Why ‘Gita’ as Rashtriya Granth is problematic

Sushma Swaraj  

The traditional distinction between ‘Shruti’ (those which are directly revealed to ‘seers’ as embodied in the ‘Vedas’ and the Upanishads) and ‘Smriti’ (texts that are products of human authorship), has been quite problematic in the Indian philosophical systems over centuries. It is not all black and white and there are shades of grey.

Even allowing for these conceptual issues, senior BJP leader Sushma Swaraj’s recent plea to make the “Bhagavad Gita our Rashtriya Granth” — the principal national sacred text as it seems to suggest to any common reading, is even more problematic and very far removed from the diversity of texts that continue to inform and engage Indian traditions.

Stating just two of the many reasons may suffice to drive home this point.

Part of the grand ‘Mahabharata’ Epic as the dialogue between the Pandava Prince Arjuna and Lord Krishna on the Kurukshetra battlefield that simultaneously unfolds lofty metaphysical and ethical principles, which even today answers man’s personal dilemmas in day-to-day life, the ‘Gita’ is already a celebrated text of vision and action globally.

In the late 19th century, Sir Edwin Arnold, translating the ‘Bhagavad Gita’ into English in blank verse from the Sanskrit text as ‘The Song Celestial’ — still one of the works referred to in any East-West engagement — in his introduction speaks of it thus: “So lofty are many of its declarations, so sublime its aspirations, so pure and tender its piety that Schlegel (associated with the first direct translation of its Sanskrit verses into German even earlier), after his study of the poem, breaks forth into this outburst of delight and praise towards the unknown author.”

Translated into virtually every living classical language of the world, including Latin, Greek, Tamil and other Indian classical languages, the ‘Bhagavad Gita’ is already revered as a universal, humanistic hope-reviving text for mankind, going far beyond the trappings of Hinduism. Hence, to now seek to declare it as a “National sacred text” in India would naturally be seen as a self-imposed limitation in one’s hurry to celebrate the past for whatever reasons.

Secondly, as everyone across the spectrum would acknowledge, there have historically been several commentaries on the ‘Bhagavad Gita’, starting from Adi Sankara, believed to be the oldest, to Ramanuja and Madhvacharya in the Vaishnavite tradition, besides Abhinava Gupta in the Shaivite tradition, known for his commentary ‘Githartha Samgraha.’

Closer to our own times, leaders of the Indian National Movement like Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Mahatma Gandhi have penned their respective nuanced interpretations of the teachings of the ‘Gita.’

Even as all these are already in the public domain, to seek to reduce the ‘Bhagavad Gita’ to a seemingly singular text will be grossly missing the trees for the wood and regressive at that.

The richness and the contemporary value of the Gita lie as much in the plurality of its readings through the ages, as in its uniqueness as a cultural gem.

Thus, any attempt to declare it a ‘Rashtriya Granth’ would not only take away the texture of a multiplicity of debates and understanding that the ‘Gita’ is known for, but in a secular polity would also needlessly ruffle the feathers of Hinduism’s closer cousins like Sikhism for which the teachings of its first five Gurus constitute its principal ‘Guru Granth.’

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Printable version | Jun 21, 2021 12:28:03 AM |

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