Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while unveiling the world’s largest and heaviest Bhagavad Gita at Delhi’s ISKCON temple, told the audience that this holy book is India’s best gift to the world. Modi invoked leaders like Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Mahatma Gandhi as two great personalities who interpreted Gita for the larger audience. But there was another personality whom Modi, rather conveniently as he often does, chose to ignore: Babasaheb Ambedkar.
Ambedkar has written extensively on Gita and, like Tilak and Gandhi, interpreted it for the public too. But for Modi, who has called Ambedkar “the ray of hope for marginalised and oppressed”, the Dalit icon wasn’t a politically convenient figure to quote at ISKCON temple.
It is interesting that for his policy slogan Sabka Sath Sabka Vikas, Modi had earlier credited Ambedkar but at the ISKCON temple, in the presence of Hindu priests, Modi was citing Gita as the source for learning the principles for the slogan.
Modi has inaugurated an Ambedkar memorial, swept the premises of Baba Saheb Ambedkar School, and credited his work as being crucial in making a ‘poor mother’s son who belongs to a backward community’ the prime minister of the country.
But at the ISKCON temple, Modi could recall German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer to underline how great Bhagavad Gita and its lessons are. He told the audience that his life has been most influenced by Gita and credited it for the public welfare work he has done. Quoting Tilak, he said Gita teaches Karma Yoga, and is therefore a useful source to follow while taking up the daily chores in life. But there was no mention of Ambedkar.
It is an act of convenient cherry-picking, while staying away from Ambedkar’s critique of Hindu religious texts.
Ambedkar had a very critical view of Gita, which he says provides a philosophic basis to the Varna system and has been influential in reproducing and perpetuating that system in the Indian society.
In his treatise, philosophy of Hinduism, published by Maharashtra government and popularised globally by the external affairs ministry, Ambedkar wrote a chapter titled ‘The Philosophic Defence of Counter-Revolution: Krishna and His Gita.’ He had also provided a critique of Gita in his most controversial book, Riddles in Hinduism, also a government publication. For the purpose of this article, all the quotations are from the third volume of the collected works of Babasaheb.
Gita may have been something great for Tilak and Gandhi. Tilak sees Nishkam or Anashakti Karma Yoga as a way of life, while Gandhi finds in the book a defence for the Varna system. For Ambedkar, though, Gita is Manusmriti in a nutshell.
Ambedkar believed that the Manusmriti, the Vedas and the Gita are all woven in the same pattern and same threads run through them. He denounces those who say that Manusmriti is problematic, but Gita is good. According to Ambedkar, the difference is only in the detailing, not in the idea or philosophy. For him, all religious books of Hinduism – other than Upanishads – were written by the Brahmins who injected the same doctrine in all these books.
Ambedkar writes that it is actually Gita in which caste system is systematically ordained and explained. Ambedkar quotes from chapter 18 of Gita (41- 44) – “O, Parantapa! the respective duties of Brahmins (priests), Kshatriyas (warriors), Vaishyas (tradesmen) and Shudras (menials) have been individually fixed with reference to the qualities arising from their inherent natures, that is, from Prakriti. The inherently natural duties of a Brahmin are peace, self-restrain, religious austerities, cleanliness, quietness, straightforwardness (humanity). Knowledge (that is, spiritual knowledge), Vijnana (that is imperial knowledge) and Astikya-budhi (that is belief in a future world). The inherently natural duty (karma) of the Kshatriya is bravery, brilliance, courage, intentness, not running away from the battle, generosity, and exercising authority (over subject people), ‘goraksya’ (that is, the business of keeping cattle), and vanijya (that is, trade) is the inherently natural duty of the Vaishya; and in the same way, service is the inherently natural duty of the Shudra.
Ambedkar concludes that Gita is neither a book of religion nor a book of philosophy. The intent behind writing Bhagavad Gita was to defend certain dogmas of religion on philosophical grounds. Ambedkar, the lawyer, goes on to demolish these dogmas one by one.
The first dogma propounded by Gita is that the body and the soul are separate. It provides a philosophical defence of war and killing in war, and argues that since the soul is eternal and imperishable, it is wrong to say that when a man is killed his soul is also killed. Thus, according to Gita, war and killings should not become grounds for remorse or shame. Ambedkar argues that – ‘If Krishna were to appear as a lawyer acting for a client who is being tried for murder and pleaded the defence set out by him in the Bhagavad Gita, there is not the slightest doubt that he would be sent to the lunatic asylum.’
We don’t know if Modi has read these texts of Ambedkar or not. If he had read the volumes published by the Union government, he might have avoided praising Gita. Still, we should be thankful to the government for putting Ambedkar’s writings and speeches on the website of the MEA.
The second dogma, according to Ambedkar, is Chaturvarnya (four Varna system), for which Gita provides two defences. The first line of defense is that Varna system is the creation of Supreme God and thus it can’t be questioned. But as this defence is based completely on blind faith, it can’t withstand the logical ideas, so Gita also provides a philosophical basis to the theory of Chaturvarnya by linking it to the theory of innate, inborn qualities in men. Ambedkar says that the soul of the Bhagavad Gita seems to be the defence of Chaturvarnya and securing its observance in practice. Ambedkar goes on to argue that the Gita provided Varna system a philosophic, and therefore permanent, basis which it never had before and without which the system would not have survived to date.
For Ambedkar, Gita is the culprit that made Indians still continue with the system of graded inequality based on birth.
The third dogma, according to Ambedkar, is Karma Kands. This also finds mention in Modi’s speech at ISKCON. Ambedkar said that Gita has removed the ugliness of Karma Kands or rituals by two means. One, Gita introduces the principle of Buddhi Yoga or Stihtaprajna to the Karma Kands. It gives a basis to the rituals by saying that Karma Kand should not be done under blind faith but Buddhi should be applied. And two, it introduces the principles of Anasaktior Nishkam, saying Karma should not have any attachment for the fruits (results).
In the Gita, Karma is not speaking of activity or inactivity in general, but of religious acts and observances.
Ambedkar wrote that by ‘Karma Yoga’, Gita means the dogmas contained in Jaimini’s Karma Kanda. He argues that Tilak should be blamed for the misconception that the Bhagavad Gita is an independent self-contained book with no relation to the literature that preceded it.
In this light, it’s interesting that Modi has spoken about Tilak’s reading of Gita in his speech.
Ambedkar further explains that ‘Krishna tells everyone (to) do the duty prescribed for his Varna and no other, and warns his devotees that they will not obtain salvation through mere devotion, but through devotion accompanied by observance of duty laid down for his Varna. In short, a Shudra, however great he may be as a devotee, will not get salvation if he has transgressed the duty of the Shudra — namely to live and die in the service of the higher classes.’
The most important critique of Gita provided by Ambedkar is that it was written to save the Karma Kand and Varna system from the attack of Buddhism.
Ambedkar argues that Buddha preached non-violence and except the Brahmins, the masses largely accepted it as the way of life. Buddha also preached against the Chaturvarnya and turned it upside down, as Shudras and women could now become sanyasis. According to Ambedkar, the advent of Buddhism was thus a revolution. To counter this, counter-revolutionaries had only one defence – that these things were ordained by the Vedas, and as the Vedas were infallible, the dogmas were not to be questioned.
Ambedkar says that this defence was not sufficient in the enlightened age of Buddhism, and the dogmas resting only on blind belief couldn’t have survived. Hence, Gita was written to provide philosophic framework to the dogmas.
In his speech at the ISKCON temple, Modi said he had presented ‘Bhagavad Gita, According to Gandhi’ to Barak Obama, who interestingly cited Ambedkar in Indian Parliament and spoke a lot about his contributions. We can only hope that Obama reads Ambedkar’s interpretation of Gita, too, to have a better understanding of the Indian social order.