* Reading the Gita as an ‘earthly’ text, the Ambedkar way

The Bhagavad Gita is perhaps the most revered and quoted text among the works of ancient Hindu literature, which makes any challenge thrown at it extremely important and interesting. It has also remained the cornerstone of all justifications offered in favour of the institution of chaturvarnya, which later degenerated into the caste system of which the dalits were the greatest victims. Hence, it happens to be the text to confront for anyone writing on the religious and socio political evolution of the Hindus as a society with a Dalit perspective. Thus, it could be seen that the essay in question, ‘Krishna and his Gita’, was a natural and logical outcome of the herculean intellectual project that Dr. B.R.Ambedkar   undertook as his life’s work. Ambedkar couldn’t have but faced this ancient but frequently invoked text of Hinduism in his pursuit of an alternate and touchable history.

In his thoroughly detailed analysis of the Gita, Ambedkar argues that it is posterior in time to both Jaimini’s ‘Purva Mimansa’and  Budhist philosophy. He quotes versus from the text discussing the doctrines of ‘Purva Mimansa’ (chapter 3, verses 9-18) to prove this. By preaching concepts such as the Anasakthi karma, a fundamentally modified concept, the Gita reveals itself as a text posterior to ‘Poorva Mimansa’.  Also, the reference to ‘brahma sutras’, according to Ambedkar, furnishes direct evidence for the conclusion that the Gita is later than the Brahma Sutras of Badrayana. Similarly, concepts such as the Brahma nirvana and ‘the character of a true devotee’ in Gita prove that there were serious attempts to co-opt Budhist principles into the fold of Hinduism. The dialogic structure of Gita and Krishna’s offering of salvation to even women and Shudras are other instances of the Gita  being deliberately modelled on Budhism , as identified by Ambedkar. The permeation of Budhist ideology and attempts to perfect the doctrines of ‘Purva Mimansa’ in the Gita are the main evidences offered by the author in his bid to challenge the antiquity of the text.

Ambedkar’s challenge of Gita’s universality is subtler. To make sense of this, one will have to see his depiction of ‘revolution and counter revolution’ in ancient india.  The emergence of Budhism as a religious and socio political movement is regarded by Ambedkar as a revolution which came into full bloom under the patronage of the emperor Ashoka. The Brahmins who had lost their position of privilege as a result of this heralded a counter revolution after the the Maurya empire declined.   [i Pushyamitra Sung, who was from a brahmin dynasty lend the necessary political support for this process. Other texts enforcing counter revolution like the ‘Purva Mimansa’ were tottering under the attack of Budhism as they only had the authority of Vedas to fall back on, which was obviously inadequate. This is where Gita comes in, armed with its apparently tenable and stable defences of concepts such as Chaturvarnya and rationalisation of violence. Thus, Ambedkar shows the Gita to be a text written predominantly for aiding in the process of the counter revolution which sought to ultimately restore bahminical authority in the Hindu society. This effectively shatters all claims of universality.

Adding depth to the political implications is, I think, yet another facet of Ambedkar’s challenge as delineated in ‘Krishna and his Gita’. Apart from his attacks on the antiquity and universality of the text, there’s also an attempt to de-philosophize the Gita  (and thus make it more touchable?) by the author. This he does by objecting to the common translations of karma yoga and jnana yoga, two concepts of vital importance in the text, as ‘action’ and ‘knowledge’ respectively. He rejects the proposition that the Gita is concerned with any general, philosophical discussion of action versus knowledge. He says, “By karma yoga or action, the Gita means the dogmas contained in jaimini’s karma kanda and by jnana yoga or knowledge it means the dogmas contained in Badarayana’s brahma sutras”. The attribution of debates about activity or inactivity and quieticism or energism  to the Gita  is wrong since the references originally  are to religious acts and observances . Ambedkar ruthlessly tears the facade of high philosophy away from the Gita for which he holds “patriotic Indians” like Tilak as the culprits. This also counters the perception of the Gita as a self-contained text devoid of literary predecessors.

But, the question still remains as to what exactly happens when the antiquity of a text, or a tradition for that matter, is questioned. Human beings have a palpable sense of veneration for things ancient, more visible in traditional and [ii]prismatic societies. Many a times, it is also accompanied by an automatic attribution of authority to such traditions or texts. The Indian society, being largely untouched by the transformational effects of modernity, is certainly susceptible to this irrational awe and veneration of the ‘distant past’.  Hence by questioning the antiquity of the gita as a text, Ambedkar seems to have effectively countered its claims of authenticity stemming from its origins in the ‘the distant past’.  This is more striking when one comes to think of the innumerable traditions and practices in India that has managed to avoid scrutiny of any kind by seeking refuge in the imprints of the past that they claim to have upon them.

The political implications of showing the Gita as not so universal are much more evident. As a text that is constantly invoked to deal with the moral and ethical dimensions of public life, the Gita has played an unprecedented role in Indian history, especially during the freedom struggle. Gandhi, undoubtedly the greatest practitioner of the logic of Gita, frequently referred to it as a source of guidance and inspiration.  It was important for Ambedkar to break free of this strangle hold of organic unity of the imagined hindu community as envisaged by leaders including Gandhi. This is what he sought to achieve by establishing Gita to be an exclusively brahminical text and propaganda literature of counter revolution.  This added to the radical edge of the socio political movements that he led in a substantial way. Ambedkar’s general contempt for the hindu scriptures and his plea for a universally accepted sacred text for the hindus should be read along with this.

If the aim of writing the essay was to logically undermine the moral and scriptural authority of the Gita as a text, Ambedkar has remarkably succeeded in his endeavour. But there are other tasks that the essay carries out, wittingly or unwittingly. It drags down the Gita from the high echelons of moral and philosophical positions to more reachable and [iii]touchable grounds. It also makes it acknowledge the ‘uncomfortable neighbourhoods’ of texts and thoughts. In other words, Ambedkar seems to have made the Gita lose its aura of divinity and purity, bestowing upon it the more earthly colours of reality. The latter effects, somehow, seems more interesting.

*This is something I wrote as part of my course, thought it is general enough to be posted here.

[i]  Nalini Pandit, ‘Ambedkar and the Bhagavad Gita’, EPW vol.27, May 1992

[ii] Fred W. Riggs’s theory of Prismatic Societies.

[iii] Aishwary Kumar, Ambedkar’s Inheritances.


4 thoughts on “

  1. Well appreciation of a real rebel. But as a main practical solution to “annihilate” caste what Ambedkar suggests is inter-caste marriage, which again is not so capable to bring enduring changes. And our Dalit politics is gathering great momentum so that it ultimately maintain castes in India besides the fact that it is supposed to gain Dalits a sense of self-respect you talked about. But even then “Annihilation of caste” is not really the central issue of our Dalit movements, Is it?

    • arun,
      thanks for the comment.
      no, ‘annihilatin of caste’ is not the central aim of the current Dalit movement, in fact i don’t see it in their agenda at all. this is another instance of the irony iwhich stalks indian poitics. those who celebrate Ambedkar as ther icon seems to be blissfully unmindful of the anti caste stance of this great visionary. the question of ‘historical memory’ is largely unaddressed…’how much to remember ‘ is a crucial question that every society needs to confront to be at ease with itself at some point of time.sadly, it’s not happening n india.

  2. demystifications are necessary notwithstanding the popular intolerance towards them. But, is citing Buddhist elements in Gita scientific a method to bring its antiquity to question? Hinduism has liberal/ secular ideas which often get either conveniently forgotten or distorted.
    n, taking up the discussion on historical memory in ‘comments’, aren’t collective memory and selective amnesia antithetical to creation of a ‘touchable history?’

    • In writing ‘Krishna and his Gita’, scientificity (historical, textual) was never a big concern for Ambedkar, as i understand the essay. His was primarily a political project. But having said that, i think citing budhist elements is definitley one way of asking questions about the antiquity of the Gita.

      regarding ur second point,could u elaborate it a little more?


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