Continued from here.
To the question ‘what do Karma and Guna exactly mean according to Gita?’ a generic and philosophical meaning is proffered as the answer. According to this response, Karma is any act or deed, be it good or bad, which in turn produces good Karma or bad Karma respectively. But, irrespective of the best philosophical arguments one makes, based on one’s own convenient interpretations, the subject dealt with in the Gita remains independent of those interpretations.
Yes, Gita does talk at length about good Karma, bad Karma, past Karma etc.; but it certainly does not use the term ‘Karma’ in a generic form throughout. This is why I said that defenders do not give a holistic picture while justifying Gita. Let us see what Gita says immediately after its declaration on the forming of the four-fold Varna system in verse 4.13:
From 4.14 onwards, Krishna goes on to explain what he means by Karma:
Chapter 4, Verse 15:
“Evam jnaatwaa kritam karma poorvair api mumukshubhih|
Kuru karmaiva tasmaat twam poorvaih poorvataram kritam||”
“Having known this, the ancient seekers after freedom also performed actions; therefore, do thou perform actions as did the ancients in days of yore.”
After suggesting that the actions performed by the ancients are the ones that you should also perform, in other words, the traditions set by the ancients should not be tampered with, Krishna accepts that the question of Karma is indeed a complex one, and hence again reiterates that one should not use one’s own judgment on Karma but refer to the ancient wisdom, specifically the ones mentioned in various scriptures including Vedas, Upanishads, Smritis etc.
Chapter 4, Verse 17:
“Karmano hyapi boddhavyam boddhavyam cha vikarmanah |
Akarmanashcha boddhavyam gahanaa karmano gatih ||”
“The subject of action prescribed in the Vedas should be understood, the subject of actions prohibited in Vedas should be understood and the subject of renunciation of actions prescribed in Vedas should be understood; because the intricacies of actions are very mysterious.”
Throughout Gita and Mahabharata there is an emphasis on the actions prescribed in the Vedas. And if one goes through the Vedas and Vana Parva of Mahabharata looking for those important actions, we find them to be nothing but the rituals that were laid out by the Vedic Brahmanic religion, particularly Yagnya (fire worshiping) and sacrifices; the rituals that were rejected completely by the Buddha. Thus while Vedas already have prescribed these actions and had gained importance in the philosophical and spiritual life by the time the Buddhist era had started, the need to re-emphasize them by means of Gita in a post-Buddha era is not difficult to understand.
In his book ‘Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Ancient India’, Dr. Ambedkar has roundly rejected the philosophical claims regarding Karma in Gita and exposed the dogmatic and ritualistic Karma that Gita professes in order to save the Brahmanical religion by pointing out that Karma and Jnana (knowledge) are not general but specific, Karma being the rituals in Jaimini’s Purv Mimansa and Jnana being the dogmas in Badarayana’s Brahmasutra.
But Gita does not stop here in explaining Karma; while professing Vedic Karma, it changes the nature of the objective behind Karma. Vedic Karma of Yagna and sacrifices are always linked with some form of material objective. These rituals are nothing but a superstitious way to gain some material objectives. Both Buddhism and Jainism rejected such a selfish approach towards spirituality. The rationality and selflessness of Buddhism endangered these rituals. Hence there was a need to remove the selfish motives of these rituals. Throughout Gita we find this detachment from material objectives, which is not present in the rest of the mythology to such a great extent.
Chapter 4, Verse 19:
“Yasya sarve samaarambhaah kaamasankalpa varjitaah |
Jnaanaagni dagdhakarmaanam tam aahuh panditam budhaah ||”
“He whose undertakings are all devoid of desires and (selfish) purposes, and whose actions have been burnt by the fire of knowledge: him the wise call a sage.”
This freedom from desires throughout Gita gives it a very high philosophical value, but the context and intention of mixing the philosophy preached by Buddha along with insistence on the dogmatic rituals and divisiveness, only reveals the true intentions of modifying a fading faith, without distorting its core dogmas, to make it more acceptable. For the objective of these rituals and the rigidity of caste system was never to achieve material goals or social efficiency, but only to be a tool in the hands of the priestly class to dominate society in order to maintain their own social status and powers.
Regarding Guna (aptitude), the proponents again make high claims of how merit based natural system is professed by Gita. They would give details of three Gunas explained in Gita, namely Sattva, Rajas and Tamas; and how depending upon the Guna the person has, his duties and hence the caste are determined. Then how is it possible to consider caste to be based on birth; isn’t it independent of birth?
But don’t be fooled, let’s again take a look at what Gita says further about Guna and how it establishes an unambiguous link between Guna and birth.
Chapter 13, Verse 22:
“Purushah prakritistho hi bhungkte prakritijaan gunaan|
Kaaranam gunasango’sya sadasadyoni janmasu ||”
“The soul seated in Nature experiences the qualities born of Nature; attachment to the qualities is the cause of his birth in good and evil wombs.”
This makes it clear that apart from deciding what Varna a person may belong to, Guna also decides what kind of birth a person will have. In essence saying that the Guna comes even before the birth and the link between Guna deciding birth and birth deciding caste becomes crystal clear. Even after knowing this, if someone still believes that the caste professed in Gita is not birth based and has only a noble purpose, what should we call such a person?
Now coming to the question of the rigidity of the caste system, even if we interpret Karma and Guna in the philosophic manner as claimed by Gita scholars, why is it that while Karma and Guna can change over the lifetime of a person, but caste cannot change over generations? If Buddha can see an opportunity for reform in a dacoit like Angulimaal, why is it that Krishna cannot have such a larger noble vision? The quick answer the proponents will give is that there is no truth in the rigidity of the caste system. Caste can change and it has practically changed for ancient figures. For example, Brahmarishi Vishwamitra was a Kshatriya Raja/king and his original name was Kaushika. He was a Kshatriya who became a Brahmana (and also a Brahmarishi) due to his deeds. Since nobody is born to any Varna, they can change Varna depending on their Karma and Guna.
The example of Vishwamitra is an interesting one! For it dates back to the period of transformation the caste system underwent from whereon it lost its flexibility and became a rigid structure of exploitation. To learn more, one has to take a look at the research paper ‘Who Were The Shudras?’ by Dr. Ambedkar. There are a number of cases where you see Varna being changed in mythological ‘history’. But the question remains the same: first of all, why divide society in general, and second, how did this division became so robust, rigid and remained based on birth for all the practical reality of three thousand years? What was it in the religion that caused a mere labor hierarchy, apparently, to change into a rigid system of Varna and caste that is present until now in all its glory? Start reading all these mythological scriptures in an un-religious manner and you will find the answers.
Just like in other societies in the world, the priestly class of Brahmans secured unequivocal powers in the times of darkness through religion. Upanishads represent the story of competition between Kshatriyas and Brahmans. Of course, it is not just the Gita that made the Varna/caste system the way it is; there has been a steady and well thought out process behind it with all the conflicts of interests doing their parts of the job. Brahmans corrupted Vedas to gain religious sanction for their authority. Kshatriyas, in competition with Brahmans, to control society made their own versions by presenting themselves as the incarnations of God. And again Brahmans proved their cunning by reiterating Brahman authority through God’s own mouth.
In order to make sure that the powers of one generation remain reserved for the future generations of the same class, Varna had to be made rigid. Gita is only one chapter in the entire story, probably the final and most effective one so far. If only Karma was the determinant of one’s destiny, then what is the explanation for all this rigidity over three thousand years? Why didn’t these apparently great thoughts result in a great society? Varna/Caste system as we know has existed for so long and has been the greatest poison in our society.
In ‘Annihilation of Caste’, Dr. Ambedkar explains very well how both socially and biologically the rigidity of the caste system has resulted in inefficiency in Indian society in every aspect of life, including economy, social life, and physical attributes of Indians. I urge the proponents now to please not make the futile claims of how great a system it used to be and how it must have benefited people. Buddha had already condemned this system very strongly as far back as 2500 years ago! No matter how hard you try to sugar coat a poison, it will still have its effect. The effect is what we have witnessed but the poison is what we still deny.
We do know for sure that Varna is indeed practiced based on birth, we all know about the interpretation that the Karma of past birth causes one to be born in a particular Varna, and the belief that a particular Varna person has particular qualities suitable for that Varna only. All these are well-propagated interpretations supporting the rigid system (not flexible as claimed) and accepted throughout Indian society (irrespective of the particular caste one belongs to, or the particular religious practices one follows). We don’t say Brahmans or Kshatriyas established and manipulated the Varna system for their benefit just because they are inherently a cunning race; no, indeed there is no racial exclusivity here, but they did do it certainly and cunningly because they happened to have power in their hands which made them corrupt. Now that we know the truth of this evident corruption, at least now we can stay away from everything that has caused this corruption in the first place. This is the precise reason why no anti-caste movement has ever called for a crusade against Brahmans or upper castes, but has condemned and burnt all those scriptures that have given opportunity for corruption and caused all the misery.
About the violence justified in Gita, Dr. Ambedkar strongly rejects the philosophical and spiritual grounds on which a holy war is justified. When Krishna advocates murder by saying that the soul is immortal and hence what you are killing is only the body, you are indeed liberating the soul to be unified with the soul of the universe; Dr. Ambedkar imagines him standing in a court of law and dares to assert that Krishna would be sent to a lunatic asylum for making such an argument. If every person starts giving such a justification, considering himself to be the righteous one and does not feel any remorse in killing other ‘lesser’ humans, what a great spiritual world it will be!
By no measure the criticism presented here is comprehensive. One can go on at length to describe and prove the mechanisms involved in the processes of revolution and counter-revolution with reference to Gita. This is just a summary of what objections may be raised against Gita and how valid they are. No matter how simple and trivial these objections may be, they still remain unanswered by the Gita proponents.
Out of the nine summary questions that I have asked about Gita, I could not find answers to six of them so far, and given the arguments above, there isn’t a single answer that the proponents can give which would even qualify to be considered. If now one revisits the questions, the answers to most of them become very obvious; hence I leave it to the reader’s conscience. Considering the final question about the morality and culture in Mahabharata and Gita, if someone still claims that Gita is the core of Indian culture, I may not disagree with them completely.
The caste system that denies legitimate dignity to human beings independent of the work they do is very much in the blood of Indian culture. In most Indian organizations this structural aspect is very evident. If I can generalize my personal experiences, in companies of foreign origin, mostly American, even the CEOs won’t mind being called by their first names by the lowest ranked employees of the company whereas in most Indian organizations even the immediate superiors are called ‘Sir’. The respect one receives very much depends on his rank; everyone accepts the domination of higher ranks and equally dominates the lower ones. Subtly, the instincts developed in the caste culture enter modern organizations.
The caste system that preaches that the son of a priest is best suited to become a priest and the son of a sweeper is only worth being a sweeper is deep rooted in our culture, and I’m not even talking about the daughters. Any industry where there is no legal or formal process for recruitment, in any industry that depends on individual preferences, we see this family oriented preference being a dominant factor. One does not need to act well to enter the film industry if one’s parents already are in films. Every politician’s offspring are implicitly believed to possess the qualities of their forefathers that make them suitable to enter politics and lead by default. If this is the culture that streams down from the scriptures, how may I disagree with it? But then why should I accept it?
As DD Kosambi points out, there is no wonder why Gita is mostly revered highly by the upper caste scholars from time to time; starting from the re-founder of Hinduism, Sankaracharya, to the likes of Dnyaneshwara who promoted Gita in order to regain his status of being Brahman, to Tilak who used Gita to influence youth when the interactions with modern western world were causing social reforms in India, to Gandhi who was a strong believer in the system of Caturvarnya, to Aurobindo and Radhakrishnan. None of the non-brahmanical saints and philosophers found any solace in Gita, be it Kabir, Nanak, Namdev, Chaitanya or Jayadeva.
If the Brahmanical scholars find any solace in Gita for the philosophy it preaches, let them find it; but for the downtrodden society of India including Dalits and other Hindus, far from being a holy book of religion, Gita stands out as a symbol of the counter-revolution responsible for preventing the social, economic and spiritual rise of the masses. For them, isn’t it better to reject its supremacy and holiness and to move on with other humanistic philosophies that are deep rooted in the Indian culture of non-violence and compassion, which also preach equality? I think it is not just preferable but also very necessary to reject these scriptures in order to stop the counter-revolution from damaging society any further.
[P.S. Considering the claims about Gita being revealed by Krishna himself, I am referring to the author of Gita as Krishna only. It may also be read as ‘author/poet of Gita’.]
Please read Part II of this article here.
Rahul Bhalerao is an MBA from IIM Kozhikode, currently working as a Consultant with MindTree Ltd., and is associated with the FOSS Movement.