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Both Nathuram Godse and Mahatma Gandhi read the Bhagavad Gita but one

became a martyr and the other a murderer
January 30 reminds us of the fact that even the holiest of texts can have subjective and
differential meanings.
The sacred Indian verses of Shrimad Bhagavad Gita has been in the news for various reasons in
recent months. Prime Minister Narendra Modi presented a copy of the Bhagavad Gita to United
States President Barack Obama when he visited the White House last year and one to Emperor
Akihito of Japan. He has declared that the Gitawould be the gift that he would carry for all world
leaders. More controversially, Union Minister Sushma Swaraj advocated that the Gita may be
declared the national book of India. Most recently, the BJP government in Haryana declared its
intention to teach the Gita as part of the school curriculum.
To say that religion and politics should not be mixed has not only become a cliché, but may be
missing the point altogether. Many tall leaders found the reason for their political action in their
religious faith. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr are examples. President Obama
mentioned in his town hall speech in Delhi last week that his faith strengthened him in his life. It
is also true that many kings and emperors of the past used religious faith to justify killings and
Martyr and murderer
Many individuals and organisations advocate and indulge in violence today, and justify it on the
basis of religious texts. January 30, the day Nathuram Godse killed Mahatma Gandhi, is the
starkest reminder in the history of humankind of how the same text can be read differently. Both
read the Bhagavad Gita. One became Gandhi. The other became Godse. One became a martyr.
The other became a murderer. Jawaharlal Nehru, for whom the Gita was “a poem of crisis, of
political and social crisis and, even more so, of crisis in the spirit of man,” wrote in the Discovery
of India: “... the leaders of thought and action of the present day — Tilak, Aurobindo Ghose,
Gandhi — have written on it, each giving his own interpretation. Gandhiji bases his firm belief in
non-violence on it; others justify violence and warfare for a righteous cause ...”
What is curious is the fact that the two opposite interpretations of the Gita that Nehru refers to
were responses to the same shared reality that their respective proponents encountered —
colonialism and Christianity. Two strikingly different responses emerge to the same situation.
The divergence is evident from the debate between Gandhi and Bal Gangadhar Tilak. In 1920,
Tilak wrote to Gandhi: “Politics is the game of worldly people and not of Sadhus, and instead of
the maxim, ‘overcome anger by loving kindness, evil by good,’ as preached by Buddha, I prefer to
rely on the maxim of Shri Krishna, ‘In whatsoever way any come to me, in that same way I grant
them favour.’ That explains the whole difference.” Gandhi replied: “For me there is no conflict
between the two texts quoted by the Lokamanya. The Buddhist text lays down an eternal
principle. The text from the Bhagavad Gita shows to me how the eternal principle of conquering
hate by love, untruth by truth can and must be applied.”
For Tilak, the Gita was a call for action, political and religious. He declared that
the Gita sanctioned violence for unselfish and benevolent reasons. While Tilak’s interpretation of
the Gita that he wrote while in prison inspired a generation of warriors against British
colonialism, it also informed Hindutva politics. Godse used similar arguments to justify the
killing of the Mahatma, and quoted from the book during his trial. For Gandhi, the Gita and all
religious texts were not excuses for exclusion and bigotry, but inspiration for compassion and
confluence. In The Bhagavad Gita According to Gandhi — incidentally, the book that Mr. Modi
gifted Mr. Obama — the Father of the Nation wrote: “But there is nothing exclusive about the

but more importantly. BJP MP Sakshi Maharaj knew what he was talking about when he praised Godse.” Challenged by Christian missionaries.. Gandhi learned more about his own religion. he imbibed Christian values rather than rejecting them. The greatest of Indian secularists. it naturally must have the greatest fascination for the Hindu. but the central teaching should not have any the less appeal for a non-Hindu as the central teaching of the Bible or the Koran should not have any less appeal for a non-Christian or a nonMuslim. Isaac Watts’s ‘When I behold the wondrous Cross. Nehru.The message of the Gita is not sectarian or addressed to any particular school of thought. had this to say: “During the 2.’ which offers a moving portrayal of Christ’s sorrow and sacrifice and ends with ‘love so amazing.. After gifting the Gita to the Japanese emperor. There is also a move to build a temple for him. particularly the idea of suffering love as exemplified in the image of crucifixion. The image haunted him all his life and became the source of some of his deepest passions. “Gandhi integrated several aspects of Christianity in this brand of increasingly redefined Hinduism.” Bhikhu Parekh writes. it is all about reading it like Gandhi. Several individuals and organisations have become active in propagating the ideas of Godse. Indian humanity has gone repeatedly through the processes of change and development and decay. It is universal in its approach for everyone… ‘All paths lead to Me.500 years since it was written.’ was one of his favourite hymns. the bare walls of his Sevagram ashram made an exception in favour of it. my all. Gandhi was accused of being a ‘closet Christian’ and ridiculed as ‘Mohammad Gandhi’ by Hindu radicals. Mr. .’ it says. Modi wondered whether his act would irk secularists.. but it has always found something living in the Gita. so divine.Gita which should make it a gospel only for the Brahmana or the Hindu.. Having all the light and colour of the Indian atmosphere. demands my soul. my life.” But then. He wept before it when he visited Vatican in Rome in 1931. Support for Godse’s reading Godse’s reading of the Gita appears to gather more supporters in contemporary India.