A Siberian court is to decide on banning the Bhagawad Gita, based on complaints that the text, distributed locally by the Iskcon sect, apparently 'advocates war' and forms 'extremist literature'. The case reflects a great misunderstanding of the Gita — and possibly severe anxieties within Russian society.
the outgoing Delhi Metro chief E Sreedharan said the Gita was the ultimate 'administrator's handbook', illuminating a calm and clear way forward through the pettifogging of relationships, desires and fears. The Gita obviously has many facets and can mean different things to different people. But "extremist literature"?
At its simplest, the Bhagawad Gita, 18 chapters nestled within the epic Mahabharata, is the story of Krishna advising Arjuna, facing kin in battle, on how to proceed. Hearing the overwrought warrior's fears, Krishna tells Arjuna he must walk the path of moral correctness and do his duty by humanity, not be bound by the ties of love, fear and pride we battle continually in life.
These are ephemeral, transient and meaningless, says Krishna; the truth is the divine, literally larger than life, despite all of life's beguiling colours and its devastating sadness. It is to fight life's illusions and find the path of truth that is the 'battle' Krishna elaborates on. Voiced by the one termed 'ran-chor', he who escaped battle, any correct interpretation of the Gita cannot find the text advocating physical warfare.
However, it is simple to be confused by the Gita. It was the intriguing quality of this text, a complex piece of philosophy within an extremely human story, delving into the mind's deepest recesses, its shallowest instincts, which impressed numerous Europeans. The first British Governor General of India, Warren Hastings, had the ancient text translated into English in 1785. Thereafter, from American scholar Ralph Waldo Emerson to Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung, Western thinkers immersed themselves in the Gita, its layers reflecting the difficulties — and ultimate simplicity — of human life.
Gita enchanted Mughals
Before them, non-Hindus too found the Gita an absorbing text. Pakistani scholar Akbar S Ahmed illustrates how the 17th century Mughal prince Dara Shikhoh was so enamoured by the Gita translated to Persian that some feared he had turned apostate. The prince however knew what complainants in Siberia don't—the Gita transcends religion.
In its discussion of universal human values, it escapes the pettiness of caste or creed, Krishna mentioning that a human being is defined by deeds, not birth. It is to his duty a person's loyalty truly lies.
Yet, it is precisely the fears that Gita seems to have touched on. Academic Madhavan Palat, an eminent expert on Soviet history, remarks of the Siberian situation, "This mirrors post-Soviet anxiety. Russia doesn't seem to be going anywhere. Areas are losing local population while facing influxes of Chinese and other migrants. Russians are more isolated and monochrome than other Europeans. This reflects a dogmatic attitude where you hit out at the small things since you can't touch the bigger ones. Here, if it's about a particular cult or sect, it shows concern about the sect getting even one new convert. It reflects a loss of confidence."
Coming from the nation that once gave the world the complexities of Dostoyevsky, the polished violence of Turgenev, banning the Gita due to nervousness is an irony. However, the episode marks how social anxieties, uncontrolled and eventually overwhelming, target grand ideas —especially those offering multiple understandings and views, a lesson familiar from the recent controversy over A K Ramanujan's essay exploring the Ramayana.
However, making war on diverse, free thought never leads to peace; it is only by reading works like the Gita — and Tolstoy — that we truly learn this