This is a collection of careful objective historically sensitive studies of modern commentators on the Bhagvadgita one of the basic scriptures of Hinduism and one which has been wild read in the modern west. Experts on modern Indian religious though throw how Gandhi, Vivekananda, Radhakrishnan, bhaktivedanta, aurobindo, tilak, Bhave, Sivanand the theosophists and Bankim read used and interpreted the Gita collectively essays display the different back grounds and orientation of the major Indian thinkers of our time. An introduction and a conclusion provide a perspective on the thinkers and identify common themes which are part of modern emphases. The contributors to the volume are Ronald W. Neufeldt Ajit Ray, Robert W. Stevenson, Robert N. Minor, J.T.F Jorders Boyd H, Wilson Harold W. French, David M. Miller, Robert D. Baird.
Robert N. Minor is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Kansas. He has written books and articles on modern Indian thinkers and Gita.
Two hundred years if translation and study of the Bhagavadgita in the west and two thousand years if study and translation in India have produced a vast body of literature. This volume is a study of significant Indian interpreters of the modern period whose interpretation shave affected others in Indian and the West. It is representative of course not exhaustive and we hope it will promote the study of scriptural interpretation in the modern period so as to clarify of continuity and change in the modern definition of religious traditions. Although we wish like most authors that ours were the definitive study of these matters we would be pleased if this volume became a new benchmark for further research.
The project began with the preparation of papers presented at a research conference on Modem interpreters of the Bhagavadgita at the University of Kansas, Lawrence in conjunction with the Midwest Conference on Asian Affairs October 7-8-1983. The conference was supported by a research conference grant from the national endowment for the Humanities and by the University of Kansas particularly the department of religious studies the center for humanistic studies and the General Research studies the center for humanistic special appreciation is due to professor Robert Shelton, Chairperson of the Department of Religious Studies and Professor James Worlfel Acting Chair for 1983-84 to Susan Gronbeck Tedesco of the Center for humanistic Studies and to professor Daniel Bays Director of the Center for East Asian Studies.
Most religious traditions thought they have placed a strong emphasis upon the oral also have texts which function as scriptures or sacred writings. These scriptures function differently for different members of the tradition. Some revere these texts while otherwise ignoring their content. A few both know their content and practice their teachings. But many read the scriptures exclusively in terms of their own experiences even though these readings were unknown to the original authors and then practice what the text means in that light. Believers are often unconcerned with what a text meant in the original author’s historical context from they see it as the embodiment of a living truth with which they identify. To believe the scripture is true and to know what that truth is in a different context from that if thus human author easily results in seeing that scripture in ways unseen by others in the tradition who know truth differently. The religious traditions of Indian are no exception.
In Indian a distinction is regularly made between two types of religious literature sruti that which is heard and smrti that which is remembers sruti is theoretically more authoritative for it is though of as directly obtained truth while smrti is mediated tradition. Yet the works which are designated smrti have functioned as scripture more often in the loves of Indians than have sruti. Sruti designates the Vedas a vast collection of religious texts which reflect a verity of religious positions that existed in India form 1400 B.C to 300 B.C Expert for the latter portions of the Vedic corpus known as the Upanishads the Vedic material came to receive more reverence that it did following. This meant that smritu had to claim that it was Vedic that what it taught was found in the Vedas herm they are rightly understood or that it was an authoritative to the Vedas. Thus the Mahabharata epic (400 B.C -400 A.D) claimed authority as the fifth Veda an addition to the four original Vedas of the collection.
The purnas from 200- 1200 A.D with their stories of the gods became more well -known than Vedic literature. They too claimed authority as fifth Vedas or as official commentaries on the Vedas that spoke the words of inspired sages. But one of the earliest works designated smrti which functioned as scripture in India was the short, 700 verse text known as the Bhagavadgita the song of the Beloved one.
From the time of its authorship for insertion into the Mahabharata Indian religious thinkers have regularly commented upon cited and written about the Bhagavadgita. Even in the alter portion of the Mahabharata itself the Gita was taken as authority for a wide variety of religious ideas and paths to the now traditional goal of liberation form the wheel of rebirth. The earliest extant commentary is that of the eighty century non dualist shankara who refers to at least one previous commentator. But commentaries on the Gita since Shankara’s come form nearly the whole religious spectrum including devotees of the three most popular Indian gods Krishna, Vishnu, and Shiva.
For reasons unknown the Gita become a part of the prasthanatraya the triple foundation the three texts on which it was believed the Indian schools of religious though called Vedanta were founded Vedanta meaning the end of the Vedas denoted not only that the Upanishads and these alter schools were based were literally the last works added to the Vedic corpus but also that the thought of the Upanishads and these alter schools each of which believed it best understood the Upanishads was the end of goal of Vedic experience. It becomes standard practice for thinkers identifying with Vedanta to comment on the Upanishads the Vedanta Sutras of Badarayana which are thought to summarize the thought of the Upanishads and the Bhagavadgita. Each school believe that all three taught its view of reality and its path to moksa liberation form the eternal cycle of karma and rebirth.
The Bhagavadgita itself was created in a period which seemed to evidence a growing variety of religious option seeking moksa. The Upanishads schools produced their variety of solutions to the human predicament by about 300 B.C Liberation was attained they believed by experiential identification of one’s being with the one permanent Reality often designated Brahman that is behind the flux of karma of birth and rebirth. Numerous religious personalities wandering throughout India preached other paths to liberation and at times gathered not a few followers of these the Buddha (563- 483 B.C)and his contemporary Mahavira became the most well-known. The period also saw the rise of popular religious movements whose concerns centered around bhakti devotion to a personal deity. The gods Vishnu and Shiva who would dominate Indian religion ever since were worshipped by followers whose devotion soon found its way into the Mahabharata and the Ramayana the other great epic created form about 400. BC to 400 A.D.
The Bhagavadgita was written about 150 B.C by a devotee of another Indian deity, Krishna whose popularity would spread throughout India. It was meant to be included in the Mahabharata by a Krishna bhakta in order to show that devotion to Krishna was the key to an understanding of Vedic religion. Its author proclaimed that the correct path to liberation form the cycle of rebirth was the couple with meditation would result in a realization that one’s true self was not involved in action but was eternally devoted to the Lord of the Universe Krishna.
In one exclusive path mea author combined what has come to be caked karma-yoga a path of non –attached action Jnana-yoga a path of intuitive knowledge and bhakti yoga a path of devotion, the fact that he combined these elements or another in their interpretations of the text. The Gita’s author also included numerous citation of the Vedic material reinterpreted for his objectives. These in turn provided points form which later interpreters who did not share the author’s path could assert their own position. A traditional Indian commentarial spirit searches out the mahavakya the great saying in a key verse or phrase or term. By this saying the commentator then understands the remainder of the text. The Gita provided enough of these great saying to be used often out of context to support almost any commentator’s understanding of the path. Thus even though it was called smrti the Gita became a standard authority’s text within a number of schools of Vedanta.
Apparently a number of the religious personalities who gathered followers about them in the period of the Gita’s authorship challenged the system of caste or class by which the Vedic texts statures society. According to the Theravada tradition the Buddha did so as he set up his monastic order. Central to the Gita is its concern that the caste stature by maintained. Declaring that the fourfold caste system was created by Krishna (4.13) it also held that it was better not to teach the truth to people if it caused them to depart form their duties (varna- dharma) which were determined by their place in the social structure i.e. their caste (3.26,29).
One of the Heros of the Mahabharata, Arjuna, provides for the work’s author a paradigmatic case in which to promote the Performance of dharma. Arjuna is a ksatriya a member of the class of warriors. To abandon his duty by not fighting in the battle to come even though his reluctance is prompted by his concern that he would kill his relatives if he fought is a violation of Sharma Krishna argues. Though Arjuna’s own argument in Gita chapter own was also an attempt to preserve the class structure with its duties Krishna argues the he must fight because that is his class duty. Twice the Gita declares that it is better to do one’s own dharma poorly then to do anther’s well (3035; 18.47). Thus the author sought to maintain the structure which would be reinforced by the law books the dharma sastras that would soon appear. On these matters the traditional commentators would agree.
Beyond the commentaries and essays of the intellectual elite it is difficulties to determine how popular the Gita has been. Many scholars believe it had little popularity and non literary evidence seems to support this view. The earliest illustrated manuscripts of the Gita available are from the 18th century and earlier artist’s representations are rare. While the Krishna of the very popular Bhagavata Purana and scenes form the rest of the Mahabharata are to be found regularly only tow illustration of the Krishna of the Gita are known own in the 14th century at a temple at puspagiri in Andhra Pradesh and another form a frieze on the late 12th century Halbid temple.
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