So the ICHR (Indian Council of Historical Research) is trying to 'date' the Mahabharata on one hand, and we have Baron Meghnad Desai asking who wrote the Bhagvad Gita on the other. The timing of this book appearing in the market could not have been more right! Oh, there should be a ticket price for watching what happens after one has thrown a copy of this book in ICHR's compound. *wicked grin*
Jokes apart, 'Who Wrote the Bhagvad Gita?: A Secular Inquiry into a Sacred Text' is a book to be taken seriously. The ICHR may be the butt of many jokes in the intellectual circles right now, but it is no secret that a chunk of our nation thinks the way they do. Most of us have been taught to believe – and we like to believe – that the Bhagvad Gita is a divine composition. And in that light, this book is not for the 'fainthearted'. Not that Desai makes light of the sacred position the Gita holds in our society; but academic inquiry is often in direct conflict with faith. Desai, like many Indological researchers before him, poses questions about the coherence and composition style of the text; which, to most laypersons might sound sacrilegious.
But Desai presupposes the Gita to be the work of a human author or authors, and then puts forth his theories. To the uninitiated, Meghnad Desai is a renowned British Indian economist, politician and a Padma Bhushan awardee. Although his work is extensively in the field of economics, he is highly respected as an academician in general. 'Who Wrote...' is his first book in the field of Indology, but his methodology and sharp insights as a pro researcher are evident. Desai draws his theories from many critical editions, translations and commentaries of the Gita. He cites the opinions of some of India's greatest thought leaders, including, Tilak, Gandhi, Vivekanada and Sri Aurobindo.
However, his largest influencers are D D Kosambi and Dr. G S Khair – two of the most vocal (and respected) critics in this sphere. There are a number of points Desai makes to support this theory of Gita's human authorship, but the primary among them are:
a. A discernible difference in literary styles among certain sections of the Gita
b. Internal ideological differences in those corresponding sections
Then there are cases of chronological problems, verse repetitions interpolations, caste and gender discrimination, and the induction of Buddhist ideals, the details of which a reader should get from the book. Desai deals with every aspect in a categorical manner, citing the verses he finds ‘objectionable’ and laying down his reasons for the same.
But my greatest takeaway from the book was Desai's assessment of the Gita's social worth in the Hindu society. He brings to notice some very recent – in the grand historical perspective – political and cultural events that brought the Gita into prominence. Before Tilak and Gandhi wrote and spoke about it extensively, the Gita doesn't seem to have had much sway in the nation. Today, we repose unquestioning faith in the text and hold it in the highest esteem. In this context, Desai asks us a very pertinent question: Does the Gita's 'slippery opportunism' morally allow us Indians to be corrupt and complacent?
Read it, think about it. I have been thinking too.