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Rhetoric of Spiritualist Nationalism

Nikhil Govind

By Sanjay Palshikar
Routledge, New Delhi and Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, 2014, pp. 182, Rs. 645.00


Sanjay Palshikar’s Evil and the Philosophy of Retribution: Modern Commentaries on the Bhagavad Gita is a bold, imaginative effort in disinhibiting worldly, political notions of evil from speaking to a language of evil and retribution that often invoke and inhabit a more metaphysical register. Palshikar notes the important fact that even today, a lot of political rhetoric cites a demonology of the opponent (the agonist, or the Other), and that such rhetoric cannot be explained away as the lack of political literacy in India, or the persistence of a traditional notion of religion. Rather, they are to be understood as the urgent and influential call to a specific kind of moral war (with an inner dimension such as anger, and an outer dimension such as actual hostile beings), or in other words, a call to a certain perseverant order of ethics.   Palshikar grounds this world of ethics using key modern commentaries on the Gita. The chapters in this book chiefly engage Aurobindo Ghose, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, and Mohandas Gandhi, all of whose commentaries on the Gita remain the most famous. Palshikar asks the important question of how (beyond merely stating in declarative fashion the putative evolution/transformation of a spiritual pre-modern world to an ostensibly secular modern one), one may rather ask of the nature of interpretive operations that are required to create, and validate, this evolution/transformation. The ‘return of the Gita’ in the modern polity as a mode of accessing this shift is indicative that the modern-political never quite infallibly or unequivocally transcends a so-called ‘historically ancient’ text. The use of evil and retribution as a concept-category renders the book thematically and methodologically fertile, avoiding some of the pitfalls of historicism whereby any invocation of an older text is intrinsically read as instrumental in a restrictive political sense. Rather Palshikar demonstrates the creativity (as well as limitations) of canonical reinterpretations of the Gita, without simply judging them to be anachronistic, or foredoomed—he engages, as scholars must, with the urgency of the moral ideas themselves, without the prejudice of a historicist straitjacketing.   Thus, when one names an enemy an asura, or mleccha, or yavana, or cow-killer, rather than, say, Muhammedan, a lot more may be going on than the reductive explanations of ignorance, or self-censorship. While it may be pernicious to translate yavana as Muhammadan (as histories in the early part of the century, such as S. ...

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