Should the Bhagavad-gita be made India’s national book?

by Chaitanya CharanAugust 14, 2015

Answer Podcast:

Answer Outline:

Not a matter of anti-secular religious oneupmanship, but of recognition of the Gita’s significant impact on India
1. Historical significance for over a millennium
2. Defining role in India’s independence struggle among both violent and nonviolent freedom fighters
3. Relevant message: renunciation in action, balance of material and spiritual, religious inclusivism, nonsectarian devotion
4. Global appeal and admiration
Hare Krishna!
Question: Should the Bhagavad-Gita be made the national book of India?
Answer: This topic which had at one time become very heavily discussed and debated in the Indian media keeps periodically surfacing and on this occasion we will discuss about the broad principles and at a time when there is not so much political heat on the issue, we can discuss it with more objectivity.
So the first concern about the Bhagavad-Gita becoming the national book of India; the first and the foremost concern that was there was that India is a secular country and why should the book of one religion be made into a National book.
Now this objection that the declaration of say the Bhagavad-Gita as the national book of India will go against the secular fabric of India, this comes from fundamental misunderstanding of what a national book means.
For example say if it is said that a particular river is a national river of India, a particular animal is a national animal of India, a particular bird is the national bird of India. Now does that mean that all other rivers, all other animals, all other birds are going to be discriminate against, are going to be tortured, are going to be exterminated? No! Not necessarily. If a particular bird, particular animal, particularly river, particular song, if that has had significant influence on India, if it has become a significant part of the identity of India, if it has touched India in a particularly significant way then it is recognized as a national symbol. National animal, bird, river or whatever.
So in no way does that mean that the others of that same group, the same ** are to be trivialized or rejected. So same way, yes! India is a country with many religions and especially there has been tension among several religions for quite some time now and that is why there is the concern of one **coming up when a particular book is made into a National book. But the Bhagavad-Gita being made into a national book is not a statement of discrimination against the sacred books of other religions nor is it meant to be trivializing those books or whatever insights and wisdom is contained in those books. The simple point the rationale for the Bhagavad-Gita becoming the national book of India can be talked in terms of
its historical influence,
its contemporary relevance,
its nonsectarian essence and
its global appeal.
With these four things we will talk about how the Bhagavad-Gita has influenced India not only India in terms of Indians way of looking at things, and Indians way of acting but also influencing India in terms of the way is a country is pursued by the world in significant ways, in ways that no other book in this country has influenced. And it is not in the sense of replacing or displacing or denigrating any other book but it is simply in the sense of acknowledging this distinctive position of the contribution of Bhagavad-Gita to India’s formation and India’s global influence, global standing.
That is what we are talking about when we talk about the Bhagavad-Gita being considered the national book of India. So let’s look at these one by one:
Historical influence: For at least millennia, almost a millennia and a half, the Bhagavad-Gita has been one of the most important books in the Indian canon. India has six systems of philosophy, yes India has been a place of many diverse systems of thought and that diversity is actually integrated into a holistic frame work in the Bhagavad-Gita. The six systems of philosophy if one reads carefully which are considered by very significant philosophic contributions of India they all find, not only just a mention but integration in the Bhagavad-Gita and we see that the great stalwart teachers of the Indian tradition, right from Shankaracharya who was in 6th-7th centuries, Ramanujacharya in 10th-11th centuries, and then Madhvacharya in the 12th -13th centuries, so that periods may be 1500 years back or forth but the point is since that day of all commented on the Bhagavad-Gita, and they considered the commentary on the Bhagavad-Gita to be one of the most important books. So at that time the Prasthanatraya which were considered three primary books for determining, authoritative wisdom and among them the Bhagavad-Gita was one of them. At a popular level for people, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana and the Srimad Bhagavatam they had a huge appeal but still the Bhagavad-Gita had tremendous theological influence, philosophical relevance and literary eminence in the Indian tradition and that became all the more if we consider the country India the conception of Aryavarta, the land of the Aryans that had widespread. But at the same time that has been existing for a long time but the concept of India as a nation with national flag, national sense of identity that became especially prominent as a response to British rule from the 17th -18th century onwards and during that time the Bhagavad-Gita also became definingly important. The sense of India as a nation was there in the past also that is why we have Shankaracharya going to 4 directions to the 4 peethas and the four corners of India he established the four centers of learning. Similarly there have been the great Acaryas who travelled various parts of the country but especially that sense of national identity and integration became dominant with the country uniting to counter the exploitative rule of Britain and it is in that independence struggle which shaped identity of India as a national state as it exists now, the Bhagavad-Gita played a defining role.
Now broadly the leaders who fought for independence were in 2 distinct categories; those who wanted to protest by nonviolent, parliamentary or non-parliamentary means but by nonviolent means and those who wanted to rebel using violence is necessary and significantly both of them took refuge in the Gita. There were people who were deemed as rebels and even called as terrorist by the British government. Of course these people were not terrorists they were simply protesting against the exploitation but the point is that they used the Bhagavad-Gita for inspiring themselves, inspiring Indians. Suppose some patriots whom British government deemed as terrorists actually name can do a lot of labeling, these patriots when they were arrested and they were sent for hanging many of them they actually Dhingra and others they went with the Bhagavad-Gita in their hands to the gallows, confidently.
So point is that the Bhagavad-Gita inspired them and at that time there were people who commented on the Gita, actually their reasoning was that Krishna just as He inspired to fight against Adharma similarly we should fight against the British culture which is destroying Dharmic culture, Dharmic wisdom of India. We should strive to give India independence. So whatever way their interpretation of the Gita have been, whether their interpretation was in accordance with the wisdom of the Gita or not the point is that they derived inspiration from where, the point is that the Bhagavad-Gita inspired and influenced them.
Similarly we had nonviolent more or less parliamentary sort of protest or non-parliamentary, but still nonviolence protest that was by Gandhiji and he was very foundationally influenced by the Gita and he has famously said that, ‘when doubts haunt me, when disappointment stares me on the face, and when I see not ray of hope from the horizon at that time I remember a verse from the Gita and I start smiling even in the face of overwhelming disappointment, those who meditate on the Gita will derive fresh meanings from it every day’. Here Gandhiji is talking about the Bhagavad-Gita’s wisdom in a universalist sense of giving strength and hope amidst times of tests and deprivation and weakness and he is talking about this universal spiritually uplifting potency of the Gita’s wisdom. So many other leaders who derived inspiration from the Gita and thus if we look at India’s formational history in the preindependence and ** period, the Bhagavad-Gita was a book that influenced and shaped the destiny of India far more than any other book.
So in terms of historical significance no book has had as much influence in shaping and giving spiritual substance to the formation of India as the Bhagavad-Gita. So this influence as it extends back thousands of years, even in our known historical documented records but more than that it has become increasingly influential in the pre-independence and the post independence time.
Now moving forward if we look at the Bhagavad-Gita its message is also of universal relevance. One of the criticisms that is often labeled against the Indian tradition is that it has two world renouncing, it has two world rejecting. It has two passive. Yes! There were these two modes of growth of inner and outer growth that we have talked about in the Indian tradition, one was through work and the other was through renunciation and in general the renunciation of work was thought of as higher but the Bhagavad-Gita brought up out remarkable integration when it talked about not renunciation of work but renunciation in work.
So it talked about working in a spirit of selflessness and today where everyone is where the world is now slowly but surely recognizing the grim consequences of self-centered, exploitative, materialistic work, spirit of working where what is in it for me is the primary defining criteria by which people act in such a situation recognizing the principles that the Bhagavad-Gita provides for a selfless action that can be a tremendously empowering individual social corrective that enables us to balance our position in this world, by decreasing our ecological footprint, by minimizing the ecological damage that we caused, sociological disruption that we caused by our indiscriminate indulgence and exploitations. So the point is the Bhagavad-Gita can bring in a sense of balance by not talking about the other worldliness that has often been present in the Indian tradition that was counterbalanced by the Bhagavad-Gita’s spiritual worldliness. That means yes one is in the world, not the worldliness in the sense of materialistic but worldliness in the sense of active in the world for the spiritual purpose and this insight of the Bhagavad-Gita of our spiritual side having eminence. Now this eminence with preeminence because it is the spiritual that shapes the material, it is the spiritual that guides the material, and it is the spiritual that actually fulfils the material.
Today we live in a world where the material side is being improved in many ways through technology but the spiritual **has been degraded. So Martin Luther King said we live in an age of guided missiles and misguided men. So we have gained control over the outer world but we have not gained much control over the inner world, in fact we have lost more and more control that is why we have the horrible tragedy in the world that people often commit suicide not just one or two but more than 1 million people commit suicide every year according to WHO statistics. That means over 100 people commit suicide practically within a matter of few minutes and it is a scary statistic. So more the number of people who are being killed in terrorist attacks, in wars, in murders more than that more number of people who were killed by others more the number of people were being killed by themselves. And this indicates something profoundly wrong in the way we are living. So the materialism that is impelling people to seek identity, value and success in externals that same materialism when people get frustrated in their pursuit of externals, they get so frustrated that they feel- what is that we live for? Let me and my life. But it is such a time that we need spiritual wisdom, not just a spiritual wisdom in a sense of just renounce the world but spiritual be in the world but be not of the world.
Padma patra vimambasa, Krishna says that Lotus is in water but it doesn’t get wet it doesn’t get dirty in the dirty water, similarly the Bhagavad-Gita teaches us how we can by understanding our spiritual identity, by cultivating spiritual consciousness be in this world but not be sucked by the selfish morasses that are spread all over the world today and further the Bhagavad-Gita offers a nonsectarian call of love it concludes with,
sarva-dharmän parityajya
mäm ekaà çaraëaà vraja
ahaà tväà sarva-päpebhyo
mokñayiñyämi mä çucaù
sarva-dharmän parityajya give up all the varieties of external religiousities and just focus on the principle of love of God, so here we see the unifying conclusion of the Gita. Yes there can be many different religions, there can be many different conceptions of what one is to do but the Bhagavad-Gita says let them all conclude in love, let them all conclude in the principle of love, love for God and love for all living beings in relationship with God. So this is the universal message of the Gita where rather than focusing on diversities which no long exist and which the Bhagavad-Gita also acknowledges but the Bhagavad-Gita says,
mama vartmänuvartante
manuñyäù pärtha sarvaçaù
Krishna says that all people are on my path, so in the Bhagavad-Gita and is said that everyone is on the way to God ultimately and that way the Bhagavad-Gita offers us a very universal understanding which is not at all exclusivist, not saying that this is the only way and all other ways are false. It accommodates the different people according to their individual spiritual inclinations and gives them appropriate levels at which they can act.
And lastly we can also look at the global appeal of the Bhagavad-Gita. Many of the eminent thinkers in the word they have actually acknowledge the glory of the Gita. Ralph Aldo Emerson and Henry David Toro they are considered the American transcendentalists and especially Emerson is considered to be one of the foremost thinkers who shaped the modern American **and he said that when he read the Bhagavad-Gita it was as if empires spoke to him, the voice of an old intelligence that had heard and addressed the questions that exercise us today, and he said that when he read the Bhagavad-Gita it was a magnificent day in his life and Henry David Toro was also another great American thinker he withdrew from the world to stay in a forest and contemplate deeply in the nature and purpose of life and at that time when he studied the Bhagavad-Gita it had profound impression on him and he said that that the wisdom of the Bhagavad-Gita is so stupendous and cosmogonal that as compared to it all Western literature that we have seems insignificant. The point here is again not **of India versus the West but the point is that the wisdom of the Bhagavad-Gita is so spellbinding that this is what a western mind who has no nationalist agenda who tried to promote the Bhagavad-Gita, this is a mind which is appreciating the Bhagavad-Gita simply for its breathtakingly deep and penetrating wisdom.
Similarly there are many other thinkers who have appreciated the Bhagavad-Gita. For example **said that this is the most systematic statement of the perennial philosophy of the systematic spiritual evolution that people can have and similarly there are others**he loved the Bhagavad-Gita so much that when he was dying on his bed while dying he kept Bhagavad-Gita and ** he said that the Bhagavad-Gita has been solace in my life and it will be my solace in death. So like that there have been many thinkers who all over the world have appreciated the Bhagavad-Gita and it will be unfortunate, it will be actually injustice to the India’s glorious national legacy if in the name of considering the Bhagavad-Gita to be the book of one religion or one religious group we deprive the modern Indians of the opportunity to know the glory of their national legacy.
Actually I read these quotes of many western thinkers appreciating the wisdom of the Gita, many many years after I started studying the Gita. I was born in India and I was born in a family where I had kept **I memories some of the verses of the Gita, and even before I was introduced to bhakti yoga, I used to recite Gita, participate in competitions of Gita recitation and as I grew up when I came to college I read a couple of books and the commentaries on the Gita also but nowhere neither in my school education nor in my extracurricular reading whether be it newspapers or magazines or whatever, nowhere did I come to know that the Bhagavad-Gita is a book that has been widely appreciated by some of the ** greatest thinkers. So now why is it that a person who is in India doesn’t come to know through any of the mainstream channels of education about the glory of an Indian literature. Not just the glory about how it has been appreciated and lauded by people in different parts of the world. So every country celebrates its national legacy and preserves it in perpetuates especially if that legacy has earned it a place of pride in the world’s eyes.
So the Bhagavad-Gita is a defining part of India’s national legacy. From the point of we have historical significance, from the point of the message’s relevance, of spiritualization of work; not renunciation of work but renunciation in work and in terms of global appeal and appreciation it has got. So if after knowing this position of the Gita still just if we focus only on this one fact that the Bhagavad-Gita is a book that is considered to be the religious book of one particular group of people and if we stay fixed on that then we don’t recognize that the contribution, the impact of the Gita has had on India’s history and India’s culture and India’s whole perception extends far beyond that particular contribution of the Gita as the sacred book of one particular religious group. In fact the Bhagavad-Gita offers its message to everyone; the Bhagavad-Gita offers a vision of God who is the God of all people. As the God
sarva-yoniñu kaunteya
mürtayaù sambhavanti yäù
täsäà brahma mahad yonir
ahaà béja-pradaù pitä
The Bhagavad-Gita does not identify itself as a book of any particular religious group it actually offers universal wisdom that can offer universal enrichment and empowerment for anyone and everyone who reads and applies it and given this universal nature of the Bhagavad-Gita; its wisdom and the enormous significance of the Gita in the formation and perception of India in the world it will be a travesty of justice to reduce Gita to the book of a particular religious group and thereby deny it its due place of influence. So objectively not in a prejudiced way look at the Gita’s contribution, look at the Gita’s content then the Bhagavad-Gita does eminently deserve to be the National book of India. Thank you! Hare Krishna!!!
About The Author
Chaitanya Charan
  • Vimal
    August 16, 2015 at 7:07 pm

    If only this talk can be aired over mass media and the parliament, there will be a spiritual revolution in India. However, secular India will never allow this.

    1) Other religions have spread all over the world and is the primary religion of many countries, which is enforced and promoted by the governments.
    2) Gita was spoken over 5000 years ago when other religions did not even exist.
    3) The broad-minded vedic culture of India accommodated fanatic religions into her fabric even after being attacked and destroyed by multiple invasions.
    4) However, today in the name of secularism, other religious groups are aggressively minimizing vedic culture and are trying to wipe it away to oblivion so that they can establish their ideas, influence and religion in India, after having spread all over the world. This is how, fanatical minority groups have reciprocated with the warmth and trust of vedic India.

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