A court in Siberia wants to ban the Gita. Indians, Hindus especially, are upset, especially since the court sees the Russian translation of the ISKCON commentary as a document that spreads social discord and advocates war and extremism.
Illustration/ Devdutt Pattanaik
First we must understand, that the court is in Siberia, a land that for over half a century, banned religion in keeping with its Communist ideals. Now that Communism is dead, the Orthodox Catholic Church is making a comeback.
A little bit of history: when the barbarian tribes overran Rome around 5th century AD, the Emperor shifted base to Byzantium, where eventually Christianity became the official religion. The Byzantine Church took credit for it and distanced itself from the Church at Rome. When, in the 15th century, following the Crusades, the Muslims overran Byzantium, the Church there moved north to Moscow and was patronized by the Russian Czars who yielded great influence on Eastern Europe until the Communist Revolution in early 20th century. This Byzantine Church is also known as Eastern Orthodox or Orthodox Catholic Church. It has a long history of being close to political power.
An entire generation of Russians grew up without any exposure to religion. The floodgates opened after the collapse of Communism. The Roman Catholics are there, the Protestants are there, the Muslims are there, the Buddhists are there and the Hindus are there too, especially in the form of the very visible ISKCON.
By nature, Hinduism has not been a proselytising religion. The idea of 'converting' to Hinduism does not exist though the idea of 're-converting' back to Hinduism has been advocated by Right-wing groups. But ISKCON is a 'sampradaya', a sect with a guru, based on the Gaudiya Vaishnava parampara (traditions), and you can enter a sampradaya through diksha or initiation, which can be seen as 'conversion'. Naturally, it threatens the Russian establishment.
ISKCON presents Hinduism in a highly monotheistic form, with Krishna as the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and Shiva, even Vishnu and Ram, as demi-gods! While this makes perfect sense within the sampradaya, it makes no sense to the average Hindu on Indian streets. The ISKCON translation with commentary of the Bhagavad Gita ("As it is") is rather unique, and quite different in flavor from the hundreds of other translations and commentaries such as those of Adi Shankar-acharya, Vallabh-acharya, Nimbarka, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Charles Wilson, Eknath Eshwaran, and Ramesh Menon, but it remains for most Hindus as valid as other translations and commentaries.
The Western mental template, be it Communist or Christian or secular, tends to be linear and literal, obsessed with exactness, quite unlike the Indian mental template that is cyclical and highly symbolic, comfortable with numerous even contradictory interpretations, one of the reasons why Indians are so comfortable with different religions, personal faiths notwithstanding.
So the Siberian court's view is very understandable, and without doubt political. How does one explain to them that this is the book that inspired Mahatma Gandhi, who spearheaded a non-violent freedom struggle? It is not easy. Seen literally, it can be easily seen as a manifesto for war where a warrior who does not want to fight his cousins is encouraged to raise his bow. But every Hindu in India knows that nothing in Hinduism is literal.
While we mock and condemn the Siberian court for its stand, let us not forget that the Western linear-literate template is used by American Indologists to describe Shiva-linga purely in sexual terms and some in the Roman Catholic Church to condemn yoga. Rather than provoking the increasingly common reaction of outrage, it must evoke empathy by making us realise how different people of the world see the same world differently.
The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper.