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Bhagavad-Gita: Treatise of Self-help
by BS Murthy Bookmark and Share


The spiritual ethos and the philosophical outlook that the Bhagavad-Gita postulates paves the way for the liberation of man, who, as Rousseau said, ‘being born free, is everywhere in chains’. But equally it is a mirror of human psychology, which enables man to discern his debilities for appropriate redressal.

All the same, the boon of an oral tradition that kept it alive for over two millennia became its bane with the proliferation of interpolations therein. Besides muddying its pristine philosophy, these insertions affect the sequential conformity and structural economy of the grand discourse. What is worse, to the chagrin of the majority of the Hindus, some of these legitimize the inimical caste system while upholding the priestly perks and prejudices.

This rendition seeks to restore to the Gita, its original character by ridding it of hundred and ten interpolations, which tend to keep the skeptics away from it. And ironically these muddle the understanding of the adherents as well. In the theatre of man as nothing surpasses the drama of war, the stage for unveiling the Gita’s unrivalled philosophy was set on the battleground of Kurukshetra at the threshold of the battle of Mahabharata.   

Awe Unfounded

The Bhagavad-Gita, popularly known as Gita, with its twin tracks of spiritual ethos and philosophical outlook, helps man commute to the destination of human excellence on the broad gauge of life. The unsurpassed art of living that the Gita expostulates, paves the way for the ‘liberation of man’ and that’s what makes the Gita, which probably is around for over two millennia now, the treatise of self-help. 

Nonetheless, all along, its spiritual track has come to acquire primacy what with its protagonists being the religiously inclined men and women for   most part. Even Mahatma Gandhi, the most famous and ardent advocate of Gita of our times, was eloquent about the spiritual solace that it afforded him. Needless to say, the innumerable commentaries on the Gita that appear in print or get voiced in discourses invariably come from people with religio-spiritual orientation. Insensibly, all these led to the public perception of the Gita as a spiritual tome, and that has brought about a situation where everyone swears by it but few venture to approach it. That is due to, either the general lack of spiritual inclination in man, or his palpable apprehension that, anyway, it might be beyond one’s comprehension. And those who attempt to read any of the commentaries give up soon enough – bowled either by the spiritual spin in theological jargon or tired of those lengthy commentaries. Oh, don’t these texts tend to exhibit the commentator’s own scholarship in Vedanta! In the bargain, hardly any reach the end, which would have helped them understand themselves better. What an irony in that having been bogged down in the semantics, one fails to grasp Krishna’s message that’s tailor made for him! And it is all about realization made difficult.  

The public or private discourses on the Gita relatively fare better for they enthrall the audience by the eloquence of the speaker besides the interest the interspersed anecdotes elicit. However, amidst all this verbiage, the profundity of Krishna’s message would seldom register in the minds of those who try to seek it. Of course, the commentary-discourse route misses on the essential ingredient of understanding - contemplation. After all, Krishna himself recommends to Arjuna at the end of his talk, s63, ch.18,

That thee heard of this wisdom 
 For task on hand now apply mind’

If only Sanskrit, the deva bhaasha, the language of the gods for the Hindus, and for the 18th Century British intellectual Sir William Jones, ‘is of wonderful structure, more perfect than Greek, more copious than Latin and more exquisitely refined than either’ were in currency now, it would have been a different proposition. Thus, the average person needing no interpretative crutches might have read the Gita in its pristine beauty, speculating about the profound wisdom lying in the sophisticated philosophy it postulates. That would have afforded one to view human nature, including his or her own, in that contemplative mirror enameled by the Gita. But that might be if and when Sanskrit, by the will of the gods, becomes a language of the masses in times to come.

But for the present, English, which many proud British linguists humbly held as the second best language in the world, is the right medium for contemplating the Gita even in the native land of Sanskrit. Of course, in verse sans commentary, and this is an attempt with that objective, needless to say, with divine inspiration.

What is the Gita all about that made many western intellectuals, though alien to the Hindu philosophy sing its praises? It is owing to its emphasis on human emancipation as opposed to the religious conditioning of man. Thus, its universal appeal jells with the hearts and minds of people, irrespective of their religious beliefs and cultural sensitivities. Simply put, the philosophy the Gita portrays is meant to help one imbibe the right attitude to lead life, but not to buttress his religious dogma of God. How this was achieved is the wonder that is Gita, cast in the Hindu mould but shaped into the secular form! After all, it might have been in the realms of human genius aided by some divine metallurgy. 

The stage chosen for unfolding the grand philosophy is in itself reflective of the brilliance of   the Gita. Nothing ever surpasses the drama of war in the realms of life and so is the case with the accompanying debate about its rights and wrongs. At the threshold of the epic battle of Mahabharata, on the sacred grounds of Kurukshetra, Arjuna, the Pandava Prince, suffers from qualms at the prospect of killing kith and kin in the Kaurava camp besides all those whom he adores therein. It has always been in the nature of man to worry about the prospect of his death besides that of his near and dear. Thus Lord Krishna, a friend of the Pandavas who happened to be Arjuna’s charioteer, opens this classic discourse in s11, ch..2 by chiding his disciple and setting its trend as well,

'Averring as knowing 
Worried over trivia! 
Reckon never wise 
Dead and alive both'.

What follows in the best part of the remaining 643 verses spread over 17 chapters can be summarized thus: The Supreme Spirit through Nature causes the birth of all beings. Thus, the indwelling spirit in the beings is a divisible part of the same Indivisible Supreme Spirit. The spirit lying within beings is subject in degrees to virtue, passion and delusion, the three attributes of Nature. It should remain the human endeavor to free the indwelling spirit from these nature-induced influences. This, however, is not possible for any in a single birth, and indeed, it would take the sustained effort of lot many births for that. Thus, in the end, the soul could be tended towards that state of purity, which matches with that of the Supreme Spirit. As and when this happens, the indwelling spirit merges with the Supreme Spirit which is nothing but moksha. Understandably, from that state of unison with the Supreme, man never returns to be born again. This is about the spiritual goal of man in this world. In short, it’s in the nature of the Supreme Spirit to separate the wheat from the chaff by bringing beings for dalliance in the domain of the Nature. While a pass ensures merger with the Supreme Spirit, failure keeps man ever in limbo. It is thus left for man to reach the Supreme, and the Gita shows him the way.

In the Gita lie the tools that tend one’s spirit to that pristine purity, and that makes it the kitbag of moksha. Were it to postulate reaching that state through devotion alone, it would have been no more than a Hindu religious scripture, though of immense quality. In this, it is to be appreciated; the one thing that is common with the Oriental as well as the Semitic religions is the stress upon good human conduct. Nevertheless, the commonality seems to fork at some length, what with the Semitic religious precepts having their own caveat conditional. Well, Hinduism and its derivatives, Buddhism, Jainism etc., advocate virtue per se as the ideal human condition. But at the other end of the religious tunnel, Judaism, and its siblings, Christianity and Islam, obliging the faithful to uphold their dogmas, provide a religious code to human virtue. 

It is thus, the Gita, without any religious dogma, deals with all aspects of human nature, and what is more, proposes corrective approaches for a peaceful, purposeful and realized life. And this makes it the Treatise of Self- help for one and all, irrespective of his or her religious orientation and social background. Figure it out for yourself as Arjuna could do.

Now back to where it all began - the misleading image of the Gita as something that cannot be comprehended, even by the spiritually oriented, leave alone the mundane minded, without the guidance from a guru, well versed in the nuances of theology. Nothing could be farther from truth considering what Arjuna averred after having heard Krishna,

'Glad O Lord 
Gone are doubts, 
Sense I gained 
With Thy words.'
(s73, ch.18).

And consider this. Arjuna was an educated prince and an exemplary warrior but with no specialized knowledge or training in theology. Yet he found no difficulty in grasping the centrality of Krishna’s advice that helped dispel his doubts. After all, it could be expected that Krishna who knew his friend’s limitations on that count would have  fashioned  his discourse suitably. And won’t that bring the Gita into the orbit of average human understanding? More so, Krishna’s discourse was intended to be a ready reckoner for Arjuna and not an assignment in spirituality to be attended to as homework, with reference books and all, leaving the battlefield for the day.

But then why all this spin of spiritual intricacy on such a straightforward man-to-man talk! We must appreciate that the philosophy of the Gita is the apogee of the Hindu thought process that evolved through the Vedas, the Brahmasutras and finally the Upanishads. In a way, the Gita is the Seal of the Hindu Wisdom, for it separates the ritualistic chaff from the spiritual grain in the granary of sanaatana dharma. For those well versed in these and other such works, it is a tempting proposition to delve into the conceptual origins of a given sloka of the Gita in those ancient classics. But to what avail all that, and what is sought to be proved after all! That the Gita was a plagiarized work of Vyasa?

Well, didn’t Vyasa place the Gita in proper perspective with ‘the end of the chapter averment that it is the quintessence of the Upanishads and the Brahmasutras’. Yet this futile exercise of backward integration of the Gita with the Upanishads and others continues, giving raise to myriad interpretations to what is essentially a simple and straightforward message that Krishna intended for average human comprehension. In modern parlance, Bhagavad-Gita is like the Board Note, and it does not behove the board members to pore over the relevant files. 

Though some well-meaning men and women have all along tried to straightjacket the Gita as a ‘Book of Work’, still it is the scriptural tag that sticks to it. Admittedly, this is not only detrimental to the Great Gita but also the misfortune of the common man who would have otherwise ventured to read it, and benefited as well. Thus, this work should be viewed as the outcome of an urge to place the Gita in its proper perspective for the utmost common good. On the degree of its success could depend how it would have served the cause of the Lord and that of man for whose benefit the   Gita, the Treatise of Self-help, was fashioned, though not as scripture. It pays to recall the words of Krishna,

That thee heard of this wisdom 
For task on hand now apply mind’

Now it is left for all to deliberate and decide whether the Gita per se was Krishna’s unrivalled divine revelation, or Vyasa’s philosophical discourse nonpareil. It is noteworthy that each of the eighteen chapters of the Gita has this post script - this chapter, with so and so designation, has the bearing of the Upanishads, possesses the knowledge of the Brahmasutras and deals with the science of its application. And the Upanishads, as we all know, were but the works of man, though of divine proportion.

Thus, if we were to concede that the Gita was a divine disclosure, then that would suggest that Krishna borrowed from the Upanishadic philosophy to fashion his discourse! Won’t that mean Lord Vishnu in His avatar as Krishna, relied on the works of man to formulate moksha for him! That is an absurd proposition, at any rate that is, isn’t it? Well, it’s a matter for man to deliberate and decide.

Last but not the least is the sectarian twist some interpolations give to the Gita to the hurt of the majority of the Hindus. Understandably, the offended sections view this secular text with suspicion, and thus keep away from it altogether, missing so much as a consequence of the same. In ‘All About Interpolations’ that follows, this aberration is sought to be corrected, and it is hoped that for the general good of the Hindus this aspect of the Gita would be set right for all times to come.   

All about Interpolations

It was long suspected there could be interpolations in the Gita as it was being received down the ages through oral tradition. One way to scent the nature of these, if not zero in on every one of them, is to subject the text to the twin tests of sequential conformity and structural economy. Sequential conformity is all about uniformity of purpose sans digression and structural economy but represents the absence of repetitiveness. If the body Bhagavad-Gita of 700 slokas were to be scanned for possible fault lines on the above lines, the result would be but positive.

It must be realized that Bhagavad-Gita is the quintessence of the Brahmasutras and the Upanishads, themselves the offshoots of the Vedic spiritual roots. Those esoteric portions that relate to spiritual knowledge apart, the Vedas contain ritualistic nuances of religious ceremonies. It is the latter that has been the source of the temporal power, which the priestly class of Brahmans came to exert on the Hindu religious mind. And these very people happened to be the principal protagonists of the Gita.

It is pertinent to note that while postulating nishkaama karma, the theory of disinterested action, Krishna is critical of the ritualistic aspects of and expectations from the Vedas (s42 - 45 and s53 of ch.2.). Indeed, the guiding philosophy of the Gita is all about action, pure and simple, to tend one on the path of duty without attachment. Were the message to be allowed to percolate down, wouldn’t it have hurt the Brahmans, the gods’ own angels on earth as the Narayana Upanishad proclaims, where it hurts most? Herein lies the provocation for them to dilute the philosophy, and the opportunity was theirs, being the repositories of the very message. Won’t the priestly perks associated with the rituals of death do, to cite an example?

If upon its death, as Krishna avers, the soul were to transmigrate into another body, what for are the elaborate rituals for the dead! It is against this background that we might appreciate those interpolations that tend to advocate the ritualism on one hand, and the Brahman preeminence on the other. However, the non-application of mind on part of the Hindus who vouchsafe for these aspects of the Gita is indeed saddening.

Nevertheless, such interpolative slokas that are at variance with the avowed purpose of the Gita would show themselves up for ready pickings. In a seemingly about turn from s42- s45 and s53 of ch.2, s9-s16 of ch.3 formulate the procedural aspects of the rituals and the divine backing they enjoy. These, and such other aberrations highlighted in the prefaces of the chapters in this work were clearly the handiwork of the priestly interests to obfuscate the impact of the anti-ritualistic thrust of the Gita.

On one hand, these interpolations were meant to impart legitimacy to their creed by advocating the same through the revered text. And on the other, these were meant to stall the threat the Gita might pose to their calling in the long run. Likewise, the sprinkling of slokas that seek to confirm the prominence of the priestly class or affirm their prejudices cannot be anything but interpolations. To cap it all, are the s23-s27 of ch. 8 which literally mean that if a person dies when the moon is on ascent he would attain moksha, other way round were it in descent, and such like. These slokas espousing superstition, simply put are out of tune. Nevertheless, when interpreted figuratively they jell with the overall message of the Gita as if to prove that the discourse of reason cannot be polluted even by superstitious insertions. Be that as it may, there is an uncanny element in these artful interpolations in that they were inserted in the narrative in such a manner that if read casually they effectively merge with the text. More so for the religiously conditioned Hindu whose upbringing conforms to the ritualistic regimen!

Next is the aspect of structural economy. One finds similitude of a given content in many a sloka in the same or in a different context throughout the text. Obviously, some of them are interpolations but which were the originals and which are the imitations, may be impossible to find out for they smugly fit into the overall structure. Be that as it may, save lengthening the discourse, they do not belittle the same and fortunately not even tire the reader, thanks to the exemplary charm of Sanskrit as a language. In this context, it is relevant to note that  Krishna indicated in s19, ch.10 that he would reveal a few of His Glories, but what we have is a twenty-two sloka block of the same, s 20-42, in the same chapter and another twenty, s15-s31 in the next. One can be certain that many of the slokas in them contain interpolative padding. Nevertheless, these slokas make an exciting reading notwithstanding the faux pas in s36 ch.10 where fraud in gambling is described as the Glory of the Supreme. However, s12 -s15 of ch 15 in similar vein are interpolations being digressions.

If after deliberating, one decides that the Gita is more a work of Vyasa’s genius than any divine revelation by Lord Krishna, then he or she might come to the conclusion that the concluding s78 of the last chapter meant to impart divinity to the discourse is an interpolation.

However, no exercise of this kind would be complete unless the four pairs of slokas that have the same first lines are scrutinized. With the common first line, sreyaan sva-dharmo vigunah, s35, ch.3 and s47, ch.18, seek to perpetuate caste oriented duties by discouraging any switch over, and thus are clear interpolations. S15 and s 28 of ch.6 both open with yunjann evam sadaatmaanam and the message too remains more or less the same though contextually different. Yet it appears that the former could be an interpolation. S34, ch.9 and s65, ch.18 not only start with man-manaa bhava mad-bhakto but also mean same thing. In the ninth chapter as discussed in the introduction therein, s32 and s33 are clear interpolations. It also need be noted that s31 has the chapter closing character about it. Now follows this repetitive chapter-concluding sloka after two interpolations, s32 and s33. Logically speaking s34 is but an interpolation to help a proper chapter closure by slightly altering s65, ch.18. S7, ch.16 and s30, ch.18 both start with pravrurttim cha nivruttim cha line but are contextually different and thus remain above suspicion. 

Identified here in this third edition are 110 slokas of deviant nature in the entire text that could be taken as interpolations with reasonable certainty. Be that as it may, there naturally arises a hypothetical question - What if the priestly interests of yore had seen to it that the said philosophy defining slokas of the second chapter that are inimical to their creed were omitted altogether? In that case we would have been left with no option but to take the perplexing interpolations with a pinch of salt in the absence of any clue to negate them as such.

Continued to "Arjuna's Dilemma": Bhagavad Gita Chapter 1 

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More by :  BS Murthy
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Comments on this Article

Comment That "what Krishna said to Sun god was put into writing by some descendant as VEDAS and Upanishads" could be a new discovery.
My answer to the poser - Why are you misguiding innocent people? - is that it is just a submission to the discerning people.

BS Murthy
11/06/2011 06:29 AM

Comment First of all Krishna is not an avatar of Vishnu.KRISHNA is the supreme personality of godhead.Also Vedas were first spoken to Sun god By KRISHNA himself and it was lost in the due courseof time.That is the reason he descends to re-establish the lost Purport.It is not that Arjuna was the very first reciever of GITA.what Krishna said to Sun god was put into writing by some descendant as VEDAS and Upanishads.Since this real information was lost and KRISHNA knew that in KALI YUGA,people would be less intelligent,he summarised the VEDAS and Upanishads into Gita.Also VEDA VYASA was himself an Incarnation of PARAMATMA(KRISHNA).Just because you followed the wrong person and he misguided you or you misintepreted Gita why are you misguiding
inocent people.

11/05/2011 12:30 PM

Comment fyi,This is not just story,it is a Fact.And it is not a myth,but HISTORY

11/05/2011 12:16 PM

Comment By knowlege and devotion only can one liberate oneself from the clutches of MAYA
Purport,2.34,Srimad Bhagavad Gita.

Also Arjuna was a great scholar and in those days all were knowlegable and yet were humble unlike these days were people known little of everything and cook their own stories

11/05/2011 12:14 PM

Comment I completely disagree with you that we merge with the supreme being.
We are all Jeevathmas and will be serving Paramathma(KRISHNA).that will b stage the last stage,Only then(when we meet/see KRISHNA) are we liberated and won't come back to this material world.your point that when we merge with the supreme,we won't return is also wrong.Also,Bhagavad Gita's has to be understood as Arjuna understood it.we are not competent enough interpret KRISHNA's words.So we must accept it as it is from an authorised person.
Authorised person here refers to one who has already realised KRISHNA and waiting for the fixed number of breaths left to lapse so that he can go back to HOME(KRISHNA"s Kingdom).IT is possible to Realise KRISHNA only through a bona-fide spiritual master coming in the line of disciplic succession which was re-established by KRISHNA himself some 5000 years ago.( and not 2000 years back as claimed by you)

11/05/2011 12:06 PM

Comment The author’s response -

1 It is criticized that ‘the Gita is an episode in the Mahabharata which is an oral epic in the sense that though some learned people may read its text separately- just as some film scholars read the screen plays of films- the vast majority of people listen to its recital.’

No denying that “the vast majority of people listen to its recital’ in Sanskrit, which for the 18th Century British intellectual Sir William Jones ‘is of wonderful structure, more perfect than Greek, more copious than Latin and more exquisitely refined than either’ and such are unlikely to interest themselves in this English translation, though in poetic verse, and understandably this work is meant for ‘those people who may like to read the Gita separately and independent of Mahabharata’.

2) About the presumed error, in that ‘it seems to me, that the author of this essay makes is to assume that there is something called 'pristine philosophy' which can be written down and which provides a 'guide to life'. If such indeed were the case, surely someone or other would have already written it down and some people or Nation would exhibit faultless conduct by reason of continual reflection upon this 'pristine philosophy' it can be said that –

Simply because some people (or a Nation) fail to reflect upon, say, the Sermon on the Mount for example besides the Gita, to exhibit faultless conduct by imbibed reasoning out of the same, it cannot be said that that there is nothing called 'pristine philosophy' which can be written down and which provides a 'guide to life'. Mankind’s failure to follow a Messiah’s guidance cannot negate the value of his guidance.

It is a matter of consensus that Bhagavad-Gita in the present length of seven hundred slokas has many an interpolation to it, but no meaningful attempt has ever been made to delve into the nature and extent, not to speak of the effect, of these on the Hindu polity at large. In this version of the Gita, 110 interpolations of deviant nature and or of partisan character, the source of so much misunderstanding about in certain sections of the Hindu fold have been done away with the ardent hope that exposing these mischievous insertions may bring in new readers from these aggrieved quarters to this peerless classic besides altering the misconceptions about its ‘true philosophy’ of the existing adherents.

BS Murthy
07/28/2011 11:29 AM

Comment The author very eloquently makes the point that 'the boon of an oral tradition that kept it alive for over two millennia became its bane with the proliferation of interpolations therein. Besides muddying its pristine philosophy, these insertions affect the sequential conformity and structural economy of the grand discourse. What is worse, to the chagrin of the majority of the Hindus, some of these legitimize the inimical caste system while upholding the priestly perks and prejudices. '

I disagree. The Gita is an episode in the Mahabharata which is an oral epic in the sense that though some learned people may read its text separately- just as some film scholars read the screen plays of films- the vast majority of people listen to its recital. The events in the Mahabhrata are of a highly dramatic character and stamp themselves in the mind. Going about one's daily tasks one can reflect on the dilemmas facing the characters and analyze them from what is now called rational choice hermeneutics- i.e. examining the menu of options open to the characters and seeing how their decisions meet the criterion of rationality.

One error, it seems to me, that the author of this essay makes is to assume that there is something called 'pristine philosophy' which can be written down and which provides a 'guide to life'. If such indeed were the case, surely someone or other would have already written it down and some people or Nation would exhibit faultless conduct by reason of continual reflection upon this 'pristine philosophy'.

What we actually observe throughout history is that not only can the Devil quote Scripture, he is the foremost of philosophical hermeneuts!

A proper approach to the Gita would be to consider the heuristics used by the bardic class responsible for its propagation, if not redaction, and to to focus, in particular, upon the symmetry laws they use such that every character and episode has its dual- reflection upon which illuminates the whole.
Thus the Gita is the dual of the Kiratarjuniya- if Arjun fights Shiva when, as an ascetic, he oughtn't to be fighting at all, then sooner or later the opposite situation will arise- Arjuna, dressed as a warrior, will refuse to fight and his charioteer will reveal himself to be Vishnu so as to get him to perform his duty.
Arjuna's vishada (depression) at the beginning of the Gita parallels Yuddhihtra's vishada, arising out of nescience re. the proper dharma towards dependents, agents and subjects, occasioned by Bhima suggesting that he should single-handedly defeat the Kauravas thus securing Justice but at the price of taking upon himself the sin of disobedience. Yuddhishtra's vishada is dispelled by 2 different chapters- one showing that the meat vendor has higher dharma than the priest or ascetic (thus putting the casteists in their place) and the second (re. Nala) showing how Statistics and Probabilistic Game Theory is necessary for the rule of the Just King. Without mastering this Science Kala can not be defeated.

Since Arjuna is an agent, not a principal, the Gita is dealing only with the dharma of dependents not sovereign entities. However, notice that Krishna pays a terrible price- his Visvarupa represents a sort of self-slaying because as he tells Arjuna later 'to praise yourself or show your true greatness is to slay yourself.' This occurs when the opposite situation to the Gita arises- viz. Arjuna gets angry and wants to slay the person he thinks is his eldest brother- viz. Yuddhishtra. Notice, the Gita is about priming Arjuna to fulfill the wish of his true eldest brother- Karna- which is to duel with him to the death.

Dharma is subtle because Life is complicated. There is no 'pristine philosophy' which you can memorize and use as a universal solvent to every dilemma. As principals the best we can do is learn Game Theory, Bayesian decision theory and so forth. As agents, sure, do what you're told without appetency for the fruits is a good enough rule. However, notice, that Krishna- describing an occassionalist universe in which doing your duty has absolutely no effect on the real world- shows us the utter stupidity of being an agent rather than a principal. We now have a farther horizon than our 'duty' since duty is meaningless. That horizon is hermeneutic but still inferior to the true liberation of Suka who flies by the net of words flung out by his father, Vyasa, leaving the latter forlorn.

07/28/2011 05:09 AM

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