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'Making Gita a national book is paying lip service'

December 22, 2011 15:54 IST
Devdutt Pattanaik wears many hats. A medical doctor, he writes and lectures extensively on the relevance of mythology (not just Hindu) in modern times, and is currently Chief Belief Officer with the Future Group.

Since becoming CBO, he has focussed on mythology and management and is currently leadership coach and inspirational speaker to many organizations. Author of 25 books, he consults Star TV on storytelling techniques and patterns and is a regular on the management seminar lecture circuit apart from writing for many publications.

With a Russian court hearing a suit by a group linked to Christian Orthodox Church seeking a ban on the Bhagavad Gita, Pattanaik was interviewed by rediff.com via email. An excerpt:

What are your initial thoughts on the Russian court case against the Bhagavad Gita?

I felt this was at one level a case of politics and at another level a case of genuine cultural misunderstanding. Also I am aware of ISKCON's radical approach to selling its ideology; a clash with Orthodox Russian Church was imminent.

Are we Indians overreacting to the court case in a court in a remote part of the world?

Yes, I think so. Outrage is becoming a common reaction to prove allegiance to an idea. It gives us yet another exciting 'breaking news' to spice up our life. If we have genuine faith in the Gita, how does other people's misunderstanding of it matter, I wonder.

Prima facie, considering that it was an oration delivered at the start of an internecine war between cousins, urging one side to exterminate the other, can the Bhagavad Gita be termed as a violent book?

Yes, it can be deemed a violent book. But is violence bad? Violence is part of the human condition. Violence is part of nature. We deem some violence acceptable (Hiroshima) and some unacceptable (Holocaust). Violence is not just physical. It can also be psychological (strikes, non-cooperation, prisons, exile, censorship, propaganda). It is rather naïve to see violence as bad and non-violence as good.

Doesn't the Gita also have some 'politically incorrect' (in today's terms) sections, dealing the Varnashram that justifies the caste system?

Every doctrine in the world is politically incorrect, depending on what your politics are. Secularism is also highly politically incorrect in its intolerance of all things religious in the public space. The Gita acknowledges the varna system, which is the hierarchies of mental dispositions.

Does varna also mean jati, or professional caste? That can be debated. Even if it does, then edit out that verse and read the rest.

Every thing changes with time, space and people involved, as the scriptures repeatedly state, but no one, not even the politically correct, consider.

How familiar do you think Indians are with the Bhagavad Gita, its message?

Many have read them. Many know the verses. May hear the interpretations. But few actually get it. If you get it, you will be at peace even in the midst of war. You will not be outraged.

Judicial independence is something India holds very dear. So should India be leaning on the Russian government to interfere in the matter?

Judges are humans. Laws are made by humans. To assume laws and judges cannot be partial and prejudiced is rather naïve. So I guess we need to clarify misunderstanding. But beyond that we cannot interfere with the affairs of other countries.

I wonder how many people shouting slogans on Russian streets, and Parliament, are willing to take up similar issues with Islamic countries where literature of other religions is banned.

Why does the Bhagavad Gita attract such extreme reactions? On the one hand, corporates toast its message as timeless; on the other, it invites such fear from other religious groups. What is it about the Gita, then?

Indian thought is expressed using metaphors and symbols. Modern thought is based on logic and taking things literally. It is full of potent ideas. We can read anything that we want into it. So I can read nishkama karma as professionalism. I can also read it as action that is free of personal desires and submitted to a higher power, something that can be exploited by those who seek to brainwash the youth. It is all highly subjective. So naturally the many interpretations and extreme reactions. 

The Bharatiya Janata Party wants the Gita to be declared a national book. Would that prevent bans of this kind?

The BJP is a political party. It will do whatever it takes to get votes and come to power. Like its arch-rival, the Congress, its primary objective is forming the government. Making the Gita a national book is playing lip service to Hindu thought. It would be better if they -- the BJP and Congress -- actually read the book and made an attempt to understand. There would not be so much anger and frustration in Parliament.

Should the Gita be declared India's national book?

I think reading and understanding and reflecting on the Gita is more critical than making it a national book. Token gestures do not solve the world's problems. It is like politicians renaming streets with enthusiasm rather than tackling corruption and hunger.

Since the Gita open to interpretation, why is it that it's never been misused by Hindu fundamentalists who have focused more on Ram than on Krishna's treatise?

In the Ramayana, relative to the Mahabharata, villains and heroes are clearly identifiable. Fundamentalist movements, Hindu or otherwise, are modelled around linear binary constructs. Ram's lore lends itself to that model much more than Krishna's lore.

Is the Gita one of India's most relevant and therefore enduring religious texts?

Honestly, the value we give to the Gita today is because the British valued it greatly and equated it with the Bible when they made it part of the judicial system. For an Indian scholar, the Gita is but one of the many religious texts in India, that brings together many of the diverse intellectual streams of the land.

I guess, spellbound by the Western template of having one definitive religious book to validate Hinduism, we cling to the Gita. But that reveals a poor understanding of Hinduism itself.  

With politicians jumping in, do you think issue could be politicised?

…And trivialised.