by Uma Majmudar, Ph.D.
No other book or scripture influenced Gandhi, shaped his character, and transformed his life as profoundly and permanently as did the Bhagavad Gita. Among the many books he read, “Gita” alone became an unfailing source of strength and solace to him in the darkest hours of his life. As a spiritual reference book, the Gita was not only his constant companion, it was his “eternal mother” whom he esteemed even more than his earthly mother.
Brought up by his devout Vaishnava parents Kaba Gandhi and Putliba (ba: mother) in a little provincial town of Porbandar in Kathiawad (now in Gujarat state) during the British colonial rule in India, the little boy “Moniya” (his nickname) had only a nodding acquaintance with his religion. As Gandhi recalled in his Autobiography, although he chanted “Ramanama” (the holy name of Rama), recited the “Rama Raksha stotra” (verses in praise of Lord Rama), and listened to the family priest read the Tulsi Ramayana, he had no formal knowledge of religion nor had he read any religious book except Manusmriti which was beyond his understanding.
Gandhi, an Adolescent Law Student in London
Not yet twenty, Mohandas Gandhi went to London to study law in order to become a barrister. Arriving in London in 1888, Gandhi felt like a frightened little frog venturing out of his well for the first time and confronting an ocean! Lonely and starving without his mother’s home-cooked, Gujarati vegetarian food, Gandhi struggled hard with no knowledge of English, Englishmen or the English lifestyle and social etiquette. We can imagine how his joy knew no bounds when finally he found one vegetarian restaurant, and also spotted on its shelf a pamphlet titled “A Plea for Vegetarianism” by Henry Salt. Gandhi not only read the whole pamphlet there and then, but “with a neophyte’s zeal,” he became an active member of the London Vegetarian Society (LVS).
Here he befriended many vegetarian reformers and writers of the day like Henry Salt, Anna Kingsford, Dr. Allinson, Joshua Oldfield and Edward Maitland.
How Gandhi Met Prominent Theosophists of the Day
Through his association with the members of the LVS, Gandhi came to know prominent theosophists of the day, such as Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, the Olcott brothers, and Annie Besant, who would later become his political colleague in the Indian independence movement.
Gandhi’s First Introduction to the Bhagavad Gita
Gandhi’s theosophist friends—the two Olcott brothers—were studying the original Sanskrit text of the Gita alongside Edwin Arnold’s recent English translation, The Song Celestial. Thinking that Gandhi, being a native of India, would probably know Sanskrit better, they consulted him about the meaning of certain Sanskrit words, but he could not help. As Gandhi confessed in his Autobiography, “I felt ashamed, as I had read the divine poem neither in Sanskrit nor in Gujarati” (1948, 90). Gandhi, however, was not someone to take his ignorance lightly, he determined to turn his “shame” into a strong incentive to read and study not only the Gita in the original Sanskrit, but also other scriptures of the major world religions, such as the Christian Bible and the Islamic Qur’an.
Bhagavad Gita and the Sermon on the Mount:
Now that his religious appetite was kindled by the reading of the Gita, Gandhi was truly excited to read the Christian Bible. He said he did not like the Old Testament, but enjoyed reading the New Testament; he was particularly moved by the Christ’s Sermon on the Mount! As he put it in his Autobiography:
Especially, the Sermon on the Mount… went straight to my heart. I compared it with the Gita. The verses, ‘but I say unto you, that ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak too,’ delighted me beyond measure and put me in mind of Shamal Bhatt’s ‘for a bowl of water give a goodly meal’ etc. My young mind tried to unify the teaching of the Gita, the Light of Asia and the Sermon on the Mount. That renunciation was the highest form of religion appealed to me greatly. (1948, 92)
What made a deep impact on young Gandhi was jesus Christ’s living example and his message of renunciation, human compassion, forgiveness, and above all, his divine gesture of “returning evil with good;” he drew parallels between these and the Gita’s teachings of renunciation, detachment, selfless work, and a total self-surrender to God.
Unique Features of the Gita According to Gandhi
Sannyasa is not the only way to Moksha: The idea that sannyasa or renunciation was not the only way to moksha (spiritual liberation) appealed to Gandhi very much, as he himself endeavored to be both an ardent seeker after truth and a karmayogi—a man of action. While remaining active in the world, one can perform all one’s activities in the spirit of “nishkamakarma”, that is, without desire for the fruits of action; one can be like a “sthitaprajna”–a person well-established in wisdom—who is equipoised, detached, desireless, and dedicated to God.
The practicability of the Gita: To Gandhi, religion which cannot be practiced in one’s daily life is not true religion. He was impressed by the fact that the Gita was as much accessible to a common man as to a jnani or pundit. For an ordinary person, the language of the Gita is not only easy to understand; its ethical teachings are also quite practicable.
Its freedom from dogma: Gandhi observed that the Gita is “not a collection of “dos and don’ts;” It is non-sectarian and non-dogmatic.
It appeals to both the head and the heart: Despite its analytical, dialogical approach, the Gita, being deeply devotional, appeals to the heart.
Its multidimensionality: The Gita offers multiple choices to a spiritual seeker— from the paths of jnana (knowledge or discrimination between the Real and the seemingly real), and karma-yoga (selfless action for the good of all), to bhakti (self-surrender to God through devotion), and raja-yoga (the path of yogic disciplines). One may choose whichever path suits one’s prakriti (nature, made up of the gunas), but the ultimate goal in all of them remains the same: to perform all one’s big and small activities with anasakti or non-attachment, by renouncing the fruit of action; to act and yet not to act, like a sthitaprajna, and to surrender one’s ego to God (as Gandhi strove to reduce his ego to a zero).
The Gita’s universal appeal: “The Bhagavad Gita is perhaps the most systematic scriptural statement of the Perennial Philosophy,” wrote Aldous Huxley in his Introduction to the translation of the Gita by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood. (1987, 17) Popularized by Huxley, the term “perennial philosophy” recognizes the highest common core or essence of all religions regarding the ultimate purpose of human life as to achieve a mystical or experiential union of one’s self with the supreme being (“tat tvam asi: That thou art”).
The Gita—a apiritual reference book: This holy book became Gandhi’s most dependable spiritual guide and a constant companion through all the trials and tribulations of his life. As the chief navigator of the Indian independence movement, while fighting social, religious, and political injustice through satyagraha (based on truth and nonviolence), Gandhi faced many dark moments and crises of faith. During such moments, he turned to the Gita for strength, solace, and moral-spiritual guidance. As he put it, “the Gita is unrivaled for its spiritual merit …within the compass of 700 verses the Gita has given the quintessence of all the shastras and the Upanishads “ (Gita-the Mother, 1945, 4).
“Gita—My Eternal Mother”: Gandhi went even further to claim that “Gita is not only my Bible or my Koran, it is my mother…my ETERNAL MOTHER” (Ibid., 5) He said that out of all the books he had read, he found the greatest consolation from two books: the Gita and the Tulsi Ramayana.
Gandhi’s reasons for calling the Gita “My Eternal Mother”
(1) Like a proverbial mother, the Gita provided him not only unconditional love and support, it even lifted up his spirit and “led him kindly to Light.” (“Lead, Kindly Light” was the Christian hymn he loved very much.”) It showed him the way from darkness to eternal light, eternal truth, and eternal bliss. In his words,
I confess to you that, when doubts haunt me, when disappointments stare me in the face, and when I see not one ray of light on the horizon, I run to the Bhagavad Gita and find a verse to comfort me, and I immediately begin to smile in the midst of overwhelming sorrow.” (Ibid., 5)
(2) The Gita also became his practical-ethical guide for living: he turned to her for not just strength and solace, but also for a reasoned approach and for practical-ethical guidance. He had memorized several shlokas (verses) that spoke to his heart as well as head; by constant practice of these precepts, he could restore the serenity of his mind, which we shall discuss later. (3) Earthly mother may sometimes fail or disappoint, but not this Spiritual Mother. In his words, “I lost my mother early who gave me birth long ago, but this ETERNAL MOTHER has completely filled her place by my side ever since. She has never changed.”
Gita, the Eternal Mother, advises to do two things: First, to master the skill of action (Ch. 2, v. 50: yogah karmasukaushalam), and second, like a sthitaprajna, to remain balanced or equipoised in success or failure (Ch. 2, v. 48: samatvam yoga ucchyate);
“Equilibrium is Yoga.” As Gandhi put it, “do your work as duty par excellence, but renounce the desire for the fruit of action…this desirelessness is the sun around which devotion, knowledge and the rest revolve like planets.” (Ibid., 6)
A major characteristic of Gandhi—read/ reflect/ experiment/ emulate: Call it his magnificent obsession, but whatever Gandhi read, whether in childhood or later as an adult, he had to dive deep in order to understand, analyze, compare, and experiment with the ideas or ideals in a book; only when convinced about their truth, he would start living by those ideals. His criteria were: is what is said here true? Is it practicable? Can I do it? Can anyone do it? He applied these measures to the books he admired the most, such as Tolstoy’s “The Kingdom of Heaven is Within You” (which inspired him to found the Tolstoy Ashram in South Africa); Ruskin’s Unto This Last (which led him to found the Phoenix Ashram, also in South Africa), and the Bhagavad Gita. It was the Gita, however, that won him over completely; he made its precepts a part and parcel of his life. Not only that, but based on its constant, relentless practice for 38 years, he undertook the task of translating it into Gujarati as “Anasaktiyoga.”
“Anasaktiyoga”: (ana: no; asakti: attachment)
Despite having little time (at the height of the Indian independence movement during the 1920s-30s), and without adequate knowledge of Sanskrit, Gandhi undertook the “Bhagirath karya” (an Indian phrase similar to the Greek “Herculean task”) of translating the Gita into Gujarati. Why did he do it and for whom? He explains it in the Preface of his book:
My thirty-eight years of practice are behind this effort of translating the Gita, and I wish therefore that all those who want to put religious ideas into their day-to-day life, should read, reflect over, and find strength from this translation. (Anasaktiyoga, 1984, 9)
If we recall, ever since he was first acquainted with the Gita in London, he was further motivated to not only study it in depth, but also try to test its precepts and then put them in practice. Being constantly in and out of jail, Gandhi had no luxury of free time outside of jail, so he made the best use of his time in jail and began translating the Gita into Gujarati during the decade of 1920-29. He finished it on 6-24-1929, and the little book titled Anasaktiyoga got published, not on any ordinary day, but on 3-12-1930 —which was the historically most significant first day of his “Dandi-kootch” or “Salt March to the Sea!” On this auspicious day, the sixty-one-year-old Mahatma, staff in hand and barefoot, led seventy-eight satyagrahis on a march from his Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad, India, to the Arabian sea-coast at Dandi, near Surat in south Gujarat state.
The central teaching of the Gita according to Gandhi: “Anasakti” or non-attachment to the fruits of one’s actions is the principal message of the Gita. The idea of karma-falatyaga (karma: action; fala: fruit, and tyaga: renouncement) is also conveyed by another Sanskrit term: nish-kama karma (nish: non; kama: desire, and karma: action). This principle of renunciation of the desire for the fruits of action recurs like a refrain throughout the Gita; it is particularly emphasized in Sankhya Yoga (Ch. 2, v. 47): “karmanye vadhikaraste ma phaleshu kadachana: your business is with the action only, never with its fruits;” in Karma Yoga (Ch. 3, v. 19): “tasmat asaktaha satatam karyam karma samachar: therefore, perform action constantly without attachment”; in the Jnanavibhaga Yoga (Ch. 4, v. 20): “tyaktva karmaphalasangam: abandon attachment to the fruit of action”; and in the Bhakti Yoga (Ch. 12, v. 11): “sarvakarma-phala-tyagam tatah kuru yatatmavan: renounce therefore all fruit of action with self control.”
What renunciation of the fruit of action does not mean
“In no way it means indifference to result,” clarifies Gandhi and explains, “Renunciation means absence of hankering after fruit, because attachment, worry, haste affect our nervous system and upset the balance of our mind” (Anasaktiyoga, 7). It is not unnatural to feel happy about the good outcome of one’s hard work, but it is wasteful, both spiritually and psychologically, to invest all one’s emotions and energy in fretting over the results instead of focusing on perfecting the work.
Gandhi’s interpretation of the Mahabharata War
To Gandhi, the war of the Mahabharata was not about the physical warfare between the Kauravas and Pandavas; it was rather a depiction of a constant, ongoing battle within the human heart, In this light, he read the
Gita as an allegorical-ethical warfare between dharma and adharma or the forces of righteousness versus non-righteousness. He also argued that the Mahabharata was fought “not to show the necessity or inevitability of war, but to demonstrate the futility of war and violence.” This becomes evident in the final chapter of “Shanti parva,” where, “at the end, the victor is shown lamenting, and repenting, not only the outcome, but the very idea of causing so much pain, such gigantic devastation and violence” (ibid., 8).
Sthitaprajna : Gandhi’s spiritual ideal
In Gandhi’s judgment, the second chapter of the Gita, especially its second half which describes the characteristics of a sthitaprajna (sthita: steady or established, and prajna: wisdom), contained the gist of the entire sacred text. Arjuna inquires of Shri Krishna: “Tell me, please, who is a ‘sthitaprajna?’ And what are the marks of such a person who is stable in wisdom, who is well-harmonized and steadfast in his devotion, reason and contemplation? How does such a person walk, talk, sit, and act?” In answering Arjuna’s questions, the qualities that Krishna delineates in verses 55-72 of this chapter, seem to reverberate through all other chapters of the Gita, only more strikingly so in Bhakti yoga (Ch. 12, vs. 4-20). The key qualities of a sthitaprajna include: abandonment of all worldly desires and attachments to sense-objects and pleasures, to attractions as well as repulsions: to lust, anger, greed, envy, fear and such other things that destroy reason. The often quoted verses 62 and 63 of chapter two contain both the psychological truth and spiritual wisdom: “Man, musing on the objects of senses, conceives attachment to these; from attachment arises desire, and from (frustrated) desire arises anger (v. 62); anger leads to confusion and confusion to the lapse of memory; from the loss of memory one’s reason is destroyed, and once reason is destroyed, one perishes (v. 63). Besides cultivating non-attachment to sense-objects and desirelessness for them, a person must also be equipoised in pleasure and pain, happiness and misery (v. 55 –vitaragabhayakrodhah); such a person remains unaffected by honor or dishonor, praise or blame, success or failure (v. 38: sukhe dukhe same krutva labha labhau jayajayou). A sthitaprajna must be in control of his mind and senses; should be free from ego, treat everyone equally, and not differentiate between a piece of gold and one of iron.
A sthitaprajna and a bhakta: brothers in spiritual wisdom:
In Bhakti Yoga (Ch. 12), Shri Krishna confides to Arjuna that though he accepts all who come to Him through various paths of jnana, karma, contemplation and yoga, He is particularly fond of a bhakta who surrenders his all to the Lord–his ego, his attachments, his vasanas or desires, and who is above the pairs of opposites and the three gunas. The qualities of a true bhakta described in Chapter Twelve very much resemble those of a sthitaprajna in Chapter Two. Mahatma Gandhi, in the twentieth century, was a shining example of someone who, despite being actively engaged in the world, was a true bhakta at heart; his favorite hymn “Vaishnava jana to tene re kahiye” by the Gujarati saint-poet Narsinh Mehta, perfectly describes below the qualities of a true bhakta (Vaishnava jana) as well as a sthitaprajna :
He is the true Vaishnava who knows and feels another’s woes as his own. Ever ready to serve, he never boasts. He bows to everyone and despises no one, keeping his thought, word and deed pure. Blessed is the mother of such a one. He looks upon all with an equal eye. He has rid himself of lust, and reveres every woman as his mother. His tongue would fail him if he attempted to utter an untruth. He covets not another’s wealth. The bonds of earthly attachment hold him not. His mind is deeply rooted in renunciation. Every moment he is intent on reciting the name of God. All the holy places are ever present in his body. He has conquered greed, hypocrisy, passion and anger.A sight of such a Vaishnava, says Narasinha, saves a family through seventy-one generations. (ref. 1, Ch. 2 in Majmudar, 244)
Gandhi puts the Gita lessons into practice:
To test truth on the anvil of life is the chief characteristic of Gandhi, as we observed before. Testing the truth of anything means living by its precepts in real life, and actualizing the ideals on the human, material plane of day-to-day living. With the same idea of emulating the truth, Gandhi began to translate the Gita not only literally, but even practically. Since he firmly believed in “being the change you want to see in the world,” he himself put into practice the Gita’s ideals of the yamas and niyamas such as truth, ahimsa (nonviolence, brahmacharya (celibacy), non-possession, and others.
Eleven principles to be observed by his ashram-residents:
Satya (truth), ahimsa (nonviolence), asteya (non-stealing), aparigraha (non-covetousness), brahmacharya (abstinence), aswada (palate control), parishrama (physical labor), swadeshi (using homegrown or local products), asprushyatanivaran (removal of untouchability), abhaya (fearlessness), and sarva-dharma-samanata (equal respect for all religions as well as people).
Gandhi: perfect non-attachment not possible without perfect observance of ahimsa:
This was Gandhi’s ingenious interpretation based on his personal experimentation and experience. Gandhi said, “After 40 years of 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 satya and ahimsa in every shape and form” (Gita My Mother, 11). Why did he say that “genuine detachment is possible only through complete truth and nonviolence?” In order to understand his bold statement, we need to follow his line of reasoning: It is the desire for the fruit of action that causes a person to get attached to whatever he/she is desiring; and attachment leads to all kinds of erratic or indiscreet behaviors such as lying, cheating, stealing, killing and so on. The underlying cause behind almost all acts of indiscretion, untruth and violence is the lack of control over one’s mind, senses and desires. This lack of self-control leads one to form a strong, irrational attachment to the desired fruit of action (Ch. 2, vs. 62-63). Hence, Gandhi claimed that although the Gita does not directly preach or endorse ahimsa, the idea of nonviolence is implicit in its major theme of anasakti or non-attachment.
The Secret of Gandhi’s serenity of mind
Gandhi was known for his extraordinary serenity of mind and for performing all his day-to-day work with calmness and detachment. Such serenity, however, did not come easily to him; it was the result of continued, relentless effort, unflinching faith, and daily spiritual practices. As Louis Fischer observed, “the Mahatma-calm was the product of training.” (1950, 61)
Following in the footsteps of his Eternal Mother
Introduced to the Gita at an unsettled age of eighteen, Gandhi read, reread and reflected over each chapter and passage, each verse and its meaning. He studied and compared its precepts with those of the Bible’s Sermon on the Mount and with other religious hymns and songs he grew up with. In his characteristic Gandhian style, he was not satisfied to just read but to understand, to not only understand but to experiment with its truth, and then rigorously practice it. Thus, he memorized the key shlokas of the Gita, perused over them and prayed, but most importantly, he followed in the footsteps of this holy book of wisdom that he esteemed as his Eternal Mother.
M. K. Gandhi, Gandhi’s Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth. Translated from Gujarati by Mahadev Desai. 1948, Washington, D. C.: Public Affairs Press.
Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood, translation with Introduction by Aldous Huxley: Bhagavad Gita: The Song of God. 1987, Hollywood, CA: The Vedanta Press.
M. K. Gandhi, Gita the Mother, edited by Jag Parvesh Chander. 1945, Karachi-Lahore: Indian Printing Works.
Annie Besant, The Bhagavad Gita. 1914, Adyar, Madras: Vasanta Press, The Theosophical Society.
M. K. Gandhi, Anasaktiyoga: Translation in Gujarati of the Bhagavad Gita. 1984, Ahmedabad, India: Navajivan Prakashan Mandir.
Uma Majmudar. Gandhi’s Pilgrimage of Faith: From Darkness to Light with a Foreword by Rajmohan Gandhi. 2005, Albany: State University of New York Press.
UMA MAJMUDAR, a member of the Vedanta Center of Atlanta, is the author of Gandhi’s Pilgrimage of Faith: From Darkness to Light. A former teacher of courses in religion and philosophy at Emory University and Spellman College, she is currently researching on a subject related to Gandhi.