The Bhagavad Gita received some unwarranted attention recently when the film Oppenheimer featured it in a sex scene. But apart from the verse that the father of the atomic bomb is said to have uttered after witnessing the nuclear test in 1945 – “Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds” – there has been little public discussion about how the Gita also speaks to other contemporary events, especially in a human rights context.

I am not an authority on the Gita, but I, as an activist, have tried to absorb the essence of Krishna’s counsel to Arjuna. This verse on action and inaction has repeatedly drawn my attention: He who seeth inaction in action and action in inaction, he is wise among men…” (IV-18).

Gita exponents often explain the verse in esoteric terms. For example, philosopher A Parthasarathy says, “The verse attempts to define objectivity and explain a method to practice it. In objectivity one sees the inactive self in all actions as well as the potential and possibility of actions in the inactive Self.”

What can laypersons make of such an explanation?

An earlier verse in the Gita may provide some guidance: “Verily action should be known and forbidden action should be known and inaction should be known…” (IV-17)

It defines three types of actions:
action (karma), inaction (akarma), and forbidden action (vikarma). Action is typically seen as an obligatory or righteous act. Inaction is not just being silent, but choosing not to intervene in a situation where one could make a positive impact. Forbidden action refers to illegal behavior or engaging in harmful activities, including lying.

However, the real clue to understanding the full import of verse IV-18 from a human rights perspective comes from some of the less than complementary meanings of the word “wise” (buddhimaan, in Sanskrit) in the verse – connotations such as “cunning,” “crafty,” and “wily”.

Gita and Human Rights

For activists like me, verse IV-17 and 18, along with this verse on Karma Yoga, have been great guides. As Lord Krishna tells Arjuna: Perform thou right action; for action is superior to inaction.” (III-8)

These verses remind us of our calling to help fellow human beings who are less fortunate than us, either on account of the circumstances of their birth or are being discriminated against by governments and majority communities.

More importantly, they remind us that one needs to learn when to walk away from a situation, without worrying about the fruits of our actions. Not an easy thing to do.

My human rights work is based on this understanding of the Gita.

Prime Minister Modi’s Silence

In 2002, Chief Minister Narendra Modi maintained a studied silence as the state of Gujarat erupted in anti-Muslim pogroms. Since becoming prime minister in 2014, he has been completely silent on escalating anti-minority hate speech and violence by his supporters. More recently, he has not said a word to stop mass violence against Manipur’s tribal communities, many of whom are Christian. These are all classic examples of akarma or inaction.

His silence is designed to plausibly distance himself from those acts of violence, as he craves for respect from the Western world and sees himself as a “vishwaguru” or teacher to the world.

His government’s anti-Muslim policies, frequent dog whistles, the daily incitement to violence by his party supporters and politicians, are all examples of vikarma or forbidden actions.

More specifically, the recent allegation that Indian government operatives may be complicit in the murder of a Sikh activist in Canada, if proven, as well as the recent raids, arrests, and shutting down of the news portal, NewsClick, are clear cases of vikarma.

When pushed to the wall, Prime Minister Modi is also known for inaction in action – making pronouncements such as, “I condemn all violence,” or “There is no question of discrimination.” These are nothing more than public relations efforts for a Western audience, with absolutely no intent of acting decisively against violence on the ground.

Chief Minister Adityanath of Uttar Pradesh does even better. He openly presides over hate speech and violence against the state’s Muslims, including arbitrary arrests, punishing dissidents by confiscating their property, bull-dozing homes and places of worship. Unlike Modi, he has no use for a white-washed image of himself, but counts on Modi’s tacit support and silence over his vikarma.

A folio from a 19th-century illustrated Sanskrit manuscript from the Bhagavad Gita. Credit: British Library, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Candidate Biden vs President Biden

“Silence is complicity,” Joe Biden often declared on the campaign trail as he promised to make human rights a centrepiece of his foreign policy if he was voted to the White House. But now, in response to the Modi regime’s massive violations of human rights, President Biden’s administration too has become a cynical practitioner of akarma.

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom has been documenting in detail the discriminatory legislations of the Modi and Adityanath governments targeting Muslims and the daily incitement to violence by their supporters. For three years in a row, the commission has recommended that India be added to the list of Countries of Particular Concern. This would pave the way for sanctions against individuals found to be in egregious violations of religious freedom.

Yet, Biden has chosen inaction over action and has set a bad precedent by ignoring the recommendation of the commission and sections of his own State Department. Come December, he may yet again reject the commission’s recommendation, which doesn’t bode well for the body’s credibility elsewhere in the world.

But Biden, when pushed to the wall by human rights activists and the media, has also needed to say something. So his administration has begun to tell outright lies (vikarma) such as, “Both countries cherish freedom and celebrate the democratic values of universal human rights.” This is simply not true under the Modi administration.

In June, Biden shocked the world by applauding India’s “open, tolerant, robust debate” with Modi standing next to him at the White House, just two days after 75 Members of US Congress had written to him expressing concern over “the shrinking of political space, the rise of religious intolerance, the targeting of civil society organizations and journalists, and growing restrictions on press freedoms and internet access” in India.

Appealing to ‘Better Angels’?

At the recent United States Commission on International Religious Freedom hearing on India, one of the commissioners wondered if there is a way to appeal to Prime Minister Modi’s “better angels” to convince him to change the path that India is on under his leadership.

Sunita Vishwanath of my organisation, Hindus for Human Rights, who was a witness at the hearing, responded, “You asked whether Narendra Modi cares? The real question sir is, do we care? If we do, then what are we going to do about it?”

The Washington Director of Human Rights Watch, Sarah Yager, responded that as a human rights activist, she very seldom appeals to “better angels,” as the soul cannot be governed by international law or geopolitics, but policy making by the Biden administration can.

Other commentators have criticised the Biden administration’s willingness to throw Indian democracy under the bus in pursuit of its geo-political goals. For some of us, this policy is delusional, as an India at war with itself can never be a reliable partner of the US.

Lord Krishna has something to say about this in the Gita (XVIII-25), as if he were directly addressing Prime Minister Modi and President Biden, “The action undertaken from delusion, without regard to capacity and to consequences – loss and injury to others – that is declared to be dark [vikarma].”

Raju Rajagopal is a co-founder of Hindus for Human Rights.

The verses of the Gita quoted here have been translated by A Parthasarathy and Annie Besant.