The Gita is not the “Hindu Bible”

Image Mughal illustration of Krishna and Arjuna
Krishna counseling Arjuna – the setting of the Bhagavad-Gita

One of the pitfalls of the “world religions approach” is students’ understandable tendency to want to fit everything into a paradigm they already know. Understandable, because the approach itself developed on the foundation of 19th century scholars’ and colonialists’ efforts to do exactly the same thing: to locate the religious structures that corresponded to the ones they already knew – in essence, Christianity.

Christianity doesn’t work well as a paradigmatic religion. Using Christianity as your world religions paradigm is something like using Hungarian as your paradigm for human language, or travelling by motorcade as your paradigm of transportation. Each religion is unique, but Christianity is particularly atypical, on more than one dimension.

This is especially clear, with respect to Hinduism, when it comes to thinking about sacred texts. The sheer volume of sacred text in Hinduism dwarfs the Bible. The Bhagavad Gita has been described as “the Hindu Bible,” or at least “the closest thing in Hinduism to the Bible,” because of its relatively self-contained status, its length, its importance for popular religion – it is one of the earlier appearances of the bhakti path of religious practice – and its focus on a religious philosophy that can be embraced, not so much by “anyone,” but by many and notably by non-Brahmin groups. But the Gita has not functioned in the history of Hindu religion in the way the Bible has functioned in the history of Christianity; it is certainly not the privileged authoritative text, although it is an important one; and in the pluralistic Hindu environment, it can’t even be identified as the central religious text for all bhaktas, since it is primarily revered as a Vaishnavite text.

So recent politicization of the Gita [including efforts to make the Gita compulsory reading in Madhya Pradesh and Harayana; putting the Gita on trial in Russia as extremist literature], from various quarters, seems to reflect a kind of “back formation,” in which the Bhagavad-Gita, having been identified as the “Hindu Bible,” is then picked up and treated by various groups as an indispensable cultural text, or as a threatening religious one.

An informative review of Roger Davis’s book on the Gita by Wendy Doniger is here, with a brief exchange here.

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