A History of Indian Philosophy Volume 2

by Surendranath Dasgupta | 1932 | 241,887 words | ISBN-13: 9788120804081

This page describes the philosophy of the gita literature: a concept having historical value dating from ancient India. This is the first part in the series called the “the philosophy of the bhagavad-gita”, originally composed by Surendranath Dasgupta in the early 20th century.

The Gītā is regarded by almost all sections of the Hindus as one of the most sacred religious works, and a large number of commentaries have been written on it by the adherents of different schools of thought, each of which explained the Gītā in its own favour. Śaṅkara’s bhāṣya is probably the earliest commentary now available; but from references and discussions found therein there seems to be little doubt that there were previous commentaries which he wished to refute.

Śaṅkara in his interpretation of the Gītā seeks principally to emphasize the dogma that right knowledge can never be combined with Vedic duties or the duties recommended by the legal scriptures. If through ignorance, or through attachment, a man continues to perform the Vedic duties, and if, as a result of sacrifices, gifts and tapas (religious austerities), his mind becomes pure and he acquires the right knowledge regarding the nature of the ultimate reality—that the passive Brahman is the all—and then, when all reasons for the performance of actions have ceased for him, still continues to perform the prescribed duties just like common men and to encourage others to behave in a similar manner, then such actions are inconsistent with right knowledge. When a man performs actions without desire or motive, they cannot be considered as karma at all. He alone may be said to be performing karma, or duties, who has any interest in them. But the wise man, who has no interest in his karma, cannot be said to be performing karma in the proper sense of the term, though to all outward appearances he may be acting exactly like an ordinary man. Therefore the main thesis of the Gītā, according to Śaṅkara, is that liberation can come only through right knowledge and not through knowledge combined with the performance of duties.

Śaṅkara maintains that all duties hold good for us only in the stage of ignorance and not in the stage of wisdom. When once the right knowledge of identity with Brahman dawns and ignorance ceases, all notions of duality, which are presupposed by the performance of actions and responsibility for them, cease[1]. In interpreting Gītā, III. 1, Śaṅkara criticizes the opinions of some previous commentators, who held that obligatory duties cannot be given up even when true wisdom is attained. In reply he alludes to legal scriptures (smṛti-śāstrd), and asserts that the mere nonperformance of any duties, however obligatory, cannot lead to evil results, since non-performance is a mere negation and of mere negation no positive results can come out.

The evil effects of the non-performance of obligatory duties can happen only to those who have not given up all their actions (a-saṃnyāsi-viṣayatvāt pratyavāya-prāpteḥ). But those who have attained true wisdom and have consequently given up all their actions transcend the sphere of duties and of the obligatory injunctions of the Vedas, and the legal scriptures cannot affect them at all. The performance of duties cannot by itself lead to liberation; but it leads gradually to the attainment of purity of mind (sattva-śuddhi) and through this helps the dawning of the right knowledge, with which all duties cease[2]. In a very lengthy discussion on the interpretation of Gītā, xvm. 67, Śaṅkara tries to prove that all duties presuppose the multiplicity of the world of appearance, which is due to ignorance or nescience, and therefore the sage who has attained the right knowledge of Brahman, the only reality, has no duties to perform. Final liberation is thus produced, not by true knowledge along with the performance of duties, but by true knowledge alone. The wise man has no duties of any kind.

Śaṅkara’s interpretation of the Gītā presupposes that the Gītā holds the same philosophical doctrine that he does. His method of interpretation is based not so much on a comparison of textual passages, as simply on the strength of the reasonableness of the exposition of a view which can be consistently held according to his Vedānta philosophy, and which he ascribes to the Gītā. The view taken in the present exposition of the Gītā philosophy is diametrically opposite to that of Śaṅkara. It has been repeatedly pointed out that the Gītā asserts that even the wise man should perform his allotted duties, though he may have nothing to gain by the performance of such duties. Even God Himself as Kṛṣṇa, though He had no unsatisfied cravings, passions or desires of any kind, performed His self-imposed duties in order to set an example to all and to illustrate the fact that even the wise man should perform his prescribed duties[3].

Ānandajñāna wrote a commentary on Śaṅkara’s Bhagavad-gītā-bhāsya, called Bhagavad-gītā-bhāṣya-vivaraṇa, and Rāmānanda wrote another commentary on that of Śaṅkara, called Bhagavad-gītā-bhāṣya-vyākhyā. He is also said to have written another work on the Gītā, called Gītāśaya. After Saṅkara there seems to have been some pause. We have two commentaries, one in prose and one in verse, by two persons of the same name, Yāmunācārya. The Yāmunācārva who was the author of a prose commentary is certainly, though a viśiṣṭādvaita-vādin, not the celebrated Yāmuna, the teacher of Rāmānuja. His commentary, which has been published by the Sudarśana Press, Conjeeveram, is very simple, consisting mainly of a mere paraphrase of the Gītā verses. He thinks that the first six chapters of the Gītā deal with the nature of true knowledge of God as a means to devotion, the second six with the nature of God as attainable by devotion and adoration, and the third six repeat the same subjects for a further clearing up of the problems involved.

Yāmuna, the great teacher of Rāmānuja, who is said to have been born in a.d. 906, summarized the subject-matter of the Gītā in a few verses called Gītārtha-saṃgraha, on which Nigamānta Mahā-deśika wrote a commentary known as Gītārtha-saṃgraha-rakṣā. This also was commented on by Varavara Muni, of the fourteenth century, in a commentary called Gītārtha-saṃgraha-dīpikā, published by the Sudarśana Press, Conjeeveram. Another commentary, called Bhagavad-gītārtha-saṃgraha-ṭīkā, by Pratyakṣadevayathā-cārya, is mentioned by Aufrecht. Yāmuna says that the object of the Gītā is to establish the fact that Nārāyaṇa is the highest Brahman, attained only by devotion (bhakti), which is achieved through caste duties (sva-dharma), right knowledge and disinclination to worldly pleasures (vairāgya).

It is said that the first six chapters of the Gītā describe the process of attaining self-knowledge by self-concentration (yoga) through knowledge and action along with self-subordination to God, the performance of all actions for God and detachment from all other things. Nigamānta Mahādeśika notes that karma may lead to self-realization either indirectly, through the production of knowledge, or directly by itself.

From the seventh to the twelfth chapters the processes of the attainment of devotion (bhakti-yoga) by knowledge and by actions are described, and it is held that the true nature of God can be realized only by such devotion.

From the thirteenth to the eighteenth chapters, the nature of pradhāna, of puruṣa, of the manifested world and of the supreme lord are described and distinguished along with the nature of action, of knowledge and of devotion.

Yāmuna then goes on to describe the contents of the chapters of the Gītā one by one.

  • Thus he says that in the second chapter the nature of the saint of imperturbable wisdom (sthita-dhī) is described. Such right knowledge can be achieved only by a knowledge of the self as immortal and the habit of performing one’s duties in an unattached manner.
  • In the third chapter it is said that a man should perform his duties for the preservation of the social order (loka-rakṣā) without attachment, leaving the fruits of all his actions to God, and considering at the same time that the guṇas are the real agents of actions and that it is wrong to pride oneself upon their performance.
  • The fourth chapter describes the nature of God, how one should learn to look upon actions as implying no action (on account of unattachment), the different kinds of duties and the glory of knowledge.
  • The fifth describes the advantages and the diverse modes of the path of duties and also the nature of the state of realization of Brahman.
  • The sixth describes the nature of yoga practice, four kinds of yogins, the methods of yoga, the nature of yoga realization and the ultimate superiority of yoga as communion with God.
  • The seventh describes the reality of God, how His nature is often veiled from us by prakṛti or the guṇas, how one should seek protection from God, the nature of the different kinds of devotees, and the superiority of the truly enlightened person.
  • The eighth describes the lordly power of God and the reality of His nature as the unchanged and the unchangeable; it also describes the duties of those who seek protection in God and the nature of the true wisdom.
  • The ninth describes the glory of God and His superiority even when He incarnates Himself as man, and the nature of devotional communion.
  • The tenth describes the infinite number of God’s noble qualities and the dependence of all things on Him, for initiating and increasing devotion.
  • The eleventh describes how the true nature of God can be perceived, and demonstrates that it is only through devotion that God can be known or attained.
  • The twelfth describes the superiority of devotion, methods of attaining devotion, and different kinds of devotion; it is also held that God is highly pleased by the devotion of His devotees.
  • The thirteenth describes the nature of the body, the purification of the self for self-realization, the cause of bondage and right discrimination.
  • The fourteenth describes how the nature of an action is determined by the ties of guṇa, how the guṇas may be made to cease from influencing us, and how God alone is the root of all the ways of the self’s future destiny.
  • The fifteenth describes how the supreme lord is different from the pure selves, as well as from selves in association with non-selves, on account of his all-pervasiveness and his nature as upholder and lord.
  • The sixteenth describes the division of beings into godly and demoniac and also the privileged position of the scriptures as the authority for laying the solid foundation of knowledge of the true nature of our duties.
  • The seventeenth distinguishes unscriptural things from scriptural.
  • The eighteenth describes how God alone should be regarded as the ultimate agent of all actions, and states the necessity of purity and the nature of the effects of one’s deeds.

According to Yāmuna

  1. karma-yoga, or the path of duties, consists of religious austerities, pilgrimage, gifts and sacrifices;
  2. jñāna-yoga, or the path of knowledge, consists of self-control and purity of mind;
  3. bhakti-yoga,or the path of devotion, consists in the meditation of God, inspired by an excess of joy in the communion with the divine.

All these three paths mutually lead to one another. All three are essentially of the nature of the worship of God, and, whether regarded as obligatory or occasional, are helpful for discovering the true nature of one’s self. When by self-realization ignorance is wholly removed, and when a man attains superior devotion to God, he is received into God.

Rāmānuja, the celebrated Vaiṣṇava teacher and interpreter of the Brahma-sūtra, who is said to have been born in a.d. 1017, wrote a commentary on the Gītā on viśiṣṭādvaita lines, viz. monism qualified as theism. Veṅkatanātha, called also Vedāntācārya, wrote a sub-commentary thereon, called Tātparya-candrikā. Rāmānuja generally followed the lines of interpretation suggested in the brief summary by his teacher Yāmuna. On the question of the imperativeness of caste duties Rāmānuja says that the Gītā holds that the duties allotted to each caste must be performed, since the scriptures are the commands of God and no one can transgress His orders; so the duties prescribed by the scriptures as obligatory are compulsory for all. The duties have, therefore, to be performed without desire for their fruits and purely because they are the injunctions of the scriptures (eka-śāstrārthatayā anuṣṭheyam). It is only when duties performed simply to please God, and as adoration of Him, have destroyed all impurities of the mind, and when the senses have become controlled, that a man becomes fit for the path of wisdom.

A man can never at any stage of his progress forsake the duty of worshipping God, and it is only through such adoration of God that the sins accumulating in him from beginningless time are gradually washed away and he can become pure and fit for the path of knowledge[4]. In interpreting III. 8 Rāmānuja says that the path of duties (karma-yoga) is superior to the path of knowledge (jñāna-yoga). The path of duties naturally leads to self-knowledge; so self-knowledge is also included within its scope. The path of knowledge alone cannot lead us anywhere; for without work even the body cannot be made to live. Even those who adhere to the path of knowledge must perform the obligatory and occasional (nitya-naimittika) duties, and it is through the development of this course that one can attain self-realization by duty alone. The path of duties is to be followed until self-realization (ātmāvalokana) and, through it, emancipation are obtained. But the chief duty of a man is to be attached to God with supreme devotion.

Madhvācārya, or Ānandatīrtha, who lived in the first three-quarters of the thirteenth century, wrote a commentary on the Bhagavad-gītā, called Gītā-bhāṣya, commented on by Jayatīrtha in his Prameya-dīpikā, and also a separate monograph interpreting the main purport of the Gītā, called Bhagavad-gītā-tātparya-nirṇaya, commented on by Jayatīrtha in his Nyāya-dīpikā. His main emphasis was on the fact that God is different from everything else, and that the only way of attaining our highest goal is through devotion (bhakti) as love and attachment (sneha). In the course of his interpretation he also introduced long discussions in refutation of the monistic theory of Śaṅkara. Since everything is dominated by the will of Hari the Lord, no one ought to feel any attachment to mundane things. Duties are to be performed by all. Kṛṣṇabhaṭṭa Vidyādhirāja, the sixth disciple from Madhva, who lived in the first quarter of the fourteenth century, wrote a commentary on the Gītā, called Gītā-ṭīkā.

Rāghavendra Svāmin, who lived in the seventeenth century and was a pupil of Sudhīndra Yati, wrote three works on the Gītā, called

  1. Gītā-vivṛti,
  2. Gītārtha-saṃgraha
  3. and Gītārtha-vivaraṇa.

Commentaries were also written by

Many other works were also written on the general purport of the Gītā, such as

  • Bhagavad-gītārtha-saṃgraha by Abhinavagupta and Nṛsiṃha Thakkura,
  • Bhagavad-gītārtha-sāra by Gokulacandra,
  • Bhagavad-gītā-lak-ṣābharaṇa by Vādirāja,
  • Bhagavad-gītā-sāra by Kaivalyānanda Sarasvatī,
  • Bhagavad-gītā-sāra-saṃgraha by Narahari
  • and Bha-gavad-gītā-hetu-nirṇaya by Vitthala Dīkṣita.

Most of these commentaries are written either from the point of view of Śaṅkara’s bhāṣya, repeating the same ideas in other language, or from the Vaiṣṇava point of view, approving of the hold of normal duties of men in all stages of life and sometimes differing only in the conception of God and His relation with men. These can claim but little originality either of argument or of opinions, and so may well be left out of detailed consideration for our present purposes.

Footnotes and references:


Śaṅkara’s interpretation of the Gītā, ii. 69. Yogāśrama edition, Benares,1919.


Ibid. III. 4.


Gītā, III. 22.


Anabḥisaṃhita-phalena kevala-parama-puruṣārādḥana-rūpenānuṣṭhitena kar-maṇā vidhvasta-mano-malo ’vyākulendriyo jñāna-niṣṭkāyām adḥikaroti.
      Rāmānuja’s commentary on the Gītā, iii. 3.
      See also ibid. 111. 4. Gujarati Press, Bombay, 1908.

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