"The Politics of Hermeneutics: Gandhi, Madhusudana, and the Allegorical Subject of the Bhagavad Gita"
Aditya Menon, PhD Candidate, Department of Comparative Literature, Harvard University.
Panagiotis Roilos, Faculty Associate. George Seferis Professor of Modern Greek Studies and Professor of Comparative Literature, Harvard University.
This paper discusses two readings of the Bhagavad Gita, a segment of the Mahabharata epic that has taken on a scriptural life of its own. In his commentary on the Gita, Madhusudana Sarasvati (late 16th-early 17th century) accommodates bhakti (devotion) and yogic practice into an advaitin (nondualist) philosophical framework that privileges jñāna (knowledge). Mahatma Gandhi, in speeches and periodicals, argues that the Gita promotes non-violence. Both commentators stretch the text to make it meet their own intellectual or political commitments. Is this cynicism or faith? Madhusudana, like Gandhi, tries to find in the Gita a sense of what the text is, and of what he ought to be. Both commentaries draw on two orders of interaction between “text, world and critic”. First, interpolation: what are the limits of a text and what is its essence? Commentators can dismiss inconvenient passages as interpolation. (Alternatively, the commentary itself can function like interpolation, presenting its own words as the text’s essence). Second, interpelation: Louis Althusser uses this word to theorize ideology’s construction of a subject. Taking his account of interpelation rather literally, I find that it speaks uncannily well to the Gita. And slippages in the English word “subject” reflect comparable if not corresponding ones in the thought of the Gita; we cannot quite separate grammatical terms like kartṛ and karman from their metaphysical homonyms. As scripture, the Gita invites readers to refashion themselves according to its terms. This pressure comes with a counterpressure, the urge to read oneself into the text. In recent decades, the Gita has been yoked to violent political projects. For Laurie Patton, this indicates the failure of Gandhi’s allegorical endeavor. But Gandhi’s Gita, and allegory as a hermeneutic mode, might offer us resources for working through their own apparent failures.