Critique of Gita made by Dr.Ambedkar: Philosophical text of Counter-Revolution

Dr. Ambedkar should be considered not only as a Dalit emancipator but also as a pioneering social historian of ancient India. He has developed a strong criticism of Bhagavad Gita in his unfinished book ‘Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Ancient India’.

Here Dr.Ambedkar along with Buddhist scholar Kausambi places Bhagavad Gita in the period of the Gupta emperor Baladitya (early sixth century CE). For Dr.Ambedkar, Gita was written to blunt the Buddhist attack on the Varna system and its refusal to submit to the authority of Vedas. In a scathing attack on Gita Dr.Ambedkar elaborates:

Another dogma to which the Bhagvat Gita comes forward to offer a philosophic defence is Chaturvarnya. The Bhagvat Gita, no doubt, mentions that the Chaturvarnya is created by God and therefore sacrosanct. But it does not make its validity dependent on it. It offers a philosophic basis to the theory of Chaturvarnya by linking it to the theory of innate, inborn qualities in men. The fixing of the Varna of man is not an arbitrary act says the Bhagvat Gita.

But it is fixed according to his innate, inborn qualities. … Similarly childish is the defence of the Bhagvat Gita of the dogma of chaturvarnya. Krishna defends it on the basis of the Guna theory of the Sankhya. But Krishna does not seem to have realized what a fool he has made of himself. In the chaturvarnya there are four Varnas. But the gunas according to the Sankhyas are only three. How can a system of four varnas be defended on the basis of a philosophy which does not recognise more than three varnas? The whole attempt of the Bhagvat Gita to offer a philosophic defence of the dogmas of counterrevolution is childish—and does not deserve a moment’s serious thought.

The entire criticism of Dr.Ambedkar, harsh as it may sound to the Hindu mind, cannot be brushed aside easily. However, it should be noted that the good doctor places Bhagavad Gita in a specific historical context namely – the aftermath of the rise of what he terms as ‘counter revolution’.

This is the coup of Pushyamitra Sungha (185-151 BCE) against the last Mauryan emperor and the subsequent rise of Brahminical rituals in the realm of the state as power symbols. Though the historians completely agree in correlating the rise of Smrithi-based Brahminical religion with the ascent of the Sungha dynasty, they are not in agreement with respect to the alleged persecution indulged in by Pushyamitra. For example, Vincent Smith, the British historian of ancient India and no admirer of Brahminism, states:

The memorable horse-sacrifice of Pushyamitra marked the beginning of the Brahmanical reaction, which was fully developed five centuries later in the time of Samudragupta and his successors. But the revival of the practice by an orthodox Hindu ruler did not necessarily involve persecution of Jains and Buddhists who abhorred the rite. There is no evidence that any member of those sects was ever compelled to sacrifice against his will, as, under Buddhist and Jain domination, the orthodox were forced to abstain from ceremonies regarded by them as essential to salvation. Pushyamitra has been accused of persecution, but the evidence is merely that of a legend of no authority.

Indian historian Sailendra Nath Sen also makes light of the alleged persecution of Buddhists under the reign of Sunghas:

It is quite possible that Buddhist population could not reconcile themselves to the subversion of Maurya dynasty regarded as the protagonist of Buddhism and the establishment of the Sunga dynasty considered as the supporter of Brahmanic religion. The fancied imagination of Buddhist minds must have received a cruel jolt when it was noticed that some of the noblest Buddhist monuments the Stupas of sanchi and Bharhut – continued to receive the royal patronage of the Sungas. Moreover the presence of numerous monastries in Bihar, Oudh, Malwa and adjacent territories do not substantiate the wild allegation that the Sungas were the leaders of militant Brahmanism.

Interestingly Narasimha Gupta Baladitya, in whose period Gita was composed according to Dr.Ambedkar, was a Hindu emperor who defeated and humiliated Mihirahula the Hun who was massacring the Buddhists. Baladitya was so admired by the Buddhists that he was given the title ‘Buddhapaksha’. It was not only the Gupta emperor who raised the flag of resistance against the Hun massacre of Buddhists but also Yasodharma Vishnuvardhan, another Hindu chief, who also rose in revolt against the anti-Buddhist atrocities of the Hun. Both were ‘Brahminical’ emperors and both were well inclined towards Buddhism.

Had ‘Brahminism’ with royal patronage in post-Sungha period decided to destroy Buddhism, Mihirahula offered the best opportunity. But history stands testimony to the fact that the kings of India with their allegiance to Brahminical religion stood by Buddhism and faced the ferocity of Huns in the battlefield. So the characterization of Buddhism and Brahminism being staunch enemies in combat with royal patronage for the latter seems to be a bit out of phase with historical reality.

Another important problem in the proposition that Gita was written to support the Sungha reaction to Buddhism, is the very problem of Brahmin ascendancy to temporal power. Sungha rebellion against Mauryans was unacceptable even by the population adhering to the Vedic religion. Dr. Ambedkar himself is aware of this fact:

The revolution brought about by Pushyamitra created an initial difficulty in the way of the Brahmins. People could not be easily reconciled to this revolution. The resentment of the public was well expressed by the poet Bana when in referring to this revolution, reviles Pushyamitra as being base born and calls his act of regicide as Anarya. The act of Pushyamitra was properly described by Bana as Anarya i.e. contrary to Aryan law.

For on three points the Aryan law at the date of Pushyamitra’s revolution was well settled. The then Aryan law declared (1) that Kingship is the right of the Kshatriya only. A Brahmin could never be a king. (2) That no Brahmin shall take to the profession of Arms and (3) That rebellion against the King’s authority was a sin. Pushyamitra in fostering the rebellion had committed a crime against each of these three laws.

He was Brahmin, and although a Brahmin he rebelled against the King, took to the profession of Arms and became a King. People were not reconciled to this usurpation which constituted so flagrant a breach of the law that the Brahmins had to regularize the position created by Pushyamitra. This the Brahmins did by taking the bold step of changing the law. This change of law is quite manifest from the Manu Smriti.

Dr.Ambedkar is perfectly right with respect to Manu Smrithi. It clearly shows a law tampered to suit the purpose of the rulers. However Mahabharatha into which Gita is placed shows a remarkable departure from this stand of Manu Smrithi.
Even if Mahabharatha was written during the Sungha rule it could not have obtained any royal patronage from the Sungas. As arguing against the idea that Sungas could have been the patrons of Mahabharatha, Indologist Alf Hiltebeitel points out

…what the epic poets would have made of their Sunga benefactors being Brahmans-that is, unsuitable as kings. Given all that is said in both epics about Brahmans making bad kings, it should be difficult to maintain that Brahman kings would patronize epics that disqualified them from ruling. These texts deeply problematize the “Brahman who would be king,” and theorize the exceptional conditions of Ksatriyas default under which Brahman kings might assert a temporary but ultimately unacceptable rule. Perhaps, yes, during the Sunga period, but not under the Sungas, and especially not under the patronage of Pusyamitra. Not only would the latter’s Brahmanhood be a problem, but so would his horse sacrifices, since Yudhisthira learns the horse sacrifice is very nearly worthless.

So the historical context into which Dr. Ambedkar placed Gita and attacked it as the philosophical gospel of counter-revolution of Brahminism against Buddhism, is not completely valid. Definitely Purva Mimamsa was smarting from the blows of heterodox systems. Manu Smrithi has a definite pro-Brahmin anti-Shudra bias. Dr.Ambedkar’s perception is definitely valid with respect to the Smrithi literature – particularly Manu Smrithi and also to the Puranas where heterodox sects are shown as the divine confuser of people.

The period of Gita itself when assessed with respect to Buddhism, predates the period of resurgent Brahminical ‘attack’ on Buddhism, starting from first century BCE, by at least three to four centuries. In his detailed analysis on early Buddhism and the Bhagavad Gita, KN Upadhyaya states:

The fact that Panini knew about the Gita and the devotion of Vasudeva is well indicated by the mention of his Sutra IV.3.85 (Bhaktih) and Sutra IV.3.98 (Vasudevaarjunabhyaamvun), which is also corroborated by the commentary of Patanjali on the point.

So the mention of a contemporaneous work of the Gita, viz. the Brahma-Sutra by him under the name ‘Bhikshu-Sutra’ is not hard to understand. Thus we see that the date of the Gita remains unaffected even if we discard Sankara’s interpretation of the Gita-verse XIII.4, and interpret it in its direct and literal sense of referring to the Brahma Sutra.

Now in the light of all these evidences set forth independently, it is reasonable to conclude that the Gita and the Brahma-Sutra are both works of the same author and they seem to have been composed sometime between 500 and 400 B.C., when Buddhism had recently emerged as a powerful movement of thought. The use of the term ‘Brahma nirvana’ or ‘Nirvana’ in the Gita remarkably indicates it.

Given this proximity of Gita to the emergence of Buddhism, the nature of ‘chaturvarna‘ Gita refers to has to be determined as to whether it is the rigid Varna of Smrithi based Brahminical religion that emerged after the Sungha ascendancy or a more flexible system. Dr.Ambedkar himself makes the distinction of pre-Buddhist ‘chaturvarna’ and post-Buddhist system:

The system of Chaturvarna of the Pre-Buddhist days was a flexible system and was an open to system. This was because the Varna system had no connection with the marriage system. While Chaturvarna recognized the existence of four different classes, it did not prohibit inter-marriage between them.

So what kind of Chatur-Varna does BG advocate? It is based on Triguna, a concept of Sankya system. On October 3 1954, the main architect of Indian Constitution elaborated his philosophy in a speech broadcast on All India Radio. Dr.Ambedkar zeroed in on the Triguna-based Chatur-Varna rationale of Gita:

Negatively, I reject the Hindu social philosophy propounded in the Bhagavad Geeta based as it is, on the Triguna of the Sankhya philosophy which is in my judgment a cruel perversion of the philosophy of Kapila and which had made the caste system and the system of graded inequality the law of Hindu social life.

But there is nothing in Gita that makes Triguna either hereditary or unchangeable. According to historian Upinder Singh even the Jain and Buddhist traditions, which are supposed to have attached not much divine sanction to the Varna system, accept the Varna system as being based on ‘natural inclinations and aptitude’, which is exactly what Bhagavad Gita also states. In the traditional Gita-commentary of Sri Ramanuja, the Acharya presents a view that the Guna-composition can be changed through self-effort:

As all these are the effects of the increase of the sattva-guna, the differences of the effects of the sattva, the rajas and the tamas have been described at length in order to teach that the sattva is worthy of being acquired.

Further if one looks at the way Buddhist literature itself evolves one finds a peculiar phenomenon. The problem of ‘casteism’ or social stagnation seems to have set in the evolution of Buddhism and Jainism as well. Historian R.S.Sharma explains:

In spite of its theory of equality a marked leaning to aristocracy (of all the three varieties, birth, brain and bullion) lingered in ancient Buddhism as an inheritance from the past. It may be going too far to assert that the social organization in India was not in the least altered by Buddhist appearance. But evidently the Buddhists rarely questioned the fundamentals of the Varna system which identified the Sudras with the serving class.

Thus while refuting the Brahmanical claims to superiority over the three other varnas, Gautama argues that as regards descent the Kastriyas are higher and the Brahmansa are lower. But he does not question the superiority of either the Brahmanas or the Kshatriyas over the Vaisyas and the Sudras. … In fact the picture of the lower orders, as it appears in the early Buddhist and Jain works, is not essentially dissimilar.

The Buddhist texts repeatedly describe the members of the first three varnas as opulent, but leave out the Sudras, the Dasas and the Kammakaras. The Buddha is described as having visited the assemblies of the Brahmanas, the Khattiya and Gahapati devotees, but the assembly of Sudras is not mentioned…. The Dharmasutras, especially of Vasistha and Gautama, display a strong tendency to reduce the Vaisyas to the position of Sudras in matters of purity, food and marriage – a process which has its parallel in the Buddhist texts.

The Buddha declares that in the way they are addressed, received, approached and treated, the Kshatriyas and the Brahmanas take precedence over the Vaishyas and the Sudras. In a Buddhist text gotras are associated only with the Kshatriyas and the Brahmanas. In an introductory passage of a Jataka it is claimed that the Buddhas are never born in the Vaisya or the Sudra caste but they are born in the two other higher Varnas. This passage, however, does not form part of the Jataka proper, and may be ascribed to a latter period.

A similar idea is expressed with regard to the birth of the Jain teachers, who are supposed to be never born in low, mean, degraded, poor, indigent or Brahminical families. Apparently the Brahmanas are included in this list because of heretical hostility to them. But the remaining members of the list may be roughly assigned to the lower orders.

We see the same process of social stagnation setting in with the Vedic traditions also with BG commentaries taking more and more casteist interpretations. However BG as text belongs to the same realm as that of Buddha and Upanishads where the author of BG presents a radical socio-spiritual message that stands in stark contrast to the birth or occupation based social inequality.

If one considers, as the present writer does, that all these data provide a space where Gita could be take the counter-revolutionary historic context. Then the crucial question is would and how would have Dr.Ambedkar used Gita?

It is interesting to know that at the stage of the mid-1920s, Ambedkar understood that untouchables and caste Hindus belonged to one and the same religion and based his argument on the Bhagavad Gita, deemed as one of the sacred books in Hinduism. He argues that an agitation aiming at eliminating discrimination of Hindus by same Hindus is nothing less than satyagraha judged by any criterion given in the Gita and that though there is no denying that Gandhi is the first creator of the Satyagraha movement, Satyagraha does not always mean ahimsa and if possible and himsa (violence) if necessary, as it is in the end the moral nature of their conduct that determines whether or not it is Satyagraha.

However such a task is also not easy. Any reformist or anti-caste interpretation of BG can be challenged not only by traditionalists but also by modern scholars to go against the original spirit of BG. How much the innate elements in the text themselves refute or condone such a criticism is what should be studied next.

Critique of Gita-apologists

Many Hindu intellectuals and reformers have cited Bhagavad-Gita (BG) verse 13 of chapter 4 to mean that the four Varnas, the social spaces in the societal matrix as being determined by the quality and work of the individual. For example Swami Ranganathananda (1908-2005) of Sri Ramakrishna –Vivekananda tradition while explaining this verse states:

This social organization based on the four varnas, the four types of people …exists in any and every society, according to their inclination and capacity: guna, karma, ‘according to their quality and action’. …Any family can have offsprings belonging to any one of these types….In this way you will find various people taking to various karmas or actions, professions according to the inclinations of their gunas. That shows the freedom of the individual. …But what became wrong in India is that, in later ages, it became hereditary.

However this modernist interpretation is dismissed as well-intentioned twisting of the original spirit of the BG text. This stand has been articulated by the renowned Belgian Indologist Dr. Koenraad Elst, who needs to be quoted at some length:

While in sympathy with the reformist agenda, I am skeptical here for its sounds like a typical exercise in contrived exegesis in the service of an (admittedly laudable) agenda.

The Gita does not say: “not birth but work/karma and quality/guna”, because one’s work and quality could in their turn be determined by birth. Indeed, they are: qualities are to some statistically noticeable extent inborn, and a profession was traditionally taught in the home setting from father to son. So, nature and nurture conspired to make a succession from father to son in your work/karma the general rule, hence profession determined “by birth”, i.e. by the family that both generates and raises you.

While this quote fails to disprove that caste by birth was the norm, other lines in the Gita positively confirm it. ….To be sure, the Mahabharata was edited over a long period, and may have been twisted in the final round to suit the emerging casteist ideology which finds full expression in one of the younger parts, the Gita.

Coming from a scholar who has been consistently perceived as being sympathetic to Hindutva, the above critique too cannot be dismissed easily but needs to be examined carefully for its validity. Such an examination will also help us to assess the value of Gita as a text conducive or inimical to Dalit cause.

The crux of Elst’s argument itself rests not on BG 4:13 but on “other lines” which seem to refer to another verse, BG 3:24 where Sri Krishna uses the same term which Arjuna uses in BG 1:41. Here taking note of both verses Elst states:

When Arjuna and Krishna argue opposite viewpoints, viz. against and for the start of a fratricidal war, *both* conclude their argumentation with the warning that the opposite view will result in “varna-sankara”, “mixing of castes”. If opposing viewpoints are justified with reference to the same value, viz. non-mixing of castes, this value must be a cornerstone of that society.

Again, apologists will explain this away by saying that varna-sankara could also mean “mixing of functions”, e.g. a politician who ventures into religion or vice-versa would be a case of Brahman-Kshatriya-sankara. But that is too contrived and is refuted by the text’s linking varna-sankara to “immorality of women”, i.e. a sexual mixing of castes.

Let us first see the verse attributed to Arjuna. In the verse attributed to Arjuna, BG states:

O Krishna! When lawlessness prevails, the women of the clans (kulastriyah) become corrupt. O Scion of the Vrshnis when women become corrupt mixture of classes (varna sankarah) arises.

Here one should note that BG makes this verse as part of the statements Arjuna makes from a confused state of mind. So this idea, of the corruption of the women of the clan leading to mixture of Varnas, cannot be taken as being in harmony with the message of Sri Krishna which is also the message of BG. However evidence can be clinched in favor of Elst’s stand if Sri Krishna also attributes the same reasons for Varna Sankarah. With regard to this, social phenomenon, Sri Krishna states:

If I were not to work, all these worlds would have perished. I wouldhave been the cause of confusion (samkarasya) among men and of their ultimate destruction.

Interestingly here Sri Krishna attributes the cause of confusion – which itself becomes a flexible and ambiguous term- to non-functioning and not to “immorality of women”. It would only be a contrived to assume now that here non-functioning of Sri Krishna would lead to “immorality of women” and that would result in Sankara (Varna Sankara or otherwise).

Again here Sri Krishna does not refer to birth of the humans but their functioning. He could have said that his non-functioning would result in confused births of men. He did not. He speaks of men consciously following him in their duties. In fact Sri Ramanuja in his commentary takes this verse to mean ceasing of activity in society with men following the example of Arjuna choosing the path of renunciation and contemplation leaving the Karma Yoga.

The cause of social confusion as explained by Sri Krishna then is definitely not promiscuity of women as claimed by Arjuna. Hence here is a clear rebuttal of birth-based idea of social confusion and subtle rejection of the patriarchal idea that women sexuality should be suppressed to maintain social order.

Now let us see if BG as a text subscribes to casteist idea of Varna and society. Many western Indologists have affirmatively answered that question. While scholars like Elst have academically affirmed this stand, in the hands of at least one Nazi propagandist BG supports Nazi ideology of racial superiority and segregation and it can be argued that such Nazi stands are but a few logical steps from the western Indologist academic view of Gita.

In fact the first chapter of BG is replete with such ideas. Arjuna seems to be obsessed with the idea of Kula. In a short span of seven verses he babbles using the term Kula ten times! Not only does he repeatedly use the word Kula Dharma he uses it with utmost respect as being sanctified and ancient and as coming from time immemorial.

In contrast to this obsession of Arjuna with Kula, Sri Krishna does not even see it fit to use the term Kula Dharma even once. Completely ignoring Kula Dharma, Sri Krishna speaks of Swa-Dharma as paramount. With this one stroke the text of BG makes Sri Krishna a rebel against the stagnating social traditions which attach importance to Kula and birth-based social order.

Viewed in this context the choice of words in 4:13 –guna-karma-vibhagasah – indeed assumes a revolutionary connotation. For a man of high stature in that society of that period or a person who wanted to safeguard the status quo could have only thought of the four Varnas as being designed by God as – kula-janma-vibhagasah.

Such a rebellious paradigm shift is strikingly present in the mythological Krishna of Bhagavatha also where the cowherd lad led his people to reject the sky-born god and worship the earth based mountain. BG also has strongest statements against casteism as well. In Chapter 16 detailing divine and demonic qualities, a verse depicting the nature of demonic person states:

“I am wealthy and high-born (abhijanavaan); who is there like unto me? I will perform sacrifices, I will make charity and I will rejoice” – deluded thus by ignorance

Most probably untouchability was not prevalent in those times when BG was composed. Yet it also contains another striking verse that can be construed, with no contrived torturing of meaning as Elst would expect of an oriental apologist, as a statement against untouchability.

Dominated by self-conceit, prone to the use of force, arrogant, lustful and choleric these traducers of virtue hate Me dwelling in the bodies of theirs and in others (atma-para-deheshu)

The verse can be a powerful scriptural weapon in rural India today against the notions of bodily impurity, related perversion of untouchability and inhuman use of violence against Dalits to the use of common resources and abuse of vulnerable Dalit women by the so-called upper castes.

The knowledge that BG actually states that use of force and arrogance to hate the bodies of other humans, are really hatred for the very God-principle that resides in the Dalit bodies, can empower Dalit spiritually and fight exploitation rooted in the Indic spiritual tradition.

An obvious question is whether the equanimity of vision that BG stresses can become effective tool for social liberation or merely an exercise in speculative philosophy howsoever grandeur? A search for this answer is affirmative not only theoretically but it has also exerted a tremendous influence in the movement for social justice in the history of India.

BG classifies the types of knowledge based on Gunas in its chapter on Liberation through Renunciation thus:

That knowledge by which one is able to see a unitary unmodifiable Essence, undivided among the divided,- know that knowledge to be of the nature of Sattva.

That knowledge which apprehends all beings as a multiplicity with mutual distinction and in their separateness only, without any apprehension of an underlying unity – know that knowledge to be born of Rajas.

That by which one dogmatically holds on to a part as if it were the whole – a view which is irrational, untrue and silly – that knowledge is said to be born of Tamas.

It can be argued that such a vision of unity cannot be considered as socially liberating as this unity comprises of not only all humans but also the entire existence including animals and microbes and inert matter. However the BG-commentary of Sri Ramanuja specifically applies only human situation to the definition of knowledge of Sattvik nature:

The self (Atman) which is of the form of knowledge, is alike and uniform, though distinct, in all beings, even though they may externally, and from the point of view of duty, be distinguished as Brahmins, Ksatriyas, householders, celibates, fair, tall etc. The immutable selves in all these perishing forms or bodies are unaffected by the fruits of actions. Such knowledge of the immutability of the self in all changing beings is Sattivka.

In his commentary on Rajasa nature he states that the knowledge lacking the understanding (that Atman though distinct is uniform everywhere and that bodily attributes do not affect it) is stigmatized as Rajasa.

Such an application of the equanimity of Atman found in BG to the social realm by Sri Ramanuja created perhaps the first mass movement for the spiritual upliftment of the depressed classes of people unheard of in the then world. He accepted peasants and depressed people into his fold. He led the first temple entry movement of Dalits into Vishnu temple at Melkote. He started the Bhakthi movement –a mass movement with Vedantic kernel and devotional outer layer. This Bhakthi movement spread to North India taken up by sage Ramananda.

This resulted in a lineage of spiritual-social reformers fighting against the stagnation that Indian society had to undergo under the heels of tyrannical and/or exploiting alien rulers. This lineage produced one of the towering personalities of social emancipation movement in India. Balkrishna Gokhale a Professor of Asian Studies at Wake Forest University states:

The Saint Kabir lived during the last quarter of the fifteenth and the opening decade of the sixteenth century. …He was a disciple of Ramananda who infused a new life into the Bhakthi movement initiated by the great Ramanuja…During his early childhood, Ambedkar must have listened to the devotional songs sung very early in the morning by the older women folk in the household. The spirit of Bhakthi as reflected in the Kabir tradition had a lasting influence on Ambedkar’s life, for just before his death in New Delhi on December 6, 1956 he is reported to have hummed a song of Kabir. It is worth remembering that this was some months after his formal conversion to Buddhism.

Though Gokhale emphasizes on Bhakthi, we can safely conclude that more than mere devotion, it should have been the caste-negating vision of social equanimity of the Bhakthi-movement that should have made such a deep impact on Ambedkar which also may be the reason why he insisted on making social emancipation of suppressed classes rooted in Indic tradition. This vision of social equanimity has its roots in the philosophy of BG as expounded by Sri Ramanuja.

How do all these synchronize with Mahabharatha itself?

In Mahabharatha we find Sri Krishna as well as sage Vidura insulted for their low social status by Sisupala and Duriyodhana respectively. Sisupala questions the divinity of Sri Krishna asking, “If this one is the lord of the universe, as this fool represents him to be, why he does not regard himself as a Brahmana?”

Interestingly thousands of years later in South India similar question would be asked about a spiritual-social reformer who was regarded as an Avatar of Vishnu by oppressed people.In Villi-Bharatha – the Tamil rendering of Mahabharatha- Duriyodhana makes a public display of humiliating untouchability towards Sri Krishna in the court of Kuru clan. Karna who is insulted based on his birth and social status, is also given a powerful positive portrayal by the author of the epic clearly showing the reader where the sympathy of the poet lies. Given the construction of such a narrative in Mahabharatha, the voice of BG a text of rebellion against social stagnation harmonizes well into the spirit of the epic.

However superficial and preconceived ideas about BG have often stopped scholars –particularly western Indologists- from being receptive to the presence of such ideas in BG. How can a casteist society produce a text that may resonate with modern ideas of social justice?

Such preconceived notions rooted in colonial Indology seem to have created mental blocks even in modern scholarship and tragically even in the minds of people like Elst otherwise sympathetic to Hindu cause and views.

In conclusion the study of BG as a whole and in the spirit of the entire text, the statement of Elst that in BG “casteist ideology finds full expression” stands unsubstantiated and is plain wrong.


[1] Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Ancient India, Writings and Speeches, Volume 3, Education Dept., Govt. of Maharashtra, 1987, p.245

[1] Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, ibid., pp.361-2

[1] Vincent A. Smith & A. V. Williams Jackson, History of India: Vol. II – From the Sixth Century B.C. to the Mohammedan Conquest, Including the Invasion of Alexander the Great, Cosimo, Inc., 2008, p.184

[1] Sailendra Nath Sen, Ancient Indian History And Civilization, New Age International, 1999, p.170

[1] Bindeshwari Prasad Sinha, Dynastic History of Magadha, Cir. 450-1200 A.D., Abhinav Publications, 1977, pp.63-5

[1] Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Ancient India, Writings and Speeches, Volume 3, Education Dept., Govt. of Maharashtra, 1987, p.276

[1] Alf Hiltebeitel, Rethinking the Mahabharata: A Reader’s Guide to the Education of the Dharma King, University of Chicago Press, 2001, pp.16-7

[1] Kashi Nath Upadhyaya, Early Buddhism and the Bhagavadgītā, Motilal Banarsidass Publ., 1998, pp.27-8

[1] Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Ancient India, Writings and Speeches, Volume 3, Education Dept., Govt. of Maharashtra, 1987, p.291

[1] Dr.B.R.Ambedkar quoted in Dhananjay Keer, Dr. Ambedkar: Life and Mission, Popular Prakashan, 1990, p.459

[1] Upinder Singh, A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India: From the Stone Age to the 12th Century, Pearson Education India, 2008, p.292

[1] Sri Ramanuja (Trans. M. R. Sampatkumaran), The Gitabhashya of Ramanuja, Prof. M. Rangacharya Memorial Trust, 1969, p.506

[1] Ram Sharan Sharma, Śūdras in Ancient India: A Social History of the +Lower Order Down to Circa A.D. 600, Motilal Banarsidass Publ., 1990, pp.152-4

[1] Dr.B.R.Ambedkar’s article ‘Untouchables and determination of Satyagraha‘, ‘Bahishkrut Bharat‘ dated 24-Nov-1927 & 25-Nov-1927 quoted in Sanjay Paswan & Pramanshi Jaideva (Ed.),  Demand for Dalit Rights Under Dalit Leadership, Encyclopaedia of Dalits in India, Volume 13, pp.152-3

[1] Swami Ranganathananda, Universal Message of Bhagavad Gita, Vol-I , Advaita Ashrama, 2008 , pp.421-2

[1] Koenraad Elst, Response to the query “The Gita and Varna-sankara (From RISA)” availble at the url

[1] ibid.

[1] Bhagavad Gita 1:41

[1] Bhagavad Gita 3:24

[1]  Sri Ramanuja Gita Bhasya (Trans. Swami Adi Devananda) Chapter 3, Verse 24,  Sri Ramakrishna Math, Mylapore, 2009, page 138

[1] Maximine Portaz (Savitri Devi), Hitlerism and Hindudom, (published as The National Socialist, no. 2 (Fall 1980): 18-20), available in It is interesting to note that she claims BG as “the oldest known expression of the spirit of Mein Kampf” on the basis of “the first chant of the Bhagavad-Gita” which is ironically the confused and deluded state of Arjuna

[1] Bhagavad Gita 1: 38-44

[1] Bhagavad Gita1:40and1:43

[1] Bhagavad Gita 16:15

[1] Bhagavad Gita 16:18

[1] Bhagavad Gita 18:20-22

[1] Sri Ramanuja Gita Bhasya (Trans. Swami Adi Devananda) Chapter 3, Verse 24,  Sri Ramakrishna Math, Mylapore, 2009, page 563

[1] Ibid.

[1] Balkrishna Govind Gokhale, Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar: Rebel against Hindu Tradition, Religion and social conflict in South Asia, Volume 22 of International studies in sociology and social anthropology (ed, Bardwell L. Smith), BRILL, 1976 p.17

[1] The Mahabharata, Book 2: Sabha Parva : Sisupala-vadha Parva Section. XLI , Trans. Kisari Mohan Ganguli (available online at: )

[1] Akila Thirattu Ammanai: 2852-53, 2855-57, Ayya Vaikunder (1808-1851), who fought for the rights of oppressed people in South Travancore and also opposed Christian proselytization, is regarded by Hindus as an Avatar of Vishnu. On hearing the spiritual and social rebellion of Ayya the thenSouth Travancore king wanted him arrested. One of his courtiers advised against that stating that Ayya is regarded as an Avatar. The king then arrogantly repeated the same question asked by Sisupala – how could Vishnu eschew the “higher varnas” of Brahmana and Kshatriya and instead take birth in an untouchable Jathi. For this query a scholar in the court pointed that in the Pan-Hindu Puranic literature and tradition Avatar has happened in almost all Jathis and trades considered as defiled. This is something unthinkable in the Abrahamic tradition where Jesus had to be born in the bloodline of David and among Jews and Jesus also asserts spiritual and racial superiority his clan of Jews as the Jews as against the Samaritans in a patronizing manner. This is an example of how the elements in Mahabharatha narrative have acted and evolved as empowering textual and oral traditions in movements for social justice throughoutIndia.


[1] Villi Bharatha is the most popular Tamil version of Mahabharatha written by a poet Villiputhoorar ascribed to fourteenth century. However even before him the epic had been translated to Tamil and even in Cankam literature legends have associated Tamil kings with Mahabharatha epic. In Udyoga Parva, when Sri Krishna goes as peace emissary to Kuru court, Duriyodhana rejects the peace offer. Sri Krishna wants the Kuru prince to declare in the court holding Krishna’s hands that Kauravas want only war. Duriyodhana refuses to touch Sri Krishna as he is a cowherd and instead touches a pillar and makes the declaration of war. Duriyodhana goes on to insult Vidura with whom Sri Krishna stays as of being low birth. This makes invincible Vidura keep off from war earning Pandavas a crucial advantage. (Villi Bharatham 5:4:2)

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Aravindan Neelakandan

Co-author of acclaimed book "Breaking India", Aravindan Neelakandan has worked for the past decade with an NGO in Tamil Nadu serving marginalized rural communities in sustainable agriculture. He is also a popular science writer in Tamil and is part of the editorial team of highly popular Tamil web portal

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