In a previous article, I said, “when it comes to others’ faith and scripture(s), without knowing the textual, historical and theological contexts, giving one’s own interpretation will misrepresent the tenants of that faith.”
But this view should not be limited only to the faith and scriptures of other faiths. In nearly every faith, their scripture is interpreted in such a way that one can find an endorsement for a certain ideology. However it may, “…prevail to some degree over any rigid fidelity to commentatorial tradition” (p.100). This fact is brought out by Mark Singleton, (Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, New York, Oxford, 2010) in the life and teaching of Swami Vivekananda:
…Certainly, Vivekananda was outspoken in his belief in the necessity of physical culture for Indian youth and at times insisted on its sequential priority over mental and spiritual development, such as in the following dialogue recorded in 1897:
Swamiji: How will you struggle with the mind unless the physique be strong? Do you deserve to be called men any longer—the highest evolution in the world? First build up your physique. Then only you can get control over the mind….”This Self is not to be attained by the weak” (Katha Upanisad, 1.ii.23). (Conversations and Dialogues VIII. The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda. Calcutta; Advaita Ashram, vol. 7, pp. 151-157, 1992 1992 : 155)
It is difficult to see how Vivekananda extracts his translation from this Upanishad1 but his message is clear: the development of bodily strength is of the utmost importance for the spiritual evolution of the modern Hindu. It is the urgency of this task, indeed, that seems to be sufficient motive for his innovative reading of traditional Hindu scripture. The exchange that follows this statement, indeed, suggests that Vivekananda is well aware of the departure he is making from orthodox interpretation:
Disciple: But, sir, the commentator (Shankara) has interpreted the word “weak” to mean “devoid of Brahmacharya or continence.”
Swamiji: Let him. I say “the physically weak are unfit for the realisation of the Self.” (ibid. [1897:155-156)
This cavalier approach to interpretation suggests that the exigencies of the age prevail to some degree over any rigid fidelity to commentatorial tradition. Vivekananda requires scriptural endorsement for his promotion of physical culture and seems determined to find it in this verse….— p. 100.
Of course this is not the only example for the idealistic interpretation by Swami Vivekananda on so many doctrines of Hinduism as the demands of his time and mission come before set aside the traditional interpretation over his ideology. Anantanand Rambachan’s book: The Limits of Scripture, Vivekananda’s Reinterpretation of the Vedas (Sri Satguru Publications A Division of Indian Books Centre, Delhi, 1995) clearly demonstrates this fact.
It is interesting to note that every ideology is a kind of systemization of conflicting interest among various groups, which the elites manage to present in a coded message. To get recognition they will often seek endorsement from the dominant worldview of a particular people group.
For example, if a Gandhian wants to promote a particular of ideology based on Gandhian principles, naturally she will and has to turn to the Collected Works of Gandhiji. Similarly others who want to promote a particular ideology will seek an endorsement from religious texts to get the approval of religious people.
There is nothing wrong in this; ideologists are a part of the society and must articulate their view using the worldview of the common people if they want to promote it. However, common people may not have the time and interest to note the subtle differences between the context and interpretation. Those who want to teach or promote a particular kind of ideology should be reasonable while walking the tight rope between the context and interpretation.
One of the best examples that comes to my mind is the Bhagavad Gita. Though the Gita never attempts to promote or protect casteism, the overall context of the Gita is about the preservation of varnashrama dharma. So anyone who wants to teach or learn the message of Gita should never forget its grey background.
Of course those who want to promote a particular view like Bhakti, Karma or Jnana can present the text and interpretation accordingly. But a careful student of the Gita should try to understand this too in the overall context of varnashramadharma. For example, in the charamasloks of Gita (18:66: “Abandoning all dharma, take refuge in me alone. I shall liberate you from all sins; don’t grieve) where Krishna tells Arjuna to surrender all kinds of dharma and take refuge in him, we should remember that the word ‘dharma’ is not some kind of objective principle but also includes the varnashramadharma of Arjuna. Viz., if he is not clear and still confused after listening to all the teachings, he can and should surrender his dharma as a Kshatriya and engage in the war as Krishna is capable of removing any kind of sin that will come out of it.
Those who want to promote ‘bhakti’ as the central teaching of the Gita take ‘refuge’ in this sloka, pointing to the climax of bhakti in saranagati ‘taking refuge at the feet of the Lord’. As Swami Vivekananda ‘found’ what he needed in the Upanishad, anyone who wants to promote a particular doctrine (karma, jnana or bhakti) can easily find their sloka in Gita. But this could be done at the expense of the overall teaching of Gita about preserving the varnashramadharma.
Individual votaries have every right to find solace in the religious text of her faith for her need. But those who take up the dharma of teaching, and particularly those engaged in promoting a particular ideology, should be sensible to keep the balance between the context and interpretation. Simply finding some text to promote a particular ideology out of context of the text may fulfil the demand of their time, but will be questioned by a sincere student of scripture.
The phrase “Let him” used by Swami Vivekananda in this dialogue is important for me. Though he knows his interpretation violates the advaitic traditional interpretation, he felt that he has the right to promote his view. This is possible as the Hindu worldview accommodates two contradicting views side by side and gives recognition to both. This accommodative pluralism is the secret for the survival of Hinduism amidst all kinds of onslaught on it.
- naayam aatmaa pravacanena labhyo na medhayaa na bahunaa srutena/yam evaisa vmute teno labhyas tasyaisa aatmaa vimute tanuum svaam. Olivelle (P. Upanisads. Oxford World’s Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996) translates this as “This self cannot be grasped/by teachings or by intelligence, / or even by great learning. / Only the man he chooses can grasp him, /whose body this self chooses as his own.” (From the original text)