I’ve always been fascinated with religious history. Despite my lack of belief in a god, I cannot help but be in awe of the everlasting impact of religion on the development of mankind. It has reached almost every corner of the world in some fashion or another and it is impossible for one to determine what life would be like if religion had never existed. The infamous line of John Lennon’s Imagine, “imagine no religion” is actually incomprehensible when we consider the words literally. Though the study of religion caused me to lose my faith in god and religion, I have since developed a deep respect, and fear, of what I consider THE most important aspect of our past, present and future. But I’m rambling and this post is about one religion and one specific text in particular. I’ll have to delve into a philosophical musing about a world without religion later.
The Bhagavad Gita is one of the most important spiritual texts of Hinduism and certainly the most well known and popular. I admit that I have not studied much of Hinduism in the past, only covering a few basics. However this year I am trying to do deeper study on 4 of the worlds largest religions: Hinduism, Judaism, Islam and Buddhism. I have not included Christianity because that is constantly an ongoing study for me. I’m also trying to gain a better understanding of cults; the atmospheres, traits and similarities which took up a lot of my study towards the beginning of the year. So now I’m diving into Hinduism and it is very hard for this former monotheist to understand and comprehend.
I started with a course on Cultural Literacy for Religion: Hinduism. Its part of the Great Courses on Audible which I recommend for anyone who wants to casually learn about about any subject. Along with that I’ve been reading the Bhavagad Gita. I’m enjoying it to be honest. Of course I’m reading an English translation and my lack of interpretive skills prevent me from knowing the exact meanings of the story; however, I believe my translated version is quite solid.
The first thing that stuck out to me was the conflict of ideas between war and peace. While the ultimate goal of the Gita seems to be to teach one to achieve eternal serenity, the firs two chapters focus on Krishna convincing Arjuna that killing his relatives in battle is not something he should mourn. Arjuna actually seems like the wise and compassionate one as he grieves and avoids this violent task.
Chapter 1:25-35 – Arjuna saw standing there fathers and grandfathers, teachers, uncles, brothers, sons and grandsons and also companions….. Seeing all these kinsmen thus arrayed, the son of Kunti (Arjuna), Filled with the utmost compassion, sorrowfully spoke: Seeing my own kinsmen, O Krishna, arrayed and wishing to fight, My limbs collapse, my mouth dries up, there is trembling in my body and my hair stands on end;…. I do not desire victory, O Krishna, nor kingdom, nor pleasure. Of what use is kingdom to us?….. These I do not wish to kill though they kill me, O Madhusudana (Krishna); even for the kingdom of the three worlds; how then for the sake of the earth!
I see a very compassionate and wise leader who does not see how violence, against his own people I might add, would solve his problems. And I would expect a god to understand this hesitation, though I don’t know why I expect this. I have yet to find a religion where violence is not demanded or exalted, though it is often also condemned. And Krishna is no exception as he replies to Arjuna in the next chapter.
Chapter 2: 2-3 – The Blessed Lord said: Whence hath this despair come to thee in this (time of) crisis? It is unbecoming to an aryan, it does not lead to heaven, it is disgraceful, O Arjuna. Yield not to this impotence, O Partha (Arjuna), for it is not proper of thee. Abandon this petty weakness of heart and arise, O oppressor of the foe.
Now I must point out that in Hinduism attachment to anyone or anything is considered imprudent and a hindrance to attaining the highest spiritual state. Perhaps Krishna is simply pointing out Arjuna’s weakness for his attachment to his kinsmen. However, at no point does Krishna condemn the violence at hand and is actually there to do battle WITH Arjuna. It is interesting that 4 of the major religions actually call for violence, when necessary. And its convenient that any time one finds someone who refuses to comply to their religious code then violence is “necessary”. One of most eye opening readings in my own journey was in the Bible in I Samuel chapter 15 when God commands Saul to slaughter an entire community.
I Samuel 15:2-3 – Thus saith the Lord of hosts, I remember that which Amalek did to Israel, how he laid wait for him in the way, when he came up from Egypt. Now go and smite Amalek and utterly destroy all that they have and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.
Saul does most of what god says but he keeps some of the good livestock alive for his people. This pisses God off and is his final straw with Saul which leads him to choose David to be king instead. Seriously, if you like action, war, sex, betrayal and violence then you’ve GOT to read the Old Testament.
But back to the Gita, I admit I was disappointed in another religion endorsing the need for violence. Perhaps it was necessary for the rise of civilization, we will never know because violence was used so often in the homosapien’s drive for survival. And while the wise sage will always tell his followers to live in peace, it seems that the gods will always drive their followers to choose violence. Regardless of this, I am still enjoying my reading and will soon write a post about some of the passages in the Bhagavad Gita that I do like. Until next time…
Resources: The Bhagavad Gita translated by Eliot Deutsch / The Bible, King James Version / Cultural Literacy for Religion: Everything the Well-Educated Person Should Know taught by Professor Mark Berkson