The Bhagavad Gita, as you may not know it

It’s a congenital bent in our household to look thoroughly or deeply at… well, at whatever. Poetry, politics, history, culture, religion. It’s an ongoing push-pull, which I would say isn’t always comfortable but is always necessary.

Trying to look at surrender in the same way is a thorough challenge, especially if as you’re about to do so you see the little thread hanging that can unravel everything.

Historian Wendy Doniger has made an academic career (something worth a thorough rending, by the way) of challenging long-held assumptions and diving more deeply into India’s religious and cultural histories. Her book, The Hindus, as a result is a massive and massively controversial one. You may recall hearing how it got banned in India. I know plenty of people who are decidedly not Doniger fans.

So I present this one a little warily, but I find it too interesting not to pass on. It’s a review of a new book looking at the history of the Bhagavad Gita — here we have more of the review, which is by Doniger, than the book, by religious scholar Richard Davis. Some excerpts:

How did Indian tradition transform the Bhagavad Gita (the “Song of God”) into a bible for pacifism, when it began life, sometime between the third century BC and the third century CE, as an epic argument persuading a warrior to engage in a battle, indeed, a particularly brutal, lawless, internecine war? It has taken a true gift for magic—or, if you prefer, religion, particularly the sort of religion in the thrall of politics that has inspired Hindu nationalism from the time of the British Raj to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi today.


The American Transcendentalists, too, tended to ignore the martial Gita, but they loved the philosophical Gita. In the 1850s, “Thoreau took a borrowed copy of the Wilkins Gita with him to Walden Pond, where he imagined himself communing with a Brahmin priest” on the banks of the Ganges as he sat reading on the banks of the pond. When the first edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass was published in 1855, Ralph Waldo Emerson commented that it read like “a mixture of the Bhagavat Ghita [sic] and the New York Herald,” and a translation of the Gita was said to have been found under Whitman’s pillow when he died.


Confronted with Krishna’s exhortation to Arjuna to engage in a violent battle, Gandhi argued that by urging him to “fight,” Krishna meant simply that Arjuna should do his duty. “Fighting” was merely a metaphor for the inner struggle of human beings, and nonviolence was a corollary of nonattachment to the fruits of action; therefore, actions such as murder and lying are forbidden, because they cannot be performed without attachment. On the other hand, the lawyer and Dalit spokesperson Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, contesting Gandhi’s claim to speak for Dalits (the lowest castes, or Harijans, as Gandhi called them, “the people of God,” generally called Untouchables at that time), argued that the Gita was a defense of the caste system and that it supported genocide over nonviolence.

Gandhi ignored the warrior Gita at his peril: the man who killed him was driven by it. On the evening of January 30, 1948, Nathuram Godse, as Davis writes, “interrupted Gandhi at the prayer grounds [at Birla House, Delhi] with two bullets fired at point-blank range.” Two days before his execution, Godse wrote a final letter to his parents in which he argued that “Lord Krishna, in war and otherwise, killed many a self-opinionated and influential persons for the betterment of the world, and even in the Gita He has time and again counseled Arjun to kill his near and dear ones and ultimately persuaded him to do so.” Evidently Godse concluded that Krishna would have wanted him to assassinate the “influential” Gandhi for the betterment of the world. Like the revolutionary Khudiram Bose, Godse carried a copy of the Gita on the morning of his execution.

That should give you a fairly clear picture of what the book — and Doniger — present by way of a “biography” of the Gita. Maybe read it at your own risk.

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

6 thoughts on “The Bhagavad Gita, as you may not know it”

  1. The book reviewed is part of a series of “biographies” of religious texts. You may be interested to know that another volume in it is “The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A Biography”, by David Gordon White. I read that one recently and found it very informative – it takes as its starting point the question “why do modern yoga practitioners and teachers refer to Patanjali so often, when the text has very little direct bearing on what they are doing?” The answer winds through Patanjali’s dualist philosophical system, its falling out of favor, its rediscovery by British scholars, the Theosophical Society, Swami Vivekananda, and Krishnamacharya.

  2. I bought the book and i have to say it’s great. I would liken it to Howard Zinn’s book The Peoples History Of The United States. Doniger has broken away from what has been said many times before to show the little known stories about women, animals, lower casts and their contribution to the culture something that will ruffle the feathers of the Brahman ruling class. She touches many of the classic themes and adds the lesser known events that led up to what is accepted today. The preface is over 50 pages and has a great section on ahimsa and it’s origins She mentions that sanskrit is not the oldest language and that Prakrit pre dates sanskrit but when you win wars and control society you can also control language and sanskrit was used as a secret language of the order. I can seen how this book ruffled feathers as it delves deeply into the untouchable culture and worse women and animals interchangeable in India. So far the best book i’ve read on Hinduism or at least the most interesting. As far as her sources go she says, “Many critical questions remain unanswered, and i hope that this book will inspire some readers to go back to the sources and decide for themselves whether or not they agree with me. The relevant materials can be found in the bibliography as well as in the notes for each chapter, which will also provide browsing material for those readers (I confess that I am one of them) who go straight to the back and look at the notes and bibliography first, reading the book like Hebrew, from right to left, to see where the author has been grazing, like dogs sniffing one another’s backsides to see what they have eaten lately.”

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