The Bhagwat Gita is the most revered religious book in Hinduism. It is acceptable to people of many different religious denominations. It has been translated into many different languages. It is considered to be a book not only of religion but also of ethics, espousing eternal moral values. In the medieval period Shankaracharya and Dnyaneshwar wrote commentaries upon it. In modern times, great political leaders such as Tilak, Aurobindo and Gandhi have been inspired by this book. It is, therefore, natural that Ambedkar, who was a serious scholar and critic of Hindu religion and society, should take cognizance of this great book.
Ambedkar was a champion of the shudras and ati-shudras in our society. He, therefore, has evaluated the Gita in an entirely different way. His comments on the Gita essentially summarize his critique of Hindu religion and society.
Ambedkar's views on the Gita are found in his unpublished book Revolution and Counter-revolution in Ancient India (the text of which is included in Vol 3 of the Speeches and Writings of Dr Ambedkar now being published by the government of Maharashtra). The book is incomplete and what is available is only a first draft. There are many gaps and repetitions. Yet it gives a clear indication of his views on the subject.
According to Ambedkar the Bhagwat Gita is neither a book of religion nor a treatise on philosophy. What the Bhagwat Gita does is to defend certain dogmas of religion on philosophic grounds. It is a philosophic defence of the counter-revolution.
To understand what Ambedkar means by revolution and counter-revolution, it is necessary to take note of Ambedkar's interpretation of the changes in ancient Indian society. After making a detailed study of the ancient religious books, Ambedkar came to the conclusion that the Aryan community of pre-Buddhist times did not have a developed sense of moral values. Buddhism caused a moral and social revolution in this society. When the Mauryan emperor Ashoka embraced Buddhism, the social revolution became a political revolution. After the decline of the Mauryan Empire the Brahmins, whose interests had suffered under the Buddhist kings initiated a counter-revolution under the leadership of Pushyamitra Sung.
The counter-revolution restored Brahmanism. The Bhagwat Gita, says Ambedkar, was composed to-give ideological and moral support to this counter-revolution.
The Aryan society of Buddha's time suffered from many social evils. Drinking and gambling were very common. Liquor was of two kinds - soma and sura. Soma was a sacrificial wine permitted only to Brahmins and Kshatriyas. Sura was open to all and was drunk by all. The Mahabharata mentions an occasion when both Krishna and Arjun were dead drunk. Even Aryan women were addicted to drink. For instance Sudeshna the wife of king Virat tells her maid Sairandhri to go to Kichaka's palace and bring sura as she was dying to have a drink.
Gambling was another common vice. Every king had a gambling hall attached to his palace. King Nala staked his kingdom in gambling with Paskkar and lost it. Yudhishtir went further. He staked not only his kingdom, but himself, his brothers and their common wife Draupadi in a game of dice. Gambling was a matter of honor with the Aryans and any invitation to gamble was regarded as an injury to one's honor and dignity.
The Aryans of pre-Buddhist days had no rules to govern their sexual relationships. A father could marry his daughter, a grandfather his grand-daughter. Vashishta married his own daughter Shatrupa. Manu married his daughter Ila. Daksha gave his daughter in marriage to his father Brahma. There was prevalent among the Aryans the practice of renting out their daughters to others for a while. King Yayati gave his daughter Madhavi as an offering to his guru Galava. Galava rented out the girl to three kings, each for a period. Thereafter he gave her in marriage to Vishvamitra. She remained with him till a son was born to her. Thereafter Galav took away the girl and gave her back to her father Yayati. 
The religion of the Aryans consisted of yajna or sacrifice. The principal sacrifice was the animal sacrifice. It often became a regular carnage of cattle. It is stated in Suttanipat, a Bhuddhist scripture that at a sacrifice to be performed by king Pasenadi, there were tied to the poles for slaughter five hundred oxen, five hundred cows, five hundred goats and five hundred lambs.
The Aryan religion was a series of observances. Behind these observances there was no yearning for a good and virtuous life. The religion was without any spiritual content. The hymns of the Rig Veda praise Indra for having brought about destruction of the enemies of the Aryans. These hymns are saturated with wicked thoughts and wicked purposes. 
The Buddhist Revolution
Buddha was the first great reformer in this ancient society. Ambedkar believed that Buddhism could be called a revolution. Though it began as a religious revolution its sphere of influence went on expanding and it ended as a social and political revolution.
Ambedkar has compared it to the French revolution, because, he felt, it transformed the whole social order.
Buddha himself followed the highest standards for a moral life, which an individual could follow. He also tried to mold the character of ordinary men and women in society. A follower of Buddha had to observe certain moral precepts. They were (1) not to kill, (2) not to steal, (3) not to lie, (4) not to be unchaste, (5) not to drink intoxicants. For the monks there were additional precepts (6) not to eat at forbidden times, (7) not to sing, dance, or attend theatricals, (8) to abstain from the use of garlands, scents and ornaments, (9) to abstain from the use of high or broad beds, (10) never to receive money.
Two cardinal virtues of Buddhism are love and wisdom. Universal pity, sympathy for all suffering beings, goodwill to every form of sentient life, these were the main characteristics of his teaching. 
Buddha carried on a campaign against three things. First, he repudiated the authority of the Vedas. He denounced yajna as a form of religion. He ridiculed the idea that the sacrificial animal slaughtered according to prescribed rites goes to heaven irrespective of its good or bad deeds. In that case, he asked, why do the Brahmins not offer themselves for sacrifice? Buddha was against caste. His religion was open to all, to shudras, women and even repentant criminals. The Buddhist scriptures were available to all men and women. He proclaimed that any person who has knowledge and the ability to teach can become a teacher. A teacher should teach anyone desirous of getting knowledge and should not hold any part of knowledge from anyone. 
When emperor Ashoka embraced Buddhism, it became a state religion. The Brahmins, then, lost all state patronage and were reduced to a secondary position. Ashoka prohibited all animal sacrifices in his kingdom. The Brahmins who officiated at these sacrifices lost their chief source of income. Consequently a rebellion of Brahmins against the Buddhist state took place under Pushyamitra Sung who came from a Brahmin dynasty. Pushyamitra destroyed the Buddhist state and established in its place a Brahmin political order. This is what Ambedkar calls a counter-revolution. The Brahmin rulers made Brahmins a class of privileged persons. The king was not supposed to give a Brahmin capital punishment for any offence committed. Now varna was turned into caste. The Brahmins brought about a system of graded inequality based on birth. Inter-caste dining and marriages were prohibited. The position of women and shudras was degraded. Manusmriti lays down the laws of this counter-revolution. The Bhagwat Gita gives philosophic defence of the new social order. 
According to Hindu tradition the Gita is a part of Mahabharata and both were written by one and the same author, namely, Vyasa. Lokamanya Tilak, in his book Gitarahasya has accepted this opinion. Ambedkar, however, does not endorse this view. Vyasa is reputed to be the author not only of the Mahabharata but also that of the Puranas and the Brahmasutras. As these works were separated by a long span of time extending over several centuries they could not have come from the same author. It is well known how some obscure authors wishing to hide their own identity or to claim a greater credibility for their work adopted some well-known author's name, such as that of Vyasa, as their pen-name.
There is another decisive consideration against Tilak's proposition, namely, the relative position of Krishna in the Mahabharata and in the Bhagwat Gita. In the Mahabharata, Krishna is nowhere represented as a god accepted by all. The Mahabharata itself shows that all the people were not prepared to give him the first place. When at the time of the Rajsuya Yajna, Dharma offered to give Krishna priority in the matter of honoring the guests, Shishupal protested and abused Krishna. He not only charged him with low origin, but also with loose morals, an infringer who violated rules of war for the sake of victory. So abhorrent but so true was this record of Krishna's foul deeds that when Duryodhan flung them in the face of Krishna, the Mahabharata itself in the Gada Parva records, that Yakshas and Kinnars came out from heaven to listen to the charges made by Duryodhan against Krishna and after listening showered flowers as a token of their views that the charges contained the whole truth and nothing but the truth. On the other hand, the Bhagwat Gita presented Krishna as god, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, pure, loving, essence of goodness. Two such works, containing two quite contradictory estimates about one and the same personality, says Ambedkar, could not have been written at one and the same time and by one and the same author. 
Ambedkar seems to agree with the views of D. D. Kosambi that the Gita was composed in the reign of the Gupta king Baladitya. Baladitya came to the throne in the year AD 467. Kosambi's reasons for so late a date for the composition of the Gita are two. Before Shankaracharya (788 AD to 820 AD) wrote his commentary on the Gita, it was an unknown composition. It was certainly not mentioned in the Tattavasangraha by Shantarakshit who wrote his treatise only 50 years before the advent of Shankaracharya.
His second reason is this: Vasubandhu was the originator of a school of thought known as Vijnan Vad. The Brahma Sutra contains a criticism of Vijnan Vad. The Gita contains a reference to the Brahma Sutra. The Gita must, therefore, date after Vasubandhu and after the Brahma Sutra. Vasubandhu was the preceptor of the Gupta king Baladitya. That being so the Bhagwat Gita, or at least portions of it must have been composed during or after the reign of Baladitya. 
Nature of the Bhagwat Gita
Ambedkar's reading of the Bhagwat Gita led him to the conclusion that there were four separate parts of the Gita. They are so distinct that in the treatise as it stands today they can be easily marked out.
(i) The original Gita was nothing more than a heroic tale told or a ballad recited by the bards of how Arjuna was not prepared to fight and how Krishna forced him to engage in battle, how Arjuna yielded and so on. This part will be found embedded in chapters I, II and XI.
(ii) The first patch on the original Gita is the part in which Krishna is spoken of as Isvara, the god of the Bhagwat religion. This part is embedded in those verses of the present Gita which are devoted to Bhakti Yoga.
(iii) The second patch on the original Gita is the part which introduces the Sankhya and Vedanta philosophy as a defence of the doctrines of Purva Mimamsa which they did not have before. The philosophical portion of the Gita was a later intrusion and as such can be proved quite easily from the nature of the original dialogue.
In chapter II the first questions asked by Arjuna are natural questions and the answers are also natural. Then suddenly Arjuna asks whether it is good to kill the Kauravas or be killed by them. This is not a natural question. It is a deliberate departure designed to give Krishna an opportunity to give a philosophical defence of war in terms of Vedanta philosophy.
With regard to the introduction of the Sankhya philosophy the case is quite obvious. Often it was expounded without its being a response to a question by Arjuna and whenever it was propounded in answer to a question that question had nothing to do with the war. This shows that the philosophic parts of the Bhagwat Gita were not parts of the original Gita but have been added later on and in order to find a place for them, new appropriate and leading questions have been put in the mouth of Arjuna which have nothing to do with the mundane problems of war.
(iv) The third patch on the Bhagwat Gita consists of verses in which Krishna is elevated from the position of ishwar to that of parameshwar. This must be placed in the reign of the Gupta kings. The Gupta kings made Krishna Vasudeva their family deity.
The Brahmins to whom religion has been a trade, who were never devoted to one god but came forward to worship the deity of the ruling race thought of pleasing their masters by making their family deity into a high and mighty parameshwar. This must have been done in the 5th century AD. 
The Gita is considered by most Hindus as a book of ethical teaching. Ambedkar does not agree with this view. He, on the other hand, criticizes a few positions on moral questions taken by the Gita. The first doctrine he criticizes is the justification of war.
Arjun had declared himself against the war, against killing people for the sake of property. Krishna offers a philosophic defence of war and killing in war. The philosophic defence of war offered by the Bhagwat Gita proceeds along two lines of argument. One line is that anyhow the world is perishable and man is mortal. Things are bound to come to an end. Man is bound to die. Why should it make any difference to the wise whether a man dies a natural death or whether he is done to death as a result of violence? Life is unreal, why shed tears because it has ceased to be?
The second line of justification of war is that it is a mistake to think that body and soul are one. They are separate, not only are the two quite distinct, but they differ inasmuch as the body is perishable while the soul is eternal and imperishable. When death occurs it is the body that dies. The soul never dies. Not only does it never die, but air cannot dry it, fire cannot burn it, and weapon cannot cut it. It is therefore wrong to say that when a man is killed, his soul is killed. What happens is that his body dies. His soul discards the dead body as a person discards his own clothes wears new ones and carries on. As the soul is never killed, killing a person can never be a matter of any moment. War and killing need, therefore, give no ground to remorse or to shame, so argues the Bhagwat Gita. 
This defence of a kshatriya's duty to kill, Ambedkar thinks, is puerile. To say that killing is no killing because what is killed is the body and not the soul, is an unheard of defence of murder. If a lawyer acting for a client who is being tried for murder pleads the defence set out by Krishna in the Gita, there is not the slightest doubt that he would be sent to the lunatic asylum.
Defence of Chaturvarnya
Another dogma to which the Bhagwat Gita comes forward to offer a philosophic defence is chaturvarnya. Ambedkar is at his best when he analyses this defence. The Bhagwat Gita, he says, no doubt, mentions that chaturvarnya is created by god and therefore, sacrosanct. But it does not make its validity dependent on it. It offers a philosophic basis to the theory of chaturvarnya by linking it to the theory of innate, inborn qualities in men. The fixing of the varna of men is not an arbitrary act, say the Gita. But it is fixed according to his innate inborn qualities.
Ambedkar's first criticism of the theory is that it is illogical. In the chaturvarnya, there are four varnas. But the gunas according to Sankhyas are only three. How can a system of four varnas be defended on the basis of a philosophy which does not recognize more than three varnas?
Ambedkar's main objection is to the basic principles underlying this social system. The system of chaturvarnya which the Gita defends was in existence from the Vedic times. Though the Hindus regard it as the unique creation of their Aryan ancestors, it is in no sense unique. The Egyptians and the Persians had a similar system. Plato was so convinced about its excellence that he presented it as an ideal form of social organization. However, the ideal of chaturvarnya is faulty. The lumping together of individuals into a few sharply marked off classes is a very superficial view of man and his power. The ancient Aryans as well as Plato had no conception of the uniqueness of every individual, of his incommensurability with others and of each individual forming a class of his own. They had no recognition of the infinite diversity of active tendencies and combination of tendencies of which an individual is capable. To them there were types of faculties or powers in the individual constitution and all that is necessary for social organization is to classify them. All that is demonstrably wrong. Modern science has shown that lumping together of individuals into a few sharply marked off classes each confined to one particular sphere does injustice both to the individual and to society. The stratification of society by classes and occupations is incompatible with the fullest utilization of the qualities which is so necessary for social advancement and is also incompatible with the safety and security of the individual as well as of society in general. 
There is another mistake which the ancient Hindus as well as Plato made. There is probably some truth in saying that there is among human beings a diamorphism or polymorphism as there is among insects, though in the former it is only psychological while in the latter it is both physical as well as psychological. But assuming that there is psychological polymorphism among humans, it is wrong to separate them into those who are born to do one thing and others to do another, some born to command, i.e., to be masters and some born to obey, i.e., to be slaves. It is wrong to suppose that in a given person some qualities are present and others absent. On the contrary the truth is that all qualities are present in every person and this truth is not diminished in any way by that, some tendency predominates to the extent of being the only one that is apparent. So well established is this truth that a tendency which may be dominant in a man at one time may be quite different from and even the direct opposite of the tendency that may be dominant at another time. It has happened that in times of revolution, totally unassuming citizens, who were up to the moment of the revolution humble and obedient, wake up one fine day with pretensions to be leaders of men. 
The soul of the, Bhagwat Gita seems to be the defence of chaturvarnya and securing its observance in practice. Krishna does not merely rest content with saying that chaturvarnya is based on guna-karma but he goes further and issues two positive injunctions.
The first injunction is contained in chapter 111, verse 26. In this Krishna says that a wise man should not by counter-propaganda create a doubt in the mind of an ignorant person who is a follower of karma kand which, of course, includes the observance of the rules of chaturvarnya. In other words, you must not agitate or excite people to rise in rebellion against the theory of karma kand and all that it includes.
The second injunction is laid down in chapter XVIII, verses 41-48. In this Krishna tells that everyone should do the duty prescribed for his varna and no other and warns that those who worship him and are his devotees will not obtain salvation by mere devotion but by devotion accompanied by observance of duty laid down for his varna. In short a shudra however great he may be as a devotee will not get salvation if he has transgressed the duty of the shudra, namely, to live and die in the services of the higher classes.
The third dogma for which the Bhagwat Gita offers a philosophic defence, Ambedkar continues, is the karma marga. By karma marga the Bhagwat Gita means the performance of the observances, such as yajna as a way to salvation. The Bhagwat Gita most stands out for the karma marga throughout and is a great upholder of it. The line it takes to defend Karma Yoga is by removing the excrescences which had grown upon it and which had made it appear quite ugly.
The first excrescence was blind faith. The Gita tries to remove it by introducing the principle of buddhi yoga as a necessary condition for karma yoga. Become sthithapradnya, i.e., be fitted with buddhi, there is nothing wrong in the performance of karma kand. The second excrescence on the karma kand was the selfishness which was the motive behind the performance of the karma. The Bhagwat Gita attempts to remove it by introducing the principle of anasakti, i.e., performance of karma without any attachment for the fruits, of the karma. Founded in buddhi yoga and dissociated from selfish attachment to the fruits of karma what is wrong with the dogma of karma kand? This is how the Bhagwat Gita defends the karma marga.
The dogmas which the Gita defends are the dogmas put forth in Jaimini's Purva Mimamsa. A confusion has arisen in this regard because many writers have attached a wrong meaning to the word karma yoga. Most writers on the Bhagwat Gita translate the word karma yoga as action and the word jnana yoga as knowledge and proceed to discuss the Bhagwat Gita as though it was engaged in comparing and contrasting knowledge versus action in a generalized form. This is quite wrong. The Bhagwat Gita is not concerned with any general philosophic discussion of action versus knowledge. As a matter of fact the Gita is concerned with the particular and not with the general. By karma yoga or action the Gita means the dogmas contained in Jaimini's karma kand and by jnana yoga or knowledge it means the dogmas contained in Badarayana's Brahmasutras. That the Gita in speaking of karma is not speaking of activity or inactivity, quieticism or energism in general terms, but with religious act and observances cannot be denied by anyone who has read the Bhagwat Gita.
Some people, argues Ambedkar, might say that the Gita is anterior to Jaimini's Purva Mimamsa. There is a tendency among Hindu scholars to believe in a very high antiquity of Bhagwat Gita. It is therefore necessary to find the probabilities. It is true that the Bhagwai Gita does not refer to Jaimini by name. But there can be no doubt that chapter III, verses 9-19 of the Gita deal with the doctrine formulated by Jaimini. Even Tilak had to admit that here the Gita is engaged in the examination of Purva Mimamsa doctrine. Jaimini however preaches pure and simple karma yoga. The Bhagwat Gita on the other hand preaches anasakti karma. Thus the Gita preaches a doctrine which is fundamentally modified. Not only does the Bhagwat Gita modify the karma yoga, but it attacks the upholders of pure and simple karma yoga in somewhat severe terms. If the Gita is prior to Jaimini one would expect Jaimini to take note of this attack of the Bhagwat Gita and reply to it. But we do not find any reference in Jaimini to this anasakti karma yoga of Gita. Why? The only answer is that this modification came after Jaimini and not before 
Why did the Bhagwat Gita feel it necessary to defend the dogmas of counter- revolution? Ambedkar thinks that the answer is clear. It was to save them from the attack of Buddhism that the Bhagwat Gita came into being. Buddha had preached non-violence. The people had accepted non-violence as a way of life. Buddha preached against chaturvarnya. He allowed shudras and women to become sanyasis. Buddha had condemned the karma kand and the yajna. He condemned them on the ground of violence and also on the ground that the motive behind them was a selfish desire to obtain boons. What was the reply of the counter-revolutionaries? Only that, these things were ordained by the Vedas, the Vedas are infallible, therefore, the dogmas were not to be questioned. In the Buddhist age, which was the most enlightened and the most rationalistic age India has known, dogmas resting on such silly, arbitrary, unrationalistic and fragile foundations could hardly stand. So the Bhagwat Gita came to their support. It resuscitated counter-revolution and if the counter-revolution lives even today, it is entirely due to the plausibility of the philosophic defence which it received from the Bhagwat Gita. [13 ]
Most historians of ancient India will not agree with Ambedkar on the use of the terminology of revolution and counter-revolution for the rise of Buddhism, its decline and the consolidation of Brahmanism. The word social revolution implies a fundamental change in the social structure. Ambedkar has relied mainly on the teaching of Gautam Buddha. He has not given any evidence to prove his contention that there was a change in the social system under the rule of Buddhist kings and the conditions of the shudras and women had improved. However his conclusion that the Bhagwat Gita by its philosophical defence of the chaturvarnya helped the consolidation of Brahmanism and the hierarchical system of caste cannot be disputed.
I Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar-Writings and Speeches, Vol 3, pp 153-56.
2 Ibid, pp 175-76.
3 Ibid, p 187.
4 Ibid, p 221.
S Ibid, pp 270-75.
6 Ibid, pp 375-76.
7 Ibid, pp 244-45.
8 Ibid, pp 376-79.
9 Ibid, p 361.
10 Ibid, p 321.
11 Ibid, p 321.
12 Ibid, pp 362-63.
13 Ibid, pp 363-64.
Source of this article:
Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 27, No. 20/21 (May 16-23, 1992), pp. 1063-1065
Related Article: On ‘Ambedkar and the Bhagawat Gita’ by BS Murthy