War and Peace in the Bhagavad Gita

Raghu Rai/Magnum Photos
Narendra Modi, then chief minister of Gujarat, at a meeting of the national council of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Delhi, January 2014. He was elected prime minister of India in May 2014.

How did Indian tradition transform the Bhagavad Gita (the “Song of God”) into a bible for pacifism, when it began life, sometime between the third century BC and the third century CE, as an epic argument persuading a warrior to engage in a battle, indeed, a particularly brutal, lawless, internecine war? It has taken a true gift for magic—or, if you prefer, religion, particularly the sort of religion in the thrall of politics that has inspired Hindu nationalism from the time of the British Raj to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi today.

The Gita (as it is generally known to its friends) occupies eighteen chapters of book 6 of the Mahabharata, an immense (over 100,000 couplets) Sanskrit epic. The text is in the form of a conversation between the warrior Arjuna, who, on the eve of an apocalyptic battle, hesitates to kill his friends and family on the other side, and the incarnate god Krishna, who acts as Arjuna’s charioteer (a low-status job roughly equivalent to a bodyguard) and persuades him to do it.

In his masterful new biography of the Gita—part of an excellent Princeton series dedicated to the lives of great religious books—Richard Davis, a professor of religion at Bard College, shows us, in subtle and stunning detail, how the text of the Gita has been embedded in one political setting after another, changing its meaning again and again over the centuries. For what the Gita was in its many pasts is very different from what it is today: the best known of all the philosophical and religious texts of Hinduism.

The Gita incorporates into its seven hundred verses many different sorts of insights, which people use to argue many different, often contradictory, ideas. We might divide them into two broad groups: what I would call the warrior’s Gita, about engaging in the world, and the philosopher’s Gita, about disengaging. The Gita’s theology—the god’s transfiguration of the warrior’s life—binds the two points of view in an uneasy tension that has persisted through the centuries.

The Gita’s philosophy is basically a compendium of the prevalent philosophical theories of the time, a kind of Cliff’s Notes for Indian Philosophy 101. Drawing upon the Upanishads, mystical Sanskrit texts from as early as the fifth century BC, the Gita tells of the immortal, transmigrating soul, and the brahman, or godhead, that pervades the universe and is identical with the individual soul. But the Gita also introduces two strikingly original new ideas that were to have a deep impact on the subsequent history of Hinduism. First, it offers a corrective to the older belief that the transmigrating soul is stained by a force called karma, consisting of the residues of actions committed within the past life and influencing the subsequent life. The Gita qualifies this belief by asserting that action without desire for the fruits of action (nishkama karma) leaves the soul unstained by such karmic residues.

The other, related idea is that the path of devotion (bhakti) to a god is superior to the paths of action (karma yoga) and meditation (jnana yoga) that had produced a tension between householders (or warriors), engaged on the path of action, and renouncers (or philosophers), on the path of meditation, disengaged from action. Bhakti was a new way to reconcile them.

The Warrior’s Gita

Davis notes the tenacity of the warrior’s Gita: “The Gita begins with Arjuna in confusion and despair, dropping his weapons; it ends with Arjuna picking up his bow, all doubts resolved and ready for battle. Once he does so, the war begins.” Krishna’s exhortation to Arjuna has the force of Henry V’s rousing speech on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt (“We few, we happy few…”). Krishna, however, is a god as well as a prince who takes part in the battle, and his most persuasive argument consists of a violent divine revelation: at Arjuna’s request, Krishna manifests his universal form, the form in which he will destroy the universe at Doomsday, the form that J. Robert Oppenheimer recalled when he saw the first explosion of an atomic bomb. Arjuna cries out to Krishna, “I see your mouths with jagged tusks, and I see all of these warriors rushing blindly into your gaping mouths, like moths rushing to their death in a blazing fire.” This is an argument for Krishna’s overwhelming power that Arjuna cannot refuse. It is the climax of the violence of the martial Gita.

But at the end of this vision, Arjuna begs Krishna to turn back into the figure he had known before—his buddy Krishna—which the god consents to do. This intimacy is reflected elsewhere in the Mahabharata in two quite playful satires on the Gita that Davis does not mention. One comes much later, long after the battle, when Arjuna reminds Krishna of their conversation on the eve of battle and adds: “But I have lost all that you said to me in friendship, O tiger among men, for I have a forgetful mind. And yet I am curious about those things again, my lord.”

Krishna, rather crossly, remarks that he is displeased that Arjuna failed to understand or retain the revelation, and he adds, “I cannot tell it again just like that.” But he says he will tell him “another story on the same subject.” Here the satire (on the reader’s forgetfulness, as much as on that of the nonintellectual warrior) ends, and Krishna expounds a serious philosophical discourse, known as the “after-Gita” (the anu-gita).

The second, much longer episode may have been inspired (or, later, referenced) by the line in the Gita in which Krishna goads Arjuna by saying, “Stop acting like a kliba; stand up!” (Kliba is a catch-all derogatory term for a castrated, cross-dressing, homosexual, or impotent man, here used as a casual slur, “not a real man.”) But earlier in the Mahabharata, Arjuna has masqueraded as precisely such a person, a transvestite dance master who also serves as charioteer to an arrogant wimp of a young prince who does not realize that he is treating the greatest warrior in the world as his servant, just as Arjuna does not at first realize that he has for his charioteer a great god who has sheathed his claws. The issue of manliness will recur throughout the subsequent history of the Gita. But the playfulness in these early treatments of the martial Gita was eventually smothered under the pious reception of the philosophical Gita.

Bhakti and Caste

In the Gita, bhakti—the path of devotion to the God—lacks the passion that is the hallmark of bhakti in the later worship of a different sort of Krishna, the playful child Krishna and the erotic adolescent Krishna, who lived among cowherds and, more particularly, cowherd women (Gopis). This Krishna, who first appears in the Sanskrit Bhagavata Purana in the tenth century, soon largely eclipsed the warrior Krishna of the Gita, who was well known to most Hindus. And this more passionate devotion to the God Krishna, which gave religious validity to low-caste cowherds and women, had a social inclusiveness that clashed with the Gita’s support of caste dharma, or duties entailed by being born into a particular caste.

For though, as Davis points out, the Gita says that if you love god you can neglect your duties (dharma), there is another famous passage that Davis does not mention: the duties of the four classes are distributed according to the qualities they are naturally born with. It is better to do your own duty (your sva-dharma, that is, the task assigned to your caste), even badly, than to do someone else’s well.

Krishna also says, “I created the system of the four classes, differentiated by their qualities and their inborn actions.” Class (varna, in Sanskrit) is not to be confused with caste (jati). Class is something that India shares with most other civilizations and that is, in India, largely theoretical, the first three of the four classes, called the twice-born, being roughly equivalent to the Three Estates in France—a clergy, a royalty/military class, a workforce (plus the fourth category of servants)—and therefore relatively fluid. Caste, by contrast, is unique to India, very real indeed, much more specific than class (there are hundreds of castes), and has always strictly governed the social and religious life of Hindus. The Gita verses on the need to adhere to one’s own sva-dharma—or inborn set of duties—have been interpreted for centuries in India to justify the caste system.

And though, as Davis notes, the Gita says that God can rehabilitate sinners, he does not mention another passage in which Krishna says that he hurls people who hate him, and who sacrifice in the wrong way, into foul rebirths so that “they are deluded in rebirth after rebirth, and they never reach me.” Hindus who revere the Krishna of the Gita are often disdainful of the cowherd Krishna, who never consigned even the worst sinner to eternal darkness. Other Hindus are proud that Krishna was a cowherd. This has been the source of an enduring tension between different communities of Hindus.

The British and the Philosophical Gita

Meanwhile, the philosophical Gita lived on among a small group of medieval Hindu theologians, who studied it as an independent work and wrote many commentaries on it; Davis numbers them at 227. (Charles Wilkins, who made the first translation of the Gita into English, remarked that “small as the work may appear, it has more comments than the Revelations.”) And it was the philosophical Gita that, centuries later and in translation, attracted the attention of Europeans, from Schlegel to Hegel, and Americans, beginning with the Transcendentalists, but first and foremost the British.

In 1772, Warren Hastings, governor-general for Bengal, “issued,” as Davis writes, “his recommendation that the British colonial administration should seek to govern the territories under its control not according to British law but rather according to the laws and customs of the local residents.” (This was what Star Trek would call the Prime Directive.) Anticipating Michel Foucault and Edward Said by two centuries, Hastings argued that translating such texts was a political act: “Every accumulation of knowledge, and especially such as is obtained by social communication with people over whom we exercise a dominion founded on the right of conquest, is useful to the state.”

The British (Protestants) knew that any self-respecting religion had to have One Book; so they asked some educated, Anglophone Calcutta Brahmins, What is your One Book? or indeed, What is your Bible? And the answer was, the Gita. In 1785 Wilkins published his full English translation of the Gita, the first work of classical Sanskrit translated directly into English; he made it sound as biblical as possible, using King Jamesian “thee”s and “thou”s.

The British liked the Gita because they believed, as Wilkins boasted, that it shared their goal of uniting “all the prevailing modes of worship of those days; and by setting up the doctrine of the unity of the Godhead, in opposition to idolatrous sacrifices, and the worship of images…to bring about the downfall of Polytheism.” For the British much preferred the Krishna of the Gita to the Krishna of the Gopis, the cowherd women. The eminent British lexicologist Sir Monier Monier-Williams complained that certain Hindus’ “devotion to Krishna has degenerated into the most corrupt practices and their whole system has become rotten to the core.”

Los Angeles County Museum of Art
‘Krishna and Radha strolling in the rain’; miniature painting, Jaipur, Rajasthan, circa 1775; from The Song of Krishna: The Illustrated Bhagavad Gita, published by Abrams

But whose text was it? Citing Wilkins’s claim that “the Brahmans esteem this work to contain all the grand mysteries of their religion,” Davis comments, “this statement represents the viewpoint not of all Hindus of all times but rather of a particular class of Sanskrit-teaching Brahmin pundits in northern India in the late eighteenth century.” Such Hindus further learned, from the British, to value the Gita as an alternative to sacrificial, polytheistic Hinduism. The Gita thus achieved under the British a singular prominence it had never had before in India.

Since this Gita-as-bible was eagerly picked up, first by more and more Indians and then by Europeans and Americans, it shut out not only the many other texts that were used by other sorts of Hindus (including the worship of the other sort of Krishna), but even the other Gita, the martial Gita, for this faction generally cited only the philosophical Gita.

When Friedrich Schlegel translated a third of the Gita into German in 1808, he left out the battlefield, Krishna’s instructions to Arjuna about work and duty, his teachings about bhakti, and his terrifying manifestation in his Doomsday form. When Hegel, writing in 1827, criticized the Gita for advocating what he saw as a withdrawal and isolation from the world, a passive immersion into the brahman, he did not mention that the martial, interventionist Krishna became personally embodied on what Davis calls “a real Indian battlefield, in order to persuade a warrior to engage in worldly combat.” And so the Gita in Europe fell into disrepute and, for a while, obscurity.

The American Transcendentalists, too, tended to ignore the martial Gita, but they loved the philosophical Gita. In the 1850s, “Thoreau took a borrowed copy of the Wilkins Gita with him to Walden Pond, where he imagined himself communing with a Brahmin priest” on the banks of the Ganges as he sat reading on the banks of the pond. When the first edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass was published in 1855, Ralph Waldo Emerson commented that it read like “a mixture of the Bhagavat Ghita [sic] and the New York Herald,” and a translation of the Gita was said to have been found under Whitman’s pillow when he died.

Swami Vivekananda, who praised Whitman as “the sannyasin [wandering holy man] of America,” had had an indirect part in bringing the Gita to him. In his historic speech at the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago, which virtually introduced Americans to Hinduism, Vivekananda said that he saw the Parliament as a fulfillment of Krishna’s statement in the Bhagavad Gita: “Whosoever comes to Me, through whatever form, I reach him; all men are struggling through paths which in the end lead to Me.” The heir to Whitman’s love of the Gita was T.S. Eliot, who in “The Dry Salvages” wrote, “I sometimes wonder if that is what Krishna meant” and “do not think of the fruit of action.”

The Nationalists and the Martial Gita

Meanwhile, back in India, the Nationalists, culled from the same level of Indian society that had swallowed the British line that the Gita was their Book, and embarrassed by the Krishna of the Gopis, went back to the Krishna of the Gita, but this time to the martial Gita, particularly to its exhortation to the right sort of action (karma yoga). Even Vivekananda endorsed the martial Gita, insisting, “First of all, our young men must be strong. Religion will come afterwards…. You will understand the Gita better with your biceps, your muscles a little stronger.” And he cited, as a directive to Indian youth, Krishna’s exhortation to Arjuna, “Stop acting like a kliba; stand up!” which he translated, “Yield not to unmanliness.”

According to a police surveillance report of 1909, an initiation into one secret nationalist organization required the initiate to recite an oath, in front of an image of the goddess Kali, while “lying flat on a human skeleton, holding a revolver in one hand and a copy of the Bhagavad Gita in the other.” I think this is more myth than history; it suspiciously resembles a scene imagined by the Bengali writer Bankimcandra Chatterji in his highly influential 1882 novel Anandamath (The Mission House). But the “Gita and revolver” myth was widespread. The revolutionary Khudiram Bose, sentenced to death by hanging in 1908, died with a copy of the Gita in his hand. The Gita was the most popular book among imprisoned Indian freedom fighters.

Several Nationalists used the Gita to argue for a more confrontational, “masculine” response to British colonial rule. In 1925, Keshav Baliram Hedgewar, a Brahmin who trained as a doctor but became a revolutionary, established the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or National Volunteer Organization), whose purpose was to build strength and character among Hindu males and to circle the wagons around the caste system. Hedgewar’s reading of the Gita was crucial to this: each person has his own god-given set of duties (sva-dharma) inherited through his caste birth; acting contrary to that dharma disrupts the social order. Hedgewar also used Krishna’s teaching of karma yoga and nishkama karma to train young boys both physically and morally.

Other Nationalists, too, made good use of the martial Gita. Swami Shraddhananda, an educator and reformer, argued in 1926 that, just as the Muslims had a single holy text, the Koran, all Hindus should have a shared sacred “Bible,” and so he proposed to hold mass recitations of the Gita. Lajpat Rai, a writer, politician, and freedom fighter, wrote, while in prison, an essay on the martial Gita, in which he took the argument that a warrior should “take up arms and risk his life” to defend dharma to mean that Indian youths should risk their lives, if necessary, to oppose British colonial rule. Aurobindo Ghosh (Shri Aurobindo), a nationalist, yogi, poet, and religious leader, also regarded nishkama karma as the means by which India could gain independence, citing Krishna in arguing that violence was an acceptable means.

Bal Gangadhar Tilak, a nationalist, social reformer, and lawyer, acknowledged that action might include violence, provided it was carried out without any desire to reap the fruit of the violent deeds. But since Krishna had validated violence only for the warrior class (of Kshatriyas), this meant that one had to extend the caste-based code of violence of the warrior castes to all the other castes in India. As Davis comments, “In effect, British colonialism turns all Indian citizens into potential Kshatriyas,” i.e., warriors like Arjuna. It also meant that only Hindus could fight for India and could have India after the British left.

There is an irony in this exclusion of Muslims, whose monotheism, later compounded by British monotheism (and British preference for monotheistic Muslims over Hindus), contributed greatly to the Hindus’ desire to elevate the monotheistic Gita (as the counterpart to the Muslims’ Koran) over polytheistic Hinduism.


Mahatma Gandhi acknowledged and struggled with the violence of the Gita, which he first read in 1888 or 1889 in London, not as part of his own living Gujarati tradition but in Edwin Arnold’s popular 1885 poetic rendering, The Song Celestial, together with Arnold’s The Light of Asia (a popular retelling of the life of the Buddha) and the Christian Bible. “My young mind tried to unify the teachings of the Gita, The Light of Asia, and the Sermon on the Mount,” Gandhi later wrote.

Gandhi agreed with other activists in regarding karma yoga and nishkama karma as the teaching of the Gita most relevant to their fight for independence. But his commitment to nonviolence (ahimsa) made him reject absolutely their invocation of the Gita to justify the use of violence in a righteous cause, while his belief in a unified India denied their claim that the Gita was an exclusive “Hindu Bible.” “This is a work which persons belonging to all faiths can read,” Gandhi insisted. “It does not favor any sectarian point of view. It teaches nothing but pure ethics.”

Confronted with Krishna’s exhortation to Arjuna to engage in a violent battle, Gandhi argued that by urging him to “fight,” Krishna meant simply that Arjuna should do his duty. “Fighting” was merely a metaphor for the inner struggle of human beings, and nonviolence was a corollary of nonattachment to the fruits of action; therefore, actions such as murder and lying are forbidden, because they cannot be performed without attachment. On the other hand, the lawyer and Dalit spokesperson Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, contesting Gandhi’s claim to speak for Dalits (the lowest castes, or Harijans, as Gandhi called them, “the people of God,” generally called Untouchables at that time), argued that the Gita was a defense of the caste system and that it supported genocide over nonviolence.

Gandhi ignored the warrior Gita at his peril: the man who killed him was driven by it. On the evening of January 30, 1948, Nathuram Godse, as Davis writes, “interrupted Gandhi at the prayer grounds [at Birla House, Delhi] with two bullets fired at point-blank range.” Two days before his execution, Godse wrote a final letter to his parents in which he argued that “Lord Krishna, in war and otherwise, killed many a self-opinionated and influential persons for the betterment of the world, and even in the Gita He has time and again counseled Arjun to kill his near and dear ones and ultimately persuaded him to do so.” Evidently Godse concluded that Krishna would have wanted him to assassinate the “influential” Gandhi for the betterment of the world. Like the revolutionary Khudiram Bose, Godse carried a copy of the Gita on the morning of his execution.

The Twentieth Century

Readership and citation of the Bhagavad Gita increased phenomenally throughout the twentieth century in India and abroad. In 1923, Jayadayal Goyandka founded the Gita Press, hoping, as he later recalled, to see the Gita “in each and every household of the land, just as the British made tea and tobacco available everywhere throughout the country.” Or, perhaps, as the Gideons made Bibles available in hotel rooms. Indian gurus, increasingly numerous in the West from the 1960s on, used the Gita more than any other ancient Hindu text as the vehicle for their teachings. Nowadays, the Gita is used for prayers in schools, and karma yoga and nishkama karma are being proposed as a new business ethic for Indian corporations.

The Gita also remains the Bible of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the progenitor and still the base of the Bharatiya Janata Party now in power in India. Searching, like the British and the early nationalist freedom fighters, for a single key to Hinduism, now the exponents of Hindutva (a nationalist and fundamentalist branch of Hinduism) enlist the Gita in their promulgation of what they call Sanatana Dharma, the “eternal” and universal dharma. This September, Prime Minister Modi gave a copy of the Gita to the Japanese emperor, remarking, “I don’t think that I have anything more to give and the world also does not have anything more to get than this.”

Davis’s Book

Amartya Sen wrote in The Argumentative Indian (2005):

As a high-school student, when I asked my Sanskrit teacher whether it would be permissible to say that the divine Krishna got away with an incomplete and unconvincing argument, he replied: “Maybe you could say that, but you must say it with adequate respect.”

Richard Davis’s book on the Gita is more than adequately respectful: he leans over backward to avoid offending Hindus who revere the Gita. But leaning backward is not always the best posture in which to do scholarship.

Admirably complete in every other respect, both rock-solid and fascinating (not an easy trick to pull off), Davis’s book is surprisingly silent on the issue of caste. Hindus nowadays who adhere to Sanatana Dharma and/or Hindutva are very sensitive about caste and often deny its existence; they have made serious attempts to remove any mention of caste from textbooks, in India and in the diaspora, and they go to great lengths to interpret the Gita in such a way that it does not support the caste system. And here is where “respect” gets in Davis’s way. Nowhere does he even mention the word “caste”; he speaks only of class, which is a very different matter.

One of the joys of Davis’s book is its rich quotation of the frequently memorable, often hilariously stupid, and more often politically incorrect things that people actually said in discussing the Gita; but when Davis writes about Ambedkar, defender of the Dalit caste, he abandons his usual practice of direct quotation and merely paraphrases him, so that Ambedkar seems to speak not about caste at all but about “the hierarchical class system favored by Brahmins” and “the brahmanic social order.” So, too, Davis’s only reference to the contemporary political use of the Gita is the statement that, in July 2008, Sonia Gandhi, president of the Congress Party, dedicated a statue of Arjuna and Krishna in the chariot (the standard icon of the Gita) in a park at Kurukshetra, which Hindus regard as the site of the great battle.

The great virtue of Davis’s book is that he evokes so vividly the wide diversity of historical responses to the Gita: the flaw is that he does not show how the cumulative and divisive tensions between the responses of two groups of very different sorts of Hindus go a long way toward explaining the role of the Gita in the rise of Hindutva in India today.


War & The ‘Gita’ February 26, 2015