- Divine Self, Human Self: The Philosophy of Being in Two Gītā Commentaries by Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad
The Bhagavad Gītā has drawn the attention of commentators for at least one thousand three hundred years. These commentators have ranged in philosophical persuasion from the nondualistic to the theistic to the speculative, from the classical Brāhmiṇical traditionalist to the modern European exclusivist to the contemporary Indian nationalist. And yet, despite the Gītā’s own prominence as a source of the epic imagination, religious inspiration, and scholarly attention, precious little, beyond some valuable translations and secondary works, has appeared in English that deals with the philosophical and theological significance of some of the text’s earliest readings. Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad’s Divine Self, Human Self: The Philosophy of Being in Two Gītā Commentaries aims to fulfill some of the unmet need, but does so through a unique and illuminating approach.
Ram-Prasad explicates the Gītā commentaries of the eighth-century Advaita preceptor Śaṅkara and the twelfth-century Viśiṣtadvaitin Rāmānuja, but not from the perspective of intellectual history or complex hermeneutical or Indological analysis. Instead, he proposes in this concise work to take a step forward where “there is no established field as such,” namely in “constructive Hindu theology” (p. ix). While acknowledging that the language of the book, English, requires the employment of Western theological terminology, and while also positively hoping that intercultural dialogue will be inspired by this treatment, Ram-Prasad writes: “if Hindu theology is to flourish (again), it must do so in a world it did not make but may yet enrich, a world in which a global discourse is becoming possible without merely being rendered so by the cultural fiat of Western hegemony” (p. x). The theological purpose of the book lies in its attempt not to decide what the Gītā itself really means or to adjudicate between the relative merits of Śaṅkara’s and Rāmānuja’s readings but to present their interpretations of the classic text as two different theories of divinity, self, and being, in a way that will be of interest to other contemporary theologians who, Ram-Prasad believes, are fascinated by resonant issues (p. xi). Furthermore, between Śaṅkara and Rāmānuja we find “dialectical” differences and “complementary challenges” in reading the Gītā, particularly given “Kṛṣṇa’s declarative presence” in the root text. For the former attempts to subordinate God to a kind of knowledge that transcends both being and nonbeing, while the latter endeavors a project that makes all else dependent on our reception of God’s grace (p. xii).
These conceptions of the divine also, of course, have profound implications for each Vedāntin’s formulation of the human relationship to it that end up seeing each [End Page 626] thinker grapple with somewhat overlapping but still very different valuations of the significance of personhood. Ram-Prasad more than delivers in the book’s three chapters on drawing out the theological contours of these two great Gītā commentaries with this approach to their texts.
The work’s first two chapters then offer a detailed extrapolation of how Śaṅkara and Rāmānuja read the Gītā in ways that are consistent with both their own systematic concerns and in accord with the philosophical and theological principles that the text itself articulates. Given their respective Advaita and Viśiṣtadvaita commitments, there is a palpable sense in which, as Ram-Prasad writes, the two thinkers have opposite challenges with Kṛṣṇa and brahman. Śaṅkara must explain what Kṛṣṇa, who insists in the Gītā on his divine preeminence, is doing in a text that he believes is really about the transcendence of being and nonbeing by brahman, while Rāmānuja must clarify why there are places in the text where brahman seems to be described as supreme despite Kṛṣṇa’s overarching...