Extremist Misconceptions About the Bhagavad-gita
By Chaitanya Charana Dasa
Only someone who doesn't understand the Gita could call it an extremist literature.
During the abortive attempt in Russia to ban the Gita as an extremist book, a question came up repeatedly on Google as well as in the media: "Is the Gita an extremist book?" On reviewing the many voices opposed to the "extremist" label, I found that most who defended the Gita, though well-meaning, appealed only to respect for cultural and religious sentiments and for freedom of speech. Their arguments lacked intellectual depth with respect to the Gita itself. Consequently, I felt driven to prepare an article that presents the traditional devotional understanding of the Gita with sensitivity to contemporary intellectual concerns. Such an article, I felt, would not only address the current accusations that the Gita is extremist, but also serve a more enduring and universal purpose of offering a glimpse into the profundity of its wisdom. So here we go.
A Message of Love
The Bhagavad-gita, far from being an extremist book, is a book of wisdom and a message of love. It reveals God's love for humanity; only our extreme disorientation from divine love makes us imagine that the Gita is an extremist literature.
Let us first understand the Gita's essential message of love and then analyze some of its aspects that may seem to belie this message and may, if taken totally out of context and wildly misinterpreted, be seen as extremist.
Krishna starts His message of love by enlightening Arjuna: We are all souls, spiritual beings (2.13), entitled to rejoice in eternal love with the supremely lovable and loving God, Krishna. All of us long for lasting love, but we seek it on the inherently fleeting material platform. The Gita's philosophical wisdom of our eternal spiritual identity creates a lasting foundation on which we can build an edifice of love that the storms of time will never bring crumbling down.
In the Gita Krishna offers a concise overview of the various paths for spiritual progress: karma-yoga (the path of detached action), jnana-yoga (the path of analysis), dhyana-yoga (the path of meditation), and bhakti-yoga (the path of love). Simultaneously, throughout the Gita He hints, indicates, states, asserts, and proclaims that the path of love is the best (2.61, 3.30, 4.3, 5.29, 6.30, 7.1, 8.14, 8.22, 9.26–27, 10.9–12, 11.53–54, 12.6–7, 13.18, 14.26, 15.19, 17.26–27, 18.64–66). As the Gita progresses, the hints become more and more explicit; the secret becomes increasingly revealed, until the Gita's emotional climax at its end (18.64–66), where Krishna bares His heart in a disarming proclamation of love and an endearing call for love.
Thus, the Gita is essentially a revelation of God's love for humanity as well as a love call for humanity's reciprocal love for God.
Potential Misunderstandings About the Gita
Let us now look at three aspects of the Gita that are at times misunderstood: its battlefield setting, its vision of God as destroyer, and its blunt value judgments.
1. The Battlefield Setting of the Bhagavad-gita
Because of its battlefied setting, the Bhagavad-gita is sometimes misunderstood as calling for violence. However, the Gita uses that setting to demonstrate that its call for transcendence is practical, responsible, and dynamic. Let's see how the setting serves these three purposes:
A. The practicality of spirituality: Many people feel that spirituality is too otherworldly and so is impractical or irrelevant given the urgent practical demands of this world. To address their concern, the Bhagavad-gita delivers its spiritual message in an eminently this-worldly setting that calls for the most urgent practical action: a battlefield. By showing how its spiritual wisdom solaced and empowered Arjuna, a responsible prince who had broken down on the battlefield, the Gita illustrates poignantly the universal applicability of its teachings. If someone on a battlefield could spare time to gain the Gita's spiritual wisdom and found it relevant, practical, and empowering, then no one needs to doubt the practicality of the Gita's message and no circumstance needs to warrant relegating the Gita's message to the "to be done later" category.
B. The social responsibility of spiritualists: While the Bhagavad-gita offers a message that can guide anyone in any circumstance to transcendence, peace, and fulfillment, it also recognizes that people can benefit from its message only when the prevailing sociopolitical order fosters moral and spiritual integrity. When the heads of state are morally and spiritually depraved, as they were before the Kurushetra war, assertive action is essential to prevent people from being exploited, abused, and ruined. The Mahabharata sections preceding the narration of the Gita describe vividly:
*The multiple injustices and atrocities committed by the heads of state, the Kauravas. *The repeated efforts of the victims, the Pandavas, to peacefully restore justice and morality. *The utter disdain with which the Kauravas rejected all the attempts for peace, thus making a peaceful solution impossible.
For victims of massive injustice, the Gita doesn't condone a passive spectator role that reduces noble pacifism to impotent and suicidal utopianism. Instead, the Gita advocates pragmatic assertive action for protecting basic human rights. That violence should be the last expression of such assertiveness—and never anything other than the last—is illustrated by the exhaustive peace efforts that preceded it. The very fact that several globally acclaimed champions of nonviolence, including Mahatma Gandhi, found inspiration in the message of the Gita demonstrates that violence is not its core message. Of course, those who find the battlefield setting discomforting have tried to explain it (away) in metaphorical terms, but such an explanation undoes the intrinsic pragmatism that makes the Gita's message of transcendence so appealing. By delivering this message on a battlefield, the Gita illustrates that even those who consider life's ultimate goals to be other-worldly have a this-worldly responsibility to contribute to establishing and protecting the moral and spiritual fabric of society.
C. The inner dynamics of spirituality: The metaphorical interpretation of the Gita's setting is not wrong, but it best harmonizes with the overall spirit of the Gita when seen as a supplement to—and not a substitute for—its historical context. In addition to the battle's historicity, the battlefield setting, then, represents our internal consciousness, which features the battle between godly desires and ungodly desires. Each of us needs to win this inner battle if we are to play our part in establishing moral and spiritual integrity in society and not let our ungodly attachments to selfish interests sabotage our godly aspirations for personal integrity. Even when our ungodly attachments outnumber our godly aspirations, as was the case with the godly Pandavas fighting the ungodly Kauravas, the Gita's setting conveys the morale-boosting reassurance that when we harmonize our godly desires with God's will, His supreme power will empower us to attain inner victory and self-mastery.
To summarize, the Gita's battlefield setting, when seen in its historical and philosophical context, reveals the Gita to be a call not for blanket violence, but for complete spiritual activism.
2. The Vision of God as Destroyer
The eleventh chapter of the Gita describes the universal form of God emiting blazing flames of destruction and devouring all directions. Though such a conception of God may seem brutal and ghastly, it underpins a subtle but essential truth: The destruction and death that inevitably characterize the world are not outside God's jurisdiction. God is not primarily the destroyer, but the restorer; when the temporary stands in the way of the eternal, as it does for all of us infatuated with the temporary and neglectful of the eternal, God destroys the temporary to make way for the eternal. Moreover, a careful reading of the full eleventh chapter reveals its essential import. Arjuna asks to see the universal form of God, becomes terrified on seeing the destruction therein, and immediately changes his mind, asking to be shown the beautiful two-handed form of Krishna once again. Just as the destructiveness of the universal form serves to redirect Arjuna to the beauty of Krishna, similarly the destruction and death that beset the world, the Gita teaches us, can serve to redirect our heart to the eternality and beauty of Krishna.
3. Blunt Value Judgments
Some of us may be disturbed when we encounter in the Bhagavad-gita words that indicate strong value judgments: "fool" (mudha, 7.25), "lowest among human beings" (naradhama, 16.17), and so forth. To gain a proper understanding of why they are used, we need to contextualize them philosophically.
Value judgments emerge from values, which in turn grow out of a philosophy. If we go beyond the value judgments to the values and the philosophy, we will often find that the philosophy has a sense of its own. And once we understand the philosophy, we will find that its resulting values are not so different from our own. Then, with this intellectual framework in place, the value judgments will become at least intelligible, if not acceptable. In other words, we need to judge the values before we judge the value judgments.
Let's therefore look beyond the value judgments to the values and the philosophy of the Bhagavad-gita.
The Gita (14.4) advocates a remarkably ecumenical worldview in which God accepts as His own children all living beings—not just humans, but even animals and plants. Only recently and nascently has our political correctness started waking us up to animal rights. But thousands of years ago the Gita conferred upon all subhuman beings (or the more politically correct "nonhuman beings") the spiritual right of integral and eternal membership in the family of God.
Further, the Gita (4.7–9) describes that God so loves all His children that He descends to this world—not just once, but periodically again and again and yet again.
Moreover, the Gita (9.32–33) by its universal and accessible gospel of devotion opens the doors of redemption for one and all, irrespective of caste, gender, or other such worldly designations.
Many eminent thinkers have appreciated this universality and accessibility of the Gita's message. Here, for example, is a quote from Aldous Huxley: "The Bhagavad-Gita is the most systematic statement of spiritual evolution of endowing value to mankind.... Its enduring value is subject not only to India but to all of humanity."
We may wonder: If the Gita advocates such lofty values, then why does it hand out blunt value judgments?
The Bhagavad-gita presents an open-minded worldview that integrates all people, no matter how diverse their values, goals, and paths. According to their level of spiritual evolution, the Gita assigns them an appropriate position on a universal continuum that extends downwards to total spiritual ignorance and upwards to complete spiritual realization. The Gita also offers them versions of spirituality customized to their levels so as to inspire them and help them rise higher on the spiritual continuum.
The Gita is broad-minded, but not empty-minded; it does not imagine vacuously that all levels on the spiritual continuum are the same. That's why the Gita (16.7–20) disapproves unequivocally mindsets and lifestyles that violate one's spiritual integrity and propel one downwards on the spiritual continuum.
The Gita considers godlessness not an intrinsic quality of the soul, but an extrinsic infection acquired by unwholesome contact. According to the Gita, godlessness is a sickness for the soul, a sickness easily and thoroughly curable by the therapy of devotional service. The Gita doesn't equate a mortally sick person with a vibrantly healthy person, for that would condemn the sick person to perpetual sickness and distort laudable open-mindedness into deplorable empty-mindedness.
The Gita's value judgments are like the exasperated outbursts of a caring doctor dealing with a suffering patient who stubbornly refuses to take the treatment. Seen in this light, the Gita's value judgments are expressions not of condemnation, but of compassion. The Gita uses strong judgmental words like fools. Srila Prabhupada, as the preeminent modern-day Gita exponent, was known to use the word rascal quite often, but his use follows in the compassionate—not condemnatory—spirit of Lord Krishna, as is evident from the following quote: "The only concern of the devotees is that so many rascals are suffering in the concocted civilization of illusory sense enjoyment, how can they be saved? So our Krishna consciousness movement is made for that saving the rascals." (Letter to a disciple)
Fathoming by Tuning
The Austrian philosopher Rudolph Steiner wrote, "In order to approach a creation as sublime as the Bhagavad-Gita with full understanding it is necessary to attune our soul to it." We can best attune our soul to the Gita by understanding it from those who have tuned their soul to it and are living its essential message. A prime example of a Gita teacher who was first and foremost a Gita liver and a Gita lover was Srila Prabhupada. His Gita translation and commentary, Bhagavad-gita As It Is, is not only the most widely distributed and read English edition of the Gita, but is also the one that has brought about the most transformation in its readers. By understanding the Gita from Gita lovers like Srila Prabhupada, we can not only dispel "extremist" misunderstandings about the Gita, but, more important, can also acquire essential understanding of the Gita.
While it is certainly important to defend the Gita so as to prevent it from being banned officially in any part of the world, it is equally, if not more, important to understand the Gita so that we don't ban it unofficially in our own lives by mistaking it to be incomprehensible or irrelevant.