Edit/Op-Ed

Gita: Not a Religious Book?

Ram Puniyani 

Srimad Bhagwat Gita or Bhagwat Gita or Gita has been in the news recently for various reasons. Few months ago, the matter came up when a Siberian Court in the Tomsk City of Russia was to decide about the ban on the translation of Gita by Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupad Swami, the founder of ISKCON. The argument was that this particular translation was promoting social discord and so be banned. It was perceived in India as if there is a demand for ban on Gita in Russia. In this context the matter came up in the parliament and a strong protest was voiced against banning of Hindu religious text. Later the court did not ban this particular translation and so the matters came to rest there. Incidentally it can be reemphasized that Gita as a Hindu religious scripture is prevalent in Russia from centuries, and what was being demanded was a ban on particular translation and not on the Holy Scripture as such.

 

Closer home, the M. P. High court has ruled (Jan 2012) that “Gita is essentially a book on Indian philosophy, not book on Indian religion”. This judgment gave a sanction on the decision of M.P. Government to continue with the teaching of Gita Sar (Essence of Gita) in the MP schools. This petition had come up in the court when the Catholic Bishop Council appealed that moral values of all religions should be taught in schools and not just Gita. So now the M.P. High Court has concluded that since Gita is a book on Indian Philosophy and not on religion, it can be continued as such and the need to consider introducing the moral values from other religions as well, need not be considered. Incidentally other BJP ruled state; Karnataka is also planning to introduce the teaching of Gita in its schools. While giving this judgment, one wonders if the honorable judge forgot that while the oath is administered to Hindus in his court, they are made to do take oath by keeping their hand on the same Holy book, as a religious book not for its philosophy! 

One is reminded of another judgment at this time, the one known as “Hindutva as a way of life”. The Supreme Court was to decide whether the use of the word Hindutva in elections tantamount to corrupt electoral practices or not, as Hindutva divides people along religious lines. Contrary to the theological, sociological and political understanding that Hinduism is a religion and that the word Hindutva is built around Hindu religious identity, Court ruled something which opened the floodgates of dividing people along religious lines. This judgment ‘Hindutva is a way of life’ exonerated someone who was doing divisive religious propaganda and gave legitimacy to the politics in the name of religion. Now the Gita judgment has again raised the questions about the nature of Hinduism, its religious texts and its religious belief. 

Opportunistically the MP government and other Hindutva ideologues who called Gita as a holy Hindu religious scripture, and so needs to be taught in schools are keeping quiet, as this judgment suits their political agenda. The confusions prevail at multiple layers, as Hinduism is not a prophet based religion and there is no single ‘revealed holy book’ this understanding is being used by many to take the convenient path of taking the meaning which suits their purpose. 

While term Hindu is of late origin, eighth century, the consolidation of Hinduism from the various prevailing religious sects has been a process beginning around that time with Magadh Maurayan empire. There are many a religious scriptures, many a holy books in this umbrella of Hinduism, Vedas, Upanishads, Ramayana, Mahabharata etc. So which is the holy scripture of Hindus? While all these books are regarded as Holy, over a period of time Hindu religion is being shaped around, One Deity, (Lord Ram) One Book (Gita), One Clergy (Acharyas, Mahants). The verdict of the court defies logic when it proclaims, “Gita is essentially a book on Indian philosophy not book on Indian religion.” 

The Bhagwat Gita or Gita (Song of God) is a 700 verse scripture that is part of the epic Mahabharata. As it is drawn from Mahabharata it can be labeled as Smriti text. Some sects of Hinduism give it the status of Upanishad, thereby making it sruti (revealed) book. It is also regarded to represent the summary of Upanishadic teachings and so it is also called as ‘Upanishad of Upanishads’. In this Holy Scripture Lord Krishna teaches Arjun about his duties as a Prince belonging to Kshtriya Varna. Arjun was faced with the dilemma of the war, the possibility of killing his own kin, cousins and others. Lord tells Arjun that it is his holy duty to undertake the war. Lord elaborates on different Yogas and so Gita is often described as a core of Hindu theology. As most holy scriptures are the revelations from the supreme God, in Gita also Krishna reveals his identity as Supreme Being himself (Svayam Bhagvan). He blesses Arjun with the awe inspiring vision of divine universal form. The Gita elaborates on the central part of Hindu theology, the origin of Varnas. In Purush Sukta of Vedas Lord Brahma narrates as to how he created four Varnas from the body of Virat Purush. In Gita on similar lines Lord Krishna also tells about the divine origin of Varna’s. Lord says that the fourfold order was created by him according to the divisions of quality (Guna) and work (karma). One knows that origin of Hinduism is different from the Prophet based religions. Here there has been an evolution of the Hinduism over a period of time and today while Hinduism is a religion, Gita is its Holy Scripture. To take the stand that it is Indian philosophy and not religious one is far from truth. There is philosophy also in many a Holy Scriptures. Notwithstanding that, they are primarily religious scriptures. The verdict of the court needs re-examination as it is not conforming to the belief of millions of Hindus; neither can it stand the scrutiny of rational understanding about Hinduism as a religion. From the religion of Pastoral Aryans to the practices of Hindus today, there is a long journey. The communal forces want to introduce this text in schools as not only they want to impose Hindu nation in this country but also through this book, they aim to reinforce the concept of Varna, which is one of the core doctrine of Hinduism, and Gita tells this by attributing Varna to the divine creation by Lord Himself. While there are many a philosophical formulations in this divine book there is also the subtle defense of what the Hindutva politics wants to bring in today, Varan- Jati in a repackaged form.

 

(Ram Puniyani was a Professor of Biomedical Engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology, Powai and works keenly on social issues. He is the author of three books including Communal Politics: An illustrated primer.)

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect BH’s editorial policy.

 

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