The Gita in Today's World

(An article published in New Indian Express of 10 December 2000 on the occasion of the International Gita Seminar held at Thiruvananthapuram on 7-10 December. The article was published under the title : “Greatest Gospel of Spiritual Works.”)


“The Gita is the greatest gospel of spiritual works ever yet given to the race,” said Sri Aurobindo.

One may wonder about the meaning of the phrase “spiritual works.” Isn’t spirituality distinct from works ? That would be the popular view, especially after centuries of Buddhism, Jainism and Advaita Vedanta. All of them insisted that the world was nothing but a painful illusion from which we had better escape as soon as possible. In their practical teaching at least, spirituality has been a thing divorced from everyday life.

But that divorce is a fairly recent phenomenon in India’s spiritual history, for we find no trace of it in the Rig-Veda. The Bhagavad Gita too rejects such a view : Sri Krishna plunges a dejected Arjuna back into the world, not away from it. No doubt, we ordinarily live our lives in an ignorant manner, overcome by egoism, by tamas and rajas. But between blind, unconscious, mechanical living on the one hand, and complete rejection of life on the other, the Gita offers a practical alternative. And a more satisfying one, especially in today’s world which does not appear overeager to renounce action !

The Gita’s Way of Spiritual Works
The Gita’s answer is “spiritual works.” This means, first, no egoism in our action, no expectation of any gain or reward — the famous nishkama karma : “You have a right to action but never to the fruits of action.” Not so easy in practice, yet a most soothing way to admit that our intellect is simply incapable of gauging the workings of the universe. We may erect systems of philosophy and speculate for ever, but in the end we cannot know what is really good or bad, right or wrong. We remain pitifully ignorant of what we are or who we are, why we do what we do, and whether our action is of any use at all, or just some passing ripple on the great ocean of life. “Thick and tangled is the way of works,” admits the Gita. But “spiritual works” also means that we must surrender our petty limitations and unite our consciousness with the Divine consciousness in the very midst of action. This surrender to and oneness with the Divine vision and action is the cornerstone of the Karmayoga of the Gita. It asks us to be “with our consciousness founded in the Self, free from desire and egoism.”

Such is, briefly, the method the Scripture offers us to escape from ignorance without escaping from life. We may not be able to adopt it in a day, but simply trying to put it to actual practice changes our whole attitude to life and widens our vision and action. It also relieves us from the unhealthy obsession with “achievement” that pervades Western culture, the need to “conquer aggressively” and “assert our personality.” In reality, what asserts itself is not personality but ego ; what conquers is not the human spirit but the human greed. In the old, pre-Buddhistic Indian perspective reflected in the Gita, we must work not for ourselves but for the world and the divine Intention in it ; we must fight not for ego but for dharma. By doing so, we live a fulfilled life rather than a blind race to nowhere. Then spirituality becomes part of day-to-day life, not just a sublime but elusive moment in meditation. Then inner and outer merge into an integral life.

One may regret that this wholesome attitude to life was virtually pushed aside by the subsequent doctrines of Mayavada. Had it survived in the national practice, India might be a very different place today. The West — to which spirituality is nebulous at best and a fraud at worst — has often criticized the Indian temperament for being “fatalistic,” “passive,” or plain lethargic. But we find none of those defects in the Gita, which is why it remains the best tool to shape the human character, beginning with that of Indians. For that reason alone, the Gita should certainly be an integral part of any Indian curriculum. It is hard for an independent observer to understand on what ground Indian children have been denied this central pillar of their heritage.

Warmongering in the Gita?
Ironically, we also hear from the West a diametrically opposite criticism voiced at the Gita : no longer of passivity or apathy, but of warmongering ! Witness this statement made last month in Philadelphia by Wendy Doniger, Indologist and professor of History of Religions at the University of Chicago : “The Bhagavad Gita is not as nice a book as some Americans think,” the good professor informed her audience. “Throughout the Mahabharata ... Krishna goads human beings into all sorts of murderous and self-destructive behaviours such as war.... The Gita is a dishonest book ; it justifies war.” Prof. Doniger added for good measure : “I'm a pacifist. I don’t believe in ‘good’ wars.” (Philadelphia Inquirer of 19 November.)

Of course, many eminent Western thinkers, from Emerson to Aldous Huxley and André Malraux, have shown a better understanding of the Lord’s Song. But let us face the professor’s statement and examine its validity. Apart from its disparaging tone all too common with Western “Indologists” accustomed to judging Indian civilization according to their own standards, it does raise a valid problem. And indeed certain Jain scriptures, for instance, have criticised Sri Krishna on much the same ground.

Is war and killing always bad, then ? Well, if it is, it is not India that ought to be condemned but the West with its blood-stained record of Crusades and genocides of countless Pagan peoples, its endless history of war and gory conquests, its two World Wars and recent bombing campaigns. Indeed, where has pacifism been practised in the post-Christian West ? By contrast, we have no record of any military conquest by India of other civilizations, no Indian genocide of other peoples to impose a religion or a political domination. So why lay this unjust blame on the innocent rather than on the guilty ?

But the problem is deeper, for the Gita refuses to fall for simplistic oppositions such as war vs. pacifism or violence vs. non-violence. True, there is nothing non-violent about the Gita, and elsewhere in the Mahabharata, ahimsa is roundly criticized. In Vana Parva (Ch. 207), we find for instance : “Ahimsa was ordained of old by men who were ignorant of the true facts. There is not a man on the face of the earth who is free from the sin of doing injury to creatures.” This does not mean that war is the preferred solution : did not Sri Krishna go to the Kauravas on a last-ditch peace mission, even though he knew it was doomed to fail ? Only after exhausting all avenues to peace did he advise the Pandavas to wage war. However, the crucial point missed by Prof. Doniger is that it is not a selfish war for personal conquest : it is a war to end the adharmic rule of the Kauravas and uphold dharma for the universal good.

The Gita’s Way of Dharmic Strength
There lies the radical difference between the Western and the Indian approaches. To the West, there is either brute force or pacifism, either violence or non-violence ; to the Gita the truth is neither one nor the other, but the conscious use of force to protect dharma. This third way is both a noble and a practical solution. Pacifism and non-violence may be fine ideals, but could Europe practise it when Hitler started on his dark conquest ? Could India practise it when Pakistan invaded Kashmir after Independence, during the 1962 Chinese aggression, or the Kargil misadventure ? Again, would proponents of pacifism have the courage to lecture the aggressor rather than the aggressed ?

In his famous Essays on the Gita, Sri Aurobindo summed up the whole problem in these words:

We will use only soul-force and never destroy by war or any even defensive employment of physical violence ? Good, though until soul-force is effective, the Asuric force in men and nations tramples down, breaks, slaughters, burns, pollutes, as we see it doing today, but then at its ease and unhindered, and you have perhaps caused as much destruction of life by your abstinence as others by resort to violence.

Strength founded on the Truth and the dharmic use of force are thus the Gita’s answer to pacifism and non-violence. Rooted in the ancient Indian genius, this third way can only be practised by those who have risen above egoism, above asuric ambition or greed. The Gita certainly does not advocate war ; what it advocates is the active and selfless defence of dharma. If sincerely followed, its teaching could have altered the course of human history. It can yet alter the course of Indian history.

The Gita is, in Sri Aurobindo’s words, “our chief national heritage, our hope for the future.”