Invitation to World Literature
The Bhagavad Gita The Bhagavad Gita – Key Points
Key Teaching Points and Discussion Prompts
- Who or what is Krishna? What is his role on earth? What is his true form?
- What does Arjuna’s friendship with Krishna suggest about Arjuna? Is he a normal warrior, or something more? Does he start out normal, then become something more?
- Who is Arjuna about to meet in battle?
- Do you think time stands still during the Gita? At the start of the book, Arjuna has his chariot drawn up to the battlefield, where both sides are ready to start the battle immediately. How do Arjuna and Krishna have such a long talk?
- What is the effect on Arjuna of seeing Krishna in his pure godly form? Does it finally convince Arjuna, or simply confirm what he has come to believe. Or does it scare him into submission?
- One of the most dramatic moments in the Gita is the exchange between Arjuna and Krishna, about whether it’s philosophically justifiable to lay down one’s arms and refuse to fight. What is each character’s position? Which do you feel most comfortable with, and why?
- Thoreau comments specifically on refusing to fight or finding virtue in fighting in his book A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. What conclusions did Thoreau draw?
- Why is killing not a moral problem, according to Krishna?
- What is discipline, as Krishna describes it in the “Second Teaching?”
- Robert Oppenheimer, the “Father of the Atom Bomb,” quoted from the Gita when the first atomic bomb was successfully tested, saying: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Why do you think Oppenheimer quoted these lines at that moment?
- Martin Luther King, Jr. was inspired by the teachings in the Gita—what might have appealed to him about its message?
Discussion Prompts to Encourage Critical Thinking
- Is Arjuna convinced that fighting his relations is acceptable by Krishna’s arguments, or by Krishna’s overpowering status as the god of all creation? If a simply human teacher had made all the points Krishna made, do you think Arjuna would have been convinced?
- What is Krishna’s most basic argument in favor of fighting and killing in the name of dharma?
- How would you define and practice the discipline Krishna speaks of in your own life?
- Some say the overall plot of the Mahabharata, which the Gita is a part of, ends with the futility of all the great battles in that great war. If this is so, how can Krishna’s argument, that a just battle perpetuates the cosmic order of the universe, be true?
- The cycle of rebirth (or reincarnation) is important to the religion and philosophy of the Gita. How might modern readers whose religion or philosophy do not include reincarnation apply the principles of the book to their own life?
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.