by Adam Voight
The “Bhagavad Gita” (hereafter simply “the Gita”) is probably the most authoritative and widely admired piece of Indian philosophy. It was the very first to be translated into Western languages, and Westerners read it more than any other non-Buddhist text.
There are a great many interpretations of this book, and it seems to me that it might be a patchwork of irreconcilable doctrines, but the same could be said of the works of Plato. In spite of this, it is well worth reading, and there will be times when I point out seeming contradictions in it, but on the whole I think that I have a reading that makes it more true and relevant in the modern world, especially the world of modern science. I am not a very religious person, but I think that most secular people lack an appreciation of spirituality and the ability to sympathetically read scriptures that really inhibits their analyses of religion. This is not at all to say that I argue for any supernaturalism; on the contrary, everything I say here is strictly naturalistic. How that can be the case will only be clear in the course of my reading, but I can say this: My basic reading of the “Gita” find in it the attempt by its author or authors to speak in ancient terms the same principles found in my own evolutionary reading of Aristotle. In this work, I argue that eudaimonia is ultimately derived from the natural teleology of natural selection. I do not think that it is necessary to understand my other work to understand my reading of the Gita, but those who find it interesting but not quite compelling might look there to better quench their curiosity.
My differences from other Western readings
I am very glad that Westerners before me have engaged with the Gita and other Indian classics, but there are two major differences with them that need to be spelled out.
1) The Gita is not pacifist.
Western fans of Henry David Thoreau and Gandhi (who took his cue from Thoreau concerning both nonviolence and Luddism) have taken to viewing the entire holy war theme as being merely symbolic of an inner spiritual struggle. The fact that Gandhi takes this view does not give it any special authenticity; he is following the lead of Thoreau and Leo Tolstoy, who are the real originators of the theory of “Satyagraha”. Most traditional commentators take the Gita’s just war theory at face value. While there is an inner spiritual struggle central to the Gita’s argument, it is clear not only from the text itself but also from other Indian interpreters who do not market themselves to the West that just wars are not only consistent but obligatory under the Gita’s dharma. This will become clear later on, and will not require any detailed argument but will be the clearest meaning of the text.
2) The Gita is not ‘gnostic’, ‘life-denying’ or ‘anti-worldly’.
Arthur Schopenhauer is the originator of this falsehood, due to his reading of the Gita and Upanishads while he was composing his own philosophy. (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/schopenhauer/#4) Later, Nietzsche and Wagner took up this theme in their work in different ways. While both of these thinkers disagreed with Schopenhauer on the issues, neither of them doubted his “anti-life” interpretation of the Gita. Through these and other authors, this view has propagated itself throughout the Western world. To be sure there, is a significant theme of anti-naturalism in the Gita and Indian philosophy as a whole, most notably in some forms of Buddhism, but Hinduism as well shares this trend. I will not so much argue against this view as point out all the verses that openly contradict it and construct a reading that makes just as much sense not only historically, but also theoretically and practically.
While I am arguing against the “life-denialism” of Schopenhauer, this does not in any mean that I adhere to the philosophy of Nietzsche. While I respect his genius, I think that common-sense morality is far better founded than he believed, that it has an evolutionary basis, and that this can be seen in reasonable interpretations of the principles of major world religions, including that of the Gita. Once again, how this can be true will only be clear in the course of my work on the Gita, Aristotle, and elsewhere.
3. The Gita is arguing against Buddhism
While Hindus believe that Hinduism came before Buddhism, it is also accurate to say that “Hinduism” came after Buddhism, and Buddhism came after “Vedic religion”. The main problem with this is that the “Vedas” revered by Hindus were written in all three time periods, there is the caste system and there is a strong cultural continuity among them. However, the continuity between the Hinduism and Vedic religion is less than you might think; for example all the Gods are different and animal sacrifice is no longer common. Also, much of what we now call “Hinduism”, such as the lack of animal sacrifice, the prevalence of devotional practices and others comes from Buddhism.
Do not read too much into the fact that Hindus often speak of the Buddha as an avatar of Vishnu, thus putting him on the same level as Krishna. The Hindu relation to Buddha is similar to how Muslims relate to Jesus; they think that Jesus and Buddha respectively had valid divine missions, but once they had accomplished these missions, the religions founded by them fell into ignorance. Thus the fact that Buddha is an avatar is not in any way an endorsement of “Buddhism”; according to Hindus (and most other people as well) the denial of the ‘True Self’ (Sanskrit ‘Atman’) is ridiculous and leads to absurdities. But whatever you believe about the Atman, Buddhism really raised the bar for philosophical discussion in India, and the Gita is an attempt to synthesize many of reactions to Buddhism, especially ways to answer Buddha’s criticism of the Atman and of the caste system. Buddhism’s use of devotional worship and meditation in place of animal sacrifice was accepted as a permanent part of Hinduism, and this also forms the core of the Gita.
The Battle of Kurukshetra – What is it?
Many readers comment on how similar the Gita is to Plato’s “Republic”, and we shall study this at length, however there is one major difference, unlike the works of Plato the Gita is a chapter or book within the primary epic poem of India, the “Mahabharata”. So in a sense, the author of the Gita is not only Plato but also Homer of India. Much like the works of Homer, the Mahabharata tells a story of a great war waged by demigods and heroes with occasional interventions bymajor deities. Unlike the Trojan War, where both sides were seen as good and noble, in theMahabharatawar, the side of the Pandhavas is clearly the good side. The Kauravas, while not completely wicked are clearly the villains. Likewise, while people reasonably doubt whether Plato’s character “Socrates” speaks for the author’s beliefs, in the “Gita” (and in Eastern philosophical dialogues generally) it is clear that one character speaks the Truth and others represent the ignorant yet virtuous seeker. In the Gita, the former role is played by the God Krishna, while the latter role is played by the hero Arjuna. It is curious that while the Greeks do believe in objective good and bad, this is not reflected in the protagonists and antagonists of either the Illiad or most of the Platonic dialogues. In the Odysey as well, most of the conflict isthe result of disagreements among the Gods; only the suitors at home in Ithaka are portrayed like the Kauravas.
Another feature in common between the Trojan War and the Mahabharata war is the fact that these wars are the end of one age and the beginning of the next. In both cases the previous age was one where demigods were the main historical actors. After the war, the main actors were mortals with only trace amounts of divine blood. In both cases, the succeeding age is considered worse than the preceeding one. Later on, we shall revisit the meaning of the historical timeline of “kalpa” (‘aeon’) , and “yuga” (‘age’) and see how this battle and the concepts of “dharma” and “avatar” fit into it.
However, to understand the setting of the Gita, we need only know the following:
- The two warring sides are close family.
- Both sides are fighting over who will be Emperor of India
- But one side (the Pandhavas, or sons of Pandu) is clearly good, the other side (the Karuavas) clearly at fault and far less desired as rulers.
- Still even the Kauravas are not utterly wicked and might still rule somewhat well. It seems that their sins are mainly due to their ambition to rule. However, it is clear that the Pandavas are far superior.
Once you grant that the battle will certainly kill not only a great many people but also many great people, then you can understand why Arjuna might reasonably doubt the advisability of fighting.
The first line of the Gita is spoken by King Dhritrashtra, the father of the Kauravas. He is blind, but has been supernaturally granted a wish to clairvoyantly see the progress of the battle from the comfort of his palace. Because he knows that he could not bear to see his sons die, he has asked that this psychic vision be given to his adviser, Sanjaya, who is thus able to hear the private conversation between Arjuna and Krishna that forms the rest of the book. Sanjaya is thus the narrator for the work as a whole; which is somewhat reminiscient of Plato’s use of multiple nest narrators in his dialogues. ( I have no idea why either author uses such devices, BTW.)
Arjuna’s first speech.
The main points of Arjuna’s first speech are very informative about the moral presuppositions of ancient India:
- We should not kill family.
- Why? Killing family will have a domino effect as follows:
- It will end “religious rites of the family”.
- Which which cause the ends of spirituality and piety int the family.
- Which will “corrupt the women”.
- Which will lead to the “intermingling of castes”.
- Which will lead to the end of ancestor worship rituals.
- Which will lead to me and others “dwelling for an unknown period in Hell”. (Because reincarnation does not mean there is no Hell or Heaven; these places are thought of as alternate worlds where you might reincarnate.)
Thus he will not fight. In short, he would rather abandon th claims of justice in this world rather than suffer in Hell in the next.
Note that in I.46, Arjuna was “overcome with pity” (according to Sivananda); in Prabhupada this is rendered “grief”. However the “pity” made me think of Aristotle famous tragic emotions “pity and fear”, which were the proper focus of tragedy. Does Arjuna have a tragic choice? In most tragedies, there is not “correct choice” in the sense that all possible choices incur some moral blame. Arjuna thinks that he is faced with such a tragic predicament, but Krishna will say that his proper duty is clear in the light of the Dharma.
Thus ends Arjuna’s explanation of his doubts concerning his reasons for fighting the Kurukshetra battle. In the next post we will look at Chapter II, where Krishna begins his answer, which will include metaphysics, physics, psychology, morality and political theory. The full answer will take up the rest of the Gita, but Chapter II tries to summarize it in one chapter.
In my next post, we shall get to the meat of the Krishna’s argument.