The idea that the Gita may be a multiple authored book is not new. Indeed it began with the first translation of Charles Wilkins’ Gita. Von Humboldt in reviewing Schlegel’s Latin translation was “aware of the possibility that the text had been composed by more than one author over a considerable period of time...(H)e regards the first eleven chapters as the ‘original’ ones”.
Deussen, another distinguished Sankritist divided the text into three thematic units, (1) ethics (Chs 1-6) (2) metaphysics (7-12) and (3) psychology (13-18). The French scholar Charpentier believed that what follows 2.38 “can in no wise have belonged to the original epic text” (23-25).
The most cogent argument for multiple authorship was made by the Maharashtrian scholar Dr Gajanan Shripat Khair. His book Quest for the Original Gita was published in 1969 and a revised edition was issued in 1997. Khair does not seem to be aware of any of the literature from which I cited earlier. He has arrived at his contention entirely on his own analysis which makes the coincidence of his ideas with those of previous scholars all the more remarkable.
He divides the Bhagavad Gita into three parts – Trikala Gita as he calls it. According to him:
The First Author wrote most of Adhyayas 1 to 6. The period of writing was of the Older Upanishads and pre-Buddhist, around 600 BCE. The principal philosophical issue is Sannyasa and the solution is Karma yoga (126 verses or 18 per cent).
The Second Author wrote portions of Adhyaya 8, Adhyayas 13 to 15, 17 and portions of 18. The period was contemporaneous with the Buddha and the philosophical authority is Old Upanishads as before. The problem is karma – choice (as Khair describes it) and the solution is sattvikatva (119 verses or 17 per cent).
The Third Author is the editor and the final arbiter of the document. He wrote the entire Adhyayas 7, 9–12, 16 plus interpolated in the Adhyayas the two others wrote. The problem is “diverse creeds” and the answer is bhakti. His authority is the New Upanishads and his period is 300 to 200 BCE. (455 verses or 65 per cent). Note that while Khair has a tripartite division of the Bhagavad Gita, his analysis is more subtle than that of Deussen as he argues that the third author mixed up the different parts which disguises the divisions.
If we are to take this classification as a working hypothesis, it would seem that the Gita gets settled into its final shape at the time when the battle between the Buddhists and the Brahmanists is at its most ferocious.
Of course, Kosambi puts the final rendition of the Gita much later to the Gupta period rather than the highpoint of the Buddhist period as Khair does. The ideas common to Kosambi and Khair are that (a) there are multiple authors and (b) that the text evolves over time as it responds to different circumstances prevailing as per the struggle between Buddhism and Brahmanism while Khair alone contributes the idea that (c) the Third Author adds to and edits the text to give it a sort of unity.
This makes sense if we see that the First Author is not joining a battle against Buddhism but expounding the Upanshadic doctrine in a concise way. It is like a catechism for young students. Once we are beyond 2.38 Arjun becomes only a vehicle for expounding what has to be taught. Hence, we begin with a mention of Sankhya in 2.39 and other philosophical issues follow.
The Second Author is a contemporary of Buddha if we are to take Khair’s dating seriously. He is also a didactic writer expositing what has to be learnt. His style is dispassionate. He uses words such as jnanin, munih, yatih, yogin but sparsely. This is also a teaching text, meant for select audiences.
It is the Third Author who addresses the ordinary people who have little time and inclination for philosophical subtleties.
As Khair says, “His main audience is the common people and the neglected persons, who were deprived of opportunities of spiritual and moral salvation. Traders, merchants, atheists, worshippers of ancestral and popular gods – this was his audience” since by this time the need to spread Brahmanism as widely as possible to counter Buddhism’s popularity is urgent.
The second or third century BCE which Khair gives as the likely date is the high point of the spread of Buddhism with Ashoka having given royal patronage to Buddhism. The champions of Brahmanism had to fight back. The Gita with a popularised section moulded along with the earlier parts was to be the weapon. The date suggested by Kosambi of 150-350 CE would be even more suitable because under the Guptas, the Brahminical fightback had Royal patronage.
Khair’s virtue is that he proposes a plausible hypothesis of how the different layers were integrated into a seamless whole which gives the impression of an integral text which most readers of the Bhagavad Gita take it to be. The idea that there was an author who was also the last one in and who edited the entire text by his interpolations to weave the separate texts into one is the missing link in the discussions of the experts who wrestled with the problem before he came along.
Above all, his virtue is that he arrives at his conclusion unprompted and uninfluenced by the previous literature. He is a homespun amateur reader of the Bhagavad Gita who stumbles upon his discovery all by himself and proceeds to construct a theory of why the Bhagavad Gita should be as it is – choppy and seamless at the same time.
We can conclude, however, that apart from Arjun’s Gita, there may have been three other Gitas.
Ignoring the interpolation attributed by Khair to the Third Author, we can say that the three Gitas were:
1. The Veda-Vedanta Gita or Karma Yoga Gita of the First Author mainly across Adhyayas 2 to 6
2. The Samkhya Gita or Jnana Yoga Gita of the Second Author Adhyayas 8 (part), 13, 14, 15, 17, 18 (part)
3. The Bhakti Yoga Gita of the Third Author Adhyayas 7, 9-12.
Indeed, the role of the Bhagavad Gita as a weapon in battle between Brahmanism and Buddhism is well explained by Pande:
The Bhagavad Gita is an evolving response which deals with the conflicts between Veda and Vedanta and then with the challenge posed to Vedanta by Buddhism. Its shift to Bhakti is thus the climax of the battle between Brahmanism and Buddhism.
Indeed, as Pande further has observed, “The Bhagvad Gita represents a progressive adaptation of the Vedanta to the challenges of the Mahajanapada Age”.
Rethinking Development and Politics: Essays on India, China and Global Change, Meghnad Desai, edited by Marika Vicziany, Speaking Tiger Books.