Is the Bhagavad-gita shruti or smriti? Did it become important only recently in the Indian tradition?
Transcribed by: Sudha Mehta Mataji
Edited by: Sudha Mehta Mataji
Question: Is Bhagavad Gita Shruti or Smriti? Has the Bhagavad Gita become important only recently in the Vedic tradition?
Answer: The Bhagavad Gita is essentially Shruti.The definition of Shruti is “thedirect word of God”. Since God Krishna has himself spoken the Bhagavad Gita, from that point of view it is Shruti. However from the point of view of technical classification the Bhagavad Gita falls in the Mahabharata and the Mahabharata is a Smriti literature. Therefore the Bhagavad Gita isalso consideredto be Smriti. However, often in the Vedanta tradition there are three books which are to be commented on by a school of thought if it wants to establish itself as authentic. These are Shruti Smriti and Nyaya. So among the Shruti there is the Upanishads that are to be commented upon, among the Smriti there is the Bhagavad Gita that is to be commented upon, and among Nyaya there is the Vedanta sutras that is to be commented upon. Shankar Acharya, Madhavacharya, Ramanuja Acharya and his followersBaladevVidyabhushan they all have commented on these three (Shruti, Smriti and Nyaya) collectively known as the “PrashtanaTraya”.
Thus the Bhagavad Gita is an extremely important book because it is one of the three pillars of Vedanta. Although it’s a Smriti even then Shankar Acharya, who was an impersonalist, hadacknowledged its importance as being the essence of Shruti. Smriti is considered by some to be of lesser authority than Shruti but Shankaracarya says
He says that all the Upanishads are like cow and just like the essence of cow is the milk. Similarly the essence of all the Upanishads is the Bhagavad Gita. Arjuna is the Vatsah. Just like when the Milk comes out from the Cow it’s not only for the calf but for everyone. Similarly the Milk of the Bhagavad Gita is Imeant for “Sudhir” all wise living beings. The Bhagavad Gita is deemed by Shankar Acharya to be the highest culmination or essence of even the Shruti. In that sense it is higher.Technically it may be a Smriti but essentially it’s a Shruti because it is the word of God and also in terms of importance and authority as even the great Acharya like the Shankar Acharya has deemed it as Shruti
Has the Bhagavad Gita become important only recently? Not at all.Shankaracharya, almost 1500 to 1600 years ago i.e. in the 6th and 7thcentury, has commented on the Bhagavad Gita. His philosophy was Advaitik (Impersonalism) and although his philosophy was Advaitik still he had commented on the Bhagavad Gita.
The Bhagavad Gita is not very easy to comment on in Advaitik way because the Bhagavad Gita so directly and repeatedly advocates pesonalism (God as person). But still he comments on it in Advaitik way. Why does he have to do that? Because the Bhagavad Gita is so important book and he wanted to establish a philosophy and not commenting on Bhagavad Gita would not have allowed him to establish that philosophy.
Infact the Bhagavad Gita is so important that even a MedievalShivaism thinker Abhinav Gupta when he was trying to establish Shivaism he wrote a commentary of Bhagavad Gita and somehow using all kinds of interpretation he tried prove through his commentary that the Bhagavad Gita is a Shaivite book. There is only one reference to Shiva in the whole of Bhagavad Gita Chapter 10 Text 23 i.e.Theopulence of the Absolute
andit is impossible to prove that Bhagavad Gita talks about Shiva as the absolute truth.But whyAbhinav Gupta had to go to such extreme extent to do that? Because the Bhagavad Gita is such an important book and if he wanted to establish Shivaism as a predominant school of thought then he had to comment on the Bhagavad Gita.Thus by consideringhow even impersonalist and Shivaism thinkers have commented in the Bhagavad Gita we can understand that even those thinkers considered the book to be important. And that’s why the importance of the Bhagavad Gita is not recent. It goes down to at least over 1000 – 1500 years. Prior to that also Bhagavad Gita was considered important and commented upon but for various reasons the prominent one being in the hot atmosphere of India manuscripts couldnot preserved or it was not possible to preserve. Hence we don’t have commentaries on most books before Shankaracharya. We know that the books had been written long before that but the commentaries are not available. We know that these books were written because Shankar Acharya and other Acharya’s have referred to previous commentaries but books are not available to us now they were lost. Still we cannot say that we cannot talk about the importance of Bhagavad Gita before Shankaracharya directly. Howeverby inference we know that theBhagavad Gita had becomeimportant enough, at the time of Shankaracharya, to have him comment on it specifically.This surely indicates that it is a substantially important book and for a book that important in a country that was diverse as India in those times then it must have beenimportant for a significant amount of time before that. Now some academics scholars positthat the Bhagavad Gita has become important only in the recent times.The British had a short and compact book “The Bible” the Muslims has a compact book “Quran” similarly the Hindus wanted a compact book and that’s how they took up Bhagavad Gita. This is not an entirely incorrect understanding but it is partial understanding. It is true that the Bhagavad Gita became popular among people in the recent times because Bhagavad Gita is a book of philosophy and for the mass of people a philosophical book is not the best bookfor teaching
Rama katha, Krishna kathaBhagavad Gita etc. it was not there for common people similarly in the past there was Bhagavad Katha. Bhagavad Gita is not a book for mass audience.For scholars and for intellectuals that book was extremely important
In the times of independence and there after the Bhagavad Gita became central book for the Hindus and it was very prominently used various Indian political leaders during independence to galvanise and unify Indians of various religious denominations within the broad Vedic tradition. There is some proof to the idea that within the popular cultureBhagavad Gita may have gained more importance in the recent times, since the British times, but within the intellectual tradition the Bhagavad Gita was always important as can be understood from that fact that various Acharya have commented on it from atleast 1500 years ago.