The Bhagavad Gita is an epic, or heroic tale. It began as an oral story and was first written down about 200 BCE, during the Maurya Empire. The epic is about a war between two feuding families. As the big battle between the families is about to begin, the leader of one side, Arjuna, is upset because some of his friends and relatives are fighting on the other side. He is riding in his chariot, which is driven by the god Krishna. Arjuna asks Krishna if he should fight against people he loves. The excerpt provided here is part of Krishna’s answer. What does Krishna tell Arjuna to do? What reasons does Krishna give to explain his answer? How do those reasons connect to Hindu beliefs and practices?
You have learned about two religions — Hinduism and Buddhism — that began in India before the Maurya Empire. Today both of these religions have millions of followers all around the world. But during the period of the Maurya Empire, there were actually many different gods, beliefs, and practices in different parts of India. A hereditary group of priests, the Brahmans, tried to control religious teaching. Their beliefs and practices eventually became the religion Hinduism. During the time of Maurya both Buddhist and Hindu beliefs spread to the lands around India, such as Sri Lanka. After this epic was written down, it could be copied and sent around to all parts of the empire. The books helped spread Hindu ideas and philosophy across and beyond India.
During this early period, a formal religion called Hinduism did not really exist in the modern sense. Instead in every locality, people had beliefs and practiced rituals that may have had some of the basic features of Hinduism but differed from the beliefs and practices in other areas of India. Most of the surviving literature was recorded and produced by the Brahmans, who claimed exclusive knowledge of Sanskrit and forms of ritual practice. However, many people in India disagreed with the Brahmans and contested their authority; the most famous of these were the Buddhists. The Jains and Ajivikas were other religious groups that were active during this period. At the same time, by uniting separate states the Mauryans encouraged the spread of religious ideas throughout South Asia. Krishna’s answer is that Arjuna should fight in the battle and not worry about killing someone he loves. Students’ explanations of the reasons will vary, but they should be direct reflections of two central concepts of Hinduism: transmigration of souls (reincarnation) and dharma, the concept that a person should fulfill the duty associated with their caste. Since Arjuna belongs to the kshatriya or warrior caste, his dharma is to fight.
You grieve for those beyond grief,
and you speak words of insight;
but learned men do not grieve
for the dead or the living.
Never have I not existed,
nor you, nor these kings;
and never in the future
shall we cease to exist.
Just as the embodied self
enters childhood, youth, and old age,
so does it enter another body;
this does not confound a steadfast man.
Our bodies are known to end,
but the embodied self is enduring,
indestructible, and immeasurable;
therefore, Arjuna, fight the battle! …
Arjuna, when a man knows the self
to be indestructible, enduring, unborn,
unchanging, how does he kill
or cause anyone to kill?
As a man discards worn-out clothes
to put on new and different ones,
so the embodied self discards
its worn-out bodies to take on other new ones. …
Look to your own duty;
do not tremble before it;
nothing is better for a warrior
than a battle of sacred duty. …