January 30 reminds us of the fact that even the holiest of texts can have subjective and differential meanings.
The sacred Indian verses of Shrimad Bhagavad Gita has been in the news for various reasons in recent months. Prime Minister Narendra Modi presented a copy of the Bhagavad Gita to United States President Barack Obama when he visited the White House last year and one to Emperor Akihito of Japan. He has declared that the Gita would be the gift that he would carry for all world leaders. More controversially, Union Minister Sushma Swaraj advocated that the Gita may be declared the national book of India. Most recently, the BJP government in Haryana declared its intention to teach the Gita as part of the school curriculum.
To say that religion and politics should not be mixed has not only become a cliché, but may be missing the point altogether. Many tall leaders found the reason for their political action in their religious faith. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr are examples. President Obama mentioned in his town hall speech in Delhi last week that his faith strengthened him in his life. It is also true that many kings and emperors of the past used religious faith to justify killings and destruction.
Martyr and murderer
Many individuals and organisations advocate and indulge in violence today, and justify it on the basis of religious texts. January 30, the day Nathuram Godse killed Mahatma Gandhi, is the starkest reminder in the history of humankind of how the same text can be read differently. Both read the Bhagavad Gita. One became Gandhi. The other became Godse. One became a martyr. The other became a murderer. Jawaharlal Nehru, for whom the Gita was “a poem of crisis, of political and social crisis and, even more so, of crisis in the spirit of man,” wrote in the Discovery of India: “... the leaders of thought and action of the present day — Tilak, Aurobindo Ghose, Gandhi — have written on it, each giving his own interpretation. Gandhiji bases his firm belief in non-violence on it; others justify violence and warfare for a righteous cause ...”
What is curious is the fact that the two opposite interpretations of the Gita that Nehru refers to were responses to the same shared reality that their respective proponents encountered — colonialism and Christianity. Two strikingly different responses emerge to the same situation. The divergence is evident from the debate between Gandhi and Bal Gangadhar Tilak. In 1920, Tilak wrote to Gandhi: “Politics is the game of worldly people and not of Sadhus, and instead of the maxim, ‘overcome anger by loving kindness, evil by good,’ as preached by Buddha, I prefer to rely on the maxim of Shri Krishna, ‘In whatsoever way any come to me, in that same way I grant them favour.’ That explains the whole difference.” Gandhi replied: “For me there is no conflict between the two texts quoted by the Lokamanya. The Buddhist text lays down an eternal principle. The text from the Bhagavad Gita shows to me how the eternal principle of conquering hate by love, untruth by truth can and must be applied.”
For Tilak, the Gita was a call for action, political and religious. He declared that the Gita sanctioned violence for unselfish and benevolent reasons. While Tilak’s interpretation of the Gita that he wrote while in prison inspired a generation of warriors against British colonialism, it also informed Hindutva politics. Godse used similar arguments to justify the killing of the Mahatma, and quoted from the book during his trial. For Gandhi, the Gita and all religious texts were not excuses for exclusion and bigotry, but inspiration for compassion and confluence. In The Bhagavad Gita According to Gandhi — incidentally, the book that Mr. Modi gifted Mr. Obama — the Father of the Nation wrote: “But there is nothing exclusive about the Gita which should make it a gospel only for the Brahmana or the Hindu. Having all the light and colour of the Indian atmosphere, it naturally must have the greatest fascination for the Hindu, but the central teaching should not have any the less appeal for a non-Hindu as the central teaching of the Bible or the Koran should not have any less appeal for a non-Christian or a non-Muslim.”
Challenged by Christian missionaries, Gandhi learned more about his own religion, but more importantly, he imbibed Christian values rather than rejecting them. “Gandhi integrated several aspects of Christianity in this brand of increasingly redefined Hinduism, particularly the idea of suffering love as exemplified in the image of crucifixion. The image haunted him all his life and became the source of some of his deepest passions. He wept before it when he visited Vatican in Rome in 1931; the bare walls of his Sevagram ashram made an exception in favour of it; Isaac Watts’s ‘When I behold the wondrous Cross,’ which offers a moving portrayal of Christ’s sorrow and sacrifice and ends with ‘love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all,’ was one of his favourite hymns...” Bhikhu Parekh writes. Gandhi was accused of being a ‘closet Christian’ and ridiculed as ‘Mohammad Gandhi’ by Hindu radicals.
Support for Godse’s reading
Godse’s reading of the Gita appears to gather more supporters in contemporary India. BJP MP Sakshi Maharaj knew what he was talking about when he praised Godse. Several individuals and organisations have become active in propagating the ideas of Godse. There is also a move to build a temple for him.
After gifting the Gita to the Japanese emperor, Mr. Modi wondered whether his act would irk secularists. The greatest of Indian secularists, Nehru, had this to say: “During the 2,500 years since it was written, Indian humanity has gone repeatedly through the processes of change and development and decay; but it has always found something living in the Gita...The message of the Gita is not sectarian or addressed to any particular school of thought. It is universal in its approach for everyone… ‘All paths lead to Me,’ it says.”
But then, it is all about reading it like Gandhi.