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Bhagavad Gita wasn’t always India’s defining book. Another text was far more popular globally

It was only after Western interpretations made it popular that nationalists like Gandhi, Aurobindo and Tilak took up the Gita and made it India’s seminal philosophical text.

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Which is the Indian text most widely known in the world? Most will say, without a blink, the Bhagavad Gita. But few know that the Gita’s global fame is a very recent phenomenon, consequent to the Western ‘discovery’ of what Europeans thought was Hinduism’s national text.

Way before the Bhagavad Gita became global, there was another text that was far more widely translated and read across the Indian subcontinent and the world. It was the Panchatantra.

The Bhagavad Gita and the Panchatantra embody very different political sensibilities, but both continue to inform contemporary politics in India.

Also read: Rahul, not Modi, has proved to be a true student of the Bhagavad Gita

Gita less popular

In pre-colonial times, the Bhagavad Gita was an esoteric text, meant for academic philosophers and theologians. There are many sophisticated commentaries on the Bhagavad Gita by famed scholars such as Shankara, Ramanuja, Abhinavagupta, Nilkantha, Sridhara, Anandavardhana, etc. The Bhagavad Gita, unlike the stories of the Mahabharata, was thus never quite part of popular discourse.

It became a popular concern only after its first foreign language translation, the 1785 translation by Charles Wilkins under the patronage of Governor-General Warren Hastings. August Schlegel translated it into German in 1823 and his brother, the famous German romantic poet Friedrich Schlegel, also commented on it. The German idealist philosopher and early inspiration for Karl Marx, G.W.F. Hegel too commented on the Bhagavad Gita, followed by many other German and American intellectuals such as Arthur Schopenhauer and Aldous Huxley.

It was only after these Western interpretations and their global popularity that Indian nationalists like M. K. Gandhi, Aurobindo Ghosh and Lokmanya Tilak took up the Bhagavad Gita and made it into India’s national text. Editions of the Bhagavad Gita were then relentlessly printed by Gita Press and the like. It became common reading in literate households. It is indeed quite telling that by his own admission, Gandhi’s introduction to the Bhagavad Gita was through Edwin Arnold’s 1885 translation, The Song Celestial. Gandhi writes in his autobiography that he first read the Bhagavad Gita in English when in London, in the company of theosophists.

Also read: Ambedkar and Gita: There is a reason why Narendra Modi will never mention them together

Three biases

The Gita’s western trajectory was primarily responsible for three biases that continue to inform politics in India today.

The first bias is that the Bhagavad Gita was and is the most representative text of Indian philosophy. This is by no means true because in earlier times there were many contending philosophical schools in India and the interpretations of Bhagavad Gita varied widely.

The second is that Indian philosophy, as represented by the Bhagavad Gita, was essentially religious at heart. This, again, is untrue because there were many philosophies in India, not just Buddhist but also of some schools of Vedanta, which were known as nastika.

And the third is that the most important shloka of the Gita is the one about us having a right to action but not to its fruits. As noted writer and theorist Sibaji Bandyopadhyay has shown, this particular shloka was never the centrepiece of the Bhagavad Gita, and was made so primarily by modern European commentators like Hegel, which in turn informed the Indian nationalist imagination of political action as sacrifice.

Also read: Trying to define Bhagavad Gita through narrow silos is a sterile attempt, at best

The influential Panchatantra

Contrast the Bhagavad Gita’s career to that of the Panchatantra. The latter had travelled widely around the world much before the GitaPanchatantra’s first ‘foreign’ translation was into the Pahlavi language in the 6th century CE. This was in turn translated into Old Syriac in 570, and into Arabic by Abdallah ibn al- Muqaffa’ in 750 as Kalilah and Dimnah, after the two jackal ministers Karataka and Damanaka of the lion king Pingalaka.

The Arabic version was further translated to Greek in the 11th century, and further into Latin, German and Slavonic. There was a 1251 Persian translation and a 12th century Hebrew one. In 1480, the Latin version by John of Capua was the first Panchatantra to be printed, and which was retranslated into English by Sir Thomas North in 1570. The repeated translations and retranslations of the Panchatantra made this text highly influential across the world as a treatise of political wisdom.

It was only in modern times that the Panchatantra came to be overshadowed by India’s so-called eternal spiritual text, the Bhagavad Gita, and reduced to animal stories for children.

The Bhagavad Gita is about dharma. It speaks not only of universal moral duties like justice and sacrifice, but also swadharma, often understood as an individual’s caste duties. The caste references in the Gita, pointed out amongst others by B. R. Ambedkar, made modern Indian nationalists rather uneasy.

The Panchatantra, on the other hand, was about artha and niti in the tradition of Chanakya Kautilya. The stories were about political efficacy – as narrated by the wise Brahmin Visnu Sarma to the two foolish sons of the king, though there are Brahman figures in the stories who are also shown to be foolish, ridiculous and hasty. In the Panchatantra, the real protagonists are the two jackal ministers of the lion king and the basic message is that wise counsel is critical to politics.

As Indologist Patrick Olivelle says, the stories of the Panchatantra were so famous because they captured beautifully the ethical complexity of political situations, when it becomes difficult to make moral judgements based on purely normative parameters. The Panchatantra comes into play when the very notion of duty or dharma is in jeopardy.

The Bhagavad Gita and the Panchatantra represent two faces of our current political sensibility – one that says that politics is about moral duty and sacrifice, the other that says that politics is about intelligence and wisdom in morally uncertain times.

After all, what was the Kurukshetra, the scene of the Gita, but a morally uncertain moment, when duty required that brothers and teachers be killed? The Bhagavad Gita asks us to do so in the name of god. We can only guess what the Panchatantra would say. It would probably ask, as did Yuddhisthira at the end of the Mahabharata: what is the point of just kingship if there is no one left to rule?

The author is a historian and professor at Centre for Study of Developing Societies. Views are personal.

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  1. Regarding Dates for GITA’S ORIGIN 
    The Internal evidence clearly shows it was written after  500 AD 

    Premise 1:
     Vasubandhu – Tibetian / Chinese  lived between 4th and 5th century AD Budhist Monk from Gandhara He wrote the famous VIGNANA VADA  
    Premise 2 
    Brahma Sutra 2:2: 28-32 says it was written to refute  VIGNANA VADA along with others Details in the link can verify this with other commentary/ translation as well, viz.. Shankara  
    Premise 3: 
    What does Gita say 13:5:ऋषिभिर्बहुधा गीतं छन्दोभिर्विविधै: पृथक् |ब्रह्मसूत्रपदैश्चैव हेतुमद्भिर्विनिश्चितै: || 5 || ṛiṣhibhir bahudhā gītaṁ chhandobhir vividhaiḥ pṛithakbrahma-sūtra-padaiśh chaiva hetumadbhir viniśhchitaiḥ 

    So as per GITA – Brahma Sutra already exists, 
    But Brahma sutra says, it was written to refute the challenge of vignana vada of vasubandhu, 
    But Vasubandhu was born in 5th Century AD  

    SO when do you think Gita was written..? No doubt you do not get any old manuscripts, because there isn’t  any, Gita’s Antiquity is just a bluff of Sanatana Dharma ideologues–

  2. The writer is a product of sicular group who believe it is only the west world which taught India how to read, and live a life. Ashamed of such people who does not read about Vedanta (which is about humanity and not a specific religion), Upansishads and Bhagavad Gita is a summary of the knowledge from those books. If you think it just as a fight between two brothers, I feel sorry for your ignorance. It is the greatness of India that we allow openly people like the author of this article to write anything about our holy scriptures because we always favored a society where one can be Aasthik & Naastik – you have to read Vedas to understand it. Swadharma is also about self-respect…unfortunately the Print media does not know what is Self-respect…they only do West-respect.

  3. Great article about the introduction of Bhagavad Gita and the discovery of Bhagavad Gita.The way of life by Bhagavad Gita keep doing the good work, thank you for this awesome articleBhagavad Gita

  4. Glaring technical errors in this article.

    First of all, the Bhagavad Gita has its origins in the Bhagavata cult that was (and is) very popular throughout India.

    In fact, I am pretty sure the writers at the Print have heard of the Heliodorous pillar (erected ~113 BCE as per Wiki) which was erected in honor of Bhagavan Vasudeva.

    The cult/religion to which Heliodoros converted to is known as the Bhagavata, and the intellectual heritage of this movement consists of the Pancaratra Agama with its emphasis on the Vyuha doctrine, vast portions of the core text of the Mahabharata known as the Jaya, and the crowning crest jewel which is the Gita.

  5. Excellent write up. Very educative about the journey of the two great products of early India. Their different focus and impact. Impact of reintroduction by western scholars. Above all difference between popular and shastriya culture.

    Life of a great book, personality has its own way of gaining greatness. Christ was established as divine quite late, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle were revived many hundred years after their prime. Sometimes it takes time, like Von Gough didn’t see his popularity. Panchtantra and Srimad Gita had very different journeys and obviously they are two very different products. If I see some push back in the comments, that may be due to perceived attempt to lighten the importance of Srimad Bhagvat Gita. This attempt simply might not be there and this write up can be seen as an attempt to see the journey of the two most important output of great early Indian philosophy and literature, a masterly historical scholarship.

  6. may krishna guide this downtrodden piece of life to his lotus feet so that veil of ignorance of author is removed

  7. I think we are all influenced by the impact of British colonialism of 300 years of India and we wear English glasses to look at
    our own historical treasures,The sway of the English language and western influence on our thinking needs to be shaken off
    to discover and appreciate the greatness of indian cultural and traditional gems of ancient years.Though it is difficult ,a beginning
    must be made,
    Moreover the indian constitution makers like Nehru , Ambedkarji were western educated, Even Gandhi ,our father of the Nation.
    The mix of population obtaining at the time of independence in India was diverse and comprised people from all religious faiths,
    Naturally this gave birth to a secular thrust in the constitution, The other largest democracy – America-cannot be called a Christian Nation
    as per their Constitution ,so is the case with us.

    Edwin Arnold’s english version of Gita -The song Celestial-is in 1888 and not 1875 as reported here.

  8. The author’s knowledge about this matter is clearly troubled by the same issue that she accuses others of. For example, is she aware that dnyaneshwar wrote the Marathi commentary on the Gita in 1297? That means the Gita was well known through its Indian translation long before it’s English translation. But then a Bengali will obviously know the dates of an English translation more than a Indian regional one.

    • This article is about the spread of the book throughout the world. Unfortunately, Jambudvipa is NOT the whole world, as you may have realised till now.

      Btw, your foolish comment at the end betrays your xenophobia.

  9. One thing everyone misses (including the author) : the Panchtantra are not only tales of politics. They are great tales for children, to teach them about life and morality.

  10. You have absolutely no idea what gita is…It seems nobody read his article so to gain attention he compared it with gita….Half knowledge is too dangerous

  11. Some background of the author:

    Prathama Banerjee is a historian, trained at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

    May be that’s why she prefers the secular Panchatantra more than Bhagvad Gita.

  12. The author like many others has totally misinterpreted and misrepresented the word “Dharma” and ‘Swadharma” as some kind of caste constructs. This is absolutely inaccurate since the word Dharma is one of the most difficult word to define and find an English meaning. The English language is simply incapable to infer the meaning and import of the said Sanskrit word therefore we should be extremely carful while trying describe things attributed to it especially in English language usage. It would be worthwhile for the interested to listen to commentary of Swami Chinmayananda on this matter and come to their own conclusions. Any day it is better to maintain ones Swadharma than to become something what your are not. For instance if you have a Swadharma of an engineer you should not go around performing the duties of a doctor, which can bring sorrow to yourself and others. Unfortunately knowing what is your Swadharma is not an easy task and may take a lifetime to understand what you are meant to be.

  13. As stated in Comments above, Gita was very popular in Maharashtra before Europeans knew about it .. during 12th century . It was translated by Marathi saint Dynaneshwar . It was and is so much popular it started the Warkari panth in Mharashtra and is still very very popular and receive support from all starta of Maharashta population. As for the particular shloka referred in article about Karma and Fruits .., I undersatnd that it was made famous by Lokmanya Tilak when he wrote ” Gita Rahasya” This article is written by author with little knowledge and with devious motive, it appears. This is classik example of FAKE NEWS.

  14. Both Bhagavad Gita and Panchatantra are the fragrant blossoms flowering from the garden of Hindu civilisation, as are Yoga, Vedanta, Ayurveda, Dhyana, Shilpa Shastra, Bharatanatyam and the Six Darshanas.

    It’s not just one or the other, but all of the above that are India’s Gifts to the World.

    • You have forgotten India’s greatest gift too world civilization: the Upanishads.

      This is not really a surprise as most Indians don’t know much about them.

      Ever heard the BJP utter the word Upanishad? Ram! Ram!

      • @Rajiv
        Please pay attention. In my previous comment, I have clearly mentioned “Vedanta” – which is a synonym for Upanishads.

        If you don’t even know this basic fact, I won’t be surprised if you haven’t read the Upanishads at all.

        • Upanishads stand apart. Shining. Don’t tarnish their shine by hiding them in the Vedanta. That’s why they are not known, not even in India.

          Some of the Upanishads are the pinnacle of human philosophy. They deserve their own name.

          So before you start off, read a bit. Only initially the Vedanta was synonymous with the Upanishads.

          You would name Einstein’s Theory of Relatively by its name, not just say, oh, that’s physics.

          Now don’t say that this is a Western plot!

  15. This does not sound right. In Marathi, Sant Dnyaneshwar wrote a 7,000 shloka esposition of gita, in 12th century, and it remains one of the most popular “sant literature” along with later sant’s in Maharashtra.

    • Did you read the article? It’s about the popularity of Panchtantra vs the Gita outside India.

      I think too much of BJP propaganda is eating everyone’s brains.

      • Please read the section titled “Gita less popular” and see for yourself if talks about “popularity outside of India”. It says in India Gita was a esoteric text, not popular. When westerners popularized it, indian leaders like Tilak promoted it, and then Gita press started “relentlessly” printing it, so every literate household (clearly in India; Gita press printed in vernacular) . So its clearly making the point (wrong,ly) that Gita was not popular within India.

        (If you are just into polemics and labelling, I don’t have anything to say to you.. This looks like a standard moat-and-bailey technique.. make an indefensible statement which includes a minor defensible one, and when questioned, point to the minor defensible variant.).

        • But what proof have you given except what you feel? Please send me one and I’ll accept your point. You have given only one. I’m waiting for it.

          Also, if one has a little bit of reasoning in one’s head, one immediately understands that since the Panchtantra tales are so easy to understand, they were more popular all over the world than the Gita. This is not rocket science. If you have an open mind that is.

        • Sorry, it was not my intention to offend you. You are right about Sant Dnyaneshwar and Gita. I checked on the internet. He did popularize the Gita. But that was only in Maharashtra. So either the author is completely wrong, or you have to explain that even Mahatma Gandhi learnt about the Gita from the Theophists. He gives a reference for that. Have you checked?

          So why would a Gujrati, next door to Maharashtra, not know about Dnyaneshwar’s Gita?

          In any case, as an Indian you should be proud that two books that originated in India have had so much of influence in the world.

          This is definitely not polemics on my part.

    • Leftist-(ill)liberals vigorously disagree with you. The Bhagwad Gita was written by Westerners and brought to India!

  16. Yes. The Bhagwad Gita was also written by Westerners and they brought it with them when they migrated into India. So much for Indian ‘historians’ like this author.

    • Well not only that. But the British classified the motley collection of tribal and religious beliefs into the Collective Hindu noun.
      Muslims were called Hindu too during Mughal times, the Indian Emperor was also called Hindu by Persians and Arabs.
      the British made a distinction and ceased classifying muslims as Hindu.

      • Islam is Arabic imperialism. Arabs don’t regard you fourth grade convertsvasveven muslim. Hinduism ( derived from sindh) or Sanathana Dharma is much older than any of your arabic tribal nonsense.

  17. Frankly I very much prefer Panchatantra than the Gita.
    Too me the Panchatantra with its delightful stories makes much more sense

    • frankly, even I prefer Srimad bhagvad Gita over arabic quran. Holy gita makes more sense than an arabic book promoting hatred.

    The Hindu religion is an Artificial construct.
    Historically the word Hindu meant all the people living in Hindustan including Muslims Christians and other faiths.
    The British used the word Hindu to separate Muslims from the Indian people in their policy of divide and rule.
    The concept of a single Hindu religion, rather than an umbrella term for all Indians, was manufactured by the Marathi Chitpavan Brahmins.
    This single Hindu religion as a concept at first was made popular by the Hindu Mahasaba and RSS in order to perpetuate the caste system and Brahminical hegemony.
    Brahmins have ruled the roost in India right through Muslim rule, British rule to the preset day.
    90 % of Vice Chancellors of Indian universities are Brahmins.
    94 % of the top 500 Indian companies board members are either Brahmin or Bania.
    89 % of Editors and Senior Journalists, TV presenters are Brahmins, they set the news agenda and public discourse.
    The list goes on and on and on…
    The RSS does not represent the people of India but only the ruling caste, it is high time the people of India overthrew Brahminical tyranny. Join in the struggle with the Indian Muslims for justice and freedom.

    • The history of all struggle against oppression, is the history of The Indian people struggle not against the Muslim but against the Brahmin.
      The root of all evil comes from India’s 4.2 Brahmins who have an iron grip on the people of this country.
      The cunning Brahmins have given us a new enemy the Muslims while they themselves via the RSS tighten this grip.
      It is time the castes and different beliefs in India tore down the Artificial structure called Hinduism, this manu philosophy of slavery. The RSS glorification of Hinduism is indirectly praise of caste slavery which is endured by the people of India.
      The liberals too in India consisting mainly of the privileged castes pretend they are anti RSS from their position of entitlement in Indian society. They form a tribe that strengthens the status co of slavery.
      Hence we see Lutyens India consisting of Brahmin and upper caste privilege.
      The RSS consist of raw Brahmin evil from Nagpur.

      • If Hinduism is artificial, then why do HINDUS OF ALL CASTES DO THE KUMBHA MELA PILGRIMAGE, while no other castes do…. However, it’s time people of India TEAR DOWN THE EVIL IDEOLOGY, CREATED BY A WARLORD, RESPONSIBLE FOR CREATING TERRORISTS ALL OVER THE WORLD

      • Write with your real Arabic name, don’t think others are fool here. The people who are from Ahir use Yadav surname.

        And worry about shia-sunni-ahmadi-wahabi nonsense. Atleast we hindus don’t bomb each other unlike the Arabic terrorist faith.

    • I prefer RSS Brahmins over lefty Brahmins like the author. I am a lower caste Hindu whose ancestors did not get cut and protected their way of life from invadors unlike your ancestors who were in cahoots with them. Or maybe you are the grandkids of the people who came on donkeys with Taimur, like Tarek Fatah says.

  19. Many commenters here are trying to put forward serious sounding analysis to critique the author. My advice to them: don’t bother, you can’t reason with a hate-filled deranged mind. Just view authors like this just like you would view an exotic animal at the zoo. Take a picture, give a wave and move on.

  20. This is what JNU or JNU-like education does to you, a deracinated nut case. Pitiful! Looking for crumbs thrown at you by your Western masters. What a wretched life you and your lefty ilk live!

  21. Pancharatna was well known for several centuries to the to the outside world before Geeta became known and Geeta was taken up by Indian freedom fighters only when it became popular among western intellectuals in 19th century. These may be facts as stated by the JNU historian and the author but comparisons between the two texts are superficial as contexts of two books are different. At the best, one say that this is an ‘interesting’ article, as one would expect to be published in The Print and leave it at that.

  22. This is one of the most foolish articles I have read. It is like telling that Aesop’s Fables are more famous than the Greek Epic Iliad. Obviously fables and stories would be more famous than the mother book as the latter requires intellectual content to comprehend it. Biblical stories are more popular than the Bible; isn’t it? The treatise on Vedas and its interpretation by Shankara; the end of Vedas (Veda+ Ant= Vedanta). Even Swami Vivekananda has written commentaries on Gita. Hundreds of Indian Scholars have written about Gita. So many regional scholars in regional languages have written about Gita. Please screen your articles seriously to know whether they merit being shown on your website. It is not sufficient to just attribute the views to the author. Please exercise your editorial discretion.

    • I endorse views expressed by Shri PG Kamath. I have given my views above but I admit I was not as forthright as Mr.Kamath. There is nothing wrong being leftist but have common sense at least.

  23. To be frank, this piece by a History professor can at best open a debate and can not be taken as an authoritative comment. If Panchatantra was popular, so what? The author was somewhere unable to give the academic and intellectual rigour to the subject chose to write to take the discussion forward. That’s where the attempt looks feeble.
    Moreover, we should desist from historians passing of as authorities on philosophy . Because, such an attempt will do gross injustice to the branch of study that is Philosophy.

  24. Gita, in brief says that you go on killing your friends and relatives and I shall be there to protect your back. Surrender your morals and other petty irritants in the head. AND it suits modern India very well.

    • This is what happens when one tries to read and understand religious and spiritual texts without the help of a learned Guru or his Commentaries. Gita doesnt say surrender your morals. It says for the sake of protection of Dharma, you should overcome your attachment to relatives.

    • CKM – wish you had a little cerebral capacity to understand the essence of Bhagwad Gita. And my friend, I am not saying these as a religious person. A piece of advice to you…go find yourself someone who can make you more enlightened, just as Santosh mentions. Understand Gita independent of the backdrop of Mahabharata.

      • It is an essential part of Mahabharata and an eternal justifier of jingoism. If you are a king or a leader you needed a philosophical base to get your soldiers sacrificed.

  25. There is a few difference on the commentaries offered by the Acharyas like Adi Sankara , Ramanujachari etc on defining the relationship between Achit,Chit and Iswara
    But the essence of Bagawat Gita offered by them are one and the same

  26. The writer is comparing apples with oranges. Panchatantra and Gita operate in different fields. While Panchatantra is purely a secular text, which intends to impart worldly wisdom, Gita preach other-worldly orientation. Until Shankara wrote his gloss on Gita in the end of 8th century, there is hardly any reference to Gita in Sanskrit literature. Swami Vivekananda even guessed that Shankara may have interpolated Gita into Mahabharata! The fact that western orientalists ‘discovered’ Gita does not diminish its importance in Indian Philosophy. No doubt, it is not “the Book” like Koran or Bible which is required to be read every day. Hinduism is not a religion of Book. It is a way of life. Just as Upanishads and Puranas guided the lives of people for millenniums, now Gita guides the lives of people who believe in it.

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