Sunday, July 12, 2015

Thoughts, Philosophy, Action!

There are compelling reasons for the enduring value of the BhagavadGita as a spiritual and as a philosophical text, for addressing ethical, moral, theological and metaphysical issues at any time

Ever since Charles Wilkins, under instructions from Bengal’s Governor General Warren Hastings, rendered it into English in 1765, as many as 1,891 translations of the BhagavadGita in 75 languages are currently available across the world. While its enduring value for addressing contemporary ethical, moral, theological and metaphysical issues needs no additional validation, the question that warrants critical attention is how relevant the teachings of this timeless classic is for the present generation.

The Bhagavad Gita: A Biography
Richard H. Davies
Princeton University Press, UK
Extent: 143 pages. Price: $ 24.95
This question has been best addressed by Pandurang Shastri Athavale. In 1954, at the Second World Philosophers’ Conference, held in Japan, Athavale had impressed the audience with his rendering of the teachings of the Gita, but many had wanted evidence of such ideals being put into practice in India. Refusing a lucrative offer from Nobel Laureate physicist Arthur Holly Compton to spread his ideas in the United States, Athavale returned home to create a community peacefully practising and spreading thoughts and the message of the Gita.

Thus was born the Swadhaya Movement, which aimed at developing ‘universal brotherhood under divine fatherhood’ among its followers. An estimated five million followers practised spiritual devotion with selfless karma, through a series of simple but workable social experiments. For linking philosophy with progress, Athavale was bestowed with the Templeton Prize, and for steering a social movement in the process, he received the Magasaysay Prize.  

As a one-of-its-kind post-Independence initiative, Swadhaya refined daily practices of millions by connecting them with the ideals of vedic philosophy. Athavale had picked up from where M K Gandhi had left off. While Gandhi’s nonviolent reading of the Gita contributed significantly to achieving a moral high ground against the British, Athavale’s reading of the principle of non-attachment from the text empowered his followers to engage in constructive work. Till his death in 2003, Swadhaya had flourished for half a century. 

In its biographical journey, the Gita has gone through multiple interpretations and Swadhaya has been one innovative social experiment that went beyond the convention of oral explications and musical adaptations.

In his recently published A Biography of the BhagavadGita, Richard H Davis, who teaches religion at Bard College in the US, provides a comprehensive, detailed and lucid account of the ways that the Gita has lived over the centuries. In recent times, however, the breadth and variety of Gita performances range from private readings and neighborhood recitations to dance performances and public discourses. Traversing its multiple interpretations, Davies concludes that this classical text will continue to reincarnate itself in many ways.

Who Wrote the Bhagavad Gita
by Meghnad Desai
HarperCollins, New Delhi
Extent: 192 pages. Price: Rs 299
Taking on the issue of the authorship of the Gita, noted economist Meghnad Desai offers a humanistic critique on the classical text in his book, Who Wrote The Bhagavadgita. Desai’s central argument rests on the fact that read in the present context, simple truths of previous eras can be seen to be flawed. Despite holding some of the messages of the Gita (like its casteist and misogynist connotation) against the spirit of the present times, Desai considers the Gita as a divine text that is beyond any reproach. The trouble, however, is that like other religious texts, it can be interpreted in different ways to justify diverse actions.

Counting social inequality and rampant corruption as the two major ills affecting society, no less than a cultural revolution is needed to alter the entrenched notions of indifference and opportunism. Could the Bhagwad Gita be the driving force to lift masses from their moral and social abyss? One wonders why indeed it cannot be, given that the Gita was invoked to free the nation from colonial rule, as also the path to self-purification through nonviolence. Drawing inspirations from the Gita might vary; the core message delivered by past masters like Vivekananda, Aurobindo, Tilak, Hedgewar and Gandhi has been that the Gita embodies in itself ‘a philosophy of action’.

The ‘action’ will undoubtedly be determined by the actor, in his understanding and interpretation of the classic text. Since the text was written by more than one author and was addressed to different audiences, argues Desai, the nature of the composition is highly intellectual. Liberty of interpretation is an unwritten aspect of the Gita, which gives the reader freedom from entrenched beliefs in search of eternal truth. It does so without underlying the necessity of intolerant exclusion of the truth underlying in other philosophical systems. That is the enduring value of the BhagavadGita.

This commentary was first published in Speaking Tree (The Times of India) on July 12, 2015. 

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