Social Issues In The Bhagavad Gita

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The Bhagavad Gita by no means glorifies violence. Instead it extols the virtues of non-violence, equanimity, contentment, penance, charity as arising from Lord Krishna himself. An in-depth study of Hindu epic literature, will find that the warfare depicted in the Ramayana and Mahabharata is strictly governed by a ‘code of honor’. Warfare activities should be restricted only to the battlefield, sparing unarmed civilians. In the battle of Kurukshetra, Arjuna was engaged in a Dharmic war against well-armed and seasoned warriors, including the mighty Bhima. If one views it from this angle then Arjuna did not have any other choice but to fight. One must also reckon the metaphorical angle to war and battleground in the Bhagavad Gita’s teachings. In the Bhagavad Gita the battlefield is a metaphor for the mind. The mind is where man’s quest to end the cycle of life and death is played out. It is in the mind that a man’s quest to attain enlightenment is realized. The mind is in constant turmoil as it tries hard to discriminate good from evil; truth from falsehood. The mind is constantly trying to overcome difficulties, fighting off self-doubt in the quest for a life of truth and purpose. The Bhagavad Gita depicts man’s struggle to find a purpose for his life and to live a life of purity.

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Another prevailing abhorrent and derogatory tradition is the caste system of India. It not only has its roots in the Laws of Manu but also in the teachings of Lord Krishna, the hero of the Bhagavad Gita. Krishna is said to have divided society into four different classes. The verse, “I have created mankind in four classes, different in their qualities and actions; though unchanging, I am the agent of this, the actor who never acts!” stands testimony to this. These four classes are said to originate from people’s qualities and activities. The Bhagvad Gita does not mention that the hierarchy in the caste system is based on birth. The purpose of assigning caste was to enable a person to perform his dharmic duties and to attain moksha or liberation therefrom. Krishna claims to have to have created the four divisions based on the capabilities of individuals and the type of work performed.

Krishna describes the qualities that a Brahman possesses, “Tranquility, control, penance, purity, patience and honesty, knowledge, judgment, and piety are intrinsic to the action of a priest.” This implies that one who is a Brahman should possess these qualities; it has nothing to do with birth. The Bhagvad Gita’s division of society into four classes engaged in work based on natural propensities, was with the sole intention of creating and maintaining a well-organized society. The Gita does not support the view that the Brahmins are of a higher caste and the Shudra’s of a lower class. This is well-explained by the verse, “Learned men see with an equal eye a scholarly and dignified priest, a cow, an elephant, a dog, and even an outcaste scavenger.” In this verse Krishna reveals that devotees bestowed with divine knowledge, see all living beings as eternal souls, equal in the eyes of God. But, more often than not, people manipulate the original or true religious teachings for personal gain. In the course of centuries, the Brahmins consolidated their hold on power by deliberately misinterpreting the Bhagavad Gita and promulgating the false notion that caste is determined by birth and not by faculties either acquired or inherited. The purpose of this falsehood was to grant Brahmins exclusive privileges which no one dare challenge. The fear of incurring divine wrath if one were to challenge the unfair privileges claimed by the Brahmins was deliberately instilled through superstitious beliefs and rituals.

The caste system is woven into the fabric of Indian society. It’s effects are much more pronounced in rural India than in urban India. In urban areas social stratification relies on various other demographic or lifestyle variables. The caste system rears its head at the time of important events like marriage, birth and death. Political parties in India also have learnt how to exploit caste feelings for garnering votes. The Bhagvad Gita may have reinforced the hierarchy in the caste system and given it legitimacy but nowhere does it say that caste is by birth. The caste system in the rigid and exploitative avatar that we are now familiar with is a far cry from the original teachings of the Bhagavad Gita. Krishna had no intention of creating rigid hierarchies and oppressing of the weak. The castes were created with the sole purpose of promoting spiritual growth and social well-being; to maintain a society without chaos and disorder. It is evident that Krishna divided ancient Hindu society on the basis of faculties acquired or innate and it was occupation-based. Nowhere did he sanction division on the basis of birth which is what the caste system has degenerated into being. It is no secret that the Bhagvad Gita has a profound impact on Indian culture and society. It is also quite easy to blame the Bhagvad Gita’s teachings for social evils like the exploitative caste system. However, a nuanced understanding of the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita will dispel the false notions that it glorifies warfare and sanctions the exploitative caste system. The Bhagavad Gita has some unique gems of wisdom to offer any student who ardently seeks to understand its teachings. When the true spirit and context of those teachings are grasped, the student shall come to appreciate the unique insights that the Gita has to offer on the human condition and how a man may cope with challenging situations by adopting a certain philosophy of life.

14 May 2021

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