There are two great Hindu epics that originated in heroic accounts of early battles fought by the Aryan clans. The longer of the two, Mahabharata, tells of an intense and hostile feud between rivaling sides of a family, each aided by deities. The most famous portion of Mahabharata is The Bhagavad Gita which is what I will be discussing and analyzing throughout this essay. The high points of this portion of the Hindu epic allows for a unique understanding of dharma, examples of different spiritual growth, and the influence it made on Gandhi.
The Bhagavad Gita is told by Sanjaya to King Dhritarashtra, both of whom side with the Kauravas. Sanjaya explains to the King that Arjuna, who is a mighty warrior and excellent archer, refuses to fight in battle. It isn’t until his charioteer, Krishna, avatar to the god Vishnu, urges him to fulfill his life calling. The conflict between Arjuna’s emotional and moral feelings are illustrated in his uneasiness about the battle that is about to take place in this portion of the epic. Arjuna is about to go to battle with his cousins who are ruling over the kingdom but refuse to transition the power over to Arjuna. Each side demonstrates a readiness to fight, yet Arjuna takes the time to go into the middle of the battlefield and have a ‘timeless moment’ with Krishna, his charioteer. It is during this time that Arjuna has a moral crisis, or perhaps an ethical dilemma.
He realizes that he does not want to kill his kin/cousins. The text states, ‘And there the Son of Pritha[Arjuna] saw rows of grandfathers and grandsons; sons and fathers, uncles, in-laws; teachers, brothers, companions, all relatives and friends of his in both of the assembling armies’ (Martin, 5-6). It is then that Arjuna refuses to fight, he believes no good will come from slaughtering his kin in war (Martin, 6). The moral conflict Arjuna faces is much more than to kill or not to kill his kin, it is also about fulfilling or not fulfilling his dharma. Krishna responds to this by explaining that he understands what Arjuna is saying from an emotional standpoint, but that he[Arjuna] should not perceive his duty as a warrior. This dialogue between the two has a deeper meaning than just fulfilling Arjuna’s duty (Martin, 13/17). From the text, Religions of Asia Today, I was able to make a connection between this duty Krishna and Arjuna speak of to the dharma in the textbook. Dharma is ‘duty’ determined by caste and gender (Esposito, 86). It is Arjuna’s duty, as a warrior, to fulfill his dharma of fighting the battle. If Arjuna was to turn from his duty as a warrior, his behavior would have been ‘evil […]’ and would have ‘[…] abandoned his duty and honored name’ (Martin, 17). Arjuna’s moral crisis is holding him back from reaching his life’s potential and fulfilling his dharma as a warrior.
The Bhagavad Gita also provides an outline of each way of devotion through Trimarga. Trimarga is a three-fold oath of how people pursue growth (Esposito, 105). The three devotional actions of Trimarga discussed through the Bhagavad Gita is Karma-Yoga, Buddhi-Yoga, and Bhakti-Yoga. Krishna desires discipleship from his followers and for them to be disciplined in skill in action (Martin, 20).
Karma-Yoga is a path of action and is perused through fulfilling dharma and social order (varna). As stated earlier, dharma is fulfilling life’s duty of caste and gender appropriate duties. Arjuna’s moral conflict and decision to pursue his dharma falls within this path of action. The teachings from The Bhagavad Gita on the actions of Karma-Yoga is that people must act without attachment and not be concerned with the ‘fruits of action’, or consequences (Martin, 19). If a person is truly devoted to a deity, it is their duty to fulfill their dharma and social order without concern of the consequences through the actions of Karma-Yoga.
Buddhi-Yoga is spiritual growth through the path of knowledge/insight. This knowledge can be channeled through deeply understanding Samsara and Brahman, and devotion through aestheticism like yoga and meditation. This spiritual growth is enlightened through discipline. The Bhagavad Gita states: ‘supreme joy comes to the yogi of calm and tranquil passion, who has become one with Brahman and is wholly free of evil,’ (Martin, 54). Thus, it is through peaceful pursuit, meditation, and yoga, that Buddhi-Yoga is expressed.
Bhakti-Yoga is the path of devotion of pursuing spiritual growth through devotion and sacrifice. This is the way of devotional growth which is also talked about in The Bhagavad Gita. It talks about the quality of personal devotion involving our feelings, emotions, and actions. Krishna claims ‘he who has subdued his senses, should sit, controlled, intent on me, […] now fearless with tranquil self, firm in avowed celibacy, with his thought focused on myself, he should sit, devoted to me,’ (Martin, 22/51). It is through personal devotion and sacrifice that the Bhakti-Yoga spiritual growth is pursued.
Hinduism is indigenous to Asia but is a concept that can be found worldwide along with its modern influences. The Bhagavad Gita has left an influence on modern culture. In fact, there have been 150,000 copies of this portion of a Hindu epic place in hotel rooms in thirty states in America (ROAT, 159). Children today are taught simplified ‘Hinduism’ and are taught to chant ‘OM’, do simple yoga, and interpret The Bhagavad Gita as ‘caring and sharing’ (ROAT, 159). This a weird growing global tradition in my personal opinion but I must bracket my opinions in order to truly understand others’ lives with different views than me.
Another new outlook on The Bhagavad Gita came from the high regards of Mahatma Gandhi. For background information, Mahatma has the same prefix as the Mahabharata’s [maha-] and that means great. Gandhi’s teaching of nonviolence is derived from his interpretations of the sacred Hindu story. His interpretation is not of a story of violence, but to resist evil by nonviolence means. Gandhi transforms The Bhagavaad Gita – a story that literally advocates war and killing one’s enemies – into a story of nonviolence (ROAT, 402). Gandhi, instead, uses the message of spiritual realization that all beings share the same self, such as Brahman or Purusha. Gandhi argues that the battle in this Hindu classic can be understood as the battle between good and evil internally.
For example, when Krishna commands Arjuna to stand up and fight is actually a ‘spiritual’ command. The Bhagavaad Gita proposes there is injustice in the world and there is an obligation to fight, go to war, and reestablish justice. Gandhi, instead of advising to be prepared for physical war, recommends being prepared to exert a soul force or spiritual war. This force is exerted by putting one’s body on the line, in a nonviolent way, through civil disobedience (ROAT, 406). It is through this interpretation of The Bhagavad Gita that Gandhi holds this epic in the highest regards and proposes the opportunity to gain the respect, understanding, and perhaps transform one’s enemies. From a tale of destructive war to the interpretation of spiritual warfare, The Bhagavad Gita has been given a new outlook by Mahatma Gandhi.
I am pleasantly surprised with how much I enjoyed reading this section of a Hindu epic. I am taken back by the way The Bhagavad Gita was able to capture my attention. Asian Religions, let alone reading a Hindu epic is something that is completely new to me. It is sometimes a struggle to understand all the aspects we have learned in class about Hinduism. The Bhagavad Gita helped bring Hinduism to a level in which I understand and I now understand the reason for incorporating it into our class.
Reading The Bhagavad Gita was informative and furthered my knowledge in regards to Hindu views. I now have a better understanding of dharma, a better sense of the trimarga, and learned about the influence it has made on Gandhi and the world. I was not only able to apply previous readings in class to this Hindu epic portion but also further integrate my understandings of the different worldviews and spiritual growth that different religions present.
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