Invitation to World Literature
The Bhagavad Gita The Bhagavad Gita – Getting Started
The Equanimity Called Discipline
When you pick up a copy of the Gita, it is encouragingly slim, and the pages are only half-filled with verse. It seems like a quick read, and it can be—but if you really delve into the philosophy of life, death, right and wrong, you’ll find you’re spending a lot more time with the Gita than you might have expected.
Teacher, Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School:
“The Gita is the most philosophical and probably the most sacred book in modern Hinduism. It lays out the nature of the universe, the nature of the soul, what is truth. And, I think most importantly, the attitude that we should take when facing any difficulties on Earth.”
The Indus Valley civilization develops.
According to legend, the great war described in the Mahabarata takes place.
Siddhartha Gautama, inspiration for the founding of Buddhism, is born.
400 BCE – 400 CE
The Mahabharata is composed.
The Bhagavata Gita is composed as one section of Mahabharata.
The first English translation of The Bhagavad Gita is published by Charles Wilkins.
The Bhagavad Gita was written in the first century CE, but it tells a story that was ancient even at that time. The Gita, as it is often called, is at once an independent story and part of a larger epic, the Mahabharata, that recounts a great civil war which, according to legend, took place in northern India around 3000 BCE.
Northern India was experiencing real war and turmoil when the Gita was written. The mighty Mauryan empire had fallen, and there were constant battles for power between the smaller kingdoms that sought to take its plac. The basic problem Arjuna faces in the Gita—how to justify killing one’s own family in a civil war—must have been lived by much of its original Indian audience.
The Gita is a Hindu text that has also influenced Buddhism. Buddhism was founded in India in the sixth century BCE, during the lifetime of Siddartha Guatama (563? — 483 BCE), and so it was younger than Hinduism, which developed over the centuries of 800-500 BCE. Both religions were practiced by the Indian people. Long after the fall of the Mauryan empire, the Gita remained an important text for all Indians, including Hindus.
One of its most important readers was Mahatma Gandhi. For Gandhi, the text was not just to be read but lived: “I have [made] an effort to enforce the meaning of the Gita in my own conduct [for] forty years… It is a misuse of our intellectual energy and a waste of time to go on reading what we cannot put into practice.”
This may seem surprising, since the Gita teaches that war and violence are acceptable in the service of dharma, while Gandhi completely renounced violence of any kind, even for the noblest of causes. Krishna teaches throughout the text that one can fight a real war and kill real people without sin so long as it’s done in support of dharma, one’s sacred duty to the good order of the universe.
Gandhi believed that when Krishna talks about killing, he is speaking metaphorically. What people should do is “kill” the negative thoughts and motives inside their minds, even though these thoughts and motives are so familiar that we may see them as “friends” or “family.” This is a kind of violence that is in line with ahimsa, or non-violent protest. Using this interpretation, Gandhi swayed the Indian independence movement away from violence and saw India become a sovereign nation in 1947 without firing a shot.
The Bhagavad Gita was written in Epic-Puranic Sanskrit. Sanskrit is an ancient Indo-European language, (which developed in) what is now India around 1600 BCE. Remarkably, Sanskrit is in use today. Sanskrit was first written down around 300 BCE, during the Epic-Puranic period, and this is the language of The Bhagavad Gita.
The Gita is written in epic narrative stanza—a quatrain with eight syllables in each quarter. Like The Odyssey, the Gita counts the length of syllables to create meter rather than the stress on each syllable. Also like The Odyssey, the Gita uses epithets, descriptive words or phrases, to keep the meter flowing properly.
There is a reason why the Gita and The Odyssey have these connections. Sanskrit is a root language of ancient Greek and Latin, and indeed of all European languages except for Finnish and Hungarian. Modern European languages, including English, still hold traces of their Sanskrit roots. For example, there are correlations between some personal pronouns, like vayam (we), yuyam (you), asman (us); and some verbs. like bhu (be), and as (is).
The Ninth Incarnation of Vishnu, Sustainer of the Universe. Krishna at once contains all life and all death, and ensures that dharma―universal order sustained by sacred duty―is maintained. He appears in human form, serving as Arjuna’s charioteer, but reveals his godhead toward the end of the teachings, terrifying Arjuna.
Arjuna, like the god who fathered him, is a conquering warrior. He is one of the five Pandava brothers who must, to regain their human father’s throne, fight their 100 Kaurava cousins to the death. Arjuna’s intrinsic nobility and courage are challenged by his awareness of the horror of killing his own family members. He turns to Krishna for help at this crucial moment.
Sanjaya is a person given the supernatural power of being able to see and relate every aspect of the Gita—he knows the thoughts and hears the words of every character in the story, even if they happen miles apart at the same time. He tells Dhritarashtra what is happening on the battlefield and in Arjuna’s chariot as Krishna instructs him.
Eldest son of Dhritarashtra, Duryodhana seeks to take the throne that belongs to his cousin Yudhishthira. When he has the chance to accept either Krishna’s army or the help of Krishna himself in battle, he short-sightedly chooses the army.
Dhritarashtra was not able to take the throne because he was blind; his younger brother Pandu reigned instead. When Pandu left the throne, Dhritarashtra served as regent until the new king was established. But escalating tensions between his own sons and his nephews led to civil war, and now Dhritarashtra awaits the result of their great battle.
Recommended Translations & Editions
Barbara Stoler Miler, The Bhagavad Gita, Bantam Classic, 1999.
- This is our recommended text. Barbara Stoler Miller’s eloquent and accurate verse translation gives a moving rendering effectively employing Western-style four-line stanzas.
Stephen Mitchell, Bhagavad Gita: A New Translation, Three Rivers Press, 2002.
- This version is in prose but very true to the spirit of the original.
Laurie Patton, The Bhagavad Gita, Penguin Classics, 2008.
- Laurie L. Patton is the Charles Howard Candler Professor of Early Indian Religions at Emory University, and has translated the work in free verse.
Jack Hawley, The Bhagavad Gita: A Walkthrough for Westerners, New World Library, 2001 (paperback coming in March 2011).
- Jack Hawley is a Columbia University professor who is featured in the video.
Chaos and the disintegration of the order of the universe; adharma is the opposite of dharma. Heroes and warrior-kings of the epic embody dharma (order and sacred duty) while their foes embody adharma (chaos).
The hero of the story; Arjuna is one of the five Pandava brothers who fight for their rightful place in their father’s kingdom. Arjuna’s father was a warrior god, but his greatest counselor is the god Krishna.
Devotion to cosmic order that is free of personal desires.
This is the sacred duty that supports the moral order that sustains the cosmos, society, and the individual.
This is the reciprocal relationship between cosmic order and human action. Karma is at once action and the result of actions as they cycle through the universe.
Great Soul, Original Creator, Boundless Lord of Gods, Shelter of All That Is; Krishna is the manifestation of the Supreme Being who walks the earth in the shape of a human. In the Gita, Krishna is acting as Arjuna’s charioteer, but instructing Arjuna in the ways of dharma.
The practice of discipline; yoga, as most westerners know it today, is a way of practicing bodily discipline to help the mind reach discipline.
Unit 1 The Epic of Gilgamesh
The first known human story is that of Gilgamesh, king of Uruk. Images of artifacts from ancient Iraq mix with beautiful illustrations, dance, and costume to tell of the relations between gods and mortals, the search for friendship, love, and immortality. Featured cast members include Assyriologist Ben Foster, comic book illustrator Jim Starlin, and poet and playwright Yusef Komunyakaa.
Unit 2 My Name Is Red
Both an historical novel and a graphic murder mystery set among the miniaturists of the Ottoman court. With its focus on Istambul, a major crossroads of the world, it tells of the artistic/cultural contest between Europe and the East. Cast members include the book's Nobel-prize winning author, Orhan Pamuk, and its English translator, Erdağ Göknar.
Unit 3 The Odyssey
Odysseus must travel the known and unknown world before he can return home to his beloved island kingdom of Ithaca. What does this ancient story say to readers today? In this program, Odysseus's story is given ancient and modern historical and philosophical context, and illustrated with centuries of art. Featured are theater director Mary Zimmerman, actor-director Tim Blake-Nelson, and psychologist/author Jonathan Shay.
Unit 4 The Bacchae
The city of Thebes is torn apart by the conflicting demands of reason and religion, as the disguised god Dionysus returns to his home town demanding to be worshipped. Opposing him is the young king Pentheus, who is doomed to suffer the ultimate punishment for his disbelief. Featured speakers include world-renowned playwright/author Wole Soyinka, actor Alan Cumming, and Daniel Mendelsohn of Bard College.
Unit 5 The Bhagavad Gita
This epic tale of the warrior-prince Arjuna confronting a life-or-death dilemma during civil war presents a unique and powerful philosophy of duty, discipline, and serving a higher purpose. Beautiful illustrations connect the story with its rich history and culture. Featured speakers include Sheldon Pollock, Professor of Sanskrit Studies and acclaimed composer Philip Glass.
Unit 6 The Tale of Genji
This portrait of court life in medieval Japan follows the life and exploits of the great Genji. Written by Murasaki Shikibu, a lady of the Japanese court, it provides an insider's view of Japanese court life, the official and behind the screen. Art, clothing, music from the time of the novel illustrate the obserations of authors Jane Smiley and Chiori Miyagawa, among others.
Unit 7 Journey to the West
The powerful and mischievous Stone Monkey King brings chaos to heaven and earth. Freed from a mountain prison in order to guard a Chinese monk on his journey to retrieve the Buddhist scriptures from India, Monkey seeks his own spiritual transformation. Modern performance, contemporary art, and Buddhist philosophers provide a rich context to the ancient tale. Featured cast members include playwright David Henry Huang, storyteller Diane Wolkstein, and translator Professor Anthony Yu.
Unit 8 Popol Vuh
The Mayan book of creation, the dawn of life, and the glories of gods and kings. This magnificent epic was saved from destruction at the hands of the Spanish by Quiché chroniclers. Once repressed, the story is now interwoven with the history of today's Mayan people. Featured speakers include archaeologist Richard Hanson, humorist Mo Rocca, and Guatemalan artist Shuni Giron.
Unit 9 Candide
A satirical novel following the travails of Candide, a hopeless optimist whose faith in his tutor's mantra that his is "the best of all possible worlds" is tested beyond all limits. Voltaire's challenge to the aristocracy of his day proves refreshingly amusing and biting today. Original illustrations, songs, and comic book figures plumb the depths of this satire. Featured speakers include director Harold Ramis, actress Kristin Chenoweth, and cartoonist Chris Ware.
Unit 10 Things Fall Apart
In this foundational modern African novel, Chinua Achebe's story follows the lives of people trying to understand which belief systems deserve their loyalty. The protagonist, Okonkwo is a tribal leader who battles neighboring villages, the English, and his own demons in early colonial Nigeria. The perspectives of readers from around the world reveal the novel's universal themes. Cast members include playwright and professor Tess Onwueme and theater director Chuck Mike.
Unit 11 One Hundred Years of Solitude
Gabriel García Márquez's multigenerational saga of the Buendía family in the isolated town of Macondo inaugurated the boom in Latin American literature in the 1970s and marked the beginning of magical realism. Writer Sandra Cisneros and scholar of Latin American literature, Ilan Stavans lend their thoughts and voices to the discussion of this epic novel.
Unit 12 The God of Small Things
Fraternal twins Rahel and Estha struggle to reclaim their lives after their childhood is destroyed by tragic circumstances. As past and present merge in this narrative of Indian society and politics, the many layers of the caste system are mirrored in the poetic and inventive language of the author. Featured speakers include Simon Gikandi of Princeton University, author Evelyn Ch'ien.
Unit 13 The Thousand and One Nights
Shahrazad must hold the interest of her despotic husband the sultan with nightly tales, lest she lose her life in the morning. This wellspring of storytelling, circulating from medieval Persia to Egypt to Iraq, like its wily raconteur lives on in many modern adaptations. Art, performance, and film images are employed to show the collection's broad span of influence. Featured speakers include Marin Alsop, musical director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Aly Jetha and Shabnam Rezai, co-producers of the 1001 Nights animated series.