The Bhagavad Gita is the most widely known and the best loved
Indian scripture, and next to the Bible it is one of the most
frequently translated books in the world. It is available through
countless editions and commentaries, and millions of copies have
been sold by the International Society for Krishna Consciousness
alone. Hindus in India and Britain often refer to the Bhagavad
Gita, not only to its words but also to its images. Thus, many
Hindu temples in Britain have a ‘Gita picture’, usually showing
Krishna and Arjuna on the chariot, but also other scenes, and
some Indian cities possess an entire ‘Gita Mandir’, built in recent
times. Such Gita temples are found in New Delhi, Mathura and Kurukshetra,
for example, whilst Ahmedabad, Baroda and Benares have a temple
dedicated to the ‘Goddess Gita’. In Britain, some Hindu temples
are called ‘Geeta Bhavan’.
People are not always sufficiently aware that this great popularity
of the Gita is a modern development. The great esteem in which
this scripture is held today by Hindus in India and abroad, as
well as by many Christians and people of other faiths, is unlikely
to have developed in quite this way without the cross- cultural
encounter of India and the West over the last 200 years.
Many readers approach the Bhagavad Gita from a rather limited
and too literal perspective, without enquiring either into the
history of the transmission and interpretation of this text or
into its religious and secular significance in India today. If
one wishes to illuminate the richness and complexity of the Gita,
it is not enough to discuss its ideas or look at one or two commentaries
but one needs to explore a number of different, yet complementary
approaches. Historical, exegetical, theological and comparative
methods of study are required to develop a much needed, differentiated
hermeneutic for explaining the meaning of the Bhagavad Gita and
assessing it contribution to our global religious heritage.
For anyone familiar with the literature it is clear that the
textual-critical studies of the Gita are still in their infancy.
An examination of the cross-cultural influence at work in the
modern reinterpretation of the Bhagavad Gita shows that the Gita
would not even be known in India in the way it is widely known
and quoted today, were it not for the profound historical, social,
political and religious changes of the modern period which produced
the phenomenon of the ‘Hindu Renaissance’, often called ‘Neo-Hinduism’
rather than simply ‘Hinduism’.
Looking again at the Bhagavad Gita in a wider context, it is
important to bring out the continuity and discontinuity between
the past and contemporary significance and usage of this scripture.
I shall briefly consider some approaches by way of example. (1)
The Bhagavad Gita in traditional India
What were the traditional meaning and importance of the Bhagava
Gita in pre-modern times? And how far were these different or
similar to those attributed to the text today?
These questions are far too often ignored and it is simply assumed,
without being questioned, that the Gita was not an important source
for popular bhakti religiosity, the path of fervent devotion to
a personal God, as was the case of the Bhagavata Purana and other
texts. The Gita is primarily a poem of philosophical discourse
which continues to expound many of the ideas of the Upanishads.
Together with the Upanishads and the Brahmasutra, the Gita gained
its renown as one of the three textual sources of classical Vedanta.
As such, it primarily provided a basis for meditation and philosophical
commentary, and Vedanta theologians either emphasised jnana-yoga,
the way of wisdom (Shankara) or bhakti-yoga, the way of devotion
(Ramanuja) as its main message. The contemporary secondary literature
on the Bhagavad Gita is very diverse and lacks integration. This
shortcoming has been pointed out by the American scholar Robert
N. Minor who has produced a very substantial exegetical commentary
on the Gita (2) where he makes the important observation that
the commentaries which have appeared so far, ‘have often reflected
an a priori idea of what the Gita must say, based upon notions
of ‘Hinduism’ defined by later thinkers, other commentaries have
not given evidence that they are attempting an understanding of
the Gita in terms of the early date in which it was written and,
thus, prior to the systems of Indian thought. Thus, one misses
the historical exegesis of passages and finds instead certain
assumptions as to what the text ought to be. The goal of this
commentary is to reverse these lapses, and thus to further Gita
studies in an informed direction.’ (3)
He concludes his long discussion on authorship, date and other
introductory matters by saying: ‘In summary, the Bhagavad-Gita,
a text by an unknown author which dates to about 150 B.C.E. and
which was added to the Mahabharata probably about that time, is
a well-preserved scripture, though assurance of issues of introduction
still eludes scholarship. (4) This history of the Bhagavad Gita
text and its different recensions forms part of the history of
the transmission of the epic and of that of Sanskrit manuscripts.
Unfortunately, we know far less about all these than we would
like to, nor has anything like the massive research undertaken
on Old and New Testament texts ever been matched in this area.
Another question is: What has been the influence of the Bhagavad
Gita on Indian society in ancient and modern times?
This approach has been taken by Prem Nath Bazaz’ study The Role
of Bhagavad Gita in Indian History (5) which must be
read with considerable caution. However, it is worth looking at
for the diverse materials it contains, especially with regard
to the place of the Gita in Indian nationalism. The author contends
that ‘there is not a single thoroughly critical study of the Bhagavad-
Gita available for an accurate assessment of the historical role
that the great poem has played in Indian society.’ (6) He argues,
though not always convincingly, that this role has been largely
negative. Although in a minority, he is not alone in saying this
in India today.
The Bhagavad Gita in a cross-cultural context Why did the Bhagavad
Gita become so popular in modern India? How did it first become
known in the West?
To answer these questions, it is important to remember that the
Bhagavad Gita was the first Indian religious text ever to be directly
translated from Sanskrit into English. Charles Wilkins published
his translation in London in 1785. In the preface, the teachings
of the Gita were compared to those of the New Testament, a comparison
which has been made ever since. This comparison focusses mainly
on the person of Krishna rather than on any other aspect of the
Gita. Westerners are often drawn to the great theophany of chapter
eleven which is comparatively little commmentèd upon the Hindus.
During most of the nineteenth century, the interest of western
scholars and especially of Protestant missionaries (7) in the
Gita was much greater than that of Indians. Wilkins’ translation
never became as popular as the much more poetic rendering of Sir
Edwin Arnold’s Song Celestial, published one hundred years later
in 1885. But by the late 1880’s a new interest also began to emerge
in India with Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s first modern, yet unfinished
Gita commentary in Bengali, soon to be followed by other commentaries
written by Hindu reformers and nationalist writers. They all differed
in what they considered to be the essential message of the Bhagavad
Gita but in contrast to the ‘quietistic interpretation’ of the
past, which focussed on meditation and devotion, they all emphasised
karmayoga, i.e. work and an activist orientation.
This new interpretation centred especially on Krishna’s teaching
to Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, on what is often
described today and visually depicted as ‘the sermon of the Bhagavad
Gita’. Krishna actively engaged in driving Arjuna’s chariot into
battle, sometimes shown with the two warring armies drawn up on
either side, teaching Arjuna about his duty, has become an important
focus for the activist and theistic aspirations of modern Hinduism.
Aurobindo consciously chose this scene for the title page of his
nationalist journal Karmayogin (1909—10), and it has been used
ever since to decorate Gita editions, commentaries, calendars
Krishna, the divine charioteer and teacher, is seen as the ideal
karmayogin (8) who encourages Arjuna to engage in active battle.
This interpretation provided a powerful inspiration for the development
of Hindu nationalism and much of the religious legitimation for
the Indian independence movement. What had been a text for meditation
and philosophical commentary now became a reference point for
political activism and popular religiosity, a symbol of national
and religious identity. Gandhi himself was later considered as
the living embodiment of the ideal karmayogin.
The devotion to the Krishna of the Gita and to the duty of work
can be documented from many contemporary commentaries on the Bhagavad
Gita. One can enquire into the Gita interpretation of different
Indian nationalists, reformers or modern Hindu missionaries, whether
the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Swami Prabhupada or Sri Sathya Sai
Baba, but one must keep in mind the radically new context in which
the Gita is understood in modern Hinduism. The new understanding
is part of a cross-cultural process whereby this scripture, in
the words of G. J. Larson, has become ‘a kind of nationalist tract,
as well as a symbol of universal spirituality to be used as an
apologetic document for the spread of neo-Hindu ideas . . . a
rationalisation for radical political action . . . and for the
development of a new corporate work-ethic . . .‘ The Gita can
thus be seen as both “a neo-Hindu ‘New Testament’, and a symbol
of national liberation.” (9)
The Bhagavad Gita in the image world of modern Hinduism
Besides the countless references to the Bhagavad Gita publications
and discussions, what other evidence can be found for showing
the popularity of this scripture?
Here it is important to take modern iconographic data into account
and to realise that illustrations of the Bhagavad Gita are a relatively
recent development. The numerous scenes from Krishna’s life found
in Indian art, especially in miniature paintings, are based on
puranic sources, particularly on the Bhagavata Purana, but not
on the Gita. After undertaking a study of the Krishna images in
classical Indian sculpture, J. S. Hawley came to the following
conclusion: ‘In the past century, both in India and in the West,
a great deal of interest has been focussed on the Krishna whom
we meet as the teacher of the Bhagavad Gita. We are given to understand
that for two millenia the Gita has been India’s most influential
scripture. Yet of some 800 panels of Krishna sculpture to have
survived from the period before 1500 A.D. only three refer with
any clarity to the Gita, but on the whole it is remarkable how
indifferent sculptors were to this aspect of Krishna’s life.’
However, modern illustrations of Krishna, the divine charioteer
(Parthasarati) and the teacher of the Gita (Gitacharya) abound
and can be found both within and without the context of the scripture.
The question arises, then, how to explain the profusion of these
illustrations in the present when compared with their absence
in the past. It is my contention that the modern emergence of
a wealth of iconographic data in relation to the Bhagavad Gita
is an additional proof for the new importance and function of
this text in modern Hinduism.
The study of iconographic data is important in its own right
but it also throws additional light on the understanding of religious
ideas and their visualisation. Thus, the religious image-world
created around or in conjunction with a religious text not only
illustrates and supplements the teachings of the text but it also
indicates fundamental changes in the religious world-view.
A number of scholars have dealt with the modern reinterpretations
of the Bhagavad Gita but, as far as I am aware, nobody else has
analysed the iconographic evidence for the modern popularity of
this scripture and its visual contribution to the religious image-
world of contemporary Hinduism. Over the last few years I have
collected illustrations, objects and slides which show Krishna
and Arjuna in a religious or secular setting in different parts
of India, and I have discussed their significance at greater length
elsewhere.” Suffice it to say that the Bhagavad Gita, like the
Upanishads, traditionally remained unillustrated. The abstract
philosophical themes of Krishna’s and Arjuna’s dialogue were commented
and meditated upon rather than concretely visualised. Initially,
they provided little inspiration for artists and painters nor
did their subjects become part of the repertoire of the popular
devotional art produced at the great Indian pilgrimage centres.
However, the Bhagavad Gita with its setting on the battlefield
of Kurukshetra includes a minimal narrative which especially allows
the visualisation of Krishna and Arjuna on the chariot, surrounded
by the two warring armies, and that of the cosmic form of Vishnu,
the great visvarupa, which appears in the theophany of chapter
(11). But the latter has not had anything like the impact which
the Gitacharya motif has made on the image-world of modern Hinduism.
The numerous illustrations of Krishna and Arjuna can he grouped
into different scenes: there is the literal chariot scene, referring
to the opening chapter of the Gita; or there is the bhakti scene
with Arjuna dismounted from the chariot, his weapons lying on
the ground, his hands folded in a bhakti attitude; or there is
the terrace scene, with Krishna and Arjuna seated opposite each
other on a terrace, with neither chariot or armies in sight. This
is mostly found in earlier manuscript illustrations and resembles
the way Sikh Gurus were painted teaching on a terrace.
These illustrations may be found in the context of Gita editions
and commentaries or as devotional pictures and religious icons
quite independent from the text itself (oleographs, calendar pictures,
temple paintings, (12) Pongal and Divali cards, wall-hangings,
inlaid wood pictures, or ornamental chariots in ivory or sandal-wood).
The image of Krishna and Arjuna on the chariot, with its most
frequently associated message ‘Yoga is wisdom in work’ (BG 2:50)
or ‘I come into being age after age (BG 4:8), is now present even
in a completely secular context, whether decorating a cinema front,
a letter head, a briefcase or a bedspread — I have even found
an example of its use in advertising such products as a television
set, cement and power engineering.
One can ask what kind of ‘visual theology’ is expressed in these
images and also, what do they tell us about the religiosity of
modern Hinduism? Here it is important to remember that the popularisation
of the Bhagavad Gita is not only a modern, but primarily an urban
phenomenon with little impact on village Hinduism. Bharati has
maintained that the Gita is overrated as a book of the people
at large who know the stories of the Bhagavata Purana much better
than the Gita. He has written: ‘When the villagers heard Gandhi
speak about the Gita, they heard him, not the Gita, for the holy
word has to be filtered through the charismatic. He reached the
people, not the book.’ (13)
Theologically, there is much that could be said about the Bhagavad
Gita. It seems to me particularly important to explore the religious
attraction of the Krishna of the Gitä whose understanding today
is based on the fusion of elements drawn from different textual
and iconographic traditions, interpreted in a new cross-cultural
context. The different levels of meaning found in the imagery
of Krishna, the Gitacharya, allow us to obtain an insight into
the modern Hindu vision of God.
The Krishna of the Gita is so attractive because he is both human
and divine: here is a God who speaks to man and leads him in his
actions, even if this meant aggressive action during the independence
movement. The dialogue situation of the Gita is also of great
importance for it shows that in the midst of battle Krishna is
close to human concerns; he is not an abstract God of metaphysics
far removed from the daily preoccupations of the multitude. Thinking
about the Krishna of the Gita involves thinking about Arjuna in
his doubt and fear. Many devotees can closely identify with his
situation and Krishna fills them with power to act. Thus, the
visual representation of Krishna and Arjuna on the chariot, so
widely diffused among Hindus today, reinforces the double sense
in which the Bhavagad Gita has been understood in modern times;
on one hand, it has been interpreted as a dialogue ‘about things
divine’, about the nature of God, soul and salvation, but on the
other it has been for countless people ‘a handbook of practical
wisdom’ to live and act in the world, understood as ‘a battlefield
on which we have to perform our duty.’ (14)
The three aspects under which I have discussed the Bhavagad Gita
here present examples of how the study of this scripture can be
contextualised and thus be made more rewarding. Other aspects
worth pursuing would be the use of quotations or of whole readings
of the Gita in contemporary Hindu worship both in India and in
Britain, the comparisons made between the Bhagavad Gita and the
Bible, or the place of the Gita in current Hindu-Christian dialogue.
Yet another fascinating perspective to explore is the popularity
of the Gita in the West and the references found to the Gita in
western literature. In 1985 several conferences and publications
celebrated a double anniversary regarding the Bhagavad Gita; it
was then 200 years since Charles Wilkins published his first Gita
translation into English, and 100 years since Edward Arnold presented
an even more influential rendering of the text. These two translations
have been superceded by more recent and accurate ones; and new
commentaries begin to appear, among them one by Bede Griffiths.
(15) Today the Gita can be studied from many different perspectives,
but the most important question of all is to ask what lasting
contribution this Hindu scripture makes to our global religious
heritage and what it can give us, whatever our background or beliefs.
1. These examples are part of a longer study
on which I am still working. Some ideas are based on a paper The
Religious and Secular Importance of the Bhagavad Gita in modern
Hinduism given in 1983 at the School of Oriental and African Studies,
London, for a seminar on Hinduism in Great Britain. A fuller version
is published as ‘Iconographic Reflections on the Religious and
Secular Importance of the Bhagavad Gita within the Image World
of Modern Hinduism’ in The Journal of Studies in the Bhagavadgita,
Bicentennial Issue, vol. V—Vu, 1985—1987, University of Sydney,
2. Robert N. Minor, Bhagavad-Gita. An exegetical
Commentary, New Delhi: Heritage Publishers 1982.
3. ibid., p. XI.
4. ibid., p. LII.
5. New Delhi: Sterling Publishers 1975.
6. ibid., p. 6.
7. See E. Sharpe, ‘Protestant Missionaries and
the Study of the Bhagavad Gita’. International Bulletin of Missionary
Research, vol. 6:4 (1982), pp. 155—159. A larger historical survey
is found in E. J. Sharpe, The Universal Gita: Western Images of
the Bhagavadgita — a bicentenary survey. London: Duckworth, 1985.
8. I have discussed the writings of Hindu reformers
on this in greater detail elsewhere: ‘Who is the ideal karmayogin?
The meaning of a Hindu religious symbol’, Religion vol. 10 (1980),
9. See G. J. Larson, ‘The Bhagavad Gita as a
Cross-Cultural Process: toward an Analysis of the Social Locations
of a Religious Text’, Journal of the American Academy of Religion,
vol. XLIII: 4 (1975), pp. 651—669. The quotations are on p. 665f.
and p. 668.
10. See J. S. Hawley, ‘Krishna’s Cosmic Victories’,
Journal of the American Academy of Religion, vol. XLVII:2(1979),
pp.201—22l. The quotation is on p. 202.
11. See my article ‘The Iconography of the Bhagavad
Gita — The visual theology of a Hindu scripture’, Journal of Dharma
vol. VII:2 (1982), pp. 146— 163. I am exploring the possibility
whether some of the visual material I have collected on the Bhagavad
Gita might be reproduced for the use of pupils and students.
12. For an example from a Hindu temple in Britain
see the modern painting of Krishna and Arjuna from the Bradford
Mandir reproduced in D. G. Bowen ed., Hinduism in England, Bradford
College 1981, p. 43.
13. A. Bharati, ‘Gandhi’s interpretation of
the Gita: An Anthropological Analysis’ in S. Ray ed., Gandhi,
India and the World, Philadelphia: Temple University Press 1970,
pp. 57—70, quoted on p. 68.
14. A description used by Shri Shri Prakash
in his ‘Introduction’ to the Bhagavad Gita, Bombay: The Limited
Editions Club 1961.
15. See Bede Griffiths, River of Compassion:
a Christian commentary of the Bhagavad Gita. WarwicklNew York:
Amity House, 1987 (available in Britain from Element Books, Longmead,