The Gita for a Global World: Ethical Action in an Age of Flux
Reading the Gita in a Global World
An Introduction by Rohit Chopra
It is a sign of the universal relevance and enduringly enigmatic character of a book when it speaks compellingly to opposing concerns, when it is invoked in the defense of radically varied principles, and when it means vastly different things to different people. So it is with the Bhagavad Gita.
For Mahatma Gandhi, the force behind the greatest non-violent political movement of the twentieth century — the Indian anti-colonial revolution against British imperial rule in the subcontinent — the Gita was a source of spiritual plenitude, an anchor in which to ground his philosophical approach to political action and the basis for his understanding of human existence itself. Introduced to the text by theosophist friends in London while a student of law, no book, arguably, influenced Gandhi as much as the Gita. In Gandhi’s reading, “the battlefield of Kurukshetra [was] located in every human soul, where the perennial conflict between good and evil occurs without end.” Gandhi’s interpretation of the Gita is pessimistic in its tragic vision of life as endless agon or struggle, but it is also hopeful in offering itself as a spiritual guide to wage that battle. While Gandhi knew the entire text of the Gita intimately, two ideas from the book shaped his politics and personality in especially powerful ways: the concept of nishkama karma, or action without desire for reward, and the notion of struggle, internal and external, as a fundamental principle of existence that the ethical self was obligated to constantly navigate. His repeated insistence that the means of anti-colonial resistance mattered as much as the ends and his lack of hesitation in pointing out the ethical failures of his countrymen as willingly as he identified the evils of British colonialism were consistent with these principles. Gandhi’s decision to halt the non-cooperation movement shortly after the Chauri Chaura incident on 4 February 1922 stands out as a particularly significant example of how these two ideas from the Gita shaped his thought and practice. At Chauri Chaura, following conflict with the police, a group of political activists set fire to the local police station, killing the twenty-three policemen inside. Dismayed by the violence, Gandhi called off the civil disobedience movement on 12 February 1922.
In another invocation of the Gita, Robert Oppenheimer, the mind behind the American atomic bomb programme, quoted the words, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds” from the text, on witnessing the first test of a nuclear weapon in 1945. The phrase ominously foretold the cataclysmic devastation that the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki would cause barely weeks later, when the United States would attack Japan in retaliation for the bombing of Pearl Harbour.
Oppenheimer’s words were apposite; humanity had not witnessed anything in scale and scope like the annihilation caused by the nuclear explosions.
A report on Tokyo Radio described the uniformly unimaginable character of the destruction, which went well beyond the conventions of warfare, killing civilians, flattening the cities and sowing the seeds for decades of suffering among the surviving residents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: “The impact of the bomb was so terrific that practically all living things — human and animal — were literally seared to death by the tremendous heat and pressure set up by the blast … All the dead and injured were burned beyond recognition. Those outdoors were burned to death, while those indoors were killed by the indescribable pressure and heat.” The death toll, including both immediate deaths and those who died later from the horrific effects of the radiation, is estimated to be around 200,000 people. Oppenheimer’s choice of words from the Gita anticipated the total obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, of humans and animals, living beings and inanimate objects alike. They speak to the capacity of violence to reshape the world, evoking the fearsome, godlike omnipotence of those who can unleash such force. The words serve as a reminder that the Gita, among its many interpretations, has also been used to justify violence in the service of a cause, a reading that is the very antithesis of how Gandhi viewed the book.
For those who may not be familiar with it, the Bhagavad Gita is a 700-verse text from the great Hindu epic, the Mahabharata. In his sparkling and condensed prose rendition of the epic, the illustrious Indian writer R.K. Narayan notes that the story of the Mahabharata would have been familiar to audiences in 1500 BC (xiii). Running 100,000 stanzas in length, the story of the Mahabharata centres on a familiar and familial theme: the conflict between two branches of a warrior clan — the Pandavas and their kinsmen, the Kauravas — which inevitably leads to a battle for dynastic control between the two sides.
The setting of the Gita is the imminent theatre of the battle of Kurukshetra, where the Pandava and Kaurava armies are set to clash. Arjuna, the Pandava prince, and a renowned warrior, is immobilised by doubt and stricken by anguish at the prospect of having to fight his kinsmen. Dejected, he lays down his bow, announcing his decision not to do battle. It falls on Krishna, his charioteer — who will eventually be revealed as an embodiment of divinity — to convince Arjuna of the need to fight. The Bhagavad Gita is an account of the discussion that ensues between the two about the necessity of waging war. It is simultaneously a treatise on action, morality, duty and kinship.
Beyond its relationship to historic figures like Gandhi and Oppenheimer, both of whose actions changed the course of world history, the Gita has been, and continues to be, encountered by countless people the world over in myriad ways. The Gita is ubiquitous in Indian social life, its insights woven into daily routines, its quotes inscribed on the flapping plastic curtains of autorickshaws, proclaimed on posters everywhere and emblazoned in the lobbies of corporate houses. In a characteristically incisive observation, the scholar and poet A.K. Ramanujan notes that no Hindu ever reads the Mahabharata for the first time. Indeed, I cannot recall a time when I have not known of the Gita or of the characters of Arjuna and Krishna, just as I cannot tell when exactly sayings from the Gita first entered my consciousness. I remember my father quoting the dictum most closely identified with the book, of the virtue of effort without seeking reward, a sentiment that seemed directly at odds with practically everything that the culture of middle-class India of the 1980s stood for, given its soul-crushing, unhealthy competitiveness. “Whatever has happened is for the good, whatever is happening is for the good, whatever will happen will also be for the good”: I have a memory of seeing this sentiment from the Gita, in roughly similar phrasing, etched in a wooden plaque above a photocopier at a stationery shop in my neighbourhood in Bombay, words that struck me as simultaneously optimistic and fatalistic, a stubborn contradictoriness that I would later find in other arguments in the book too.
An essential part of Indian identity, of Indian popular culture and of India’s image of itself, the Gita manifests itself in many forms across various media. It showed up at my home in several editions: a Hindi translation published by a local North Delhi press that my grandparents brought with them when they visited us in the different cities in which we lived across India; in a children’s book in English on Indian religious deities; as a volume of Amar Chitra Katha, the comic book series that was my unofficial introduction to so much about Indian history, religion, culture and mythology. Inexpensive audio tapes of recitations from the Gita, along with other devotional offerings, could be found at any music store or stall on the sidewalk in markets in Delhi, Calcutta and Bombay, mingling with offerings from popular Western artistes and songs from Hindi cinema. At handicraft stores, brass renderings of the most famous tableau from the Gita, depicting Krishna and Arjuna seated in a horse-drawn chariot or rath, were as ubiquitous as models of the Taj Mahal or statues of the Gautama Buddha. I remember the reference to the Gita in a song from the film Yudh endlessly playing on tape recorders and radios in public spaces in the mid-1980s, a time when listening to the songs of Hindi cinema was one of the few modes of entertainment commonly enjoyed by most Indian social classes. The song, Yudh Kar, literally “Do Battle” or more loosely “Go Fight!”, includes the lines, “Krishan ne kaha Arjun se / Na pyaar jataa dushman se / Yudh kar”. Translating to “Krishna said to Arjuna / Don’t express love for your enemy / Go battle”, the lines reduce and misrepresent — in classic Bollywood style — the complexity of Arjuna’s anguish and torment at the prospect of having to fight his kinsmen to an unseemly fondness for the enemy.
The Gita travelled across private and public thresholds, inhabiting spaces of work and leisure. Outside my school in Calcutta in the 1980s, a host of itinerant vendors would set up shop each day around the time the school day got done. Along with the fruit seller, the jhal-muri wala and the ice-candy man, an enterprising mobile salesman would set up a display of posters. While waiting for my school bus, I would marvel at the dazzling arrangement of popular visual art spread out like a feast for the eyes. There, rubbing shoulders with scenes of the Alps, images of Wham, Madonna and Michael Jackson, red Ferraris and yellow Lamborghinis, cricketers and Bollywood actors, were posters with renditions of several scenes from the Gita: Krishna with the sudarshan chakra, Krishna and Arjuna in his chariot, Krishna bathed in divine light, his face radiating serenity, while a kneeling Arjuna gazed up awestruck at him. The bright colours of the posters, with their impossibly blue skies, radiant golds and reds, and bold, ornate text, were captivating, drawing on lineages of Indian sacred art but reflecting popular Indian aesthetic idioms as well. Other gods and goddesses, Kali and Durga, Rama and Vishnu, housed in their own posters, kept Arjuna and Krishna company as did mortals like the cricketer Kapil Dev, who was worshipped by some 750 million Indians for captaining India to an improbable victory in the 1983 one-day cricket world championship. ♦
1. The Gita for a Global World: Book Discussion
Rohit Chopra in conversation with Ananya Vajpeyi and Devasia Antony, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi, August 5, 2021
2. Rohit Chopra in conversation with Audrey Truschke on The Gita for a Global World, for Scroll Global, August 19, 2021
3 Reclaiming the Gita: An Investigation of the Epic in the Modern World
Rohit Chopra in conversation with Salil Tripathi, Bangalore International Center, October 1, 2021
Rohit Chopra is Associate Professor of Communication at Santa Clara University. His research centers on global media, culture, and identity. Rohit can be found at rohitchopra.info.
Chopra, Rohit. “Reading the Gita in a Global World.” Canopy Forum, October 26, 2021. https://canopyforum.org/2021/10/26/reading-the-gita-in-a-global-age/