The message of the Bhagavad Gita is so electrifying that its narrator Sanjay reports that his hair is standing on end (roma-harsanam). But what exactly is that message? When he began reading Indianauthors, V.S. Naipaul noticed a strange thing. They only recorded inner experience, ignoring the world around them.

Inner world: Gandhi was unmoved by London’s buildings and people. AFP

In 1888, on his first visit outside India, Gandhi landed in Southampton. In his autobiography he noted two things: It was Saturday, and he was the only person wearing white flannel (it was October). The scale of London, its foreignness, its buildings and architecture, its cleanliness, its people—all of that is taken for granted by Gandhi, a 19-year-old villager from Porbandar. He should have been stunned by the differences. But he notices nothing.

Indians, Naipaul observes, have “no feeling for the physical world". He is right, but why do we look away from the physical world? To see what our culture says about this let us look at the Bhagavad Gita.

The Gita has three messages:

• We must work without expectation of reward

• The soul is immortal: The body and the outside world are unimportant— Chapter 2

• We must aspire not to a state of action (rajas) or inaction (tamas) but purity (sattva)—Chapters 14 and 18

The Gita’s definition of sattva—goodness (14:5), serenity (14:6), wisdom (14:17)—will puzzle someone who wants to follow Krishna’s advice and become sattvik.

On the other hand it is easy to be rajasik—driven to action (14:9), passionate (14:12), hungry for reward. Human experience tells us that those asked to work without expectation of reward normally do no work, or do shoddy work. The Gita believes otherwise.

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We are familiar with the famous line that starts Karmani eva adhikaraste... (2:47), but it is actually a couplet. The second line cautions us not to be motivated in action, or attached to inaction. In another place we are told the wise man sees action in inaction and inaction in action (4:18). This ambiguity in the Gita—act but don’t act—has given spiritual gurus the space to do endless philosophizing. It is the favourite text of all from Vivekanand to Sri Sri Ravishankar, and Gita sessions dominate the daily engagements column of newspapers in our cities.

The Gita tells us to withdraw our senses like a tortoise its limbs (2:58), because all answers are within us.

So this looking inwards, this detachment that Naipaul observes, is actually prescribed by the Gita. Are all Hindu texts like this? No.

The Vedas are very different, aggressively materialist and extroverted. The Vedic chant is really a list of demands on the Gods, particularly Agni and Indra: Give me this, give me that. But the chanter’s hunger assumes action that needs divine support. In the vocabulary of the Gita, the Vedas are rajasik.

Naipaul then makes a second, more cruel, observation. Because Indians are oblivious to the world, we don’t participate. The behaviour of Indians “is parasitic. It depends on the continued activity of others, the trains running, the presses printing... It needs the world but surrenders the organisation of the world to others" (India: A Wounded Civilisation). When the Indian is at a great foreign airport, his thoughts are on how not to look foolish. He has no wonder about how the place works (A Bend in the River).

He is right again. All who observed India closely have noticed our peculiar shutting out.

Allama Iqbal went to Europe for his PhD and came back transformed in 1908. The great unifier till then, he began separating Muslim culture from Hindu on his return. In 1904, Iqbal wrote Tarana-e-Hindi, commonly called Saare jahan se achcha. In 1910, he wrote Tarana-e-Milli, which goes: Muslim hain hum, watan hai saara jahan hamara (The whole world is the Muslim’s nation). Iqbal didn’t suddenly decide to start hating Hindus: He worried that their culture would also take Muslims down with it.

Kipling, who knew Indians well, wrote about its danger in The Miracle of Puran Bhagat. It is the story of a powerful minister, a wise man, who renounces his position and family and becomes a sage. He tries to run away from the world but eventually finds himself only through action, not mindless renunciation.

Are we stuck with our culture forever? Not necessarily. The detached Gandhi of Southampton became a magnificent man of action, but only after exposure to Europeans. When he visited India in 1896, he was aghast by our apathy, because after eight years abroad he was able to observe it as an outsider. He saw the inexplicable attitude of the Indian, obsessing about ritual pollution to his body through caste, but oblivious to an environment he kept polluted beyond belief.

Modernity has brought no difference: We are one of the filthiest people on earth in 2009. But we can live beside filth quite comfortably because we are trained to ignore it. Our high tolerance to the anarchy of India comes from our religion.

Today the Mumbaikar recognizes the Parsi for his ability to engage with machines. We even pay him a premium for the car he cares for. But we cannot replicate his simple actions, which should come easily to us because every other culture behaves that way. We cannot, because the Gita’s message of disengagement is so effective. The unobservant do not invent, and that is true of Indians, a highly evolved people who have little or no invention to their name.

When he comes, if he comes, our Martin Luther must reform the culture by moving the Gita from Hinduism’s centre to its periphery, where it should be revered, not followed. Its sophisticated message of detachment is for yogis, not ordinary men. Something more mundane and work-oriented must replace the Gita, even if that message is less electrifying.

Aakar Patel is a director at Hill Road Media.

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