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  • Toward a new Hermeneutics of the Bhagavad Gītā: Sri Ramakrishna, Sri Aurobindo, and the Secret of Vijñāna
  • Ayon Maharaj (bio)

The Bhagavad Gītā has inspired more interpretive controversy than any other religious scripture in India’s history. The Gītā, a philosophical and spiritual poem of approximately seven hundred verses, is part of the ancient Sanskrit epic, the Mahābhārata. In the Gītā, the Lord Kṛṣṇa, who appears in the form of a charioteer, imparts spiritual teachings to the warrior Arjuna and convinces him to fight in a just war that entails the slaughter of many of Arjuna’s own relatives and loved ones. Śaṅkara, the great eighth-century champion of the Advaita (“nondual”) school of philosophy, wrote the first extant commentary on the Gītā. In this commentary, Śaṅkara interpreted the Gītā strictly in accordance with Advaita philosophy and attempted to refute various possible non-Advaitic readings of the text.

Śaṅkara’s influential commentary on the Gītā inaugurated a lively debate over how to interpret the Gītā’s philosophical teachings that continues to this day. Rāmānuja, the eleventh-century proponent of the Viśiṣṭādvaita (“qualified nondual”) school of philosophy, rejected Śaṅkara’s Advaitic interpretation of the Gītā and claimed that the Gītā in fact propounds the philosophy of Viśiṣṭādvaita. Madhva, the thirteenth-century exponent of the Dvaita (“dualist”) school of philosophy, argued—against both Śaṅkara and Rāmānuja—that the Gītā teaches none other than Dvaita doctrine. Over the centuries, countless other commentators holding a variety of philosophical and religious positions have claimed the Gītā as their own.

Since the beginning of the twentieth century, numerous Indian and Western scholars—ranging from B. G. Tilak and Sri Aurobindo to R. C. Zaehner, Robert Minor, and Arvind Sharma—have rightly complained that many traditional commentators on the Gītā were guilty of reading their own prejudices and preconceptions into the text.1 As Minor puts it, commentators such as Śaṅkara and Rāmānuja “believed that their systems of thought must be contained in the Gītā and set out to ‘find’ them there and to claim the Gītā as a source of their point of view, even at the expense of the text.”2 In other words, while traditional commentators claimed to provide a faithful exegesis of the Gītā, they often lapsed into the eisegetic practice of imposing their own conceptual frameworks onto the text, thereby distorting or falsifying fundamental aspects of the Gītā’s philosophical teachings.3

Many recent scholars have rejected this traditional eisegetic approach in favor of a more immanent approach to the Gītā that strives to understand the text on its own terms. One major consequence of this shift away from eisegesis in modern Gītā [End Page 1209] scholarship has been an increasing attention to a variety of apparent contradictions and puzzles in the Gītā that traditional commentators tended to ignore or explain away.4 Perhaps the most fundamental puzzle concerns the Gītā’s complex views on the nature of God. At various points, the Gītā describes Kṛṣṇa as a personal God with numerous attributes. In IV.7–9 (chapter 4, verses 7–9), for instance, Kṛṣṇa declares himself to be an incarnation of God in human form, and in V.29 Kṛṣṇa states that he is the “mighty Lord of all the worlds.”5 However, the Gītā also accepts the reality of the transcendental “Ātman” (“Self”) propounded in the Upaniṣads, the culminating portion of the Vedas. In II.17–25, Kṛṣṇa asserts in an Upaniṣadic vein that Arjuna’s true self is not the empirical body-mind complex but the eternal Ātman that is without form and attributes. Strikingly, despite the fact that the Gītā characterizes Kṛṣṇa as a personal God, it also identifies Kṛṣṇa with the formless, impersonal Ātman. As Kṛṣṇa declares to Arjuna in X.20, “I am the Ātman residing in the hearts of all beings.”

To complicate matters further, the Gītā also maintains that God...