Steve Bannon & the Bhagavad Gita
photo via Daily Beast, dailybeast.com
Mahanth S. Joishy is Editor of usindiamonitor
On cue America is at bitter war with itself, per Putin’s grand plans. The 2020 election cycle is bringing out all the vitriol and pageantry one might expect from a spectacle financed by gushing spigots of the almighty dollar, ruble, and riyal. Throw into the mix an impending impeachment trial pitting Democrats and Republicans against each other, fangs out, add active foreign intervention, and we have brewing this powder keg of uncivil war on guaranteed burn through late 2020.
On the front lines of the right wing we have mostly corrupt clowns such as Sean Hannity, Devin Nunes, #GymJordan, and Donald Trump, Jr fighting for their Dear Leader. Not to be outdone, the Democrats have rolled out a breathtakingly sad clown car of 17 (or whatever) candidates for president now hurtling America’s left wing into 2020, with nary a one inspiring Democratic voters and donors with unifying vision. One bright spot in all of this is Representative Adam Schiff, methodically navigating the impeachment inquiry landmine on behalf of the House majority with integrity.
Quietly leading a formidable formation on the other side of the aisle with poise and purpose is an American figure who is no clown, despite a disheveled, unhealthy appearance that draws lefty guffaws. Rare for the right, he is a well-read intellectual, a crack strategist, and a global puppet master running a clear-eyed anti-impeachment “war room.” Say what you will about Steve Bannon, but he is largely responsible for winning 2016, and if impeachment fails and 2020 goes the same way his fingerprints will be all over those victories too. SNL appropriately and simply portrayed him as the Grim Reaper in 2017.
His power endures, despite being unceremoniously thrown to the wolves by the White House in 2017 (maybe a ruse to be freed of government constraint). usindiamonitor intends to do a little study of Steve Bannon here. And in understanding the life of Steve Bannon one cannot separate an unexpected thread to a holy Hindu text that keeps cropping up: the Bhagavad Gita. This is appropriate as meta-metaphor, because the world’s oldest religion’s seminal text pointedly uses war and doom as metaphors.
And in understanding the life of Steve Bannon one cannot separate an unexpected but unhidden thread to a holy Hindu text that keeps cropping up: the Bhagavad Gita.
Agree or disagree with his views, but ignore him at your peril. For those who would question the shadowy Steve Bannon’s influence, agency, or intellect, slivers are on open display. Viceland recently published an interview with reporter Liz Sanders that is must-see for anyone interested in our current affairs. He has a more superior grasp of what is unfolding in Washington than most of us.
A Brief Bhagavad Primer. The holy text is in essence a complex battlefield lecture by a supreme avatar of the Hindu God Krishna to mighty, brooding human warrior Arjuna at the outset of a terrible world war, reminding Arjuna of his duty or dharma to enjoin the impending fight despite unspeakable pitfalls and consequences such as having to kill, or be killed by, his relatives and even mentors as millions suffer. From my own personal readings and collegiate academic studies of the Bhagavad Gita, akin to any religion’s scriptures it is not an easy read due to its dense maze of contradictions, philosophies, codes, symbolism, and allegory. On the other hand, for millions of people over thousands of years the text has uplifted those patient and thoughtful enough to engage with it. That one of these souls is supposedly Bannon has piqued the interest of usindiamonitor.
Bannon’s Bhagavad Beginnings. We must begin by setting some parameters on sensitive matters. First of all, I am not one of those Hindus that believe Westerners who dabble in Hinduism are participating in “cultural appropriation” and deserve ridicule or scorn. Religion at its best is a personal journey. I wrote extensively on this topic as a guest blogger of Ambaa Choate’s The White Hindu. On the other hand, I do not automatically support the missionary strand of Hindus that believe Hinduism is perfect for everyone from everywhere. Finally, I neither endorse nor denigrate the Bhagavad Gita in any context nor judge those who believe in it- or don’t.
It may be hard to square the circle in which Steve Bannon promotes what appear to be white supremacist or Judeo-Christian chauvinist tendencies, yet is simultaneously influenced by scripture written down by brown men some 2,400 years ago. It seems almost impossible that a Trump lieutenant could be such- or that the MAGA movement has Hinduism in its DNA. This is the string we will try and pull on.
Let’s start with a few direct quotes related to Bannon and the Bhagavad Gita. From what we can gather, the Catholic Bannon was influenced by the Bhagavad Gita at an early age. In a June 2019 interview question about the text Bannon said, “Yes that’s true I have read one of the most powerful books. I am a Roman Catholic and I try to be as devoted as I can be practicing Catholic but one of the most powerful books as a young person I read was a book by a Frenchman called “Man and his Becoming According to Vedanta” and that got me very interested in Hindu spirituality, in the study of Hindu religions there’s another book by a German professor called “The Philosophies of India” professor name Heinrich Zimmer who wrote this book in the 1930s or 1940s, had a very powerful impact on me so I have studied and taken a lot of time of my life to study Hindu spirituality.”
Said his 1990s Hollywood days colleague, Julia Jones during the 2016 election: “Steve is a strong militarist, he’s in love with war—it’s almost poetry to him … [He] used to talk a lot about dharma — he felt very strongly about dharma … one of the strongest principles throughout the Bhagavad Gita.”
“He is firm in his views. He is an avid reader of Gita, dharma, Hindu philosophy, India and (Prime Minister Narendra) Modi,” Shalabh ‘Shalli’ Kumar, founder and head of the Republican Hindu Coalition (RHC), told Indian reporters in 2017 (per Hinduism Now).
Several things to unpack here. Bannon is no doubt combative in word and deed and perhaps even considers this posture to be his duty. He was in the US Navy for 7 years in the late 70s and early 80s- acting as soldier in the literal sense. From all indications in his endeavors since- Hollywood, Wall Street, Breitbart, and both US and international politics, Bannon likes to fancy himself a fighter. He is no doubt unapologetically abrasive. And if the current climate is really a war, he is surely in the middle of it and he is absolutely right about that.
Meanwhile, Bannon is an unabashed supporter of Prime Minister Modi, and even tried to start a Breitbart India media site to support Modi and the right wing Hindu nationalist BJP party. This effort failed. But it proves his willingness to support a right-wing and nationalist religious movement far out of the Judeo-Christian and his own Catholic mainstream- as long as it’s somewhere else far away from America and loosely in alignment with his side of the global battlefield.
Indeed just such an alliance between the U.S. White House and the Modi administration is a natural one. Both sides are fueled by strongman tendencies, religion, nationalism and populism, and have common perceived enemies in secularists, Islamic terrorists and a rising China. Modi supports Trump despite his white nationalist rhetoric, while Trump backs Modi in spite of undemocratic tendencies in Kashmir. In fact support for Modi and India is strangely one of the few bipartisan phenomena in Washington today as both Republicans and Democrats have worked hard on nurturing ties with Indian-Americans, India and the Indian government regardless of Indian behavior.
So while Bannon is as alt right as he admits, he is capable of seeing the bigger picture and that the alt right needs foreign allies even with a different Hindu agenda.
A Deeper Dharmic Dive. Knowledgeable Hindus have debated what Bannon’s proclivity for Hinduism, and specifically the Bhagavad Gita, means on a deeper level. Said an Indian-American New York venture capitalist, “I was in a Gita class here in NYC when the story first came out about his regard for the holy book, etc. Some argue that he stood against all of Gita’s basic satvic values. Others, that he was fighting for his beliefs, and that it was his dharma to fight.”
I will be the first to admit that it’s difficult to discern the personal religious thoughts in the mind of any particular individual, especially with limited available information. So these variant interpretations can likely be attributed to whether a Hindu observer is pro-Trump, or anti-Trump. As far as Hindus around the world are concerned, there are very strong strains of both.
At first blush, it seems obvious that Bannon’s career doesn’t scream Bhagavad Gita philosophy taken in whole. But the Bhagavad Gita is not Bannon’s only non-Catholic spiritual influence. He is also famously enamored with the power of various princes of darkness, such as Darth Vader and Satan. “Darkness is good,” Bannon has said, referring to its usefulness in the opponents’ constant underestimation of the dark side. His work at Breitbart, which reveled in its hatred and divisiveness during his time there, only bolsters a conclusion that his views on the Bhagavad Gita may be deeper than what meets the eye.
What if Bannon isn’t as drawn to the protagonists of the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna and Krishna, but rather more closely identifies with the villains of the story? For example, Bheeshma and Dronacharya are two of the greatest and most honorable warrior-scholars to participate in the massive Kurukshetra War, yet they aligned with the lead bad guys, the Kaurava family. They did so because they felt in their hearts it was their moral duty to honor sworn oaths of allegiance at any cost. This too involved following dharma of a different kind, which lends gravitas and respect to these two complex characters. And if we were to draw parallels between today’s America and the world of the Bhagavad Gita, many Hindus would portray Bannon as a Kaurava, even while following his own dharma and moral code. There is in fact a long tradition of scholars debating who were really the good guys and bad guys in the Bhagavad Gita, and what the intentions of the writers and patrons of the text may have been for the general public of the time.
Also in Bannon’s wheelhouse is the ancient Chinese text, Sun Tzu’s Art of War. This points further to aspects of Bannon’s personality that make sense: that he fancies himself a foot soldier in a broad cosmic war, that victory should be achieved by any means necessary, and outsmarting opponents is of paramount importance. These are lessons that many people of all stripes have internalized from Sun Tzu’s evergreen words.
We have quite obviously glazed over so many aspects of two ancient texts that are far more complex than they seem. Unfortunately this is a necessity for an examination of this caliber. But we are able to draw some high level conclusions from it all.
Bannon Today and Future. When studying Bannon’s actions, it may seem irrelevant to also want to understand his beliefs. However, there may be some stabs at insight which observers can make.
As noted earlier, Bannon is a more formidable opponent during this time of conflict than most of the other lieutenants of the right wing. He isn’t bumbling and senile like Rudy Giuiliani. He hasn’t gotten caught with his hand in the cookie jar, like Manafort, Cohen, or Roger Stone. He reads, unlike Trump. He is no fool, like Devin Nunes. And most dangerously, Bannon does not seem to be in it entirely for himself like a Mitch McConnell. Or most of the rest. He does not appear to seek power for its own sake, but rather, to shape the new world order that he views in apocalyptic terms. He endures as a soldier seemingly regardless of national boundary, or whether the White House officially fired him or not. Frighteningly, he is a true believer, a student of history who undoubtedly wants to leave a legacy for future generations.
The Bhagavad Gita can be an attractive script for such a person. It is definitely a text for thinkers and those who believe they are being summoned to a higher calling. I may be one of the few to have discovered the possibility that it’s in fact the substantial and attractive dark side of the Bhagavad Gita which may be animating the subject of this article. But it’s equally possible that Bannon thinks of himself as Arjuna somehow in an epic wide-ranging battle between good vs. evil despite knowing full well how the optics look.
Regardless of the philosophies at play, it should be abundantly clear that Bannon is not going anywhere, and any victory for the Democrats on either impeachment or the 2020 election, both are going to be hard slogs and both will necessarily have to go through Steve Bannon.