Book Review: Who Wrote The Bhagvad Gita?

Author: Meghnad Desai
Paperback: 208 pages, Paperback
Publisher: Element (March 17, 2015)
Language: English

Reviewed by Dr. Panchajanya Paul, MD

The Bhagvad Gita is considered the most important book of Hindu religion and also the most important book on the Hindu thought. Gita was first translated into English by Sir Charles Wilkins in 1785, who called it Bhagvat-geeta, or Dialogues of Kreeshna and Arjoon. Gita was the first Sanskrit work and also the first work of Hinduism to be translated, and made available to European readers. Thus Gita’s eminent status in the western mind was enshrined and it’s been growing ever since. Sir Edwin Arnold popularized it with his poetic rendering and called it the ‘The Song Celestial’ published in 1885. The exact time when the Gita was written is unknown. The first mention of the Gita is found in Shankaracharya’s commnetery composed around 800AD. All subsequent writers on Gita have used the same Sanskrit text of 700 verses used by Adi Shankara. The three major commentaries on Gita in the ancient times were by Adi Shankara 800AD, Ramanujacharya's in 1100AD and Madhvacharya in 1200 AD. There have been many modern commentaries on Gita, significant among them by Bal Gangadhar Tilak in 1915, Aurobindo Ghose in 1922, Mahatma Gandhi in 1946, and by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan in 1948. In recent years almost all prominent Hindu religious leaders promoting various philosophies of Hinduism has commented on Gita.

Hinduism is not a religion by the book. Unlike other monotheistic religions like Judaism which has the Torah, Christianity which has the Bible, Islam which has the Quran, Hindus don’t have any central guiding book. The elevation of Gita’s status on par with the Bible and Quran is a recent phenomenon. It started during the freedom struggle with the revival of Indian nationalism and has continued since as the resurgent India marches ahead. Thus inspite of having voluminous commentaries and works on Gita, there is a lack of scientific study of the text. Most of the significant work has been done by Hindu scholars, devout in their faith, who used the message of Gita to promote specific agendas like India’s freedom movement by Tilak and Gandhi; and in recent times to promote Hinduism. Thus unlike the Bible which has been a subject of serious scholarly work and critique; an equally important book like Gita has not received the critical attention it deserves. Meghnad Desai’s book WHO WROTE THE BHAGAVADA GITA is a welcome addition to this field. Meghnad Jagdishchandra Desai, also called Lord Desai and Baron Desai, is an Indian-born, naturalized British economist and Labour politician. He has taught at the London School of Economics from 1965-2003. He has published over 200 academic articles and has authored over twenty-five books including Marx’s Revenge, Development and Nationhood and The Rediscovery of India. He got Padma Bhushan in 2008. Desai is an atheist.

Pic: Meghnad Desai

Many excellent books on Gita exist but they are limited by their religious approach. The theistic interpretation of Gita closes all scope for discussion because as soon as one posits that the God himself as Krishna is speaking in Gita and it contains revealed knowledge direct form God’s mouth, no further questions or disagreements can be entertained. Desai’s book is a secular inquiry into the sacred text. He has used a scientific and humanistic approach. Science does not acknowledge the existence of God. Secularism does not acknowledge the supremacy of one religion or one god or one belief over the other. Humanism attaches prime importance to human needs in this world rather than divine or supernatural matters or concerns of past of future lives. The study of Gita with this scientific, secular and humanistic bent brings a fresh outlook to examine the old views and examine each claim objectively on its own merit.

Any religion or cult can only survive as long as it gets the patronage from the faithful and the powerful. Religions competed for the royal favors in early time and their fortune raised and ebbed with the fancy of the ruling class. Christianity which started as one of many faiths in the roman times rose into prominence only after the roman emperor Constantine got success in the Battle of the Milvian Bridge using the symbol for Christ, and later making Christianity the official religion of the roman emperor. Budhism became and remained the dominant religion of India for around thousand years after it was embraced by Emperor Ashoka around 250 BC. The lower castes along with many upper caste who got frustrated with the complex vedic rituals, rigid caste and marriage gridlocks, flocked to the humanistic philosophy offered by Buddhism. With time Buddhism spread all over Asia but lost its ground in India after the Gupta rulers revived Hinduism in around 500 CE. In this book Desai examines the historicity of Gita and presents the conclusion of scholars like Damodar Kosambi, Gajanan Khiar, Holtzmann, Jacobi, von Humboldt, von Simpson and others. Desai quotes various scholars who agree that the Gita was written between 600 and 200 BC and there were many authors involved. Also the final version of Gita that we have now was compiled during the Gupta period, and Gita’s Sanskrit is more modern than that of the epic Mahabharata suggesting a later insertion. And Desai also points to the historic battle between the Budhism and the Brahmanism ranging around thousand years which modified both religions. During that time Gita became a tool used to reassert the Hindu faith and offered an alternative philosophy to that of Buddhism. This was the true Dharma Yuddhamin (religious war) in literal terms whose fascinating history we are slowly unearthing.

In the end, Desai also cautions us against the pitfalls of taking all of Gita for its literal meaning. He writes about this under the heading called ‘Toxic Gita’ where he explains how Gita’s message can be interpreted to promote casteism, misogynism, and bigotry. Desai quotes the verses 4.13, 18.41-44, 9.32 and others to support his point. Desai writes that these thought process stand against the modern democratic values of tolerance, equality and justice as guaranteed by both the constitutions of India and USA. He hypothesizes that many of India’s problems like female infanticide, casteism, abuse of women stems from these old thought process. Overall this book provides a refreshing look and treats Gita as a work of human mind and scrutinizes it for all its merits and demerits. The goal of the book is to ignite curiosity and stimulate open minded objective discussion about this important historical text considered sacred by millions. Desai has brilliantly succeeded, and it is a must read for all Hindus and those interested in understanding the Hindu thought.

Dr. Panchajanya Paul, MD, ABIHM, ABPN, FAPA - is an American Board certified - Child, Adolescent, and Adult psychiatrist. He is a diplomat of the American Board of Integrative and Holistic Medicine. He is a Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association. He holds adjunct faculty position at Emory University School of Medicine; University of Georgia & Georgia Regents University, and University of Central Florida School of Medicine. He is a freelance writer who lives in Atlanta.