Gita will not be banned, now how about some introspection?

Take a look at this list:

* 2011: Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India by Joseph Lelyveld

* 2008: The Lives of Sri Aurobindo by Peter Heehs

* 1989: The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

* 1988: The Polyester Prince by Hamish McDonald

* 1984: Smash and Grab: Annexation of Sikkim by Sunanda Datta-Ray

These are only five out of several books that the Indian governments (central and state) have banned and put out of reach for us. We are too stupid, the reasoning goes, to be able to decide for ourselves whether or not we want to read these books. Who knows, after reading these sinful treatises, we might hit the street to riot and destroy the otherwise supremely harmonious society we live in. Were it not for these bans, Muslims would riot on Rushdie’s blasphemous work, the corporate sector would burn the Sensex because of McDonald’s analysis of Dhirubhai Ambani (fittingly available for $320 at Amazon) and disciples at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry would forget their peaceful existence and breakout into violence if they read Heehs’s book.

As a nation, banning books comes easy. We may be lagging in social parameters, in human development indices, in providing water, sanitation or education to our people, but if there is one thing India can be proud of it is in its sublime and unquestioned leadership in banning books that a few misguided elements seeking five minutes of fame can organise easily. It took the rational and tolerant sons of Mahatma Gandhi — Rajmohan and Gopalkrishna — to get Great Souls unbanned in all states but one: the home state of the Mahatma, Gujarat. No riots have broken out so far over a review that the book hinted at the Mahatma’s gay relationship.

In fact, among the large democratic nations of the world, India would be No 1 in this race that has ceased to have any competitors. Among mature nations, India runs proudly, strongly, piously alone — nobody else is interested in banning books anymore. Fair enough, we’ll read Heehs in Columbia and make do with the tribute to Rushdie in Midnight’s Diaspora, brilliantly edited by Daniel Herwitz and Ashutosh Varshney.

But when an equally misguided group of people attempt to ban the Bhagwad Gita, it is not only unacceptable but has mushroomed into a diplomatic issue, with SM Krishna taking up the country’s cudgels with his Russian counterpart. The Hindu community domestic and global is “outraged” over state prosecutors in Tomsk, a Siberian town in Russia, trying to ban the Bhagwad Gita because they consider it extremist.

“The state prosecutors have taken select words from the Bhagavad Gita out of context, in an effort to officially proscribe the text,” notes the Hindu American Foundation. “The version of the Gita in question is a Russian translation by AC Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the founder of ISKCON.” Any such ruling, a letter to the Russian Ambassador in the US states, “…will no doubt have dire consequences on the state of religious freedom for the small, but vibrant Hindu community in your country and will also be considered an affront to Hindus worldwide.”

The proposed ban is silly. “Banning Gita? Have they lost their minds. This great book of wisdom belongs not only to Hindus but to the whole humanity,” poet, songwriter and activist Javed Akhtar tweeted. The Bhagwad Gita is not a religious text that belongs exclusively to Hindus. It is a spiritual text that encompasses all — religion is incidental to the book. You may or may not believe in Hinduism, you may be an atheist or an agnostic and not believe in god. Even then, lessons of the Bhagwad Gita will apply to you. You don’t even need to be conscious of its principles, they will work on you irrespective. It will apply to the Indian outraged as well as the Russian prosecutors equally.

Is the Bhagwad Gita — one among 15 Gitas in the Mahabharata — extremist? For the surface mind, living in the seductive confines of the outer world, the answer would be yes. More so for the mind that hasn’t applied itself to even reading it and is working on selective excerpts carefully edited by mischief mongers. So, when Sri Krishna exhorts Arjuna to kill his great-father Bhishma in whose arms he grew up, his teacher Drona from who he learnt his archery, or his cousin Duryodhana who worked endlessly to destroy them, the surface mind will only see a preaching of violence. Even the Nobel laureate Amartya Sen in his last book, The Idea of Justice, believed that Arjuna had a better argument.

The problem with such a reading is that it takes the words at face value and analyses them for what they mean on the surface. Without the spiritual context, the Bhagwad Gita would appear violent. But just as the revival of the Ku Klux Klan doesn’t mean Christianity is a violent religion or Osama bin Laden’s terror doesn’t mean the Quran glorifies killing, a few verses of the Bhagwad Gita that propel Arjuna to kill doesn’t mean it promotes extremism. There are a whole lot of loonies out there — most of them thriving in the vacant spaces of religion — who twist a few lines to promote their narrow interests.

“If the Bhagavad Gita is read as a defence of war or a justification for violence, the basic teaching is ignored in favour of a fundamentalist view,” writes Swami Shraddhananda. “The fundamentalist views of each tradition are united on the subjugation of women, war as a viable answer to disagreements, the ‘rightness’ of occupation of one group over another, a static rather than an evolutionary view of development and only one religion as the ‘true’ religion. Human society is evolving in its consciousness of human rights beyond these limitations, in spite of patriarchy.”

What the Bhagwad Gita urges us to kill is not the physical bodies before us — those are mere symbols, outward expressions. It is our inner obstacles — habits, ego, desires, greed, attachment and so on; and not different from what other religions purport (the seven deadly sins in Christianity for instance) — to the growth of our consciousness that it seeks to neutralise. “All whom the social man holds most dear and sacred, he must meet as enemies and slay — the worshipped teacher and preceptor, the old friend, comrade and companion in arms, grandsires, uncles, those who stood in the relation to him of father, of son, of grandson, connections by blood and connections by marriage — all these social ties have to be cut asunder by the sword,” wrote Sri Aurobindo in Essays on the Gita (you can download the PDF of this most evolved translation here.

Further, even within the limited borders of the surface mind and surface actions, if the Russian court bans the Bhagwad Gita — which I do not think is going to happen — it would be akin to saying that it the country is attacked by its neighbours China, Mongolia, Kazakhastan or Finland, it will not retaliate. Yes, the situation is brilliantly tricky. “It is not that he did not know these things before, but he has never realised it all; obsessed by his claims and wrongs and by the principles of his life, the struggle for the right, the duty of the Kshatriya to protect justice and the law and fight and beat down injustice and lawless violence, he has neither thought it out deeply nor felt it in his heart and at the core of his life,” Sri Aurobindo wrote.

The Bhagwad Gita should not — and will not — be banned. Not in Russia, not anywhere in the world. In fact, the protest India is making politically and diplomatically is a sign that India as a country is ready to fight for what it believes to be right. In doing so, it is following the tenets of the Bhagwad Gita on the outside. It is now time for the same group of people to look within, introspect and unban all the books we’ve mindlessly banned here.

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