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.
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.
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.
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 Gita. Panchatantra’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.