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Humanities 201

India: The Mahābhārata and Bhagavad-Gītā

India Background Bhagavad-Gītā Background Bhagavad-Gītā Q’s Part Two Q’s

India’s Heroic Age (550 B.C. – A. D. 100)

Important Terms:

  • Sanskrit
    • ancient Indo-Aryan language
  • Riga Veda
    • last in series of 4 sacred hymn books, Hinduism’s primary scripture
  • dharma
    • guiding principle of proper human conduct; sacred duty
  • artha
    • worldly profit, wealth, and political power
  • Hinduism
    • India’s dominant religious tradition
  • Islam
    • the religious faith of Muslims including belief in Allah as the sole deity and in Muhammad as his prophet
  • Buddhism
    • “unique combination of radical detachment from desire, the root cause of karma, and an ethic of action directed only toward the welfare of one’s fellow creatures” (Norton [earlier edition] 840)
  • guru
    • personal religious teacher and spiritual guide in Hinduism
  • caste
    • one of the hereditary social classes in Hinduism that restrict the occupation of their members and their association with the members of other castes
  • Brahman
    • single, divine essence: the soul of man is a manifestation of the Brahman; gods are seen as “personification of nature and the powers of the cosmos” (Norton [earlier edition] 838)
  • kama
    • pleasure and love
  • mantra
    • sacred counsel, formula; a mystical formula of invocation or incantation

EPICS of India’s Heroic Age:

  • originated in oral tradition, like Old Testament
  • grounded in actual events, yet similar to Iliad and Odyssey.

Four classes (varna) of Indian society (see p. 684):

  • brāhmaa (priest) transmitter of vedas
  • kşatriya (warrior/administrator/king)
  • vaiśya (merchant/farmer/producer/trader)

  • śūdra (laborer)

karma: “action”: principle that “all deeds, good and bad, have inevitable results, which must be borne by the doer in an existential state, so that the soul is trapped in an endless cycle of birth and death” (Norton [earlier edition] 840)

mokşa: ultimate goal of life–liberation from constraints of worldly existence- denied to sudras and women
(lesser goals include dharma, artha, and kama)

Men: bound by a prescribed program of sacred duty (dharma) that is appropriate to their class (varna)

Women: “form a class in themselves, for a woman’s dharma is defined as that of a wife, allowing women no identities or aspirations apart from their allegiance to their husbands” (Norton [earlier ed.] 839).

Caste system: larger number of “service” castes subordinated to a small number of elite groups.

Quatama Buddha (563-483 B.C.) & Mahavira (d. 468 B.C.)

  • In Buddhism, “every person, regardless of caste, gender, or social status, could follow the Buddha’s path (the Dharma) with the ultimate aim of becoming liberated from karma rebirth by becoming a buddha, or ‘an enlightened one'” (Norton [earlier ed.] 840).
  • “The populist, egalitarian religions preached by Gautama Buddha and his near-contemporary Mahavira presented a formidable challenge to the elaborate socio-religious system engineered by the Hindu elites” (Norton [earlier ed.] 841).

Hinduism:

  • absorbed and synthesized features from its rival religions, incorporating concepts of salvation and grace, thus allowing it eventually to triumph over competing religions in India, including Buddhism and Islam, but especially Buddhism.
  • “For Hindus the terror of rebirth [and karma] is mitigated by belief in a triad of great gods who are the highest manifestations of the divine principle underlying the universe” (Norton [earlier ed.] 841).
  • “Although there are many gods [including Brahmā, the creator],Viu, the preserver, and Śiva, the destroyer, stand out as supreme deities, for Hindus worship one or the other as God, whose grace will help deliver them from the bonds of karma rebirth” (Norton [earlier ed.] 841).
    • All three are components of Iswara, creator of the universe, communion with whom can be achieved only through samadhi, “a meditative state that breaks consciousness with the physical world” (Khorana 555).



Mabhārata (ca. 400 B.C. – A. D. 400)
See link with more extensive background discussion

  • 100,000 verses: 8 x (Iliad + Odyssey)
  • Depicts war (ca. 1400-1300 B.C.) between two branches of the Bharata family, the Pāndavas, the five sons of Pāndu (including Arjuna, “son” of warrior god, Indra) and Kauravas, the one hundred evil sons of Dhritarashtra, elder half-brother who’s disqualified from being king because blind.
  • “Every clansman in North India [allies] himself with the one or the other party” (Norton [earlier ed.] 907).



Bhagavad-Gītā (1st century B.C.)
“Song of the Lord” part of 6th book of Mabhārata

  • “response of brahman thinkers who stood to lose the most from the potential disintegration of the Hindu social system” (Norton 958).
  • “articulates a new doctrine that will justify the hierarchies of class and social duty. . . at the same time that it offers universal access to the ultimate goal of the emancipation of the soul from suffering and rebirth” (Norton [earlier ed.] 958).
  • “In short, social and moral law takes care of the content of action, but the individual has control over the spirit in which he performs the action and, therefore, over how his deeds will affect his soul” (Norton [earlier ed.] 959).

Things to Consider:

  • Relationship b/w Gods and Humans
    • Arjuna
    • Krishna/Visnu
    • Sañjaya
  • Enlightenment and Blindness
    • Sañjaya and Dhritarashtra
    • Khrishna and Arjuna
  • Women
  • yoga-discipline
    • karma (action)
    • bhakti (devotion)
  • in medias res
  • Honor
  • Theology
  • Duty
  • Family
  • sacred duty (dharma): “action performed in the spirit of sacred duty will advance him on the path to emancipation of the spirit, the Hindu’s ultimate religious goal” (Norton [earlier ed.] 958).
    • This is a big deal: merges karma with salvation through divine grace


** Homework Questions **
Norton Introduction:
683-84:

  • In what ways is Hinduism “a fundamentally pluralistic religion” (683)?

685:

  • Describe the relationship between Hinduism and Buddhism.

727:

  • The Mabhārata describes the fighting between which two groups? Why are they fighting?
  • Why does Arjuna refuse to fight? In this regard, how does he compare with earlier warriors such as Enkidu?

Pdf Preface:
iv:

  • Explain: “The battle of the Mahabharata is still raging within” (iv).
    • Explain the metaphors in the rest of paragraph.
  • Of what three fundamental factors is man a composite, according to the preface?
  • According to the preface, what are the three kinds of temperament?

v:

  • What, according to the preface, is the central teaching of the Gita?

Introduction:
vi:

  • What, according to the introduction, is the root of the conflict between the Pandavas and Kauravas?

Other Discussion Questions:
Norton Introduction:
679:

  • Explain the relationship among Persian, Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit language and literature.
  • What is a mantra? How is it different from a poem?
  • What are the Vedas? the Upanishads?
  • What is the difference between śruti and veda?

680:

  • Describe the practice of oral transmission of the Hindu canon.

681:

  • According to the editors, what “world” does the Mabhārata represent?
  • Describe the main idea of Hinduism.

681-83:

  • Explain the difference among Brahman, brāhmaa, and Brahmā.

683:

  • What is the ātman?

684:

  • Describe the differences between the Rāmāyaa and the Mabhārata.

685:

  • What is the difference between nirvāna and mokşa?

Pdf Preface:
iv:

  • What is the name of the battlefield that serves as the setting for this work?
  • Define the following: yoga, vedanta, bhakh, and karma.

Introduction:
vi:

  • Explain the interaction of Duryodhana and Arjuna with Krishna.


    Bhagavad-Gītā
    Homework Questions:
    I. Yoga of Despondency:
    1:

    • Who are Dhritarashtra and Sanjaya?

    3-4:

    • Explain Arjuna’s thinking as he drops his bow.

    II. Sankhya Yoga:
    6:

    • Why does Krishna consider Arjuna’s dejection unworthy of him and disgraceful?

    7:

    • Explain Krishna’s response to Arjuna’s explanation of his sorrow.
    • Explain: “Just as a man casts off worn-out clothes and puts on new ones, so also the embodied Self casts off worn-out bodies and enters others that are new” (2.22).

    8:

    • What is a righteous war?
    • Explain: “to one who has been dishonoured, dishonour is worse than death” (2.34).

    10:

    • Explain: “Actions done with expectation of its reward bring bondage” (2.47).

    11:

    • Explain “Clinging to the fruits of actions is the cause of rebirth” (2.51).
    • Explain: “like the tortoise which withdraws its limbs on all sides, he [the Sthitaprajna, or stable-minded person]withdraws his senses from the sense-objects, then his wisdom becomes steady” (258).


      Other Discussion Questions:
      Book I:
      2-3:

      • Why do so many characters blow conch shells?

      4:

      • According to Arjuna, what does intermingling of castes involve?

      Book II:
      8:

      • What is a kshatriya?

      10:

      • Describe the three Gunas.
      • What does the Yoga of Wisdom involve?


      Part Two:
      Homework Questions:
      III. The Yoga of Action:
      16:

      • What, according to Krishna, is “the constant enemy of the wise” (3.39) and thus the root cause of all evil actions?
      • Explain the relative importance of body, senses, mind, intellect, and Self.

      IV. The Yoga of Wisdom (Summary)
      17:

      • How, according to the text, does one achieve immortality?

      V. The Yoga of Renunciation of Action (Summary)
      18:

      • Explain the nature of Arjuna’s confusion in this section. Is it justified? Explain.

      VI. The Yoga of Meditation (Summary)
      19:

      • Explain: “He who has perfect control of the body, mind,, and senses . . . . sees inwardly that there is no difference between gold and stone, between friends and enemies, between the righteous and the unrighteous” (19).

      VII. The Yoga of Wisdom and Realization (Summary)
      20:

      • Describe the different manifestations of Krishna.

      VIII. The Yoga of the Imperishable Brahman (Summary)
      21:

      • How, according to Krishna, does one achieve liberation from rebirth?

      XI. The Yoga of the Vision of the Cosmic Form

      24-26:

      • Describe Arjuna’s cosmic vision.

      24:

      • What is the divine eye?

      26:

      • Who is Vishnu? How does he figure in Arjuna’s cosmic vision?

      Other Discussion Questions:
      13:

      • Define: Moha, Atman.
      • What is Prakriti? What three qualities comprise it? (See also p. 20).

      14:

      • Why, according to Krishna, is action superior to inaction?

      15:

      • What does it involve to “follow the wheel” (3.16)?

      17:

      • What is a guru? How does a guru help one achieve enlightenment?
      • According to the text, what is the most important qualification for a spiritual aspirant? Explain.

      18:

      • Explain: “[A]lthough the intellect, mind, and senses are active, he does not do anything” (18).

      19:

      • What is a Samyasin? What is a Sankalpa?
      • What, according to Krishna, are the best practices for meditation?
      • What is Brahmacharya?

      IX. The Yoga of Kingly Science and the Kingly Secret (Summary)
      22:

      • Why, according to Krishna, are ignorant beings like demons?

      X. The Yoga of the Divine Glories (Summary)
      23:

      • How, according to Krishna, is ignorance destroyed and knowledge gained?

      27:

      • Who/What is Mahatma?
      • For what does Arjuna beg forgiveness? What has motivated him to do so?

      28:

      • How does one gain access to this grand vision?
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