War and Peace in the Bhagavad Gita

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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,…


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