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Mahatma Gandhi and the Bhagvad Gita

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    The Bhagvad Gita or the Sacred Song is a Hindu Poem, which embodies deep philosophy, spirituality and divinity. It is primarily a war time counsel from Lord Krishna to his warrior disciple Arjun. Mahatma Gandhi has often acknowledged its profound effect on his life.

    It is strange but interesting that Gandhi’s first introduction to the Gita was in England through two English brothers. The brothers read the Gita regularly and asked Gandhi to join them in this activity. Gandhi was sufficiently impressed and in accordance with the advice of these brothers, read the English translation of this poem by Sir Edwin Arnold and was captivated for life by the message of the Gita. He was especially fond of the last 19 verses of the second chapter. It was his opinion that the concept of dharma was summarized in these verses.

    Later on Gandhi used to read the original Sanskrit version of the Bhagvad Gita every day. During his imprisonment, he made a detailed study of this epic poem and on his friends insistence translated the Gita into Gujarati. According to him the Mahabharata war was an allegory of the battle which goes on in every individual. The Poet Saint Veda Vyas, who penned these verses, imparted the principles of real dharma through this poem. In the words of Gandhi this dharma was synonymous with selfless action. It was Gandhi’s opinion that victory in the Mahabharata war did not bring peace, although it brought material benefit. Lord Krishna is the personification of wisdom in the opinion of Gandhi.

    The Bhagvad Gita advocates the path of Karma or selfless action and its message is the renunciation of the fruit of action. Disappointment is unknown to a true votary of the Gita who is always joyous and peaceful.

    The following words give an insight into the importance that Gandhi attributed to the Gita:

    I find that solace in the Bhagvad Gita which I miss even in the Sermon on the Mount. When disappointment stares me in the face and when I am all alone and I do not see even one ray of light, I go back to the Bhagvad Gita. I find a verse here and a verse there and I immediately begin to smile in the midst of overwhelming tragedies – and my life has been full of external tragedies – and if they have left no visible or indelible scar on me I owe it all to the teaching of Bhagvad Gita (Kamat, Jyotsna, 1st June 2004).

                            The so called modern age has been witness to the advent of many a savant, but perhaps Mahatma Gandhi is one of the most influential if not the most influential of these. He as a strong initiator of social and political activism considered the following to be most harmful to humanity, namely:

                         “Wealth without work, Pleasure with out conscience, Science without humanity,    Knowledge without character, Politics with out principle, Commerce without morality and                      Worship without sacrifice.”(Quotes from Mohandas K. Gandhi, n.d).

                Mahatma Gandhi had immense faith in god and prayer. According to him worship and prayer are not superstitions but a highly effective means to purify and cleanse the heart. The guiding principles of his life were based on the teachings contained in religious books like the Ramayana and Mahabharata .Gandhi maintained a very high opinion of the Gita throughout his life.

    In his search for the truth, Gandhi experimented with new things and he termed these his experiments with the truth, a few of these were converting to vegetarianism, consuming only fruits and nuts as food, practice of Yoga, celibacy, belief in natural remedies for all illnesses, going for long walks, memorizing the different verses of the Gita. This resulted in Gandhi drawing energy from God, which helped him to experiment with the truth.

    The main focus of these experiments was self realization through surrender to God and in this manner he found the eternal truth. Some of the truths that he discovered in this manner can be succinctly stated in his own words as follows:

    “The lust of the mind cannot be rooted out except by intense self-examination, surrender to God and grace.”(Kohli, Aman. 21st March 2004).

    On the basis of his study of the Gita, Gandhi concluded that truth could be realized only by non – violence. He further declared that only on its separation from selfish motives truth is knowable and that till such realization dawns truth serves as a weapon of force rather than as a source of knowledge. In his quest for the truth, Gandhi made endless tests of his own motivation and through these tests he practised extreme self – sacrifice along with great renunciation. One of his greatest realizations was that when an individual realizes the plurality of the truth, then selfishness is replaced with compassion, devotion to non – violence and unbounded capacity for self – sacrifice (Gandhi, n.d.).

    Gandhi always contended that worship without sacrifice for social service is a sin. Gandhi’s daily prayer consisted of the recitation of the virtues of an ideal person as enumerated in the Gita. This prayer is addressed to a person’s self, the conscience or the true self. He was staunch advocate of ethical religion as opposed to mere ritualistic worship. In his opinion dogmatists, fundamentalists and ritualists posed a greater threat to religion than the atheists. It was his firm belief that the highest form of religion is truth and righteousness.

    The last 19 verses of the second chapter of the Gita were utilized by Gandhi as his guiding principles. Some of these are:

    Matrasparsa asthu Kaunteya sitoshana sukha dukha da

    Agama payano Nityastvam stithi kshasva bharata. Chapter II, verse 14.

    This is a very important verse in the Gita which states that the contacts of the senses with the sense objects give rise to the feelings of heat and cold, and pain and pleasure.

    These are transitory and impermanent. Therefore, one should learn to endure them. This was one of the main axioms, which formed the basis of the Mahatma’s ideology.

    Sukha dukhe samekritva labha labho jaya jayov

    Tato yudhaya yujasva vaivam papa mavapnapi. Chapter II, verse 38.

    In this verse the Lord exhorts Arjun to treat pleasure and pain, gain and loss, and victory and defeat alike, and to engage in his duty. He also says that by doing one’s duty in this way one will not incur sin. Gandhi was mainly motivated by the teachings of this verse.

    Karmanye Vadhikaraste Ma Phaleshu Kadachana

    Ma Karama Phala Hethur bhur Mathe Sango stvakarmane. Chapter II, verse 47.

    The meaning of this verse is that, one has control over doing one’s respective duty only, but no control or claim over the results. The fruits of work should not be one’s motive, and one should never be inactive.

    Gandhi applied the exhortations of this verse in all his activities and he used to do all his activities in the self same spirit of renunciation of the fruits of work.

               karmajam buddhi yukta he phalam thyakthava manishna

              janma bandha venirmukta padam gachyantya naamayam. Chapter II verse 51.

                The above verse connotes that Karma-yogis are freed from the bondage of rebirth due to renouncing the selfish attachment to the fruits of all work, and attain the blissful divine state of salvation or Nirvana. Gandhi as a true Karma yogi followed the teachings of this verse in letter and spirit and he had renounced the world and all possessions. In fact, even his apparel was that of an ascetic prompting the British Rulers of India of the time to call him the Naked Fakir.

                Prajahati yada kamanpadwanpartha manogataan

                Atmanye vatmanah thustam stithapragnyastha doshyathe. Chapter II verse 55.

               In this verse, the Lord explains to his disciple Arjun that when one is completely free from all desires of the mind and is satisfied with the Supreme Being by the joy of the Supreme Being, then one is called an enlightened person. Gandhi in order to realize this great truth took a great deal of pains to free his mind from desire, he became a celibate, renounced material possessions and engaged in selfless service to humanity.

                Dukheshva madvignamana sukhesu vigataspriha

                Veetaragabhayakrodha stithadheermu vidyushyathe. Chapter II verse 56.

                This is a very important verse in the Gita, in this verse the Lord explains that a person whose mind is unperturbed by sorrow, who does not crave pleasures, and who is completely free from attachment, fear, and anger can be called an enlightened sage of steady intellect. Obviously, all these qualities were present in the Mahatma. During his imprisonment in South Africa, during his various jail terms in India, during the times when the British reneged on their promises, during times of great personal tragedies Gandhi always maintained equipoise of the mind and intellect in obvious consonance with the teachings of this verse.

                Essarvatra nabhisneha sthathat prashya subha subham

                Nabhi nandati na dvesti tasya pragnya pratishtita. Chapter II verse 57.

     This verse continues the idea introduced in the  previous verse, here it is explained that mind and intellect of a person become steady when he is not attached to anything, when he is neither elated by getting desired results nor perturbed by undesired results. Due to extreme renunciation Gandhi was able to withstand the many failures and disappointments which he had to face in his effort to obtain independence from the British.

                Vishaya vini vartante niraharsya dehina

                Rasavarnam rasopyasya param drushtva nevartatay. Chapter II verse 59.

    In this verse it is clearly explained that desire for sensual pleasures fades away if one abstains from sense enjoyment, but that the craving for sense enjoyment remains in a very subtle form. This subtle craving also completely disappears from the one who knows the Supreme Being. It was always the endeavour of Gandhi to gain complete mastery over his baser instincts as was evidenced by his abstinence, frugal living, etc.

                In addition to this Gandhi also followed the exhortations of the other verses of the Gita like the following:

                Na karmana mana rambhanmyshkarmyam purushosnuthe

                Na cha san vyapna siddhim samadhigachathi. Chapter III, verse 4.

                Na hi kaschit kshanamapi jatu thistatya karmakrut

                Karyate hyavasa karma sarva prakriti jairagunai. Chapter III, verse 5.

                These two verses express the thought that one does not attain freedom from the bondage of Karma by merely abstaining from work. No one attains perfection by merely giving up work, because no one can remain action less even for a moment. Everyone is driven to action ¾ helplessly indeed ¾ by the forces of Nature. This is the principle of Karma Yoga or the path of action. Hence, Gandhi, who was a Karma Yogi nonpareil decided to work selflessly and in a spirit of detachment. His extraordinary achievements bear testimony to this fact.

                In conclusion it can be stated that the hoary teachings of the Sanatana Dharma as embodied in the Bhagvad Gita formed the basis of Gandhi’s ideology. He was a strong follower of his conscience and believed that the means to achieve any objective were as important as the objective itself. He propounded the theory of Ahimsa or non-violence against all living things. His best guide was the Gita and he preached action without desire, which led to non-possession and equitability as per the Gita, with great zeal throughout his life.


    Srimad Bhagavad Gita,  Gita Press, Gorakhpur, India. (This contains the original verses in Sanskrit.)

    Gandhi, Satya. (n.d.). Retrieved from /gandhi/satya.html

    Kamat, Jyotsna, (1st June 2004). Gandhi on Bhavavadgita. Retrieved from kamat’s potpourri website:

    Kohli, Aman. (21st March 2004). The Gandhi Text Collection. Retrieved from

    Quotes from Mohandas K. Gandhi. (n.d.). Retrieved from /Gandhi.html

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