The Bhagwad Gita is a guide to one’s conduct in life

Go out and give it your best shot. The Bhagwad Gita is not a religious book. It is a guide to one’s conduct in life.

Words that are underlined are not part of the published piece.

Justice S N Srivastava of the Allahabad High Court caused a flutter recently by asking the Bhagwad Gita to be declared the ‘Rashtriya Dharma Shastra’. Critics thundered! How could a religious book be made a national text?  Let’s examine three issues. One, what is Dharma Shastra. Two, what is Dharma. Three, is the Gita a religious text?

What is a Dharma Shastra? The word ‘shastra’ means a science or a scripture relating to a particular field or subject e.g. Artha Shastra means the science of money or economics.

Most people believe that Dharma and Religion are synonymous. Actually Dharma is one of the many Sanskrit words having no English equivalent. The word ‘dharma’ is from the Sanskrit root ‘dhr’ which means. ‘to hold’ or ‘to support’. Therefore, ‘dharma’ stands for that which holds up (or supports) the existence of a thing. Everything in this universe has its own dharma because it must rely on something for its existence. The essential nature of a thing is therefore called its dharma. (e.g. water flows. Fluidity is its dharma). Dharma is that which upholds, nourishes, sustains, unfolds, integrates, strengthens, and unites.

Simply put fulfillment of one’s duty is Dharma. It is not comparable to religion; it encompasses all the dimensions of life both within and without. It refers to duties done harmoniously, skillfully, selflessly and lovingly. As Swami Vivekananda said "Religion is the constitutional necessity of mankind. Dharma is that which ultimately leads man to his real nature and the Supreme Goal”.

To decide whether the Gita is a religious text we need to know the context in which it was said and key teachings. The backdrop to the Gita is the battle of the Mahabharat between the Pandavas and Kauravas. Arjuna was in a state of conflict on whether to fight or not.  He set aside his weapons and said, ‘I will not fight’. Krishna councels him on the battle field the psychological impact of which can be gauged when Arjun takes up arms. Krishna thus became an effective psychotherapist to the psychologically torn Arjun. The 18 chapters of the Gita with 700 hundred verses are in the form of a dialogue between Krishna and Arjun and set into the Bhishma Parva of the Mahabharata. Some key verses are: Verse 31 of chapter 2 reads, “Further, looking at thine own duty thou oughtest not to waiver, for there is nothing higher for a Kshatriya than a righteous war”. By virtue of being a Kshatriya Arjuna’s personal call-of-character (Swadharma) is called upon to answer a challenge of an organized un-Aryan force (Adharma), it his duty not to waver but to fight and defend his sacred national culture. Here the Gita is akin to an army General asking his troops to recover territory occupied by the enemy.  

The Mahabharata Shantiparva – 6-7-8 says, “Truthfulness, to be free from anger, sharing wealth with others, (Samvibhaga) forgiveness, procreation of children from one’s own wife only, purity, absence of enmity, straight forwardness and maintaining persons dependent on oneself are the nine rules of the dharma of persons belonging to all the varnas”.

Munisri  Nyayavijayaji wrote in Jaina Darsana, “This verse states that which saves living beings from falling into lower condition is Dharma. Again, it says that which lifts their life from the lower state to the higher one is Dharma. Dharma is the natural quality of the soul, which is experienced by all”.

“Many attempts have been made to produce a scientific classification of personality types for e.g. there was the Hippocractic classification of men according to the predominance of one or the other four humors while astrologers/palmists used fivefold classification in terms of planetary types. In recent years Stockard, in his “Physical Basis of Personality”, uses a two fold classification in terms of liner and lateral types of human beings. Relating such scientific thinking on personality types to the Gita, one finds the latter having anticipated them on categorization of personality”. The Consolation of Psychiatry. Selected Writings of Dr A Venkoba Rao.

The trinity of the Gunas treated so well in the Gita denotes personality characteristics. ‘Sattva, Rajas, Tamas’. They represent purity/subtle, passion/dynamic and ignorance/inertia. These Gunas determine the physical and mental tendencies of man. Personality is a blend of these and dominance of any one particular type of these three gunas determines the type. Gita advocates transcendence of the three gunas to attain liberation.

“The Gita brings out beautifully the process of deterioration of personality – a dementing phenomenon in a few verses. This is the ladder of doom: krodhad bhavati sammohah, sammohat smrtivibhramah, smrti bhramsad buddhinaso, buddhinasat pranasyati. From anger proceeds delusion, from delusion confused memory, from confused memory the ruin of reason, due to the ruin of reason he perishes. These lines appear as though taken out from any modern text book on neuron psychiatry”. The Consolation of Psychiatry. Selected Writings of Dr A Venkoba Rao. When we are angry, we loose control over ourselves and the ability to think clearly such that we say and do things that we might have normally not done.

For those who believe that Indic thought encourages inaction by emphasisizing fatalistic approach, a careful re-reading of the Gita is recommended. The Gita lays utmost importance on nishkama karma - working arduously and intensely as ordained by one’s sense of duty without being attached to the fruits that follow. “Thy right is to work only, but never to the fruits thereof.  Be thou not the producer of fruits of thy actions; neither let thy attachment be towards inaction”. Chapter 11 verse 46.

Mahatma Gandhi once said, “The Gita is the universal mother. She turns away nobody. When disappointment stares me in the face and all alone I see not one ray of light, I go back to the Gita. I find a verse here and a verse there, and I immediately begin to smile in the midst of overwhelming tragedies”.

J W Hauer (1940), a Sanskrit scholar of German faith calls Gita, “a work of imperishable significance”. To him the Gita serves “to find out the deed demanded of us and to work and so action to master the riddle of life”.

In day-to-day life it means we give our best shot at whatever we do without worrying about the outcome. It would be unfair to expect M S Dhoni to win every match because he led India to victory in the first T20 World Cup.  You win some you loose some is the mantra of cricket and life as well.

More than just a religious text the Gita shows any human being how to establish equanimity in internal life and dealings with the world. It helps one explore the purpose and meaning of life. Through detached action it asks you to give your best, accept the result in humility and reflect on your actions to know how you can do better.