Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

Mundane Distortions in the
Divine Discourse

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B S Murthy

Bhagvad-Gita: Treatise of Self-Help
Verses in Contemporary Idiom sans Interpolations

For the complete text, go to the Vedanta Spiritual Library website.

Part I

William von Humboldt who wrote seven hundred verses in praise of the Bhagavad Gita averred that it is the most beautiful, perhaps the only true philosophical song existing in any known tongue. All the same, the boon of an oral tradition that kept the divine discourse of yore alive for millennia became the bane of the Gita going by the seemingly mundane distortions it had to endure. Strangely it was Sir Edwin Arnold, the Englishman, who sought to separate the divine wheat from the mundane chaff by branding slokas 23 through 27 of chapter 8 as the ranting of some vedanti in his century old Song Celestial.

While interpreting the Gita in English verse, an attempt was made by the author to identify the interpolations in it and codify the same for the benefit of the modern reader. One way to scent the nature of these, if not zero in on every one of them, is to subject the text to the twin tests of sequential conformity and structural economy. Sequential conformity is all about uniformity of purpose sans digression and structural economy but represents the absence of repetitiveness.

The pundits and the plebeians alike aver that the philosophy of the Gita is the practice of disinterested action. In this context, it may be noted that while postulating niShkAma karma, the theory of disinterested action, Krishna was critical of the ritualistic aspects of and the mundane expectations from the Vedic ceremonies (slokas 42-46 and 53 of chapter 2). Given that the pristine philosophy of the Gita is to tend man on the path of duty without attachment, the about turn in slokas 9-16 of chapter 3 that formulate the procedural aspects of the rituals and the divine backing they enjoy cannot stand to either reason or logic. Such contradictory averments attributed to Krishna wherever occur can be taken as interpolations and the same are delved into in this article.

Next on the agenda is the aspect of structural economy and one finds the similitude of a given content in many a sloka in the same or in a different context throughout the text. Obviously, some of them are interpolations, but which were the originals and which are the imitations could be impossible to find out for they smugly fit into the overall structure. Whatever, save lengthening the discourse, they do not belittle the same and fortunately not even tire the reader, thanks to the exemplary charm of Sanskrit, which, for the 18th century British intellectual Sir William Jones, �is of wonderful structure, more perfect than Greek, more copious than Latin and more exquisitely refined than either,' identified here are 110 slokas of deviant character or digressive nature that can be taken as interpolations with reasonable certainty. Readers may like to mark these verses in their Gita and then read it afresh by passing over them for a refreshing experience.

Besides the interpolations slokas 9-16 of chapter 3, sloka 17, sloka 18 and sloka 24 of the same chapter are clear digressions. Such others in the rest of the chapters wherever they crop up are dealt as follows:

Chapter 4: It should not be lost on one that sloka 11�s return of favour by the Lord is juxtaposing to His stated detachment , as espoused in sloka 14 of the same chapter. On the other hand, sloka 12 that is akin to sloka 20, chapter 7, itself an interpolation, and sloka 13 the contentious 'chaatur varnyam mayaa srustam' - 'do not gel with the spirit of the philosophy.' Why hasn't Krishna declared in sloka 29 chapter 9, �None I favour, slight I none / Devout Mine but gain Me true.� Slokas 24 to 32 that are of religious/ritualistic nature seem clearly out of context and character. Prior to this seemingly interpolated body of 11 slokas, the nature of the Supreme Spirit and the conduct of those who realize it are dealt with. Thus, the discontinuity in the text brought about by the body of these interpolative slokas would be self-evident. And sloka 34 that advises Arjuna to seek wise counsel is irrelevant in the context of the discourse fashioned to set his doubts at rest in the battlefield itself.

Chapter 5: Sloka 18 avers the omnipresence of the Supreme in Brahmins, cows, elephants, dogs and dog eaters. This tasteless description could be but an interpolation as it ill behoves Krishna�s eloquence and sophistication of expression seen throughout. Incidentally, the succeeding sloka 19 makes it clear that whoever recognizes Him in all beings attains the Supreme State in life itself. Slokas 27-28 that deal with yogic practices and sloka 29, which asserts the Supreme as the beneficiary of sacrificial rituals, are but interpolations for reasons that bear no repetition.

Chapter 6: Slokas 10-17 deal with aspects of ascetic practices, which are but square pegs in the round philosophical hole that the discourse is, and so are interpolations, even going by what is stated in the very opening verse, �Forego none if forsake chores / Eye not gain �n thou be freed.� Sloka 41 and sloka 42 are clearly interpolations not only for affecting the continuity of the text but also for what they contain. Sloka 41 would have us that those who perform the asvamedha (ritualistic horse sacrifice) would reach heaven to be born again rich. Likewise, sloka 42 would have us that, �or such would be born in learned homes.�

Chapter 7: Slokas 20-23, besides affecting the continuity in character of the discourse, would advocate worship of gods for boon-seeking that Krishna chastises in slokas 42-44, chapter 2, which renders them interpolations.

Chapter 8: It can be seen that sloka 5 places the cart before the horse. Besides, slokas 9-14 too are interpolations going by their content, which is out of context. It is worth noting that slokas 1-4, slokas 6-8 and slokas 15-22, if read together, would bear an unmistakable continuity of argument that the interpolations deprive. And sloka 22 is a seemingly concluding statement of the Lord that only through unswerved devotion the Supreme could be reached from which there is no return (sloka 21). Then appear sloka 23 to sloka 27, which if literally taken, would imply that if one dies when the moon is on the ascent he would go to heaven, and to hell if it were the other way round. Needless to say, these slokas spelling superstition in an otherwise thought-elevating treatise are but interpolations, which Sir Edwin Arnold dismissed as the work of some vedanti and thought it fit, justifiably at that, not to include them in his Song Celestial. In this connection, it may be noted that the relationship between the state in which a person dies and his imminent rebirth is covered in slokas 14-15 of chapter 14, which seem to be authentic.

Chapter 9: Sloka 7, which contravenes slokas 15-16 of chapter 8, and which echoes interpolative slokas 18-19 of the current chapter, is an interpolation. Also sloka 15 is but a digression to facilitate the interpolations in slokas 16-21 and slokas 23-25. What is more, there could be some omissions from the original, given the seemingly incomplete exposition of the promised dharma in sloka 2. Further, in sloka 30 and sloka 31, it is said that even a reformed sinner is dear and valuable to Him. Then in sloka 32 it is stated that the women Vaisyas and Sudras could win His favour through devotion, sounding as if they are all in an inferior league. Leave aside the Lord's averment in many a context in this text that the Supreme Spirit lies in all beings, it is specifically stated in soka 34 of chapter 10 that He symbolizes all that is glorious in woman. Given this, and the background of the interpolations, sloka 32 surely is a case of trespass. Sloka 33 of this chapter is but a jointing medium of the said obnoxious verse and in itself is patronizing in nature towards the virtuous Brahmins and thus is an interpolation.

Part II

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