Journal of Arts & Ideas, no. 14-15 (July-Dec 1987) p. 133.


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Karmayoga and the Rise of the Indian Middle Class

V. Subramaniam

MANY OBSERVERS, Indian as well as foreign, have noted the enormous popularity oftheBhagavadgita among Indians in this century as the major scripture of Hinduism.' More significantly they have

also noticed how Karmayoga, the work ethic of detached activism is regarded as its crucial message, to the exclusion of all other aspects of its teachings.2 It is also common knowledge that the Gita and its work ethic inspired leading Indian nationalists in this century more than any other work. But the widespread implicit assumption in explaining all this is that the Gita has always enjoyed this primacy in Hindu society (not just in philosophy as one of the three starting points of philosophical enquiry), that its work ethic was always regarded as central to its teachings, that it has influenced Hindu activists most of the time and that its socio-political influence on Indian nationalists was just a continuation of all these. This paper argues that all these assumptions are partly or wholly false. Its main thesis may be summed up as follows.

(i) The Gita was one of the three major starting points of Hindu Vedanta philosophy but its influence was limited to scholarly circles for centuries and its socio-political influence on Hindu activists was minimal.

(ii) Its Karmayoga or the work ethic of detached activism was diluted and downplayed by all its chief commentators except Jnaneshwar.

(iii) The emphasis on Karmayoga or indeed the equation of the Gifa with Karmayoga developed pari passu with the rise of the educated Indian middle class and the challenges it faced from the contumely of the Protestant, work-oriented British colonial rulers, so much so that it is hard to identify the dependent and independent variables in this development. It is one of the best instances of'elective affinity' in societal evolution indeed a clearer case than Max Webefs classical instance of the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism.

Let us now elaborate the thesis.

Journal of Arts & Ideas 133


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