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Book Review: Interpretations of the Bhagavad-gītā and Images of the Hindu Tradition

Merudevī Dāsī

Catherine A. Robinson
Abingdon: Routledge, 2006

The Bhagavad-gītā is one of the more famous and widely read texts of ancient India, often described as the ‘Bible’ of Hinduism. It was first translated into English in 1785. Since then it has attracted much popular interest amongst both Indian and Western audiences. Although it always held an important place in the field of sacred Indian literature, particularly in the Vedānta tradition, its status and popularity expanded considerably among both Westerners and Indians during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The thesis Catherine Robinson explores in Interpretations of the Bhagavad-gītā and Images of the Hindu Tradition is that the modern reification of Hinduism (as a world religion with one scripture) was intertwined with this expanding interest in the Bhagavad-gītā.

Her main argument is that the variety of images that are associated with the Hindu tradition – its being tolerant and inclusive, or militant or pacific, or experiential, mystical, and devotional – were all reflected by the way the Bhagavad-gītā was interpreted. She explores a group of important commentators and their interpretations (in their historical, cultural, and spiritual contexts) and assesses how each conveyed and helped shape a particular image of Hinduism.

The commentators include Western scholars (Wilkins and Hastings, Monier-Williams, Otto, Zaehner, Müller), Christian theologians and missionaries (R. D. Griffith, Farquhar, Bede Griffith), romantics and mystics (Huxley, Thoreau, Besant), Indian social and political activists (Gandhi, Tilak, Aurobindo), Universalists (Vivekananda, Radhakrishnan, Sivananda), and recent teachers (Prabhupāda, Krishna Prem, Chinmoy, and Maharishi).

Robinson has divided her study into six chapters, and each division is handled according to either evident distinctions or more subtle ones. The chapters are well-organised, mapping out each commentator’s particular relationship to Hinduism and the Gītā, and the book offers a clear and highly useful exposition of some modern interpreters.

The introduction traces the historical development of Hinduism as a ‘religion’ with a ‘scripture’. Robinson argues that the process of shaping Hinduism as a single religion, comparable in nature and structure to other religions, was chiefly developed through the encounter with British colonial power and Christianity. Legal policies and the census, Christian missionaries, scholarly criticism – all played a part in streamlining and shaping India’s varied religious landscape into a more unified concept of Hinduism. The Indian elite, responding to all these ideas and measures, were crucial in further reshaping its traditions into a more coherent and ‘purified’ entity.

In addition, she explores a variety of scholarly opinions on Hinduism and religion, thus providing us with a rich and complex picture of the important issues at hand. This leads us into the rise of the Bhagavad-gītā as the central text of Hinduism, its widened distribution beyond the boundaries of India, and how that opened it up to new modes of analysis outside traditional interpretative paradigms.

For readers of this journal, the book’s last chapter, ‘Contemporary Teachers and Movements’, will be of special interest. Here attention is drawn to teachers who recently universalised the Bhagavad-gītā’s appeal. This chapter starts with an exploration of A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupāda, the founder of ISKCON. Prabhupāda stressed the importance of a connection to a proper disciplic succession, linked back to Kṛṣṇa, to understand the Bhagavad-gītā’s real import. His credentials as a commentator derived from the tradition he belonged to, which was linked to both Caitanya and Kṛṣṇa. (Prabhupāda gave much more emphasis to the Bhagavad-gītā than his immediate predecessors in the tradition. Robinson does not mention or discuss this, but the reason must certainly have to do with its rising prominence amongst the Indian intelligentsia of his time and his felt need to provide what he considered a more authentic interpretation than any currently available.)

Prabhupāda placed the Bhagavad-gītā within the Vaiṣṇava discourse as the introduction to the graduate and post-graduate texts of Bhagavata Purāṇa and Caitanya-caritāmṛta, respectively. The author mentions that Prabhupāda stressed the personal nature of the divine over and above its impersonal aspect, and taught that devotion to Kṛṣṇa is the Bhagavad-gītā’s ultimate teaching. In this way he followed the conclusions and teachings of the Gauḍīya-Vaiṣṇava tradition. He preferred referring to Vedic truths and principles, rather than to ‘Hinduism’, which he considered as an external, changeable label. For Prabhupāda, the eternal truth and universal principle beyond any religious categories is that living beings are meant to serve the Supreme Lord. He thus paid no more attention to Hinduism than he did to any other temporal category. The author deals with Prabhupāda in a fair manner, in terms of his own Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava context, which is highly commendable.

If we go back to the larger narrative of the book, nobody will argue against the notion of the Bhagavad-gītā’s rise in prominence during the last two centuries. However, the idea that Hinduism is a modern construction is a more contentious topic, despite the author’s claim of an emerging scholarly consensus. The author argues, through a survey of works by a variety of scholars (notably Robert Frykenberg), that it is impossible ‘to identify one comprehensive “religion” with its origins in the Vedas’. There are certainly problems with defining pre-modern Hinduism (in the absence of another term) as a ‘religion’; however, the problem may lie with the definition of ‘religion’, rather than with traditional Hinduism. Robinson is right, though, that her book can be read as separate from the constructionist argument; its main body explores modern commentators and what they tell us about the modern Hindu tradition.

Still, by equating the reification of Hinduism with the neo-Vedantic movement (considering the Indian commentators she has chosen), she blurs the distinctions between orthodox, or traditional, forms of Hinduism that reacted to modernity (while maintaining their traditionalism) and the neo-Vedantic revivalism that gained much prominence during this modern period. This becomes more apparent in the last chapter, where the neo-Vedantic pattern amongst contemporary teachers is less evident, as the author herself points out.

The link between Vivekananda and neo-Vedānta is mentioned only in passing, which is puzzling, considering that the neo-Vedantic connection is firmly established with Radhakrishnan and influences Aldous Huxley. The omission of Vivekananda’s connection to Indian nationalism is also a surprise, since he is considered one of its main founders.

The book is, setting aside these latter points, a significant contribution to understanding the rise in the role of the Bhagavad-gītā in modern times and how interpreters helped forge images of Hinduism. Robinson handles the various commentators with equanimity and fairness, which is a particularly laudable feature of her exposition. She discusses all the commentators in terms of their own paradigms instead of imposing her own. Robinson has thus created a valuable resource for any scholar interested in modern Hinduism.