The “Bhagavad Gita”; an evolutionary interpretation. Part I

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. ( 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.

Chapter I

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:

  1. The two warring sides are close family.
  2. Both sides are fighting over who will be Emperor of India
  3. 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.
  4. 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:

  1. We should not kill family.
  2. Why? Killing family will have a domino effect as follows:
    1. It will end “religious rites of the family”.
    2. Which which cause the ends of spirituality and piety int the family.
    3. Which will “corrupt the women”.
    4. Which will lead to the “intermingling of castes”.
    5. Which will lead to the end of ancestor worship rituals.
    6. 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.

Philosophy East and West, Pt III; “Dao Deh Jing” Ch. II

This is part 3 of a series, if this part does not make sense to you, the following links with take you to Parts One and Two

Chapter II.

A. “Yin, Yang and the Two Truths”

The whole world recognizes the beautiful as the beautiful, yet this is only the ugly; the whole world recognizes the good as the good, yet this is only the bad.

Thus Something and Nothing produce each other;

The difficult and easy complement each other;

The long and short off-set each other;

The high and low incline towards each other;

Note and sound harmonize with each other;

Before and after follow each other.” Dao Deh Jing II.4-6


In the first half of this chapter we see a list of pairs of opposites. According to conventional truth, the opposites are completely other from each other, but from the perspective of Ultimate truth, they are *the Same*.

Traditional Chinese origin myths always began with the mating of two original principles of Yin and Yang. What Classical Chinese philosophy adds to this myth is the idea that underlying the Yin Yang dualism there must be a common unified principle which they called the “Dao”. Both Daoists and Confucians used this term in this way, although their approaches were quite different. In any case, this relates to “Two Truths” theory from the previous post since we clearly see that we have preceded from a discussion of the Two Truths into a series of complementary opposites, each of which form an underlying unity. If you look at the Yin-Yang symbol above with this in mind, you see that this is exactly what is illustrated; within each opposite half is a core that belongs to the other. In each case it is said that the opposites define, produce, or complement each other. Thus it seems the the Yin and Yang pattern spans radically different levels of discourse:

  1. conceptual definitions – It is commonly noticed that many things cannot be defined without their opposites; e.g. odd and even, more and less, good and bad.
  2. production by nature of skill – “Thus Something and Nothing produce each other”; in which yin and yang are placed directly in the realm of form and matter, i.e. Aristotle’s hylomorphic theory of change, a theory of natural and artificial change. More on this later!
  3. value – “complement each other” refers to the fact that many things are worthless without a opposite counterpart. For example fuel is worthless without oxygen, a tool without material, building material without a location, the weather without land, etc.

In the next section, we see another version of the yin and yang, where the highest/best exemplar of a thing is alson the same as the highest exemplar of its opposite:

Therefore the sage keeps to the deed that consists in taking no action and practices the teaching that uses no words.” Dao Deh Jing II.6

The greatest action consisting laisez-faire, non-intervention, being fully present as an example, or some other small token action done at the right time. In Chinese this is called “Wei wu wei”, literally “doing not doing”. The greatest action is in simply being there and acting very little. The natural world is filled with these things: in biology, for example, the most intricate design appears with no designer.

In the last section, this trait is attributed to the lack of selfish motive or egoistical method in taking the action:

The myriad creatures rise from it yet it claims no authority; it gives them life yet claims no possession; it benefits them yet exacts no gratitude; it accomplishes its task yet claims to no merit. It is because it claims no merit that its merit never deserts it.” Dao Deh Jing II.7,7a

This gibes well with many findings of modern science; evolution is not so elegant in spite of the lack of a Intelligent Designer, but because of that lack. Guiding intelligence would ruin Nature. Likewise with society; a properly run nation does what it does not because of the ruler, but in spite of them; the best ruler will simply get out of the way.

What Lao Tzu shares with Greek thought is the idea that metaphysics’ proper task is a comprehensive theory of change that suits both the natural, the artificial and the political. In both China and Greece none of these realms can be reduced to another, but they are all subsumed to the highest form of knowledge with draws closest to the general principles underlying cosmic levels of both permanence and change. While Greek thought includes extended reflection on the logically necessary that is lacking in the Dao Deh Jing, However, Aristotle shares with Daosim the attitude that reflection on the natural is of higher dignity to the conceptual.


Philosophy East and West: Pt II: Introduction to the “Dao Deh Ching”

As stated in my previous post, in this series of blog posts I wish to highlight the common aspects of classical philosophy in India, China and Greece. Now we begin with the Dao Deh Ching by Lao Tsu. In this I will be guided by the agenda of seeing how the author is concerned with answering what I call (after Buddhas’ example) the “Four Noble Questions” of philosophy,.  Because Lao Tsu is a philosopher in the sense that we are using here, he has answers to all of the Four Noble Questions:

  1. What are the “Many Things“, that we find in this world? The Ten Thousand Things; Heaven and Earth.
  2. What is the main Problem with the many things? Life out of Balance/Ignorance of the Way.
  3. What is the “One Special Thing“? The Way (Tao).
  4. How is the One Special Thing from step three the Solution to the Problem of step two? True Power (Teh).

[Sorry about some of the formatting problems: I wrote this in LibreOffice and much of it completely messed up on cutting and pasting into WordPress.]

Chapter I.

A. The “Ten Thousand Things”

In this chapter, we shall look at Lao Tzu’s domain of discourse. He calls it “The Ten Thousand Things”. Of course there are more than 10.000 of these things; in Chinese, the phrase is slang for “everything”. But for those who are accustomed to reading Western philosophy, we notice that there is at least one type of thing conspicuously absent: ideal beings, known to the Greeks as “Forms” or “Ideas”. These sorts of beings are outside of time and space. Even geometric forms such as the Form of ‘Cube’ or that of the ‘Sphere’ are not in a particular place. The funny thing is that “Forms” and “Ideas” are not considered worthy of a full treatment in Chinese thought as they are in Greece. In this way, early Chinese thought is what we in the West call “naturalistic”, meaning that the domain of beings considered “real” and worthy of explanation all exist in space and time… except for perhaps the Tao itself, although even this is left for the reader to guess. 1

Such doubts aside, there is a sense in which Daoism is extremely naturalistic. 2But what we mean by this here is that the thinkers so called restrict themselves to those beings which exist in space, time, and physical causality. I assume that Old Lao believes in divine beings, but these beings are, like us, actors in space and time. They may be made of some exotic form of matter and perhaps they will last for eons, but they are not the sort of thing that exists outside of nature in the way that Aristotle’s “Prime Mover(s)” and Plato’s Forms. 3

Lao Tsu classifies  the weather, the seasons, animals, plants, medicine, families, villages, works of art, gardens, and kingdoms as among the “Ten Thousand Things”. So although they are all in space and time, even the artificial is ‘natural’ in this sense. In this it follows Greek thought; Aristotle’s “Physics”, which defines its primary subject matter as “nature” or “physis”, does this with the assumption that the ultimate principles of nature also govern the artificial (‘tekne“) as well. This is also true of modern science; physics is used to study both nature proper as well as engineered or artificial systems.

The Dao as Arkhe

The way that can be spoken of is not the constant way; the name that can be named is not the constant name. The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth; The named is the mother of the myriad creatures.”

The “Arkhe” is a Greek term which translates as “principle, basis, reason (for), cause, origin, ruler”. I have already dealt at lengths with it here. It is an untranslatable Greek word that includes the meanings of the English words “principle”, “origin”, “basis”,“leader”,“oldest”, “first” and others. Philosophy, science, and engineering all seek the arkhe behind everything, and every major scientific revolution in science seems to reduce the number of principles needed for explaining things while increasing predictive power. Defined at length in Metaphysics V.1 by Aristotle, where he defines it with the meanings given below; for the sake of the unGreeked reader, I have underlined all words that render some form of the Greek wordarkhe”. In the Dao Deh Ching, the word “Dao” is used in precisely the same ways asArche”, so after each sense given for “Arkhe”, I will place a synonymous usage of “Dao”.

“‘BEGINNING‘ [Gk.arkhe] means

  1. That part of a thing from which one would start first, e.g a line or a road has a beginning in either of the contrary directions.” (Aristotle, Metaphysics V.1)
    1. There is a thing confusedly formed, born before heaven and earth. Silent and void it stands alone and does not change, It is capable of bieng the mother o the world. I do not know its name so I style it ‘the way’.”4 Dao Deh Ching XXV.56
  2. That from which each thing would best be originated, e.g. even in learning we must sometimes begin not from the first point and the beginning of the subject, but from the point from which we should learn most easily.” (Aristotle, Metaphysics V.1)
    1. Woe unto him who wilfully innovates while ignorant of the constant [Dao], But should one act from knowledge of the constant [the Dao], one’s action will lead to impartiality, impartiality to kingliness, kingliness to heaven, heaven to the way the way to perpetuity, and to the end of one’s days one will meet with no danger.” Dao Deh Ching XVI.38
    2. In a home it is the site which matters… “ Ibid.VIII
    3. Hold fast to the way of antiquity..” Ibid. XIV.34
  3. That from which, as an immanent part, a thing first comes to be, e,g, as the keel of a ship and the foundation of a house, while in animals some suppose the heart, others the brain, others some other part, to be of this nature.” (Aristotle, Metaphysics V.1)
    1. The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth; The named is the mother of the myriad creatures.” Dao Deh Ching I
    2. The myriad creatures rise from it and yet it claims no authority; it gives them life and yet claims no possiession.” Dao Deh Ching II.7

I know that the above only hints at the full sense of Dao used by Lao Tzu, but for the time being we will leave it here to illustrate our general approach.

So we can see that the dao is a principle, but how is it that it is so mysterious? After all, it is “untellable” and “unsayable” in lines 3 and 4, so how is it that this can be a “philosophy” in the sense similar to that found in Plato and Aristotle? This is dealt with in the next section, where I deal with many of the things normally cited as evidence that Daoism is more mysticism that philosophy.


The “Two Truths”

Hence always rid yourself of desires in order to observe its secrets; But always allow yourself to have desires in order to observe its manifestations. These two are the same but diverge as they issue forth. Being the same they are called mysteries, mystery upon mystery, the gateway of the mainfold secrets.” (Dao Deh Ching I.3-3a)


What is Old Lao talking about here? The way I like to say it is that for him, there are “Two Truths”.5 The two truths are not like two different truths that contradict each other, but rather they are more like two different ways of using the same word “truth”. Each of these two truths operate on different levels, and they only conflict if this difference is ignored. Just as we reinterpret many common words for use in science, for purposes of philosophy it seems useful to stipulate two different senses of “truth”.6 In Buddhism the “Two Truths” are as follows:

  1. Conventional truth – this is the common sense view of the world
  2. Ulitmate Truth – The reality of the world according to knowledge.7

Normally, we think of ultimate truth as truth that has superceded conventional truth. Once that has happened, it seems more natural to think of the previous truth as being proven untrue. Why in the world would we retain it as being called “true” in any way at all?

Modern science requires its own ‘dialethisms’. For example, we know that humans and animals are not radically different but share a common ancestor. This is a good example of “Ultimate Truth”. However, in the course of out daily lives, we treat humans as being special compared to all other types of living creatures. (Pretty much all animals do this.) This is what we would call “Conventional Truth”. Conventional truth does not get replaced by ultimate truth; since it still it guides our actions in most cases. Ultimate Truth is only brought into play on special occasions when we are faced with deep paradoxes or exceptionally rare decisions.

Another example of the two truth distinction concerns atomism. We know that material objects are made of atoms and empty space, and yet in most cases we still deal with them on a common-sense level. This is a very accurate example because there were actually a couple of atomist schools of Mahayana Buddhism who defined the two truths thusly:

The Sarvāstivādin’s ontology[2] or the theory of the two truths makes two fundamental claims.

  1. the claim that the ultimate reality consists of irreducible spatial units (e.g., atoms of the material category) and irreducible temporal units (e.g., point-instant consciousnesses) of the five basic categories, and
  2. the claim that the conventional reality consists of reducible spatial wholes or temporal continua.

To put the matter straightforwardly, for the Sarvāstivādins, wholes and continua are only conventionally real, whereas the atoms and point-instant consciousness are only ultimately real.8

So what are the Daoist two truths? As with Buddhism, the difference lies with the intention of relating to beings from two different motivations:

  1. Knowledge – ““Hence always rid yourself of desires in order to observe its secrets; ”
  2. Desire – “But always allow yourself to have desires in order to observe its manifestations.”

It is pretty much the same in every philosophy; knowledge and desire denote two different ways of relating to beings, each of which has their own level of “truth”. In any case, the distinction underlies many paradoxical statements in the Dao Deh Ching, such as what we find in the next chapter.