Columns | Indian Accents
Reimagining the Gita
The limits of reading it as an independent text
23 Oct, 2020
WHAT IS A ‘GITA’? I have been writing about Gitas in the Mahabharata. But whether it is Gitas in the Mahabharata or in other texts, that question can’t be answered satisfactorily. ‘Gita’ simply means something that was sung. It may certainly be the case that the Bhagavat Gita was the first such Gita. It is certainly the case that the Bhagavat Gita is the most important of these Gitas. Nevertheless, one should be aware that there are other such Gitas. There is a website that has Sanskrit documents. It has a listing of such other Gitas and their texts. That lists 55 Gita texts. There are a couple more on the Gita supersite maintained by IIT Kanpur. That means, the Gita corpus has around 60 texts. One might argue that, to be called a Gita, a text has to be explicitly described as a ‘Gita’. There is a problem with this argument. Those descriptions will typically be in the chapter heading, or in the colophon added at the end of a chapter or text. But the vintage of these chapter headings and colophons is later. There is no means of knowing whether they were part of the original text.
Let me stick to the Mahabharata and let me stick to the Critical Edition of the Mahabharata, published by the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute (BORI) in Pune. From 1916 to 1966, the BORI sifted through more than 1,200 versions of the Sanskrit Mahabharata and produced what is inferred to be the closest to the original text. This text is known as BORI’s Critical Edition. Nothing can be established with certainty and hence there is subjectivity in inferring. Some critiques have criticised BORI, both on grounds of omission and commission, though more the former. Today, the Mahabharata text is divided into 18 parvas. They are not even in size and their names are 1) ‘Adi Parva’ 2) ‘Sabha Parva’ 3) ‘Aranyaka (Vana) Parva’ 4) ‘Virata Parva’ 5) ‘Udyoga Parva’ 6) ‘Bhishma Parva’ 7) ‘Drona Parva’ 8) ‘Karna Parva’ 9) ‘Shalya Parva’ 10) ‘Souptika Parva’ 11) ‘Stri Parva’ 12) ‘Shanti Parva’ 13) ‘Anushasana Parva’ 14) ‘Ashvamedhika Parva’ 15) ‘Ashramavasika Parva’ 16) ‘Mousala Parva’ 17) ‘Mahaprasthanika Parva’ and 18) ‘Svargarohana Parva’. Most people are familiar with these names. The Mahabharata was composed over a period of time. There was an earlier segment. Let’s call it Mahabharata (O); ‘O’ standing for ‘original’. There was a final text. Let’s call it Mahabharata (F), ‘F’ standing for ‘final’. These things are difficult to date with any precision. Therefore, Mahabharata (O) probably dates to 500 BCE, while Mahabharata (F) probably dates to 500 CE. This is a range of 1,000 years. Most scholars will agree on this range. At best, some will say 400 BCE for Mahabharata (O) and 400 CE for Mahabharata (F).
There have been attempts to identify later layers and distinguish them from older layers, such as through examining the evolution of the Sanskrit language. But all such attempts are inherently subjective. A quote from 10.35 of Bhagavat Gita is relevant. In this section, Krishna is telling Arjuna how he is the most important among various categories. For example, among all shining bodies, he is the sun. Among all the gods, he is Indra. Among all the mountains, he is Meru. Among all animals, he is the lion. Among all rivers, he is Ganga, and so on. That bit of 10.35 states: ‘Among months, I am Margashirsha.’ Margashirsha is also known as Agrahayana, roughly from around November 21st to December 20th. Calendars differ across the country, but most people will agree the calendar begins with the month of Chaitra, roughly from March 21st to April 20th. Why would Krishna imply that Margashirsha was the most important among all the months? That can only be because the calendar then started with the month of Margashirsha. One should note that the word ‘Agrahayana’ literally means the first month of the year. Therefore, when this bit of the Bhagavat Gita was composed, Margashirsha (named after the nakshatra Mrigashira) was the first month of the year and the year started with the full moon in the month of Margashirsha. Many important festivals are still concentrated in Margashirsha. There are reasons why it is difficult to use astronomical data to date events, such as the date of the Kurukshetra War. Astronomical calculations moved from nakshatras to rashis (signs of the zodiac), from lunar months to solar months. Lunar months sometimes started with purnima (the day of the full moon), sometimes with amavasya (the day of the new moon). Therefore, one has to make assumptions, which in the last resort, are subjective. Subject to this, a respected astronomer named VB Ketkar (Indian and Foreign Chronology, 1921) gives us an answer to the question of when Margashirsha was the first month of the year. His answer gives us a range between 699 BCE and 452 BCE. This part of the Bhagavat Gita is therefore as old as Mahabharata (O).
If Gita is defined as a text where Krishna himself speaks to Arjuna, other than the Bhagavat Gita, one will only have Anu Gita. But if it is defined as any text that talks about the four human objectives (purusharthas) of dharma, artha, kama and moksha, there are several other texts
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Sanskrit grammar evolved over a period and, after Panini, came to assume a certain structure, especially in what is called classical Sanskrit. We haven’t been able to date Panini satisfactorily. Sixth century BCE, fifth century BCE or fourth century BCE are reasonable guesses. Linguistic evidence from parts of the Bhagavat Gita show that these sections were written before classical Sanskrit became the norm. Therefore, fifth century BCE, fourth century BCE, third century BCE—something like that. These parts of the Bhagavat Gita, therefore, pre-date Mahabharata (F) and belong to more or less the same period as Mahabharata (O). Couldn’t there have been a Bhagavat Gita (O) and a Bhagavat Gita (F), with these earlier sections belonging to Bhagavat Gita (O)? Couldn’t there have been multiple authors of the Bhagavat Gita? This is an old issue, discussed threadbare, but never seems to go away. The dead horse keeps kicking every once in a while. In these columns, I have mentioned Yardi’s work, who tested for multiple authorship of both the Bhagavat Gita and the Mahabharata. So as not to maintain the suspense, there was a single author for the Bhagavat Gita and five authors for the Mahabharata. Naturally, this is probabilistic, not deterministic. Nothing can be confidently asserted with certainty. But that’s the way science works. There was a Mahabharata (O) and a Mahabharata (F). But there is no Bhagavat Gita (O) or Bhagavat Gita (F). The Bhagavat Gita is an integrated whole. MR Yardi did his analysis when artificial intelligence (AI) couldn’t be used for such work. AI has now been used to vivisect William Shakespeare’s works, such as Henry VIII. Who knows, in the future, AI may also be used to refine the Yardi kind of work.
Therefore, a single author composed the Bhagavat Gita around fifth century BCE. Couldn’t the Bhagavat Gita have been authored as an independent text that was spliced into Mahabharata (F) later? I suspect many people who read the Bhagavat Gita don’t read the Bhagavat Gita sub-parva. Most people are familiar with the 18-parva classification of the Mahabharata, listed earlier. What may not be known is that there is also a parallel 100-parva classification of the Mahabharata, which probably pre-dated the 18-parva classification. Remnants of that remain in the sub-parvas that are part of the 18 main parvas. For example, the Bhagavat Gita occurs in ‘Bhishma Parva’, when Bhishma was the commander of the Kaurva army. Within ‘Bhishma Parva’, there is a Bhagavat Gita sub-parva. This has 994 slokas and 27 chapters. Those who know about the Bhagavat Gita will be surprised. Isn’t the Bhagavat Gita supposed to have 700 slokas and 18 chapters? Indeed, the Bhagavat Gita does have 700 slokas and 18 chapters, but the sub-parva named after the Bhagavat Gita has a little bit more than what we know as the Bhagavat Gita text. In the 100-parva classification of the BORI edition, this Bhagavat Gita sub-parva is numbered 63. The first nine chapters are about preparations and preliminaries. The 10th chapter then starts with the famous words: ‘Dhritarashtra asked, ‘O Sanjaya! Having gathered on the holy plains of Kurukshetra, wanting to fight, what did my sons and the sons of Pandu do?’ The first nine chapters lead to the 10th chapter, which is the first chapter of the Bhagavat Gita. There is no break in continuity between the ninth and 10th chapters. The Bhagavat Gita is part of Mahabharata (F). Lest we forget, slokas from the Bhagavat Gita are also found elsewhere in the Mahabharata, sometimes with minor variations. Those who seriously suggest that the Bhagavat Gita is an independent text, interpolated into the Mahabharata later, have probably not read the Mahabharata.
If they do, they will discover these other Gitas in the Mahabharata. We come back of course to the definition of ‘Gita’. If Gita is defined as a text where Krishna himself speaks to Arjuna, other than the Bhagavat Gita, one will only have Anu Gita. But if Gita is defined as any text that talks about the four human objectives (purusharthas) of dharma, artha, kama and moksha, there are several other texts. Of course, the entire Mahabharata is also about these objectives.
About The Author
Bibek Debroy has translated the Mahabharata and the Valmiki Ramayana into English. He is the Chairman of the Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister
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