Contraries in the Commentaries on The Gita
A commentary is a bunch of critical notes about a particular text that demands and deserves detailed explanation. Commentaries on the Sanskrit text are an age-old tradition that needs contemplation. Here “commentary” does not imply “literal translation” into other languages; a commentary can be referred to as an “explanation,” “interpretation” or “exegesis” of the original Sanskrit text in the light of the philosophy or understanding of the commentators involved. But then, commentaries on the Sanskrit text have often created confusion among scholars and readers, and thus, the commentators have often created their exclusive lineage of followers. The Gita has been interpreted by many scholars, saints and monks down the ages. One considers another wrong or bad. One interpretation invites another, and it has been observed that what once had been considered “proper,” has later been criticized as a misinterpretation. Our study centers around the commentaries on The Gita, which has been described as “Brahmavidya” by the editor(s) of The Mahabharata.
About The Mahabharata and The Gita
Traditionally, the authorship of The Mahabharata is attributed to sage Vyasa. There have been many attempts to explore its historical growth and compositional layers. The oldest preserved parts of the text are thought to be not much older than around 400 BCE, though the origins of the epic probably fall between the 8th and 9th centuries BCE. The text probably reached its final form by the early Gupta period (c. 4th century CE). The title may be translated as “the great tale of the Bharata dynasty.” According to The Mahabharata itself, the tale is extended from a shorter version of 24,000 verses, called simply Bharata.
The Bhagavad Gita, often referred to as simply The Gita, is a 699-verse scripture in Sanskrit that is an integral part of The Mahabharata [chapters 25–42 of the Bhisma Parva, which is the 6th segment of The Mahabharata). The Gita is set in a narrative framework of a dialogue between Pandava prince Arjuna and his guide and charioteer, Lord Krishna. Facing the duty as a warrior to fight the Dharma Yudhha or righteous war between Pandavas and Kauravas, Arjuna was counseled by Lord Krishna to “fulfill his Kshatriya (warrior) duty as a warrior and establish Dharma.” Also, there are messages on the ways that lead to liberation or moksha.
The Bhagavad Gita is also called Gitopanisad. It is the last scripture of the Sanatana Dharma and one of the most important Upanisads in literature. There are many commentaries on The Gita, and one may question the necessity for another one. Srila Prabhupada in his introduction to The Bhagavad-gita As It Is wrote: “This present edition can be explained in the following way. Recently an American lady asked me to recommend an English translation of The Bhagavad Gita. Of course in America there are so many editions of The Gita available in English, but as far as I have seen, not only in America but also in India, none of them can be strictly said to be authoritative because in almost every one of them the commentator has expressed his own opinions without touching the spirit of Bhagavad-gita as it is.” Srila Prabhupada explained his take further: “It is just like this: if we want to take a particular medicine, then we have to follow the directions written on the label. We cannot take the medicine according to our own whim or the direction of a friend. It must be taken according to the directions on the label or the directions given by a physician. Similarly, Bhagavad-gita should be taken or accepted as it is directed by the speaker himself. The speaker of Bhagavad-gita is Lord Sri Krsna.”
Srila Prabhupada considered commentators as people who were re-telling The Gita like Lord Krishna. Prabhupada in his introduction to The Bhagavad-gita As It Is wrote: “…Bhagavad-gita should be taken up in a spirit of devotion. One should not think that he is equal to Krsna, nor should he think that Krsna is an ordinary personality or even a very great personality. Lord Sri Krsna is the Supreme Personality of Godhead, at least theoretically, according to the statements of Bhagavad-gita or the statements of Arjuna, the person who is trying to understand the Bhagavad-gita. We should therefore at least theoretically accept Sri Krsna as the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and with that submissive spirit we can understand the Bhagavad-gita. Unless one reads the Bhagavad-gita in a submissive spirit, it is very difficult to understand Bhagavad-gita because it is a great mystery.”
The Gita consists of eighteen chapters and each chapter ends with the line, “Iti… Brahmavidyayang Yogashastre Sri Krishnarjun Samvade…” Hence, The Gita may be referred to as Brahmavidya which directs one to realizing the Brahma or “self.” Also, The Gita is Yogashastra; therefore, the nuances of The Gita can only be comprehended by true Yogis who have achieved enlightenment.
The Gita has defined Yoga as: “yogah karmasu kaushalam” [chapter II, verse 50]. “[The] art of all work” is called Yoga. The gist as included in Bhagavad-gita As It Is reads as: “One’s ignorance can be removed by the instruction of the Bhagavad-gita which teaches one to surrender unto Lord Sri Krsna in all respects and become liberated from the chained victimization of action and reaction, birth after birth. Arjuna is therefore advised to act in Krsna consciousness, the purifying process of resultant action.” Acting in “Krishna consciousness” is a typical phenomenon, prevailing among the followers of Srila Prabhupada who founded ISKCON.
In the postscript to Mumuksha (by Kaushik Acharya) Raghunath Ghosh (Professor Emeritus, Department of Philosophy, North Bengal University) wrote: If there is no meditation, no result can be achieved as endorsed in the gita— “yogah karmasu kausalam” (meditation is the key to success). Here the same verse got a unique dimension through Ghosh’s interpretation.
On the other hand, Sri Lahiri Mahasaya in his commentary on The Gita rendered his take as, “[By] staying in the paravastha of kriya-yoga—abandon the wish for acts, good or bad. To do this, stay in the kriya-yoga’s paravastha and do your duty. Yoga is a very big art, art of all arts. It should be done by keeping your eye-sight in your forehead and your breath steady in your heart.”
It is obvious that Lahiri Mahasaya’s take on The Gita can only be understood by someone who practices Kriyayoga, for the nuances (like paravastha, etc.) need to be taken care of.
The Gita imparts knowledge to mankind; knowledge which prepares a reader for seeking enlightenment. The fourth chapter (Jnana Yoga) deals with wisdom. Verse 39 reads as:
shraddhavan labhate jnanam tatparaha samyatendriyaha
jnanam labdhva param shantim acirenadhigacchati
[Only a faithful man who is focused to God and has complete control over the mind and body (indriyas), can gain knowledge, not otherwise. Thus, supreme spiritual peace can be achieved.]
While explaining this verse in Bhagavad-gita As It Is, Srila Prabhupada contradicted his stand as mentioned in the introduction and wrote: “One is called a faithful man who thinks that, simply by acting in Krsna consciousness, he can attain the highest perfection. This faith is attained by the discharge of devotional service, and by chanting “Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare,” which cleanses one’s heart of all material dirt.” Nowhere in The Gita can one spot the importance of chanting mantra, and it was Srila Prabhupada who defined other interpretations as “whims” of the commentators.
The yogic explanation runs as follows: “By Kriya—with a devoted and controlled mind and indriyas and staying in the paravastha of Kriya, soon a sentiment of ‘I am nothing, and mine is nothing’ is obtained.” It is worth mentioning that supreme peace can never be attained until a man becomes free of the “I-feeling.”
Looking at verse 9 in chapter IV:
janma karma ca me divyam evam yo vetti tattvatah
tyaktva deham punar janma naiti mam eti so arjuna
[One who knows the transcendental nature of my appearance and activities, does not, upon leaving the body take birth again in this material world, but attains my eternal abode, O Arjuna]
This verse has its reference to the previous two verses [verses 7 and 8] where God claims that to rescue the sadhus and to demolish the evils He arrives in the world at all times. The Bhagavad-gita As It Is explains verse 9 as: “One who can understand the truth of the appearance of the Personality of Godhead is already liberated from material bondage, and therefore he returns to the kingdom of God immediately after quitting this present material body. Such liberation of the living entity from material bondage is not at all easy.” Srila Pabhupada challenged the ones with no so-called Krishna-consciousness and explained the verse further: “The impersonalists and the yogis attain liberation only after much trouble and many, many births. Even then, the liberation they achieve—merging into the impersonal brahmajyoti of the Lord—is only partial, and there is the risk of returning again to this material world. But the devotee, simply by understanding the transcendental nature of the body and activities of the Lord, attains the abode of the Lord after ending this body and does not run the risk of returning again to this material world.”
Lahiri Mahasaya, on the contrary, delivered a clear stand on the verse and did not include any warning for non-kriyavans (A Kriyavan is one who performs Kriyayoga having been taught by an authorized Master). The yogic explanation of verse 9 reads as: “One who understands My birth and acts as the clear sky and with a knowledge of it, performs Kriya, does not have to be re-born.”
We will now discuss verse 66 in chapter XVIII:
sarva-dharman parityajya mam ekam sharanam vraja
aham tvam sarva-papebhyo moksayisyami ma sucah
[Abandon all varieties of religion and surrender only unto me. I shall relieve you from all the sins. Don’t be sorrowful.]
The explanation of the verse, as contained in Bhagavad-gita As It Is, reads as: “Now, in summarizing Bhagavad-gita, the Lord says that Arjuna should give up all the processes that have been explained to him; he should simply surrender to Krsna. That surrender will save him from all kinds of sinful reactions, for the Lord personally promises to protect him.” One with or without the Krishna-consciousness may question the rationality of such an explanation as it probably categorized the verse as a summarizer of all advices as laid down in The Gita.
Srila Prabhupada refuted the importance of labor attached with Karma (action) and mentioned: “There is no need of strenuous effort to free oneself from sinful reactions. One should unhesitatingly accept Krsna as the supreme savior of all living entities.” May we now raise a question: Does not the act of accepting Krishna as the savior call for Karma that demands austerity? We may again ask if the tenets of Yoga and/or Patanjal Yoga Sutra does not allow unconditional acceptance of the God as the only savior. And also, how does one accept Krishna as the supreme savior?
The yogic explanation of the same verse is crisp and to-the-point: “Do not get attracted anywhere, only concentrate on the atma and carry on with the acts taught by the Guru. Keep remembering—Aum—whilst engaging in this act if you get tempted elsewhere—I shall deliver you, rather in the [advanced] stage of paravastha of Kriya no temptations occur, thus don’t worry about it.”
There are several other verses whose interpretations differ from one book to another; it is all about the school-of-thought that one follows. It is to be noted that the author (sage Vyasa) did not explain the verses himself as contained in The Gita; this has been the chief reason why the interpretations have been made down the ages. The question remains: Why did not the author explain the verses himself? The answer to this question can be spotted in chapter IX where God claims The Gita as “rajavidya rajaguhyam pavitram idam uttamam” [The majestic knowledge is extremely confidential and pious, Verse 2]. We can guess that the author of The Mahabharata [or The Gita, as in this case] let the verses remain mysterious to general readers and allowed them to be interpreted by the sages and scholars according to their understanding of self-realization. After all, The Gita aids in realizing the self and imparts knowledge on moksha [salvation].
Considering verse 66 in chapter XVIII [as mentioned in this study] many scholars nurture the notion that sharanagatih [the act of surrendering to God] is possibly the chief action The Gita has endorsed. This belief holds little merit, because had this been true, the author would not have written all seventeen chapters prior to chapter XVIII. There is no reason to call the author unwise and imprudent.
Let us read and contemplate on verse 29 in chapter IV:
apane juhvati pranam pranepanam tatha pare
pranapana-gati ruddhva pranayama-parayanah
apare niyataharah pranan pranesu juhvati
[And there are even others who are inclined to the process of breath restraint to remain in trance, and they practice stopping the movements of the outgoing breath into the incoming, and incoming breath into the outgoing, and thus remaining in trance finally by stopping breathing completely. Some of them, controlling the eating process, offer the outgoing breath into itself as a sacrifice.]
In explaining the verse in Bhagavad-gita As It Is, Srila Prabhupada wrote: “[Through] kumbhaka-yoga, the yogis increase the duration of life by many, many years. A Krsna conscious person, however, being always situated in the transcendental loving service of the Lord, automatically becomes the controller of the senses. His senses, being always engaged in the service of Krsna, have no chance of becoming otherwise engaged. So at the end of life, he is naturally transferred to the transcendental plane of Lord Krsna; consequently he makes no attempt to increase his longevity.
Here are a few points for our serious consideration: 1. Kevala Kumbhaka is a state which occurs spontaneously, and is characterized by complete stoppage of external breathing. 2. Increasing the tenure of life [longevity] is not an objective the yogis strive for. 3. The Gita urges devotees to become pranayama-parayanah, thereby becoming realized of God or the “self.” Moreover, The Rudrayamala has recommended Pranayama to the seekers:
pranayama mahadharma vedanamapyagocarah
sarvapunyasy- a sarohi paparasi tulanalah
[Pranayama is the maha-dharma (ultimate religion), which is incomprehensible even to The Vedas; it is the essence of all virtues and the destroyer of all sins.]
There is one immensely popular verse in The Gita [chapter II, verse 47]:
karmanyevadhikaraste ma phalesu kadacana
ma karmaphalaheturbhurma te sangostvakarmani
[You have a right to perform your prescribed duty, but you are not entitled to the fruits of your action. Never consider yourself to be the cause of the results of your activities and never be attached to not doing your duty.]
Reflections on this verse have been attempted elsewhere by the authors of the paper, and the literal meaning of this verse has been challenged simply on the basis of humane logic. Before concluding our study we would like to ask: What good did Vyasa, the author of The Gita, do by not explaining the verses himself? One might defend by saying Vyasa did not have an example set before he wrote The Mahabharata. But then, sages set examples to be followed in future days.
There is more than one commentary on almost every Sanskrit text. The present study elaborates the contraries as found in the commentaries on The Gita. We usually read and follow the commentary that is popular among the scholars. But, we hardly bother to study other commentaries available on a particular text. The Gita, as we said before, has been interpreted by many sages and scholars, and thus, contradictions occurred. The general readers find it difficult though as to choose the commentary to look up to. This was perhaps the reason Sanskrit texts like Tarka-Samgraha, Vakroktijivitam had been explained by the authors [Annambhatta and Kuntaka respectively] themselves. Such work helps in retaining the real meaning of the original text, and thus, the chance of misinterpretation is cautiously avoided. However, commentaries on the Sanskrit texts are even more important nowadays; while reasons are many, one of them being the lack of interest to learn Sanskrit, the language.
Sources and suggested readings:
- Bhagavad-gita As it Is by Srila Prabhupada [ISKCON, Mayapur, West Bengal]
- Spiritual Gita by Shyamacharan Lahiri and Bhupendranath Sanyal [English translation by Chandrakanta Agarwala, published by Sundeep Agarwala, Calcutta]
- Srimad Bhagavad Gita [Edited in Bengali by Atulchandra Sen, Haraf Publishers, Calcutta, 1936]
- Mumuksha by Kaushik Acharya [Hawakal Publishers, Calcutta, 2016]
- Reflections on Salvation by Kiriti Sengupta [Transcendent Zero Press, Texas, 2016]