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At the Feet of The Mother

Should Shlokas of the Bhagavad Gita Be Taken Literally or as Symbols Allowing Interpretation?

QUESTION (abridged):

Should all verses of the Gita be understood and followed literally, even if some appear be outdated or even not authentic, or they are rather symbolic rather than absolute truths and allow interpretation? Is it true that anybody passing during the six months the Sun travels north, attains the Supreme Brahman [Shlokas 8.24-25]?  


Your question regarding a few verses of the Gita raise two deeper question which are implied within it. They need to be dealt with before coming to the specific verses.

The first question is about the criteria that would decide whether a given scripture is the word of God or not. According to you either everything that it contains must be applicable for all times for a scripture to be the word of God. True it is that all scriptures, including the Gita have certain truths that are fundamental to our existence as well as unchanging and eternal. But to say that a scripture should not concern itself with the temporal events and prevalent practices is to say that God is unconcerned with the earthly play that takes place in Space and Time. All scriptures therefore contain and must necessarily contain both temporal as well as eternal elements. Not knowing the difference has led to so much confusion in the history of religions. Either the adherents blindly believe that everything in a scripture is meant for all times and thereby become rigid, orthodox and fanatics trying to impose it forcibly upon all. Or else declaring that the scripture is totally false in all its parts because some of it is not understandable. The logical fallacy is the assumption that God must not concern himself with the events and circumstances, beliefs and practices of the Time in which the scripture is given. Well, if this was so then God would not need to speak only once for all times. It is this logical fallacy that has led to and continues to harden Islam into a militant religion and has led many to leave Christianity because both ignorantly believe that God speaks only once and that is final with nothing to be added or subtracted from it. Hindu thought instead takes its stand on the evolutionary idea that as human consciousness evolves new scriptures are needed. Therefore, it believes in the new Avatar developing over the old in a progression of Divine embodiments and new scriptures replacing the old in certain respects even though the fundamental truths are the same. Sanatan Dharma also believes that there are bound to be a number of scriptures since the Divine is Infinite and hence He would convey or rather reveal the same truths differently to people in different stages of inner development. That is how we developed a truly inclusive rather than a cancel culture or a privileged exclusive club of a particular religion. In fact, it goes even further. Thus, Sri Krishna declares that while scriptures are a help, sometimes a great help, yet one should eventually go beyond every scripture, sabdbrahmativartate.

The second fallacy similarly concerns the use of symbols. We are again assuming that either everything must be symbolic or else physically factual to be true. Without going into the argument about what is factual we can easily see that there are things that need to be expressed symbolically using prevalent physical objects or actions to make them comprehensible. This applies especially to subjective and psychological as well as occult and profound spiritual experiences. Thus, for example a romantic poet uses the symbol of moon to express the intensity of his feelings. However, it is equally true that the moon does trigger heaving of sentiments in some people much like the water heaves during full moon nights leading to a high tide. The word yajna is used in the Gita most of the time, in fact consistently in this symbolic sense. How else do you understand when Sri Krishna says that it is by yajna that the world is created and by yajna it is governed. Yajna as fire bringing down rain is still understandable if you don’t limit yourself to the limited frameworks and discoveries of modern Science but how does one understand when Sri Krishna asks Arjun to offer his actions into a yajna. Do you mean he should light up a fire in the middle of the battlefield and keep looking at it or point his arrows thereby before shooting? Obviously not. It is only if you take yajna in the sense of a sacrifice or offering to the inner Fire of aspiration and the Divine Will and Energy that the word will fit everywhere and make sense consistently. Thus, when you offer your will and actions to the Divine Power within then it brings down the rains of God’s bounty from above. Incidentally a friend of mine, an extremely brilliant scientist who once worked on supercomputers and networking of banks did invent a device which would burn certain chemicals for cloud seeding from below. He called it the Varun yantra. So, we don’t know what technology was in use then but surely the image had been known to the Vedic seers who always associated fire with human aspiration supported by the Divine Power rising upwards and rain as Divine Forces pouring from above. I could go on describing so many such beautiful symbols in the Gita and the Vedas but that would make a very lengthy answer. If you are interested in a deeper study, you can check out Sri Aurobindo’s Essays on the Gita as well as The Secret of the Vedas.

As to the effect of solstice on the soul’s further journey the Gita surely gives it as a passing suggestion where one has to apply the symbolic sense that the Uttarayan is simply a soul that was already ascending upwards and hence after death it continues to ascend and become one with the Supreme Brahman. That Sri Krishna intends this is abundant if we see other verses wherein he states how the evil doers are cast into Asuric births and the importance of the aspiration at the moment of Death is so important. Again, it does not mean that the time and place of departure makes no difference at all. In the cosmic play, Time and Place have their own relative importance. For example, darkness and night is known to be a period when the Asuric and Rakshasic forces are at their worst. We can ourselves feel the difference in our inner state between early morning, midday, evening and at night by noticing what kind of thoughts and feelings pervade us, generally so to say. Of course, it will be an error to convert these temporary and relative truths into an absolute one like dying in Kashi to get moksha.

To sum up, the greatness of the Gita does not lie so much in its conceptual framework wherein Sri Krishna naturally uses prevalent ideas of Sankhya, Chaturvarnya, Yajna etc. but in its being a book revealing to us the principle of action so that our everyday life turns into a Karma Yoga, a Godward turning of our entire existence. It is not a handbook of ethics or a rule book of moral science with its strict dos and don’ts (and thank God or Krishna for that). Its concern is to lay down certain general principles of action following which the soul can arrive at inner freedom even while engaged in all kinds of activities. It leaves the rest for us to follow and make our choices rather than spoon feeds or forces us into blindly obeying its word. In the end it in fact says be full of God, follow Him give up yourself to Him rather than remain tied to even dharma and the scripture. God is greater than His Gospel and the law of action is an evolving dharma rather than a set of rules to be followed by all and for all times.

Alok Pandey


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