Ancient History & Civilisation

Krishna and His Gita in Medieval India


[Krishna said:] “There are many persons who have been freed of all passion, fear, anger, and have become purified through the austerity of knowledge. Filled with me, finding refuge in me, they have come into my being. In whatever way people seek me, in that same way I share in them. For humans, in all their various ways, follow the path to me, Arjuna.”

— Bhagavad Gita 4.10–11

In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna displays his own doubleness. He appears as a human friend and charioteer to Arjuna, and then he describes himself as a god and allows Arjuna to see the full extent of his divinity. Krishna proclaims himself to be the highest goal for devotional aspiration. Those who take refuge fully in him, he says, come to share in his being. In medieval India, Krishna did indeed become the center of a widespread and vigorous devotional cult. Yet it was not his role as Arjuna’s instructor at Kurukshetra or as a princely figure in the Mahabharata that held the greatest attraction for medieval Krishna devotees. Rather, Hindu devotion toward Krishna focused primarily on his early life, when he was growing up in a tribe of rural cowherders, as a charmingly rambunctious infant and seductive flute-playing youth. Stories and poems celebrating this side of Krishna’s biography circulated widely, eclipsing for most devotees the more formidable grown-up teacher of the Gita.

This is not to say that the Bhagavad Gita was forgotten in medieval times, but its audience seems to have been a more circumscribed and erudite one. The Gita circulated as an independent work, detached from the larger Mahabharata narrative. It was influential enough to inspire other gitas, in which other Hindu deities presented their own competing claims to supremacy. Religious philosophers, especially in the orthodox philosophical school known as Vedanta, commented on the Gita, often with sharply differing readings of Krishna’s teachings. The Bhagavad Gita became an interpretive battlefield, a Kurukshetra for medieval theologians. And in Maharashtra, the devotional poet Jnanadeva composed a lengthy new work that translated and expanded on the Sanskrit Gita in the Marathi language.

From Krishna’s own perspective, following the principle of inclusivity that he articulates in the Gita, these may all be seen as the “various ways” that different people in medieval India “followed the path” to God. Krishna appears to humans in many guises, as he suggests in the Gita. If some want to focus their religious efforts on loving Krishna as an adorable baby or alluring youth, this may be as acceptable and effective as seeking to put into practice his more challenging directives as an adult guide in the Gita. For us, tracing the biography of this wide-ranging religious work, they all warrant attention as episodes in the continuing life of the text.1

Krishna’s Early Life and the Culture of Devotion

Characters in the Mahabharata are aware that Krishna, before assuming the throne in Dvaraka, has had an unusual upbringing for a king. In one dramatic scene early in the story, King Shishupala of Chedi loudly berates Krishna in a royal assembly for his humble background. How can a cowherder be honored as a king? It would be like marriage for a eunuch or a visual spectacle for a blind person, he charges. Fierce arguments break out among the rulers. Shishupala continues his diatribe, but when he finally insults Krishna one too many times, Krishna suddenly hurls his razor-sharp discus and neatly beheads the challenger. This quickly silences Shishupala, but not before his challenge raises the question of Krishna’s shady past.2

Evidently there were many interested in this question, for a large new work, the Harivamsha, presented itself as a supplement (khila) to the Mahabharata, to relate the story of Krishna (Hari) and his lineage (vamsha). It was the prequel for the most intriguing character in the epic. Over the succeeding centuries, the life of Krishna would be retold, with variations, in numerous works such as the Vishnu Purana and Brahma Purana. The most influential of these was the Bhagavata Purana, a scripture of perhaps the ninth century, which retells the Krishna biography with a potent combination of theological sophistication and devotional fervor.3 This is one of the seminal works in the Hindu tradition, deserving a biography of its own. The lengthy poem solidified the legendary biography of Krishna and provided a point of departure for myriad further developments in Krishna devotionalism. The Bhagavata Purana, in its telling of the early life of Krishna, illustrates and amplifies many of Krishna’s key points in the Bhagavad Gita, but also pushes some of these teachings in new directions.

Krishna was indeed raised among a tribe of cow-herders, just as Shishupala charges, yet there is a backstory to that too. As the Bhagavata Purana relates, a host of demons have descended to earth. One of them, Kamsa, usurps the throne of Mathura from the rightful ruler, Ugrasena. The gods decide that this overturning of proper order requires divine intervention, and the god Vishnu incarnates himself in Mathura as Krishna, the human son of Devaki and Vasudeva. In the Bhagavata version, Devaki is the daughter of Ugrasena’s brother, so Krishna’s parents are part of the Mathura royal family. Unfortunately, Kamsa learns of the divine plan to remove him from the throne. He places Devaki under house arrest and murders each of her offspring as soon as they are born. Finally, when Devaki delivers the baby Krishna, her husband conceals the newborn, escapes from the palace, crosses the Yamuna River, and switches Krishna with another baby just born to Yashoda and Nanda, members of a nomadic tribe that pastures its cattle in the Vraja region outside Mathura.

Krishna thus grows up among the Vraja pastoralists doubly disguised: as a prince among cowherds and a god among humans. Even as an infant, Krishna periodically exhibits extraordinary powers. Although sometimes they seem like strange random events, most of his actions serve to defend Krishna and his adopted tribe from demons. From Mathura, the demonic Kamsa sends hench demons to get rid of the threat. By fending off these aggressive demonic attacks on the cowherd tribe in Vraja, Krishna gradually becomes the powerful protector of his people. Eventually, as a young man, Krishna returns to Mathura, where he kills Kamsa, releases his own parents from captivity, and returns the kingdom to Ugrasena.

The story of Krishna’s deeds as a demon-killing youth, protecting his tribe and restoring proper rule in Mathura, fits well with Krishna’s explanation of the purpose for his incarnation in the Bhagavad Gita. There has certainly been a “decline in righteousness and an increase in unrighteousness” in and around Mathura, and Krishna therefore takes a human form in order to restore dharma. Nevertheless, the Bhagavata Purana also focuses on another side of his life. The poem describes in loving detail the warm maternal love that foster mother Yashoda feels for baby Krishna, the close loving friendship that his boyhood playmates come to share with Krishna, and the erotically charged passionate love that overwhelms the Gopis (or cowherd women) as Krishna grows into adolescence. Even without recognizing Krishna’s divinity, they come to feel an intense emotional devotion to the human Krishna living in their midst. This gives a new dimension to bhakti.

Drawing on the Gita’s teachings, the Bhagavata Purana forcefully reiterates the superiority of bhakti over other forms of religious practice. By placing Krishna in a tribe of cowherders, a marginal community clearly inferior in the social hierarchy to the Brahmins and Kshatriyas who populate the Mahabharata, the Bhagavata dramatically portrays the social inclusiveness of bhakti. Going a step further, the Bhagavata grants the greatest devotional roles to females—namely, Yashoda and the Gopis—and thereby gives emphatic support to Krishna’s statement in the Gita that bhakti is a path available to all.

The style of bhakti that Krishna advocates in the Bhagavad Gita, however, is not quite the same as the bhakti portrayed in the Bhagavata Purana. As one scholar puts it, the “intellectual bhakti” of the Gita differs significantly from the “emotional bhakti” of theBhagavata.4 The Gita emphasizes that recognition of Krishna’s divine nature is the foundation for devotion. For the cowherders of Vraja, by contrast, devotion to Krishna arises whether or not they apprehend his divine character. Most of the time they do not. But the love they direct toward the Krishna that they perceive as a human child, friend, or lover qualifies as bhakti. In fact, the Bhagavata suggests that recognizing Krishna to be God may even act as a deterrent to devotion. It might create an emotional distance between human and divine, and weaken the intimacy of the human-to-human relationship. A lack of recognition enables the cowherders to experience the highest bliss of direct and loving participation in Krishna’s being. This emotional intimacy may even trump conventional codes of proper conduct.

Near the end of the conversation in the Bhagavad Gita, after discussing the ins and outs of dharma at length, Krishna points to one escape clause to duty. If Arjuna holds Krishna firmly in his heart and takes refuge in him, he may abandon all his duties; God will liberate him from all sin (18.62–66). The Bhagavata takes this passage seriously indeed, and dramatizes it in the persons of the Gopis. These women may be wives and mothers with dharmic responsibilities to their husbands and children, but when Krishna plays his flute in the autumn woods, they drop everything they are doing to be with him. Once there, Krishna flirts, strokes, embraces, and pleasures the women. The Bhagavata does not condemn their derelictions of female dharma. Instead, it suggests that their willingness to transgress all worldly bonds in order to gain full intimacy with Krishna should be taken as a devotional paradigm. In the Bhagavata’s scale of values, we should all aspire to be Gopis. The human soul too may be called on to give up all worldly attachments to achieve that higher goal of sharing in God.

In the Gita, Krishna observes that devotion has the capacity to rehabilitate even criminals and sinners (9.30). The Bhagavata dramatizes the great salvific power of bhakti. Not just those who direct their love toward Krishna, but even those who focus on him with animosity or hatred also find themselves delivered. Even the demonic Kamsa attains redemption when killed by Krishna, the Bhagavata relates. Whenever Kamsa drinks, eats, walks, sleeps, or breathes, he is thinking about his nemesis. His obsessive fear and hatred toward Krishna are his salvation. Any immersion in Krishna, even with hostile intent, is good bhakti. The generous and inclusive path of devotion that Krishna first paved in the Bhagavad Gita grows wider still in the Bhagavata Purana.

Yashoda, the Gopis, others of the cowherd tribe, and even demons like Kamsa were fortunate to live in a time and place where they could interact directly with Krishna, the embodied God on earth. What about the rest of us? The Bhagavata Purana presents itself as a substitute for Krishna’s incarnate presence. In its concluding verse, it states that anyone born after the departure of Krishna from his incarnation who interacts with the Bhagavata with an attitude of devotion can gain the same salvation as those who lived with him during his earthly life. Reciting or retelling Krishna’s deeds as narrated in the Bhagavata, hearing or reading them, or thinking about or meditating on them all enable new audiences to reenact the same states of mind and emotions for themselves that the characters within the Bhagavata experience. The story of Krishna, then, is not just a historical narrative; the Bhagavata claims that it has permanent resonance. Evidently many in medieval India agreed.

The Bhagavata’s narration of the early life of Krishna among the cowherds and its expansive conception of Krishnabhakti formed the basis for a profusion of devotional literature as well as religious activity throughout the subcontinent. What was the place of theBhagavad Gita in this lively culture of medieval Krishna devotionalism? To judge by physical evidence, perhaps only a small one. One index is religious sculpture of the period. John S. Hawley surveyed eight hundred panels of Indian sculpture dating from 500 to 1500 CE in which Krishna has been identified as the subject.5 Of these, only three refer clearly to the scene of the Gita, and just a few more depict scenes from the Mahabharata more broadly. Almost without exception the sculptors concentrate on Krishna’s youthful exploits, as narrated in the Bhagavata Purana. By far the most common themes are his victory over the snake Kaliya and his raising of Mount Govardhana. Nor did the Gita lend itself to dramatic reenactments in the way that the early life of Krishna gave rise to a genre of dance dramas like the Rasa-lilas. The Krishnaite devotional poets did not take the Gita as a point of departure for their new songs, much preferring the cowherd Krishna of Vraja to the teacher of Kurukshetra.

Other Gods’ Gitas

Although the charioteer and teacher Krishna did not play a great role in this Krishnaite devotional movement, the text of his teachings did circulate in medieval India among some as an important independent work of religious philosophy. One sign of this is the proliferation of competitive gitas. Krishna’s Bhagavad Gita was renowned enough to inspire other Hindu gods, or their followers, to propound their own divine songs.

In medieval India, Krishna was not the only god who sang. The gitas of other gods form a genre of religious poems embedded in the massive corpus of medieval literature called the Puranas (or “old traditions”). There is the Ishvara Gita of Shiva contained in theKurma Purana, the Shiva Gitaof the Padma Purana, the Ganesha Gita in the Ganesha Purana, the Rama Gita in the Adhyatma Ramayana, the Brahma Gita portion of the Yogavashishta, the Devi Gita sung by the Goddess in the Devibhagavata Purana, the Yama Gita in the Agni Purana, and numerous others. These gitas are similar in form to Krishna’s, but they present distinct teachings and make competitive claims on behalf of the other deities who speak them.6

Like the Bhagavad Gita, the gitas of other gods appear as dialogues between the deities and one or more auditors, usually but not always human. In most cases the auditor approaches the deity in a state of doubt or despair, similar to that of Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. At the start of the Shiva Gita, for instance, Rama is despondent after his wife, Sita, has been abducted by the demon Ravana, and he goes to the god Shiva for advice. These gitas always involve discourses conveyed from deities to listeners that constitute authoritative instruction on the fundamental nature of the world along with guidance for effective human conduct leading to worldly benefits and ultimately liberation. The instructions, however, differ from song to song, depending on the particular school of thought involved. So in the Ishvara Gita, Shiva sets forth the key teachings of the Shaiva Pashupata school. In each case the divine speaker persuades the listener of his or her preeminence as the Supreme Deity, subsuming or subordinating all other deities. The theological explication typically culminates in a visionary transformation, in which the audience gains a glimpse of the deity in a supernal form, parallel to Arjuna’s vision of Vishvarupa Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita. In the Ganesha Gita, for example, the prince Varenya is granted the “eye of knowledge” that enables him to see Ganesha in his all-pervading form. Varenya becomes confused and terrified by what he sees, much as Arjuna does at Kurukshetra. By the end of the song, the listener has accepted the deity’s teachings and goes on to carry out the advice in the world.

A generative religious work like the Bhagavad Gita may live on through its offspring, even quarrelsome and contentious ones. Undoubtedly the Bhagavad Gita served as the formal model for these other divine songs. But they were not simple imitations. While they implicitly acknowledged the importance of Krishna’s song through their appropriation of its form and rhetoric, they also sought to displace Krishna and establish the superior stature of competing deities, such as Shiva, Ganesha, or the Goddess, who proclaimed new teachings for new audiences. These gitas of the other gods suggest the vigorous competition among the gods that was characteristic of medieval theistic Hinduism. In the end, though, it was the genre’s progenitor—Krishna’s initial Gita—that would enjoy the longest and most diverse life. There the competition would be one of interpretation.

Vedanta and the Gita of the Commentators

Without any self-interest, but only with a desire to help all beings, [the Lord Krishna] taught the Vedic dharma to Arjuna, who was drowning in a great ocean of grief and confusion, in hopes that this dharma, when accepted and put into practice by virtuous people, would spread widely…. Now this treatise called the Gita, which contains the concentrated essence of the meaning of all the Vedas, is difficult to understand. Even though many commentators have explained the meanings of each word, the meaning of its sentences, and its overall plan in an effort to make visible its true meaning, the general public still perceives the work as conveying multiple meanings, and very contradictory ones at that. Recognizing this situation, I will compose a succinct exposition of the Gita, in order to determine its meaning through discrimination.

— Bhagavadgitabh ashya, 1–2

So Shankara, writing in the early ninth century CE, commences his commentary on the Bhagavad Gita.7 As he points out, the Gita’s message may contain the holy Vedas in condensed form and it may be beneficial to all, but it is not easy to understand. He observes that many teachers have already tried to explicate the text, yet in his view serious misapprehensions are still rife among the public. With the conviction that he can do better, Shankara proposes a succinct exposition that will make manifest what he considers the true purport of the Bhagavad Gita.

Shankara was not the first, nor would he be the last, to seek to determine the true meaning of this difficult text. Throughout the medieval period the Bhagavad Gita was taken, within certain learned circles, as an autonomous work that conveyed valuable philosophical and religious truth, and many teachers took on the task of writing commentaries to articulate that truth. A recent compilation lists 227 extant Sanskrit commentaries on the Gita, ranging from the time of Shankara throughout the medieval period and up to the present. Many of these commentaries, like that of Shankara, engendered their own subcommentaries.8 The truth that the Gita conveyed was evidently up for grabs, as exponents of widely divergent schools of thought and practice found in the text validation for their own distinctive tenets.

Although the Bhagavad Gita was not part of the Vedic corpus, Shankara characterizes it as containing the “concentrated essence” of the meaning of the entire Veda. Many of the best-known commentaries on the Gita, including that of Shankara, belong to the philosophical school known as Vedanta. The term vedanta literally means “end of the Veda,” and refers to the Upanishads as the final portion of the Vedic corpus. As mentioned earlier, it can also be taken as the “culmination of the Veda,” in the sense that the teachings contained in the Upanishads are said to complete or bring to fruition the knowledge of the Vedas. Adherents to the Vedanta orientation, accordingly, share a fealty to the Veda tradition as an eternal revelation of Truth and appreciation for the integrative quest of the Upanishads. Shankara claims in the introduction to his commentary that the Vedic dharma is the “cause of the preservation of the worlds.” All Vedantins would accept this statement, but just what that Vedic dharma comprises is not so certain.

Multiple philosophical positions are sheltered under the capacious umbrella of Vedanta. The distinct schools of Vedanta are identified by their ontological orientations. Shankara is the preeminent exponent of the Advaita (or nondualist) Vedanta, but there is also a Dvaita (dualist) school led by Madhva (1238–1317 CE), and a Vishishtadvaita (qualified nondualist) school whose most esteemed teacher is Ramanuja. Other Vedanta schools include the Dvaitadvaita (both dualist and nondualist), the Shabdadvaita (language nondualist), and Shuddhadvaita (pure nondualist).9 From an early period, Vedanta philosophers selected the Bhagavad Gita as one of their key works for philosophical articulation. Along with the Upanishads and Brahma Sutras (also called Vedanta Sutras) of Badarayana, the Gita was considered part of the prasthanatraya, the three fundamental “points of departure” for any exponent of a Vedanta school. The assumption was that these foundational works together present a consistent and comprehensive perspective, answering all significant questions, and it was the task of the Vedanta exegete to discover and present that Vedic philosophy in a clear, systematic, and tenable manner. Major Vedantins like Shankara and Ramanuja composed commentaries on all three of these works.

In medieval India, the commentary was a remarkably prolific and consequential form of Sanskrit literary practice. As Gary Tubb and Emery Boose observe, “Works of commentary pervade the history of Sanskrit thought to a degree that is unparalleled in the writings of most other traditions.”10Many ancient and classical texts were difficult to understand, as Shankara said of the Bhagavad Gita. Others were so succinct as to be virtually incomprehensible without a commentary, like Badarayana’s Brahma Sutras. Such super-brief core works were intended for memorization by students, with the expectation that a teacher would then explain their meanings in oral or written form. In medieval times, commentaries served to bridge the gap in comprehension between the older texts and new audiences. Written commentaries are like transcriptions of the textual explications that particularly gifted teachers might convey to their pupils. For modern students of India, these written commentaries provide a window into the ways philosophical writers and readers in medieval India understood the Bhagavad Gita.

Medieval exponents of the Vedanta school formed an interpretive community. In their exegetical enterprise, they shared certain fundamental premises and strategies, and these common commitments were germane to the way they read the Bhagavad Gita. At the same time, the common premises supplied a foundation on which differences of interpretation could be raised, explored, and contested. Medieval Vedantins shared a fundamental commitment to the Vedic tradition and three textual points of departure, but they also disagreed vehemently over ontological and theological positions. Those ontological differences constitute the distinct major schools of thought within Vedanta: nondualist, qualified nondualist, dualist, and the rest.

Here we will briefly consider some shared premises of the Vedanta commentators as they apply to the Gita, and then some areas of irresolvable interpretive disagreement between the two best-known Vedanta authors, Shankara and Ramanuja. In Vedanta commentaries on the Gita, one major point of debate was theological. Who is Krishna, and more generally, what is the nature of God? How should readers understand the claim to supreme divinity that Krishna makes in the Gita? A second issue was soteriological. What different paths leading to a realization of the highest human aim does Krishna present in his teachings to Arjuna? Which of these is the most efficacious?

The Vedanta commentators recognize that the Bhagavad Gita is a portion of a larger text, the Mahabharata, which they view as a work of history, not as a fictive epic. Yet they consider the Gita, as a separable work, to have a special status greater than historical facticity. It is a revelation of truth. This status derives from the identity of the main speaker, Krishna, who is divine, though the precise nature and scope of that divinity is open to debate. Krishna’s teachings in the Gita are not a unique revelation. The commentators also accept the special truthfulness of the Veda as a whole, and of the Upanishads in particular, considered as an eternal revelation of dharma not composed by any human (apaurusheya). They emphasize the three textual foundations as the authoritative basis for the full articulation of any philosophical perspective. Since the truth is unitary, these three basic texts must cohere with one another. As Shankara puts it, the Gita contains the concentrated essence of the Veda. The teachings of the Gita must be read in such a way that they do not contradict the Upanishads and Brahma Sutras. Any apparent disagreements among these core texts must be reconciled.

The truth taught by Krishna to Arjuna is not a transient or historical one but instead permanent and universal, according to the Vedantins. At the same time, the commentators recognize that human interpretations of the Gita are multiple, and so any commentarial presentation of the text must establish its own validity and authority in debate with other possible interpretations and viewpoints. The other views include even those who do not accept the authority of the Veda, such as Buddhists and Jains, as well as other contending Vedanta schools and other broadly Hindu perspectives. The commentators often represent opposing positions within their commentaries as “preliminary views,” and then go on to refute or encompass those views and establish their own position as the “demonstrated conclusion.”

Finally, Krishna’s teachings in the Bhagavad Gita are not simply descriptive of the world. They are practical. They are intended to enable qualified humans to act in such a way that they gain maximum benefits, formulated most simply as the “Highest” (sreyas). The highest aim for all humans, either directly or eventually, is a state of freedom or liberation from all the bonds that inhibit one’s full attainment. This also entails a freedom from all future transmigration in the cycle of existence. In Hindu writings, the most common term for this is moksha. Krishna’s teachings to Arjuna set out various means to attain this highest end. Nevertheless, Vedantins disagree sharply on the best method of attaining this Highest.

Who is Krishna, the speaker of the Gita? All Vedanta commentators accept that Krishna is not merely a human character in the Mahabharata but rather a divine being. Yet what of the special claims Krishna makes in his discourse that he is in fact the Supreme Deity? In particular, Krishna identifies himself in the Gita as the brahman, the term that other foundational Vedanta works use most often to designate the Absolute.

For Ramanuja this poses no difficulty. He introduces his commentary on the Gita with an extended celebration of Vishnu Narayana as the Supreme Being.11 This great Being is the “ocean of innumerable beautiful qualities, such as boundless and supreme knowledge, power, force, sovereignty, fortitude, master, and the like,” and He is, says Ramanuja, the Supreme brahman and the Highest Person. In his highest form, Vishnu is inaccessible to the meditation or worship of humans or even other deities. By his own sovereign will, however, Vishnu repeatedly and generously assumes worldly shapes of all sorts, without giving up his essential nature. In such shapes, Ramanuja continues, “he has descended repeatedly to various worlds in order that He might be worshiped by the beings who live in those worlds and so bring them nearer the fruits of dharma.”12 Krishna is one of those human shapes assumed by Vishnu, an incarnation or avatara much as Krishna describes himself in the Gita, descending to support righteousness in the world. (In the Bhagavad Gita itself, Krishna does not specify that he is an incarnation of Vishnu.) In Ramanuja’s two-sided formulation, Vishnu Narayana is at the same time transcendently Supreme and easily accessible. This fits well with the doubleness that Krishna himself describes in the Gita.

For Shankara, a strict nondualist, Krishna’s assertions in the Gita are not so easy to accept. Shankara is strongly committed to the Upanishadic formulations of the brahman as an underlying, eternal, unitary Absolute without attributes (nirguna). The brahman is, in the famous apophatic passage from Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, “not this, not that.” It cannot be qualified by any positive attribute. A human-formed being like Krishna could not possibly be the brahman, as defined in this way. He can only be, as Shankara sees it, a secondary or functional appearance of that brahman. Krishna appears as if embodied, as if born in the world, a kind of spectral projection of the brahman. Krishna’s as-if-ness consigns him to a secondary status in Shankara’s ontological order.

All Vedantins accept that human existence is in some basic way unsatisfactory. The purpose of Vedanta teaching is to ameliorate this condition. Vedantins begin from the premise that the central drama of human life revolves around the personal soul, living in the world in seeming alienation from the Supreme. This alienation is not fundamental or permanent. Both Shankara and Ramanuja affirm an underlying unity of human souls and the Absolute, and that unity is what must be regained. But the path toward recovery differs for the two Vedantin commentators, and this leads them to emphasize differing parts of Krishna’s complex message in the Bhagavad Gita.

As we have seen, Krishna proposes multiple paths in the Gita, and the medieval commentators argue heatedly over which should be given priority. One early commentator’s position, which Shankara cites as a preliminary view, is that Krishna advocates a path of “combined knowledge and action.” This may have some limited worldly value, he admits, but Shankara firmly rejects this as a path leading to the Highest. For Shankara, the only truly efficacious path is that of knowledge. The basic problem is one of ignorance—a failure to recognize the true identity of oneself with the brahman. Liberation must come about through recognition of an already-existing state of affairs, an epistemological shift rather than any ontological transformation. One must over-come all the false projections, the things we think we know, that cause us to see a complex differentiated world where there is really only brahman. With the destruction of such ignorance comes liberation. For the nondualist, true knowledge consists not in knowing many things but instead in fully realizing just that one big thing.

Shankara insists not only that knowledge is superior to action as a means to religious attainment but also that true knowledge involves an abandonment of action. It is not enough to abandon one’s attachment to the fruits of action, as Krishna appears to suggest in the Gita. One must renounce worldly action altogether and become a renouncer. So argues Shankara, who according to traditional accounts became a sannyasi by age seven without ever living as a householder. But this raises an interpretive quandary for Shankara, since in the Gita, Krishna forcefully urges Arjuna to engage in battle. Here, says Shankara, one must consider the identity of the auditor. Like any good teacher, Krishna adapts his message to his audience. Arjuna is a Kshatriya warrior and householder, not a Brahmin or renouncer. As a householder active in worldly affairs, he is not in a position to follow the highest path of knowledge, as Shankara sees it, which would require the renunciation of action. As a member of the Kshatriya class, Arjuna should not become a renouncer, which in Shankara’s view is best undertaken only by Brahmins. Taking into account his friend’s options, Krishna thoughtfully recommends methods by which Arjuna may act within his situation that will allow him to acquire the qualities necessary to eventual liberation, such as mental and emotional tranquillity. Krishna’s provisional advice to Arjuna is meant to enable him to gain the mental purity with which, in some unspecified later lifetime, he can adopt the more truly effective path of renunciation and nondualist knowledge.

For Ramanuja, the path of knowledge alone will not suffice for higher ends. He in fact starts with a doctrine similar to the combined knowledge and action position that Shankara has earlier criticized. Knowledge and action work together. As a person gains in correct understanding of the self, interested action becomes disinterested. Over time one’s knowledge and action become more and more integrated. No doubt this is a highly laudable state, and may even constitute a type of liberation. In Ramanuja’s theological scale of forms, however, this can only be preparation for a still-higher level of attainment: the realization of God. That can only come about through the third of Krishna’s three paths, the discipline of devotion. Krishna has come to the Kurukshetra battlefield, Ramanuja claims, precisely to reveal the new path of devotion as the means of gaining the highest state.

Full devotion to God leads to a state of oneness, from Ramanuja’s vantage point, but it is a different kind of union than the one envisioned by Shankara. In both cases there is a realization of unity between a person’s individual essence and the Absolute brahman, in which the individuality of the person is transcended. The final relationship between the single-minded devotee and Highest Person is, for Ramanuja, one of dependence, the unequal union of the formerly alienated part back into its completing Whole. In this relationship of divine dependence, the liberated devotee finds limitless joy.

Both Shankara and Ramanuja came from orthodox South Indian Brahmin families, and both remained deeply committed to the religious legacy of the Vedas. Within the broad perspective of the Vedanta, though, the two commentaries articulated divergent philosophical visions, and their readings of the Bhagavad Gita reflected those views. So too did Shankara’s and Ramanuja’s lives follow radically different paths. Shankara was a life-long renouncer; Ramanuja lived for a time as a married householder. Shankara spent much of this life as an itinerant pilgrim; Ramanuja settled for many years as manager of the largest Vishnu temple in southern India. Ramanuja participated actively in the temple liturgy of the Ranganatha temple of Shrirangam, where Vishnu was worshipped in the material form of a great, sculpted image, and where the Lord was celebrated with the devotional hymns of the Tamil poet-saints. His devotional interpretation of the Gita was grounded in the temple culture of twelfth-century Tamilnad. A century later in Maharashtra, the devotional orientation of the Gita took on a different form, as itself an extended devotional hymn, in Jnanadeva’s Jnaneshvari.

Jnanadeva and His Meta-Gita

In medieval India, the Sanskrit epic narratives Mahabharata and Ramayana were widely retold and rewritten in the many developing vernacular languages of South Asia. Often the new vernacular epics became the first or most prestigious literary works in these languages.13 By and large theBhagavad Gita did not lend itself to this kind of narrative metamorphosis. There is one great exception to this. In the thirteenth century, the poet-saint Jnanadeva composed an expanded Marathi-language version of the Gita, known as the Bhavarthadipika or more commonly the Jnaneshvari. This remarkable work is the earliest extant version of the Gita in any Indian vernacular language, and is widely considered the first major poetic work in literary Marathi.14

Jnanadeva was born in a Maharashtrian Brahmin family, but according to traditional biographies his father was cast out from the local Brahmin community, and the family led a peripatetic life while Jnanadeva was growing up. His older brother Nivrittinatha later became Jnanadeva’s spiritual guide, and somewhere along the way Jnanadeva acquired enough learning to explicate for others a difficult Sanskrit work. At the start of his Jnaneshvari, Jnanadeva acknowledges that Sanskrit is hard. He aspires to make the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita accessible to an audience of ordinary Marathi speakers. Jnanadeva is not interested in a word-for-word philosophical exposition like those composed in Sanskrit by Vedantin commentators such as Shankara and Ramanuja. Nor is his work a translation aiming at faithfulness or fidelity to a fixed original source, as we often understand the goal of translation. Rather, the Jnaneshvari is a self-standing poetic composition in its own right, constructed over and around the Bhagavad Gita, as a kind of meta-Gita. The seven hundred verses of the Sanskrit Gita are embedded in a nine-thousand-verse Marathi poem that translates, paraphrases, explains, expands, and extols the teachings of Krishna. In the end, Jnanadeva suggests, the two compositions may merge into one another. “If a person carefully reads my Marathi version of the original Sanskrit Gita with a clear understanding of its meaning,” he writes, “he cannot say which is the original. Because of the beauty of the body, it becomes an ornament to the very ornaments that it wears, and one cannot say which of the two beautifies the other” (132).

Like the Mahabharata, the Jnaneshvari presents itself as a dramatized oral performance in which other dialogues are embedded. To retell the conversation of Krishna and Arjuna at Kurukshetra, as retold by Sanjaya to Dhritarashtra, Jnanadeva presents himself before an audience at a holy site on the south bank of the Godavari River, with his own guru Nivrittinatha present, and performs his explication of the Bhagavad Gita. A scribe named Sacchittananda writes down his words. Jnanadeva addresses his immediate audience, and the audience listens attentively, sometimes interrupting the speaker to praise him or urge him to continue. Jnanadeva frequently pauses to praise his guru. Nivrittinatha also intervenes in his disciple’s performance, usually to ask him impatiently to stop digressing and get to the point. In his oral discourse, Jnanadeva adopts the voices of all the characters of the Gita: Sanjaya, Dhritarashtra, Arjuna, and most of all Krishna. With Krishna, however, something more is involved. As Jnanadeva praises Krishna, he exclaims that Krishna has filled him up with Himself, so that his voice is wild with desire to praise Krishna. Jnanadeva loses his separate individuality and becomes suffused with Krishna. In this state of devotional participation, Jnanadeva gains the capacity to give voice to Krishna’s teachings in this greatly expanded new Gita. Jnanadeva understands himself as a channel for the god Krishna himself to repeat and expand on his earlier teachings in the Sanskrit Bhagavad Gita, now updated for medieval Maharashtra and delivered in the Marathi language.


FIGURE 3. Shri Jnaneshvar (Jnanadeva composing Jnaneshvari), chromolithograph by Mulgaonkar, ca. 1960.
Published by Anant Sivaji Desai. Author’s collection.

Like the Vedanta commentators, Jnanadeva considers the Bhagavad Gita to convey the essence of the Vedas. It is divine ghee, he says, churned from the ocean of the Vedas, then heated in the fire of wisdom and boiled to perfection through discrimination. TheGita also reveals the essence of theMahabharata, he contends. He compares the Gita to a city, within whose seven-hundred-verse walls all the scriptures have come to dwell harmoniously. But Jnanadeva does not view the Gita as a completed or closed text, composed once and for all at some moment in the past. In Jnanadeva’s mind, Krishna is a living god still active and speaking in the world. The Jnaneshvari therefore allows Krishna to expand and update his original teachings of the Gita. He explains terms and ideas with profuse new metaphors and analogies. Moreover, Krishna now discusses new ideas and new practices that had not been part of the religious world of classical India. He urges the repetition of God’s names, nama-japa, for example—a new devotional practice in Jnanadeva’s medieval community. In the Jnaneshvari, Krishna explains in detail the new yogic disciplines of the Natha school, involving new concepts of the subtle body and awakening of Kundalini. Jnanadeva suggests that Krishna is here acting like a shopkeeper who brings out the special items previously kept hidden to show to favored customers. If the Gita is Krishna’s store, it must include his new as well as old merchandise.

While acknowledging and praising all the paths of spiritual advancement in the Gita (and some added since then), Jnanadeva grants the greatest praise to bhakti. He observes that bhakti is an inclusive religious pathway open to members of all social classes, both male and female. In theJnaneshvari, the style of bhakti proclaimed is closer to the fervent emotional devotion of the Bhagavata Purana than to the intellectual bhakti of the Gita. Jnanadeva refers occasionally to Krishna’s earlier life among the cowherds of Vraja, but that is not his main concern. Rather, he seeks to recast the relationship between Krishna and Arjuna in more intimate terms. He stresses the love that Arjuna feels toward Krishna, and reciprocally Krishna’s love toward Arjuna. Most important, this reciprocal love of human and God does not rest on a fundamental separateness. Jnanadeva recognizes that true devotion leads to a merging or union with Krishna. Jnanadeva is a nondualist like Shankara, but unlike the Advaitin, he is a theistic and devotional one.

Not content simply to assert this philosophical nondualism, Jnanadeva transforms the Gita into a narrative of movement from separateness to oneness and then back again to separation. The dialogue of the Gita, in Jnanadeva’s telling, involves not just Krishna’s teachings on spiritual attainment but also their practical realization in Arjuna’s experience. Near the conclusion of the conversation, in the Jnaneshvari, Krishna declares that his love for Arjuna does not arise from their separation. They are one. Then going beyond verbal instruction, he hugs his friend.

Then stretching out His right arm, dark-skinned and adorned with bracelets, He embraces His beloved devotee who had come to Him. That high state of union from which speech, unable to reach it, turns back taking the intellect with it, and which neither word nor thought can attain, this was the experience into which Krishna drew Arjuna under the pretext of this embrace. (338)

In this experience of union, beyond words and thought, a flood of joy overwhelms Arjuna, and also (since they are one) submerges Krishna. As with Arjuna’s vision of Krishna’s supernal form in the Gita, this direct state of merging does not last. Krishna restores Arjuna’s sense of separateness. Arjuna realizes he is Arjuna, wipes away his sweat and tears of joy, and steadies his voice to speak again to Krishna. That sense of provisional separation from God is the condition necessary for Arjuna to act in the world and carry out his services for Krishna.

Jnanadeva compares the Bhagavad Gita to the mythical wish-granting gem Chintamani. Like that famous multifaceted jewel, he says, the Gita provides a wide range of meanings and satisfies the many differing desires of its varied audiences. Shankara saw this multiplicity of meanings as a problem that he hoped to overcome with a persuasive commentary. Jnanadeva remained closer perhaps to the ethos of the Gita itself, where Krishna promises to share in them “in whatever way people seek me.” And his idea of the Chintamani, with its many facets sending out beams in every direction, offers an apt metaphor for the contentious life of the Bhagavad Gita in medieval India. It fits as well the continuing biography of the Gita in colonial and modern times, as it would come to send its new rays of light throughout both India and, across the ocean, the world.

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