On the evening of the 17th July 1942 Heinrich Himmler, Hitler’s architect of death, drank two glasses of wine. An expression of satisfaction curved on his lips, a look of relaxation emanated from his eyes. He had just witnessed a successful trail-gasification and was confident that the recently decided annihilation of the Jews could be met efficiently.
While he was sitting there, he allegedly had a book with him, a book which he constantly carried since 1941: the Bhagavad Gita. How comes that the second most important man of the Third Reich had India’s probably most significant scripture with him?
Himmler and Gandhi on the Gita
Himmler was fascinated by the Gita, since it gave him, according to his own interpretation, a philosophical justification for everything he and the Nazis had done and were about to do, including the extermination of about six million innocent children, women, and men.
He took Krishna by the word, when he instructs Arjuna not to grief about the people he is about to kill, even though they might be his relatives. Instead he should follow his duty and do what he as a Kshatriya, a worrier is supposed to do: fight. So they did – Arjuna as well as Himmler.
Himmler followed this non-consequential ethic of duty and conducted what his Krishna (Hitler) ordered him to do, without trying to reap the fruits of his deeds, as the Gita demands. Was that, however, what the Gita really meant?
A different reading
Mahatma Gandhi and S. Radhakrishna on the other hand read the Gita entirely different. For Gandhi it was even a pacifistic text promulgating ahimsa or nonviolence. Both saw the big battle between the Pandavas and the Kauravas as an allegory for inner struggle, the spiritual fight that we encounter on quotidian basis.
According to Gandhi, “the physical warfare was brought in merely to make the description of the internal duel more alluring.” This is not too farfetched, considering that both words Kurukshetra and Dharmakshetra (Gita 1.1) are used in the Bhagavad Gita.
While the first is merely the geographical location, where the battle of the Mahabharta took place, the second indicates that it is also the battlefield of dharma or duty. And dharma is – despite its premises and results, which may be part of the outside world – a conflict that takes first and foremost place in ourselves.
As far as ahimsa is concerned, Gandhi argued that every action of himsa or violence is fueled by desire and hence contradictory to the teachings of the Gita. Wasn’t the Nazis extermination of the Jews driven by several desires, such as finding a scapegoat and an enemy in order to consolidate their own power and identity?
Secondly, Gandhi emphasized: “we have to reflect to discover what our duty is.” If we knew it all the time, there would be no conflict, no inner struggle in the first place. So that means neither to follow a class system constructed for other people in a totally different time with entirely different needs. Nor to obey what some weird megalomaniac with an even weirder moustache ordered.
This reminds somewhat of the controversy surrounding the term Jihād-e-Akbar. While some interpret the term jihād – which can be roughly translated as “struggle” – as inner spiritual struggle, others read it as outer physical struggle.
As I argued somewhere else, texts, not even words, can give one definite meaning, so that is up to us to decide, how to deconstruct information. The bible enabled Christianity to allow slavery and rigid hierarchy. But then again it was also responsible for the development of democracy and social values.
Diverse reading is particularly given when it comes to the Bhagavat Gita, since on these pages we can find the confluence of several philosophical streams. The philosophy of Sāmkhya yoga, pieces of Vedic thought concerning sacrifice, and some Buddhist elements were glued to a body of thought from the Upanishades.
The resulting, sometimes even contradictory patch-working-teaching led some scholars to the conclusion that the book was authored by several writers. No wonder that reception differed so immensely.
While the German Idealists in the beginning of the 19th century were overwhelmed by the scripture and absorbed it into their romantic picture of India (like Rudyard Kipling) others such as the Nobel laureate Albert Schweitzer judged it to be “not only the most read, but the also the most idealized book of world literature.”
Duty, freedom, and responsibility
Yet, this is the beauty of the Bhagavad Gita and in that respect of every writing that allows us to infer our own interpretation. It should, contrary to unyielding and orthodox understanding, enable discussion, since only by means of debate we will be able to adjust meaning to present relevance and needs. As long as the earth is rotating, we have to move too.
This does not mean we are not ought to act according to our duties, but that there has to be a preceding debate, especially within ourselves, what these duties are. In addition, it means we have the freedom of choice. And this comes with responsibility, unlike Himmler, who thought that duty equates to carry out orders blindly.