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An Intellectual History Project

Nikhil Govind

Edited by Shruti Kapila and Faisal Devji
Cambridge University Press, New Delhi, 2013, pp. 205, Rs. 595.00


The book under review is a very welcome addition to the growing interest in mining older Indian intellectual traditions to understand and account for many of the diverse, and often contradictory, impulses of anti-colonialism and nationalism. The book assembles a notable range of older and younger scholars. The Introduction by the editors makes an indisputable case for the importance of the Gita to Indian intellectuals from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century—the most well-known commentators include Bankim, Aurobindo, Tilak and Gandhi, amongst many others. They also usefully make the case that the ‘indeterminacy’ of the moral content of Krishna is distinct from his more familiarly politicized fellow-god, the ‘high-minded’ Rama. Though they focus on the Krishna of the Gita (glossing over the more historically and socially pervasive Krishna of Mathura), the point of even the Sanskritic Krishna’s distinctness from the heroic Rama (of either the Valmiki, vernacular or performative traditions) is uncontroversial.   The Gita thus played the role of mediating questions of justice and violence from the late nineteenth century onward. The nineteenth century used the Gita in a very different way from the pre-modern textual and hermeneutical traditions. This is a fairly straightforward historical fact, and as said, the attempt by the scholars assembled in this book to give significance to the intellectual effort to reposition canonical texts in a new way is to be welcomed. However, difficult challenges to such a project immediately arise. The editors write that the ‘text (Gita) plays the kind of role in Indian political thinking that Machiavelli’s Prince or Hobbes’s Leviathan do for its European equivalent…’. It is not explained how such a comparison between these traditions can be made beyond the sheer stature of the Gita. While anything can be compared to anything, there has to be, for example, an argument for distinguishing a self-grounded political self- awareness from the realm of the theological(howsoever understood). This self-awareness is in evidence in those two rather casually strung together European texts. Is there such an awareness in the Gita, or even in all the modern commentators? Most of them were certainly happy to allow the Gita to continue to bathe in the moral aura of the religious, and while being critical of many aspects of the religious, rarely rejected the religious as a whole.   From this point on, the Introduction keeps losing its way. Ostentatious and global claims ...

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