The Bhagavad Gita Part 2: Fundamentalism and Dharma


So here we are. Arjuna is about to go to war with his extended family, loses his cool and in a fit of angst drives his chariot out into the centre of the battleground between the two armies with his loyal friend Krishna, who also happens to be a god. He feels compelled to fight, but he decides that he ought not to and becomes paralyzed with uncertainty about what to do.

So what is this all about?

Like most important religious mythologies the plot and central premise of the Bhagavad Gita can be read in a multitude of ways.

One of those ways, which is to my mind the least satisfying, least compelling and least constructive way is the fundamentalist interpretation, which sees the events of the Bhagavad Gita as either a literal historical narrative or a flawless and unambiguous pronouncement direct from the mind of god not open to personal interpretation. Probably both.

To my mind, the idea that the Bhagavad Gita is meant to be read as a multi-layered allegory which need not require, and indeed suffers, a narrow fundamentalist interpretation is established literally in the second line of the text.

1.1: Dharmakshetre Kurukshetre

Now I’m not a Sanskrit scholar so take what I say on matters of translation with a grain of salt. But taken slightly out of context this sentence literally means: “On the field of Dharma. On the field of the Kurus…”

Reading multiple translations of a text is really interesting because it opens up this web of meaning and interpretation, and really reveals the layers. It also lets you peek behind the curtain and examine the personal styles, historical biases and cultural assumptions of the translators.

“The field of Dharma.” Is variously rendered in the following ways:

“The field of right”

“The field of the evolving dharma”

“The holy field”

“The place of pilgrimage”

“The field of truth”

“The field of righteousness”

You get the point. I think the varieties of interpretation that can be gleaned from this single word are illustrative. There isn’t one correct translation. On some level they’re all correct. On the one hand this is a book about justice, about political engagement. Seen another way this is a book about humanity, and mankind’s evolution towards a higher version of itself. Seen another way this is a book about the individuals search for meaning or self-realization. Seen another way this is a book about god, and mans relationship with the nebulous higher intelligence that seems to inhabit the world we perceive. This is a book about the challenges of life. About the mysteries of death. Most importantly, the statement that the following narrative takes place, firstly, on the field of Dharma, in addition to the physically concrete field of the Kurus, indicates that this is a book about you. About your unique, karmically-propelled path through the baffling melodramas of being.


A more concrete injunction against fundamentalism is, in fact, to be found in the 2nd chapter of the Gita itself:

There are men who have no vision, and yet they speak many words. They follow the letter of the Vedas, and they say: “There is nothing but this.”
Their soul is warped with selfish desires, and their heaven is a selfish desire. They have prayers for pleasures and power, the reward of which is earthly rebirth.
Those who love pleasure and power hear and follow their words: they have not the determination ever to be one with the One.
The three qualities of nature are the world of the Vedas. Arise beyond the three qualities, Arjuna! Be in Truth eternal, beyond earthly opposites. Beyond gains and possessions, possess thine own soul.
As is the use of a well of water where water everywhere overflows, such is the use of all the Vedas to the seer of the supreme

The Vedas are the traditional religious scriptures of ancient India, but the word could also refer to any sort of codified knowledge. I think that this statement, so early in the text, serves as a warning. It’s almost as if the authors knew how important it would become and wanted to protect against its use as a tool of manipulation and oppression, encouraging the reader to always litigate the truth through the clarity of their own experience. To look through the inevitable detritus of history to the perennial messages that naturally reveal themselves to eyes unclouded by longing and are only ever imperfectly hinted at in books.

So it is disappointing, yet hardly surprising, that the Gita has indeed become a foundational text, or at least a scapegoat, for it’s own variety of fundamentalist.

The importance of understanding the nuance, context and, yes, the human fallibility of a book like the Gita and it’s translations cannot be overstated, even as we celebrate it’s wisdom. The reason I’m going through so much trouble at the outset of this little project to place such emphasis on this notion is because, at some point, if you’re following along, you will stumble onto passages like the following:

The destruction of a family destroys it’s rituals of righteousness, and when the righteous rituals are no more, unrighteousness overcomes the whole family. When unrighteous disorder prevails, the women sin and are impure; and when women are not pure, Krishna, there is disorder of castes and social confusion.

Obviously there’s a lot to unpack there. The first thing I want to point out is that this is another of countless instances where this word Dharma pops up. The concept of Dharma is central to the philosophy of The Gita so we should spend some time exploring what it means.

Dharma is a Sanskrit word with no real analogue in the English language. It is here translated as righteousness, but is often translated as law. This is imprecise in that it’s definitely more analogous to the laws of nature then the laws of civil society. We can see from the text above how this sense of the word law could colour it’s meaning. In a certain context the word implies a sense of righteousness, justice and appropriate behaviour. In another it connotes a sense of predetermined purpose, the results of the force of karma, of causality that have led you to the specific circumstances of your life. This interpretation is fair enough, but in Asian society, this understanding of the concept of Dharma has long been used to defend the rigid social hierarchies of the caste system and the patriarchy. If you are a dalit, a member of the untouchable caste, it is your dharma to be a dalit and the dharmic way to behave is to accept your station and to yield to the will of your betters. As if the concept of untouchableness is both inevitable and immutable and not a construct invented by a dominator class eager to enshrine their power with the authority of religion. In the Mahabharata, of which the Bhagavad Gita is a part, it is clear that this is part of it’s message, as evidenced by the above. Obviously, the work was written in a historical period very different then our own but it’s important to acknowledge this because it is currently being used to defend alot of terrible shit.

However, the Bhagavad Gita is not merely a piece of the Mahabharata. Its style and motives are discontinuous with the rest of the work and it stands on it’s own merits as a spiritual text. It quickly takes on a distinctly mystical position and sets out to transcend the clumsy worldliness of these narrow interpretations of Dharma that are so burdened by political context.

You see what Dharma is about, ultimately, is liberation. It doesn’t actually have anything to do with a particular method of social organization. It doesn’t have anything to say about whether one political system is better then another, and there is certainly nothing about the concept of Dharma that defends the subjugation and objectification of anyone.

Your Dharma is simply whatever it is that you’re doing, in the physical world, right now. Are you sitting in a coffee shop trying to write a blog? Guess what. That’s your Dharma. Are you a member of an anachronistic underclass fighting against a cowardly theocracy more concerned with resisting change that upsets their power then anything related to truth, justice, compassion or liberation? Well that is most definitely your Dharma. Living a life that is dharmically appropriate is not so much about the situation you find yourself in the physical world. It is about how you use whatever that situation is to awaken. It is a process that happens inside you.

So what does it mean to awaken? And how does one go about awakening?

These are really the central questions of the Gita and we’ll do our best to explore them in the forthcoming posts.

That’s enough for now.
We really didn’t dive too far into the text here so I’m going to say read up to the end of chapter 3 if you care to read along.

Peace Peace Peace