The Bhagavad Gita is an inspiring scripture which people frequently turn to for guidance and also quote in support of their arguments. Unfortunately, its aphoristic quality and the backdrop of the war through which its message has been expounded makes it amenable to divergent interpretations. Pacifists tend to be distressed by the justification of war while the warhawks delight in it. The Gita’s enunciation of multiple spiritual paths provides leeway for commentators to selectively highlight the sections they prefer and ignore the rest of the book. Ethicists, for instance, may assume that the Gita preaches the performance of duty above everything. In this article, we examine Sri Aurobindo’s perspective on the Gita.
Views of various commentators
To understand the complexity of the interpretive problem, it may be helpful to review the spectrum of opinions that the Gita has garnered so far.
Wendy Doniger, controversial professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago, has said, “The Bhagavad Gita is not as nice a book as some Americans think. Throughout the Mahabharata … Krishna goads human beings into all sorts of murderous and self-destructive behaviours such as war….The Gita is a dishonest book; it justifies war. ..I’m a pacifist. I don’t believe in `good’ wars.” 
Update: Doniger claims that she never said that : “I sure do know that people keep quoting that remark about the Gita that was made up by some reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer years and years ago and that I never said. Oh, do please try to set that record straight” (Interview with G.Sampath appearing in DNA India, Sunday, Oct 4, 2009)
The pacifist leader of the Indian freedom struggle, Mahatma Gandhi, saw the Gita as a reflection of his own teachings on Ahimsa (non-violence) and the renunciation of the fruits of action. He conveniently assumed that the Mahabharata was not a historical work, and that the war described in the Gita is the one which goes on in our hearts. He remarked that “the physical warfare was brought in (to the story) merely to make the description of the internal duel more alluring” .
Gandhi’s view of the Gita stood in sharp contrast to that of another leader, Lokmanya Tilak, who favored a more militant approach to India’s freedom struggle against the British. He projected his own militant personality into the Gita. He stated, “This I hold is the lesson of the Gita. Jnanayoga there is, yes. Bhaktiyoga there is, yes. Who says not? But they are both subservient to the Karmayoga preached in the Gita” .
Another Indian leader, B.R. Ambedkar had a hardscrabble upbringing because his birth in a supposedly low caste family subjected him to the discriminatory practices of the pernicious Indian caste system (See: True Intent of the Caste System). His reading of the Gita came to be tainted by that bitter experience. He disregarded the book’s spiritual message and saw it purely as a historical text formulated to defend certain dogmas of religion. According to him, the Aryan community of pre-Buddhist times did not have a developed sense of moral values. Buddhism had caused a moral and social revolution in this society. When the Mauryan emperor Ashoka embraced Buddhism, the social revolution became a political revolution. After the decline of the Mauryan Empire, the Brahmins, whose interests had suffered under the Buddhist kings initiated a counter-revolution under the leadership of Pushyamitra Sung. The counter-revolution restored Brahminism(i.e. caste system). The Bhagavad Gita, according to him, was composed to give ideological and moral support to this restoration of the caste system .
Swami Nikhilananda, an influential twentieth-century monk of the Ramakrishna Mission, interpreted the Gita in terms of the spiritual abstractions that he was familiar with. He saw the Gita as an allegory, with Arjuna representing the Atman(man’s soul), Krishna representing the Brahman(Supreme Divine), and Arjuna’s chariot as the body of man .
As we can see, many such fractional interpretations abound, colored by the personalities of the commentators as well as the prevailing mentality of the country and the age in which they live.
Sri Aurobindo’s interpretation of the Gita
Sri Aurobindo, when informed of Gandhi’s interpretation that the Gita preaches non-violence, had responded, “Non-violence is not in the Gita. If, as some people, including the Mahatma, say, the Gita signifies a spiritual war or battle only, then what of Apariharyerthe (gita 2:27) and Hanyamane same(gita 2:20) – “inevitable circumstance” and “body being killed” ? What of the Shoka – the sorrow – for those who are dead ? To me such a reading seems the result of a defect in their mental attitude. They have not got the intellectual rectitude which can wait and calmly grasp the truth. Besides, there is no question of crying over dead sins if the Kaurawas only symbolise the ‘sins’ – and these people may be sure that the sins killed by Arjuna have not been really dead.”.
Alluding to those like Doniger who have concluded that the Gita advocated war, Sri Aurobindo expatiated that the Gita does not justify performance of duty irrespective of consequences – good or evil (i.e. “kill them because their soul is indestructible!”). Rather, the Gita accepts that war may be necessary if the human race is not prepared for a peaceful resolution. Furthermore, as Krishna points out to Arjuna, he himself as an Avatar has undertaken the path of action by participating in the battle, even though he is above the necessity of works.
In another recorded conversation, Sri Aurobindo rebutted the ethical perspective on the Gita offered by Sisir Kumar Maitra:
Disciple : Did you read Maitra’s article (on the Gita)?
Sri Aurobindo : Yes. He seems to be confused : he has over-stressed the ethical and tried to explain the spiritual idea from the ethical stand-point. The Gita’s idea of doing work without desire is too subtle for the modern mind and so he has made it “duty for duty’s sake”. The Europeans do not make any distinction between the true self and separative ego; for them it is one. Take the case of doing work without desire for the fruit. Now, if there is a separative Self then, from the rational point of view, why should not one expect the fruit of his action ?
Disciple : Perhaps, it is due to the influence of Christianity in which the idea of serving the poor finds a place.
Sri Aurobindo : But the Christian idea of service from disinterestedness is quite different from that of duty for duty’s sake which is a rational stand-point. Christian service is done as God’s will, – that is a religious law. When reason got the upper hand over religion it began to question the foundation of religion and then the rationalists advocated the doing of duty for the sake of society, as a social demand. The rationalists have fragmentary ideas about these things. It has become difficult now to study philosophy – there are so many new ones, like the poets ! 
In his commentary on the Gita, Sri Aurobindo emphasized that in order to understand the true message, one must patiently read it as a “developing argument” over eighteen chapters, instead of spotlighting a few chapters or scattered verses of one’s liking. The Gita is addressed to the warrior Arjuna whose conscience has been awakened, who recoils at the prospect of the senseless slaughter that is required to win the riches of a kingdom. Arjuna is faced with a quandary as to wherein lies his true duty. Should he slaughter his own brethren in order to secure a prosperous kingdom ? Would it not better to just renounce this vainglorious pursuit and retire to a forest?
It is at this point in the Gita that Krishna begins to explain to Arjuna wherein his true duty lies. As Sri Aurobindo elucidates, “duty” itself is a relative term, because the conception of duty can also change when one undergoes a life-changing crisis:
We must remember that duty is an idea which in practice rests upon social conceptions. We may extend the term beyond its proper connotation and talk of our duty to ourselves or we may, if we like, say in a transcendent sense that it was Buddha’s duty to abandon all, or even that it is the ascetic’s duty to sit motionless in a cave! But this is obviously to play with words. Duty is a relative term and depends upon our relation to others. It is a father’s duty, as a father, to nurture and educate his children; a lawyer’s to do his best for his client even if he knows him to be guilty and his defence to be a lie; a soldier’s to fight and shoot to order even if he kill his own kin and countrymen; a judge’s to send the guilty to prison and hang the murderer. And so long as these positions are accepted, the duty remains clear, a practical matter of course even when it is not a point of honour or affection, and overrides the absolute religious or moral law. But what if the inner view is changed, if the lawyer is awakened to the absolute sinfulness of falsehood, the judge becomes convinced that capital punishment is a crime against humanity, the man called upon to the battlefield feels, like the conscientious objector of today or as a Tolstoy would feel, that in no circumstances is it permissible to take human life any more than to eat human flesh? It is obvious that here the moral law which is above all relative duties must prevail; and that law depends on no social relation or conception of duty but on the awakened inner perception of man, the moral being.
There are in the world, in fact, two different laws of conduct each valid on its own plane, the rule principally dependent on external status and the rule independent of status and entirely dependent on the thought and conscience. The Gita does not teach us to subordinate the higher plane to the lower, it does not ask the awakened moral consciousness to slay itself on the altar of duty as a sacrifice and victim to the law of the social status. It calls us higher and not lower; from the conflict of the two planes it bids us ascend to a supreme poise above the mainly practical, above the purely ethical, to the Brahmic consciousness. It replaces the conception of social duty by a divine obligation. The subjection to external law gives place to a certain principle of inner self-determination of action proceeding by the soul’s freedom from the tangled law of works. And this, as we shall see,—the Brahmic consciousness, the soul’s freedom from works and the determination of works in the nature by the Lord within and above us,—is the kernel of the Gita’s teaching with regard to action.
The Gita’s message is directed towards the person who has awakened to this new conception of duty – to one who realizes that his true duty lies not in performing within social norms but solely as an instrument of the Divine. But this ideal of serving the Divine can be easily falsified in life. In the absence of any objective test, how does one differentiate between the rabid ideologue and the serene sage, both of whom may claim to be doing their duty towards the Divine? How does one recognize the mixed motivations that perpetually simmer behind one’s actions? How does one go about becoming an Instrument of the Spirit? Sri Aurobindo explains that according to the Gita, this spiritual change cannot occur instantly but is actually an evolving process. If we trace the argument over eighteen chapters, we shall grasp that there are three stages in which one becomes an instrument of the Divine:
The argument of the Gita resolves itself into three great steps by which action rises out of the human into the divine plane leaving the bondage of the lower for the liberty of a higher law. First, by the renunciation of desire and a perfect equality works have to be done as a sacrifice by man as the doer, a sacrifice to a deity who is the supreme and only Self though by him not yet realised in his own being. This is the initial step. Secondly, not only the desire of the fruit, but the claim to be the doer of works has to be renounced in the realisation of the Self as the equal, the inactive, the immutable principle and of all works as simply the operation of universal Force, of the Nature-Soul, Prakriti, the unequal, active, mutable power. Lastly, the supreme Self has to be seen as the supreme Purusha governing this Prakriti, of whom the soul in Nature is a partial manifestation, by whom all works are directed, in a perfect transcendence, through Nature. To him love and adoration and the sacrifice of works have to be offered; the whole being has to be surrendered to Him and the whole consciousness raised up to dwell in this divine consciousness so that the human soul may share in His divine transcendence of Nature and of His works and act in a perfect spiritual liberty.
The first step is Karmayoga, the selfless sacrifice of works, and here the Gita’s insistence is on action. The second is Jnanayoga, the self-realisation and knowledge of the true nature of the self and the world; and here the insistence is on knowledge; but the sacrifice of works continues and the path of Works becomes one with but does not disappear into the path of Knowledge. The last step is Bhaktiyoga, adoration and seeking of the supreme Self as the Divine Being, and here the insistence is on devotion; but the knowledge is not subordinated, only raised, vitalised and fulfilled, and still the sacrifice of works continues; the double path becomes the triune way of knowledge, works and devotion. And the fruit of the sacrifice, the one fruit still placed before the seeker, is attained, union with the divine Being and oneness with the supreme divine nature .
Critics might suggest that Sri Aurobindo is also misinterpreting the Gita in terms of his personality. That could well be but at least it is an “integral” personality. In any case, it is best to take my quick summary purely as a starting point and read his commentary Essays on the Gita to draw your own conclusions.
- Wendy Doniger, Mircia-Eliade Professor of History of Religions, University of Chicago. Quoted in Philadelphia Inquirer, 19 November, 2000.
- Mohandas Gandhi. The Gita according to Gandhi.
- Bal Gangadhar Tilak: his writings and speeches, Madras: Ganesh & Co, April 1918, p 233.
- Nalini Pandit. “Ambedkar and the ‘Bhagwat Gita'”. Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 27, No. 20/21 (May 16-23, 1992), pp. 1063-106
- A.B. Purani. Evening Talks with Sri Aurobindo. Second Series, dated 28th March 1923, p 55.
- ibid., First Series, dated 20th Dec 1939, p 126; Nirodbaran. Talks with Sri Aurobindo, 20 Dec 1939, vol. 1, p 318
- Sri Aurobindo. Essays on the Gita, pp 34-35.
- ibid., pp 37-38.
- Syncretism in Sri Aurobindo’s thought – part 1
- Syncretism in Sri Aurobindo’s thought – part 2
- Why read Sri Aurobindo’s books?
- Links between Vedas, Upanishads, Tantra and Puranas
- Difference between religion and spirituality
- Gita, Chapter 2, Verse 69 – Inversion of day and night
- States of self-realization defined in the Gita
- Gita Chapter 7, Verse 16 – Four types of Divine seekers
- Hermeneutics: how to read holy scriptures
- How to read holy books