12/08/2014 01:12 am ET Updated Feb 06, 2015

Gifts of the Gita


"Works break through the boundaries of their own time," wrote the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin. "They live in centuries, that is, in great time, and frequently (with great works always) their lives are more intense and fuller than are their lives within their own time." Like other great religious works, the Bhagavad Gita has lived an especially full and intense life, from the time of its composition some two millennia ago right up to the present.

In its latest incarnation, this work of classical India has become an item of high-level diplomatic exchange. During recent state visits, the new Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, has presented translations of the Bhagavad Gita to the Chinese President Xi Jinping and to the Japanese Emperor Akihito. Then, in September, Modi brought a special edition of the Bhagavad Gita According to Gandhi, covered in homespun khadi, to the United States, and gave it to President Obama at a White House dinner. But Modi did not return to India Gita-less. During his visit, Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawai'i, the first practicing Hindu in the United States Congress, gave to Modi her personal copy of the Gita. This was the same copy, she noted, that she had kept with her when serving in Iraq, and on which she had taken her Congressional oath of office in 2013. What is going on with all the gifts of the Gita?

The Bhagavad Gita took birth as part of a larger composition, the great Sanskrit poem Mahabharata. The battlefield discussion of Krishna and Arjuna, two central figures of the epic, at the onset of a cataclysmic war touched on central themes and tensions within the story. Krishna's teachings drew on ideas and disputes of classical India, restating and reformulating them into an innovative synthesis. In the course of their discussion, Krishna also revealed himself to be the Supreme God. The complexity of Krishna's message and his reconciliation of multiple religious pathways made the short work rich in significance and susceptible to multiple interpretations. His self-revelation as God gave the work special religious authority to some.

Although a great work of religious literature speaks within and to its own time of composition, Bakhtin's statement emphasizes that it cannot be closed off in that epoch. Its fullness is revealed only in "great time." In its continuing life, the work comes to be enriched with new meanings and new relevance in new settings. Different aspects of the work may come to the fore. In medieval India new hearers and readers found ways that the work spoke to their concerns. For Vedanta commentators like Shankara and Ramanuja, the Gita addressed central theological debates. In the hands of the Maharashtrian bhakti poet Jnanadeva, Krishna's Sanskrit dialogue with Arjuna proliferated into a greatly expanded devotional Gita in vernacular Marathi. Later it traveled abroad. In 1785, the Gita became the first Sanskrit work translated into English, and it provoked widespread excitement among English Orientalists, German Romantics, and American Transcendentalists. Henry David Thoreau borrowed a copy from Ralph Waldo Emerson to read at Walden Pond.

In colonial India of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, nationalist writers and political figures revisited the Gita. They promoted it as a central work of an emerging Indian national ethos. The new battlefield was the British Raj, and they found in it strong advocacy for engaged social and political action, karma yoga. The form that action should take, however, remained a point of heated contention. This is where Mohandas Gandhi comes into the picture.

Among all leaders of the Indian independence movement, none were more devoted to the Bhagavad Gita than Gandhi. He called it his "dictionary of daily reference" and his "mother." He spoke and wrote widely on it throughout his career. But he also had an interpretive problem. In the course of the Gita Krishna persuades the reluctant warrior Arjuna to take part in a battle of cataclysmic proportions. He advocates violent warfare, as an instrument of divine will. Many Indian nationalists accepted the call of the Gita for righteous struggle, even it that might require violence. Among the devotees of this Gita was K. S. Hedgewar, founder of the Hindu nationalist organization, the Rashtriya Svayamsevak Sangh (RSS), who saw the work as the basis for creating a more disciplined, masculine, aggressive Hindu community.

Gandhi, by contrast, held no commitment more important than his principle of non-violence. The battlefield, Gandhi argued, must be taken as an interior one, where the forces of good and evil are locked in never-ending struggle. When Krishna tells Arjuna to fight, he is telling him to overcome any self-interested inclinations and to carry out his own righteous duty, Gandhi based his own authority as an interpreter of the Gita on his personal endeavor "to enforce the meaning in my own conduct for an unbroken period of forty years." Gandhi also claimed that the Gita was not a Hindu work, but rather one of "pure ethics," which a person of any faith might read.

In his ceremonial gift to Obama, Narendra Modi sought to align himself with the Gandhian side of the Bhagavad Gita. Along with the book, it was reported, the Indian Prime Minister presented the American President with a rare photograph of Martin Luther King Jr., laying a garland at the cremation site of Gandhi, the Raj Ghat in Delhi. In 1959, King visited India to learn what he could from Gandhi's followers, and the strategy of the American Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and early 1960s drew heavily from the Gandhian practice of satyagraha, or disciplined non-violent resistance, developed in South Africa and India. To complete the circle, Obama and Modi had themselves photographed visiting the new Martin Luther King Junior Memorial in Washington.

All this was adept deployment of the Gita in political rhetoric by Narendra Modi. Siding with Gandhi's interpretation of the Gita allowed him to place India on the moral high ground of non-violence. Following the guiding philosophy of the Buddha and of Gandhi, Modi asserted, "we believe in non-violence." And by bringing King into the picture, Modi was able to highlight the intertwined threads of dialogue that tie together the two post-colonial nations: the Bhagavad Gita, Thoreau's civil disobedience, Gandhi's satyagraha, and King's dream.

Astute diplomatic symbolism aside, the larger question is which Bhagavad Gita will prevail during the Modi Raj. The Prime Minister's personal background leads back to the Gita of RSS founder Hedgewar, who read the work as a conservative, exclusivist, Hindu work. Modi is a long-time member of the RSS and leads a conservative Hindu nationalist party. During his time as Chief Minister of Gujarat, he presided over horrific communal riots in 2002, and many accused him of abetting an anti-Muslim pogrom. But the past is not destiny. If he were now to embrace Gandhi's non-violent and non-sectarian reading of the Gita, more than simply giving it away in other countries, one can imagine a different style of governance altogether. This remains to be seen. Whichever reading prevails, though, the long-ago battlefield dialogue of Krishna and Arjuna recorded in the Bhagavad Gita is sure to live on intensely in the political discourse of contemporary India.