook such simpler logic.

Unfortunately, Natrajan is again narrowly focused on caste and its supposed definition found in this verse of the Gita, and his analysis of the concepts of Varna (classes) seems superficial.  In fact, the word ‘caste’ itself is a misnomer derived from the Portuguese word “Casta”. “Varna was mistranslated as ‘caste’, and after generations of repetition, it became the prevailing view even amongst Hindus educated under the British system. This interpretation became a self-fulfilling prophecy since the British census of India used rigid caste boundaries into which they force fit the entire population.”[15]

He asks questions to unmask the ‘intellectual camouflaging’ that he blames Hindus for in his letter and his questions are meant to invoke a sense of suspicion regarding the Gita.  Thus, per his thesis, progressive Hindus should be bold enough to even reject the entire Gita based on the verse that he provides.  However, before any Hindu jumps on that bandwagon, it will be wise to put that verse in context with the entire philosophical discussion that Krishna is having with Arjuna in that chapter.  Also, it’s important to remember that Krishna engages Arjuna in various philosophical arguments and concepts.  The ‘mixing of castes’ (which is not properly translated by Natrajan) is one point out of so many that he makes throughout the Gita to explain to Arjuna why the latter must fight in the Kurukshetra War.

Chapter 3 is about Karma Yoga and detached action.  Krishna discusses Karma Yoga as one of the means of attaining liberation from the cycle of birth and death.  For instance, in verse 3.8, Krishna advises: “Perform your prescribed duty, for doing so is better than not working. One cannot even maintain one’s physical body without work.”[16]  So, in essence, Arjuna must do his duty because that is the nature of all beings.  This verse also has obvious truth in it because if a person does not take care of her body, she will have all sorts of health problems.  Maintaining our physical body requires work on our part (i.e. exercise, eating healthy, etc.)  Similarly, in verse 3.19, Krishna says: “Therefore, without being attached to the fruits of activities, one should act as a matter of duty, for by working without attachment one attains the Supreme.”[17]  It is imperative for a warrior like Arjuna to remain detached in his duties because only then can he sincerely perform them at this important juncture of the war.  Krishna discusses the concept of detached action in much greater detail throughout this and other chapters.  But, in Chapter 5, Krishna also says that one can attain liberation by devotional service and analytical study.  In verse 5.5, Krishna advises: “One who knows that the position reached by means of analytical study can also be attained by devotional service, and who therefore sees analytical study and devotional service to be on the same level, sees things as they are.”[18]  But, analytical study is not the path to follow in a battlefield.  It is a soldier’s duty to fight in the battlefield and not open up books to analyze philosophical concepts (although she may do that when not in the battlefield).

Just by looking at a few of these versus, one can easily understand that taking verses out of context and in isolation can lead to a misunderstanding of the powerful concepts presented in the Gita.  The Gita discusses multiple approaches for attaining liberation, ranging from Karma Yoga to Bhakti Yoga, Jnana Yoga, etc.  Krishna also maintains that a particular approach may be suitable for a person with certain qualities, while another approach may be more attractive to a person with a different set of qualities.  But, Natrajan, like his FOIL brethren, sidelines all this to raise suspicions towards the most profound Hindu philosophical concepts.

Natrajan, in the letter, further paints Lord Krishna’s teachings as non-humanist and the teachings of the various deities as filled with incest, greed, etc.  Only when the teachings are taught by a guru are they really humanist.

Coming back to Samskara, we see that not surprisingly, humanist teachings in Hinduism arise not from our host of gods and goddesses whose life stories are many times filled with outrageous kinds of deceit, manipulations, selfishness and greed. [Emphasis Added] Instead, all humanist Hindu teachings are from its human and humane gurus, not gods. And the best gurus teach to serve humanity and to not observe distinctions of caste, creed, and even gender in ways that create and reproduce hierarchies or inequalities. Indeed, when one such God tried to play the role of a guru as seen above in the Gita, the teachings are quite clearly non-humanistic.[19] [Emphasis Added]

In one swoop, Natrajan holds the entire host of deities as well as scriptures like Gita guilty of immoral behavior.  Granted, there are erotic stories and sexual references to deities in poems and arts.  However, that doesn’t permit anyone from making such sweeping generalizations and painting the entire Hindu tradition red.

It is ironic that Natrajan accepts that teachings from gurus are humanist, not those of the deities. But, where are the gurus getting their teachings from?  Which gurus is he referring to?  The wisest teachers of Hinduism ranging from Vyasa, Valmiki, Yagnavalkya, etc. to Shankarcharya, Ramanujacharya, Madhvacharya, Kabir, Mirabai, Lord Chaitanya, Swami Narayan, Tulsidas, Tukaram, Narasinh Mehta, Sai Baba, Swami Vivekananda, Ramakrishna Paramhamsa, Aurobindo, Gandhi, Ramana Maharishi, Swami Chinmayananda, Srila Prabhupada, etc. have all based their teachings on various deities and their avatars, like Shiva, Vishnu, Krishna, Rama, Hanuman, Kali, Durga, Ganesha, etc.  So, what does Natrajan mean when he tries to separate the gurus from the deities?  How do the gurus attain their knowledge without deep devotion towards and meditation upon these deities that are ultimately the personification of the Impersonal Reality known as Brahman in the scriptures?  How do deities whose stories are full of ‘deceit, manipulations, selfishness and greed’ inspire so many learned gurus and spiritual personalities?  Can they all be deluded?

Consider the following Bhajan of Mirabai, the 16th century devotee of Krishna and a legendary saint of India:

Akanda Varne Varee Saheli, Hu to Akhanda Varne Varee…

O my companion, saheli (female friend)! I am married to The Eternal Husband (Krishna). I am now married to The Indivisible Husband.

Mira Ke Prabhu Giridhar Naagar, Santona Charne Padi Saheli

Gopi Mira’s Lord is Giridhar (who raised the mountain to save his devotees in Vrindavan). He is the true civilized, dependable, pure, selfless friend and husband.  I now surrender at the feet of saints.[20]

In the above Gujarati Bhajan, Mira is clearly in love with Krishna, considers him her husband and offers her complete devotion to him.  Her Bhakti (selfless devotion) is extremely strong towards Krishna.  Would Natrajan consider this an immoral behavior and blame the saint for incest?

Coming back to the Gita, Natrajan maintains that Lord Krishna’s teachings are ‘quite clearly non-humanistic’.  This one is based on one example of verses 3.22-3.24 that he cites.  However, even an amateur student of the Gita and Hindu scripture knows that Hinduism is vastly filled with humanist and pluralistic teachings.  The Gita is rich in humanist teachings and has been the source of inspiration for hundreds of millions of people all over the world, both religious and secular, Hindu and non-Hindu, ranging from Gandhi to Thoreau and Einstein, from Shankaracharya to Aurobindo to Vivekananda and many other modern and ancient personalities.  In fact, the entire Hindu scriptural treasure is filled with universal, pluralist and humanist teachings.

Bhagavad Gita, verse 9.26 declares: “Whoever with devotion offers Me a leaf, a flower, a fruit, or water, that I accept—the devout gift of the pure-minded”[21]  Similarly, verse 9.29 says: “I am the same to all beings: to Me there is none hateful or dear. But those who worship Me with devotion, are in Me, and I too am in them.”[22]

Bhagavad Gita, verse 2.64 declares: ‘But the self-controlled man, moving among objects, with his sense under restraint and free from both attraction and repulsion, attains peace.’[23]

Bhagavad Gita, verse 17.20 declares: ‘”Charity given out of duty, without expectation of return, at the proper time and place, and to a worthy person is considered to be in the mode of goodness.’[24]

Here are some famous perspectives on the Gita:

When doubts haunt me, when disappointments stare me in the face, and I see not one ray of hope on the horizon, I turn to Bhagavad-Gita and find a verse to comfort me; and I immediately begin to smile in the midst of overwhelming sorrow. Those who meditate on the Gita will derive fresh joy and new meanings from it every day. -Mahatma Gandhiji

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. – Aldous Huxley

The Bhagavad-Gita deals essentially with the spiritual foundation of human existence. It is a call of action to meet the obligations and duties of life; yet keeping in view the spiritual nature and grander purpose of the universe. – Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru

The Bhagavad-Gita is a true scripture of the human race a living creation rather than a book, with a new message for every age and a new meaning for every civilization. – Sri Aurobindo

In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagavad-Gita, in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seems puny and trivial. – Henry David Thoreau[25]

One wonders where these giants of civilization are wrong in their interpretation of the Gita when compared to Natrajan.


[1] Vijay Prashad, “Letter to a Young American Hindu”, May 21, 2007, http://www.passtheroti.com/posts/487, accessed June 23, 2011

[2] Prashad, Ibid.

[3] Prashad, Ibid.[1]

[4] Prashad, Ibid. [1]

[5] Kalavai Venkat, “A Critical Review of Romila Thapar’s Early India – From The Origins to AD 1300”, Page 14, http://voiceofdharma.org/indology/EarlyIndia.pdf,  accessed June 23, 2011

[6] Indrani Bandopadhayay, “The Bhagavad Gita”, http://www.acns.com/~mm9n/articles/dev/10Gita.htm, accessed June 23, 2011

[7] Prashad, Ibid.[1]

[8] Prashad, Ibid.105

[9] Prashad, Ibid.[1]

[10] “Kabir Mystic Philosopher 1398-1518”, http://www.cs.colostate.edu/~malaiya/kabir.html, accessed June 24, 2011

[11] Prashad, Ibid.[1]

[12] Balmurli Natrajan, “Letter to a Progressive Hindu”, SAMAR, Issue 28, February 28, 2008, http://samarmagazine.org/archive/articles/255, accessed June 23, 2011

[13] “The Bhagavad Gita: The Divine Song of God”, Chapter 3, Verse 24, http://www.bhagavad-gita.us/categories/The-Gita%3A-Chapter-3/?Page=2, accessed June 23, 2011

[14] “The Bhagavad Gita: The Divine Song of God”, Chapter 3, Verse 25, http://www.bhagavad-gita.us/categories/The-Gita%3A-Chapter-3/?Page=2, accessed June 23, 2011

[15] Rajiv Malhotra, “Bhagvadgita on Caste”, http://www.infinityfoundation.com/ECITcaste3frameset.htm,  accessed June 24, 2011

[16] “The Bhagavad Gita: The Divine Song of God”, Chapter 3, Verse 8, http://www.bhagavad-gita.us/categories/The-Gita%3A-Chapter-3/, accessed June 23, 2011

[17] “The Bhagavad Gita: The Divine Song of God”, Chapter 3, Verse 19, http://www.bhagavad-gita.us/categories/The-Gita%3A-Chapter-3/, accessed June 23, 2011

[18] “The Bhagavad Gita: The Divine Song of God”, Chapter 5, Verse 5 http://www.bhagavad-gita.us/categories/The-Gita%3A-Chapter-5/,  accessed June 23, 2011

[19] Natrajan, Ibid.

[20] “Akhand Var Ne Vari Hu – I Am Married To The Eternal Husband”, http://www.gitananda.org/bhajans/akhand-var-ne-vari-hu.html, accessed June 23, 2011

[21] “Srimad-Bhagavad-Gita, English translation and commentary by Swami Swarupananda, [1909]“, Chapter 9, Verse 26, http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/sbg/sbg14.htm, accessed June 24, 2011

[22] [22] “Srimad-Bhagavad-Gita, English translation and commentary by Swami Swarupananda, [1909]“, Chapter 9, Verse 29, http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/sbg/sbg14.htm, accessed June 24, 2011

[23] Swami Chinmayanand, “Peace while one has much work and responsibility” http://www.mychinmaya.org/index.php?id=topic_2, accessed June 24, 2011

[24] “The Bhagavad Gita: The Divine Song of God”, Chapter 17, Verse 20, http://www.bhagavad-gita.us/categories/The-Gita%3A-Chapter-5/, accessed June 23, 2011

[25] Subhamoy Das, “In Praise of the Bhagavad Gita: Great Comments by Great People”, About.Com, http://hinduism.about.com/od/thegita/a/famousquotes.htm, accessed June 24, 2011

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