As the court in the Siberian town of Tomsk deliberates on whether the Bhagvat Gita is ‘extremist’ literature, the Indian government and parliament seem to have forgotten their own sanctimonious injunction of ‘non-inteference in the internal affairs of other countries’ (used traditionally to defend such obnoxious pratices as ‘untouchability’ and ‘caste discrimination’) to pressurise the Russian goverment to subvert due legal process and somehow persuade the Tomskians to find the Gita non-extremist. And as expected, Indian mainstream media, which has often gone to extreme lengths to protect its exclusive upper caste character, is now going into an overdrive finding men and mantras to defend the Gita. But what was not expected was certain views of Dr.Ambedkar, quoted out of context, being cited to defend, obliquely, the philosophy of the Gita, in at least one popular internet magazine. Which is very disturbing, considering Dr. Ambedkar had clearly called the Gita ‘counter-revolutionary’. It is also worth noting that it is the same magazine which had earlier tried to label Dr. Ambedkar’s economic philosophy as monetarist, and as supporting free markets.
What does Dr. Ambedkar say about the Bhagvat Gita? He specifically talks about the Gita in one unfinished chapter of his book ‘Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Ancient India‘ (Chapter 9, of Part III, which you can find online here, at Ambedkar.org). The Chapter is called ‘Essays on the Bhagwat Gita : Philosophic Defence of Counter-Revolution: Krishna and His Gita‘. In the introductory part of the chapter, he quotes various modern scholars’ views on the Gita, their thoughts on its ‘contradictions’ and ‘inconsistencies’. In the excerpt published below, Babasaheb outlines his core arguments. The excerpt has been arranged to resemble an interview, but this interview never happened.
Please note: the questions (and the emphasis on some parts of text) do not occur in the original text. They have been inserted here to illustrate the key arguments, to make it read like an interview, because each divided section addresses crucial questions that may occur to any lay reader about the Bhagvat Gita. And they do address those questions very lucidly, making it seem like Dr.Ambedkar had almost anticipated those questions, over half a century ago.
Q. What is the Bhagvat Gita? What is its purpose?
Turning to the view of the orthodox Pandits, we again find a variety of views. One view is that the Bhagvat is not a sectarian book. it pays equal respect to the three ways of salvation (1) Karma marga or the path of works (2) Bhakti marga or the path of devotion and (3) Jnana marga or the path of knowledge and preaches the efficacy of all three as means of salvation. In support of their contention that the Gita respects all the three ways of salvation and accepts the efficacy of each one of them, the Pandits point out that of the 18 Chapters of the Bhagvat Gita, Chapters I to 6 are devoted to the preaching of the Jnana marga, Chapters 7 to 12 to the preaching of Karma marga and Chapters 12 to 18 to the preaching of Bhakti marga and say that this equal distribution of its Chapters shows that the Gita upholds all the three modes of salvation.
Quite contrary to the view of the Pandits is the view of Shankaracharya and Mr. Tilak, both of whom must be classed amongst orthodox writers. Shankaracharya held the view that the Bhagvat Gita preached that the Jnana marga was the only true way of salvation. Mr. Tilak[f15] does not agree with the views of any of the other scholars. He repudiates the view that the Gita is a bundle of inconsistencies. He does not agree with the Pandits who say that the Bhagvat Gita recognizes all the three ways of salvation. Like Shankaracharya he insists that the Bhagvat Gita has a definite doctrine to preach. But he differs from Shankaracharya and holds that the Gita teaches Karma Yoga and not Jnana Yoga.
It cannot but be a matter of great surprise to find such a variety of opinion as to the message which the Bhagvat Gita preaches. One is forced to ask why there should be such divergence of opinion among scholars? My answer to this question is that scholars have gone on a false errand. They have gone on a search for the message of the Bhagvat Gita on the assumption that it is a gospel as the Koran, the Bible or the Dhammapada is. In my opinion this assumption is quite a false assumption. The Bhagvat Gita is not a gospel and it can therefore have no message and it is futile to search for one. The question will no doubt be asked : What is the Bhagvat Gita if it is not a gospel? My answer is that the Bhagvat Gita is neither a book of religion nor a treatise on philosophy. What the Bhagvat Gita does is to defend certain dogmas of religion on philosphic grounds. If on that account anybody wants to call it a book of religion or a book of philosophy he may please himself. But essentially it is neither. It uses philosophy to defend religion. My opponents will not be satisfied with a bare statement of view. They would insist on my proving my thesis by reference to specific instances. It is not at all difficult. Indeed it is the easiest task.
Q. What are the dogmas of religion that the Bhagvat Gita defends?
The first instance one comes across in reading the Bhagvat Gita is the justification of war. Arjuna had declared himself against the war, against killing people for the sake of property. Krishna offers a philosophic defence of war and killing in war. This philosophic defence of war will be found in Chapter II verses II to 28. The philosophic defence of war offered by the Bhagvat Gita proceeds along two lines of argument. One line of argument is that anyhow the world is perishable and man is mortal. Things are bound to come to an end. Man is bound to die. Why should it make any difference to the wise whether man dies a natural death or whether he is done to death as a result of violence? Life is unreal, why shed tears because it has ceased to be? Death is inevitable, why bother how it has resulted ? The second line of argument in justification of war is that it is a mistake to think that the body and the soul are one. They are separate. Not only are the two quite distinct but they differ in-as-much as the body is perishable while the soul is eternal and imperishable. When death occurs it is the body that dies. The soul never dies. Not only does it never die but air cannot dry it, fire cannot burn it, and a weapon cannot cut it. It is therefore wrong to say that when a man is killed his soul is killed. What happens is that his body dies. His soul discards the dead body as a person discards his old clothes—wears a new ones and carries on. As the soul is never killed, killing a person can never be a matter of any movement. War and killing need therefore give no ground to remorse or to shame, so argues the Bhagvat Gita.
Another dogma to which the Bhagvat Gita comes forward to offer a philosophic defence is Chaturvarnya. The Bhagvat Gita, no doubt, mentions that the Chaturvarnya is created by God and therefore sacrosanct. But it does not make its validity dependent on it. It offers a philosophic basis to the theory of Chaturvarnya by linking it to the theory of innate, inborn qualities in men. The fixing of the Varna of man is not an arbitrary act says the Bhagvat Gita. But it is fixed according to his innate, inborn qualities.[f16]
The third dogma for which the Bhagvat Gita offers a philosphic defence is the Karma marga. By Karma marga the Bhagvat Gita means the performance of the observances, such as Yajnas as a way to salvation. The Bhagvat Gita most stands out for the Karma marga throughout and is a great upholder of it. The line it takes to defend Karma yoga is by removing the excrescences which had grown upon it and which had made it appear quite ugly. The first excrescence was blind faith. The Gita tries to remove it by introducing the principle of Buddhi yoga[f17] as a necessary condition for Karma yoga. Become Stihtaprajna i.e., ‘Befitted with Buddhi’ there is nothing wrong in the performance of Karma kanda. The second excrescence on the Karma kanda was the selfishness which was the motive behind the performance of the Karmas. The Bhagvat Gita attempts to remove it by introducing the principle of Anasakti i.e., performance of karma without any attachment for the fruits of the Karma. [f18]Founded in Buddhi yoga and dissociated from selfish attachment to the fruits of Karma what is wrong with the dogma of Karma kand? this is how the Bhagvat Gita defends the Karma marga.4 It would be quite possible to continue in this strain, to pick up other dogmas and show how the Gita comes forward to offer a philosophic defence in their support where none existed before. But this could be done only if one were to write a treatise on the Bhagvat Gita. it is beyond the scope of a chapter the main purpose of which is to assign to the Bhagvat Gita its proper place in the ancient Indian literature. I have therefore selected the most important dogmas just to illustrate my thesis.
Q. Whose are the Dogmas for which the Bhagvat Gita offers this philosophical defence? Why did it become necessary for the Bhagvat Gita to defend these Dogmas?
Two other questions are sure to be asked in relation to my thesis. Whose are the Dogmas for which the Bhagvat Gita offers this philosophical defence? Why did it become necessary for the Bhagvat Gita to defend these Dogmas?
To begin with the first question, the dogmas which the Gita defends are the dogmas of counter-revolution as put forth in the Bible of counter-revolution namely Jaimini’s Purvamimamsa. There ought to be no difficulty in accepting this proposition. If there is any it is largely due to wrong meaning attached to the word Karma yoga. Most writers on the Bhagvat Gita translate the word Karma yoga as ‘action’ and the word Janga yoga, as ‘knowledge’ and proceed to discuss the Bhagvat Gita as though it was engaged in comparing and contrasting knowledge versus action in a generlized form. This is quite wrong. The Bhagvat Gita is not concerned with any general, philosophical discussion of action versus knowledge. As a matter of fact, the Gita is concerned with the particular and not with the general. By Karma yoga or action Gita means the dogmas contained in Jaimini’s Karma kanda and by Jnana yoga or knowledge it means the dogmas contained in Badarayana’s Brahma Sutras. That the Gita in speaking of Karma is not speaking of activity or inactivity, quieticism or energism, in general terms but religious acts and observances cannot be denied by anyone who has read the Bhagvat Gita. It is to life the Gita from the position of a party pamphlet engaged in a controversy on small petty points and make it appear as though it was a general treatise on matters of high philosophy that this attempt is made to inflate the meaning of the words Karma and Jnana and make them words of general import. Mr. Tilak is largely to be blamed for this trick of patriotic Indians. The result has been that these false meanings have misled people into believing that the Bhagvat Gita is an independent self-contained book and has no relation to the literature that has preceded it. But if one were to keep to the meaning of the word Karma yoga as one finds it in the Bhagvat Gita itself one would be convinced that in speaking of Karma yoga the Bhagvat Gita is referring to nothing but the dogmas of Karma kanda as propounded by Jaimini which it tries to renovate and strengthen.
To take up the second question : Why did the Bhagvat Gita feel it necessary to defend the dogmas of counter-revolution? To my mind the answer is very clear. It was to save them from the attack of Buddhism that the Bhagvat Gita came into being. Buddha preached non-violence. He not only preached it but the people at large—-except the Brahmins—had acepted it as the way of life. They had acquired a repugnance to violence. Buddha preached against Chaturvarnya. He used some of the most offensive similes in attacking the theory of Chaturvarnya. The frame work of Chaturvarnya had been broken. The order of Chaturvarnya had been turned upside down. Shudras and women could become sannyasis, a status which counter-revolution had denied them. Buddha had condemned the Karma kanda and the Yajnas. he condemned them on the ground of Himsa or violence. He condemned them also on the ground that the motive behind them was a selfish desire to obtain bonus. What was the reply of the counter-revolutionaries to this attack? Only this. These things were ordained by the Vedas, the Vedas were infallible, therefore the dogmas were not to be questioned. In the Buddhist age, which was the most enlightened and the most rationalistic age India has known, dogmas resting on such silly, arbitrary, unrationalistic and fragile foundations could hardly stand. People who had come to believe in non-violence as a principle of life and had gone so far as to make it a rule of life—How could they be expected to accept the dogma that the Kshatriya may kill without sinning because the Vedas say that it is his duty to kill? People who had accepted the gospel of social equality and who were remaking society on the basis of each one according to his merits—how could they accept the chaturvarnya theory of gradation, and separation of man based on birth simply because the Vedas say so? People who had accepted the doctrine of Buddha that all misery in society is due to Tanha or what Tawny calls acquisitive instinct—how could they accept the religion which deliberatly invited people to obtain boons by sacrifices merely because there is behind it the authority of the Vedas? There is no doubt that under the furious attack of Buddhism, Jaimini’s counter-revolutionary dogmas were tottering and would have collapsed had they not received the support which the Bhagvat Gita gave them. The philosophic defence of the counter-revolutiona.ry doctrines given by the Bhagwat Gita is by no means impregnable. The philosophic defence offered by the Bhagvat Gita of the Kshtriya’s duty to kill is to say the least puerile. To say that killing is no killing because what is killed is the body and not the soul is an unheard of defence of murder. This is one of the doctrines which make some people say that the doctrines make one’s hair stand on their end. If Krishna were to appear as a lawyer acting for a client who is being tried for murder and pleaded the defence set out by him in the Bhagvat Gita there is not the slightest doubt that he would be sent to the lunatic asylum. Similarly childish is the defence of the Bhagvat Gita of the dogma of chaturvarnya. Krishna defends it on the basis of the Guna theory of the Sankhya. But Krishna does not seem to have realized what a fool he has made of himself. In the chaturvarnya there are four Varnas. But the gunas according to the Sankhyas are only three. How can a system of four varnas be defended on the basis of a philosophy which does not recognise more than three varnas? The whole attempt of the Bhagvat Gita to offer a philosophic defence of the dogmas of counterrevolution is childish—and does not deserve a moment’s serious thought. None-the-less there is not the slightest doubt that without the help of the Bhagvat Gita the counter-revolution would have died out, out of sheer stupidity of its dogmas. Mischievous as it may seem, to the revolutionaries the part played by the Bhagvat Gita, there is no doubt that it resuscitated counter-revolution and if the counterrevolution lives even today, it is entirely due to the plausibility of the philosophic defence which it received from the Bhagvat Gita— anti-Veda and anti-Yajna. Nothing can be a greater mistake than this. As will appear from other portions of the Bhagvat Gita that it is not against the authority of the vedas and shastras (XVI, 23, 24: XVII, I I, 13, 24). Nor is it against the sanctity of the yajnas (III. 9-15). It upholds the virtue of both.
Q. Again, what is the Bhagvat Gita?
There is therefore no difference between Jaimini’s Purva Mimansa and the Bhagvat Gita. If anything, the Bhagvat Gita is a more formidable supporter of counter-revolution than Jaimini’s Purva Mirnansa could have ever been. It is formidable because it seeks to give to the doctrines of counter-revolution that philosophic and therefore permanent basis which they never had before and without which they would never have survived. Particularly formidable than Jaimini’s Purva Mimansa is the philosophic support which the Bhagvat Gita gives to the central doctrine of counterrevolution—namely Chaturvarnya. The soul of the Bhagvat Gita seems to be the defence of Chaturvarnya and securing its observance in practice, Krishna does not merely rest content with saying that Chaturvarnya is based on Guna-karma but he goes further and issues two positive injunctions.
The first injunction is contained in Chapter III verse 26. In this Krishna says: that a wise man should not by counter propaganda create a doubt in the mind of an ignorant person who is follower of Karma kand which of course includes the observance of the rules of Chaturvarnya. In other words, you must not agitate or excite people to rise in rebellion against the theory of Karma kand and all that it includes. The second injunction is laid down in Chapter XVIII verses 41-48. In this Krishna tells that every one do the duty prescribed for his Varna and no other and warns those who worship him and are his devotees that they will not obtain salvation by mere devotion but by devotion accompanied by observance of duty laid down for his Varna. In short, a Shudra however great he may be as a devotee will not get salvation if he has transgressed the duty of the Shudra—namely to live and die in the service of the higher classes. The second part of my thesis is that the essential function of the Bhagvat gita to give new support to Jaimini at least those portions of it which offer philosophic defence of Jaimini’s doctrines—has become to be written after Jaimini’s Purva Mimansa had been promulgated. The third part of my thesis is that this philosophic defence of the Bhagvat Gita, of the doctrines of couter-revolution became necessary because of the attack to which they were subjected by the revolutionary and rationalistic thought of Buddhism.
[In the next part of the unfinished Chapter, Dr.Ambedkar goes on to prove how the Bhagvad Gita ‘is posterior in time to Buddhism and to Jaimini’s Purva Mimansa’. Read the whole Chapter here]