Siddharth Varadarajan

Journalist | Writer | Analyst

Modi, Gita and the Dharma of a Prime Minister

vishvarupa, cosmic form of Shri Krishna shown to ArjunaNDTV
3 September 2014

Siddharth Varadarajan

The Gita is one of India’s – and the world’s – oldest and greatest philosophical texts, and the range of ethical, moral and ontological questions it raises are as relevant to humanity today as they were to the ancients.

More than the Upanishads or even the Vedas, the Gita is also seen by many Hindus as the one book that is most central and relevant to their religious beliefs. Medieval saints like Jnaneshwar embraced the Gita for they saw in its conception of bhakti a way of democratizing access to God for the toiling castes who had hitherto been held in thrall by Brahminism.

Whether religious or atheist, Hindu or non-Hindu, a follower of Advaita or any of the other schools of Indian philosophy, bigoted or democratic, there is hardly any Indian who does not consciously or unconsciously revisit the universalist arguments Krishna and Arjun had on the battlefield of the Mahabharata, who does not find himself or herself confronted with the same set of solutions to the dilemmas that life constantly poses, who does not remain conflicted by the challenges of dharma – duty, obligation, and responsibility.Having done so, this is not to say that some or even many may reject the decisions Arjuna finally took. Ambedkar famously saw in Krishna’s logic nothing but a defence of killing and war for the sake of property.

Narendra Modi is the Prime Minister of India and the job he has comes with a definite sense of dharma. During his visit to Tokyo, he presented Emperor Akihito with a copy of the Gita, a simple but elegant gift. I don’t know what significance Modi himself attached to the book but the manner in which he later taunted “secular friends” by claiming they were likely to object to his choice of the Gita as ‘communal’ suggests the PM has not digested or understood the contents of the book very well.

At one level, this ought not to surprise us. We know, for example, from the ‘do your rajdharma‘ advice Atal Bihari Vajpayee gave him in 2002 that Modi was seen as someone who forgets or is unsure about what the duty and obligations of a ruler really entail.

We know from the Gita, and from the late Prof Bimal K Matilal’s explorations of the Mahabharata’s moral dilemmas, that Krishna regarded dharma as something that was fluid and flexible. “But this flexibility,” Matilal writes, “never means the ‘anything goes’ kind of morality.” Rulers confront all kinds of situations and challenges so rajdharma has to be adaptable and contingent. But there is a limit to what can be considered morally acceptable. In 2002, Vajpayee hinted in his own way that the limit had been crossed; 100 days into office, Modi still does not understand where the line has to be drawn.

Apart from taking down a straw man – no “secular friends” have in fact objected to his gift of the Gita, nor have there been any TV debates on the gift as he apprehended – Modi is guilty of using his office (and the occasion of a state visit overseas) to play politics and introduce into the public sphere a toxic suggestion that diverts from the actual problem of communalism which he refuses to address. His words are intended to encourage the sense of grievance that the Sangh Parivar manufactures and purveys among Hindus: that their religion and identity is somehow under attack.

On August 15, the Prime Minister declared from the Red Fort that there should be a 10-year moratorium on communalism, communal politics and violence. Days later, the Uttar Pradesh unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party – which is now led by his hand-picked nominee Amit Shah – began an inflammatory campaign accusing the Muslim community as a whole of raping Hindu women and targeting them for religious conversion. The party may have dropped a reference to the hoax of ‘love jihad’ but a formal resolution passed states: “Instances of misbehaviour with women of one section by men of one particular section, whether just coincidence or by design, is a matter of concern.”

Acting in concert, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh – the very organization which Modi served directly for years and still swears by — is drumming up hysteria over the issue and has devoted the latest edition of its organ, Panchjanya, to this sort of hate-mongering. Yogi Adityanath, the Gorakhpur MP chosen by the BJP to be the face of its campaign in the upcoming by-elections to the UP Assembly, has also directly attacked the Muslim community as a whole for inciting riots and trying to drive Hindus away from their homes.

Instead of wasting time assailing his secular friends for a transgression they have not committed, shouldn’t the Prime Minister follow his rajadharma and put an end to the poisonous political campaign that his party and his parivar are waging? Does he not have a duty to protect the people of UP and India, including all Muslims and Hindus who will suffer as and when this hate politics turns violent?

In the Gita, Krishna gave Arjuna the moral courage to fight a war against his own kith and kin for the cause of dharma and righteousness. Read the Gita again, Mr. Prime Minister. And try to summon the courage to act firmly against the bigots in your own parivar.

3 comments on “Modi, Gita and the Dharma of a Prime Minister

  1. vipul vivek (@LazyCalcuttan)
    September 4, 2014

    In the Gita, Arjuna also says the following towards the end of the first chapter (English translation by S Sankaranarayan at

    “1.41. Because of the domination of impiety, O Krsna, the women of the family become corrupt; when the women become corrupt, O member of the Vrsni-clan, there arises the intermixture of castes;
    1.42. The intermixture leads the family-ruiners and the family to nothing but the hell; for, their ancestors (their individual souls) fall down [in hell], being deprived of the rites of offering rice-balls and water [intended to them].
    1.43. On account of these evils of the family-ruiners that cause the intermixture of castes, the eternal caste-duties and family-duties fall into disuse.”

    You cannot choose what parts of the Book (as it were) people pick to believe in. That’s the problem in using the Book as a metaphor. At an abstracted level, dharma might seem effusing with humanism, but reckoning that it etymologically means that which holds together, it is the caste system that dharma was used to perpetrate through the jati rules that were supposed to hold the Hindu fabric together. This is also what the Amdekarite reading tries to expose.

    • Mohammad Hasan
      September 8, 2014

      Well argued dispassionately. India is alive whatever are the odds of time!!

  2. Gandhiji had visited a RSS rally on September 17,1947. At the conclusion of the speech, Gandhiji invited questions. One person asked if Hinduism permitted killing of an evil-doer.2 If not how did he explain the exhortation by Lord Krishna in the second chapter of the Gita to destroy the Kauravas.
    The reply to the first question, said Gandhiji, was both yes and no. One had to be an infallible judge as to who was the evil-doer before the question of killing could arise. In other words one had to be completely faultless before such a right could accrue to one. How could a sinner claim the right to judge or execute another sinner?

    As for the second question, granting that the right to punish the evildoer was recognized by the Gita, it could be exercised by the properly constituted Government only.
    Both the Sardar and Pandit Nehru will be rendered powerless if you become judge and executioner in one. They are tried servants of the nation. Give them a chance to serve you. Do not sabotage their efforts by taking the law into your own hands.
    Harijan, 28-9-1947, and Mahatma Gandhi—The Last Phase, Vol. II, p. 441
    – Aflatoon.

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This entry was posted on September 3, 2014 by in Bad Ideas, Communal Violence, Indian Politics, Narendra Modi.



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