by Justin Antitheist for World Literature I
The Bhagavad Gita is one of the most influential texts the world has ever known. A favorite of the Hindu canon, the Bhagavad Gita is immensely popular in India, widely read and a perennial subject of films, television programs, children’s books and cartoons. It has had a profound an long lasting affect on Indian culture for millennia. The Gita is a beautiful work of literature. It describes a sophisticated model of spirituality and proscribes a method by which to live a spiritual life. Among other things, it asserts that the caste system is a necessary part of a spiritual life. No disrespect is intended here, but a critique will be made. This paper will argue that insofar as it mandates the caste system, the Bhagavad Gita is detrimental to the society which loves it so dearly.
The Bhagavad Gita can be, and often is read as a complete book itself but it is actually part of a greater work known as the Mahabharata, one of the world’s greatest literary epics. These are holy scripture in Hinduism. The Bhagavad Gita proposes itself to be the solution to the problem of life. The problem of life is that of the apparent vanity of living and acting in the world. It seems that with all its suffering, ignorance, hatred and violence, worldly life is meaningless and a thing to be renounced. This fundamental dilemma is central to Hinduism as well as in Jainism and Buddhism. In all three of these, all action involves karma. Westerners tend to unconsciously misconceive of karma in terms of punishment and reward from a judge, even if the existence of God is consciously denied. But karma is better understood as an entirely impersonal mechanism of action and reaction. But rather than obeying observable physical laws, karma operates according to dharma which is a hypothetical set of laws. Unhealthy living tends to lead to poor health due to physical laws, not due to a spiritual agent. The same applies to karma. As it is written in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 4.4.5 “According as one acts, according as one conducts himself, so does he become. The doer of good becomes good. The doer of evil becomes evil. One becomes virtuous by virtuous action, bad by bad action.”
Not only is suffering a result of karma, but karma endures with the soul through, “the cycle of repeated birth and death in the material world” which is called samsara (Prabhupada, 681). One can think of karma like the sand bags that weigh down a hot air balloon. The ideal is to eventually attain mukti or “liberation” from samamsara by shedding off karma like dropping sandbags from the balloon so that one can float free to nirvana or “freedom from material existence” (11, 679). On these points Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism agree.
Where these three religions differ is on the issue of the caste system. This is the institutionalized stratification of society into a hierarchy of four basic levels or varnas and many subdivisions. Using the metaphor of a hierarchy of levels of the human body, it is explained in the Manusmṛti or the Laws of Manu that, “for the sake of the prosperity of the worlds he caused the Brahmana, the Kshatriya, the Vaisya, and the Sudra to proceed from his mouth, his arms, his thighs, and his feet.” (Bühler, 1.31).
Predating the Gita or any mention of the caste system is the practice of yoga. Yoga is Sanskrit for “yoking” or “union” (Britannica). In the same way that the word religion means to “relink”, oneself to the divine, the purpose of yoga is to connect oneself to the transcendent and attain nirvana. The oldest civilization in the Indian subcontinent is called the Indus Valley Civilization spanning roughly 3300-1300 B.C.E. From the cities of Mohenjo-daro and Harappa clay seals have been found depicting an anthropomorphic figure in a jungle scene including a tiger and a bull. He seems to have three faces, suggesting the concept of the trimurti which will be described later. He is seated in the padmasana or “lotus seat” positon which is the pose most often used for meditation. Images of Shiva, perhaps the oldest major god of the Indian subcontinent often show him in the jungle in seated meditation though the tiger is often reduced to a yoga mat and the bull is not always present. Of course the Buddha is often shown in the lotus position also to indicate meditation. The point is that the practice of striving for the transcendent predates the Gita and even the Vedic tradition.
It is the opinion of many scholars that the Vedic tradition came from the Aryan people who entered the Indian subcontinent from the North-West. Like the warriors in the Gita, these people had horses, chariots and iron weapons giving them a distinct advantage over the indigenous people. The earliest of their scriptures is a body of works called the Vedas, the earliest of which place a great importance on the annual horse sacrifice and on soma, a deified natural hallucinogen. The horse was introduced into India by the Aryans. No one knows what exactly soma was but it is generally agreed that it grew naturally in the region the Aryans came from and not in the Indian subcontinent. Besides hymns to soma as a substance and as a god, the earliest Vedas are hymns to gods such as Indra and Agni. All of these Vedic deities are quite different than those such as Shiva and Kali who are indigenous to the India. The main religious similarity between these two cultures at this point is the concern for attaining the divine. The indigenous people of India practiced yoga like the ascetics in the story of Sidhartha . In the earliest Vedas the way to the divine was the drinking of the golden pressed juice of soma. The Vedic tradition does not speak of other practices until after Aryan contact with the indiginous people and the loss of soma. All of this suggests that people in India already had ideas about attaining the divine and that the Vedic tradition came from people who had came into the region at a later point.
It is of the opinion of many scholars that the caste system was imposed by the Aryan people on the indigenous people, making themselves the higher castes and the indigenous people the lower castes and the Untouchables. In addition to this, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar argues that the caste system as a social construction necessarily came first and that the religious aspect came later (Ambedkar, 1916). With this in mind, the current author notes that the earliest mention of the caste system, the Parusha Sutra seems like a later insertion into the Rig Veda. Being the oldest Veda, the Rig Veda is made of hymns to deifications of natural forces such as fire or Agni, thunder or Indra and soma the substance and Soma the divine self. Read in this context, hymn 10.90, the Parusha Sutra stands out as the product of a later stage in spiritual thinking, something like Deuteronomy being inserted towards the end of the Enuma Elish. The Rig Veda is from about but the Parusha Sutra seems to mirror the Manusmṛti or Laws of Manu from about the 2nd to 3rd centurey, BCE.
After the Rig Veda came the other Vedas, the Upanishads, and the Mahabharata with the Bhagavad Gita. As explained by Shashi Tharoor, formerly under Secretary General UN, the Mahabharata dates back to;
“roughly 400 B.C. and 400 A.D. which is roughly the 800 year span during which it was composed. During that period the tale was told and retold to the point where it became a sort of national library of India where every tale that had to be told was incorporated into a retelling of the Mahabharat. All sorts of things got tossed into this. Literally every single thing that people wanted to talk about in their times was interpolated into a retelling of the epic. So for 800 years the Mahabharat became the story of India.”
If this is so, then the Gita can be seen as a response to the major social interest of its time. On the subject of the caste, the Gita mirrors the Parusha Sutra and the Laws of Manu. Insofar as the Gita espouses as system of attainment, it is unique in Hindu scripture on two points. First, it insists on devotion to Krishna alone as the only way to nirvana. Secondly, it insists that the caste system is a necessary part of the dharma and that adhering to the system is mandatory for shedding karma. On these points not only do Jainism and Buddhism disagree as mentioned, but other major branches of Hinduism as well.
The theology of Hinduism is complicated and not consistent. But perhaps the common ground shared by most, though not all Hindus is the trimurti. From the impersonal ineffible Brahman comes the trimurti or three god forms of Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver and Shiva the destroyer. Through human history, Vishnu has taken on human form or avatars a number of times. These avatars are worshipped themselves with Ram of the Ramayana and Krishna of the Gita being the most popular today. Among the spiritual seekers in Hinduism, millions follow the Vaisnava dharma meaning that they beleive in the model above and specifically reject the idea that Krishna is of a higher status than any other avatar of Vishnu and specifically not higher than Vishnu himself. Like millions of Vaisnava Hindus, millions of Smarta Hindus subscribe to the trimurti theology but do not accept the supremacy or necessity of Krishna, even though they accept the class system. The other two major branches of Hinduism are the Śāktaṃ or the “doctrine of power” which focuses on Shakti or the Goddess and her power and Śaiva Hinduism which worships Shiva as creator, preserver and destroyer and not Krishna. Thus, the doctrine that Krishna is supreme is not accepted by millions of Hindus. Furthermore, saddhus specifically renounce the caste system whilst devoting their lives to sadhana, the work of shedding off karma. The sacred festival of Kumbh-Mela is attended mostly by saddhus. National Geographic estimated that over 100 million attended in 2013. This would be a considerable percentage of serious seekers of nirvana within Hinduism alone that take little or no heed to the two distinct doctrines of the Gita.
It would be fair to ask what significance this may all have, especially when considering the tremendous value the Gita holds. Hermeneutics is fair enough, but why the deconstruction? Leaving aside the philosophical issues of a belief system claiming to have exclusive truth without fulfilling the burden of proof, there is the more practical issue of the practical application of the Gita in society within India and without.
On the global stage there is the International Society for Krishna Consciousness or ISKCON, known colloquially as the Hare Krishna movement which was founded in 1966 by “His Divine Grace” Swami Prabhupada (Prabhupada v). His Divine Grace is also the author of The Bhagavad Gita As It Is which is printed in Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, English, fourteen other major tongues and “and thirty-three other languages” to promote ISKCON worldwide (vi). For many years, ISKCON has been the subject of scandal, exposés and court cases regarding finances and treatment of members. Though their book is printed in Hindi and their headquarters is in Mayapur, India most of their activity takes place outside of Indian society and the caste system. Furthermore, the harm done to members of ISKCON is in no way based on the actual content of the Gita itself nor even His Divine Grace’s lengthy commentaries in The Bhagavad Gita As It Is all of which the current author has read. The reader may take or leave the issue of the Gita used as a recruitment tool for ISKCON.
Far more people embrace the Gita within the borders of India than without. As seen above, the Gita has been the most influential scriptual mandate of the caste system for millenia. This is so entrenched in Indian society that the caste system is practiced today despite the official eradication of it by the Constitution of India in 1950. The Untouchability Practices Act, 1955 and other legislation. The Untouchables who are usually refered to as Dalits in India are the lowest caste, numbering about 167 million, making up roughly one-sixth of India’s population. In 2010, the International Journal on Minority & Group Rights reported, “despite constitutional and legislative prohibitions of Untouchability and discrimination on grounds of caste they continue to suffer caste-based discrimination and violence” (Waughray 327).
In 2011, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported prevalent, “discrimination and verbal and physical abuse” against Dalits in Indian Universities, “at least 18 suicides by Dalit students over the past four years,” and, “a disproportionate number of dropouts from universities are Dalits–even though higher education is their only hope of rising socially.” (Neelakantan A12). An other study shows significant wage discrepency along caste lines. The statistics that this study reports show that those of higher caste earn more per capita and more annually while working fewer hours than those of lower castes (Deininger 136-7, 139).
In 2009, the George Washington International Law Review reported on, “challenges in terminating caste discrimination and human rights of dalits and lower caste members in India” (Sarkin 541).
On report on these problems notes that there are roughly two million Hindus in Pakistan living in the caste system and that these problems also, “feature primarily in other countries in south east Asia which have, or have had, a close connection with India and/or Hinduism.” (Ninian 191). The same author reports caste discrimination existing in Christian, Muslim and Sikh communities in the region of India. It also seems that this discrimination is retained in emigration from India and surrounding nations. The Spring 2012 Journal of Punjab Studies interviewd members of the immigrant Sikh communities of the U.K. and reported, “what has emerged as common to the narratives of fission has been the factor of caste.” (Sato 1).
“Caste as a system of social organisation has been exported from its regions of origin to diaspora communities such as the UK…” (Waughray 182).
“No national studies have been done to determine the magnitude of caste-related discrimination on campuses.” (Neelakantan A12)
As with the hymns to Indra and Agni who are very old deifications of the forces of nature, this hymn to Parusha seems to mirror the Manusmṛti or “Laws of Manu” from about the first century B.C.E. (http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/363055/Manu-smriti) Both texts describe the body of the primordial being in terms of a hierachy of castes. Being a text of sacred law, the “Laws of Manu” detail the caste system and its rules from what to name a newborn (“The name of a priest should have a word for auspiciousness, of a ruler a word for strength, of a commoner property, and the name of a servant should breed disgust.” LOM Ch 2 v 31) to violent punishments for small transgressions of caste. (Laws of Manu Ch2, V 281 “If a man of the inferior caste tries to sit down on the same seat as a superior caste, he should be branded on the hip and banished, or have his buttocks cut off.”)
The Bhagavad Gita was added to the Mahabharata at some point between 100 B.C.E. and 100 C.E. In it, Krishna espouses a system of spiritual attainment that had been practiced in the Inidan subcontinent for a long time, described in the Vedas and in the Upanishads and practiced by the darker people long before the lighter skinned Brahmins began to impose a caste system. There are differences, such as the insistence on devotion to the personal godhead Krishna alone rather than thinking of this as merely one particular form of devotional yoga which itself is only one of eight “limbs” of yoga, all of which are thought to lead to the same moksha that Krishna claims he is the only way to in the Bhagavad Gita. Millions of yogis and saddhus dedicate their lives to acheiving moksha without Krishna and certainly without violence. Similarly, their lives do not involve any affirmation of castes. They renounce caste and violence just as Arjuna does in beginning of the Bhagavad Gita. Unlike Arjuna, they do not accept Krishna’s message which amounts to “continue to live in samsara, carry out your duty even though it feels wrong to kill, don’t think about it, just play your role” (Story of India ep 1)
Excerpts from the Bhagavad Gita
18.41 “Brāhmaṇas, kṣatriyas, vaiśyas and śūdras are distinguished by the qualities born of their own natures in accordance with the material modes, O chastiser of the enemy.”
18.42 “Peacefulness, self-control, austerity, purity, tolerance, honesty, knowledge, wisdom and religiousness — these are the natural qualities by which the brāhmaṇas work.”
18.43 “Heroism, power, determination, resourcefulness, courage in battle, generosity and leadership are the natural qualities of work for the kṣatriyas.”
18.44 “Farming, cow protection and business are the natural work for the vaiśyas, and for the śūdras there is labor and service to others.
18.45 “By following his qualities of work, every man can become perfect. Now please hear from Me how this can be done.”
Excerpts from the Manusmṛti
87. But in order to protect this universe He, the most resplendent one, assigned separate (duties and) occupations to those who sprang from his mouth, arms, thighs, and feet.
88. To Brahmanas he assigned teaching and studying (the Veda), sacrificing for their own benefit and for others, giving and accepting (of alms).
89. The Kshatriya he commanded to protect the people, to bestow gifts, to offer sacrifices, to study (the Veda), and to abstain from attaching himself to sensual pleasures;
90. The Vaisya to tend cattle, to bestow gifts, to offer sacrifices, to study (the Veda), to trade, to lend money, and to cultivate land.
91. One occupation only the lord prescribed to the Sudra, to serve meekly even these (other) three castes.
92. Man is stated to be purer above the navel (than below); hence the Self-existent (Svayambhu) has declared the purest (part) of him (to be) his mouth.
93. As the Brahmana sprang from (Brahman’s) mouth, as he was the first-born, and as he possesses the Veda, he is by right the lord of this whole creation.
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