Beyond the Orientalist Divide: Hegel’s Gita


This paper closely examines Hegel’s Gita from the point of view of a theory of being and evaluates its consequences on his view of history and philosophy. Was there anything in the structure of a particular thought in the West in the nineteenth century, that reflected certain similarities with a particular thought in the East? The paper attempts to understand possibilities of a new line of enquiry, namely how much of the dialectic between two philosophies helps us to understand the inner dialectic within one philosophy, beyond Orientalism and contextualism, and enables us to read a work in question in its own right? Hegel’s larger enquiries and engagements with India suggest that they formed an essential part of his broader formulations on philosophy, world history, aesthetics, and religion, and of course logic. If for Hegel Spirit was to be fully itself, mediated by history and the understanding of freedom, then the analysis of Indian philosophy raised a problem intrinsic to West. Hegel’s long commentary on the Gita shows his struggle to engage with the distinctions between the ideas and images of the Gita and his own philosophy, including the question: was there any divine instruction, and any sense, in war and destruction. Hence, Hegel’s reflections on Indian philosophy raised the question of the purpose of philosophy itself.

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  1. 1.

    Name adopted from Bradley L. Herling, The German Gita: Hermeneutics and Discipline in the German Reception of Indian Thought, 1778–1831 (London: Routledge, 2006).

  2. 2.

    The Phenomenology of Mind (1807), trans. J.B. Baillie, “Preface”, Para 2 (New York: MacMillan, 1910)—,G.W.F/Hegel,_G.W.F._-_The_Phenomenology_Of_Mind.pdf (accessed on 25 June 2017), p. 2.

  3. 3.

    Gita, Chapter 8, Verse 13, as cited by Hegel in Hegel’s India: A Reinterpretation with Texts (New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 2017), p. 111.

  4. 4.

    This is noted by Bhikkhu Nanajivako, “Hegel and Indian Philosophy”, Synthesis Philosophica, 2 (3), pp. 203–224 (1987), also to be found in— (accessed on 20 June 2017).

  5. 5.

    “Hegel and Indian Philosophy”- (accessed on 20 June 2017), p. 296.

  6. 6.

    The Phenomenology of Mind, pp. 21–22.

  7. 7.

    K.C. Bhattacharyya, “The Concept of the Absolute and its Alternative Forms,” In S. P. Dubey (ed.), The Metaphysics of the Spirit. Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers. pp. 1–31 (1994). Bhattacharyya suggests that the absolute appears in three alternative forms, namely truth, freedom, and value. The important point to note is that these absolutes are incompatible with one another and that the articulation of their relation is impossible. I am indebted to the anonymous referee for pointing this out.

  8. 8.

    K.C. Bhattacharyya, Studies in Philosophy (Kolkata: Progressive Publishers, 1958), Volume II.

  9. 9.

    K.L. Sharma, “The Problem of Meaning and K.C. Bhattacharyya”, Indian Philosophical Quarterly, Volume 8 (4), 1981, pp. 457–463, p. 457— (accessed on 28 June 2017).

  10. 10.

    Hegel’s India: A Reinterpretation with Texts (New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 2017), p. 79; Baillie’s translation: “The systematic development of truth in scientific form can alone be the true shape in which truth exists. To help to bring philosophy nearer to the form of science—that goal where it can lay aside the name of love of knowledge and be actual knowledge—that is what I have set before me. The inner necessity that knowledge should be science lies in its very nature; and the adequate and sufficient explanation for this lies simply and solely in the systematic exposition of philosophy itself.”—The Phenomenology of Mind, p. 4.

  11. 11.

    Jean Hyppolite, Genesis and Structure of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (1946), trans. Samuel Cherniak and John Heckman (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1974), p. 5.

  12. 12.

    Hegel’s India, p. 75.

  13. 13.

    Ibid., p. 4.

  14. 14.

    Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy (1833–36), trans. E. S. Haldane (Bison Book Edition, University of Nebraska Press, 1995), Section B, chapter 1 (c), “Philosophy as the Thought of Its Time”— (accessed on 10 June 2017).

  15. 15.

    Ibid., Section B, chapter 3 (a), “Freedom of Thought as a First Condition”— (accessed on 10 June 2017).

  16. 16.

    Hegel’s India, p. 8.

  17. 17.

    Ibid., p. 11.

  18. 18.

    Hegel thought, “… the sensuous element itself has here no expression which could not be that of the spiritual element, just as, conversely, sculpture can represent no spiritual content which does not admit throughout of being adequately presented to perception in bodily form. Sculpture should place the spirit before us in its bodily form and in immediate unity therewith at rest and in peace; and the form should be animated by the content of spiritual individuality. And so the external sensuous matter is here no longer manipulated, either in conformity with its mechanical quality alone, as a mass possessing weight, nor in shapes belonging to the inorganic world, nor as indifferent to colour, etc.; but it is wrought in ideal forms of the human figure, and, it must be remarked, in all three spatial dimensions.”—The Introduction to Hegel’s Philosophy of Fine Art, trans. And ed. Bernard Bosanquet (London: Kegan Paul, 1886), Project Gutenberg E-book, Chapter 5, Section 4 b, p. 162— (accessed on 11 June 2017).

  19. 19.

    Hegel’s India, p. 35.

  20. 20.

    In Hegel’s words, “Art creates the world as spiritual and as open to view. It is the Indian Bacchus—not the clear self-knowing spirit but the inspired spirit which envelops itself in sensation and image, wherein the fearful is hidden. Its element is vision—but vision is the immediacy, which is not mediated. This element is therefore not adequate to the spirit. Art can therefore give its forms only a limited spirit.”—The Philosophy of Spirit (Jena Lectures, 1805–6), Part III C, “Art, Religion, and Science”— (accessed on 29 June 2017).

  21. 21.

    As Rathore and Mohapatra are right to note, Hegel’s India: A Reinterpretation with Texts, p. 40.

  22. 22.

    Ibid., A III, ”The Relation of the Philosophy of Religion to the Current Principles of the Religious Consciousness”, section 3, “Philosophy and Immediate Knowledge”.

  23. 23.

    Cited from Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion in Hegel’s India, p. 44.

  24. 24.

    The texts of all of the India-related portions of these works are reproduced, with full bibliographical details, in Aakash Singh Rathore and Rimina Mohapatra’s Hegel’s India: A Reinterpretation, with Texts.

  25. 25.

    To Hegel Napoleon became the figure of the Spirit. Alexandre Kojeve wrote, “By understanding himself through the understanding of the totality of the anthropogenetic historical process, which ends with Napoleon and his contemporaries, and by understanding this process through his understanding of himself, Hegel caused the completed whole of the universal real process to penetrate into his individual consciousness, and then he penetrated this consciousness.”—Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, trans. James H. Nichols (Cornell, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1980), p. 35.

  26. 26.

    Charles Taylor, Hegel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975), p. 104.

  27. 27.

    S. Reksosusilo, “Man and History in the Bhagavad Gita and Hegel: A Comparative Study”, Studia Philosophica et Theologica, Volume 5 (1), March 2005, pp. 1–21, p. 8.

  28. 28.

    See The Kautiliya Arthasastra, Part II, trans. R. P. Kangle (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2003), pp. 7–14.

  29. 29.

    Hegel, On the Episode of the Mahabharata Known by the Name Bhagavad Gita by Wilhelm Von Humboldt (hereafter On the Episode), trans and ed. Herbert Herring (New Delhi: Indian Council of Philosophical Research, 1995), reprinted in Section “Texts” in Hegel’s India (pp. 87–139), p. 135.

  30. 30.

    Ibid., p. 134.

  31. 31.

    Ibid., p. 129.

  32. 32.

    Ibid., p. 102.

  33. 33.

    Question raised by George Armstrong Kelly in his review of Charles Taylor’s Hegel, Political Theory, Volume 4 (3), August 1976, pp. 377–381, p. 378.

  34. 34.

    Recall Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1959), p. 31.

  35. 35.

    Hegel remarked, “Negative freedom, or freedom of the understanding, is one-sided, yet as this one-sidedness contains an essential feature, it is not to be discarded. But the defect of the understanding is that it exalts its one-sidedness to the sole highest place. This form of freedom frequently occurs in history. By the Hindus, e.g. the highest freedom is declared to be persistence in the consciousness of one’s simple identity with himself, to abide in the empty space of one’s own inner being, like the colourless light of pure intuition, and to renounce every, activity of life, every purpose and every idea. In this way man becomes Brahma; there is no longer any distinction between finite man and Brahma, every difference having been swallowed up in this universality. A more concrete manifestation of this freedom is fanaticism of political and religious life. Of this nature was the terrible epoch of the French Revolution, by which all distinctions in talent and authority were to have been superseded. In this time of upheaval and commotion any specific thing was intolerable. Fanaticism wills an abstraction and not an articulate association. It finds all distinctions antagonistic to its indefiniteness, and supersedes them. Hence in the French Revolution the people abolished the institutions which they themselves had set up, since every institution is inimical to the abstract self-consciousness of equality.”—Philosophy of Right (1820), trans. T. M. Knox (London: Clarendon Press, 1952), “Introduction”, Section 5, p. 15.

  36. 36.

    Alluding to Clive’s victory in Bengal in 1757 Hegel said, “The true courage of civilised nations is readiness for sacrifice in the service of the state, so that the individual counts as only one amongst many. The important thing here is not personal mettle but aligning oneself with the universal. In India five hundred men conquered twenty thousand who were not cowards, but who only lacked this disposition to work in close co-operation with others.”—Philosophy of Right, Section 327, p. 157; see on this, Teshale Tibebu, Hegel and the Third World: The Making of Eurocentrism in World History (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2011), p. 211.

  37. 37.

    On this see, Ranajit Guha’s commentary on Hegel’s Lectures on the Philosophy of World History in History at the Limit of World History (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), Chapter 3, “The Prose of History or the Invention of World History”, pp. 24–47.

  38. 38.

    Mahadev Desai, The Gospel of Selfless Action, or, The Gita according to Gandhi (Ahmedabad: Vivek Jitendrabhai Desai, Navajivan Mudranalaya, 1946), pp. 11–12, p. 128— (accessed on 28 June 2017); also “Actions do not affect me, nor am I concerned with the fruits thereof. He who recognizes Me as such is not bound by actions”—The Bhagavad Gita according to Gandhi (Blacksburg, VA: Wilder Publications, 2011), p. 28.

  39. 39.

    Michel Foucault, The Government of Self and Others, Lectures at the College de France, 1982–83, trans. Graham Burchell (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2010), p. 354.

  40. 40.

    Frederick Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy, 1886 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1974), Chapter 1, “Hegel” - (accessed on 21 June 2017).


I am indebted to Andrew Brandel, Partha Chatterjee, Julian Reid, Pradip Bose, and early an anonymous referee for their helpful comments.

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Correspondence to Ranabir Samaddar.

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Samaddar, R. Beyond the Orientalist Divide: Hegel’s Gita. J. Indian Counc. Philos. Res. 35, 497–512 (2018).

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  • Dialectic
  • Orientalism
  • Hegel
  • Fantasy
  • Fantastic symbolism
  • Religion
  • Gita
  • World history