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The Bhagavad Gita

The Dhammapada

The Historical Context of The Bhagavad Gita and Its Relation to Indian Religious Doctrines

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It is not surprising that thinkers as diverse as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Mahatma Gandhi have found inspiration in The Bhagavad Gita, the great HINDU religious poem. At first glance, this statement must seem odd to you: after all, The Bhagavad Gita describes a momentary surcease in a vast battle in which brothers fight brothers in bloody, historical technicolor. The principal character, Arjuna, sits in a chariot in the midst of the mass of soldiers who wait -- surprisingly patiently -- as Arjuna looks into his conscience and questions his divine charioteer, Krishna. Krishna's temporary job as charioteer is by no means accidental: this moment before the heat and horror of battle was chosen as precisely the right time to reflect on the nature of duty and devotion. The Bhagavad Gita, then, becomes a record of Arjuna's questions and Krishna's provocative responses.

You might ask: What does this single work, a strangely didactic addition to the epic Mahabharata, "say" about ANCIENT INDIA? What does this work "say" about modern India? Can a reading of The Bhagavad Gita help us today to "recreate" life in Indian societies some 25 centuries ago? Can a reading of The Bhagavad Gita "disclose" elements of Indian life?

It is doubtful that Emerson read The Bhagavad Gita as a guide to the world of the Hindoos (as he would have spelled it). It is doubtful that he felt he "knew" India as a result of his reading, much as people (foolishly?) feel they know a country by reading a travel and tourism guide to that nation. Instead, Emerson responded to the great concepts and questions that The Bhagavad Gita explores: the notion that an individual human life is but part of a greater reality of which humans, likewise, are a part; the notion of the transitory nature of suffering and pain (not to mention pleasure); the valorizing of the spiritual, not the material, part of human nature.

It is this last point that, perhaps, is most interesting -- the Hindu denial of the self-existence of the natural world. To people in a culture that values obvious trappings of wealth and visible emblems of material success, an acknowledgement of such a proposition can only come as frightful recognition of the tawdry emptiness of life in contemporary industrialized societies. Hinduism provides a lasting critique of Western acquisitiveness. [Next]


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