When the Madhya Pradesh government under Shivraj Singh Chauhan proposed to induct parts of the Bhagawad Gita in the syllabus of students of Classes 1 and 2 in Islamic schools last week, the outrage and protests about ‘saffronisation of education’ that followed could have been easily predicted. What ceases to amaze is that with less than nine months left for general elections, how the BJP is clinging on to and strengthening its Hinduness — first with Amit Shah’s statement that the party will build the Ram temple in Ayodhya, then with Narendra Modi’s claim that he is a Hindu Nationalist and now this.
If the BJP simply focussed on systematic mis-governance and rampant corruption of the UPA government and communicated that to the electorate, it would be enough. By indulging in 'Hinduness' in ways that seem aggressive, even undemocratic, it is losing the plot. Or maybe all of us analysts are wrong and it is really the hot issues of religion, caste and divisions that win elections, not cold facts.
But to rely on politicians for the recourse of the soul or even the narrow confines of faith, would be like going to a hospital administrator to get a cure for a headache. To return to religion, the question to ask is this: is the Bhagawad Gita a Hindu text and, as a corollary, must not be taught in Islamic or Christian schools, and must be shunned by Buddhists and Jains?
To answer this question, we begin not with religion but with history. Between the oral tradition, discovery of inscriptions, and finally written texts, the history of India’s ancient civilisation seems to have blurred. Between the wars of scholars about dating the civilisation, in general, and separately, the Bhagawad Gita, in particular, opinions vary. Between hard-nosed scholarship and heart-felt faith, dating of texts has fluctuated wildly.
In the context of the Bhagawad Gita, historians like Romila Thapar suggest that these 700 verses are a later addition to the primary text, The Mahabharata. “The Epics had originally been secular and … had to be revised by the brahmans with a view to using them as religious literature; thus, many interpolations were made, the most famous being the addition of the Bhagawad Gita.”
The interpolation idea germinates with Wendy Doniger, who suggests that the Bhagawad Gita was written around 100 CE (common era), while the Mahabharata is dated somewhere between 300 BCE (before common era) and 300 CE. Taking this further, it would be easy to conclude that Ved Vyas, who authored the Mahabharata, did not write the Bhagawad Gita.
Our conclusion would be wrong. When Sri Aurobindo analysed it, he said that of the 100,000-verse poem, 24,000 verses can be attributed to Ved Vyas. On the authorship of the Bhagawad Gita he said, “There is nothing to disprove his (Ved Vyas) authorship. The whole piece is but the philosophical justification and logical enlargement of the gospel of action, preached by Krishna in the Mahabharata proper, the undoubted work of this poet.” He concluded that the great war was fought in 1190 BCE.
Hinduism as a word that defined the ancient diversity that remains dominant even today is what Doniger calls the Zen diagram, a Venn diagram that has no central ring. The clusters include belief in the Vedas, karma, or reincarnation, dharma, or the religion-law-justice combo, bhakti or devotion, rituals and ceremonies, sacrifice, vegetarianism, non-violence, pilgrimage and the plethora of gods or seeing divinity in things as diverse as snakes, stones and seas.
If this diversity was the dominant religion — often called Sanatan Dharma, or the Eternal Religion (note, the word Dharma is a very complex idea to translate) - of the geography between the two seas (Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal) and two mountain ranges (Himalayas and Vindhyas), and all other religions, including Buddhism, Jainism, Islam and Christianity were conversions from this universe, it would be safe to conclude that the Bhagawad Gita belongs to this religion. Digging into history, therefore, all related texts like the Rig Veda (1500-1000 BCE); Yajur Veda, Sam Veda and Atharva Veda (1200-900 BCE); Upanishads (500-100 BCE) and so on, belong to it as well.
The name of the religion — Sanatan Dharma, or Hinduism — is irrelevant. As we all know, the term Hindu was created to define a civilisation beyond the Indus river that Herodotus in the 5th century BCE, without visiting it, called Sindhu. Later, in the 16th century, Babur called it Hindustan. So, if we can embrace its larger idea of diversity, Hinduism is but a name that contains the same ideas of millenniums ago. Ordinarily, I believe, the religion would have embraced the religions of the invaders, Islam and Christianity, and brought them under the Hindu fold with ease. The only point of difference would be the exclusion and the claimed superiority of these religions — this way and none else, an idea that’s alien to Hinduism.
The angry Hindu that we see rising today is possibly a reaction to the politics of religious conquest pushed by the Abrahamic religions. It is perhaps the recoil of a pride, hurt by persistent political dominance that violently speared itself into the culture’s innards, wounding a people through conversions, forced or voluntary. We may feel that conversions are a foreign import, but even in the Mahabharata, there was a distinct move to bring kingdoms and tribes under the Aryavart fold and getting them to accept the Vedic culture.
In essence, the Bhagawad Gita is the wisdom of the Vedas and Upanishads, concentrated and simplified for the common man. This runs in tune with the soul of the Mahabharata, within which it is enclosed, that has turned the complex tenets of dharma into digestible bites for wider dissemination. Finally, it is a spiritual — not religious — guide that uses psychology to help individuals ascend in the irreversible phenomenon of evolution, a constant work-in-progress that seeks to move from matter to man and then, as Sri Aurobindo says, to divinise man and matter.
The Bhagawad Gita goes beyond Hinduism. You don’t need to believe in Sri Krishna to follow the spiritual principles it contains. You don’t need to even have faith. The routes to spiritual growth it offers extend beyond belief. Choose the trail you like and walk your own individual path. Such a multi-layered and hugely-complicated idea can’t be thrust down anyone’s throat.
Forcing Muslim children to study it at a time when religion is not a positive identity but a tool in the hands of negative divisive forces will bring a backlash that will grow. Politically, we can only hope the Shivraj Singh Chauhan-led BJP government would have learnt its lesson in Madhya Pradesh and back off, once and for all.
But we also hope that the petty-politics around this magnificent text, this lofty idea, this puissant enabler of man who aspires to reach the summits of expression beyond the five senses, would not prevent seekers across religions from exploring their inner lives.