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Module VI - Bhagavad Gita

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The Bhagavad Gita is an ancient Indian text that became an important work of Hindu tradition in terms of both literature and philosophy.  The earliest translations of this work from Sanskrit into English were made around 1795 CE by Sir Charles Wilkins.  The name Bhagavad Gita means “the song of the Lord”.  It is composed as a poem and it contains many key topics related to the Indian intellectual and spiritual tradition.  Although it is normally edited as an independent text, the Bhagavad Gita became a section of a massive Indian epic named “The Mahabharata”, the longest Indian epic.  There is a part in the middle of this long text, consisting of 18 brief chapters and about 700 verses: this is the section known as the Bhagavad Gita. It is also referred to as the Gita, for short.

Author and origin

The Bhagavad Gita was written at some point between 400 BCE and 200 CE.  Like the Vedas and the Upanishads, the authorship of the Bhagavad Gita is unclear.  However, the credit for this text is traditionally given to a man named Vyasa, who is more of a legend than an actual historical figure; because of this, Vyasa has been compared to Homer, the great figure of ancient Greek epic poetry.

It has been suggested that the Bhagavad Gita was originally an independent text as, except for the first chapter, the Bhagavad Gita does not develop the action of the Mahabharata.  Furthermore, the Bhagavad Gita is at odds with the general style and content of the Mahabharata. Once the Gita is over, the narration of the Mahabharata resumes.

The Gita was written during a time of important social change in India, with kingdoms getting larger, increasing urbanisation, more trade activity, and social conflict similar to what was happening when Jainism and Buddhism developed.  This ancient Indian text is about the search for serenity, calmness, and permanence in a world of rapid change and how to integrate spiritual values into ordinary life.

Theme, plot and setting

Around the time when the Gita was written, asceticism was seen in India as the ideal spiritual life.  Ascetics from different sects along with Jains and Buddhists all agreed that leaving everything behind (family, possessions, occupations, etc) was the best way to live in a meaningful way.

The Bhagavad Gita revolves around the following questions: How can someone live a life spiritually meaningful without withdrawing from society?  What can someone who does not want to give up family and social obligations do to live the right way?  The Gita challenges the general consensus that only ascetics and monks can live a perfect spiritual life through renunciation and emphasises the value of an active spiritual life.

The plot of the Gita is based on two sets of cousins competing for the throne: The Pandavas and the Kauravas. Diplomacy has failed, so these two clans' armies meet on a battlefield in order to settle the conflict and decide which side will gain the throne.  This is a major battle and it takes place in Kurukshetra, “the field of the Kurus”, in the modern state of Haryana in India.

Arjuna, the great archer and leader of the Pandavas, is a member of the Kshatriyas caste (the warrior rulers caste). He looks out towards his opponents and recognises friends, relatives, former teachers, and finally reasons that controlling the kingdom is not worth the blood of all his loved ones.  Emotionally overwhelmed, Arjuna drops down, casting aside his bow and arrows and decides to quit.  He prefers to withdraw from battle; he prefers inaction instead of being responsible for the death of the people he loves.

His chariot driver is the god Vishnu, who has taken the form of Krishna.  Krishna sees Arjuna quitting and begins to persuade Arjuna that he should stick to his duty as a warrior and engage the enemy.  The Bhagavad Gita is presented as a conversation between Arjuna and Krishna, a man and a god, a seeker and a knower.

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