By removing from its historical, textual and theological context, one can easily make any scripture UNIVERSAL. Almost every scripture in the world is a victim to this act of UNIVERSALIFICATION. Even in the past, our great acharyas, Rishis and Munis, both in their composition and compiling a particular scripture, while quoting from other authoritative source (for example Veda) have done this. In Upanishads Vedic mantras were used in this way, in Gita Upanishad mantras face the same fate. We need not talk about other Dharmasastras, puranas and epics. When it comes to the Commentaries of great acharyas, any careful and sincere student of scripture will find many such ‘text torture’.
So, it was not a surprise when on 20th (December 2011) night, in CNN-IBN panel discussion on Gita (Face the Nation by Ms. Sagarika Gosh) to make it as the SCRIPTURE of India, every panelist followed the same suit. Of course I am not a scholar either to criticize or condemn them. But as a sincere student of scripture, I would like to disagree with their view and interpretation on Gita or any other scripture.
We have to accept the historical fact that Gita, in modern time was introduced back to the Indian main stream intellectual and religious world from the West (Eric J. Sharpe, THE UNIVERSAL GITA: Western Images of the Bhagavadgita a bicentenary survey. London, Duckworth, 1985). However this does not mean that Gita always remained unfamiliar in the past. Considering the fact that it is part of ‘prasthaanatrayii ’ 1 the other two being the Upanishads and Vedanta Sutra which is considered as the cannon for Hindu scriptures. That is why every great acharyas (like Sankara, Ramanuja, Madhava, Nimbarka and Vallabha) wrote commentary on the three to establish their particular doctrine of their sampradaya. I somewhere read that more than 300 old orthodox commentaries were collected preserved in one Gitalaya (Gita mandir). And since 20th century onwards, almost every decade there came new commentary on Gita, particularly in English by both Western and Indian scholars. Simply reading the text (in any language) without the help of any commentary, one can understand the teaching of Gita. At the same time no single commentary can claim to give the intend meaning of the author of Gita. In fact on one commentary could do this as, according to many (sincere) scholars Gita was not penned by a single author and there were several interpolations. This being the reality, anybody can read any kind of meaning in Gita that will serve her purpose.
However the crucial issue, according to my understanding in Gita is the anxiety to preserve the basic structure of the society based on ‘VARNASHRAMADHARMA’ (varna =caste; ashrama= stage-dharma = duty). For me Sri Krishna is not encouraging Arjuna to fight only for a Just war to claim back their rightful Kingdom. Though Krishna’s immediate concern could be this, yet he looks beyond this to uphold the Varnashramadharma. (See my paper on Gita in Book Review section).
However both the traditional (orthodox) commentators and modern (liberal) scholars never get struck only with the issue of varnashramadharma ideal of Gita, but used (or abused) it for their own purpose. That is why we often hear about the rhetorical claims of ‘karma yoga; bhakti yogajnana yoga’. Having said this, I would like to take just two examples to point about the text torturing by which anyone can impose their view on scripture.
First from Gita:
For a staunch Vaishnava, Gita is their Scripture. And they are right to some extent if one would consider its historical, textual and theological background, though all won’t agree with them. However on their part, they often quote Gita 7:21 in which Sri Krishna says:
Yo yo yaam yaam tanum bhakta: Sraddhaayrcitumicchati
Tasya tasyaa calaam Sriddhaam taameva vidadhaamyaham
Whichever deity form a bhakta seeks to worship with faith, I make the faith of that bhakta in that form firm.
And to endorse this they even take help from the famous sloka:
Aakaasaat patitam toyam yathaa gacchati saagaram,
Sarva-deva-namaskaarah Kesavam pratigacchati.
—Just as the water which falls from the sky goes to the sea, so the worship offered to the various deities reach Kesava alone.
The same kind of view quite common in most of other Hindu Sampradayas. For example Sivajnani Siddhiyar says, ‘whichever deity you follow, Siva comes taking that form to you’ (Yaadoru daivam kondeer at daivamaahi aange maadorubaahanaar taamvaruvaar’.) 2 This kind of pluralistic inclusivism are quite common in Hinduism. This also gives scope for anyone to give any kind of interpretation through text torturing. While liberal can read universalism, an orthodox (fundamental?) bhakta insist exclusivism. This being the fact, it is not surprising to read both exclusivism and universalism in Hindu scripture and the demand to declare Gita as the scripture of India, that too by the politicians and 65 percent of the viewer’s saying ‘YES’ in CNN-IBN program. As a digressing I wonder how they calculate this percentage, as representing the view of the all those who watched this program (or any other program)? Is this 65% is out of 100 or 1000 viewers or out of those who send their response through sms, twitters, email? I will be happy if the CNN-IBN, instead of giving the result in percentage would give the exact number of those who send their response. Because even this poll result could be easily arranged by them, as there is no one to question them about it. Another point to mention here is that in his comments Sri Subramaniam Swami said that he never remembered any politician quoting from Gita. But when the late Andhrapradesh Chief minister Sri N. T. Ramarao, lost his election, he quoted the famous Gita sloka of 2:47 (karmanyevaadhikaaraste….=you have the right to do your duty but never claim to it fruits….). Politicians know better than us to explain away their mistakes, failures and defeats.
Another is from the Bible (which I call as Muktiveda). Though the scope of pluralism is very limited in Bible, yet all the exclusivism claimed by many Christians based on their interpretation certain text in the bible will help us to understand the art of ‘text torture’ in other scriptures too. To insist the claim that Jesus (whom I call as Muktinath) as the only Lord and Savior, two crucial verses are often used from the New Testament (which I call as Uttara Veda): John14:6; Acts 4:12.3 The following my response to one Christian to his question on the exclusiveness of the Lord Jesus Christ will also help us to know about the art of ‘texture torture’ in other faiths:
At the same time we should not get confused with all the exclusive claims of Muktinath as the only ‘Way, Truth and Life’ etc. in Muktiveda in any context of comparative theology. For example, Acts 4:12 is quoted as proof of the unique claim about salvation only through Muktinath. Now the question that comes to my mind is this, “Is the verse addressed to the Gentiles in particular, or both to the Gentiles and the believers, or only the believers, or–as per the context–is it addressed to those who are opposing the preaching about the Lord?” As I strongly believe in scriptural exegesis, this verse, if interpreted correctly according to the context should never be used for our exclusive claims. About this, A.T. Robinson says, ‘The word for “saved” here (and hence “salvation”) is exactly the same as that rendered three verses earlier in Acts 4:9 by “cured”. The context is not one of comparative religion but of faith-healing. The issue is “by which power” the cripple is made “completely well” (3.16). Is it by some innate power or godliness of the apostles (3.12), or is it by “the name of Jesus, awakening faith”’ (3.16)? 4 The same is the case with John 10:8, which again, according to Robinson, ‘ has nothing to do with comparative religion’.5 The following explanation offered by Robinson on John 14:6 will further highlights this point:
Much the same must be said of another Johannine text, which is frequently put to exclusivist use: ‘Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life: no one comes to the Father but by me”’ (14.6). The context here is Thomas’s question about how the disciples can know where Jesus is going, and therefore, how they can know the way. The answer is that he is going to the Father, and since they know him, they have no need to ask further. With Philip, ‘Show us the Father’: to have seen Jesus is to have seen the Father (14.1-11). The point the evangelist is making, to use an earlier distinction, is that Jesus as the Christ is totus Deus: the Father is perfectly reflected in him, he is God ‘all through’. There is no suggestion in the context that he is claiming to be totum Dei, that outside him there is no truth or life to be found. The assurance is that in him truth and life are to be found; therefore, there is no cause for anxious fears.6
Finally I would like to end with one incident which will highlight the problem of quoting out of context. One time when I was talking with an Aryasamaj Swamiji in Bihar, he said, ‘the Bible also says that God is Love and Love is God’. But I didn’t argue with him on that point. Because there is no point in arguing on such issue, about which one does not know much or anything. Because Muktiveda (bible) never says ‘Love is God’. But such a view is common among many who never read Bible. I also heard that Swami Vivekananda, while addressing some Christians in America said, ‘Be still and know that you are God’. But we never come across such verse in Muktiveda. In Old Testament (which I call as ‘purva veda), we read God saying, ‘Be still and know that I am God’ (Psalm 46:10). But in order to convey his advaitic message to his Christian disciples, Swamiji cleverly used from the bible, slightly twisting the verse. In the same way, he also used the famous saying of Muktinath (Jesus): ‘I and the Father are One’ to insist his vedantic message that we too can say that ‘I and the Father is One’.
So, while politicians—as usual doing politics on every issue, scholars both in panel discussion and writing parade their knowledge than communicate in simple terms to the common people (and the anchors of the program running the discussion, keeping the TRP through arranged poll results) the common people have no time for such public entertainment as they have several issues on their hand for their survival in everyday life CONTEXT.
DB. December, 21, 2011.
- See my paper on Gita for more on this term.
- Tiruvartpa,(by Ramalinga Adihalar) Text and commentary (Tamil), Owai S. Duraisamippillai, Suddha Sanmarga Nilayam, Vadalur, vol. 4. P. 330
- John, 14:6: Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”; Acts 4:12:” Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.”.
- John A.T. Robinson, TRUTH IS TWO EYED , SCM Press Ltd., p. 105
- ibid. p.106.
- ibid. p. 107