Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to the United States was covered in painstaking detail in the Indian media, down to the gifts Modi gave President Obama. Yet the Prime Minister’s choice of what items to gift Obama is indeed a matter of interest: a khadi-covered copy of the Bhagavad Gita, with commentary by Mahatma Gandhi, and a copy of the original All India Radio broadcast featuring Martin Luther King Jr, made during his 1959 visit to India.

Gandhi’s Gita

Rather than opting for a typical translation, Modi chose instead to gift a commentary on the Gita by Mahatma Gandhi. The book, titled The Bhagavad Gita according to Gandhi, is based on a series of lectures  given by Gandhi to his followers during the early years of the struggle for independence.

Modi’s choice of gift becomes intriguing upon closer examination of Gandhi’s comments on the Gita. Take, for instance, this excerpt from his introduction to the book:

“About the message of the Gita, even in 1888 and '89, when I first became acquainted with the Gita, I felt that it was not a historical work but that under the guise of physical warfare it described a duel that perpetually went on in the hearts of mankind, and that physical warfare was brought in merely to make the description of the internal duel more alluring.”

Gandhi’s refusal to accept literal readings of scripture carried into his approach to the whole of the Mahabharata, which he did not regard as a “historical work in the accepted sense,” either. He said this about the author of the Mahabharata:

“By ascribing to the chief actors superhuman or sub-human origins, the great vyasa made short work of the history of kings and their peoples’. The persons therein described may be historical, but the author of the Mahabharata has used them merely to drive home his religious theme.”

It’s not quite Wendy Doniger, but Gandhi demands that the reader makes a nuanced rather than literalist interpretation of two of the holy texts of Hinduism. This runs contrary to the positions taken by Modi supporters like YS Rao, who was recently appointed chairperson of the Indian Council of Historical Research. He has attempted to prove the historicity of events in the epics.

Martin Luther King Jr. in India

Modi’s second gift to President Obama carries an altogether different connotation. The Prime Minister asked All India Radio to prepare a copy of the speech made by Martin Luther King Jr during his trip to India in 1959, which he then presented to Obama. King’s speech called attention to the need for non-violence around the world, and of the impending danger of nuclear weapons.

But this gift seems to follow the example of the first, ignoring the strange contrast it holds to the opinions of Modi's more jingoistic supporters, who are calling for bloody retaliation against Pakistan in the matter of cross-border firing. As King said at the time, “It may be that just as India had to take the lead and show the world that national independence would be achieved non-violently, so India may have to take the lead and call for universal disarmament.”