The National Scripture of Hinduism: Bhagavad Gita in Modern Indian Politics

Sunday, January 6, 2019: 9:00 AM
Spire Parlor (Palmer House Hilton)
Richard Davis, Bard College
Since its first translation into English in 1785, the Sanskrit Bhagavad Gita has been portrayed throughout the world as an exemplary Hindu philosophical poem. In India also, throughout the twentieth century, prominent Indians promoted the Gita as a worthy bible for Hinduism, that might match the scriptural authority of the Christian Bible, the Muslim Qur’an, and the Sikh Granth Sahib. In the struggle against British colonial control, leaders like B. G. Tilak and Mahatma Gandhi presented the Gita as a guide for the Independence movement and for citizens of the future Indian nation. After independence in 1947, Indian industrialists like the Birla family celebrated the work by constructing Gita Temples. Extensive publication and wide translation of the work into all modern Indian languages in India kept pace with its growing prominence.

With the 2014 rise to national political power in India of the Bharatiya Janata Party, with its Hindu nationalist orientation, the Bhagavad Gita has been called upon to serve new public roles. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has presented special copies of the Gita as diplomatic gifts to his counterparts in China, Japan, and the United States during his international travels. External Affairs Monister Sushma Swaraj has asserted that the Gita should be declared the “national scripture” of India. These interjections of the Gita into the political affairs of a secular republic provoked public debate over the identity and proper audience of this ancient Sanskrit poem. Is it primarily a Hindu scripture, an Indian work, or a wisdom text of worldwide significance?

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