18.66 – The Gita is Categorical and Rhetorical
“The Bhagavad-gita is all things to all people,” Many Gita students feel like this because different commentators have interpreted it in varying, even contradicting, ways.
But what does the Gita itself say?
It’s obvious that the Gita addresses a remarkable variety of paths including the paths of irreligious materialism, religious materialism, detached action, intellectual reflection, introspective meditation and selfless devotion.
What is perhaps less obvious is that although the Gita addresses all these paths explicitly, it doesn’t endorse all of them equally. This becomes most clear in the Gita’s climax (18.66) where its message is categorical and rhetorical:
- Categorical because this verse unambiguously rejects all other paths for the sake of the path of selfless devotion (sarva dharman parityajya mam ekam sharanam vraja)
- Rhetorical because it unequivocally backs its categorical message by assuring the personal intervention of the divine to remove any problems created by the rejection of the other paths (aham tvam sarva papebhyo mokshayishyami ma shucah)
Perhaps a rough metaphor might illumine the Gita’s strategy. A champion boxer starts a match by throwing light punches in the air that are intended to draw the opponent close enough so that a single knockout punch can finish the match. Similarly, the Gita outlines various paths so as to draw closer individuals interested in those paths. When they become drawn into the Gita’s flow of thought, its masterly analysis knocks out their preconceptions about the superiority of their pet paths. Thereby it facilitates their embrace the path of selfless devotion, as it did for Arjuna.
Thus, if we subordinate our preconceived reasoning to the Gita’s reasoning, then we can discover how our reasoning attains its culmination in its reasoning. But if we superimpose our reasoning on the Gita’s reasoning, we gain nothing from the Gita except the self-serving satisfaction that its reasoning agrees with ours.
The choice is ours.