Nrusingha Charan Panda, Bhagavad Gita: A New Exposition in a Broader Spectrum.
The author offers a stanza-wise commentary of the Bhagavadgita claiming that it has some special characteristics. "The present exposition", he writes, "on the Bhagavadgita is an updated one on the basis of modern thoughts in general and newer scientific discoveries in particular. As the title indicates, interpretation has been done in a newer vision in a broader spectrum". (p.X) Although the modifiers "newer" and "broader" are not defined precisely, it appears that by "broader" he means non-sectarian, i.e., without any ideological--religious, philosophical, social or cultural--bias as several other such commentaries have been--the ones by, for example, all the religious leaders right from Sankara till date, and the social leaders like Gandhi, Tilak, Vinobha, or even the thinkers like Aurobindo who have tried to draw upon this seminal text for underpinning their own ideas they have developed independently or to accommodate the ideas of this text into their own systems of thought. By "newer", he means the scientific ideas in biology, physics, astrophysics and other such natural sciences that have threatened the foundations of the religious traditions represented by the Gita. In other words, he means an objective scientific point of view although, he confesses, there is no view with an absolute objectivity. However, he frequently refers to the principles of natural sciences in explaining the philosophical concepts otherwise considered religious dogmas.
Philosophers of great eminence such as Surendranath Dasgupta have already observed that the Gita was composed by the Vaisnavas of the Ekanti group during the 1st c. B.C., and later on interpolated to the Mahabharata composed during the 2nd c. B.C. The Ekanti Vaishnavas belong to the Bhagavata School otherwise called satvatas who worshipped only Krsna-Vasudeva out of the four heroes of the Vrsni genealogy such as Sankarsana, Pradyumna and Aniruddha. For worshipping only one (eka) as the ultimate end (anta) of the Reality as a whole these Vaishnavas are called Ekantins. The present reviewer has studied this phenomenon in detail in his 2010 publication on the leading advocate of the Bhagavata cult--Sridhara Svami. The author of the book under review, however, does not accept this dating of the Gita which, he believes, was written as a portion of the original Mahabharata composed during the pre-Buddhist era, i.e., prior to the 6th c. B.C. because of the fact that neither the epic, nor this portion of this text, refer in anyway to the events of the Buddhist culture as a whole. Nor does he offer any specific account of the divine character of the singer/ speaker of the text Krsna-Vasudeva--whether a mythical or a historical character. Unlike Aurobindo who believes in his historicity, Panda would prefer to call him pre-historic and his song, the Gita is mostly of a symbolic order that transgresses the limitations of time and space of any culture, past and present. The prescriptions and proscriptions of the Indian sages were based on "Vedic and Vedantic ethics, humanitarianism, altruism and centred around a metaphysics of one formless, all-pervasive God without the dichotomy of subject and object." (p.15) In the author's view, Arjuna's state of dejection is only natural to all men irrespective of differences in language and religion, or, for that matter, differences in any cultural criteria. This view is of course not a new one, as several thinkers have already considered the message of the text universal in appeal.
One of the new interpretations may be considered. In IV. 13 Krsna as the Almighty claims to be the creator of the four castes according to the inborn qualities and division of labour (karma vibhaga). But the author reads vibhaga not as "division". He translates the stanza: "Types of persons in conformity with their Innate Nature Resulting from their works done in their past lives." Translation of guna as innate nature may be appropriate, but translation of karma vibhaga as the works done in the past lives seems to be a self-imposition because there is no reference to the past lives. The author is free to interpret castes as "types" rejecting the Brahmanic caste division into four categories Brahmana (priestly class), Ksatriya (warrior class), Vaisya (business and cultivators' community) and Sudra (community of servants in general). He observes that "The Sanskrit word for "caste" is jati, and for colour is varna. Each one of the four castes of the Hindus has not a specific colour. Moreover, God, one and only one for the whole universe, has not created all the religions of the world. Caste-system among the Hindus was a social evolution in the prevailing circumstances of the ancient age. In the present social context it has become obsolete though still extant, being propped by political interest and group interest. The word varna literally means "shades of colour" and contextually means "types" (p.134). Thus the author interprets, the caste system basically refers to the categories due to the psycho-biological innate nature of beings in the world--not only human beings, even all kinds of creatures such as gods, demons, animals, birds, trees and creepers. The Brhadaranyaka (I.4.II) is an authority in this regard following which there is another Sanskrit stanza quoted by Jagadishwarananda in his edition of the Sridhara commentary on the Gita. The author restricts the meaning of varna to shed of colours. But Amara Simha (2.7.1) refers to several senses "progeny" being the major referent and "caturvarnya" referring to the four castes by birth. Again, the author warns that this stanza should not be correlated with the "Purusasukta" (Rg Veda 8.10.90) which all the orthodox commentators on the Gita-from Sankara to Madhusudana through Sridhara have done. Admitting that varna means psycho-biological "types" the question of taxonomical method remains problematic, i.e., whether founded on action or on birth. Even if following the author one agrees that karmavibhaga is due to the actions of the past lives, the question of samskara, then the continuity of the caste remains birth-bound from time immemorial, say, following the author, pre-historical as is the appearance of Krsna and existence of the divinity. Therefore the Vedic religion, founded on two pillars-sacrificial rituals and castism, i.e., varna by birth cannot support any self-contradiction that the author commits by saying that the Vedic caste division is obsolete although still extant. How can a system be both obsolete and still extant? One is free to consider caste system sociologically with a historical foundation. But a kind of system the pre-historical divinity speaks of must be correlated with the Krsna's version, must be correlated with the Vedic statement that supports the caste system by birth. Guna means the qualities expressed in action as ordained by the three strands of phenomenal reality -sattva, rajas and tamas-that are beginningless and endless. In the Vedic rituals priests were not chosen from people at random but by the mark of their generation, i.e., from people whose forefathers were also performing these rituals. Thus, according to the Vedas as well as the Gita which is also pro-Vedic, an Upanisad sung by Krsna, the divinity (not by rsis), human taxonomy, i.e., categorization into types is based on action determined by the permutation and combination of the constituents (guna) or strands of Prakriti. Thus guna and karma are necessarily correlated in determining simultaneously the relation as a whole and its individual types in particular. The other name of this creation is jati meaning both birth and type. The psycho-biological birth is itself a type. It depends upon the thinker how could he extend and interpret this system without violating the basic principles guiding them. This Vedic system of religion and its corollary philosophy has been degenerating long since the fall of classical age in the 10th century, since the advent of Islam reaching its climax currently due to the globalizing economy and its corollary materialist model of human life, and therefore, it is extremely risky to accommodate the message of the Gita in an age that interprets liberation strictly in terms of material prosperity.
The author repeatedly tries to extend the issue of castism as a human category according to the modes of combination of the three constituents (guna) of nature that determine the human nature as an inborn character (svabhava). Not only in the context of the Vedic religion also this type of castism is traced in all other religions. He therefore comments (p.396): "It may be mentioned here that brahmanas exist in all religions, societies, geographical locations and ages. They will continue to exist so long as the human species is not extinct. But the present caste system in Hindu society based on one's birth in a certain family, shall and should dwindle away." If it is simply a natural phenomenon, then why should the author use the imperative modal "should"? Imposition of any personal impression or wish damages the judgment founded, as the author proposes, purely on psycho-biological factors. Of course he successfully manages to interpret the stanzas 41-44 of the Chapter 18, but strangely avoids the issue as dealt with in the stanzas 32-33 of the Chapter 9 where Krsna arguably refers to the inferiority of women, vaisyas and sudras debarred from performances of the Vedic sacrificial rituals--signified by the conditionals kim punah. Krsna, the representative deity of Bhagavata cult, is nonetheless a patron of the Vedic religion. His song is meaningful precisely in the context of the two religions and societies. Contextuality of a discourse is rejected only at the cost of damaging it severely. One must remember that Krsna sings the sermon of bhakti primarily in the context of the Vedic religion that he patronizes. The author mistranslates these two stanzas--maybe intentionally omitting altogether the mention of women, etc. What Krsna advocates committedly is not any complexion-based racism or gender complex, but maintenance of psycho-biological purity necessary for the continuity of the Indian culture founded on the Vedic religion. As a recent scholar Ali Rattansi (Racism, Oxford University Press, 2007, p.19) wisely observes, with a reference to the contemporary serious historians, complexion-based racism "often attributed to early India has little foundation in historical reality" for the obvious reasons that the key figures of the Mahabharata (including the Gita) such as the author Vyasa and the leading character of the epic Krsna, both are of dark complexion.
The author's probing insight and courageous grip of the intricate issues, irrespective of the controversial challenge, are of great admiration as they deserve our serious attention for diving deep into the subject concerned.
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|Publication:||Journal of Comparative Literature and Aesthetics|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2010|
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