Is the metaphorical interpretation of the Gita’s battlefield setting authorized?

by December 27, 2011

Is the metaphorical interpretation of the Gita’s battlefield setting authorized?

Question: In your article on the battlefield setting of the Gita, you said that its metaphorical interpretation is not wrong. Does this statement have any basis? Are there any precedents for this sort of interpretation?

(Paraphrase of a comment to the earlier article posted by K Jaydeva Dasa)

Answer: The metaphorical interpretation of scripture has a long and respected history within the Vedic tradition. It was integral to a method of scriptural interpretation known as gauna vrtti (secondary meaning) as contrasted with mukhya vrtti (primary meaning) and was reserved for the special contexts like those where:

  1. The direct meaning would result in obvious absurdities. The standard example for this in Indian philosophy is the sentence “His house is on the river.” As no house can lie on the river, this has to be interpreted as meaning “his house is on the banks of the river.”
  2. The direct meaning could be supplemented – but not supplanted – with an additional meaning obtained by looking at the implied symbolism. Here are a few examples of this approach being used by pre-eminent Vedic teachers:
  • Sripad Madhvacharya in his well-known analysis of the Mahabharata, the Mahabharata Tatparya Nirnaya, states that the Itihasas like the Mahabharata and the Ramayana can be understood at three levels:
    • The literal:  The events described in these literature happened historically as they were described,
    • The ethical: These historical events serve as moral benchmarks to guide us in our present-day ethical decision-making.
    • The metaphorical: These historical events symbolize truths relevant to seekers on the spiritual path.
  • Madhvacharya is quick to emphasize that the literal understanding is the most accurate and the other understandings are only to gain additional, esoteric insight that is consistent with – and not contradictory to – the literal understanding.
  • Sri Vedanta Deshika, a prominent teacher in the line of Ramanujacharya, used the metaphorical understanding of the kidnapping of Sita in the Ramayana to show how that traumatic event is relevant to us now: “When the soul represented by Sita turns away from God represented by Lord Rama, the mind represented by Ravana immediately carries the soul away from God and imprisons it in the body represented by Lanka.”
  • Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura, a prominent author-teacher in the Vaishnava tradition, used this approach in his Krishna Samhita (Chapters 4-6) and also Chaitanya Shikshamrita (Part 5, Chapter 6) to explain how the various demons killed by Krishna in Vrindavana represent the various anarthas (undesirable behavioral traits) that the seeker needs to eradicate from his heart, which is like Vrindavana. Bhaktivinoda Thakura doesn’t deny the literal or historical reality of Krishna’s demon-killing pastimes; these pastimes occurred in the past when Krishna had descended to the world. But he also states that the killing of the demons by Krishna also represents the destruction of the anarthas in our heart by Krishna that will happen when we hear those demon-killing pastimes submissively.
  • Srila Prabhupada himself used the metaphorical interpretation of the Kurukshetra war occasionally, as in his talk while giving initiations for the first time in America in 1966 at New York, as quoted in “The Hare Krishna Explosion” by Hayagriva Dasa.
  • “Krishna and Arjuna sat in the same chariot. But Arjuna knew that Krishna is the Supreme. We are also in a kind of chariot with Krishna. That chariot is this material body, and within the heart Lord Krishna is present as the Supersoul, witnessing all our activities. Even though He accompanies us within the material world, Krishna is never attached.” Paraphrasing Srila Prabhupada, the author further writes, “He then reminds us that we should never fret when confronted with adversities, for we should always know that Lord Krishna is driving our chariot.”
  • Srila Prabhupada rejected time and again the metaphorical interpretation of the Kurukshetra war when it was used as a substitute for the literal interpretation, as a means to deny the historicity of the Mahabharata war, as a tool to explain away the violence that took place there. That has not been done at all in the earlier article . In fact, that possibility is specifically mentioned and countered.

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  • M Das
    December 29, 2011 at 1:27 pm

    generally people substitute the literary meaning with the metaphor, but that is wrong. this was a very useful learning point for me.

    very comprehensive and insightful analysis prabhuji.

    thanks a lot.

  • subhash
    January 1, 2012 at 12:16 am

    i thought the metaphorical explanation is almost mental speculation. now i came to know that metaphorical explanation can also be accepted provided it comes from a self realised soul

  • April 21, 2012 at 1:07 pm

    A Houseboat is a house on the river…

    Thank you.

    • Chaitanya Charan das
      April 21, 2012 at 1:42 pm

      Good point; thanks.
      A person living in a houseboat is an exceptional situation, but it is a possibility.
      All material examples are culturally contextual and may not apply in all circumstances. The examples are contextual, the principles, universal.

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