Makarand Paranjpe analyzes Kosambi's writings on the Gita in his book Myth and Reality.
D. D. Kosambi attempted precisely such a reading of one of India’s most enduring literary texts, the Bhagawad Gita. In an essay called “Social and Economic Aspects of the Bhagawad-Gita,” published as the inaugural essay in Myth and Reality: Studies in the Formation of Indian Culture (1962), he argues at great length that the Gita is a text of “slippery opportunism” whose utility “derives from its peculiar fundamental defect, namely dexterity in seeming to reconcile the irreconcilable.” Composed between 150-350 A.D. and inserted into the Mahabharata corpus later, the Gita, according to Kosambi, served a peculiar class function which made so many leading exponents of Indian culture, including Sankara, Ramanuja, Jnanesvar, Gandhi, Tilak, Aurobindo, and others, return to it again and again. Kosambi believes that:
THE GITA FURNISHED THE ONE SCRIPTURAL SOURCE WHICH COULD BE USED WITHOUT VIOLENCE TO ACCEPTED BRAHMIN METHODOLOGY, TO DRAW INSPIRATION AND JUSTIFICATION FOR SOCIAL ACTIONS IN SOME WAY DISAGREEABLE TO A BRANCH OF THE RULING CLASS UPON WHOSE MERCY THE BRAHMINS DEPENDED AT THE MOMENT. (Emphasis in the Original)
In other words, the Gita is a synthetic text that manages to incorporate a wide diversity of complex and, often, contradictory doctrines. Kosambi believes that such a text could only be written at a certain period during which the competition over the surpluses produced wasn’t so intolerable as to result in class conflict:
FUSION AND TOLERANCE BECOME IMPOSSIBLE WHEN THE CRISIS DEEPENS, WHEN THERE IS NOT ENOUGH OF THE SURPLUS PRODUCT TO GO AROUND, AND THE SYNTHETIC METHOD DOES NOT LEAD TO INCREASED PRODUCTION. (Emphasis in the Original)
Analyzing the career of Jnanesvar, the author of influential commentary Jnanesvari, Kosambi says:
The conglomerate Gita philosophy might provide a loophole for innovation, but never the analytical tools necessary to make a way out of the social impasse. Jnanesvar's life and tragic career illustrate this in full measure. In other words, though the Gita provided Jnanesvar with some ammunition against the ills of his times, it could not afford him a full-fledged blue print for revolutionary action. That is why, according to Kosambi, “there was nothing left for him [Jnanesvar] except suicide.” Kosambi concludes his paper with the following observations:
Modern life is founded upon science and freedom. That is, modern production rests in the final analysis upon accurate cognition of material reality (science), and recognition of necessity (freedom). A myth may grip us by its imagery, and may indeed have portrayed some natural phenomenon or process at a time when mankind had not learned to probe nature's secrets or to discover the endless properties of matter. Religion clothes some myth in dogma. "Science needs religion" is a poor way of saying that the scientists and those who utilize his discoveries must not dispense with social ethics. There is no need to dig into the Gita or the Bible for an ethical system sandwiched with pure superstition. Such books can still be enjoyed for their aesthetic value. Those who claim more usually try to shackle the minds of other people, and to impede man's progress, under the most specious claims.
It is interesting how this conclusion is built upon a whole series of binary oppositions such as science vs. religion, modern vs. traditional, reality vs. myth, progress vs. superstition, and so on. The cure for all social ills for Kosambi lies not in “theology but in socialism.” The essay ends with a ringing reaffirmation of the revolutionary doctrine: “the material needs could, certainly be satisfied for all, if the relations of production did not hinder it.”
I have chosen Kosambi’s essay on the Gita not because it is especially “exasperating”—as the title of another collection of his work suggests—but because it is symptomatic of both the benefits and pitfalls of a particular approach to art. Kosambi’s rigorous materialist and historicist analysis certainly adds something to our understanding of the Gita, but, as I have argued earlier, it does not exhaust the possibilities of that text. A few years after Kosambi’s death in 1966, Western India, where he himself lived for several years, witnessed a widespread peaceful social upheaval triggered by a movement called Svadhyaya. It is no surprise to me that this social movement, about which I have written elsewhere, was inspired by the same complex and heterogeneous text that Kosambi considered incapable of guiding any genuine social change. The slogan of this movement is “Jai Yogeshwar,” one of the many names of Krishna that we find in the Gita, and which is also enshrined in the very last verse of the Gita:
Where there is Krsna, the Lord of yogas, and where there is Partha, the wielder of the bow, there are fortune, victory, prosperity and unfailing prudence. Such is my conviction.
(18.78 Swami Gambhiranda’s translation from the Gita Supersite)
Also known as the “ekashloki Gita,” or Gita in one shloka, this verse is supposed to bestow the benefits of reading the whole scripture. The Svadhyayis, with their notion of kriti bhakti or an activist devotion, have fanned out in thousands upon thousands, on bhakti pheris reordering human relationships and social organization on an unprecedented scale. The idea that God is both within me and beside me in my struggles has become a living reality for several million Svadhyayis who give their time and talent to this cause. This assurance, contained in the Gita, has been convincingly conveyed to large masses of people by the inspirer of the Svadhyaya movement, Pandurang Shastri Athavale. I heard him myself in a very large gathering of about 250,000 people at Kurukshetra a few years back. I had never experienced anyone expound the Gita in that fashion and, for the first time in my life, the text came alive to me in a unique and moving manner.
I have deliberately chosen a sacred text to illustrate the point that while a materialist reading may be very illuminating, it need not rob the text of its aesthetic, even scriptural, affects.