Gandhi's Gita and the birth of Satyagraha & Ahimsa
By Dr. Panchajanya Paul, MD
 



Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) was deeply influenced by Bhagvad Gita. Gita became a spiritual dictionary for Gandhi and guide of conduct for all his personal and political endeavors. Gandhi studied Gita in great details and wrote a commentary on Gita which is recognized as one of the most important interpretations of Gita and is ranked alongside those by Bal Gangadjar Tilak, Sir Aurobindo and Radhakrishnan.

The story of Gita in Gandhi's life is an inspiring one. Gandhi first came across Gita at the age of twenty years old when he was studying law in England. Like many western educated young Indians of that time, he had not read the Indian scriptures. In England, Gandhi search for vegetarian food led him to the vegetarian society of London and the theosophical society. As historian Herman writes "Gandhi's introduction to London's new age counterculture was only just starting. At the end of 1989 two young Englishmen stopped at his table at Central cafe. They were reading the Bhagvad Gita (Sir Edwin Arnold's translation-The Song Celestial), they explained and had some questions about it. Since Gandhi was an Indian, they were hoping he would discuss it with him". Gandhi recalled in his autobiography "I felt ashamed as I have read the divine poem neither in Sanskrit nor in Gujarati. I was constrained to tell them that I had not read Gita, but I would gladly read it with them, and that though my knowledge of Sanskrit was meager, still I hoped to be able to understand the original to the extent of telling where the translation failed to bring out the meaning. I began reading the Gita with them." Though reading Edwin Arnold's translation was not easy for Gandhi due to its use of Victorian style English, Gandhi persevered using English dictionary. Gandhi fell in love with both the message of Gita and Arnold's translation. He writes in his autobiography-

"The verses in the second chapter- If one
Ponders on objects of the sense, there springs
Attraction; from attraction grows desire,
Desire flames to fierce passion, passion breeds
Recklessness; then the memory -- all betrayed --
Lets noble purpose go, and saps the mind,
Till purpose, mind, and man are all undone

Made a deep impression on my mind, and they still ring in my ears. The book strikes me as one of priceless worth. The impression has ever since been growing on me with the result that I regard it today as the book par excellence for the knowledge of truth. It has afforded me invaluable help in my moments of gloom."

The revelation of Bhagvad Gita was a turning point in Gandhi's life. Gita became the most important book in Gandhi's life. Gita became a spiritual dictionary for Gandhi and guided his actions. Gandhi would regularly read Gita and made efforts to commit the verses to his memory for a deeper understanding. Gandhi wrote "I already had faith in the Gita, which had a fascination for me. Now I realized the necessity of diving deeper into it. I had one or two translations—I decided to get by heart one or two verses every day. For this purpose, I employed the time of my morning ablutions. The operation took me thirty-five minutes, fifteen minutes for the tooth brush and twenty for the bath. So the wall opposite I stuck slips of paper on which were written the Gita verses and referred to them now and then to help my memory...I remembered having thus committed to memory thirteen chapters. What effect this readings of the Gita had on my friends, only they can say, but to me the Gita had become an infallible guide of conduct. It became my dictionary of daily reference."

During his two years at the Yeravda prison (1922-1924), Gandhi read the entire Mahabharata and reread the Bhagvad Gita and it's all translations. This would inspire him compose a series of lectures on Bhagvad Gita when he returned to Sabarmati Ashram in 1924. Gandhi drew a secular and universal message from Gita. He quoted "This is a work which persons belonging to all faiths can read. It does not favor any sectarian point of view. It teaches nothing but pure ethics." Gandhi's talks on Gita in the Sabarmati Ashram in 1926 will later become the basis of the book: The Bhagvad Gita according to Gandhi. Gandhi bared all his thoughts and beliefs on Gita during this talks. Gandhi asserted that Gita was not a historical work nor a story of warfare. But it was a sacred spiritual work which under the guise of physical warfare describes the duel that permeates in the hearts of mankind. The physical warfare in Mahabharata was brought in to make the description of the internal duel more alluring. Gandhi wrote "The author of the Mahabharata has not established the necessity of physical warfare; on the contrary he has proved its futility. He has made the victors shed tears of sorrow and repentance, and has left them nothing but a legacy of miseries." Gandhi in his commentary of Gita described in details how he got the message of ahimsa from Gita. In his introduction to Bhagvad to first published in young India in 1931, he wrote "While on the one hand it is beyond dispute that all actions bind, on the other hand it is equally true that all living beings have to do some work, whether they will or not. Then how is one to be free from the bondage of the action, even though he may be acting in the manner in which Gita solved the problem is to my knowledge unique. The Gita says, "Do your allotted work but renounce its fruit- be detached and work- have no desire for reward and work. This is the unmistakable teaching of Gita. He who gives up action fails. He who gives up the reward rises".

As Edwin Arnold translates from Gita Chapter-2
Do thine allotted task! Work is more excellent than idleness...
There is a task of holiness to do,
Unlike world binding toil, which bindeth not
The faithful soul; such earthly duty do
Free from desire and thou shalt perform
Thy heavenly purpose

Gandhi further clarifies that renouncing does not mean passivity or indifference. "But renunciation of fruit is in no way means indifference to the result. In regard to every action one must know the result that is expected to follow, the means thereto, and the capacity for it. He, who, being thus equipped, Is without desire for the result and is yet wholly engrossed in the due fulfillment of the task before him is said to have renounced the fruits of his action". Many including Bal Gangadhar Tilak however did not see the connection of Gita and non-violence. Gandhi used his training as a Lawyer and uses all arguments to establish the novel connection of Gita and ahimsa. Gandhi wrote in his analysis- "According to the Gita, all acts that are incapable of being performed without attachment are taboo. This golden rule saves mankind from many pitfalls. According to this interpretation murder, lying, dissoluteness and the like must be regarded as sinful and therefore taboo...Thinking along these lines, I have felt that in trying to enforce in one's life the central teaching of the Gita, one is bound to follow Truth and Ahimsa. When there is no desire for fruit, there is no temptation for untruth or ahimsa (violence). Take any instance of untruth or violence, and it will be found that at its back was the desire to attain the cherished end...the Gita had to deliver the message of renunciation of fruit. ...but if the Gita believed in ahimsa or it was included in desirelessness, why did the author take a warlike illustration? When the Gita was written, although people believed in ahimsa, wars were non only non taboo, but nobody observed the contradiction between them and ahimsa...Let it be granted, that according to the letter of the Gita it is possible to say that warfare is consistent with renunciation of fruit. But after forty years' unremitting endeavor fully to enforce the teaching of the Gita in my own life, I have in all humility felt that perfect renunciation is impossible without perfect observance of ahimsa in every shape and form..."

Gandhi's message of non-violence became the bedrock of his politics and it shaped the course of the Indian National Congress Party during India's freedom struggle. Gandhi's core beliefs of truth (Satyagraha), non-violence (ahimsa) will revolutionize Indian politics and will inspire millions of Indians to join in the freedom movement. Gandhi will go on to become the most prominent Indian leader known world wide and a world statesman of highest order. Gandhi's idea of ahimsa and Satyagraha drawn from Gita will have a profound impact on world events. As Sissela Bok writes "Since Gandhi's death in 1948, his example, his writings, and the militant non-violence he advocated have continued to teach the world. They have influenced liberation movements as diverse as the American civil rights struggle, the Polish Solidarity movement, and the Philippine people power that overthrew the Marcos regime." Great leaders like martin Luther King and nelson Mandela will acknowledge Gandhi's positive influence in their lives and actions. Through Gandhi's life and his work, Bhagvad Gita's message of harmony, tolerance and non-violence continues to reverberate across the world.

Sources:
Book: Gandhi an Autobiography- The story of my experiments with truth - Page 67
Book: Gandhi and Churchill- The epic rivalry that destroyed an empire and forged our age by Arthur Herman- Page 78
Book: The Bhagvad Gita According to Gandhi Pages : 2-20