The Bhagavad Gītā has been interpreted from a variety of perspectives by scholars of different persuasions. Yogananda, renowned ascetic and author of Autobiography of a Yogi has also produced a commentary on the Gītā, entitled God Talks with Arjuna – Royal Science of God-Realisation.

In this work, he has interpreted the Gītā as a mystical text meant for teaching the yogic aspirant the path to attain supreme consciousness and self-realisation. Written perhaps with an American audience in view, he identifies this highest state as the ‘Universal Christ Consciousness or Kutastha Chaitanya, Universal Krishna Consciousness’ who/which is ‘the only begotten son or sole undistorted reflection of God’ (xxvii). ‘Bhagavan Krishna’ is for him the ‘Christ of India’ and both are:

titles having the same spiritual connotations … [which] identify the state of consciousness manifested by these two illumined beings, their incarnate oneness with the consciousness of God omnipresent in creation … The full measure of God’s consciousness is manifested in those who have full realisation of the Christ or Krishna Consciousness (ibid).

Elements of mysticism and esotericism, drawn from Indic traditions of yoga and tantra, enter into a heady admixture with Christianity and New Age categories: ‘King Soul reigns supreme – the pure image of God in man … but when [it] descends into body consciousness’ encased in two subtle bodies – causal and astral – ‘it comes under the influence of maya (cosmic delusion) … or psychological Satan’ and ‘takes command of the bodily kingdom’ as King Ego. ‘The soul consciousness can say with the awakened Christ in Jesus, I and my Father are one’ (11-12) … and so on it goes.

I had therefore not the stamina to go further with this book. A part of the commentary on the first verse was all I could manage, of which I will write here. In this verse, Dhṛtarāṣṭra asks Sañjaya: ‘on dharmakṣetra kurukṣetra, assembled and eager for war, the sons of Paṇḍu and mine, what did they do?’

Yogananda interprets the armies assembled on opposite sides as spiritual and material forces which advance and oppose soul qualities, constituents of a yoga physiology of astral and causal bodies. Although an attempt is made to provide the association with a linguistic and philosophical basis, it appears convoluted and arbitrary. For example, warriors on the Pāṇḍava side like Yuyudhana, Uttamaujas, Cekitāna, and so on, are identified with śraddhā, vīrya, smṛti, and so on. Likewise, warriors on the Kaurava side like Kṛpa, Bhīṣma, Karṇa, and so on, are identified with avidyā, asmitā, rāga, and so on.

When I first read this interpretation, it sounded novel and exciting, especially given that my assumption at that time was that ancient Indian thought was just woolly-headed spiritualism. The fact that an attempt had been made to bring together the elements of Indian mysticism into a logical and coherent system aroused my interest. Subsequently, however, I became disillusioned with it not so much because there was nothing rational or verifiable about this knowledge but I started to doubt whether it had anything to do with the issues discussed in the Gītā (or, for that matter, in Christianity). The moment of estrangement came when I realised that the very foundation on which Yogananda had built his symbology was false. The first verse of the Gītā, he claims:

points out … the prime necessity to man of nightly introspection, that he may clearly discern which force – the good or the evil – has won the daily battle. To live in harmony with God’s plan, man must ask himself each night the ever pertinent question: Gathered together on the sacred bodily tract – the field of good and evil actions – what did my opposing tendencies do? Which side won today in the ceaseless struggle? The crooked, tempting, evil tendencies, and the opposing forces of self-discipline and discrimination – come now, tell me, what did they do? (italics mine, 9)

It is not only the reference to living in harmony with God’s plan, the whole passage seems as if it is infused with a Christian spirit, something that you would hear a pastor teach in a church or a modern guru at a satsang rather than something you would read in a traditional Hindu mokṣaśāstra.

The duty of introspection is entrusted to Sañjaya, who represents:

the power of impartial intuitive self-analysis … the ability to stand aside, observe oneself without any prejudice and judge accurately (6).

Yogananda reminds us that Vyāsa:

bestow[ed] on Sañjaya the spiritual power of being able to see from a distance everything taking place over the entire battlefield, so that he could given an account to the blind king Dhṛtarāṣṭra as the events unfold (ibid).

On this basis, he argues, that the question put to Sañjaya should have been in the present tense. The use of the past tense (what did they do?) was meant to provide a hint that the battle was not a historical one but:

a universal battle – the one that rages daily in man’s life … to indicate that the power of one’s introspection is being invoked to review the conflicts of the day in one’s mind in order to determine the favourable or unfavourable outcome (7).

This argument is completely invalid because while it is true that Vyāsa did invest Sañjaya with special powers of vision, he did not narrate the battle, including the Gītā, as the time that it was taking place. I recall having read somewhere, probably in the initial chapters of the Mahābhārata, that Sañjaya would witness the battle on the battlefield and would return in the evening to narrate the events to Dhṛtarāṣṭra. Unfortunately, I cannot find that source in the original text now but Ramesh Menon, in his book The Mahabharata: A Modern Rendering (Volume 2) has made a similar point when he states that Vyāsa tells Dhṛtarāṣṭra:

Each morning, [Sañjaya] will travel subtly to the battle’s edge and from there have use of his occult vision… Every night, he will return to you and describe all that transpired (112).

It has also been brought to my attention by Sandeep Nangia that it was only after the tenth day that the narration of the battle started. With regards to the issue I have raised here, whether the narration took place every night or after ten days does not matter. The point is: it occurred after the event and that is why the Gītā has been narrated in the past tense.

We may also note that when Sañjaya mentions Kṛṣṇa giving Arjuna his viśvarūpadarśana, again he uses the past tense darśayāmāsa ‘he showed.’ Surely, this consistent use of the past tense should have made Yogananda realise that something was amiss in his interpretation.

Vyāsa is thus not providing us any hint that would warrant the need for a complex symbology as Yogananda has explained. Strangely, the publisher of God Talks to Arjuna has realised the mistake but has refused to face up to the consequences. Rather, in order to defend the symbology, he makes the following untenable claim (7):

This symbology explains why, even though Sañjaya had been given the power to perceive and describe the events at the same time they were happening, he did not narrate to Dhṛtarāṣṭra the Gītā discourse, which preceded the battle, until ten days of fighting had already taken place (Publisher’s Note).

This does not make any sense. He has just brazenly put the cart before the horse. Instead of admitting that the future narration of the Gītā justifies the grammatical use of the past tense and thus renders the symbology gratuitous (considering that no introspection is being advised here), the publisher suggests preposterously that it is the symbology which explains the future narration!

Furthermore, he is also in error for stating that Sañjaya had been invested with visual powers to narrate the events at the same time they were happening. On the contrary, the Mahābhārata clearly says that he was supposed to go the battlefield and witness the events there and subsequently narrate them to Dhṛtarāṣṭra.

Now, one may argue that the misinterpretation of the past tense in the first verse is a trivial error but in my view it is precisely its triviality that is significant. If not for this mistake, one would not bear any doubt regarding the symbology. Admittedly, it was a gratuitous mistake, for had Yogananda simply interpreted the two armies as representing forces that promote and obstruct the edification of the soul, and not referred to the verbal tense as a basis for this view, who would have been any wiser? It is precisely by basing his mystical interpretation on a false assumption that he makes one wonder just how much is being read into the Gītā.

In the 19th century a consensus emerged among Hindu intellectuals and Indophilic Western thinkers that Indian and Western expertise lay in the spiritual and material domains respectively. Consequently, it became de rigueur that Indians and Westerners should learn the material and spiritual sciences from each other. Interpretations of the Gītā have turned increasingly spiritualist in the modern period, with the exception of some Hindu thinkers, like Tilak, who was apparently concerned with the obsessive spiritualism of the Hindus.

However, when we turn to the interpretations of the ancient scholars, such as Ādi Śaṅkara, then we become familiar with the kind of issues that the Gītā sought to address, such as: the conflict between the stages of gṛhastha and sannyāsa, the difficulties involved in the practice of dharma, especially kṣatriya dharma, given its entailment of violence, and the general concern that the performance of action binds a person to its fruit and obstructs his release from the cycle of life and death.

These are the issues which the Gītā purports to solve and this gets occluded when the text is put in the service of describing the structure and operation of a particular spiritual path, such as Yogananda has done, and for which other texts, wholly dedicated to explaining that spiritual path, are more suitable.

While the war in the Gītā is symbolic of the general violence entailed in worldly life, it is not an allegory for an inner conflict of good and evil forces, as Hindu intellectuals, including Gandhi, have interpreted, I suppose, on account of their influence of Christianity. Systems of yoga or tantra or bhakti are intended to outline a path for aspirants to attain liberation in the ‘real’ sense. The Gītā, on the other hand, may touch upon all these systems, but it is evidently meant for the worldly person. It does teach self-knowledge but that is meant to facilitate the worldly person to participate mindfully in the world. Interpretations such as those provided by Yogananda therefore cause us to stray from what the Gītā aims to teach us. As for the overdose of Christianity in his commentary, the less said the better.