Archaeology and Vaishnava Tradition, Part Ten


Dec 20, 2010 — CANADA (SUN) — Part Ten of a monograph by Ramaprasad Chanda, published by the Archaeological Survey of India, 1998.

The background, again, of the picture within the frame, the philosophy of the Bhagavadgita called the epic Samkhya, is held by Deussen [1] and Hermann Oldenberg [2] as the precursor of Buddhism. Now let us turn to the chief element of the religion of the Bhagavadgita -- the path.

We are not here concerned with the other elements of the religion of the Bhagavadgita or the date of the composition of the work as we have it. The path taught by Vasudeva to Arjuna is the karma-yoga (path of work) of the yogins (III. 3; V. 2-6, XVIII, 3-7) and the goal is Brahmanirvanam (II. 72; V. 24-25). This karma-yoga or "the path of work" involves the performance of rites and duties enjoined in the Vedas as a householder without attachment to the worldly pleasures and pain and the dedication of the fruits of the 'works' (karma) to Vasudeva, and is contrasted with the jnanayoga or 'the path of knowledge' of the Samkhyas (III, 3; V. 4-5) which involves the renunciation of the world and works and wandering as a mendicant in search of the knowledge of self.

In this connexion the question arises, does the author of the Bhagavadgita, by giving preference to yoga or karma-yoga as distinguished from jnanayoga involving samnyasa (renunciation), discourage samnyasa? Sankara's answer to this question in effect is: Vasudeva in the Bhagavadgita disapproves of the view of the Samkhya extremists who hold that all should renounce the world whether they are fit for such renunciation or not; karma or the performance of the secular duties and sacred rites is obligatory on average persons like Arjuna; so Vasudeva does not discourage samnyasa on the part of those who have risen above the world by means of knowledge (na tu jnananishthan vyutthayinah samnyasinohapekshyah), for final emancipation is not possible without samnyasa in the end (Sankara's bhashya on XVIII. 3 and II. 11 and 21).

But in his introductory remarks to the commentary on II. 11 and to chapter III, Sankara refers to earlier commentators (kecchit), and particularly to the general introduction (sambandha-grantha) of an earlier commentator, called vrittikara by Anandagiri in his sub-commentary, who held quite an opposite view of the trend of the teachings of the Bhagavadgita. Sankara quotes:

    "In that connexion some say "Final emancipation is not attainable by the pursuit of the knowledge of self only after renouncing all works. Then what should be done? That final emancipation is attainable by means of (the pursuit of) knowledge along with (the performance of) Agnihotra and other rites enjoined in the Veda and Smriti is the incontrovertible meaning of the entire Gita." [3]

This view of the ancient Vrittikara is called "the doctrine of the combination of (the pursuit) of knowledge (of self) and of (the performance of) work" (jnana-karma-samuchchaya-vada). Sankara has no difficulty in refuting this doctrine by stating that it is inconsistent with the division of a man's life into four stages, in the fourth stage of which (the order of the yati or bhikshu) renunciation of all works is obligatory. The unnamed vrittikara whose work has been superseded by the bhashya of Sankara undoubtedly preserved an older tradition regarding the character of the religion of the Bhagavadgita. The incompatibility of this religion with the scheme of the four asramas (stages of life) can only be explained by the supposition that it came into being before the promulgation or adoption of the scheme of the four asramas by the orthodox Brahmanists.

The asramadharma or "the duties of the (four) orders" is fully recognized in other parts of the Mahabharata, so the karma-yoga of the Bhagavadgita is older than the Mahabharata as a whole. The scheme of the four orders (asramas) is also expounded in the earliest extant Dharmasutras, those of Gautama and Apastamba, assigned by Buhler to the fifth and the third centuries B.C. respectively. The four asramas are not named in the older Upanishads such as the Brihadaranyaka and the Chhandogya. In these works we come across two different types of seekers of the knowledge of Brahman: the first type is represented by the Brahman, Uajnavalkya, who renounces the world for that purpose; the second type is represented by the Kshatriya king, Janaka of Videha, who performs sacrifices, gives gifts, governs his kingdoms while seeking the knowledge of Brahman for final emancipation.

The karma-yoga of the Bhagavadgita was evidently the religion of such royal sages as Janaka of the Videhas, Asvapati of the Kekayas, Ajatasatru of the Kasis, and Pravahana of the Panchalas named in the Upanishads, who regularly perform Vedic rites that are intended to secure life in paradise, but aim at something different union with Brahman through knowledge of self. It is clearly stated in the Bhagavadgita III. 20:

    "Janaka and others reached the goal (samsiddhimasthita) by works. You should perform (works) in order to prevent people from going astray (lokasamgrahameva)."

So it may be assumed that this karma-yoga originated within the orthodox fold side by side with the jnana-yoga of the older Upanishads, and the scheme of the four asramas was formulated in the Brahmanic schools later on to reconcile the two.

The karma-yoga of the Bhagavadgita was essentially a creation of Kshatriya orthodoxy and was originally confined to that community. Says Vasudeva in the Bhagavadgita IV. 1-2:

    "This imperishable (karma) yoga I explained to Vivasvat; Vivasvat communicated it to Manu; and Manu to Ikshvaku. Thus handed down in succession it was known to the royal sages (rajarshayah). That yoga, O thou that burn your enemies (with the heat of your prowess), that yoga is now lost owing to the lapse of a long period of time."

Vivasvat or the Sun-god and Manu called Vaivasvata or the son of Vivasvat, are the [legendary] progenitors of the ancient Kshatriya race of India, and Ikshvaku is one of the ancient Kshatriya kings. When the doctrine of transmigration found general acceptance and the Vedic sacrifices and penances were thought insufficient for procuring release from the cycle of re-births, jnana-yoga with samnyasa for reaching the goal rose among the Brahmans, and the karma-yoga taught in the Bhagavadgita arose among the practical and worldly-minded Kshatriyas. Probably it was Vasudeva who elaborated and propagated it. Under the name of Krishna-Devakiputra he finds mention in the Chhandogya-Upanishad (III. 17-6) as a distinguished pupil of a distinguished teacher, Ghora Angirasa. In such matters we can expect no better evidence than tradition and traditional points to such a conclusion.


[1] Outlines of the Indian Philosophy, Berline, 1907, p. 36
[2] J.R.A.S., 1918, p. 321
[3] tatra kechiddhuh, -- sarva-karma-samnyasapurvvakat atmanjnananishthamatradeva kevalat kaivalyam na prapyate eva, evam kim tarhi? Agnihotradi srauta-smarta-karmasahitat jnanat kaivalyapraptiriti sarvasu (titasu nischitortha iti (II. 10)


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