Not teaching the Bhagavad Gita in India is a travesty – Jaithirth Rao

Bhagavad Gita

Jaithirth RaoThe fact is that the Bhagavad Gita is part of our landscape like the Himalayas, like the Ganga, like the Indian Ocean, like the Deccan Plateau, like the tiger and the peacock. … Not teaching it in our country would imply that our education system has become a joke and a travesty. – Jaithirth Rao

India is indeed a strange country. The country’s elite are opposed to students learning about the Bhagavad Gita. I wonder where the Gita should be taught, if not in India! Should it be taught in Japan or Peru?

I have found it quite astonishing that undergraduate and even postgraduate students seem not to have even a passing acquaintance with the Gita. Admittedly, I usually teach MBA students who are known for their mercenary instincts rather than for spiritual or literary interests. But even in this group, is it too much to ask for minimal knowledge about a perennial classic of our country?  I have not met too many American students who put forward a blank face when I mention The PsalmsThe ExodusThe Song of Songs, or the Sermon on the Mount to them. They may not know of these classics in detail. But at least they know what I am referring to. This has not been my experience in India’s universities and institutes.

Some years ago, when discussing something as mundane and prosaic as the challenge involved in building world-class brands, I happened to mention to a group of management students that they would do well to read chapter 10 of the Gita and seek inspiration there. I was confronted with amusement and puzzlement. I deliberately went into a digression. I quizzed my students about the Gita. Most had less than rudimentary knowledge. A couple of women students managed to quote “Kramanyeva Adhikaaraste (perform your duty but don’t think about results)”—clearly the only stanza that most of us know or know about. The other students simply assumed I was an obsolete dinosaur who needed to be indulged a little bit.

Gita more than a religious text

The fact is that pigeonholing the Gita as a mere religious tract is a bit of a joke. It stems from 19th-century Christian missionaries looking for a “Hindoo holy book” and from diffident conquered intellectuals who felt that not possessing a single holy book was a crime of sorts; so, let us sign up with the Gita! It is true that for Vedantins, the Gita is one of three authoritative texts. But if you look at the works of the commentators, it suddenly strikes you that virtually all of them were in awe of the Gita’s literary merits.

In this context, I make the plea that at least Chapters 10 and 11 of the Gita be taught as works of literature. Chapter 10, of course, is my preferred management text. If you want to be a mountain range, you should attempt to be the Himalayas; if you want to be a river, the Ganga must be your choice; among Upanishads, you should aspire to be the Brihadarnyaka; (as an aside, is that why T.S. Eliot quotes extensively from this Upanishad in his celebrated poem, The Waste Land?); and of course, if you are a Pandava, you had better want to be Arjuna! The point is made with emphasis: You should aspire to compete with the best, not the second best or third best. This is certainly true of brands and businesses. I then mentioned to the students that the 20th-century management guru C.K. Prahlad made a similar point in his writings. The students sit up. C.K. cannot be dismissed as easily as Veda Vyasa or Sanjaya. I get an added bonus as the students start respecting me a little more when I tell them that C.K. was a good friend and a distant relative.

A literary masterpiece

Enough of anecdotal digressions, which may be seen as self-serving and boring. Let us get back to the Gita. Even if we are not interested in management studies, can we not prescribe several chapters purely as literary masterpieces? Just think of the first chapter. The description of the great battlefield of righteousness and the elaborate references to the conches of the warriors—the poetic quality of the verses, at least for my money, makes Thomas Malory and Alfred Lord Tennyson read a tad banal. I would concede that chapter 15 may be too much of a metaphysical and therapeutic text. It was my father’s favourite. And I have frequently found solace in the Ashwattha tree. But let it be. Chapters 10 and 11 are purely gorgeous literary edifices. Even the Jewish Oppenheimer quoted from there. Would our students not gain from getting acquainted with the grandeur and glory of their marvellous cadences?

The next objection, of course, will be that the Gita is in a “dead” language. The deadness of the language has been confirmed by no less a person than a Columbia University professor. That has got to be an authentic death certificate. Very well. Here is my suggestion for an examination question for students of comparative literature acquainted primarily with English: “Compare and contrast the English translations of the Gita undertaken by Edwin Arnold, Annie Besant, and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. What do the translations tell you about the times they lived in, their social backgrounds and their personal predilections?” a student who answers this essay question well should automatically get a first class. How is that for getting around the dead language problem and injecting the Gita with contemporary gusto?

Tamil students are particularly lucky. Even with my limited Tamil, it is obvious that Subramania Bharati’s Tamil Bhagavad Gita is an outstanding work. It stands by itself as a gem. It is similar to the English King James Bible that stands as an independent classic not directly related to the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek originals. Every Tamil student can only gain from reading Bharati’s Gita. The lucidity, the gravitas and the sheer majesty of the text make it a book worth keeping with you all your life as a personal companion and friend. The Tamil student is lucky because even as she traverses the world with this work for company, she can stay reminded that the words that passed through the hands of the Sangam poets, of Tirunavukkarasar, of Andal, of Arunagirinathar and Ramalinga Vallalar, have with this supreme creation of the great poet of the 20th century reminded her of the undying wellsprings of her language. There is nothing “dead” in Bharati’s language or work.

It is, of course, up to scholars and students of other languages to identify what are almost certainly equally glorious translations, trans-creations and renderings of the Gita in our other languages. The fact is that the Gita is part of our landscape like the Himalayas, like the Ganga, like the Indian Ocean, like the Deccan Plateau, like the tiger and the peacock. As I said earlier, it is unlikely to be taught in other countries. But not teaching it in our country would imply that our education system has become a joke and a travesty. – ThePrint, 26 December 2022

›  Jaithirth Rao is a retired businessman who lives in Mumbai.