Invitation to World Literature
The Bhagavad Gita – Map & Timeline
This map shows the modern borders of India and its neighboring states. At the time The Bhagavad Gita was written as part of a massive epic (400 BCE – 400 CE), Kurukshetra was a powerful kingdom in a region with no dominating power or empire, a land up for grabs. The price of maintaining peace and establishing a dynasty is questioned by Arjuna, the hero of the Gita. People for centuries after the time of the story fought for control of this land, until the British Empire overcame local powers in the late 1700s. The nation of India would emerge from that empire in the 1940s.
This timeline shows both the history of the written story of The Bhagavad Gita and the history of Indian politics and religion that influenced that story.
The Indus Valley civilization develops.
According to legend, the great war described in the Mahabarata takes place.
The proto-Indo-European language develops in Central Asia.
Anchored by the great cities of Harappa, Lothal, Kalibangan and Mohenjo-daro, Harappan civilization flourishes in the areas that includes today’s Pakistan, northwestern and western India, and parts of Afghanistan and Iran.
The Indus Valley civilization ends, and Indo-Aryans fill the gap by invading India from the West.
The early Vedic period, named for the four Vedas (oral religious texts) written down in Sanskrit during this time.
The Rig Veda is written down in Sanskrit.
The Upanishads are written down in Sanskrit.
Indo-Aryans rule over the 16 mahajanapadas or “great states” in northern India, from the Indus River to the Ganges River.
The Hindu caste system emerges.
Siddhartha Gautama, inspiration for the founding of Buddhism, is born to the ruler of the Shakya tribe in what is now northern Bihar and southern Nepal (dies ca. 483).
Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian Empire, conquers northwestern parts of the Indian sub-continent.
The Persian emperor Darius conquers the Indus Valley region and rules it as a province of his empire.
400 BCE - 400 CE
The Mahabharata is composed; the Gita is a part of this larger work.
Parts of India ruled by Persia fall into Greek hands as Alexander the Great defeats Darius III.
Alexander the Great visits the Indus Valley.
Before its fall in 184, the Mauryan empire will comprise almost all of the Indian subcontinent and today’s Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and parts of China.
Ashoka the Great, the greatest of the Mauryan emperors, reigns.
The Maurya dynasty ends when its last ruler is assassinated; the Sunga dynasty follows.
First century CE
The Bhagavata Gita is composed.
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.