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This is the second part out of three in the series of articles about the cultural background of yoga. See the first part and the third. In this part, I will discuss The Bhagavad Gita and the Mahabharata.
The Bhagavad Gita is a part of the vast epic of the Mahabharata that originally stretches over a hundred thousand verses. This is the world’s longest literary work, its length greater than the Iliad and the Odyssey combined. The Mahabharata’s central storyline is about a conflict between two factions of a ruling family of the warrior’s sect (It’s recommended to watch Peter Brook’s movie that narrates the story of the Mahabharata). This story about the epic clash over the throne had already been familiar in a certain way in 1500 BCE. The sites of the events such as Hastinapura and Kurukshetra exist in northern India and to this day there are festivals being held there related to the mythic characters.
It is generally thought that the epic was authored between the 4th century BCE and the 4th century CE. It is a blend of stories spanning eighteen volumes. The mythic author of the work is Vyasa. It is said in the Mahabharata that Vyasa dictated the epic to Ganesha, the elephant-headed God. The central storyline recounts the conflict between the five son of Pandu and their cousins that ended in a blood-soaked war.
The Bhagavad Gita is an episode from the Mahabharata recounting the conversations of the God Krishna and the warrior Arjuna before the great war. This episode had gone to become a book in itself, considered one of the sacred books of India. So much so that some call it “the fifth Veda”.
The Bhagavad Gita brings up questions that have occupied Indian philosophy in the past, and still do, chief of which is the question of Dharma or how one should lead their life. Is the material world the expression of all and death is the end of all or is there a purpose and a meaning to human life that goes beyond the world of matter? Another important question is about the relationship between God and man. While God is the master of creation and has the foresight of the unfolding of events, what part does man play? What is the meaning of his actions? What freedom of choice does he have?
Further questions are about the relationship between the guru and the student and between the householder and the ascetic (sannyasin). The Bhagavad Gita offers answers to these questions.
Scholars are debated as to the dating of the Bhagavad Gita but the attributes of the language and the fact it shows no reference to Buddhism indicate that it was written before the 6th century BCE. However, the value of the text is spiritual, and as such, it is independent of time, it is always in the here and now.
The Bhagavad Gita recounts a war between the forces of light represented by the Pandavas and the forces of evil represented by the Kauravas.
The father of Dhritarashtra and Pandu was the king of Hastinapura, a city located 80 km to the northeast of modern-day Delhi. When the king died Pandu inherited the throne since his older brother Dhritarashtra was blind. Pandu had five sons: Yudhishthira, Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula and Sahadeva.
Dhritarashtra had 100 sons, the eldest of which was Duryodhana, the manifestation of evil. After Pandu’s passing, Dhritarashtra raised Pandu’s five sons in the palace alongside their cousins. They became great warriors and Dhritarashtra appointed his eldest son Duryodhana as the legitimate heir to the throne. This was the reason for the colossal conflict that led to the great war.
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The Bhagavad Gita
The Bhagavad Gita is presented as a double discourse. The narrator, Sanjaya, the charioteer of Dhritarashtra, reports to Dhritarashtra about the preparations to battle and the conversation taking place between Arjuna and Krishna who is the charioteer to Arjuna in the story. Most of the text consists of questions asked by Arjuna and the answers given by Krishna.
A lot of symbolism can be seen in the text: The Mahabharata contains 18 books and the great battle where the armies of Duryodhana were defeated lasted 18 days. The Bhagavad Gita contains 18 chapters. It is likely that the war The Mahabharata chronicles are based on a historical event. It is difficult to ignore the symbolic aspect of the Bhagavad Gita. The forces of evil represent the evil kingdom, the evil urge, and the negative tendencies inside us. Will we allow these forces to win over the forces of light? Of course not. And yet, how easy it is not to fight back. How easy it is to find reasons and pretexts to avoid battle! How great are the temptations of the forces of evil!
The symbolism of the chariot appears in many historical texts (The Upanishads, Plato, Buddha). The chariot where the dialogue takes place isn’t on the side of the forces of darkness nor is it on the side of the forces of light. It is in the middle and reflects the hesitation that opens the epic.
Krishna himself uses descriptions of war metaphorically when he says at the end of chapter 2: “..smite O mighty armed (Arjuna), the enemy in the form of desire, so hard to get at.” (3.43), And again at the end of chapter 4: “Therefore having cut asunder with the sword of wisdom this doubt in thy heart that is born of ignorance, resort to yoga and stand up, O Bharata (Arjuna).” (4.42)
The concept of Dharma
The word dharma has roots in the Sanskrit dhr-, which means to hold or to support. The word Dharma has (at least) 6 translations:
- Duty or Destiny. It is man’s duty to fulfill his Dharma.
- Justice and ruling
- Religion – here there’s an element of devotion
The dharma is an umbrella of values enabling the world to exist. Every person holds a small umbrella and eventually protection is achieved. The dharma also applies to the world of inanimate nature, such as for example “the dharma of the sun is to shine”.
The dharma, therefore, establishes the order in the world and from it also derives a division into Varnas of professions (not casts). The four main ones are Brahmins (includes teachers, priests, intellectuals, and students), Kshatriyas (rulers, warriors, and administrators), Vaishyas (agriculturalists, merchants, and the free professions), Shudras (laborers and service providers/servants).
The dharma, therefore, goes into daily life and determines the professional occupation of each person. It also determines the stages of life:
- Brahmacārya – student, ascetic
- Gṛhastha – householder
- Vānprastha – forest dweller, partially renouncing worldly occupations.
- Sannyāsa – fully renouncing worldly affairs, ascetic.
In the Mahabharata there are many instances of gaps of violations of the dharma, creating conflicts that drive the story. The idea of Jati – being born into a Cast (Gandhi was against the Casts, but he did not object to the Varnas). The Varnas are determined according to the person’s nature and not necessarily at birth.
In the Hebrew translation of the Bhagavad Gita, Itamar Theodore offers a model for understanding the text. It is a three-floor model as follows:
- First floor – the human realm – the world of dharma which itself is divided into different levels: standard utilitarianism, dharmic utilitarianism, and duty for its own sake.
- Second floor – the world of yoga
- Third floor – the liberated realm, Moksha
Following is a presentation of the ontology and ethics for each of the floors:
|Floor||Ontology (the “existing”)||Ethics|
|Dharma||People||Material and spiritual prosperity, an inclination to the good|
|Yoga||The dismantling of man into soul and matter. There is an eternal soul||Equanimity (there is neither a preference for good nor evil)|
Western thinking seeks contrasting, dichotomy, and a dialectic process aimed at getting to the truth through elimination. The Indian/Yogi approach seeks the unifying viewpoint and sees polarity as an expression of a lower perception. The leap occurs upwards, into higher consciousness (or into a higher “floor”). This is a different ideal and a different process of achieving knowledge.
In the post-modern world, with all its possibilities, the polarity-based approach becomes superficial and we lose grip on reality, we lose a stable anchor. This is why in Itamar Theodore’s opinion the yogic approach based on a climb of consciousness offers a great insight into the world.
Hinduism can be likened to a Bengal Ficus. This tree grows aerial roots that, with time, turn into trunks. That is why there is a unifying conceptual framework without trampling over the particular and the uniqueness. Therefore, there is pluralism, localization, and multiculturalism.
- The Mahabharata – by John D. Smith and Anonymous
- A 10-volume set of the Mahabharata
- The Bhagavad Gita by C Radhakrishnan
- The Bhagavad Gita by Simon Brodbeck and Laurie L. Patton
- The Bhagavad Gita by Eknath Easwaran
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