Teaching the Giitaa vs. PuraaNas

Edward Beach nb6 at evansville.edu
Thu May 11 22:01:07 UTC 1995

Dear Members of the Indology List:

About a dozen people have responded (many privately) to my earlier posting
requesting suggestions for alternative or supplementary readings besides
the Bhagavad Giitaa for possible use by our World Cultures course at the
University of Evansville. I would like to thank you all for taking the
time to share with me your knowledge and experience.  I shall definitely
look into Dimmitt and Buitenen's _Classical Hindu Mythology_, which many
of you recommended, as well as Wendy Doniger's _Hindu Myths_, a second
favorite.  There were also a number of other texts and teaching approaches
that several of you kindly suggested, for which, again, my thanks. 

There were also some useful comments and constructive criticisms with
regard to argument strategies that might serve to make our students more
receptive to the central ideas in the Bhagavad Giitaa.  I stand corrected
on the matter of the caste system in contemporary India.  Inasmuch as the
varna classification schema is both legal and thriving, and inasmuch as
this hierarchization of personal worth is endorsed by the Giitaa, I
suppose there's really no getting around the fact that this system is
woven into the very heart and soul of the Hindu religion, both now and for
the foreseeable future.  This is unfortunate, in my opinion, though I
wouldn't want to offend those learned people on the list whose religious
commitments or scholarly immersion in "contextualized" studies may make
them disagree. 

Of course, if one were teaching an entire course on Hinduism, it might be
feasible to "contextualize," and so partially to mitigate, the bad
impression that this scripturally sanctioned practice creates.  (When I
teach my Asian Religious Philosophies course, for example, the Giitaa
always figures prominently.)  But spending a great deal of time on the
Giitaa is scarcely a realistic possibility within the mandated parameters
of our freshman World Cultures course.  This is one reason why I thought
perhaps it might be worth exploring the alternative strategy of side-
stepping the difficulty altogether by simply selecting a different text.

I was also most intrigued by the comments received from Professors Tim
Cahill, Daniel White, and Paolo Magnone regarding the validity (or
invalidity) of allegorical readings of the Giitaa.  For example, Tim
Cahill wrote, in part: 

>Just a couple of remarks on your pointers. I don't think the Indians
>looked at Krsna's urging Arjuna to fight as an "allegory" until very
>modern times. Indian texts on poetics define and exemplify many figures
>of speech and other poetic devices but they never point to the Gita as an
>example. I think that the "allegorical interpretation" of Krsna's message
>is an invention of modernity.

I think Prof. Cahill's point is well taken, and I want to thank all three
gentlemen for their acute observations.  However, it's not as if I or any
of my colleagues have been engaging in facile allegorizing.  Whenever I've
raised this issue with my students, I've always presented the allegorical
interpretations as supplementary layers of meaning in addition to (not
replacing) the obvious dilemma concerning the ethics of dharma and war. 
Nevertheless, I don't think the allegorical potentialities should be
dismissed altogether.  It is well known that Mahatma Gandhi approached the
Giitaa in that way.  Similarly, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan has encouraged a
metaphorical interpretation in the Introduction to his translation of the

Of course, Gandhi and Radhakrishnan, being "moderns," may be reading the
text quite differently from the way it was originally intended.  Yet
surely it would be wrong to rule out altogether the possibility of
allegorical elements occurring *within* the Giitaa, even granting that the
Giitaa *as a whole* probably was not originally conceived of as an
allegory.  Consider, for example, the final verses of chapter III: 

			s(')riibhagavaan uvaaca

	  (37)  kaama eSa krodha eSa
		mahaas(')ano mahaapaapmaa
		   viddhy enam iha vairiNam ...

	The Blessed Lord said:  This is craving, this is wrath, born 
	of the mode of passion, all-devouring and most sinful.  Know
	this to be the enemy here....

	  (39)  aavRtam jnaanam etena
		   jnaanino nityavairiNaa
		kaamaruupeNa kaunteya
		   duSpuureNaa 'nalena ca

	Enveloped is wisdom, O Son of Kuntii, by this insatiable fire 
	of desire, which is the constant foe of the wise.

	  (40)  indriyaaNi mano buddhir
		   asyaa 'dhiSThaanam ucyate
		etair vimohayaty eSa
		   jnaanam aavRtya dehinam

	The senses, the mind and the intelligence are said to be its 
	seat.  Veiling wisdom by these, it deludes the embodied [soul].

	  (41)  tasmaat tvam indriyaaNy aadau
	   	   niyaya bharatarSabha
		paapmaanam prajahi hy enam
		   jnaanavijnaananaas(')anam ...

	Therefore, O Best of Bharatas, control thy senses from the 
	beginning and slay this sinful destroyer of wisdom and 

	  (43)  evam buddheH param buddhvaa
		   samstabhyaa 'tmaanam aatmanaa
		jahi s(')atrum mahaabaaho
		   kaamaruupam duraasadam

	Thus, knowing him who is beyond the intelligence, steadying 
	the [lower] self by the Self, smite, O Mighty-armed, the enemy 
	in the form of desire, so hard to get at.
			(Radhakrishnan trans., Harper, 1973, pp. 1480-50)

In light of these verses and others like them, I wonder if it might not be
feasible after all to see allegorical layers of meaning within the text. 
To those who worry about facile allegorizing, let me assure you that the
literal meaning stands foremost in the minds of our students here at the
University of Evansville.  Indeed, it is on the basis of the literal
meaning that many of them reject the ethics of the Giitaa out of hand. 
(Notice, I am not saying that I share their views.  Paolo Magnone is
entirely correct in deploring the "uncritical feeling of cultural
self-righteousness" many of our students seem to have.  This is the whole
problem in a nutshell.)  Yet I humbly submit that to leaven the bread of
interpretation with a bit of the yeast of metaphor and allegory can only
help, not harm, the cause of intercultural understanding. 

		Edward Beach
		Department of Philosophy and Religion
		The University of Evansville


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