Bhagavad Gītā – Reconciling the Interpretations of Tilak and Śaṅkara
The Bhagavad Gītā is the most commented text in sanātana dharma, on account of its popularity and intellectual depth, as well as its harmonising of the different paths available within sanātana dharma into a coherent system. It is truly an eternal text in the sense that it is open to various kinds of interpretation and can be adapted as an engaging medium for articulating the particular concerns of the age. This often involves problematizing the old forms of interpretation and clearing the way for a new one, more relevant to the times.
One such debate emerged in the early 20th century when Balagangadhara Tilak wrote the Gītā Rahasya, a tour de force that sought to interpret the Gītā as a karma-yoga śāstra. In the introduction, he argues that karma-yoga was, indeed, the original purport of the Gītā, as envisaged by the author of the Mahābhārata and the mainstay of the Bhāgavata dharma. However, beginning with Śaṅkara, a major hermeneutical shift took place when the great teacher of Advaita Vedānta argued for jñāna-yoga – self-knowledge accompanied with vairāgya (detachment from the world) and sannyāsa (renunciation from the world) – as the true meaning of the Gītā.
Prior to Śaṅkara, Gītā commentaries put an emphasis on jñāna-karma-samuccaya ‘a combination of jñāna and karma’ i.e. even after self-realisation, a person was expected to perform karma, in accordance with his svadharma. However, according to Śaṅkara, karma was necessary only for the sattva-śuddhi (purification of being) that would make one capable of jñāna i.e. realisation of the identity between ātman and brahman. Thereafter, karma is to be abandoned and the self-realised being abides in jñāna alone. As Tilak explains Śaṅkara’s view:
Yet it will be impossible to obtain Release unless one discontinues those actions later on and ultimately gives them up and takes up sannyāsa (asceticism); because, inasmuch as action (karma) and knowledge (jñāna) are mutually antagonistic like light and darkness, the knowledge of the brahman does not become perfect unless a man has entirely conquered all root tendencies (vāsanā) and given up all actions.
After Śaṅkara, the advocates of other schools, who considered jñāna as inadequate or difficult for the attainment of mokṣa, interpreted the Gītā from the point of view of bhakti-yoga or dhyāna-yoga. However, they did nothing to correct the shift from action to renunciation, as the central purport of the Gītā, which Śaṅkara had accomplished. Whether one attained mokṣa by abiding in jñāna or bhakti or dhyāna, there was no place for meaningful actions in the world in any of these doctrinal systems. Tilak sought to correct this situation by recovering the importance of karma-yoga, which he thought was the original teaching of the Gītā.
Tilak, of course, maintains the greatest respect for Śaṅkara but he no less identifies him as the root of the problem, as the scholar who pioneered the prioritisation of renunciation over action, in the understanding of the Gītā. I think, with all due respect to both these scholars, that Tilak is wrong in his interpretation of Śaṅkara’s position and that karma-yoga is not the central purport of the Gītā. I think that Śaṅkara’s interpretation of the Gītā was also somewhat mistaken and not acceptable to the proponents of the karma-yoga position for good reason.
In this essay, I will explore this interesting debate between karma-yoga and jñāna-yoga, as it occurs in the writings of Tilak and Śaṅkara. My focus is on the tension between pravṛtti-dharma and nivṛtti-dharma in the Gītā. Both these paths are internally contested. The vidhi (prescription) and pratiṣedha (proscription) that constitute pravṛtti-dharma are a matter of debate. The efficacy of jñāna, bhakti and yoga as well as of the sub-paths within each of these paths, is also a matter of debate. These are not my concern in this essay. Likewise, I am not concerned here with the debates between the advaita, dvaita, viśiṣṭādvaita and other schools connected with nivṛtti-dharma. The term jñāna is used here to refers to the paths of nivṛtti-dharma in general without making any differentiation between them.
My objective is to show that the differences between the views of Tilak and Śaṅkara are not as critical as they may appear. The root of the problem to which Tilak is alluding – the extreme spiritualisation of the Gītā so as to occlude its pravṛtti dimension – lies elsewhere and not in Śaṅkara’s commentary. I will conclude with what this debate means for our own times and the intellectual responsibility that pravṛtti-dharma imposes upon us today.
Both Tilak and Śaṅkara agree that the objective of the Gītā is to expound the two-fold vaidika dharma. Śaṅkara begins the introduction of his commentary on the Gītā by explaining that Bhagavān, having created the world and desiring its stability, created first the Prajāpatis, such as Marīci and so on, and caused them to grasp the dharma characterised by pravṛtti (action). Then, having produced Sanaka, Sanandana and so on, he caused them to grasp the dharma characterised by nivṛtti (renunciation) which consists of jñāna (self-knowledge) and vairagya (detachment). The dharma enunciated in the Vedas is two-fold, characterised by pravṛtti and nivṛtti, and it is the cause of the stability of the world. It is the basis for the attainment of abhyudaya (worldly prosperity) and niḥśreyasa (beyond worldly good). It is to be practised by the members of the different varṇas and the āśramas, who are aspirants of the śreyas (good). This two-fold vaidika dharma was taught to Arjuna who had sunk into the ocean of sorrow (śoka) and delusion (moha).
Thus, the Gītā is concerned with both, the pravṛtti-dharma consisting of worldly action based on the varṇa-āśrama-dharma as revealed in the śāstras, as well as nivṛtti-dharma consisting of liberation from the world, based on various sannyāsa paths such as jñāna, yoga and bhakti. This raises issues of priority and core essence. Different schools of sanātana dharma have interpreted the Gītā as confirming to their own doctrine and Tilak attempts to a make a case for karma-yoga by employing an ingenious method. He refers to a hermeneutic formula conceived by the Mimāṃsa which is as follows:
उपक्रमोपसंहारावभ्यासोऽपूर्वता फलम्। अर्थवादोपपत्ति च लिंगं तात्पर्यनिर्णये॥
To ascertain the meaning of a text, the following needs to be taken into account:
- upakrama (beginning) and upasaṃhāra (end) of a text
- abhyāsa – what is repeatedly said in the text
- apūrvatā (newness) and phala (effect) of the text
- arthavāda – ancillary material supporting the main purport of the text
- upapatti – argumentation supporting the view and refuting the opponent
Applying this formula, we can see that the Gītā begins with Arjuna’s dilemma that by abandoning his dharma he would incur great sin but performing his dharma and slaying his kinsmen would produce the same result. Having become confused about dharma, he seeks Krishna’s advice on the option that would be śreyas (good). The purport of Krishna’s counsel, understood by the use of statements beginning with ‘tasmāt,’ scattered across various chapters, is that fighting as stipulated by dharma is the best option:
- tasmād yuddhyasva bhārata (2.37) Therefore, fight!
- tasmād … kāryaṃ karma samācara (3.19) Therefore, do the prescribed karma.
- kuru karmaiva tasmāt tvam (4.15) Therefore, you verily do your karma.
- tasmāt … māmanusmara yuddhya ca (8.7) Therefore, remember me and fight.
- tasmāt tvamuttiṣṭha yaśo labhasva (11.33) Therefore, you rise and gain fame.
- tasmāt … karma kartumarhasi (16.24) Therefore, it behoves you to act.
- etānyapi tu karmāṇi … kartavyānīti me … niścitaṃ matamuttamam (18.6) It is my ascertained view that you should perform these actions.
The end result is that Arjuna was persuaded by the counsel. He fought the war and killed those enemies, whom he was earlier reluctant to harm. I think this is quite a valid point and Tilak definitely has a case in favour of the view that the essence of the Gītā is to provide motivation for pravṛtti-dharma although it explores various forms of nivṛtti–dharma.
However, I don’t think that a scholar of the calibre of Tilak would intend to suggest that, in the view of the Gītā, nivṛtti is of subordinate importance to pravṛtti and not suitable for Arjuna. In that case, the ways of nivṛtti–dharma would not have been discussed in the Gītā at all. On the contrary, verse 2.49 categorically states that buddhi-yoga (i.e. abiding in jñāna or nivṛtti) is superior to action. This is what prompts Arjuna’s query at the beginning of the third chapter that in such a case why was he being assigned to commit a vicious act? The succinct view of jñāna-karma-samuccaya is precisely that while abiding in jñāna, one must perform karma.
However, the matter is not so simple. We need to first understand the nature of the problem associated with pravṛtti-dharma, for which the Gītā provides this solution. Why do worldly people become disillusioned with pravṛtti-dharma and get attracted to nivṛtti-dharma, in one form or another? We are, of course, not talking about inferior people who seek to eschew dharma because it means work and entails no fun. We are talking about responsible and capable persons like Arjuna, who get depressed by pravṛtti-dharma because worldly actions do not produce any permanent result which can be satisfactory in an ultimate sense.
On reflection, it becomes clear that the problem is not so much with dharma itself but with the contingent, finite, limited self-consciousness to which pravṛtti-dharma becomes applicable. Thus, for example, only as far as you are conscious of yourself as a male, Brahmin, student do the pravṛtti-dharmas pertaining to a male, a Brahmin and a student become applicable to you. But this is merely a vyāvahārika identity and the Vedānta scriptures reveal to us that it is false. The pāramārthika identity of the self is brahman – in whatever philosophical sense this identity is understood – and hence the proper duty of man is to follow the nivṛtti-dharma connected with it.
This is the issue which has been addressed in the Gītā and its view is that notwithstanding the ultimate truth of the pāramārthika identity, one must still obey the pravṛtti-dharma connected with the vyāvahārika identity. Why so? Firstly, because even if the pāramārthika identity is logically true (and I won’t go into the details of how), our self-consciousness remains that of a vyāvahārika being. For as long as such a self-consciousness prevails, one is duty-bound to fulfil the relevant pravṛtti-dharma. Secondly, enlightened beings who have realised that their vyāvahārika identities are ultimately false should continue with pravṛtti-dharma because if they abandon it, then others will emulate them and the world order would collapse. There would be anarchy and chaos everywhere. Therefore, for the stability of the world, pravṛtti-dharma must be followed by all. The only difference is that unenlightened persons obey it out of a sense of attachment and suffer bondage, while the enlightened persons perform it detachedly and remain liberated.
To act in this manner is itself nivṛtti–dharma: there is no special set of prescriptions and proscriptions in relation to the pāramārthika identity. True renunciation consists not in a physical or outward renunciation of action but in a mental or inward renunciation of agency and the results of action. I don’t think Śaṅkara would have missed this point and Tilak’s accusation that he distorted the Gītā by emphasising that mokṣa arises from jñāna alone, having physically abandoned actions and taken sannyāsa, requires scrutiny.
In my view, this is not what Śaṅkara is saying. Certainly, as a monk who had no interest in fulfilling his worldly duties, he sought to refute the the jñāna-karma-samuccaya doctrine, which would have put him under such obligation, and to put it crudely, he found a loop-hole in the Gītā that permitted him to do so. The Gītā does say that the self-realised person should continue to act in the world but it does not give any pāramārthika reason for it. One must do so because the bodily journey would be impossible without action, because the world order will collapse without action, and so on. These are all vyāvahārika reasons.
The jñāna-karma-samuccaya doctrine is based on the principle that being i.e. your eternal identity as brahman, is true; and that becoming i.e. your self-consciousness as a cluster of changing worldly identities, is also true. This is usually explained using the ocean and waves model where the ocean refers to the being and the waves to the varieties of becoming. This principle is itself not acceptable to Śaṅkara who argues that only being can be true. All becoming must be false. This, I must concede, is a valid point for if brahman is an eternal, infinite, immutable, essential being then how can it possibly become temporal, finite, mutable, contingent selves in a real sense? It can only do so in an apparent sense. So, if our self-consciousness as a cluster of worldly identities, is true only in a vyāvahārika sense and not in a pāramārthika sense, then how can pravṛtti-dharma which is connected with them be effective in mokṣa? Surely, it can only affirm the worldly identity – the more you act like a man, the more you feel you are a man. Far from liberating you from your false worldly identities, pravṛtti-dharma will only strengthen the sense of bondage. This was the problem which the Gītā set out to solve and it came up with this ingenious solution that if you act by pravṛtti-dharma while abiding in your pāramārthika identity – since these two realms are incommensurable – the actions you perform will not bind you to their results and not obstruct the attainment of mokṣa. However, what follows therefrom is that mokṣa arises only from abidance in the pāramārthika identity and not from the performance of pravṛtti–dharma.
This is my reading of Śaṅkara’s argument and it raises the vexing issue that if pravṛtti-dharma rests on a false identity and therefore by itself can never lead to mokṣa, is it mandatory? As stated above, one could answer this in the affirmative by pointing out that even if the pāramārthika identity may be true in the ultimate sense, the lived reality is that of a vyāvahārika identity. Given that we can never yield our vyāvahārika identity, no matter how much we are convinced of its falsehood, pravṛtti-dharma remains applicable to us. But what if there are people who may be able to genuinely forsake it? What if they can truly lead their lives in a state of samādhi whether it arises from jñāna or bhakti or yoga? Is it fair to force them to lead worldly lives, on the ground that liberation without following pravṛtti-dharma is impossible, as the jñāna–karma samuccaya doctrine would have it?
This is an argument from the perspective of sannyāsa. It is a valid argument. It is also a very dangerous argument. The same intellectual problem had been created by the Buddha. His denial of the ultimate reality of the self meant that pravṛtti-dharma could not apply to it in a pāramārthika sense. Śaṅkara may have thought that he was saving vaidika dharma by affirming the reality of the self but not many were impressed, for a universal being without becoming did not establish any pāramārthika validity for pravṛtti-dharma. Both the Buddhists and the Advaitins denied the ultimately reality of the finite self known in vyavahāra who is the subject of pravṛtti-dharma. It is no wonder then that Śaṅkara’s opponents regarded him a crypto-Buddhist.
To be fair, Śaṅkara was not as much a threat to pravṛtti-dharma as the Buddhists, for as even Tilak has admitted, there was place for it in his system. In fact, it was a necessary condition to become fit for jñāna. It was only after self-realisation, in Śaṅkara’s view, that actions could be renounced. Even here, I don’t think he is saying that they must necessarily be renounced physically or else mokṣa is impossible. I don’t think he has any objection to self-realised people continuing with their svadharma after self-realisation. His primary appeal, in my view, is that self-realised people should not be obligated to continue with their svadharma. Why should they be burdened with a pravṛtti-dharma connected with worldly identities which they do not feel? If they want to renounce the world, they should be permitted to do so.
This sounds like a fair appeal but it cannot be conceded without also admitting that pravṛtti-dharma and the śāstras which teach it are applicable only to worldly people, who are still labouring under a self-delusion, and not so for those who are abiding in the true self-identity. This also means that the śāstras become meaningless in the ultimate sense. For Śaṅkara’s response to the problem of śāstrānarthakya ‘meaninglessness of śāstras’ see here but it is precisely to avoid these kinds of problems that the Gītā advises the enlightened persons that they should also continue to fulfil their pravṛtti-dharma. Thus, logically speaking, I think Śaṅkara is right but the response of the Gītā would be: ‘Logic is not everything. Yes, a self-realised being cannot be obligated to perform the pravṛtti-dharma but he should do it anyway for the sake of not deluding the unenlightened folk.’
Tilak’s objective in writing the Gītā Rahasya was to to awaken and activate the Indian people of his time, who had fallen into a state of stupor, their minds lulled by the anodyne of spiritualism and world-negation. Although Tilak had the deepest respect for Śaṅkara and the other great teachers of India, he felt that Śaṅkara had reversed the meaning of the Gītā, had transformed a text on pravṛtti-dharma into one exhorting nivṛtti-dharma, and the rest had followed suit, superimposing on the Gītā the nivṛtti paths of their choice. Tilak hoped that by recovering the pravṛtti-dharma of the Gītā, he could inspire the Indians to action – to fight for their independence from the British. This was a noble aim but his criticism of Śaṅkara was misconceived, in my view. Śaṅkara was arguing in the context of an ancient debate between householders and monks which has nothing to do with the political issues of modern India. That debate, which I have sketched above, is yet relevant, of course, and needs to be revisited but it had nothing to do with the problem Tilak was trying to solve.
No ancient thinker, especially Śaṅkara, has ever said that worldly people should not or need not act by pravṛtti-dharma. In fact, it is necessary, for without that, the sattva–śuddhi (purification of being), which makes one eligible for nivṛtti-dharma, cannot arise. But pravṛtti-dharma applies only to the self as a finite, limited, contingent, worldly being and inasmuch as that is not the true identity of the self, it has to be transcended. However, in the view of the Gītā, such a transcendence does not require a physical renunciation. Out of compassion for beings not yet enlightened, a self-realised person should yet continue to maintain the world order by performing the pravṛtti-dharma. To this extent, the Gītā can never agree with Śaṅkara’s project of a literal abandonment of actions after self-knowledge. Throughout, the Gītā speaks of renunciation as an inner, mental act and sarva dharmān parityajya ‘abandon all the dharmas’ (18.66) should also be read in this way. The dharmas have to be forsaken not literally but only in an inner, mental sense that one is not really the agent to whom these dharmas apply or the one who is really performing them.
The debate between Tilak and Śaṅkara therefore appears quite superficial to me. Tilak accused Śaṅkara of having inaugurated a commentarial tradition in which scholars interpreted the Gītā in a way that supported their own doctrines, so as to present it as an authoritative text of their school, on the one hand, and provide legitimacy to their school, on the other. But this in itself should not be a problem unless the two-fold core message of the Gītā are left uncorrupted: firstly, worldly people, i.e. householders, should act in accordance with the pravṛtti-dharma, and secondly, for knowledge about the pravṛtti-dharma, they should consult the śāstras. If Śaṅkara was contradicting the Gītā in saying that self-realised beings need not be obligated to follow the pravṛtti-dharma, then Tilak was also contradicting it in saying that, in view of the Gītā, pravṛtti-dharma was necessary for mokṣa. However, these are relatively trivial issues when compared to the real concerns which emerge in interpretations that repudiate the core message of the Gītā itself.
This mainly happens when Arjuna’s unwillingness to fight is read as a metaphor for an inner spiritual struggle, as the reluctance of the soul to destroy consciousness of its physical embodiment and seek its true identity. It is only when the reality of the war is denied in this manner that the reality of the world gets also denied. The war is a metonym for violence in the world and the fear that practice of pravṛtti-dharma in it can lead to sin, as poignantly argued by Arjuna. When this concern about acting in the world and participating in its violence is transformed into some kind of an inner spiritual struggle, the agenda of the Gītā gets completely hijacked.
Śaṅkara did not commit this error and as I have not read all the pre-modern commentaries on the Gītā, I cannot comment on whether other pre-modern scholars were guilty of it. But the problem has certainly burgeoned from the 19th century as modern Hindu thinkers have turned away from the dharmaśāstras and become increasingly spiritualist. It is only when one misinterprets Arjuna’s dilemma in this way that the Gītā appears as if its purport were to lay down a nivṛtti-marga – whether jñāna or bhakti or yoga – that will enable the seeker of the true self to reach the goal. This spiritualisation of the Gītā goes hand in hand with its universalisation, alignment with Christianity, and other sorts of madness. For a brief essay on Paramahamsa Sri Sri Yogananda’s distortion of the Gītā, which explains the problem, see here.
Yet, even if the problem of spiritualisation, which diminishes the significance of pravṛtti-dharma, is avoided and the value of karma-yoga acknowledged in light of such statements in the Gītā which exhorts the reader to acting in the world, having surrendered the sense of agency and the rewards of action to God, there remains an additional concern. How will the karma of karma-yoga be decided? In verse 16.24, Krishna advises Arjuna to consult the śāstras for knowledge about the prescriptions and proscriptions which constitute pravṛtti-dharma. But the śāstras have become marginalised in our times. In the eyes of the Indian intellectual elite, they have fallen into disrepute and regarded as unworthy of contributing to the mainstream discourse.
The Indian constitution, the most important document of the country, was written after having consulted not the śāstras but rather the constitutions of France, Britain, Ireland and US. So, is this now a source of pravṛtti-dharma for the Hindus? Should 16.24 be interpreted as: tasmāt bhārat-saṃvidhānaṃ pramāṇaṃ te kāryākāryavyavasthitau ‘therefore, the Indian constitution is your pramāṇa in ascertaining what is to be done and not be done’? I suppose many Hindus follow this rule and create for themselves the fiction of cultural continuity by imagining that they are abiding by the message of the Gītā. Others, read the liberal value-system embodied in the Indian constitution back into the śāstras in order to demonstrate that the essences of the two texts are the same. Modernity has confronted us with this problem because an alien world has abruptly and violently grafted itself onto the indigenous cultural trajectory of India. What would it mean to adapt the pravṛtti-dharma in the śāstras to this turbulent mix of tradition and modernity in which we find ourselves and how could we possibly go about it?
Rescuing the Gītā from getting lost in the airy-fairy world of esoteric systems, whether jñāna or bhakti or yoga, and restoring its importance as a worldly text dealing with worldly problems for worldly people, is only the beginning. The recovery confronts us with the vexing issue of where and how to source a pravṛtti-dharma for contemporary times but considering that the Gītā itself was written to address the great debate of its time – between the pravṛtti-dharma of the gṛhastha (householder) and the nivṛtti-dharma of the sannyāsī (monk) – it is an inspiration to us to address our own dilemma.
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