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Decoding the ethics of Srimadbhagvadgita

Purushottam Agrawal

By V.M. Mohanraj
Leftword, New Delhi, 2005, pp. 183, Rs. 350.00

VOLUME XXX NUMBER 1-2 January-February 2006

Srimadbhagvadgita—or Gita in short, has been interpreted in many ways. It is considered one of the three fountainheads of departures of the authentically ‘Vedic’ worldview, the other two being the Brahmasutras and the eleven principal Upanishads. No philosopher can expect his views to be taken as ‘authentic’ extension or evolution of the perennial Vedic wisdom, if he cannot produce a convincing commentary of these three texts—the Prasthan Trayee!   Ever since Shankaracharya wrote his famous commentary on the Prasthan Trayee upholding his philosophical monism, it became an established academic practice in the Vedic philosophical tradition to go back to these three texts in order to ‘read’ them as supportive of one’s own views. To the philosopher, all three are equally important, but the Gita is undoubtedly the first among equals due to the concise and all-encompassing nature of its discourse and more importantly due to the dramatic poignancy of the backdrop in which the discourse takes place. The poetic imagination and devices underlying the philosophical concerns and discourse have made the Gita accessible to the ordinary people besides being challenging for the trained philosopher.   The fascination with the Gita continues in the modern Hindu con-sciousness as well. In fact, it is in the modern times, thanks to the colonial encounter and the orientalist project of constructing Hindu tradition into a pale mirror image of monotheistic religion, that the Gita came to be seen as ‘the book’ of the Hindus—at par with ‘the book’ of the Christians or Muslims! The tradition itself regards the Gita very highly but not as ‘the book’. This must be borne in mind in order to appreciate the difference between the traditional and the modern approaches to the Gita.   V.M. Mohanraj is dissatisfied with “most studies of the Bhagavad-Gita”, as these, “seem to have got enmeshed in the philosophical web that drapes the poem and little attention has been paid to ethics, which the poem elaborately deals with”(p.36). The fact of the matter is every single modern commentary of the Gita engages with the questions of ethics. Mohanraj’s observation is correct with reference to the traditional commentaries, but then the pre-moderns did not have existential anxieties and ethical dilemmas of the same type to deal with. They could afford to take their ethics and epistemology for granted.   Be that as it may, Mohanraj has embarked upon a ‘materialist interpre-tation’ of ...

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