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WESTERN IMAGES OF THE "BHAGAVADGT", 1885-1985 Author(s): Eric J.

Sharpe Reviewed work(s): Source: Journal of South Asian Literature, Vol. 23, No. 2, BHAGAVADGITA: On the Bicentennial of its First Translation into English (Summer, Fall 1988), pp. 47-57 Published by: Asian Studies Center, Michigan State University Stable URL: . Accessed: 13/02/2012 03:53
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WESTERN IMAGES OF THE BHAGAVADGT, 1885-19851 Eric J. Sharpe At the 1980 IAHR Congressat WinnipegI presenteda paper on "Some Western "2 was of coursethe of Interpretations theBhagavad Gta, 1785-1885. My pointof departure celebratedpioneer -two hundred in yearsago thisyear-ofCharlesWilkins' publication 1785 is of translation the Bhagavadglt(hereafter BG) into English,whichthis symposium of on coursecommemorating.3 Although thisoccasion I have chosento use the word"images" and than"interpretations"-- because imagesare less precisethaninterpretations, rather partly of moreor less a summary the conceived-this less deliberately paper represents frequently second half of my book, The Universal Gta, just as my Winnipegpaper compriseda half.4 versionof the first preliminary of The first century the West's acquaintance withthe BG I saw as havingbeen to broughtsymbolically an end by the publicationin 1885 of Edwin Arnold's The Song to introduced whatin lateryears whichGandhi was first thattranslation Celestial, through and inspiration.I also hintedat the source of comfort was to become his chiefscriptural withthe BG was of close of my 1980 paper thatthe second century the West's interplay containedbywayof the different from first: the whereaspractically century everything first in BG interpretation speaking, theWest,and was based actuallytookplace, geographically took its point of the on a sequence of more or less adequate translations, second century from positiontheBG came to the from within India itself, and moreparticularly departure Betweenthe 1880sand the 1940s,mostwesterners occupyin theIndiannationalmovement. who formedimages of the BG did so in director indirect responseto thatassociation,or who else in responseto thoseHindus-Aurobindo,Tilak,Gandhi,Vinoba Bhave and othersinterest proclaimedtheirdevotionto the BG. For a time at least, the "transcendental" in waned or became overlaid, religion" onlyto reemerge theWestas partof the "alternative wave of the 1960s and 1970s. Meantime,the Orientalists were continuing theirslow and lines: working different on non-transcendental dogged workalong strictly principles, they achieved different results. One mightsay that whereas from1785 to 1885 the BG had document,after 1885 it became what it had not appeared to the West as a fascinating of and politicalidentity-a been, a scripture cultural, previously symbolic Hindu religious, situation whicholder western to canonsof interpretation werecapable of answering onlyin part. In 1885,Indian nationalism was on the threshold itsemergenceto the statusof a of consciousmovement.A couple of yearsearlier,in 1883,the passingof the IlbertBill fully had createdthefirst in notableexplosionofanti-western feeling India sincethewarof 185758.5 The AryaSamaj had been in existencefora decade. The Theosophical Societyhad takenup residencein Adyar, to havingfailedin theirbizarreattempt make commoncause withthe AryaSamaj, and in the nextfewyearswere to see theirrole as politico-religious powerbrokers expand in a remarkable way. But thenationalmovement as yetfarfrom was homogeneous. Its chiefgeographical focalpointswere two: in Maharashtrain the west,and in and around Calcuttain the east. The leader of Hindu opinionin Maharashtrawas Bal GangadharTilak, who in the 1880s and 1890s soughtto mobilizehis Marathipeople partly appealing to theirproud by traditions.In Maharashtratherehad been in the seventeenth a military century chieftain and general,Shivaji,who in 1659had killeda Muslimgeneral,Afzal Khan, partly Tilak (so

Shivaji,Tilak was, of claimed) in obedience to the teachingsof the BG. In celebrating to of course,recallinghis people to the remembrance past resistance foreign powers. But more importantly, also proclaimedShivaji as a devotee of the BG, and the BG as a he a actionin the cause of the Motherland:"Did Shivajicommit sin [he gospel of determined in Krishna'steaching theBhagavad Gita is to kill AfzalKhan? . . . Shrimat asked] in killing even our teachersand our kinsmen.No blame attachesto anypersonif he is doingdeeds of without being motivatedby a desire to reap the fruit his deeds."6 This was in 1897. Tilak's popularity to of Needless to say,exhortations thisorderdid nothing improve among and India's Britishadministrators, Tilak was to end his lifein exile.7 But he had made a and between theBG, nationalism, violencewhichwas pointand establisheda connectiondown to 1914,and perhapsbeyondin some to survivein one wingof Indian nationalism cases. the However,it was fromBengal thatmostof the impulsescame thatdetermined natureof the western response. There BankimChandra Chatterjeehad begun in the late of the 1880swhatwas at first largely a that enterprise, of portraying figure Krishna literary s was as "theIdeal Man" (curiously enough,one of his prototypes said to have been Renan' was publishedin 1886,and over the nextdecade Life of Jesus)} His Krishnacharitra first the or so thereappeared a large numberof similarworks, extolling characterof Krishna, whiletakingtheirmaterialfromtheBG and the Bhgavataand Visnu purnas impartially. But by the end of the century BG had gained the upperhandin point of popularity, the which nationalmovement the and amongthoseclasses-students ex-students~from especially was mainlyrecruited.There were a numberof reasons forthis. One had to do withthe BG's size, whencomparedwiththe vastPuranas. The BG could be marketed cheaplyand sold widelywherethe Puranas could not. Anotherhad to do withthe increasing pressure of comingat thattime fromthe direction the Christianmissions:the BG could so easily serve as a Hindu antidote to the New Testament, just as Krishna could be seen (with Bankim Chandra's example in mind) as just as much an "ideal man" as was Jesus,while in in of working the beingsuperior beingswadeshi.There werea number pointsof doctrine endeavor(nishkmakarma) in the BG's favor, itsinsistence theneed forselfless on notably or of pursuit one's dharma. Krishnaas an avatara,come to restorea dharmawholly partly and in timeSri Aurobindo(havinglearned in jail to lost,could be interpreted politically; "do the sdhana of the Gita") was to proclaim nationalismitselfas an avatara of the on Supreme.9 Time does not permitme to elaborate further these points,save to say that of expressionin the writings Sri AurobindoGhosh in the years theycame to theirfullest fromactive political life in 1910.10 But by that time the leading up to his withdrawal for western responsehad been in fullflight a numberof years. fromthe Theosophistson the one This responsecame fromtwo major directions, on Christian)missionaries the hand, and fromChristian(in this case mainlyProtestant other. The one was almostentirely the negative. It is also positive, otheralmostentirely dislikedone anotherintensely, worth bearingin mindthatTheosophistsand missionaries and thatwhatever findfavorwithone groupwas absolutely guaranteedto meetwith might the disapprovalof the other. and had have been different, not Madame Blavatsky Much in Indian history might New York forBombayin 1879. In 1883,havingfailedto Colonel Olcott leftan unfriendly take rootin Bombay,and havingfailedto persuade SwamiDayanand Sarasvatiof anything excepttheir eccentricity, movedto Adyar(Madras) and verysoon began to make their they the markon the course of Indian politicsand religion- trueextentof theirinfluence has, never been fully measured. In the verysame year, 1883, we findBlavatsky incidentally, 48

was thatherjournal, The Theosophist, about to begin to expound "theesoteric announcing meaningof the textof the Bhagavad Gita."n "Esoteric" of course,thekeywordfortheunderstanding all things of is, Theosophical. Under a Theosophical lens, no sacred scripture ever means precisely (or even what it says.12 Behind the world's sacred writings there is one single approximately) the of message~a fairly simplemessage,in fact-concerning relationship soul and body,and the powersavailable to the soul when set freefrom and constraints.In bodilylimitations the 1880sthey could not failto observehowgreatinterest in India was showing the message and meaningof the BG, and theylost no timein addingit to the Kabbala and the Corpus Hermeticum partof theirrepertory universal as of wisdomliterature.In so doingtheywere assisted by a numberof Hindu sympathizers.In fact,before about 1900 verymaterially almost everything significance of publishedon the BG under Theosophical auspices was written Hindus~T. Subba Row, whose influential book The Philsophy the Bhagavad by of Gita was deliveredas lecturesin 1886,MohiniMohun Chatterjee, who publisheda newBG translation 1887, and the various pandits who assisted Annie Besant to produce her in translation mostof theearly (now canonicalin Theosophicalcircles)in 1904. To thisextent, on Theosophical writing the BG was westernonly in that it was sponsoredby expatriate westerners. But in the case of the two rivalswho contestedthe leadershipof the societyafter death in 1891,W. Q. Judgeand AnnieBesant,we can see traditional Hindu and Blavatsky's modernoccultist of in interpretations the BG comingtogether two highly receptiveminds. was witha series of "commentaries" the BG produced on Judge'scontribution made first, between1887 and 1895.13He took the methodhallowedbyBlavatsky and Subba Row--the methodof allegoricalinterpretation-and applied it to theexclusionof all else. The BG, he is proclaimed, the perfect allegoryof the innerstruggle goingon in humannature. All the dramatis humancharacteristics. Dhrtarastra "thatpart of is personaeof the BG represent the of for holds material life."The Ganges man,which, containing principle thirst existence, the life here." The generalsand commanders "typifies sacred streamof spiritual incarnated lined up on the fieldof battle "must a catalog of all the lower and higherfacultiesin be man." Arjuna is everyman, a on fighting battle "raging the sacred plane of our body." Krishnais "thecharioteerof the body,"as well as being "thehigherself1and "theinnder guide." When we read the BG, "weare face to face withourselves."14 Annie Besant,in herHintson theStudy theBhagavad Gita (first of publishedin 1906) was less one-sidedallegoricalthanwas Judge. She at least allowed thattheremight two be levels of interpretation, outer and an innermeaning,the one historical an and the other was not her strong allegorical. History, however, point. Clearlyshe believed the historical dimensionto be accessible to anyone who would simplyread the text;clearly,too, she believedthisto be trivial comparison in with BG's inner(or esoteric, occult) message. the or In comparisonwithJudge,she took the BG's element of conflict more seriously far and of placed farmoreemphasison action,as opposed to the merepassive enjoyment the fruits of wisdom. Under her hand,Arjunabecame a hero,almosta Nietzschiansuperman, bent on achievingmastery over circumstances."Intobattlehe mustplungealone; by his strong arm,by his own unflinching by his own unwavering right will, courage,thatbattle mustbe to well read "she, "forthese fought the bitterend."15For "he"in thissentenceone might were Mrs. Besant' own ideals. s (I mightadd at this point in passing that I have often wondered,given that Sri Aurobindolearned "thesdhana of the Gita" injail in 1907,whether might have been it not mediated to him through thisbook by Annie Besant. The matteris incapable of either but for proofor disproof, it is an intriguing possibility all that.) 49

I the Concerning Christian responseto theBG in these same years, must missionary be brief.16There the greatproblemwas the relationship (assumingthere to have been one) betweenthe Krishnaof the BG and the Krishnaof the Puranas. Put rathercrudely, the moralsof the youthful Krishnaaffected credibility the matureKrishna. Where the of theHindu revivalseemed to be saying, respectof the former, morethan"boys willbe in no for boys"(even whenthey happento be gods),themissionary corpssought moralconsistency and complainedloudlyand oftenwhentheycould not findit. They objected to the Holi festival and some of whatthe Puranascontainedalmostas strongly theyobjected to the as and for more or less the same reasons. Krishna (the pauranic Khajuraho sculptures, an Krishna) having once been characterizedas a "rollicking Bacchus," "a murderer, a "a -and much more adulterer, thief," compoundof Lotharioand Jack the Giant-killer" besides-therewas little to that wouldtake kindly the message possibility mostmissionaries of the BG, particularly since it was being set up (by Hindus and Theosophisitsalike) in ideals. oppositionto theirown highest There were exceptions, these were veryfewand farbetween. That books with but titleslike India's Problem: Krishna Christ or and Gita and Gospel shouldhave been written these yearswas onlyto be expected,giventhe situation. The best of themwas by during the Scottishmissionary J.N.Farquhar,who wroteGita and Gospel in 1903: Farquhar was at least competent both Sanskrit in the and Bengali,and at least he did not vilify Krishna of the BG on a basis of whatthe Puranas contained. His main point was thatwhile the Jesus of the Gospels was a historical Krishnawas no more than an imaginative figure, of on thanon thatof religion.Certainly creation, worthy morerespect thelevelofliterature some Hindus were led in face of thisattackto defendthe historicity Krishna. But that of was hardly wherethe chiefemphasislay. The pointwas thatthe BG had come in the first decade of the century occupya symbolical to of role as thecomprehensive scripture one or other variant of Vivekananda's "comprehensive Vedanta," and this being so, external criticism made verylittle, any,impression. if The matter the historicity Krishnaand the source of the variouscomponents of of thathad gone intothe making theBG were,however, interest an entirely different of of on level. For some westernscholarsdid actuallybelieve there to have been a "Krishna of in of history" India's remote past; themostinfluential thesewas RichardGarbe ofTubingen, whopublishedin Germanin 1905a newtranslation and commentary theBG, in which on of he argued that the BG had begun life as a treatisein glorification Krishna,and that of Krishnahad been the historical monotheistic founder a non-Vedic, of "Bhgavatareligion." Garbe also summarized his argumentsin English, in his BG article in Hastings' Encyclopaediaof Religionand Ethics(1909), the same volume of whichalso containeda What Garbe parallel article,"Bhakti-Marga," a Garbe disciple,George A. Grierson.17 by as: called-somewhatover-confidently- "realfacts" be the might summarized therewas once called themselves a kshatriya named Krishna;he called his god theBhagavat;his followers became became the Bhagavat,and his "religion" Bhgavatas', graduallyKrishna himself bhakti. This was at least an alternative the nature-mythological to speculationsof the Max a Mller school, accordingto whichKrishnahad been originally sun-god,or perhaps a evidenceof anykind,the Garbe But vegetarian-deity. in the absence of positivehistorical remainedthe meresthypothesis. theory Garbe had one otherdisciple,thecelebratedRudolfOtto,authorof The Idea ofthe as of exercise,and in the Holy.n Now Otto had takenup the study Sanskrit a therapeutic of 1920shad enteredenergetically an intellectual into dialogue,involving type inter-religious In of (among otherthings)the comparisonof easternand westernforms mysticism. this 50

he avoid the study the BG, and in 1933 he publishedthe resultas of pursuit could hardly a book whichappeared in Englishin 1939as The Original Gita. Otto had applied to theBG the methodsof what one mightbe temptedto call the "vivisection schools" of biblical criticism.He was perhapsright one of his instincts: on of thatthe BG has to be read first all in its epic context, an integral as partof the Mahbhrata. But havingestablishedthat he principle(which one oughtat least to take seriously), ran amok among the non-epic and subdividing textinto treatises, the and remainder, dividing quotations,interpolations, emendations. Inevitably BG lost everysemblanceof unity the process,emerging the in as a compositedocumentassembledbya seriesof committees, of comparisonwiththe worthy biblicalJ,E, D, and or withtheGreat Homer Syndicate.Franklin Edgertonwas onlyone of thosewho feltthatOtto oughtto have stuckto his theology, Gita "the callingThe Original reductio absurdwnof the Garbe school."19And so perhapsit was. ad It may have been the merest coincidence,but in the year followingthe first likewisein German,one of the appearance of Otto's book in German,therewas published, most curious of all westernBG essays,J. W. Hauer's Eine indo-arishche des Metaphysik und der Tat (An Indoof Kampfes AryanMetaphysic Battle and Action,1934). Hauer, who had been a missionary India withthe liberal Basel Missionary in Society,was not actually a memberof the Nazi Party. He was, on the otherhand,a passionateGerman nationalist, and in the previousyear,1933,had foundedtheDeutscheGlaubensbewegung German (the Faith Movement),the object of whichwas to unite all German nationalists a formof in whichwouldbe thoroughly the religion Aryan(thatis, non-Semitic).Although chiefAryan deitieswereThor and Odin, so too wereIndraand AgniAryangods. The greatest Aryan of heroes was certainly but Siegfried; Krishna,too, might qualifyforAryanheroic status.20 At timesHauer's BG essay reminds one of some of the Hindu nationalist literature of the pre-1910 period, and sometimesits tone is reminiscent Annie Besant (a deof esotericized AnnieBesant). The Aryan Hauer claimed,was bipolar:introspective character, and "metaphysical" the one hand,activeand energetic the other. The BG relatesto on on as demand. Krishna is a warrior, both, counsellingaction and reflection circumstances fate caughtup in an inexorablecourse of eventsfromwhichhe cannot freehimself~the of karmaalmost (wyrd) whichtheGermanicsourceshad so muchto say. In thisperspective, comes to sound like a variant wyrd: of "The warrior who mustkill,becomes nota destroyer of men, but merely the instrument events in the world-process."21 of The warrior's revulsion havingto kill is, saysHauer, not an eternalguiltwhich"... cannotbe atoned at for, but belongs to the temporal order. It is merelya part of earthlyand human and necessity."22 Arjuna,in otherwords,reallyin warrior, the fieldof Kurukshetra really w a battlefield whichblood flows. But it is the world-process on that decrees that such shouldhappen. And wheresuchgreatmatters concerned, are is things allegory notenough. Mention of allegoryremindsus, of course, that since 1920 the forefront the of political(and religious)scene in India had been occupied by M. K. Gandhi,a man whose devotionto the BG could not possiblybe called in question. Although might argued it be thatGandhi harldly the of belongswithin rangeof a survey western imagesof theBG, there are two things whichneed to be borne in mind:first, thatGandhi's own BG interpretation had certainfeaturesin commonwiththatof the Theosophists;and secondly, thatGandhi in his turnopened up a channel through whichlater westerngenerationsacquired their image of the BG. thereis no absolute reason whywe shouldargue thatGandhi's allegorical Although methodof interpreting BG could onlyhave been acquired from Theosophists, the the there is a strong prima facie case thatit was. Gandhi seldom changedhis mindon any question of real importance, and his first encounter withtheBG had takenplace in a Theosophical 51

conventicle. Looking back in 1931,he recordedthathe had feltinstinctively thattime at thatthe BG "... was not a historical it but thatunderthe guise of physicalwarfare, work, describedthe duel that perpetually and the physical went on in the hearts of mankind, warfare in was brought merely make the description the internal to of duel more alluring." The struggle whichthe BG describedin termsof dharmaappeared to Gandhi in the light of a struggle Truth-thatTruthwhichin Gandhi's mind was the positivepole of the for [of negativeahirhsaand whichwas also God. Thus: "Thatinterpretation theBG, or of any otherscripture] nottruewhichconflicts is withTruth.. . . There is dangerforthe man who has failed to findahimsa in the scriptures. . ."23 . it be (Having made the pointabout earlyTheosophical influence, might as well to add thatin lateryears, Gandhi had no moreimplacableenemythanAnnieBesant,whowas quite convincedthathe was controlled the "dark powers"of the universe. That, though, by is anotherstory.) Militarists of aside, therewere good reasons whyGandhi's interpretation the BG and shouldhave lefta deep markon the mindof the West duringthe war-weary twenties In thirties. theseyearstherewereat one extreme totalpacifists; theothertherewere the at those who soughtpower at whatevercost to human life; in the middle there were the to disenchantedand scared majority who wished to build ratherthan destroy, conciliate ratherthanconfront, ifpossible,to be leftin peace to pursuetheirown interests.On and of the whole,the West was persuadedfrom to thistimeon-thankschiefly the greatweight Gandhi'sethicalpersonality-that BG was a scripture whichstoodclosestto the Sermon the on the Mount in pointof humanuniversality, whichtaughtthatnon-violence seemed and to be the genuineHindu view of the wayto resolveconflict the world. in I must move now somewhatabruptly fromGandhi to the most recent period in which burst western intellectual and spiritual to history, thatwave of neo-transcendentalism on the West in the 1960s and 1970s,and whichhas not yetlost all its force. It is not that mention we thereis nothing more to reportfrom the 1930sand 1940s~forinstance, might the use made of a couple of BG themesin one of T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets (1944), and at the opposite extreme,intellectually speaking,the growingtendencyon the part of the to socialistmovement blame the influence the BG (or rather, blame the social class to of whichhad made the mostuse of theBG) forthe sorry plightof modernIndia, a viewlater elaboratedat greatlength P. N. Bazaz in his book The Role ofBhagavad Gita in Indian by (1975). But I do not have time to followthese lines on this occasion. Let me History of insteadconsiderbriefly role of the BG in the counter-culture the 1960s and after. the followedHindu leaders and adopted Hindu To the extentthatthe counter-culture habitsof mind(or whatit believed were Hindu habitsof mind),it was onlyto be expected thattheBG wouldassume a positionof some importance.But in onlyone case (thatof the of International SocietyforKrishnaConsciousness)did itassume thedimension a genuinely books on the thisdespitethefactthattheBG was one of thecommonest holyscripture~and to similar thatfollowed counter-culture bookshelf.There it was read in a mannersomewhat of being skimmedfor whatever century, by the Transcendentalists the mid-nineteenth and textualquestions, the toughhistorical it might on the spiritual level, meaning possess whichknewno language save itsown meanwhile, beingtotally ignoredbya new generation and had no sense of history whatsoever. It was more or less expected of every guru that he (or she) would produce a on commentary the BG, or at least would deliverpublishablelectureson BG subjects. So most of themdid. The MaharishiMahesh Yogi was able to persuade PenguinBooks to 52

on six publishhis commentary the first books of theBG (thoughwhathappened to the rest is anyone'sguess). ParamahansaYogananda announced, having completedhiscommentary: "A new Scripturehas been born! Millions will findGod through this book. Not just thousands. Millions! I know. I have seen it."24A discipleof the United Nationsguru,Sri praised his master'sproduct: "To the transcendental Chinmoy, perceptionof the eternal truths beautifultouch of the poet. presentedin the Gita he has added the magnificently The beautyof his expressionis so fascinating thatone is temptedto glide through text the to enrapturedby its poetry withouttrying grasp its true depth."25 The "truedepth," was farmorein the untrained infinitely but however, receptivemindof the devotee thanin containedin the text. anything However,in thislatest flood of BG publicationsone has risenhead and shoulders above all othersin accessibility. This is of course The Bhagavad GitaAs It Is, the canonical versionproduced by Swami A. C. Bhaktivedanta his International for SocietyforKrishna Consciousness. Interestingly enough,thistoo first appeared under a commercialimprint, thatof Collier-Macmillan, 1968,a versionwhichI believe to be something a rarity in in of these days. It is also interesting it first that appeared suppliedwiththree"endorsements," Denise Levertov(both Americanpoets) and Thomas Merton(the most by Allen Ginsberg, articulate all Trappistmonksthroughout ages). Later editionshave all excludedthese of the recommendations, the way.26 by Ginsberg's endorsementrhapsodized about the Hare Krishna movementas "an ancient perfectly Denise Levertov preservedpiece of streetIndia."27 More restrained, wondered whetherthe movementmightnot already be in danger of sliding into an alternative form fundamentalism, even ventured criticizeits apparentunconcern of and to with questions of social justice. Thomas Merton felt (like practicallyall American intellectuals the 1960s) thatwestern in culture was spiritually and bankrupt hoped thatIndia the mediumof the BG might able to supply"theinnerdepth of an authentic be through disturbedat spiritual consciousness," thoughnot being a Theosophist,he was also slightly the BG's apparent endorsementof war. Otherwisehe was more impressionistic than Krishnaconsciousnessas a possible antidoteto "an affirmation our of precise,welcoming own individualselfas ultimateand supreme."28 Swami Prabhupada's commentary was far different: totally confident, and of of uncompromising, intolerant any interpretation the BG otherthanhis own, since his own was in the line of "disciplic succession." Krishnais God. He has both spoken and authorizedtheBG. Thus: "... one who studiestheBhagavad Gita has no need of anyother literaturewhatever."29This assertion hardlysquared with the vast amount of "other literature" Book Trust;butthatis bythe way.) producedbythe Bhaktivedanta subsequently That the swami stood at the end of one branch of the Chaitanyatradition not is I the disputed. However,though have nothad theopportunity to investigate use made fully of the BG in thattradition, seems clear thatto the followers Chaitanya, BG was at it of the first muchless important thantheBhagavata Purana,ifindeed it was used at all. Perhaps, we therefore, have here yetanotherinstanceof theBG havingacquired a typeof authority it originally not possess, doubtlessas a directresultof the eventsof the turnof the did century. Denise Levertov was rightto suspect the Hare Krishna movementof being an "alternative fundamentalism." devotee is forbidden speculate,indeed to do anything The to the is exceptobey. The Bible has been exchangedforthe BG, but otherwise movement a mustremainin abeyance. perfect parallel. The BG inspires action,but the criticalfaculties

And being strictly a in the even supernatural its origins, BG communicates kindof energy, to those whose active understanding rudimentary-hence frantic the is distribution The of and criticalike. Bhagavad Gita As It Is to friend the in However,considering numberof copies thathave been distributed the West versionof the BG would seem to have over the past fifteen so years,the Bhaktivedanta or outsidethe circleof devotees. (In thisrespectit is made verylittlemeasurableimpression perhapscomparablewiththe Gideon Bible!) and Afterthese veryfewexamplesof BG versions, commentaries, essaysproduced it or since 1885,eitherbywesterners byHindusforwestern consumption, is timeto attempt a summing up. of how the western the We have seen during past century study (or at least contact the the transcendental, to the BG conformed one or more of threebroad patterns: with) drewon impulses The transcendental and orientalist, thesocio-political. pattern technically and was from Emersonand Thoreau generation, takenup bythe TheosophicalSociety, the of fora time in connectionwiththe counter-culture the late 1960s and early reemerged and 1970s. The Orientalists came intothe publiceye onlyat veryrare intervals, thenonly some to whentheyhad some especiallyradicaltheory propound. In the nineteenth century moldersof publicopinionwith had been powerful century regardto India. In thetwentieth to that influencewas very much on the wane, being in process of transfer politicians, economists,and administrators. Certainlythey produced new BG translationsand we commentariesat fairlyregular intervals- mightmention,to take only the English examples,those of Hill, Edgerton,Zaehner, and perhaps also Radhakrishnan(who, as to deservesa study himself). to Hinduism'smostconsistent interpreter theWestthiscentury, Where these venturedinto commentary, generally theyfollowedeithera Shankara or a the theybrokevery up tidying and reshaping Englishtext, Ramanuja line. But apart from littlenew groundin pointof interpretation. areaworkto be done on theBG is in the socio-political Wherethereremainsfresh have shownverymuchdesire nor transcendentalists orientalists intowhichneither territory to penetrateveryfar(and which,indeed,theymay lack the equipmentto investigate). I while Gta io addressa fewrelevant in have attempted The Universal questionsof thisorder, of aware of the constraints time involvedin having to work to a remainingpainfully deadline. commenorative Like the Bible and the Qur'an, the BG is much more than the sum total of the as a teachingsit contains. It fulfils symbolic, well as a didactic,role, as a book on which speaking) to take an oath as well as a book to read and on whichto (metaphorically have late thattheBG might who meditate. Those fewcommentators have dared to suggest albeit obliquely, deserveshave drawnattention, thanit properly been givenmoreattention to thissymbolic role. The questionthenconcernshow it was acquired,and itsrelationship be of to whatin thecontext thiscongressmight appropriately describedas "Hinduidentity" (or perhapsHindutva).30 Given that the BG actuallydoes occupya symbolic positionin twentiety-century it Hindu faith, questionthenarises of whether occupies the same, or some other,role the in the mindof the West. No one who has ever triedto translatea text(any text)ever howevergood, is the preciseequivalentof the thata translation, or flatters himself herself as to is The translator alwaysa traitor theoriginal, well as beingin bondage to it. original. How different theBG thenbecome whenithas been putintoEnglish, does German, French,

or or Japanese? Mightitnoteven be thecase thattheEnglishperson Americanreadingthe in western reactionsto the meanings BG in Englishmaybe setting motiona chainof purely be which observation of English words? It would,I think, foolishto pretendotherwisehermeneutics to also indicatesa vastproblemofintercultural waiting occupythe incidentally curiousand perhapsalso to swallowup theunwary.Not onlyis therea problemas between kindsof English (English Sanskritand English; there is a problem as between different periods English,Indian English,AmericanEnglish) and betweenthe Englishof different and thatof Zaehner). Wilkins and Zaehner have both (between,say,theEnglishofWilkins of neither which different the translated text. But theirversions impressions, conveytotally therehave been as manyBGs is thatof the originaltext. In an important sense,therefore, BGs as there And in another, relatedsense,almostas many as therehave been translations. have been identifiable groupsof readers. The West,then,has createdmanyimagesof theBG. In the twentieth these century, have been precipitatedfirst and foremost, or (usually) unconsciously, the by consciously centralrole the BG came to occupyin the religio-political Hindu revival. Two hundredyears afterWilkins,we would be unwise to claim that BG images currently occupythe westernmindto anyappreciable extent. They do not~at least not in and post-Kennedy comparisonwiththe post-Napoleon, post-Kaiser, post-Hitler periods in western The direct of the BG on western consciousnesshas not been very history. impact consideredgreat,all things thoughthisis notbyanymeansto denythevery greatinfluence it has exercisedon a small numberof "seekersand scholars." But it has servedthe West Hinduismwell, as a briefcompendiumof Hindu well, as it has served twentieth-century sometimes theexclusionof all else. This maynot,on theotherhand,have been to doctrine, without risks, its since by thismeans the West mayhave acquired the image of altogether Hinduismas a system a no capable of being encapsulatedwithin scripture more than 700 versesin length. But thatSwami Vivekanandawould have been delightedat thisoutcome goes more or less without saying. In the last resorttheBG is not onlywhatits textsays:it is whatcenturies readers of have believed it to say. The last twoof thosecenturies have seen theBG transplanted from one context(or series of contexts)to another. In this sense, the BG has been a bridge betweenEast and West. But bridgesare generally the traffic, capable of carrying two-way flowof the teachingis able to pass in eitherdirection. I verymuch like something Sri once said: "The West saysthatshe has something to Chinmoy special to offer the East: The New Testament. The East accepts the offer withdeepest gratitude and offers greatest her Put somewhatdifferently pride, the Bhagavad Gita, in return."31 (and leaving aside the meaning of the New Testament to India), it might be claimed without too much thatwhatever the mindover the past exaggeration impression BG has made on the western two centuries, was on the appearance of Charles Wilkins'BG translation 1785 that it in all "Hinduism," unawares,took its first step towardsits presentidentity. And that,clearly, an eventworth is commemorating.


NOTES 1. 2. 3. 4. A paper deliveredat the XVth Congressof the International Associationforthe in in of Australia, August 1985. History Religions,meeting Sydney, in Publishedin Slater and Wiebe (eds.), Traditions Contactand Change(Waterloo, Ontario, 1983), pp. 65-85. or Wilkins, The Bhagvat-Geta, Dialogues of Kreeshnaand Arjoon; in Eighteen Lectures;withNotes (London, 1785). Since thispaper is so verylargely summary The Universal Gta (London, 1985), a of Part Two 1885-1985(pp. 65-175),therewillbe littlepointin supplying running page in the references.Therefore, whatfollowsI shall merely identify sourcesof direct notes. quotationsand add a veryfewexplanatory measure which(among other The Ilbert Bill of 1883 was a minoradministrative judges. things)made it possible forEuropeans in India to be triedby Indian-born Cited in McLane, The PoliticalAwakening India (Englewood Cliffs, in 1970), p. 56. in Official British India's estimateof Tilak is expressedfairly typically Chirol,Indian Unrest (London, 1910), pp. 37-63. Pal, Memories myLife and Times(Calcutta, 1973), p. 345. of Cf. Sharpe, "Avatraand Sakti: Traditiona;Symbolsin the Hindu Renaissance,"in Biezais (ed.), New Religions (Stockholm,1975), pp. 55-69. two volumes of the Sri Aurobindo These writings have been collected in the first Bande Mataramand Karmayogin BirthCentenary 1972),titled Library (Pondicherry, respectively. The Theosophist (August 1883), p. 265. This was of course not just a Theosophical eccentricity. Allegory in the method of vast age and subtlety. of interpretation scriptureis a hermeneutical of with writings Emanuel Swedenborg, the However,in themodern period,beginning various types of theosophymade The True Christian Religion(1771), especially allegoryverymuchtheirown method. Noteson theStudy theBhagavad Gita (Los Angeles, 1918). of Judge, Ibid., pp. 15-28. Besant,Hintson theStudy theBhagavad Gita (Benares and London, 1906),p. 31. of of and the study missionaries For a more detailed account,see Sharpe, "Protestant Research 6/4 (October Bulletin Missionary the Bhagavad Gita," in International , of 1982), pp. 155-59.

5. 6. 7. 8. 9. 10.

11. 12.

13. 14. 15. 16.


17. 18. 19. 20.

Hastings(ed.), EncyclopaediaofReligionand Ethics,Vol. 2 (Edinburgh,1909), 53551. in Cf.Almond,"Rudolf Otto: Life and Work," Journal Religious 12/3(June of History, 1983), pp. 305-21. Edgerton,in Reviewof Religion(May 1940), p. 448. and "Aryan" were Occasionallyone mustforceoneselfto recallthat"Indo-European" and not racial terms. It was, however,argued that languages linguistic, originally musthave someone to speak them,and thatan "original" language presupposesan "--and -racial stock. Fortunately, suchequations equally "original perhapseven "pure" are now made onlyon the lunaticfringe.The factremainsthatthe Aryanmyth left some not unimportant traces on the studyof religion, especiallyin the 1930s,and these might well repaycloser investigation. des und der Tat (Stuttgart, Hauer, Eine indo-arische Metaphsik Kampfes 1934),p. 10. Ibid. Gandhi,Hindu Dharma (Allahabad, 1950), p. 135. Kriyananda,The Path (Nevada City,CA, 1977), p. 403. A on Chinmoy, Commentary theBhagavad Gita (Blauvelt,NY, 1973), p. viif. The Bhagavad Gita As It Is shouldbe examinedin the lightof changes made to its textand commentary successiveeditions. The BG "as it is"in 1985 is not quite the in BG "as it was" in 1968,and thisis farmore thana questionof endorsements and art work. Ibid., 1968 edition,p. 14f. Ibid., p. 22. Ibid., p. 40. As far as I am aware, Hindutva,"Hindu-ness," coined in the 1920s as a term was expressiveof the religiousand culturalideals of the Hindu right. ClearlyI am not as usingit in thatsense here, merely a convenient equivalentof "Hinduidentity." p. Chinmoy, xv.

21. 22. 23. 24. 25. 26.

27. 28. 29. 30.