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Steve Bruce in his book Fundamentalism writes:

Hinduism might be better described not as a religion but as a loose collection of religions—that of the Shaivites, the Vaishnavas, the Shaktas, the Smartas and others—that share some common themes but that tolerate a huge variety of expressions of those themes. Unlike the Abrahamic traditions, each of which has a canonical scripture that can function as a rallying point for defence, the Hindu tradition contains such an abundance of scriptures, laws, and philosophies that ‘it becomes very difficult to single out any one specific item’ as being basic or ‘fundamental’.

However, in the Western Reception of Hinduism, The Bhagavad Gita is central - perhaps much more central than it is in Hinduism itself. There are standard commentaries within a number of Indian philosophical schools that discuss its metaphysical & moral philosophy.

Malise Ruthven in his book also named Fundamentalisms writes:

It may be argued, of course, that all the major religions are fundamentally patriarchal since they came into being at historical periods distant from our own when human survival was predicated on a strict division of male and female realms. As the hero Arjuna tells the God Krishna in the Baghavad Gita,

‘In overwhelming chaos, Krishna

Women of the family are corrupted,

And when women are corrupted,

Disorder is born in society’

One is tempted to read corruption as sexually fallen, but is this the correct meaning(s) of the word here? For example, in modern medical terminology could it mean mentally ill? Perhaps it covers both of these - or more. Drug addition, bad parenting etc. Is perhaps moral corruption the best view?

Is this justified by a closer look at the semantic values of the word in Sanskrit that has been translated by the word corruption.

What are the views of the standard commentaries in classical and modern ie Aurobindo and Radhakrishnan.

EDIT

In The Bhagavad Gita & its message Aurobindo writes:

There is a method in explaining the Gita in which not only this episode [the entire Gita] but the whole Mahabharata is turned into an allegory of the inner life...but the Gita is written in plain terms and professes to solve the great ethical and spiritual difficulties that the life of man raises.

Aurobindo here is gesturing to other ways of interpreting the Gita although he doesn't accept them. Both he and Sri Prabhupada are both in the Bhakti tradition. Its clear that this tradition, which is devotional is dominant in at least the Western reception of Hinduism. What I'm interested in is the other traditions, in particular (moral) philosophical exegesis.

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    This sounds like a question about Sanskrit, not about philosophy. – Michael Dorfman May 14 '13 at 7:00
  • I think some more context to the question would help. I'll adapt it. – Mozibur Ullah May 14 '13 at 7:10
  • I guess you meant Ch1. V. 40. bhagavad-gita.org/Gita/verse-01-33.html is a translation I see as having a good correspondence with the Sanskrit words. – prash May 14 '13 at 11:57
  • @Dorfman: How does this question in the way it asks to understand a passage in the Gita, differ from this question which specifically asks to understand one line in Nietschze? They seem to me to be very similar questions. – Mozibur Ullah May 15 '13 at 5:35
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    @MoziburUllah: the difference is that I don't see any reason to believe that the author of the Gita is using the word "corrupted" in any special sense other than it's normal Sanskrit meaning; in the case of the Nietzsche, the plain meaning of the words was unclear in context, as it was metaphorical speech. – Michael Dorfman May 15 '13 at 8:24
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Short version: I don't think there's any deeper meaning beyond the obvious one. Besides, it's really not important.

First, some context about the verse. It is from Bhagavad Gita 1.40/41, a verse in the first chapter. The first chapter of the Bhagavad Gita is more like background to the rest of it, a plain narrative with no nontrivial dialogue by Krishna (and I would say no philosophical content), that describes what happened before the famous conversation. At best, it describes Arjuna's wavering and dejection in face of the great war he was about participate in. (And indeed, in the later tradition that gives a name to each chapter, it is named "arjuna-viṣāda", Arjuna's despondency.) In fact, most of the major commentators/exegetes of the Bhagavad Gīta, including Śaṅkara, Rāmānuja and Madhva the "founders" of the Advaita, Viśiṣṭa-advaita and Dvaita sects, do not comment on the first chapter at all or comment very briefly. This both means that it is not really saying anything about the "religion" but more about Arjuna's passing thoughts and the customs prevailing then (in reference to the original context in which you found the verse quoted), and also means it is harder to answer this question about what the different traditions think about this verse (because they don't think much of it at all).

Having said that, we can look at the verse in detail. The original verse (along with the previous verse) is

kula-kṣaye praṇaśyanti kula-dharmāḥ sanātanāḥ /
dharme naṣṭe kulaṁ kṛtsnam adharmo ’bhibhavaty uta //
adharmābhibhavāt kṛṣṇa praduṣyanti kula-striyaḥ /
strīṣu duṣṭāsu vārṣṇeya jāyate varṇa-saṅkaraḥ //

The context is that Arjuna, queasy about the war, imagines the horrors it will bring. When the family withers, the family traditions are destroyed; when that/dharma is destroyed, adharma prevails; when that happens the women praduṣyanti, and from that arises varṇa-saṅkaraḥ.

As for praduṣyanti, the MW dictionary translates it as "(1) to become worse, deteriorate, (2) to be defiled or polluted, fall (morally) (3) to commit an offence against (acc.) (4) to become faithless, fall off".

Two websites that give multiple translations and commentaries on each Gita verse are bhagavad-gita.org and the Gita supersite at IITK. The first one translates praduṣyanti as "become degraded" and "varṇa-saṅkaraḥ" as "undesirable progeny". The available commentaries (themselves translated, so their accuracy is questionable) say "degradation of the females in the family", "become unchaste", and "females of the family become easily accessible and are placed in conditions of compromise". At the latter (where it is numbered 41), we have the translations "O Krsna, when vice predominates, the women of the family become corrupt. O descendent of the Vrsnis, when women become corrupted, it results in the intermingling of castes." (Swami Gambhirananda), "Because of the domination of impiety, O Krsna, the women of the family become corrupt; when the women become corrupt, O member of the Vrsni-clan, there arises the intermixture of castes" (Dr. S Sankaranarayan), "By the prevalence of impiety, O Krishna, the women of the family become corrupt; and , women being corrupted, O Varshenya (descendant of Vrishni), there arises intermingling of castes." (Swami Sivananda), "When lawlessness prevails, O Krsna, the women of the clan become corrupt; when women become corrupt, there arises intermixture of classes" (Sri Adidevananda).

A careful translation by someone I know is at New Bhagavad Gita, and it has

When chaos reigns,
the women of the family are violated.
When women are violated,
anarchy arises in society, O Varshneya!

Arjuna’s argument basically is: with the men-folk killed, the women are vulnerable to harassment by evil men; children born out of such unions will have a confused lineage and are subjected to hardships. When children have a chaotic life, the society will also be chaotic.

If you look at actual traditional commentaries, they don't bother about this section at all. The translation of Abhinavagupta's 10th-century Sanskrit commentary has, for verses 35-44, "injurious consequences like the ruination of the family and the like". Ramanuja's 11th-century commentary has, for verses 26-47, "He was also filled with fear, not knowing what was righteous and what unrighteous. His mind was tortured by grief, because of the thought of future separation from his relations."

In summary, I think time would be better spent skimming past this and reading the rest of the Gita.

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The translation/commentary by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupāda, Bhavavad-Gītā As It Is translates the term praduṣyanti as "polluted" in the text, and explains in the commentary that this refers to a failing in the "chastity and faithfulness of womanhood" and "being misled into adultery." He adds:

"According to the Cāṇakya Paṇḍita, women are generally not very intelligent and therefore not trustworthy."

Furthermore, the phrase that is translated as "disorder" in the question (varṇa-saṅkaraḥ) is translated here as "unwanted progeny", making it clear that sexual immorality is precisely what is being discussed. The words varṇa-saṅkaraḥ literally mean "of mixed caste".

  • I actually find Prabhupada's commentary less helpful than the literal translation that I linked to earlier. pradusyanti roughly means "become depraved"; inchastity/unfaithfulness/adultery may be part of it, but that is not what the text says. Adding Chanakya's commentary is quite like adding Churchill's thoughts on Hume's writings. – prash May 15 '13 at 10:35
  • And, though varnasankara does mean "of mixed caste", such children could have been born to those "women of the clan" who have not married within the caste, and have chosen to sleep with men of other castes. In a caste-centered society, this is depravity, but caste-centered or not, this is not unfaithfulness, inchastity, or adultery. – prash May 15 '13 at 10:49
  • You have brought an apparently authoritative source that translates the verse differently and assumedly much more accurately. I have edited my response in deference to your answer. – Vector May 15 '13 at 15:57
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Corruption here means miscegenation or mesalliances with people of lower class, caste or status as well as prostitution or slavery etc.

A warrior who runs away from battle disgraces his family. His sons and daughters will find it difficult to find marriage partners of equal status. Moreover, the women of the family may feel demoralized. A daughter who knows her father was a coward may have abandonment issues and this may affect her behavior.

It has been suggested that the Gita upholds Caste discrimination because miscegenation is considered to be a terrible outcome. However this is not a tenable view because the Gita is not a pious sermon or lengthy homilietic (which abound in the source text- the Mahabharata) but a highly dramatic episode virtually every line in which is pregnant with irony. Consider the origin of Arjuna's Vishada (depression or akrasia). He had previously been given the boon of 'chaksuchi vidya' which permits him to see anything, future or past, in the form he wishes. Thus, though his army is inferior to that of his cousin, yet he suddenly knows the horrific outcome- not fully but (according to the terms of the boon he received) only in the manner that he himself wants or which best pleases him. But what does Arjuna really want? What best pleases him? Well, we know three things about him

  1. he's a guy who enjoys shooting off arrows
  2. he wants to serve his eldest brother as if he were his own father
  3. he loves his friend Krishna and it is of the essence of friendship that you are pleased to find out the true greatness of your friend (if you are truly friends rather than just a couple of losers hanging out with each other just to pass the time).

Krishna knows, but Arjuna doesn't (because he doesn't want to know) that his enemy, Karna, is actually his eldest brother. Karna can stop the war by declaring the truth of his parentage. Yuddhishtra and Arjuna and Bhima and so on will immediately vow fealty to Karna who in turn is a client of Duryodhana. But Karna wants the war to go ahead so that there is a vishodhana (great cleansing)- i.e. a blood bath- by which thousands of warriors gain Heaven. Kurukshetra- the battlefield- is already famous as a Teerth (pilgrimage spot) yet none of the warriors there assembled recall this fact. No one says 'hang on guys, this is a holy spot, we'd better shift over down the road a bit for our battle'. The whole thing has been preordained. Krishna, explains this in the course of the Gita. There is a tragic irony in this because, having lost the Philosophical battle, Krishna is forced to grant Arjuna His Theophany. But, it turns out, this is actually a Christ like self-slaying by reason of a 'Nyaya' (legal maxim) Krishna later reveals in the context of Arjuna wanting to kill his 'other' eldest brother.

Anyway, this is just to scratch the surface of the irony piled on irony and piquancy piled on piquancy in the Gita.

Returning to the 'corruption' of women- the great joke here is that the women of Arjuna's family are scarcely models of Aristocratic propriety and, furthermore, there are instances in the male line of the legitimate heir yielding the throne without a fight. One way of reading the Gita is to see it as a devastating satire on Priests and Princes and (most worthless of all) Professional Philosophers. Another is to say that its Occassionalism is the only proper default Ontology for Agent, as opposed to Principal, meta-Ethics. In other words, Agents can't tell what is really right. They are Agents not Principals. It's their job to do the job they were hired to do or not take the job in the first place.

It is noteworthy that Yuddhishtra (who as King, is a Principal not an Agent) overcomes his 'Vishada' by hearing the 'Vyadha Gita' (which is anti-caste) and, more practically, by learning Statistical Game theory from the story of Nala. But, this means, since metics like the Vyadha can flourish in Yuddhishtra's kingdom, that there are many equally good 'vyavaharas'- i.e. customary moralities (Sittlichkeits)

Since the Mahabharata- and the Gita- synthesizes Vaisnav, Saivite, Sakta as well as Smarta and Vratya ideas- indeed Jain ideas are not absent- it is ludicrous to speak of Hinduism as being fundamentally unlike the Abrahamic religions. One would have thought 19th century philology and hermeneutics would have put paid to so foolish an idea.

  • @Iyer: Who said that they are unlike the Abrahamic religions? The Brahmo Samaj movement in Calutta by going back to the Upanishads seemed to bring/revive a kind of monotheism into Hinduism. – Mozibur Ullah Jun 13 '14 at 18:49
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I do not know Sanskrit, but from the context and nature of the discussion taking place, I do not believe that corruption here means 'sexualy fallen'. This sounds like a modern and rather coarse interpretation, put forward by someone what fails to recognize what is undoubtedly a metaphorical reference.

I will attempt 'transpose' from Judaic Kabbalistic tradition, with which I am intimately familiar. Many scholars consider this tradition closely related to Hinduism - either derived therefrom or springing from the same source:

In very general terms, 'women', the feminine principle, represent 'Earth' - the physical manifestation and implementation of the stage God erected to afford Man the opportunity to Act.

'when women are corrupted': when the tenets of 'the natural order' and innate morality are violated (call them "the Laws of Earth"): 'Disorder is born in society’.

Edit: Michael Dorfman has weighed in with what is apparently an authoritative Hindu source that translates the verse differently. Based on that translation, my interpretation here is incorrect - although the foundations on which I based it are not.

  • I had understood the Kabbala to be an independent mystic tradition in Judaism, I hadn't realised that it had been influenced by Hinduism. Which scholars say this? – Mozibur Ullah May 15 '13 at 5:31
  • Also: is there a good reference for reading "women" as something similar to "the tenets of natural order" in Kabbalistic tradition? – Niel de Beaudrap May 15 '13 at 6:04
  • @MoziburUllah: the similarities are obvious. Rabbi Isaac Luria, the first modern expositor of kabbalistic teachings, was accused by many of his contemporaries of heresy because he had allegedly traveled to India and drunk from 'the paganistic wells of Hinduism'. Other important later kabbalists also suffered from such allegations. Unfortunately I do not have my Hebrew references available at my present location, but I will see what I can remember, or research some names. One that comes to mind is Rabbi Jakob Emden. See : religion.wikia.com/wiki/Jacob_Emden. – Vector May 15 '13 at 6:30
  • @Mikey: ok, you're talking about modern interpretations of Kabbalah. wikipedia has 'Modern academic-historical study of Jewish mysticism reserves the term "kabbalah" to designate the particular, distinctive doctrines that textually emerged fully expressed in the Middle Ages, as distinct from the earlier Merkabah mystical concepts and methods'. – Mozibur Ullah May 15 '13 at 6:40
  • @NieldeBeaudrap: Woman = Earth = The Natural Order mandated by God, perhaps best represented by woman's ability to bear children. Heaven/Earth = Male/Female = 'Pitcher/Glass' - fundamental kabbalistic symbolism. My references are hebrew books - you can research the teachings of Rabbi Isaac Luria and Rabbi Chaim Vital if you care to-I believe a good deal of the material has made its way into English by now (my studies go back about 30 years). 'Shechinah', God's earthly manifestation, is represented as a feminine entity - in the Hebrew bible the noun/name takes the feminine form. – Vector May 15 '13 at 6:44
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Mahabharata Epic (includes Gita). 90% of Mahabharata were subsequent period insertions or interpolations by temple preachers. Gita seems to be one such later insertion. The inserting preachers were worried about inter-caste extra marital relationships which were corrupting the four caste system (priests, warriors, traders and servants). Arjuna's worries about corruption related to marital as extra-marital relationships of war widows violating caste boundaries. These were in reality worries of the preachers who were hand in glove with tyrannical Aryan rulers. Caste referred to color. Aryans were white, red and yellow, whereas natives were black. mahabharatayb.blogspot.com.

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