Life Style

Gandhi’s Gita

Gandhi’s stature on the international stage as a tireless crusader of civil rights and liberty is unique — the post-truth histories of Gandhi notwithstanding. As an apostle of non-violence, he is unparalleled. But there is much more to Gandhi than being just a non-violent freedom fighter or a civil rights activist. Gandhi is one of the greatest thinkers that 20th century has produced. Gandhi came back from South Africa with a library of about 11,000 books (‘Reading as a Sadhana: Gandhi’s Experiments With Books’ The Wire, January, 30, 2018). His own writings are a reflection of his wide and varied reading. Not only did he write incessantly till the end of his life; he also delivered speeches, formal lectures and wrote replies to all who cared to write to him. Above all, he engaged in discussions with people who confronted him with questions. His Collected Works, comprising 100 volumes and covering a vast array of subjects, are testimony to Gandhi’s position as an intellectual.

Through his works, Gandhi not only presented a new vision of anarchist-socialism but also advocated a method to achieve it non-violently. He was one of the early trade union leaders of 20th century India. He single-handedly tried to convert Hinduism into an ethical religion. A great educationist, Gandhi started the Gujarat Vidyapith; he conceived the concept of “basic education” and even succeeded in implementing it. All the significant intellectuals of his time like Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, Bertrand Russell, Arnold Toynbee, W.E.B. DuBois, Aldous Huxley, Tagore, Einstein, Bernard Shaw, theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, et al have commented on his life and activities, at a time when the collected volumes of his work were not available; countless Indians and foreigners, in many languages, have written poems, plays, and stories on him. He influenced political movements worldwide; deep ecology is a Gandhi-inspired concept and so was the Chipko movement. Gandhi was also one of the promoters of the First International Conference on Anti-Racism in London in 1911.

Gandhi was a thinker, writer, public intellectual, political activist, political theorist and, above all, a philosopher who invented a new philosophical way of life. As a philosopher, he undoubtedly deserves to be ranked alongside the Buddha and Socrates (‘Gandhi’s philosophical way of life: some key themes’, The Beacon webzine, 5 Nov 2020; ‘Gandhi and the Stoics’ by Richard Sorabji, 2012).

It is not surprising that a thinker as profound as Gandhi should have commented on the Gita, the great metaphysical poem. His Anasaktiyoga, which is an introduction to his translation of the Gita, is a masterpiece. It is a treatise on ethics. And it offers the reader a guide to an ethics-led philosophical way of life. It is comparable with the Buddha’s Fire Sermon, which is a short but great ethical text that commands the reader to give up her preoccupation with herself. To my understanding, this was part of Gandhi’s attempt to place Hinduism on an ethical foundation — a programme he first formulated in 1907, when he published a free translation of Salter’s Ethical Religion.


Before I proceed to deal with the substance of Anasaktiyoga, I must dwell for a moment on its significant opening. The translation, Gandhi says, is designed for the working class, men and women. Significant too is Gandhi’s assertion that he practised Anasaktiyoga “for an unbroken period of 40 years”. Gandhi, like the Buddha, was an inventor of an ethics-led philosophical way of life. In this context, Gandhi’s claim can be seen as an invitation to the reader to embark on an ethics-led philosophical way of life.

Gandhi then goes on to tell the reader that, in his assessment, the Mahabharata is a literary text and not a historical work. Accordingly, all characters in the text including Krishna become products of the author’s imagination. “Krishna of the Gita is perfection and right knowledge personified, but the picture is imaginary.”

Gandhi, however, is quick to assert that when he says that Krishna is a fictional character, he is not trying to say that the Krishna adored by “his people” did not exist. What he, in fact, is saying is that, that Krishna is not the protagonist of the Gita. After inviting the readers to reimagine Krishna as a figure in a text called the Mahabharata, Gandhi goes for a reformulation of the concept of “avatar” as it existed in the Puranas. He advises readers to understand “avatar” as a title ascribed to “one who has performed some extraordinary service to mankind”. This is significant because, if the concept of “avatar” as propounded in the Puranas is dropped, the Vaishnava discourse loses its coherence. The metaphysical foundation of the Vaishnava sect of Hinduism is based on a belief in a supernatural power or deity — Vishnu/Krishna and its “avatar(s)”. Gandhi, by suggesting to his readers to reimagine Krishna (the taken-for-granted supernatural foundation of Vaishnavism) as a figment of the author’s imagination and by redefining “avatar”, was attempting to dislocate that very metaphysical foundation.

This reading goes well with some of the other stated positions of Gandhi — (a) he was not a worshiper of Vigrahas and did not believe in the notion of a personal God; (b) all religions need to be founded on ethical practices — rather than a belief in a foundational power; and (c) any belief which is incompatible with Ahimsa ought to be dismissed as unreliable and harmful.

Using the Vaishnava vocabulary, Gandhi attempts to change the meaning of the words by introducing secular norms for their use. This is the only text in which, as far as my understanding goes, Gandhi had made such an attempt. That makes Gandhi’s Anasaktiyoga unique. However, Gandhi’s attempts at destabilising the Hindu deities did not attract any significant attention. I think there are two possible reasons for this failure: First, Gandhi did not pursue this internal criticism of Hinduism with the same vigour with which he tackled untouchability. He was, perhaps, aware that pushing this idea any further would have resulted in his losing credibility among large sections of the Hindus. The Hindutva cadre had already begun to see him as their enemy, and, any further diminishing of his standing among the Hindus would have had an adverse impact on the political programme that he was trying to sustain.

Second, instead of critically rejecting many of his ethically problematic target issues, Gandhi often attempted to transform them to an ethically-acceptable format. This was the same technique that he used while dealing with jati vyavastha where, again, he did not achieve the intended result. As Akeel Bilgrami claimed in his important article ‘Gandhi, The Philosopher’ (Economic and Political Weekly, Vol 38 27 Sep 2003), it was Gandhi’s commitment to Ahimsa that perhaps prompted his attempts to transform the unethical to the ethical without rejecting it outright, as rejection itself would tantamount to violence.

The significance of intention

After attempting to destabilise the “puranic/metaphysical” foundation of Vaishnavism, Gandhi goes on to present Anasaktiyoga as desire-less action. Ahimsa and satya are presented as the necessary concomitants of desire-less action. Gandhi also downplays the relevance of ritualistic devotion by saying: “The devotion of the Gita has the least to do with externals. A devotee may use if he likes, rosaries, forehead marks, offerings, but these things are no test of his devotion”. This is yet another attempt by Gandhi to get his reader to shift away from the usually accepted ritualistic patterns of Hinduism which were deeply grounded in the Purana(s).

Anasakti, as Gandhi saw it, did not envision satya and ahimsa in action alone — these qualities had to accompany even the intentions behind the actions. This is strikingly similar to what the Buddha claimed in the ‘Nibbedhika Sutta’ in Anguttara Nikaya: “Intention, I tell you, is Kamma. Intending, one does Kamma by way of body, speech, & intellect.” This notion is alien to “puranic” Hinduism and it is even alien to the Bhagavat Gita itself. Only by purging one’s intentions of selfishness, can one practice an ethics-led philosophical way of life. This was the central view of the Nikayas. I consider, therefore, that Gandhi’s reading of the Gita was inspired by the Buddha: “I owe a great deal to the inspiration that I have derived from the life of the Enlighted One.” (Speech in reply to Buddhists November 15, 1927). We know for a fact that Gandhi had read the Nikayas and was sufficiently influenced by it (‘Reading as a Sadhana: Gandhi’s Experiments with Books’, The Wire, January 30, 2018).

The Golden Rule

The most important ethical rule Gandhi abstracted from his reading of the Gita, and what he labelled as the Golden Rule, is the following: “All acts that are incapable of being performed without attachment are taboo. This golden rule saves mankind from many a pitfall. According to this interpretation murder, lying, dissoluteness and the like must be regarded as sinful and therefore taboo. Man’s life then becomes simple, and from that simpleness springs peace.”
If we read “attachment” in the above quote as meaning selfishness/self-centeredness then the golden rule is that, since actions like murder and lying can be performed only when one is selfish, these are to be treated as tabooed. That is why Gandhi claimed: “Thinking along these lines, I have felt that in trying to enforce in one’s life the central teaching of the Gita, one is bound to follow Truth and Ahimsa. When there is no desire for fruit, there is no temptation for untruth or himsa.”

The mistake committed by the author of the Gita

Given that ethics, and with it non-violence, were central to Gandhi’s reading of Anasakti, he was bound to raise the issue of the appropriateness of the use of war to present the concept of Anasakti in the Gita.

Gandhi’s understanding of the term Anasakti was apparently very different from the author’s own understanding. For the author of the Gita, Anasakti meant tyaga, a ritual action which is an aspect of some of the Vedic kamya karmas. In these kinds of Vedic yagnas, the Yajamana (the person on whose behalf the yajna is performed) ritually performs an act called tyaga — giving up the fruits/Phala of his yajna for the sake the deity/devata. In the Gita, the author invokes this Vedic yajna (Chapter III, sloka 9) and uses it as a metaphor to get Arjuna out of his inaction which is described in Chapter I. Arjuna is advised by Krishna to give up the fruits of his action by treating all fields of action as a kamya karma in which the performer does tyaga — and relinquishes the results of his action for the sake of the devata. In the context of the Gita, that devata is Krishna (Chapter III, sloka 30) and such an act, Krishna assures Arjuna, would absolve him of all Pāpā(s) of which Arjuna was apprehensive. In the Gita, the author used the yajna metaphor to get Arjuna to prepare for the deadly massacre in which, according to his brother Yudhishthira, “one billion 660 million and 20,000 men” were slain (The Mahabharata, Book11, Stri Parva, K. M. Ganguli translation, section 26,; a feat that even delinquents such as Hitler, Stalin, Truman, Churchill together could not achieve.

Viewed against the backdrop of such colossal violence, as imagined in the Mahabharata, how is it possible for Gandhi to claim that the Gita propagates ahimsa? Gandhi, in his attempt to purify the Gita of its violent streak, did not pay attention to the metaphor of yajna. What Gandhi saw, instead, was the existence of a contradiction in the text — the idea of Anasakti /desire-less action, if taken not as tyaga, is not compatible with the violence preached in the Gita. Given his reading, Gandhi takes a very daring step and refutes the author of Gita: “Let it be granted that, according to the letter of the Gita, it is possible to say that warfare is consistent with renunciation of fruit” but 40 years of practice of Anasakti had convinced him “that perfect renunciation is impossible without perfect observance of ahimsa in every shape and form”. What we see in the last part of Anasaktiyoga is Gandhi casting doubts about the wisdom of the author of the Bhagavat Gita — the most revered text of popular Hindu tradition.

Gandhi, however, makes a reconciliatory move as usual. He invites the reader to overlook this contradictory moment of the Gita by saying that the author of Gita, given his historical setting, could not see all the implications of “renunciation of fruit”. Nevertheless, if one were to work out the logical entailments of the concept of desire-less action, it would be evident that ahimsa is what desire-less action entails. This was Gandhi’s argument — a heroic attempt to purify the Gita of its justification of violence.

Gandhi’s reading of the Gita, the most important text of the Vaishnava sect of Hinduism, is part of his internal criticism of popular Hinduism. He identified himself as a Hindu because of his birth and attempted to bring to it an ethical foundation in the place of pre-existing folk-based metaphysical themes — a project first initiated by the Buddha of the Nikayas. Gandhi thought, rightly or wrongly, that the Buddha was a great Hindu reformer.

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