Friday, July 18, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: " WHO WROTE THE BHAGAVAD GITA? " BY MEGHNAD DESAI


1) WHO WROTE THE BHAGAVADGITA? : A SECULAR INQUIRY INTO A SACRED TEXT: MEGHNAD DESAI: HARPER ELEMENT: PAGES 191 : PRICE : RS 299/-


“The Geeta is the universal mother. She turns away nobody. Her door is wide open to anyone who knocks. A true votary of the Geeta does not know what disappointment is. He ever dwells in perennial joy and ‘peace that passeth all understanding.’ But that peace and joy comes not to the sceptic or to him who is proud of his intellect or learning. It is reserved only for the humble in spirit who brings to her worship a fullness of faith and an undivided singleness of mind. There never was a man who worshipped her in this spirit and went back disappointed”. - Mahatma Gandhi

Written into the frame of the ‘Mahabharata’, the Bhagavad Gita (BG) is universally accepted as one of the world’s great scriptures and whose teaching is of the highest value. It gives philosophical advice as to how one should lead one’s life, one’s duty in this transient world and it shows the exit route for the ultimate release or Moksha.

BG occurs in the Bhisma Parva of Mahabharata and comprises of eighteen chapters. At the beginning of the Mahabharata war, Arjuna suffers an existential collapse and declares that he will not fight. Krishna, his dear friend and charioteer takes in hand the task of treating Arjuna’s neurotic mind. Krishna conveys his message and exhorts Arjuna to “get up and fight”. In 700 verses, Krishna covers the entire gamut of Hindu philosophy. Arjuna ultimately realizes the meaning of “My Dharma” under the guidance of the Supreme Lord Krishna. In the last chapter of BG, Arjuna declares that all his delusions have ended.   


The author, Meghnad Desai, is a confirmed atheist, a well-known economist and Marxist. He has achieved eminence in the academic world and in public life in the UK where he has received honours for his contributions. He is also a recipient of Pravasi Bharatiya Puraskar in 2004 and Padma Bhushan in 2008. Triggered by reading D D Kosambi’s book on Indian history, the author was particularly attracted by his critique of BG. He dug deeper into the thought process of Kosambi and developed his own ideas on this sacred text. He was also influenced by reading Dr G S Khair’s book ‘Quest for the Original Geeta’ translated into English from Marathi. Interestingly, while doing his research, Desai found that the older authors of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries including Justice Telang who was the first Indian translator of BG in English had made a critical assessment of this sacred composition unlike the present approach of accepting it ‘in toto’ and as the last word. He decided to dig deeper and examine whether indeed BG had multiple authorship. The BG has 700 verses and eighteen chapters as generally accepted. There are different views about the number of chapters and the number of verses which are in variance with the accepted status. The author quotes Dr S. Radhakrishnan (former President of India) where he hints at the possibility that the cryptic advice given by Krishna to Arjuna was worked up into a poem of 700 verses by another author. Actually Desai goes on to establish that indeed as per his research and understanding there are three authors as concluded by Dr Khair with whom he was in full agreement. Dr Khair had named the three authors as Vyasa (119 verses), Vaisampayana(126 verses) and Souti (455 verses) who wrote it in different periods of time spread over 800 years. Dr Khair claims that he arrived at this conclusion after examining the style, concepts, vocabulary, terminology and the nature of BG’s contents. Desai who has gone along with Dr Khair’s theory has tried to prove his reasoning by attributing certain motives to these authors. The first author wrote during pre-Buddhist time around 600 BCE, the second author was a Buddha contemporary and the third author whom he considers as the Editor is supposed to have done it around 300 BCE. It was an attempt to deflate the popularity that Buddhism had gained and to inflate Brahminism which had seen a decline during Buddhist domination. And that the contradictions supposedly observed in the treatise may be attributed to the plurality of its authorship. In his attempt to question Krishna as the author of this religious and philosophical treatise, Desai quotes Swami Vivekananda who had hinted at the possibility of Shankaracharya (who wrote a famous commentary on BG) to have implanted it in the body of the Mahabharata. In short, the author’s attempt is to establish that the authorship is human and not divine.
   

Desai starts his book with the statement that he was thoroughly confused while reading the BG and that he could not make head or tail of it. He considers it as ‘ a confused philosophical book.’ He cites the examples of many Hindu terrorists who while fighting British colonialism used BG to justify their actions. He questions whether Krishna was a historical character. “Why are we respecting the text uncritically which has so many flaws?” According to Desai, BG has sections attacking lower castes and non-Aryan people and considers certain verses disturbing and corrupting. He concludes that it is a war-mongering scripture of the ruling class, misogynist and not suitable for a secular and modern India.

It is a natural state in untrained minds devoid of bhakthi to think on the above lines. Desai’s confusion would have been cleared had he approached a Guru in all humility and understood BG’s philosophy. Perhaps his intellectual arrogance came in the way. He should also introspect deeply over what Krishna says to Arjuna. “ I have given thee words of vision and wisdom more secret than hidden mysteries. Ponder over them in silence of thy soul and then in freedom do thy will.” Desai should know that his contrarian approach, interpretation of BG and questioning the authorship and philosophy of a ‘symphony which represents a peak of Indian spirituality’, reflects insufficient knowledge bordering on ignorance, a biased attitude and an inability to appreciate an outstanding philosophy which embodies the reasoning mind and brings out the essentials of karma and dharma and which is admired by philosophers all over the world. Sadly, Hinduism has become a ‘punching bag’. Many authors have attempted to beliitle Hindusim. His interpretation of BG will certainly hurt the religious sentiments of millions of Hindus. Would Desai have dared to write such a book on Islam or Christianity?

A discerning reader will naturally come to the conclusion that Desai has made a vain attempt to discredit a sacred philosophy through hollow and unsubstantiated arguments and to bolster a fanciful theory of multiple authorship of a sacred book universally accepted by Hindus as the voice of God.
          
           

1 comment:

Kev A said...

Desai does not understand the Gitaji properly and calls certain passages 'toxic'. Society was better organised in those days and so even though those principles may not be exactly the same today, does not mean something is 'toxic'. Just because a few ignorant people misinterpret varnashram does not make it 'toxic'. Translations are often wrong as most don't know how to read Sanskrit properly. Varnashram is only explaining an organisation structure. Just the way we say that managers are heads. Does not mean clans were labeled as 'managers' who then bullied others after being head. They worked for their post just the way people do today. Desai arrogantly assumes that he actually 'understands' Gitaji and then jumps to his toxic conclusions. For starters he should read essays by my friend Sona Parivraj on speaking tree or academia.edu for clarifications. The word 'womb' was not necessarily used in the context of a woman but dharti maa implying the person's prithvi tattva that has propelled him to this birth in conjunction with his prarabdha