Owing to its length, and the fact that I thought it might receive greater attention from our readers, I’m posting my reply to Bob Hockett’s important question to the post immediately below.
One might, with Margaret Chatterjee, rightly characterize Gandhi’s interpretation of the Gītā as “unorthodox,” and it was indeed at least with regard to the story as a whole insofar as he viewed its historico-mythic setting in an allegorical fashion (some have referred to it as wholly ‘spiritualized’). It was an interpretation largely shared later by no less than Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. This may not be surprising for several reasons, one of which being the eclectic and strongly individual nature of his spirituality generally but perhaps more importantly, his insistence that the interpretation of religious texts should be based on one’s own experience and in the light of one’s own reason (‘the result of prayerful study and experience’), in this case, virtually free from the moorings of traditional interpretation (and this went beyond the differences between ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ interpretations in Hinduism) and in keeping with the criteria he outlined for “justified faith.” In addition, and accordingly, Gandhi felt free to reject anything he found “inconsistent with the first principles of morality,” including “any conduct contrary to truth and ahimsā.” Gandhi’s knowledge (in the intellectual and philosophical sense) of “his” religious roots came fairly late, exemplified by the fact that he discovered the Gītā in an English translation by Sir Edwin Arnold, which had gained popularity in Theosophical circles, and in fact it was two Theosophists who gave the book to him (yet he did not begin a close study of the text until 1903, about ten years later). Gandhi may indeed have been strongly influenced by a Theosophical reading of the text, most likely that of T. Subba Row (July 6, 1856-June 24, 1890).
Gandhi’s intepretation is not implausible, and an allegorical reading of religious and philosophical works is not uncommon, in this instance especially if one views the larger epic itself, the Mahābhārata (the longest epic poem ever written, the Gītā being but a small portion of the text), as allegorical:
“The Mahabharata is not to me a historical record. It is hopeless as a history. But it deals with eternal verities in an allegorical fashion. It takes up historical personages and events and transforms them into angels or devils as it suits the purpose of the poet whose theme is the eternal dual between good and evil, spirit and matter, god and satan.”
As J.T.F. Jordens has explained, heretofore Gandhi “had argued that the author of the Gita only used the battle as an ‘occasion’ for its teaching, and that he used it in such a way because he did not look upon war as morally wrong” [there is, after all, something like a ‘just war’ conception in Hinduism]. Incarceration in Yeravda jail in 1922 gave Gandhi time to read the entire epic, whereupon he now argued that the Mahābhārata, in Jordens’ words, was itself
“against war because it described the utter futility of a pyrrhic victory in which both victors and vanquished lose their all. Henceforth Gandhi’s main argument for holding that the Gita was a treatise on non-violence was the assertion that it constituted a central episode in the great anti-war epic.”
The plausibility of such an interpretation was acknowledged in our own time by one of the foremost philosophers of Indic philosophy, Bimal Krishna Matilal (1935-1991): “the Gītā can, paradoxically, be treated as a text that discourages violence or bloody battles. It may also show the futility of all such battles.”
I hope to discuss the Bhagavad Gītā at length in a future post in response to something written online by Namit Arora that should further touch upon some of these issues.