New Historian


Krishna teaching Arjuna

<![CDATA['When I read the Bhagavad Gita and reflect about how God created this universe everything else seems so superfluous.' - Albert Einstein A key text in Hindu theology and philosophy, the influence of the Bhagavad Gita has gradually expanded to a much wider audience, affecting both western and eastern thought. Since its creation, the words of Krishna and Arjuna have been interpreted in a variety of different ways, in a host of different contexts. The title, Bhagavad Gita, translates as "Song of the Lord" and the whole piece is written in verse. It is typically edited and published as a single, independent text, although it has also been included in the middle section of the Indian epic "The Mahabharata". Whether it was originally intended to form part of 'The Mahabharata' is still debated, on the basis that only the first chapter of the Bhagavad Gita seems to fit in with the narrative of the larger work. It has therefore been suggested that the association of the two works occurred much later. Exactly who wrote the Bhagavad Gita is unknown, but it is often credited to a sage named Vyasa, although whether he was a real historical figure, or of a myth, is contested. Scholars generally date the creation of the work to sometime between the fifth and second centuries BCE, a period of significant upheaval in India as kingdoms expanded, increasing trade and urbanisation, but also bringing about new problems and conflicts. Chapter One of the Bhagavad Gita provides the context for the much more philosophical chapters which follow. Essentially, the plot is built around a conflict over rights to succession. Dhritarashtra has passed his throne to his own son rather than the rightful heir, Yudhishthira. As the conflict escalates Arjuna is reluctantly pulled in to fight for his brother's honour and royal right. As the first chapter draws to a close, Arjuna walks away from the impending battle, failing to see the value of the conflict. The following chapters detail a dialogue between Arjuna and Krishna, the eighth incarnation of the Hindu God Vishnu. Slightly reminiscent of the dialogue approach used by Plato and Aristotle, the debate between Krishna and Arjuna serves as an explanation and justification of certain philosophical ideas. Arjuna insists that fighting in the conflict would lead to sin - through the action of killing others. He also argues that devoting his life to asceticism, to spiritual contemplation, would be a more moral course of action befitting the beliefs of Hinduism. After much debate, Krishna ultimately argues that the key to achieving wisdom is found in a compromise between contemplation away from the material world and action in the material world. He argues that by withdrawing from the battle, Arjuna is failing to fulfill his dharma (caste duty) as he is a skilled warrior. Krishna also observes that inaction in the material world is impossible - Arjuna's pacifism will still influence the battle, as his brother's army would be without one of its most able warriors. Exact interpretations of the Bhagavad Gita are of course debatable, but the extent of its influence is not. The text was key in shaping ideas of Karma and the importance of considering one's actions in a much broader context. These interpretations of Karma offered in Vyasa's work have since been expanded upon, debated and developed across the world. Its effects can be seen in historical figures as diverse as Robert J. Oppenheimer and Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi's political campaigning was inspired by ideas of devotion and dedication he took from the Bhagavad-Gita. Oppenheimer's famous words at the first test of the atomic bomb "I am time, the destroyer of all; I have come to consume the world " were taken straight from an English translation of the poem. The Bhagavad-Gita was a crucial text in the development of Hindu philosophy and literature, but its impact has since stretched across the world. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons user: Arnab Dutta

Related Books

The Philosophy of the Bhagavad-Gita
by Subba Row

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