Bhagavad Gita

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An excerpt of the 1st chapter from a 19th century illustrated Bhagavad Gita.

The Shrimad Bhagavad Gita (श्रीमद्भगवद्गीता, [Śrīmad Bhagavad Gītā], "The Song by God"), commonly shortened to Bhagavad Gita or simply Gita, is a Hindu scripture and part of the Mahabharata. The story is typically dated to around 200 BCE and notable for merging the more ancient forms of Hinduism with the contemporary forms of the time. Of the various Hindu scriptures, it is probably the most revered.

In the writing, Prince Arjuna is unsure about going to war, so he asks the opinion of his charioteer, the god Krishna. Krishna starts a lengthy dialogue answering Arjuna's various questions and imparting to him his godly wisdom on numerous topics.

Personal

Own?No
Read?Audiobook read by Sagar Arya and portions of the Edwin Arnold translation.
Finished2022-09-12.

I was initially not very interested in reading the Bhagavad Gita as, from what I've read of Hinduism so far, I haven't found much value in it. I still wanted to read it in order to better round out my understanding of world religions, but I feared it would be a dense tome. Once I discovered that an audiobook was only a little over two hours in length, much shorter than I assumed, I decided to read it. The audiobook was hard to follow, so I read along with the Edwin Arnold translation and various notes to better understand all the jargon. Like most ancient works, especially those that are revered as holy, I wasn't very impressed by it.

Authorship and Dating

In Hindusim, the Bhagavad Gita, along with the rest of the Mahabharata, is attributed to Vyasa, a sage described in the Mahabharata. Historians, however, view Vyasa as mythical not historical, so the real author is unknown. Several historians suggest the Gita, due to its discordant text, was written by multiple authors over time and later compiled into a single narrative, and possibly added to the the Mahabharata at a later date.

Because there are no extent manuscripts, the book is dated using different techniques like word use, writing style, and mentioned historical events. Those who prefer viewing it as part of the Mahabharata give an older date, but scholars who take a more evidence-based route tend to put it more around 200 BCE, though it may have only existed in oral form for a few centuries before finally being written around 100-200 CE.

The book is in the public domain.

Review

Overall:

Rating-2.svg

Good

  • Several times throughout the writing it describes the importance of acting, not for personal gain, but to do what is right.
  • The story extols the importance of being good, not just to members of your own tribe, not even to all humans, but all creatures.

Bad

  • I found the work to be pretty difficult to follow, and I don't think it was simply due to all of the untranslatable words, the flow felt very disjointed.
  • You would expect a god to impart timeless wisdom, but much of what is written is quite provincial.
    • Krishna describes himself as being made partially from the classical four elements: air, earth, fire, and water.
    • He describes the sound "om" as having magical powers.
    • He talks about the existence of mythological beasts like rakshasas and yakshas.
  • Krishna and Arjuna frequently put on airs by referring to each other with ridiculous honorifics like "Scourge of Foes," "blameless Lord," "noble Prince," "dear Hero," and so forth. It's obnoxious how much praise they heap on each other, and completely inconsistent with thei idea of being above self-adoration.
  • The book starts with Krishna, god of love and compassion, justifying going to war against one's own family and friends, then ends with Arjuna accepting Krishna's advice, and preparing to slay his friends. Not exactly a very humble beginning.
  • As with most religious texts written in a patriarchy, it was written by men, for men, about men.
  • The morality is very black and white stating any action done for personal gain is bad, and the only actions which are good are those which are completely divorced from individual desire.

Ugly

  • Like with most ancient texts, the morality is quite primitive. "Good" is defined, not as the elimination of suffering or the increasing of joy, but as the worshiping of a god. It vilifies humanity saying people are incapable of achieving anything on their own, and must rely on supernatural aide. Throughout the story, Krishna explains how all the good aspects of humanity — compassion, intelligence, wisdom — come, not from education, hard work, or perseverance, but solely from worshiping him. Numerous times in the writing it basically says only those who worship Krishna are capable of being wise or moral.
  • Chapter 12 essentially states that people are born fated to be good or evil, and the evil ones are incapable of understanding the divine, absolutely despicable and vile, and deserving of horrible torment in Naraka.
  • The story strongly reinforces the bigoted caste system, even saying it was created by the gods. This is what you would expect to be written by men in the higher caste who have a strong political and economic motivation to keep the system in place.

Representation

Bechdel test?FailI don't remember any women.
Strong female character?FailI don't remember any women.
Strong non-white character?PassAll of the characters are Indian.
Queer character?FailThere are no queer characters.

Links

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