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. Isnt 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 Indias
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 todays
world which does not appear overeager to renounce action !
The Gitas 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.
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 dont
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 Lords Song. But let us face the
professors 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.
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 Gitas 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
The Gita is, in Sri Aurobindos words, our
chief national heritage, our hope for the future.