War & The ‘Gita’

In response to:

War and Peace in the Bhagavad Gita from the December 4, 2014 issue

To the Editors:

In “War and Peace in the Bhagavad Gita” [NYR, December 4, 2014], Wendy Doniger characterizes what she calls “the warrior’s Gita” as an incitement to war, without mentioning that Krishna does not justify all war, any war, but a specific war against oppressive tyrants who have made repeated attempts to murder Arjuna and his family after robbing their kingdom, have tried to strip his wife in public, and have rejected all negotiations, including Krishna’s visit to them as an ambassador of peace.

Nor is Arjuna objecting to war itself. He has fought many wars before this one, without a qualm. He objects to this war only because it will require him to fight family members. He argues that if all the men die, the women will have to marry men of other castes, thus destroying what he considers primary dharma. Krishna combats this conventional view of dharma as duty to family, and demonstrates that the ultimate dharma is doing the right thing, even if this involves hurting wrongdoers in the family.

Like any great literary work, the Gita is open to interpretation. Doniger claims that bhakti in the Gita “lacks the passion” that it developed later. Many scholars, including myself, read the Gita as the urtext of passionate devotion, encapsulated in Krishna’s statement that anyone, including a woman or a person of any caste, can achieve liberation just by offering a flower, a fruit, or water to his or her chosen God. At one stroke, the text does away with the need for expensive Vedic sacrifices, knowledge, or even literacy, instituting instead the simple, home-based or nature-based puja (worship) that most Hindus still perform. In passages of great lyrical beauty, Arjuna expresses wonder at the omnipresence of God in everyone and everything.

Finally, on the question of caste. Doniger omits to mention the famous passages where Krishna states that truly wise people see a cow, an elephant, a dog, and a dog-eater (the last is a reference to those of so-called untouchable castes) as the same, that is, as manifestations of the Universal divine Spirit/Self (Brahman/Atman). Nationalists like Gandhi and Rajagopalachari read this as an anticaste statement. Krishna’s injunction to follow swadharma (one’s own dharma) can be read as endorsing caste duties, but it can equally be read (and has been widely read) as endorsing one’s own individual dharma (the law of one’s own being), which is an accumulation of all one’s past actions in this and in past lives.

This would explain how Krishna, a member of the cowherd caste, serves as Arjuna’s charioteer in the battle (a job that would normally be performed by one of the charioteer caste). Everything in Arjuna’s life has brought him to this moment. His dilemma is very much like that of Prince Hamlet, although he resolves it differently.

R. Vanita
Professor of Liberal Studies
University of Montana
Missoula, Montana

Wendy Doniger replies:

The Gita does indeed say all that Ruth Vanita says it says, and more. Like other great religious texts (including the Bible), the Gita expresses a number of different opinions on many subjects, opinions that various people have cited to argue for various purposes, picking out the Gita verses that support their agendas and ignoring verses that express conflicting views. And this complex reception history, rather than the content of the Gita, is the focus of Richard Davis’s book and my review.

Professor Vanita rightly cites Gita verses challenging caste, while I cited verses that many people have used to justify caste. (Indeed, as she herself points out, one of Arjuna’s objections to the war is that it might result in intercaste marriage, which he regards as a horrifying possibility.) And granted that the war that prompts the Gita conversation is a particular sort of war, internecine and lawless (as I too noted), a war against brutal and dishonest tyrants, many people have used the Gita to justify any war (in particular, war against the British). As for my own emphasis, I selected, in my short review, verses that provide a historical context for the political manipulation of religion in India today. (In September, India’s newly elected prime minister, Narendra Modi, gave President Obama a special edition of the book entitled The Bhagavad Gita According to Gandhi at a White House dinner.)

The protean flexibility of the text is one of the many reasons why it has been so popular. But not everything in Hinduism is in the Gita. I agree with Professor Vanita (and said in my review) that the Gita is in many ways the urtext for bhakti—the path of devotion to the Gita—but bhakti in the Gita does not yet reach the heights of passion achieved by the later Bengali songs to Krishna and Radha, or the devotion to Shiva that inspired Tamil and Kannada tales of violent self-sacrifice. These and many other forms of Hinduism call upon texts other than the Gita to express their religious sentiments.