On January 30, 1948, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi stepped on to the lawn of Delhi’s Birla House to conduct his usual pan-religious prayer. This was, like his Swaraj movement and its accompanying philosophy, largely based on the teachings of his beloved Bhagavad Gita. Before he could utter a single word, his body was riddled with three bullets fired at point-blank range.

The trigger was pulled by another nationalist who believed he was a better Hindu than Gandhi: Nathuram Vinayak Godse. In a letter to his parents, he vindicated the homicide with the teachings of the very same Gita. On the morning of his hanging, he carried a copy of the scripture with him and spoke his last words: “Vande Mataram”. How could a single book evoke such contradictory perceptions? And how could it become of such political importance?

The political exploitation of the poem has not flagged. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, for instance, not only likes to hug plenipotentiaries but to present them with gifts. One in particular: the Bhagavad Gita, regardless whether it is Gandhi’s translation of the text to Barack Obama, or some of its verses engraved on a pair of bookends to David Cameron. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is so fond of these 700 verses that they introduced a bill in 2016, aiming to make the teaching of the book compulsory in schools.

To understand why the Gita has become so crucial to Indian politics and what paradoxes come along with it, we have to travel back in time. Until the British decided to make India their messy backyard, the Gita lived a rather calm life, somewhere in the shadow of the Vedas and other holy shastras. For it belonged to the inferior smriti canon, not to the timeless revelations of the superior shruti canon.

Written evidence concerning the Gita is scarce. Even today it is debated whether the Bhagavad Gita was an integral fragment of the original Mahabharata or not, at least in parts, a later interpolation. Most scholars agree it originated somewhere around the third century BCE, at a time of social upheaval and as a reaction to Buddhism as well as Jainism.

At an earlier stage, the Gita was read as an independent piece of work. The first written evidence that it was so is the commentary by Shankara at the beginning of the 9th century. Despite other important philosophers such as Ramanuja and Madhva commenting on the work, it never had today’s status. Even when the bhakti movement gained momentum in medieval times, it was foremost the young ghee-stealing and flute-playing Krishna who became the ideal of worship.

This would change with the first English translation by Charles Wilkins in 1785, supported by the de facto Governor-General of India, Warren Hastings. The latter was convinced the Western reader would find in the script “obscurity, absurdity, barbarous habits, and a perverted morality”. The orientalists intended to reconfirm through intellectual colonisation their physical dominion over India.

Unlike the French and English orientalists, German scholars often pursued what came to be known as “positive Orientalism”. One did not just understand oneself by contrasting the self to the other, but through the other. Johann Gottfried von Herder called India with its consummate past “die Wiege der Menschheit” (the cradle of humanity) or “Urheimat” (primordial home). Apparently only Germans could rediscover this past, being so intimately linked with it. For many a German Romanticist, this was evident due to the propinquity of German and the supposed mother of all languages: Sanskrit.

While the French and British were more focused outwards, so some argue, Germans focused inwards. That is to say, they attempted to establish their own superiority among the Europeans through their putative supremacy, which they inherited from their Indian ancestors. This thinking survived in some form or the other until the Third Reich, where the “Ahnenerbe” (ancestral heritage) was supposed to prove the origins of the superior Aryan race.

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rom 1941 onwards, Heinrich Himmler, architect of the holocaust, constantly carried a leather-bound Gita with him and even discussed it upon his encounter with Orlando Mazzotta, better known as Subhas Chandra Bose. In Himmler’s eyes Krishna’s and Arjuna’s dialogue gave him philosophical legitimisation for the annihilation of an estimated six million innocent children, women, and men. He even compared, like some Hindus at that time, Adolf Hitler to Krishna. Without wanting to establish wrong analogies: BJP MLA Gyan Dev Ahuja believes in a similar fashion Modi to be the incarnation of the gopi whisperer. 

American transcendentalists such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry William Thoreau—who would later, in turn, have an impact on Gandhi—were at least as fond of the divine scripture as the Germans. In those verses they found reconfirmation of their own beliefs. So did the theosophist and anthroposophist.

Consequently, many preconceptions were established. India came to be known as the land of imagination, a country devoid of historical awareness, without political order. Somewhere along the way also originated the idea of India as the superior spiritual country. A conviction that, especially, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan would later promulgate.

The religious scholar Gerald James Larson wrote about the Gita, a daughter of India, quite harshly: “She is occasionally raped and to some extent always abused, at best becoming a concubine in some house of scholarship, at worst a whore in some brothel of ideology or of an insipid cross-cultural mysticism. […] This is not to deny that she cannot or ought not to travel occasionally. It is only to deny that she can live abroad permanently. She can, indeed, travel, so long as she is introduced to strangers with tact and sensitivity and so long as she is able to return home frequently to her extended Hindu family.”

Wherever the Gita travelled, it was used, sometimes misused, as a means for finding one’s own identity. What we perceive nowadays as the epitome of Hinduism, maybe even spiritual India, is essentially the product of a “cross-cultural” encounter, of an emi- and immigrating text.

The essence of India in the Gita is, hence, rather the confluence of cultures. Like the Taj Mahal, Bollywood movies, the curry, and so much more. Whenever someone uses the book as a symbol for India, he or she is right to do so. However, it represents, at least according to its history, the open, heterogeneous India, which has always been exposed to and influenced by the other. Not the discriminatory, orthodox right-wing India.

Although often hegemonic in its nature, it was this western reception of the Bhagavad Gita that rekindled interest in the scripture, aggrandised it and contributed to its research. Now the “Indian bible” was ready to start its career in its country of origin.

Swami Agehananda Bharati coined this process the “pizza effect”. For the pizza was once upon a time nothing but a simple Italian bread. After expatriating to the USA, and there becoming amid its Italian diaspora an “elaborate” dish, pizza became what it is known for today. After the First World War, pizza, now completely changed, repatriated to its country of origin.

So what were the toppings? Some argue that, for example, Gandhi would have never made ahimsa—non-violence—one of his main principles were it not for the orientalist who conventionalised it as one of the key characteristics of Hinduism. In addition, it seems that the allegorical reading of the Gita—which allowed Gandhi’s (and Radhakrishnan’s) pacifistic rendition—derived, in the first place, from the theosophists.

Not that caste did not exist before the encounter with the west. Yet it never appeared to be the epitome of Hinduism, especially not with its rigid frontiers. The concept of Hinduism itself was to a considerable degree the product of a western phantasm. Also, new conceptions of God, dharma, and philosophy were imported. The entire Hindu Renaissance, in general, appeared deeply undermined by apologetic motivation.

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he “freshly baked” Bhagavad Gita returned to its motherland predominantly with an intellectual elite highly exposed to British and Western culture. No matter whether it was Bengali Renaissance men or intellectuals like Sri Aurobindo or Radhakrishnan. Most of them were either educated in British schools or in Britain itself.

For them the song of the lord arrived just in time. The neo-Hindus were longing for unified political (and spiritual) guidance in their struggle against the British. With its narrative background of the battle between good and evil, the epic verses delivered an impeccable blueprint for the fight against the British colonisers, the Kauravas of the West. The expatiated philosophy of action and duty, or karma and dharma, gave a theory and incentive for political action. This came along with an allegedly divine moral framework.

There has always been not a Gita, but Gitas. Instead of promoting one homogeneous philosophy, the Gita was a mélange of philosophies—ranging from Samkhya, Upanishadic and Vedic thought over Bhakti to early Buddhism–leaving a suitable piece for everyone’s demands. 

Already its sheer form—700 verses of poetic ambiguity encapsulated in an enticing story—made it accessible to a broader audience, an audience united behind a scripture which was potentially able to unify men and women of every caste and creed. It, too, provided guidance for other riddles of modernity, like individuality, liberty, and science. Lastly, it was by its mere nature, a non-brahminic smriti text, more appealing to the aam aadmi.

In order to adopt the Gita to the political circumstances, modern Indian thinkers needed a much more open hermeneutic. This less rigid scientific approach was also caused by the presumption that the Gita was a spiritual text predestined to be translated into our own life, rather than a dead, scientific object of study, waiting to be dissected with the tools of the historical approach.

The result was a plethora of interpretations which, at times, even opposed each other diametrically. Among them were those of Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, Lokamanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Swami Viveknanda, Acharya Vinoba Bhave, Aurobindo and Radhakrishnan.

Hermeneutics was not the sole reason for the Gita to be interpreted by the nationalist in such diverse ways. In fact, there has always been not a Gita, but Gitas. On the one hand, due to its content, instead of promoting one homogeneous philosophy, the Gita was a mélange of philosophies–ranging from Samkhya, Upanishadic and Vedic thought over Bhakti to early Buddhism–leaving a suitable piece for everyone’s demands. On the other hand, there was its form, which gave plenty of leeway for various interpretations. It was a poem, imbedded in an epic narrative, full of metaphors, insinuations, and paradoxes.

Even though the interpretation often differed from that of the colonisers, the thinking of the orientalists was still present, somewhere in a third space. The by-now-political manifesto was, henceforth, all the more neither this nor that, neither war nor peace, neither East nor West but an in-between, a text of ambivalence in so many respects. The Indologist Ronald Inden put it more drastically: “Certainly the most important of the romantic idealist writings from 1875 to Independence are those not of Western scholars but of many Indian nationalists, including Gandhi and Nehru themselves.”

One cannot emphasise enough how vital the Gita was to Gandhi. How intertwined they were. Over forty years he engaged in the study of the book. He gave more than 200 lectures, wrote more than 300 pages about it. Even in his correspondence, he consulted it incessantly and advised everyone to study it. Every single day he read it, until he knew it nearly by heart. He christened it the “revered Guru, our mother”. In his own words: “The reader will be interested in knowing that my belief is derived largely from the Bhagavad Gita.”

As Gandhi’s life is the political life and the Gita is almost synonymous with Gandhi, the Gita became the field manual for his political actions. It accompanied the Satyagrahis on their Salt March. Gandhi deduced from it his concepts of truth, renunciation, non-violence, and action. An action that does not yearn for the fruit of its endeavours and is therefore non-violent.

The political theorist Ananya Vajpeyi argues that India underwent an epistemological crisis, a term borrowed from the philosopher Ian McIntyre. It means that our own identity is based on a narrative. Once we realise this narrative to be based on lies and incorrect assumptions, we find ourselves in a crisis of how to narrate ourselves and, consequently, to construct our identity. This was, especially post-independence, the case with India. How was India supposed to tell its great story, its maha bharata? Obviously, the suppressive narrative of the British colonialist became obsolete.

According to Vajpeyi, India re-narrated itself through several identity strongholds, such as Tagore’s viraha, the longing for the self; Nehru’s dharma, which was strongly influenced by Ashoka; Bhimrao Ambekdar’s version of the Buddhist dukha (pain or suffering); and, of course, Gandhi’s ahimsa, the same ahimsa that was largely deduced from his rendering of the Gita.

The nation became thicker in the eyes of the other, the one on the other side. Paradoxically, the other has at the same time always been an inherent and quintessential part—not only of the Gita, but India itself.  

Yet, not merely ahimsa became a pillar of identity for India. Gandhi and the holy poem itself did. Why else would the great soul look upon us from every rupee bill there is? And why else would minister of external affairs Sushma Swaraj want to declare the Gita a “national book”? India is Amitabh Bachchan, Holi, Tandoori, Gandhi, and the Gita. When the BJP government in Haryana spent a bewildering ₹8 lakh for ten copies of the Gita in November 2017, it was a reaffirmation of this very Indianness.

This was an Indianness, like most other identities, born of othering, the delineation from the other. In this case the British. For the borders of the nation became thicker in the eyes of the other, the one on the other side. Paradoxically, the other has at the same time always been an inherent and quintessential part—not only of the Gita, but India itself. Even today, this methodology persists by ostracising the other with the aid of the Gita as the Pakistanis, the Muslims, or merely the other political party.

I recently spoke to a Sanskrit professor at Sampurnanand Sanskrit Vishwavidyalaya in Varanasi, who assured me, by referring to the sacred text, that Indian soldiers have the right to kill insurgents and Pakistani soldiers, while the adversaries have not. Simply because of the yuddha- or ksatriyadharma (war or warrior duty) of the Indian soldiers.

There is, nevertheless, a deeper underlying problem, which the political scientist Perry Anderson put forward. Although many nationalists, such as Gandhi, tried to create an independent India that was secular and not biased towards any religion, they failed to do so, maybe even had to.

Gandhi and his relationship to the Gita is an ideal example. He thought every religion to be a path to the absolute, and so did the Gita teach, according to him. Still, he always venerated the Gita more than any other scripture. In fact, he read any scripture against the background of the epic excerpt. If they did not comply with Gandhi’s interpretation of it, he would refuse the text as untrue.

However tolerant, one put, even if clandestinely, Hinduism slightly above other religions. After all, even atheistic persuasion was part of it. This inclusivist tendency was initially not much of a problem. It was better to be almost tolerant than intolerant. The problem, as Anderson points out, manifested itself only later. For the fundament of the Congress party consisted decidedly of this Hindu-Universalism, cemented by the nationalist fathers of the country.

After Independence, this fundament has never been questioned. As history proves also in the case of the Irish Fianna Fail or the Israeli Likud party, where there exists such an ideology, however subliminal, however latent, it will be taken advantage of by another more extreme party in order to give vent to its underlying conflict.

In India’s case, the party was the BJP. The almost tolerant then becomes not-so-tolerant after all. This is the crux of the nationalistic heritage: in order to build an independent nation state, there has to exist a corresponding narrative as a basis for national identity. A narrative which generally rests upon art, literature, beliefs, historical figures, and so forth. Once the creation of a state is achieved, the nationalist tendency, with all its components of otherness, has to be redirected to a healthy pluralistic and egalitarian Weltanschauung. If one fails to do so, the state will become uncompromising towards the other inside or/and outside of its frontiers.

This conflict is mirrored in Gandhi’s assassination. The researcher Arvind Sharma described the sad irony of the incident as follows: “Mahatma Gandhi pitted himself non-violently against the British on the strength of the Bhagavad Gita, with which he fought the Indian Penal Code, and N. Godse drew his inspiration to assassinate Mahatma Gandhi from the self-same Gita and was hanged under the Penal Code.”

As we can see now, the Bhagavad Gita is not being politicised without reason. But it is a perilous undertaking in an ostensibly pluralistic and secular country, particularly when we tend to talk about the Gita and not the Gitas with all its historical baggage, when we forget that the sacred poem is a jalebi, twisted and turned through history, societies, and cultures. Interestingly, there is only one Indian nationalist who is revered by Hindus as much as by Muslims: Rabindranath Tagore. Is it a coincidence that he virtually never mentioned the Gita in his work?