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Extremism and Tolerance in Different Interpretations of the Bhagavad-Gita Essay Sample

Extremism and Tolerance in Different Interpretations of the Bhagavad-Gita


The Bhagavad-Gita is an old Indian religious and philosophical work which was created, according to some sources, in the 8th-7th centuries BC. Many researchers, public figures, and prominent philosophers from around the world had addressed this literature work over their lifetime. Interpretation of Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, famous Gaudiya Vaishnava spiritual teacher, became the most widespread book version (Nithyananda 5). Engaged readers are now facing precisely his version without encountering other translations and commentaries in the arsenal of the scientific community. This situation happened due to the development of modern religious movement Society for Krishna Consciousness, whose members actively disseminate the book worldwide with the commentaries of Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, stated in the work Bhagavad-Gita as It Is. This book has given rise to many questions regarding extremism and violence in the Bhagavad-Gita, especially in Tomsk region, Russia, where a case has gone to trial (Das). However, other interpretations of this book seem to be much more tolerant. Thus, a full-detailed analysis is needed in order to bring an issue of extremism and violence in the Bhagavad-Gita to a close.

Topic Justification

There were a considerable number of different interpretations and stereotypes about this work in the mass consciousness throughout the history. However, there was and still is no reliable information about the different historical and cultural interpretations of the Bhagavad-Gita and their specificity. “The Bible of the Hindus”, “storage of Eastern wisdom”, occult, esoteric or sectarian literature – all of these clichés are present in people’s minds. There are also a great number of myths about the followers of the teachings of the Bhagavad-Gita, which appear differently from the point of view of certain interpretations or comments. Interpretations may include not only explanations expressed by the tradition representatives or scientists, but the variety of opinions in general, expressed by various social groups, the media and followers of the Bhagavad-Gita themselves.

In fact, in today’s world, any object can be perceived in both negative and positive way because the construction of language systems and the symbolic power of different social groups in the background of relational field of modernity create a certain image of the individual, process of society or even a book. A perception of any phenomenon in the society can be inverted in the shortest possible time with the help of words and symbols. Tolerance could become the carrier of a threat, and extremism could leave the field of view or appear as something positive. In such a situation, information is needed from the “field” that is not painted in symbols and interpretations, although it will also be an interpretation to a certain extent trying to clean itself up from the social stratifications.

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Basing on empirical evidence, it is possible to understand the values ​​that influence the behaviors of followers of different religious groups that dogmatically appeal to the Bhagavad-Gita, as well as understand their attitudes (positions and predispositions) and principles. This will allow them to get closer to understanding the nature of this work and not get lost in the abundance of its interpretations. Empirical basis, in addition to pre-existing works, consists of the studies of new religious movements (NRM) which were carried out in the Tomsk region and other regions of Russia, using the methods of qualitative paradigm in sociology, philosophy, and social anthropology (Radyuhin).  The included observations in such worldwide associations as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Sahaja Yoga, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and such directly related to the Bhagavad-Gita associations as International Society for Krishna Consciousness, Sri Chaitanya Saraswat Math, and others (Podtserob).

An interpretive approach of Clifford Geertz was used for the most adequate understanding of behavioral patterns which lies in the identifying the values ​​of the social world in different cultures through observation. The combination of explanations provided by NRM participants with the interpretation of the author allows them to provide the greatest reliability of the received information.


Motivational personality structure consists of three elements: the needs, interests, and values which influence each other. Individuals, receiving the information from the Bhagavad-Gita, gradually transform the dry facts in the data and then turn them into knowledge which starts to be considered as their own notion. The same happens with the norms or values which are transmitted in the scriptures. It takes a lot of time until the values will not become regulations which then develop into the rules that can be followed or neglected, and only then they become principles, beliefs, and interests. Of course, everything happens faster in a fanatical commitment which is characteristic of not only the representatives of religious movements, but also secular organizations, such as parties, clubs, and subcultures.

Thus, the next question becomes quite relevant: what are the values that the Bhagavad-Gita transmits? Even a cursory analysis suggests that the given work (as well as other scriptures of the world) has universal human values ​​that fill both the texts and commentaries. Values ​​of nepotism and parenting are presented in the first chapter. The ethics of relations with women and negative attitude toward fornication are discussed in many comments. The implementation of the duties and obligations is prescribed in many places of the work. Desire for personal and spiritual growth is well described in the third text of Chapter 16 (Robinson 24) which, as well as the commentaries to it, considers personality traits and values ​​that are divine and which should be aspired by a person. This is disclamation of abuse and unchastity, jealousy and jaundice, pursuing the fundamentals of honesty, benevolence, etc. The book is also certain to have definite religious beliefs: God adoration, kindness, and sacred practices.

The text has an interesting mention of the eternal nature of the soul of any person regardless of nationality or religion. The introduction describes the purpose of any person and the vision of the “common” which is ontologically inherent in each person; this fact speaks about a desire for universalism. In practice, this is manifested in the fact that followers do not divide the world into friends and foes, seeing members of other faiths as the carriers of universal values ​​and ideals. There are many syncretic or universalist religious organizations in today’s socio-cultural environment, but this case is an example of how the dogmatic content of particular trend which, at first glance, is quite specific and different from other religions contains the idea of ​​universalism.

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The previous question raises the next one: how much priority is given to the values of the Bhagavad-Gita followers and how often these values are embodied into reality? Observations allow us to see that some values ​​remain on the sidelines, some are expressed softly, and some (even though they are professed) are not accepted in full and are not included in the installation or behavior patterns (Nithyananda 63). This applies to many different aspects, starting from etiquette up to doctrinal or practical elements of the religious movement. This is due to the fact that any modern NRM is characterized by such phenomena as:

  • The low in-churching, which could be of three levels at least;
  • The worldcentrism (identification of success in the spirit with the success in the world or perception of religious practice as assistance in daily life);
  • Fragmented perception of teaching (“I accept what is pleasing to me. I do not notice the rest”);
  • Reduction of the role of authority;
  • Participation in the movement for social or cultural reasons (but not for the reasons of special revelation or search for God) (Nithyananda 70).

All these facts lead to a natural process of discrepancies between theory and practice, and something that is contained in the Bhagavad-Gita may not be relevant even to its followers to some extent. This trend is not new; similar processes occurred and are occurring in the history of many of the world’s religions.

However, there could be quite an opposite situation. The person who is fanatical in its faith begins to live “from heaven to earth” and “transmit messages” on behalf of God. Such person comes down to an extreme degree of confidence in the absolute truth and significance of its own religious beliefs and in its infallibility. A kind of “materialization of the spirit” occurs instead of spiritualization of life: a strict regulation of everything from the position of unquestionable authority. A spiritual slavery is cultivated instead of spiritual freedom in this case: human life loses all possible opportunities for its own movement.

Perceiving themselves as a direct instrument of God’s will, such people deny any freedom in them and all the significance of any kind of the norm, except for their own fanaticism: faith which has reached the internal fanaticism and external dictatorship. That sanction which gives people a boundless confidence in the absolute importance of their beliefs justifies in their eyes any violence, any violation of the accepted norms, both legal and moral ones.

For example, basic doctrinal text of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness Bhagavad-Gita As It Is directly declares that, “Even if one commits the most abominable action, if he is engaged in devotional service he is to be considered saintly because he is properly situated in his determination” (Prabhupada, ch 9, v. 30). Moreover, “One who is not motivated by false ego, whose intelligence is not entangled, though he kills men in this world, does not kill. Nor is he bound by his actions” (Prabhupada, ch. 18, v. 17). In other words, these fanatical believer positions stand even out of the good and evil. Quoted text relates to a particular religious tradition or rather a particular religious organization, but such phenomena are possible and actually occur on the basis of any religious doctrine.

There are also situations when texts of Bhagavad-Gita are of secondary importance to the followers. For example, the mantra chanting is the basis for the release in the Haribol movement (Kapila and Faisal 54). Thus, a follower of the Bhagavad-Gita can actively preach the essence of this work without delving into its dogmatic content as a whole. In this regard, karma yoga and dhyana yoga go by the wayside; the study of texts and practice of social orientation become secondary.

There are four regulative principles and essential reading 16 rounds of Maha Mantra on the beads which were established by Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, as he mentions it in Bhagavad-Gita As It Is. However, not all the members of the movement follow this practice, because, for example, they do not know many aspects of the spiritual life (which are described in the Song of Lord) (Robinson 57) in the early years of their stay in the movement. The setting is saved on the fact that “developing general human qualities is the most important thing”, “it is important for the man to be good”, because the very religious ideal – developing love for God – remains in the minds as just a certain idea.

Therefore, when a follower of the Bhagavad-Gita in Tomsk region or anywhere else in Russia hears that it is accused of extremism on the basis of some specific provisions for which the follower might have not even pay attention, it causes not even protest, but rather a complete lack of understanding of the reasons for the charges, because something that made ​​the claim is in no way connected with the real everyday life of that follower. Consequently, it is also necessary to understand the structure of behavioral patterns and practices of individuals that follow the Bhagavad-Gita.

Otherwise, there is a possibility of charges on a huge number of literary works, both ancient and modern, because the diversity of opinions which represent the social ideal could not prevent the existence of “other” interpretations from the “other” members of society. It is enough to recall what happened with Christianity which at the moment has more than thousands of denominations, churches, movements, and communities, each of which speaks of its own, the most correct understanding the doctrine, although the doctrine itself is sufficiently universal in terms of modern understanding of religion. The Bible, as well as Quran and many other scriptures, contains a lot of anti-social side, but that is no reason to declare it extremist and dangerous to social order.

Implications of such stressful situations related to court cases on the availability of extremism in the work which is sacred to certain groups of people are negative for both followers of the teachings and ordinary citizens. For instance, Tomsk region has about 500 followers of the Bhagavad-Gita, each of which has their own small or informal inner circle social group comprising about ten people. Throughout the trial, all these people were in a state of stress. Throughout the trial, all these people were in a state of stress (Podtserob). Without resorting to scientific research and long proven facts, the prosecutor brings a case, creating tension in the community. Such situations may lead to religious conflict, which is known to destroy the informal norms leading to the destruction of the vital basics of the society life.


The Bhagavad-Gita is non-violent text though it can be commented in various ways by different readers.  The presence or absence of violence fully depends on the text interpretation and its understanding by a single person. It should be remembered that fanatics are peculiar to almost every religion in the world and their understanding of a scripture or a whole religion is often exaggerated or misinterpreted.

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Religion as a social institution produces a form of social control through moral and ethical standards; it forms a tradition. If an ordinary person sees representatives of different faiths cussing or arguing on the Internet, then, most likely, such a person will draw the conclusion about the insolvency of religious norms, their ostentatious character, and another source of public order will be weakened. Number of laws increase every year, but it does not bring order and stability into the society.

First of all, the focus should be on the support of traditional religious faiths that make up the spiritual foundation of any civilization. Translation of highest forms of religious belief, having a long historical experience of creative work for the benefit of a particular country, is intended to deprive the soil out of those sprouts of religious extremism which are so dangerous to appear in recent years. Scientific and expert community should also contribute to the information policy of the state, aiming at the ideological opposition to various forms of religious intolerance and extremism and to the cultivation of high forms of a spiritual life in society.

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