The Gita According to Gandhi 1

3

October 28, 2014 by NS

I promised Parfit and Whitehead and Rawls, but instead I bring you Ved Vyasa and Gandhi. (For those of you who are actually just interested in cooking, I added a photo to my previous post about Gateau Basque.)

I found a PDF version of The Gita According to Gandhi online on Om Jai and decided to read it. The Bhagavad Gita was one of Gandhi’s main early influences, and to him the most important scripture for his principle of selfless action. He wrote a translation of the Gita with commentary in Gujarati, aimed at regular uneducated people, in order to make the scripture and his interpretation of it widely available. His writing is concise, because he wanted the book to be short, yet clear and simple. This commentary was then translated into English by Gandhi’s secretary Mahadev Desai. I thought this translation aimed at the uneducated would be a good choice for me to read, since I am not familiar with Hindu mythology or theology.

I do not intend to write my own commentary on the Gita. If you want commentary on the Gita, you might as well go for Gandhi’s. In this series of posts, I’m going to make notes of the parts I find inspiring, difficult, surprising, etc. I’ll discuss those particular points, but they might be tangential to the meaning of the Gita. Also, right now I am engaging in a sort of haphazard comparative study, so I’ll probably be relatively focused on differences between the ideas of the Gita and other (mainly Western) philosophical ideas, and less so on getting a deep understanding of the subtlety of Hindu philosophy in particular.

In this post I’m going to just go through Gandhi’s introduction, the Anasaktiyoga.

Anasaktiyoga 12. “Future generations pay this homage to one who, in his own generation, has been extraordinarily religious in his conduct. […] And therefore he who is the most religiously behaved has most of the divine spark in him.”

I was already aware of the (I think mainly Hindu) idea that all different theistic religions worship different aspects of the same god, but I thought this was a particularly good illustration of this concept, and provides an interpretation for various religions’ assertions that particular historical individuals were in some way godly or holy, like the main Judeo-Christian prophets. The idea of “saint” is pretty universal as well.

Anasaktiyoga 17. “who does not go under when people speak ill of him who loves silence and solitude”

Gandhi lists a bunch of attributes of a person who exhibits the sort of devotion that is elucidated by the Gita. They all sort of made sense to me and fit together except for this one. Everything else is really general, but this sounds relatively specific – what’s special about this situation? Perhaps there should be a comma, and he’s saying separately that one should be able to suffer insult with equanimity, and separately one should love silence and solitude.

But in any case, without the comma it is implied that the devotee loves silence and solitude, whereas with the comma it is explicit. I don’t see how this fits in with all the rest of the attributes of the devotee. Maybe there’s something contextual about this, where in the culture of the people Gandhi was writing for, it was considered abnormal to like silence and solitude, and what Gandhi really means is that a devotee should be unattached to personal interaction in the same way as being unattached to any other activity done for its own sake. Or does Gandhi think there is some inherent value in solitude which the devotee recognizes? Perhaps it is that introspection requires solitude, and introspection an important part of getting closer to god/enlightenment?

I’m not too concerned about this as it may be that the text of the Gita itself will shed some light on this question.

Anasaktiyoga 22. “But renunciation of fruit in no way means indifference to the result.”

This was an important line for me, because a big thing I misunderstood about this idea of unattachment is that I had thought renouncing worldly pleasures meant a sort of departure from regular society in order to pursue a life of constant introspection and meditation. That sort of life is a thing in Eastern religions, of course, but Gandhi calls bullshit on it. You still have values, and you have a duty to act in light of those values and strive for outcomes that are good with respect to those values. It’s just that you should feel no personal attachment to the outcome, and you should be motivated solely by the desire (or perhaps duty) to do what is right.

A related line in the Gita seems to be Discourse 2 59, which points out that depriving oneself of something doesn’t quench one’s desire for it; the goal is to quench the desire for objects of the senses, not to deprive oneself of them. In fact, given that you have lost your personal attachment to such things, I don’t yet see anything which says you should refrain from experiencing them – presumably if you did so, there was some purpose to your action, since you are no longer motivated to do the action for your own personal enjoyment.

Anyway, I feel very strongly that I should work to make the world better and help other people, and it was a revelation for me that the same ideas motivate both the asceticism and the selfless service of Gandhi, since it means my rudimentary worldview and intuitions are more compatible with this sort of philosophy than I had previously thought.

Anasaktiyoga 24. “…what cannot be followed out in day-to-day practice cannot be called religion.”

I think this reflects a major problem with Judeo-Christian religions, namely that they are ossified and stagnant and adapt poorly as society changes rapidly. So you see the majority of the population becoming less religious and more secular, and a minority trying to continue to lead a primarily religious life, which looks like the life of an older society. I grew up learning about both Judaism and Christianity, and in both cases I found it difficult to accept a bunch of rules that were written hundreds or thousands of years ago to govern life in a society that was very different. There was little interest in the approach of trying to understand the undying principles and separate them from the context that informed their expression. I want to separate the principles from the practices, so that I know how to conduct myself when I encounter a new situation.

Anasaktiyoga 24. “According to this interpretation murder, lying, dissoluteness and the like must be regarded as sinful and therefore taboo.”

Gandhi states this as if it is obvious, but I don’t understand the logic. I think the personal detachment idea of the Gita is only a method and a tool, and it can be a component in an argument that a particular act must be sinful, but you still need some basis, a system of values, from which you can argue that a particular act is sinful. I don’t actually expect this to be fully answered by the present text, because the Gita is just part of a larger body of work, and doesn’t claim or attempt to present a full moral framework. But it would be nice to understand this particular point, because I think it’s connected to why Gandhi felt so strongly about ahimsa (nonviolence) as well.

That’s it for today! I’ll continue with the first few discourses soon.

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3 thoughts on “The Gita According to Gandhi 1

  1. thenoveilst says:

    And here on this website you will find the original version of the Bhagavad-Gita, as there are many interpreted versions out there: http://vedabase.com/en

    Like

    • NS says:

      Thanks for the information and the link!

      The original version of the Bhagavad Gita is in Sanskrit. The version on the website you linked is Bhagavad-Gita As It Is, which is a translation and commentary by A. C. Bhaktivedanta Prabhupada. It sounds like the emphasis of this translation and commentary is different, focusing more on the idea of surrendering oneself to god, whereas Gandhi’s version is more focused on the idea of selfless action and service. It will be interesting to read the two interpretations and compare, but I think if I tried to undertake that endeavor right now, it would be getting ahead of myself.

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