THE GITA FOR EVERY MAN
Prof. G. N. SARMA
D.V.G.’s * exposition of the Bhagavad Gita is unique in the vast literature on the “Song Celestial”. It is the record of talks before an audience seeking guidance in the real concerns of living. It is not a deliberate work of philosophical discussion or dry, intellectual analysis. Even where philosophical problems are taken up, academic interest is subordinated to practical concern. Material for explanation and illustration is taken up from everyday life. It is an easy, informal and clear stream of discourse without the ponderousness of a formal composition. As the author describes it, it is the conversation of a “common man” with other common men. “Intricate, distant and sacred questions of Religion, Reality, Dharma and Divinity are not for me,” says the author, .... such has been my belief from the outset. It was not my good fortune to have had transcendental experiences, concentration on religious austerities, or the philosophical knowledge to qualify me for the exposition of abstruse problems.”
D.V.G’s outlook is rationalistic without being opposed to revelation and tradition. He seeks to combine and synthesise the spirit of modern science and rationalism with that of revelation and tradition emphasised by orthodox commentators. He accepts the validity of suprarational or revealed truths from genuinely inspired and authentic sources but stresses on the need for caution because this is the most fertile field for deception and fraud by varieties of god men and religious impostors.
Revealed truths fall outside the range of the senses and the reason but they cannot be rejected on that ground. They are the basis of belief and faith without which life can have no stable ground. This is vedasastra sraddha or faith in revelation. Reason comes into play in the daily affairs and concerns of life, in the regulation of life and conduct and in its proper direction and enrichment - sadgati. The synthesis of faith and reason can alone provide the answer to the bewilderment and doubt of the individual and the society in our time. This aspect of D.V.G’s work provides the key to his social philosophy of enlightened conservatism.
From another point of view, too, the commentary is unique. It is the personal life and experience of the author which forms its background. It was his life of stoical resolution and uncomplaining acceptance, one must say, defiance, of privation and hardship, the loss of the ones dearest to him, his experience as a journalist and, not the least, his attraction towards the ideals of G.K. Gokhale and his own labour for the Gokhale Institute in Bangalore which led him to reflect on the nature of public life and the place of values in the life of the individual and the community.
The Gita has been approached from various philosophical points of view but D.V.G. found that this sacred text can be a sure guide in secular and worldly affairs too. Arjuna’s problem was a real problem in the like of which anyone of us may get involved any time. The Lord’s advice is practical, though it is propped up by philosophical argument. The Gita is therefore Moksha Sastra as well as Dharma Sastra, a guide to self-realisation and release and a manual of ethics. It is the first aspect of the Gita which has so far received emphasis but the second needs all emphasis today. It would be only one in a thousand visitors to the temple, says the author, who can reach its golden spire; the rest may go round, have a view of the deity and derive satisfaction and solace. So is it with the Gita. One in a thousand may attain the supreme goal through the Moksha Marga of the Gita, but the rest are not consigned to the darkness. It is meant for all. Not for the scholars alone but for the large mass of laymen; not alone for the well-to-do, but also for those struggling against the asperities and vicissitudes of life; for men as well as women.
Everyone can derive light and instruction from this scripture for the refinement and elevation of life. A sacred regard for life, enthusiasm in the performance of duty, courage in times of adversity, conviction and tranquility in moments of doubt - all this can be gained by us from the Gita. Dharma is near to us, well laid down and easily comprehensible; Moksha is a far off goal. In the last chapter of the Gita the Lord has exhorted us to follow Karma Yoga or the spiritual discipline of action and duty. To those of us who are engaged in active life, its challenges and frustrations, these are words of encouragement and strength. The due discharge of one’s duty in the spirit of the Gita will, in the end and the fullness of time bring Moksha or realisation and release. Not all our anxiety and eagerness can hasten its arrival; it may, on the other hand, divert us from our obligations to ourselves and to the community.
Sankara, Ramanuja and Madhva - all emphasising the Nivritti Marga, showed less concern for the secular side of life. They were more concerned with establishing their own philosophical positions. The Gita became in their hands a partisan tract and focus of interminable sectarian debate. To D.V.G. the real question is, what is the Gita’s message to life and not which school of philosophy it upholds. To the bigots of philosophical schools he would put the question, what is the nature of your spiritual realisation? Have you realised the divine in his oneness, qualified oneness or in his duality? Each realisation would be valid within its range and intellectual warfare between these positions would be futile and inconclusive.
To D.V.G. the problem of problems today is confusion and perplexity about one’s duty to self and society. The Gita has answered this question for Arjuna in a particular historical and intensely personal situation. But it is a perpetually recurring situation and the Gita’s answer has a perpetual relevance and validity. The problem of war and pacifism, good and evil, violence and non-violence, our duty with reference to caste and family, our tradition, Dharma and society in the context of the impact of the West and, not the least, our attitude to public affairs - these are some aspects of our present predicament. The present commentary is outstanding because it takes up all these questions and reaffirms the Gita’s wisdom by answering them in its light.
In our country the social system of caste has prescribed the obligations of individuals in accordance with their inborn characteristics. D.V.G. refers in this connection not only to Manu but to Plato’s Republic and to F.H. Bradley’s My station and its duties in order to emphasise that the individual and his freedom are not abstractions but are inseparable from the social structure. This is the embodiment of Dharma or the ethical order of rights and duties and of the ideas of the good with reference to the community and the individual. In its specific aspects Dharma is indicated for each individual by the caste to which he belongs. But Dharma has a universal scope, too, which transcends caste and applies to all individuals equally.
D.V.G’s exposition of the concept of duty is not just academic and theoretical. It covers the entire range of duties that are woven into the social structure. Duty is an imperative of conscience, a moral obligation expressed concretely in terms of numerous duties which we have to render for the promotion of the social good. The practical side of Dharma defined the duties of each individual according to his inborn virtue -- sattva, rajas and tamas -- reason, spirit and appetite, in the language of Plato. Individuals were classified according to these characteristics and formed the caste divisions of society. Our ancient classification did recognise that none of these virtues could be found in their total purity and wholeness in any individual or class. They were mixed up variously but, nevertheless, what stood forth above the rest was taken into consideration.
Much as the caste system has been criticised, the author reminds us that it was essentially rational, an ideal construct based on the diversity of individual talent and the need to order diversity in the interests of the general good. This is its essential rationale, not inflexible stratification, heredity or class exploitation. It is true that today caste distinctions have become blurred owing to intermarriage and, what is more, that occupations do not correspond to caste. In our present overgrown and competitive society occupations have to be taken up not according to ancient prescription but on considerations of remuneration. Most often jobs are not a matter of choice - one has to accept what the employment market offers. Thus the caste system, even if it ever existed in its ideal form, is now diluted, modified and changed beyond recognition though it has not become extinct. It cannot, however, be denied that variety of talent and specialisation of skills is an ineradicable feature of society. What is necessary today is to revive the spirit of duty that is the core of our heritage of Dharma.
In present day conditions it would be impractical to think of reviving the institution of the joint family in its old form. The pressure of occupation and employment, the search for better opportunities and prospects outside one’s place of birth in any corner of the country and even abroad, make this impossible. But even if distance separates one’s kin, the natural ties of affection and concern need not weaken or break. The joint family too must change in response to the demands of time but the values for which it has stood have not lost their relevance in the present context. Their reemphasis can, in fact, be a remedy for the disharmony of several homes and families.
The most important function of the family is to preserve and carry forward its exclusive virtue, the Kula Dharma. Those who are still loyal to traditional values must bear this in mind and co-operate in the discharge of this function. The question of the relation between the sexes is naturally linked with the institution of the family and its Dharma. Here, too, the progress of time and the change in the complexion of society have produced irreversible consequences. In these days of high and mounting cost of living, women are compelled to seek employment in order to augment the family income. Some may be driven to work on account of dire need. The increasing urge towards equality also drives them to compete with men in all spheres of life. The desire to have a purse of their own and “to stand on their own feet” is another motive for this competition. The traditional family is shaken by these developments but the work of time cannot be annulled. No one would suggest that the age old drudgery of women should be perpetuated. Their creative energies must be liberated and allowed the fullest scope for expression. This would be for the good of man as well as woman.
According to our tradition and Sastra husband and wife are one, inseparable and indivisible. Treating them as separate would lead to the disruption of the family. Our enthusiasm for equality must be balanced by the need for harmony and unity. How this can be done is the question before the newly-civilised younger generation of men and women. If women must work, under pressure of necessity, they must, like men and even more so, seek such employment as would be not only remunerative but also conducive to purity of life and inner satisfaction. The trouble with us today is that Karma is severed from Yoga and religion from life. As a result we find that work ethic is insufficient, if not totally lacking. There is insincerity in religion and most often it is a mask for the lack of conscience in the discharge of our duties. Competition, struggle for existence, the spread of utilitarianism and the ceaseless search for power and wealth may explain the low moral standards of personal and communal life but can hardly serve as a justification. With scathing irony and apt illustration the author asserts that it is far better to have an atheist as a public servant if he has a conscience, than a religious exhibitionist who has none. The tone of our public life can be raised only when the discharge of one’s legitimate duty becomes a part of religion. “We must endeavour to bring about a correlationship and complementarity between the spiritual and secular. Let there be whatever changes in our style of living or in the conditions of society. The recognition of the soul and conscience, the acknowledgement of the supremacy of Divine, faith and devotion to Dharma, and the limitation of selfishness and greed - if these four are kept alive, we can boldly assert that the teaching of the Gita will remain alive.
Selfless public work, it is true, has few rewards and is full of trials and risks. It is a test of moral strength and equanimity. Its only reward may be the satisfaction of having done your duty to the best of your conscience. The true public servant is one who is endowed with firm wisdom and looks upon praise and blame with equal eye. D.V.G. in this context refers to the twelfth chapter of the Gita, Slokas 13-20 as the very cream and nectar, the amritakalasa of the divine discourse, dearest to V.S. Srinivasa Sastry as the Sthitaprajna Slokas (Gita II, 5460) were to Gandhi. He says, “when the mind was disgusted with the ways of the world, when obstructions were feared in the path of duty, when people became excited and lost their reason, when friends lost their spirit and suffered inner disquiet on any account, Sastry used to recollect these Slokas. Tulya nindastuti – equal and unmoved by praise or insult - is an injunction which ought to guide our public men, as he reminded us constantly. He himself followed this rule to the very letter.”
Our confusion and puzzlement in regard to our duties is also due to the historical situation in which we are now placed. This is the working of Time - apaurusheya or the non-human factor, and has to be accepted without complaint. India’s contact with the West was inevitable. D.V.G holds the belief of the Liberals that it is a part of the design of Providence. This has shaken up our traditional beliefs and institutions and has turned us into sceptics, scoffers and atheists. But the old is not dead though badly damaged and the new has yet to take concrete shape. The right course for us would be to accept from the West whatever is conducive to our progress while preserving the foundations and essentials of our heritage and our Dharma. We should not cling to all that is old just because it is old or run after everything that is new just because it is new. The good must be accepted whether it is old or new, whether it is foreign or native to our soil. We have to be careful that what we draw from other sources is not alien to our spirit but is helpful to its renewal and fresh expression. Such is the law of organic growth of societies and cultures. D.V.G.’s view of history and culture is at once conservative, liberal, progressive and humanistic.
The teaching of the Gita is universal as well as final. But it has to be lived and experienced again and again in order that its message may not lose any of its original force. Dharma has to be energetically maintained against Adharma. The Mahabharata war was certainly not the end of the battle between good and evil or the conclusion of the world’s story. Who won and who lost in the fight, no one can decide for certain. The conflict between opposites is inherent in the life of the individual, the nation and indeed in the universe itself. This calls for constant self-examination, rededication to Dharma, enhancement of Satvic nature without diminution of life energy and the seeking after divine grace. The conflict between the elements of human nature or the three Gunas and the instability of their mutual relationship in the life of the individual and society exposes Dharma to constant peril. Man’s dedication to the cause of Dharma and its experience and realisation in practice is the only meaning and justification of life.
* D. V. Gundappa, the celebrated Kannada litterateur popularly known as D.V.G. (1887 - 1975). Jeevana Dharma Yoga. in Kannada. D.V.G. Kritishreni. Complete Works of D.V Gundappa. VOL II (1990), Directorate of Kannada and Culture. Government of Karnataka.