Reflections of Ancient Indian Polity in the Gītā Bhāṣyas of Ādi Śaṅkarācārya and Śri Madhusūdana Sarasvatī: A Comparative Analysis


The Śrīmad Bhagavad Gītā , the counsel of Lord Kṛṣṇa to Arjuna just before the commencement of the great Bharata War is certainly one of India’s greatest, unique and profound contributions to the world . Along with the Upaniṣads and the Brahma Sūtras of Bādarāyaṇa, the Gītā constitutes the Prasthāna Traya of Vedānta. The Gītā forms a part of the Bhīṣma Parvan of the Mahābhārata and has been interpreted in a multitude of ways by different schools of philosophical thought. Ādi Śaṅkarācārya (circa 788-820 CE), the towering Advaita saint-philosopher, is considered the first recorded commentator of the text though he has not commented on the first fifty seven ślokas of the text. His commentary begins only from the eleventh śloka of the second adhyāya. Another major commentator on the Gītā in Ādi Śaṅkarācārya’s philosophical tradition of Advaita was Śri Madhusūdana Sarasvatī from Bengal who has composed the Guḍhārtha Dīpikā as a commentary on the Gītā in the 16th century CE. Madhusūdana Sarasvatī mentions Ādi Śaṅkarācārya in the concluding verses of his commentary-

“The supreme secret, called Gītā which is made sweet by the honey from the mouth of the Blessed Govinda, was specially made public by the sage Vyāsa. It was commented upon, word by word, by the godlike one, named Śri Saṅkara. It has been fully clarified once more by the monk Madhusūdana for the refinement of his own understanding”.

Ādi Śaṅkarācārya’s commentary is founded on the idea of jñāna or knowledge whereas Śri Madhusūdana Sarasvatī is more inclined towards bhakti ordevotional love for God. While studying both the bhāṣyas, the author observed that both the commentators have given interpretations of certain ślokas in the Gītā from the point of view of rājanītī. Rājanītī is the art or science of polity in Ancient India. The present article and its sequel aim to compare the two commentaries with respect to their interpretations from the perspectives of rājadharma and rājanītī and find reflections of ancient Indian polity therein. Ādi Śaṅkarācārya wrote at the beginning of the early medieval period and his intellectual successor Śri Madhusūdana Sarasvatī composed his bhāṣya at a time when much of north India was under Mughal control.

Fundamental aspects of Indian polity and society like svadharma, duties of a king, lokasaṃgraha and nītī will be discussed in the light of the bhāṣyas of the two great philosophers. References from the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa, the Anuśāsana and Śāntīparvans of the Mahābhārata, Kautilya’s Arthaśāstra and select Dharmaśāstras, Śṃrtis and Purāṇas will also be discussed with respect to the commentaries.

Understanding Svadharma

Among the many virtues highlighted in the Gītā, there is a lot of emphasis on performing the duty prescribed by the society and the śāstras. The eighteenth adhyāya of the Gītā elaborates on the performance of one’s duty as per one’s nature and this leading to the worship of the Godhead. This is what our scriptures define as ‘svadharma’. Right from the Ṛig Veda, the Indian texts are replete with the term ‘dharma‘ which is interpreted in a number of ways. Its meaning and connotations change along the course of time. The term dharma is derived from the Sanskrit root dhṛ which means to uphold, to support and to nourish. As time advanced the word ‘dharma‘, in the opinion of Mahāmopādhyāya P.V. Kane came to imply the following (Kane 1930: 2) –

1. Privileges, duties and obligations of a person.

2. His expected behaviour as a member of the Vedic society.

3. As a member of one of the four Varṇas.

4. As a person in a specific stage of life ( Āśrama).

Mahāmopādhyāya P.V. Kane further states that it is in this sense that the term dharma is used in Gītā in the verse-

श्रेयान्स्वधर्मो विगुण: परधर्मात्स्वनुष्ठितात् |
स्वधर्मे निधनं श्रेय: परधर्मो भयावह: || (3.35)

śreyān sva-dharmo viguṇaḥ para-dharmāt sv-anuṣṭhitāt

sva-dharme nidhanaṁ śreyaḥ para-dharmo bhayāvahaḥ ||

It is far better to do one’s natural prescribed duty, though it may have defects, than to perform another’s prescribed duty, though without any faults. In fact, it is better to die while fulfilling one’s own duty, than to pursue another’s path, which is full of danger.

Kane makes a reference to Medhātithi’s elucidation on the five main types of dharma- varṇa dharma, āśrama dharma, varṇāśrama dharma, naimittika dharma and guṇadharma (Ibid: 3). Medātithi has written an exhaustive commentary known as the Manubhāṣya on the Manu Smṛti around the early medieval period. The Gītā more or less equates svadharma with the varṇa-dharma i.e. the prescribed duties of every varṇa and this is evident from Lord Sri Kṛṣṇa’s discourse to Arjuna in the second and third adhyāyas. Lord Śri Kṛṣṇa repeatedly reminds Arjuna about his svadharma as a Kṣatriya. As a member of the Kuru family and a true blooded warrior it is Arjuna’s foremost duty to fight and if the situation demands, kill his own kinsmen. In this first part of the article series, the author will be discussing the concept of svadharma in the context of a Kṣatriya as expounded in the Gītā Bhāṣyas and its comparison with select Dharmaśāstras. Arjuna loses his will to fight as he witnesses his own grandfather Bhīṣma, his guru Droṇa and his Kaurava cousins arrayed against the Pāṇḍava army just before the commencement of the Bharata War. His despondency arises out of his sense of illusion and attachment to his family members which Lord Śri Kṛṣṇa dispels through his discourse. For the discussion of the duties of a Kṣatriya in the Gītā, the author has chosen ślokas 31, 32, 33 and 37 from the second adhyāya. The ślokas are as follows-

Śloka 2.31

स्वधर्ममपि चावेक्ष्य विकम्पितुमर्हसि |

धर्म्याद्धि युद्धाच्छ्रेयोऽन्यत्क्षत्रियस्य विद्यते

sva-dharmam api cāvekṣya na vikampitum arhasi |

dharmyāddhi yuddhāt śreyaḥ anyat kṣatriyasya na vidyate ||

Even considering your own duty you should not waver, since there is nothing else better for a Kṣatriya than a righteous battle.

Śloka 2.32

यदृच्छया चोपपन्नं स्वर्गद्वारमपावृतम् |

सुखिन: क्षत्रिया: पार्थ लभन्ते युद्धमीदृशम्

yadṛichchhayā copapannaṁ svarga-dvāram apāvṛitam

sukhinaḥ kṣhatriyāḥ pārtha labhante yuddham īdṛiśham ||

O Pārtha, happy are the Kṣatriyas who come across this kind of a battle, which presents itself unsought for and which is an open gate to heaven.

Śloka 2.33

अथ चेतत्वमिमं धर्म्यं संग्रामं करिष्यसि |

तत: स्वधर्मं कीर्तिं हित्वा पापमवाप्स्यसि

atha ceta tvam imaṁ dharmyaṁ saṅgrāmaṁ na kariṣyasi

tataḥ sva-dharmaṁ kīrtiṁ cha hitvā pāpam avāpsyasi ||

On the other hand, if you will not fight this righteous battle, then, forsaking your own duty and fame, you will incur sin.

Śloka 2.37

हतो वा प्राप्स्यसि स्वर्गं जित्वा वा भोक्ष्यसे महीम् |

तस्मादुत्तिष्ठ कौन्तेय युद्धाय कृतनिश्चय:

hato vā prāpsyasi svargaṁ jitvā vā bhokṣhyase mahīm

tasmād uttiṣṭha kaunteya yuddhāya kṛta-niścayaḥ ||

Either by being killed you will attain heaven, or by winning you will enjoy the earth. Therefore, O Arjuna, rise up with determination for fighting.

Ādi Śaṅkarācārya does not comment in detail on any of these ślokas and specially not in the context of svadharma. Madhusūdana Sarasvatī, on the other hand has commented elaborately on these ślokas pertaining to svadharma using pramāṇas from select Dharmaśāstras. The present author has summarised the explanation of Sarasvatī from the perspective of svadharma as a part of ancient Indian polity with the help of references from original Sanskrit texts.

A Political Swadharma: References from the Sṃṛtis

Since the Gītā and Sarasvati’s bhāṣya both highlight the concept of svadharma more in the context of a kṣatriya, it invariably gets connected to the polity as the kṣatriyas were considered to be the key stone of the polity and had to look after the other varṇas who in turn supported the kṣatriyas. Also Lord Śri Kṛṣṇa, being himself a kṣatriya from the Vṛṣṇi gaṇa was the best authority to remind Arjuna of his svadharma as a kṣatriya. Though Lord Śri Kṛṣṇa was a non combatant in the Bharata War, he had never swerved from his svadharma as a kṣatriya. The references cited below are the same as given by Sarasvatī with only a few elaborations by the author.

According to the Gautama Dharmasūtra, which is considered to be the most ancient Dharmasūtra (Pandey 1966: 8), one of the foremost duties of the king as a Kṣatriya is to ensure victory in a battle and as a Kṣatriya winning a war is a greater responsibility of his than the other dvija castes. The king has to tackle any threat to his kingdom. The Gautama Dharmasūtra states that the king should ride in a chariot with a bow. He must never abandon the battle field and stand steadfast in the battle field.  The text clearly states that the king does not  commit any sin if he kills someone in battle except certain categories of people, specially those who have lost their horses, charioteers, or weapons, those who have asked for the king’s mercy,  those who are fleeing from the battlefield,  messengers and  Brāhmaṇas. (This injunction is very similar to Lord Śri Kṛṣṇa’s advice to Arjuna in the second adhyāya). Further, if some other Kṣatriya is dependent on the king for his livelihood, he has to be a part of the war waged by his master and fight just in the manner similar to the king (Gaut.Dhr.Sutr. 2.1.12-19) Though Arjuna was not totally dependent on Yudhiṣṭhira (the prospective king), as a Kṣatriya and his younger brother, it is imperative for Arjuna to fight in the Bharata War.

Madhusūdana Sarasvatī  quotes at length from the Manu, Yājnavalkya and Parāsara Sṃṛtis in regard to the duties of the Kṣatriya in his bhāṣya. The Manu Sṃṛti declares that the duties of the Kṣatriya are protecting his subjects (prajānām rakṣaṇam), giving dāna, performing yajña and engaging in svādhyāya. (Man. Smr. 1.89). One of the ways of protecting the people is through righteous war. The Rājadharma Prakaraṇam of the Yājñavalkya Sṃṛti enlists certain characteristics of a Kṣatriya which are in conformity with the aspects of a Kṣatriya‘s character as described by Lord Kṛṣṇa in the Gītā. The text states that those who are engaged in a battle for land, if they do not flee and do not make use of poisonous weapons, are killed in battle they ascend heaven in a manner similar to yogins (Yaj Smr.1.13.324). A Kṣatriya‘s duty is therefore not considered in any way inferior to that of the yogic practice of a spiritual seeker. The same text further states that a Kṣatriya who does not flee from the battlefield even when his army is completely destroyed and a warrior who moves ahead in battle in such a situation, his every step is equal in power to an Aśvamedha yajña. On the other hand the merit (sukrut) of a warrior who is killed while abandoning his duty to fight and leaving the battlefield is earned by his king (Yaj. Smr. 1.13.325).

The Parāśara Sṃṛti lays down precisely the duties of a Kṣatriya in the society in its first adhyāya. It clearly enjoins that a Kṣatriya must protect his people, conquer the armies of the adversaries by the prowess in wielding weapons and protect the earth through dharma. (Par. Smr. 1.57).Continuing further, the text considers that a Kṣatriya should win victory by the means of his sword i.e. by resorting to war and only those who possess valour can enjoy the sovereignty of the earth. (Par. Smr. 1.58). This concurs with Lord Śri Kṛṣṇa’s advice to Arjuna in śloka 2.37 wherein he tries to make the latter understand his duty as a Kṣatriya and that victory in the imminent battle will lead him to the enjoyment of the earth.

From the above discussion it is very clear that as far as the Gītā is concerned the concept of svadharma is in the context of a particular varṇa performing its duties as assigned by the society and confirmed by the śāstras. Arjuna shines forth in the Indic tradition as a symbol of valour and kṣātradharma. The first epigraphic reference to Arjuna is in the Nasik Cave No.3 inscription of the Sātavāhana ruler Vāsiṣṭhīputra Puḷumavi dated to his 19th regnal year (Gokhale 2007: 142) (Mirashi 1981: 47). This inscription is tentatively dated to the second half of the 2nd century CE and records the donation of a village to the Buddhist Sangha residing in the monastery at the Triraśmi Hill near Nasik. However the main subject of the inscription is a praśastī or eulogy in honour of the king’s late father Gautamīputra Sātakarṇi and the valour of Gautamīputra has been described as being equal to mighty warriors like Keśava (Śri Kṛṣṇa), Arjuna and Bhīmasena. Apart from the copious references in literature, this early epigraphic reference to Arjuna as a great warrior underlines the impact of his virtue of valour on society even as early as the 2nd century CE. When such a formidable warrior lost his will to fight he was aroused from his despondency by his closest friend and mentor Lord Śri Kṛṣṇa who enumerated the duties of a true Kṣatriya to him and induced him to fight. Therefore in the context of svadharma, the Gītā lays more stress on the duties of the Kṣatriya than any other varṇa and Madhusūdana Sarasvatī elucidates on the same taking pramāṇas from the Dharmaśāstras.

To elaborate further on the ongoing discussion regarding svadharma, we will now consider two references from the Bhāgavata Purāṇa. The 11th adhyāya in the 7th skandha of the Bhāgavata Purāṇa has two ślokas (7.11. 31-32) which define svadharma. These ślokas form a part of a dialogue between Yudhiṣṭhira and Devaṛṣi Nārada where the eldest Pāṇḍava requests Nārada to enunciate mānava, varṇa and strī dharmas to him. Nārada says that these dharmas were laid down by Bhagavān Nārāyaṇa himself who dwells at Badarikāśrama. The Bhāgavata Purāṇa considers svadharma as something which has been designed by the Vedic Ṛṣis in accordance with human nature in relation to every yuga. This dharma is perceived to be beneficial to all in this and the next worlds (7.11.31). A person who abides by his svadharma which confirms to his nature and acts in concurrence to it, gradually rises above these acts. (7.11.32).

An Ascetic’s Emphasis on Kṣātra Dharma: Some Historical Context

A question may be raised about why an Advaitin ascetic like Madhusūdana Sarasvatī laid such great emphasis on Kṣātra dharma and the need to fight a dharma yuddha. Dharma yuddha does not mean just a religious war but a war to establish righteousness, virtue and stability in society. A dharma yuddha is a war fought against adharma which also implies injustice. Sarasvatī is lived in Vārāṇasī during the reign of the Mughal ruler Akbar (1556-1605 CE). The Hindu ascetics living there were continuously persecuted by the Islamic clerics who were considered to be above the law. The Hindu ascetics brought up the matter before Sarasvatī who approached Akbar through the latter’s courtier Birbal and told him about the atrocities committed by the Islamic clerics on the Hindu ascetics. It is said that Akbar asked Sarasvatī to raise an army of Hindu ascetics to counter Islamic persecution and made provisions to declare the Hindu ascetics outside the purview of law as well. Though this story may not be complete historical truth, the fact is that Hindu ascetics were harassed by the Islamic clerics and in all probability Sarasvatī was responsible for organising them into an army of fighters. It is highly doubtful whether Akbar suggested to Sarasvatī to raise such an army of Hindu ascetics to repeal Islamic persecution. Many of these ascetics who joined Sarasvatī’s armed force originally belonged to the Kṣatriya caste. This historical background to a significant extent explains the reason about Sarasvatī’s emphasis on resorting to war as a means to fight injustice and war as the prime duty of a warrior in a commentary which is primarily imbued with the sentiment of bhakti.

Our śāstras evolved this ideal of svadharma to maintain stability and balance in society and to preclude any chaos. It is very essential for the proper health of any society when the duties and functions of every member are clearly defined and are in tune with her/his nature. When we try to act against our inherent nature, it is not only detrimental for our own well being but also for the welfare of the society. In older texts like the Gītā, svadharma was considered equal to varṇa dharma. In later texts like the Bhāgavata Purāna, svadharma came to be equated with something prescribed by the Vedic seers with respect to a person’s nature. Our śāstras have always accorded value to a person’s intrinsic nature while defining her/his svadharma. With the changing times, the concept of svadharma has definitely undergone a change but what remains a timeless truth is that we must as far as possible follow svadharma to preserve the society’s stability with respect to all its aspects. Svadharma governs all facets of a society: political, social, economic, religious and cultural. The ideal of svadharma in the Gītā, the Dharmaśāstras and the Bhāgavata Purāṇa are not in conflict with each other but actually strengthen each other’s standpoint. A society can endure, grow and progress when each of its members adheres to her/his svadharma.

Snehā Nagarkar is Head and Chief Resource Person, Pancajanya Cultural Heritage Initiatives, Mumbai. She is a Visiting Faculty at Centre for Archaeology and Centre for Extra Mural Studies, University of Mumbai


Primary Texts

1.Desai V.G. (Ed.) and Thavare P.K (trans.), Srimad Bhagavata Mahapuranam, Volume I, Gorakhpur: Gita Press, V.S. 2072.

2. Dutt, Manmatha Nath (Trans.) and Joshi K.L. (Ed. and Revised), Parasarasmrti, Delhi: Parimal Publications, 2009.

3.Pandey, Umesh Chandra (Ed.), The Gautama-Dharma-Sutra with the Mitaksara Sanskrit Commentary of Haradatta, Varanasi: The Chowkhamba Sanskrit Series Office, 1966. 

4. Kane, Pandurang Vaman, History of the Dharmasastra: Ancient and Medieval Religious and Civil Law, Volume I , Part I, Poona: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1930. 

5. Ray, Gangasagar (Ed. and Trans.), Yajnavalkyasmrtih, New Delhi: Chowkhamba Sanskrit Pratishthan, (Publication date not given)

6. Shastri, Rakesh (Ed and Trans.), Manusmrtih, Delhi: Vidyanidhi Prakashan, 2017.

7. Samkaracarya, Adi and Warrier, Krishna A.G. (trans.), Srimad Bhagavad Gita Bhasya, Chennai: Sri Ramakrishna Math, 2014.

8. Sarasvati, Madhusudana and Gambhirananda, Swami (Trans.), Bhagavad Gita with the annotation Gudhartha Dipika, Mayavati: Advaita Ashram, 2013 (3rd Reprint)

Secondary Texts

1. Gokhale, Shobhana, Purabhilekhavidya, Pune: Continental Prakashan, 2007 (2nd Edition).

2. Mirashi V. V, The History and Inscriptions of the Satavahanas and Western Kshatrapas, Bombay: Maharashtra State Board for Literature and Culture, 1981.

Web Sources

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