A History of Indian Philosophy Volume 2

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

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

Part 12 - Bhāgavata and the Bhagavad-gita

The Mahā-bhārata (xii. 348) associates the Bhagavad-gītā with the doctrines of the Ekānti-Vaiṣṇavas. It is said there that the God Hari (bhagavān Hari) always blesses those that are devoted to God without any idea of gain (ekāntin) and accepts their adorations, offered in accordance with proper rites (vidhi-prayukta)[1]. This ekānta religion (ekānta-dharma) is dear to Nārāyaṇa, and those who adhere to it attain to Hari, as Nīlakaṇtha, the commentator on the Mahā-bhārata , points out, without passing through the three stages of Aniruddha, Pradyumna and Samkarṣaṇa. The ekāntin faith leads to much higher goals than the paths of those that know the Vedas and lead the lives of ascetics. The principles of this ekāntin faith were enunciated by the Bhagavat himself in the battle of the Pāṇḍavas and the Kurus, when Arjuna felt disinclined to fight. This faith can be traced originally to the Sāma-veda. It is said that, when Nārāyaṇa created Brahmā, he gave him this sātvata faith, and from that time forth, as the Mahā-bhārata states, there has been a host of persons who were instructed in this faith and followed it. It was at a much later stage briefly described in the Hari-gītā [2]. This faith is very obscure and very difficult to be practised, and its chief feature is cessation from all kinds of injury.

In some places it is said to recognize one vyūha: in other places two, and in others three, vyūhas are mentioned. Hari, however, is the final and absolute reality; he is both the agent, the action and the cause, as well as the absolute beyond action (1 akartā). There are, how ever, but few ekāntins in the world: had the world been filled with ekāntins , who never injured anyone, were always engaged in doing good to others and attained self-knowledge, then the golden age, kṛta yuga , would have come again. This ekānta religion is a faith parallel to that of the Sāṃkhya-yoga, and the devotee who follows it attains Nārāyaṇa as his ultimate state of liberation. From this description in the Mahābhārata it seems that the doctrine of the Gītā was believed to be the ekāntin doctrine originally taught by Nārāyaṇa to Brahmā, Nārada and others long before the recital of the Gītā by Kṛṣṇa in the Mahā-bhārata battle. It is further known that it had at least four or five different schools or variant forms, viz. eka-vyūha, dvi-vyūha, tri-vyūha, catur-vyūha and ekānta, and that it was known as the Sātvata religion.

Yāmunācārya in his Āgama-prāmāṇya tries to combat a number of views in which the Bhāgavatas were regarded as being inferior to Brahmins, not being allowed to sit and dine with them. The Sātvatas, again, are counted by Manu as a low-caste people, born from outcast Vaiśyas and not entitled to the holy thread[3]. The Sātvatas were, of course, regarded as the same as Bhāgavatas, and their chief duties consisted in worshipping for their living in Viṣṇu temples by the order of the king[4]. They also repaired or constructed temples and images for their living, and were therefore regarded as outcasts. That the Bhāgavatas did in later times worship images and build images and temples is also evident from the fact that most of the available Pañca-rātra works are full of details about image-building and image-worship. The Gītā (ix. 26) also speaks of adoration with water, flowers and leaves, which undoubtedly refers to image-worship. Samkarṣaṇa, as the brother or companion of Kṛṣṇa, is mentioned in Patañjali’s Mahā-bhāṣya (11. 2. 24) in a verse quoted by him, and in 11. 2. 34 he seems to quote another passage, in which it is related that different kinds of musical instruments were played in the temple of Dhana-pati, Rāma and Keśava, meaning Balarāma, Samkarṣaṇa and Kṛṣṇa[5].

As Yāmuna points out, the opponents of the Bhāgavata school urge that, since the ordinary Brahminic initiation is not deemed a sufficient qualification for undertaking the worship of Viṣṇu, and since special and peculiar forms of initiation and ceremonial performances are necessary, it is clear that the Bhāgavata forms of worship are not Vedic in their origin.

The fourteen Hindu sciences, viz.

do not refer to the Pañca-rātra scriptures as being counted in their number.

So the Bhāgavata or the Pañca-rātra scriptures are of non-Vedic origin. But Yāmuna contends that, since Nārāyaṇa is the supreme god, the Bhāgavata literature, which deals with his worship, must be regarded as having the same sources as the Vedas; the Bhāgavatas also have the same kind of outer dress as the Brahmins and the same kinds of lineage. He further contends that, though sātvata means an outcast, yet sātvata is a different word from sātvata, which means a devotee of Viṣṇu.

Moreover, not all Bhāgavatas take to professional priestly duties and the worshipping of images for their livelihood; for there are many who worship the images through pure devotion. It is very easy to see that the above defence of the Bhāgavatas, as put forward by one of their best advocates, Yāmunācārya, is very tame and tends to suggest very strongly that the Bhāgavata sect was non-Vedic in its origin and that image-worship, image-making, image-repaṃng and temple-building had their origin in that particular sect. Yet throughout the entire scriptures of the Pañca-rātra school there is the universal and uncontested tradition that it is based on the Vedas. But its difference from the Vedic path is well known. Yāmuna himself refers to a passage (Āgama-prāmāṇya , p. 51) where it is said that Śāṇḍilya, not being able to find his desired end (puruṣārtha) in all the four Vedas, produced this scripture.

The Gītā itself often describes the selfish aims of sacrifices, and Kṛṣṇa urges Arjuna to rise above the level of the Vedas. It seems, therefore, that the real connection of the Pañca-rātra literature is to be found in the fact that it originated from Vāsudeva or Viṣṇu, who is the supreme God from whom the Vedas themselves were produced. Thus the Īśvara-saṃhitā (1. 24-26) explains the matter, and states that the Bhāgavata literature is the great root of the Veda tree, and the Vedas themselves are but trunks of it, and the followers of Yoga are but its branches. Its main purpose is to propound the superiority of Vāsudeva, who is the root of the universe and identical with the Vedas[6].

The affinity of this school of thought to the Upaniṣad school becomes apparent when it is considered that Vāsudeva was regarded in this system as the highest Brahman[7]. The three other vyñhas were but subordinate manifestations of him, after the analogy of prajñā, virāt, viśva and taijasa in monistic Vedānta. Pataṅjali’s Mahā-bhāṣya does not seem to know of the four vyñhas, as it mentions only Vāsudeva and Samkarṣaṇa; and the Gītā knows only Vāsudeva. It seems, therefore, that the vyūha doctrine did not exist at the time of the Gītā and that it evolved gradually in later times. It is seen from a passage of the Mahābhārata , already referred to, that there were different variations of the doctrine and that some accepted one vyūha , others two, others three and others four.

It is very improbable that, if the vyūha doctrine was known at the time of the Gītā , it should not have been mentioned therein. For the Gītā was in all probability the earliest work of the ekāntin school of the Bhāgavatas[8]. It is also interesting in this connection to note that the name Nārāyaṇa is never mentioned in the Gītā , and Vāsudeva is only identified with Viṣṇu, the chief of the ādityas.

Thus Sir R. G. Bhandarkar says,

“It will be seen that the date of the Bhagavad-gītā, which contains no mention of the vyūhas or personified forms, is much earlier than those of the inscriptions, the Niddesa and Patañjali, i.e. it was composed not later than the beginning of the fourth century before the Christian era; how much earlier it is difficult to say. At the time when the Gītā was conceived and composed the identification of Vāsudeva with Nārāyaṇa had not yet taken place, nor had the fact of his being an incarnation of Viṣṇu come to be acknowledged, as appears from the work itself....

Viṣṇu is alluded to as the chief of the Ādityas and not as the supreme being, and Vāsudeva was Viṣṇu in this sense, as mentioned in chapter X, because the best thing of a group or class is represented to be his vibhūti or special manifestation[9].”

The date of the Gītā has been the subject of long discussions among scholars, and it is inconvenient for our present purposes to enter into an elaborate controversy. One of the most extreme views on the subject is that of Dr Lorinser, who holds that it was composed after Buddha, and several centuries after the commencement of the Christian era, under the influence of the New Testament. Mr Telang in the introduction to his translation of the Bhagavad-gītā points out—as has been shown above—that the Bhagavad-gītā does not know anything that is peculiarly Buddhistic. Attempt has also been made to prove that the Gītā not only does not know anything Buddhistic, but that it also knows neither the accepted Sāṃkhya philosophy nor the Yoga of Patañjali’s Yoga-sūtra. This, together with some other secondary considerations noted above, such as the non-identification of Vāsudeva with Nārāyaṇa and the non-appearance of the vyūha doctrine, seems to be a very strong reason for holding the Gītā to be in its general structure pre-Buddhistic. The looseness of its composition, however, always made it easy to interpolate occasional verses. Since there is no other consideration which might lead us to think that the Gītā was written after the Brahma-sūtras , the verse Brahma-sūtra-padaiś caiva hetumadbhir viniścitaiḥ has to be either treated as an interpolation or interpreted differently. Śaṅkara also thought that the Brahma-sūtra referred to the Gītā as an old sacred writing (smṛti), and this tallies with our other considerations regarding the antiquity of the Gītā.

The view of Dr Lorinser, that the Bhagavad-gītā must have borrowed at least some of its materials from Christianity, has been pretty successfully refuted by Mr Telang in the introduction to his translation, and it therefore need not be here again combated. Dr Ray Chaudhury also has discussed the problem of the relation of Bhāgavatism to Christianity, and in the discussion nothing has come out which can definitely make it seem probable that the Bhāgavata cult was indebted to Christianity at any stage of its development; the possibility of the Gītā being indebted to Christianity may be held to be a mere fancy. It is not necessary here to enter into any long discussion in refuting Garbe’s view that the Gītā was originally a work on Sāṃkhya lines (written in the first half of the second century B.C.), which was revised on Vedāntic lines and brought to its present form in the second century A.D.; for I suppose it has been amply proved that, in the light of the uncontradicted tradition of the Mahā-bhārata and the Pañca-rātra literature, the Gītā is to be regarded as a work of the Bhāgavata school, and an internal analysis of the work also shows that the Gītā is neither an ordinary Sāṃkhya nor a Vedānta work, but represents some older system wherein the views of an earlier school of Sāṃkhya are mixed up with Vedāntic ideas different from the Vedānta as interpreted by Śaṅkara. The arbitrary and dogmatic assertion of Garbe, that he could clearly separate the original part of the Gītā from the later additions, need not, to my mind, be taken seriously.

The antiquity of the Bhāgavata religion is. as pointed out by Tilak, acknowledged by Senart (The Indian Interpreter, October 1909 and January 1910) and Bühler (Indian Antiquary, 1894), and the latter says,

“The ancient Bhāgavata, Sātvata or Pañca-rātra sect, devoted to the worship of Nārāyaṇa and his deified teacher Kṛṣṇa Devakī-putra, dates from a period long anterior to the rise of the Jainas in the eighth century B.C.”

And assuredly the Gītā is the earliest available literature of this school. As regards external evidence, it may be pointed out that the Gītā is alluded to not only by Kālidāsa and Bāṇa, but also by Bhāsa in his play Karṇa-bhāra[10]. Tilak also refers to an article by T. G. Kale in the Vedic Magazine , vii. pp..528-532, where he points out that the Bodhāyana-Gṛhya-śeṣa-sūtra, 11. 22. 9, quotes the Gītā, ix. 26, and the Bodhāyana-Pitṛ-medha-sūtra, at the beginning of the third praśna, quotes another passage of the Gītā[11].

Incidentally it may also be mentioned that the style of the Gītā is very archaic; it is itself called an Upaniṣad, and there are many passages in it which are found

  • in the īśa (īśa, 5, cf. the Bhagavad-gītā, xm. 15 and vi. 29),
  • Muṇḍaka (Muṇḍ. 11. 1. 2, cf. the Gītā , xm. 15),
  • Kāthaka (11. 15, 11. 18 and 19 and 11. 7, cf. the Gītā, viii. 11; 11. 20 and 29)
  • and other Upaniṣads.

We are thus led to assign to the Gītā a very early date, and, since there is no definite evidence to show that it was post-Buddhistic, and since also the Gītā does not contain the slightest reference to anything Buddhistic, I venture to suggest that it is pre-Buddhistic, however unfashionable such a view may appear. An examination of the Gītā from the point of view of language also shows that it is archaic and largely un-Pāṇinean.

Thus from the root yudh we have yudhya (viii. 7) for yudhyasva; yat, which is ātmane-pada in Pāṇinean Sanskrit, is used in parasmai-pada also, as in vi. 36, vii. 3, ix. 14 and xv. 11; ram is also used in parasmai-pada in x. 9.

The roots kāṅkṣ, vraj, viś and iñg are used in Pāṇinean Sanskrit in parasmai-pada, but in the Gītā they are all used in ātmane-pada as well—

  • kāṅkṣ in 1. 31,
  • vraj in 11. 54,
  • viś in xxiii. 55
  • and iñg in vi. 19 and xiv. 23.

Again, the verb ud-vij, which is generally used in ātmane-pada, is used in parasmai-pada in v. 20; nivasiṣyasi is used in xii. 8 for nivatsyasi, mā śucaḥ for mā śocīḥ in xvi. 5; and the usage of prasaviṣyadhvam in 111. 10 is quite ungrammatical.

So yamaḥ saṃyamatām in x. 29 should be yamaḥ saṃyacchatām, he sakheti in xi. 41 is an instance of wrong sandhi, priyāyārhasi in xi. 44 is used for priyāyāḥ arhasi, senānīnām in x. 24 is used for senānyām[12].

These linguistic irregularities, though they may not themselves be regarded as determining anything definitely, may yet be regarded as contributory evidence in favour of the high antiquity of the Gītā. The Gītā may have been a work of the Bhāgavata school written long before the composition of the Mahā-bhārata, and may have been written on the basis of the Bhārata legend, on which the Mahā-bhārata was based. It is not improbable that the Gītā, which summarized the older teachings of the Bhāgavata school, was incorporated into the Mahā-bhārata, during one of its revisions, by reason of the sacredness that it had attained at the time.

Footnotes and references:


Ekāntino niṣkāma-bhaktāḥ,
      Nīlakantha’s commentary on the Mahā-bhārata, xii. 348. 3.


kaihito hari-gītāsu samāsa-vidhi-kalpitaḥ, Hari-gītā. 53. The traditional teaching of the Gītā doctrines is represented as ancient in the Gītā itself (iv. 1-3), where it is said that Bhagavān declared it to Vivasvān, and he related it to Manu, and Manu to Iksvāku, and so on, until after a long time it was lost; it was again revived by Kṛṣṇa in the form of the Bhagavad-gītā. In the Mahā-bhārata, xii. 348, it is said that Sanatkumāra learned this doctrine from Nārāyana, from him Prajāpati, from him Raibhya and from him Kuksi. It was then lost. Then again Brahmā learned it from Nārāyana, and from him the Barhisada sages learned it, and from them Jyestha. Then again it was lost; then again Brahmā learned it from Nārāyana, and from him Daksa learned it, and from him Vivasvān, and from Vivasvān Manu, and from Manu Iksvāku. Thus the tradition of the Bhagavadgītā, as given in the poem itself, tallies with the Mahā-bhārata account.


vaiśyāt tu jāyate vrātyāt sudharmācārya eva ca
kārūṣaś ca vijanmā ca maitraḥ saśvata eva ca.
, p. 8.


pañcamaḥ sātvato nāma Viṣṇor āyatanāṃ hi sa
pūjayeḍ ājñayā rājñāṃ sa tu bhāgavataḥ smṛtaḥ.


Saṅkarṣaṇa-dvitīyasya balaṃ Kṛṣṇasya ardḥitam.
, II. 2. 27.

mṛdaṅga-śaṅkha-paṇavāḥ pṛthañ nadanti saṃsadi
prāsāde dhana-pati-rāma-keśavānām.
11. 2. 34.


mahato veda-rṛkṣasya mulā-bhuto mahān ayaṃ
skandha-bhūtā ṛg-ādyās te śākhā-bhūtāś ca yoginaḥ
jagan-mūlasya vedasya Vāsudevasya mukhyataḥ
praiipādakatā siddhā mūla-vedākhyatā dvijāḥ.
1. 24-26.


yasmāt samyak paraṃ brahma Vāsudevākhyam avyayam
asmād avāpyote śāstrāj jñāna-pūrveṇa karmaṇā.
as quoted in Rāmānuja-bhāṣya, 11. 2. 42.

The Chāndogya Upaniṣad (vii. 1. 2) refers also to the study of ekāyana, as in the passage vāko-vākyam ekāyanaṃ ; ekāyana is also described as being itself a Veda in Śrīpraśna-saṃhitā, 11. 38, 39:

vedam ekāyanaṃ nāma vedānām śirasi sthitam
tad-arthakam pañca-rāiram mokṣa-daṃ tat-kriyāvatām
yasminn eko mokṣa-mārgo vede proktaḥ sanātanaḥ
mad-ārāḍhana-rūpeṇa tasmād ekāyanam bhavet.

See also the article “The Pañca-rātras or Bhāgavata-śāstra,” by Govindācārya Svāmin, J.R.A.S. 1911.


That the ekāntin faith is the same as the Sātvata or the Pañca-rātra faith is evident from the following quotation from the Pādma-tantra, iv. 2. 88:

sūris suhṛd bhāgavatas sātvataḥ pañca-kāla-vit
ekāntikas tan-mayaś ca pañca-rātrika ity api.

This faith is also called ekāvana, or the path of the One, as is seen from the following passage from the Īśvara-saṃhitā, 1. 18:

mokṣāyanāya vai panthā etad-anyo na vidyate
tasmād ekāyanaṃ nāma pravadanti manīṣiṇaḥ.


Vaiṣṇavism and Śaivism, p. 13.


Tilak quotes this passage on page 574 of his Bhagavaḍ-gītā-rahasya (Bengali translation of his Marathi work) as follows:

hato ’pi labḥate svargaṃ jitvā tu labḥate yaiaḥ
ubhe baḥumate loke nāsti niṣphalatā raṇe,

which repeats the first two lines of the Gītā, 11.37.



tad āha bhagavān,
patram puṣpam phalaṃ toyaṃ yo me bhaktyā prayacchati
tad aham bhakty-upahṛtam aśnārni prayatātmanaḥ.

Also Bodhāyana-Pitṛ-medha-sūtra:

yatasya vai numuṣyasya dhruvam maraṇam
iti vijānīyāt tasmāj jāte na prahṛṣyen mrte ca na viṣīdeta.

Compare the Gītā, jātasya hi dhruvo mṛtyuḥ, etc.

N.B. Ṭhese references are all taken from Tilak’s Bhagavad-gītā-rahasya pp. 574, etc.


For enumeration of more errors of this character see Mr V. K. Rajwade’s article in the Bhandarkar commemoration volume, from which these have been collected.

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