What is dharma (the sacred Law of the cosmos and the social order)?
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A central philosophical text in Hinduism, the Bhagavad-Gita is placed in the unlikeliest of settings: in the sixth book of India’s war epic, the Mahabharata, on the battlefield of Kuruksetra, on the eve of a great war destined to nearly wipe out the clans of North India . This intriguing and celebrated settingin connection to the great epic and its beloved characters, and especially the very human dilemma of its heropartly accounts for the poem’s enduring appeal to Indian readers. The Bhagavad-Gita addresses the central questions of the Hindu religious tradition: What is dharma (the sacred Law of the cosmos and the social order)? How can the individual learn his or own dharma and act according to it? Since dharma in the Hindu tradition is strictly defined by a person’s gender, class, caste, occupation, and position in the orders of family, society, and state, will not diverse dharmas inevitably clash? Do not some aspects of one’s own dharma (sacred duty) enmesh one in manifestly evil acts (evil karma), such as hurting or killing others? And since evil karma inevitably leads to existential suffering, and entails rebirth, how is a person to escape these consequences and attain moksa (liberation from karma)the ultimate goal of the Hindu? Is one’s dharma strictly determined, or does one have a choice in action?
But the Gita does not put these questions in this abstract fashion. The problem is made concrete in the dilemma that the Pandava hero Arjuna faces on the battlefield: how can it be in accordance with dharma to kill his own kinsmen in battle, even though these cousins and their allies had cheated the Pandava princes out of the kingdom that is rightfully theirs? Put simply, Arjuna wonders whether following his sacred dity as a warrior, that is, to kill his enemies, is not in this case fraught with evil karma, since he must in the process kill his elders and kinsmen, to whom he owes filial allegiance. Given the situation, what hope has he of moksa?
In the Mahabharata war, Krishna , who is God incarnate and an ally of the Pandava, has taken the role of Arjuna’s charioteer and has driven him to the battlefield. When Arjuna refuses to fight, Krishna begin to explain the subtle, complex nature of dharma to him. He tells Arjuna about the relationship between the individual and cosmic order. He explains that action is necessary for the proper functioning of the cosmos, and that the caste system and the ordering of the sacred duties of individuals are a part of this cosmic plan. Although one does not have complete freedom of choice in what actions to perform, one’s attitude toward action is entirely under one’s control. Arjuna must fight, because it is his duty as a warrior, and because he must stand by his brothers; however, he must fight in the right spirit. Desire and anger motivate evil attitudes and evil acts; therefore a man must first restrain his senses. In the sixth teaching Krishna gives Arjuna practical advice about the physical and meditational discipline (yoga) that will help a person to accomplish self-control. God’s role in all this is also explained in the sixth teaching, as is the relation between God (the infinite Spirit) and human beings. Krishna ‘s progressive arguments culminate in his epiphanic self-revelation to Arjuna, who is awed by God’s grandeur. The remainder of the Bhagavad-Gita’s eighteen chapters are elaborations of these central arguments.
The complexity of the existential dilemma confronted by Arjuna (and all Hindus) demands a complex yet progressive resolution. The technique of dialogue between a spiritual teacher (guru) and student (sisya) is an ancient form of discourse in Indian religions, found in the older Upanisads and in Buddhist texts. The self-discipline of yoga, too, is a standard spiritual practice in India. The linking of body and mind in achieving a personal religious goal, so clearly manifested in the Bhagavad-Gita’s argument, shows that in India the problem of achieving the ultimate religious goal is treated not as an abstract philosophical problem but as a matter of everyday life and practice. The Bhagavad-Gita’s popularity is due largely to its practical orientation, and its ability to reconcile universal human values with the individual’s situation in caste and other orders of the Hindu world. Since Indian epic heroes are also exemplars in ethics and spiritual achievement, the warrior hero becomes an apt symbol of everyman. The Bhagavad-Gita holds special power for Indian readers, who respond deeply to Arjuna’s dilemma of divided loyalties within a large, extended family.
Berggren, Paula, et al. Teaching with The Norton Anthology of World Literature: A Guide for Instructors. New York: Norton, 2002. Print.
Karma: the belief that all actions involve inevitable consequences that must be suffered through many lives. Hinduism offers its practitioners a religious path on which ethical action could be combined with contemplative spiritual practices, eventually leading to a liberation from the burden of karma.
Dharma: Sacred duty. As a Hindu warrior, Arjuna’s dharma involves killing. The question, for him, is how he might perform his dharma, which seems evil, yet still be liberated from the endless cycle of death and rebirth, which is the goal of a religious person.
Yoga: A discipline that is the first step toward liberation from birth and death.
Arjuna: Hindu warrior from a virtuous family who is horrified at the prospect of having to kill his own kinsmen in battle.
Krshna (Sometimes spelled Krishna): Arjuna’s charioteer, in reality an incarnation of the god Visnu.
Sanjaya: The bard, or poet, who retells the events of the battle to King Dhrarastra.
My own appreciation of the Bhagavad-Ghita has been enhanced by sources, perhaps, a little closer to home. If you have time, I would highly recommend your renting the movie Ghandi, an Academy Award winning film that recounts the life of the modern Indian leader Mahatma Ghandi (1869-1948). This film might give you the opportunity to see some of the principles of Buddhism, at least as practiced by Ghandi, borne out in real life.
I am also drawn to the Bhagavad-Ghita through my love of two great 19th century American writers, Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman. I would encourage you to check out the following links for more information on Whitman and Thoreau, both of whom were influenced by the Bhavagad-Gita.
For Whitman, look at some of the poems from “Song of Myself,” to see if you can hear echoes of the Bhagavad-Gita.
Learn more about Henry David Thoreau at this website. You may even wish to read parts of his most famous work, Walden.
Read the sections of the Bhagavad-Gita included in our anthology, beginning on page 1278.