– Written By – Pandit Anant Dixit
1. What does “Hindu” mean?
The word Hindu is not very old as it does not appear in Hindu scriptures. There are many interesting stories about its origin. Many historians believe early Hindu civilization developed along the banks of the river Sindhu in India (now in Pakistan). The most popular theory is that the word Hindu is a distorted version of the word Sindhu. It is believed the ancient Persians, who lived on the other side of the river Sindhu, pronounced the letter ‘S’ as ‘H’. Hence, the word Sindhu became Hindu, and the Persians referred to the ancient Indians living on the opposite side of the Sindhu River as Hindus. However, a Sanskrit verse in the ancient Hindu writings, Birhanaradi Purana, contradicts the Persian origin theory. According to this verse, the word Hindu is a combination of the first letter “Hi” of Himalayas and the last compound letter “ndu” of the word Bindu. It refers to India as Hindustan, a country living between the Himalayan Mountains and Bindu Sarover (Cape Commorin Sea).
2. What was the original name of Hinduism?
Hinduism was originally known as Dharma. It is also called Sanatan Dharma; the word Sanatan means eternal.
3. What is the meaning of “Dharma”?
In the English language, there is no single word, which described the true and complete meaning of Dharma, although it is usually translated as religion. Dharma comes from the Sanskrit word “Dhr” which literally means to hold or to sustain. Virtues, beliefs, moral obligations, ethical laws, codes of behavior, traditions and righteous actions that sustain human life in peace and harmony are all aspects of Dharma.
4. How old is Hinduism?
Hinduism is the world’s oldest religion. It predates recorded history. Hinduism is the first religion of humankind.
5. Who founded Hinduism?
Hinduism has no founder. It does not owe its existence to a specific prophet. It is based on divine revelations experienced by a series of sages, called Rishis, while they were in intense meditation. The divine knowledge received by the Rishis is contained in the four sacred books called the Vedas. The word Veda means knowledge, as the Vedas are the root and fountainhead of all knowledge. That is why Hinduism is also known as Vedic Dharma
Ancient Indian history: The Epic Age (1000 BC – 600 BC)
This is the society described by the three great epics. Until now, Ramayana, Mahabharata and the Upanishad was merely part of Indian mythology. Now, it has acquired historical roots. It is upon them that Hinduism is based. Indeed, the Bhagwad Gita, which is a part of the Mahabharata, is wholly concerned with religion and righteous duty and it is to Hindus what the Bible is to Christians. These epics give us a picture of the history of that period.
Ramayana consists of 24,000 couplets and is believed to have been first written around the third century BC. This is the story of Rama, the seventh incarnation of Vishnu, who was born on earth to kill the demon king Ravana of Lanka, and to re-establish righteousness in the world. Having done severe penance, Ravana had been granted a boon by Brahma, which gave him immunity from being killed by any god, gandharva, or demon. Believing he was immortal, he started persecuting both gods and men, who then appealed to Vishnu for help. Since Ravana had not been granted immunity against humans, Vishnu took the form of the human Rama to put an end to Ravana’s atrocities.
The Ramayana explains the teachings of the Vedas in the form of stories, to spread learning and understanding amongst all. It teaches philosophy, politics, the concept of duty and the different kinds of duties, morality and truth, in an easy and simplified manner to those who cannot understand the complex language of the Vedas. It expounds ideal behavior and the ideal way of life. It emphasizes the importance of the spoken word, especially a promise made by anyone in a responsible position. It also highlights the strength of Hindu women, and the sacrifice they are capable of.
Briefly, the story is as follows:
Dasharatha, the wise and just king of Ayodhya, had three wives. The eldest queen, Kaushalya, had a son named Rama. The second queen, Keikeyi, had a son named Bharata, and the youngest queen, Sumitra, had two sons named Lakshmana and Shatrughna.
After ruling for many years, Dasharatha decided to retire and crown his eldest son Rama, king of Ayodhya. However, a day before the coronation, Keikeyi, instigated by her maid Manthara, asked the king to redeem two boons he had promised her years ago. When Dasharatha consented, she asked him to banish Rama to the forest for 14 years, and to make her own son, Bharata, the king. Bound by his word, Dasharatha was forced to send Rama on a 14-year exile. Rama’s wife Sita and one of his brothers, Lakshmana, decided to accompany him. Meanwhile, Dasharatha, unable to contain his grief at having had to banish his favorite son, died.
Bharata was away from Ayodhya when this happened. On his return, when his mother told him what she had done, he was enraged. He loved his brother and did not want to rule in his place.
He set out in search of Rama and found him at the entrance of the forest. However, no amount of persuasion would convince Rama to return, for he believed he had to fulfill his dharma, by following his father’s instructions. He refused to return to Ayodhya until his exile ended. Bharata returned to Ayodhya with Rama’s slippers, which he placed on the throne as Rama’s symbol and ruled as his brother’s regent.
Rama, Sita and Lakshmana settled down to lead the life of ascetics in the forest. There, Shoorpanakha, Ravana’s sister, saw Rama and fell in love with him. She tried to seduce him, without success. Believing that Sita was the cause for Rama’s inattention to her, Shoorpanakha attacked Sita. Enraged, Lakshmana slashed off her nose and ears.
Shoorpanakha then ran to Ravana, to ask him to avenge her disgrace. She persuaded him to do so by telling him about Sita’s exceptional beauty. Ravana tricked Rama and Lakshmana into leaving their hermitage. While Sita was alone, he abducted her and took her to his kingdom. When Rama and Lakshmana returned, they found her missing. During their search for her, they met Jatayu, the aged eagle king. Jatayu had fought with Ravana to try and save Sita. He told the princes what had happened, and they resolved to rescue her.
In this endeavor, an army of monkeys led by their king, Sugriva, assisted them. Hanuman, the son of Vayu and general of the monkeys, became a devotee of Rama. The army crossed the sea to Lanka with Hanuman at the helm and fought a hard battle. Rama defeated and killed Ravana and rescued Sita.
However, Rama was reluctant to accept Sita back, because she had lived in the home of another man for almost a year. But Sita proved her innocence by an ordeal of fire. Agni vouched for her chastity and handed her, unscathed, to Rama, who now welcomed her back. As the 14-year exile had also come to an end, Rama and Sita, along with Lakshmana, returned to Ayodhya where Rama was crowned king.
Rama and Sita lived happily for some time. Yet there were people in the kingdom who were unhappy about the fact that their queen had lived in the house of another man for so long. Rama, convinced that his queen had to be above suspicion, banished a pregnant Sita from Ayodhya. She went to live in Sage Valmiki’s hermitage, where she gave birth to twin sons, Luv and Kusha. The boys grew up in the hermitage and were educated by Valmiki.
When they were about 15 years old, they went to Ayodhya and encountered Rama, who asked them about Sita. When he learnt that she was at the hermitage, he went there to bring her back to Ayodhya. However, he said that for the sake of his subjects, she would have to prove her innocence publicly, with yet another trial by fire. Even Sita’s enduring spirit could not bear this final cruelty. She called upon her mother, the Earth, to prove her chastity and take her back into her arms forever. Bhoodevi, the goddess Earth, parted under Sita’s feet to accept her.
Heartbroken, Rama decided to give up his life and took jala samadhi by walking into the Sarayu River.
The epic is divided into seven sections, or kandas:
- Bal Kanda, the boyhood section.
- Ayodhya Kanda, the section at Ayodhya, including the banishment of Rama.
- Aranya Kanda, the forest section, including Rama’s life in the forest and Sita’s abduction by Ravana.
- Kishkindha Kanda, the section describing Rama’s stay at Kishkindha, the capital of his monkey allies.
- Sundara Kanda, the beautiful section, including the description of Rama’s passage to Lanka and his arrival there.
- Yuddha Kanda, the war section, describing the war with Ravana, his death, the recovery of Sita, and the return to Ayodhya. It is also known as the Lanka Kanda.
- Uttara Kanda, the later section, including Rama’s life in Ayodhya as king, the banishment of Sita, the birth of her two sons, Sita’s test of innocence, her return to her mother, and Rama’s jala samadhi. This section was added after the main story had been written.
There are two popular versions of the Ramayana. One is the Valmiki Ramayana, believed to have been composed and written by Sage Valmiki. The other is Tulasidasa’ version, called the Ramcharitmanas. For centuries, the story existed only orally in Sanskrit. The Ramcharitmanas was the first ‘popular Ramayana’ written in a dialect of Hindi, the language of ordinary people.
With the spreading popularity of the Ramayana, other versions of the epic, including one in Tamil in verse by a sage named Kanbar, soon came about. Along with the Mahabharata, the story of Rama became the inspiration for dance, song, and theatrical themes. Interestingly, many regional versions of the Ramayana, most notably the Ramcharitmanas, do not include the last section, the Uttara Khand. Of Tulasidasa, it is said that he was such a devout follower of Rama that he could not accept his idol having banished a pregnant wife to the forest. So he ended his version of the story with Rama and Sita’s return to Ayodhya.
The Ramayana is the source of many stories told to children to teach them about duty, correct behavior and other moral concepts. Its appeal lies in the human frailties it explores and the utopian concept of ‘Ramarajya’, in which Rama, the perfect and just king ruled over a happy kingdom, free from want and war.
The Ramayana is still narrated in Ramlilas, especially during Dushehra. It continues to reiterate the comforting theory that good prevails over evil.
MahabharataThe Mahabharata has existed in various forms for well over two thousand years:
- First, starting in the middle of the first millennium BCE, it existed in the form of popular stories of Gods, kings, and seers retained, retold, and improved by priests living in shrines, ascetics living in retreats or wandering about, and by traveling bards, minstrels, dance-troupes, etc.
- Later, after about 350 CE, it came to be a unified, sacred text of 100,000 stanzas written in Sanskrit, distributed throughout India by kings and wealthy patrons, and declaimed from temples.
- Even after it became a famous Sanskrit writing it continued to exist in various performance media in many different local genres of dance and theater throughout India and then Southeast Asia.
- Finally, it came to exist, in numerous literary and popular transformations in many of the non-Sanskrit vernacular languages of India and Southeast Asia, which (with the exception of Tamil, a language that had developed a classical literature in the first millennium BCE) began developing recorded literatures shortly after 1000 CE.
The Mahabharata was one of the two most important factors that created the ‘Hindu’ culture of India (the other was the other all-India epic, the Ramayana), and the Mahabharata and Ramayana still exert tremendous cultural influence throughout India and Southeast Asia.
The Mahabharata s the story of the war for the throne between the virtuous Pandavas and their wicked cousins, the Kauravas. It is probably the longest of all the world’s epics. The original ‘Prakrit’ ballad was later on elaborated into a larger work in Sanskrit consisting of a number of shlokas. According to legend, its author was the sage Vyasa. Modern scholars believe that the great war of Mahabharata was actually fought.
But the historical importance of the Mahabharata is not the main reason to read the Mahabharata Quite simply, the Mahabharata is a powerful and amazing text that inspires awe and wonder. It presents sweeping visions of the cosmos and humanity and intriguing and frightening glimpses of divinity in an ancient narrative that is accessible, interesting, and compelling for anyone willing to learn the basic themes of India’s culture. The Mahabharata definitely is one of those creations of human language and spirit that has traveled far beyond the place of its original creation and will eventually take its rightful place on the highest shelf of world literature beside Homer’s epics, the Greek tragedies, the Bible, Shakespeare, and similarly transcendent works.
Mahabharata: The StoryThe legendary author of the Mahabharata is Vyasa, who is also given credit for compiling the Vedas and writing the Puranas. The 24,000 couplets of the Bharata were gradually expanded to become over 100,000 making the Mahabharata the longest poem in the world and probably the work of many hands. Vyasa managed to portray himself in the poem as the progenitor of the two kings whose sons fight for the kingdom of Bharata, as his mother asks him to father sons on a widow and the wife of the celibate Bhishma and a third on a low-caste servant maid. Dhritarashtra is born blind because his mother closed her eyes, and Pandu is pale because his mother Ambika was pale with fear. Ironically the third who is of low caste, Vidura, turns out to be the wisest, resembling the god Dharma (justice, virtue) even more than Yudhishthira, who is the son of Dharma.
Because of Dhritarashtra’s blindness, Pandu was made king. One day while hunting Pandu shot a deer that was coupling with its mate and was cursed with the fate that if he ever mated with his wife he would also die. So Pandu was celibate and practiced austerity in the forest along with his wives Kunti and Madri after they gave away their royal wealth to charity. Pandu asked Kunti to give him sons from a man equal or superior to him. Kunti had been given a mantra by which she could summon any god she desired to father children. She had already given birth to Karna, whose father was the sun; she had put him in a basket, and he not knowing his parents was raised by a charioteer. Then through Kunti Dharma (Justice) became the father of Yudhishthira, Vayu (Wind) the father of Bhima, and the powerful Indra father of Arjuna. She told the mantra to Madri, who gave birth to Nakula and Sahadeva, twin sons of the Ashvins. However, Pandu made love to Madri and died, joined on his funeral pyre by Madri. Kunti raised the five Pandava sons, while the blind Dhritarashtra ruled the kingdom. Meanwhile the latter’s wife gave birth to a hundred sons with Duryodhana the oldest. Vidura prophesied that Duryodhana would bring about destruction, but his warnings were ignored.
Duryodhana tried to kill Bhima but failed. Bhishma arranged for the Brahmin Drona to teach all the princes. Arjuna excelled in the martial arts and was given special attention by Drona. Karna was also a great warrior and became a friend and supporter of Duryodhana. For Drona’s tutorial fee Karna, Duryodhana and his brothers captured King Drupada. Dhritarashtra declared the oldest and most honest Yudhishthira heir to his throne. So Duryodhana and his brothers planned to burn to death Kunti and her five sons, but the Pandavas discovered the plot and escaped through underground tunnels from the burning house.
Arjuna won a beautiful bride in Draupadi, but when he told his mother he had a gift for her, she said that he must share it with all his brothers. Since the mother’s word could not be broken, all five brothers married Draupadi, a practice forbidden by the Vedas. Both Bhishma and Drona advised Dhritarashtra to give the Pandavas a share in the kingdom with his own sons. The Pandavas were given the city of Indraprastha from whence they could rule their half of the kingdom. Accidentally breaking in on his brother Yudhishthira with their wife, Arjuna had to go into exile for twelve years and practice chastity (brahmacharya). But the maiden Ulupi persuaded Arjuna that his celibacy only related to his wife Draupadi, and he eventually married Krishna’s sister Subhadra, who gave birth to their son Abhimanyu. Draupadi also had a son by each of her five husbands, while Arjuna’s efforts gained him divine weapons from Indra.
Krishna, who later was made into a god, urged Yudhisthira and his brothers to attack Jarasandha, who had captured some kings. Bhima defeated Jarasandha in single combat, and Krishna released the imprisoned kings. Then Yudhishthira sent his four brothers in the four directions to conquer India. Krishna is criticized by Sishupala for killing women and cattle, but Krishna slices off Sishupala’s head with a discus.
To win the Pandavas’ territory Duryodhana invites Yudhishthira to the palace to play dice with the skilled dice-cheater Shakuni. Yudhishthira’s weakness for gambling causes him to lose everything he owns and even his four brothers, himself, and finally their wife. When Draupadi is summoned, she is in retreat because of her monthly period. She is dressed only in a single blood-stained garment, but she is dragged by the hair into the hall by Dushasana. Draupadi questions what right her husband had to stake her when he had already lost his own freedom. Nonetheless she is insulted by Duryodhana and his brothers, who try to disrobe her; a miracle is performed by Krishna so that the cloth pulled from her body never ends. (In the past Draupadi had bandaged the wounded Krishna.) Spared this ultimate humiliation, Draupadi is given three boons by King Dhritarashtra and asks only for the return of Yudhishthira and his four brothers. Finally they decide to play one more dice game for the kingdom, the loser of which will have to go into exile for twelve years and be in hiding without being discovered for one year after that. Once again Yudhishthira loses, and the Pandavas depart for the forest. Vidura pleads with his brother to allow the Pandava sons to return or else ruin will result, but once again he is ignored.
In the forest Yudhishthira learns the value of forgiveness. Draupadi is a model and devoted wife to the brothers. Of the many stories there is one in which each of the brothers drinks water and dies at a river before answering a question, but Yudhishthira wisely answers all the questions and brings his brothers back to life. Nonviolence is considered the highest duty.
During the thirteenth year they take on disguises and live in Virata’s kingdom. A general tries to molest Draupadi, but he is killed by Bhima. After this dangerous year is completed, Krishna is sent as an envoy to ask for the Pandavas’ half of the kingdom. When this is refused, everyone prepares for the great war. Krishna offers one side his army and the other himself though he will not fight. His army fights with Duryodhana, and Krishna becomes the charioteer for Arjuna.
As the war is about to start, Arjuna refuses to fight his cousins; but in the Bhagavad-Gita Krishna encourages him to fight as a warrior and teaches him about yoga and non-attachment to the fruits of action. Arjuna then decides to fight, and Yudhishthira approaches both Bhishma and Drona, asking for their blessings, although they are on the opposite side. After eight days of battles Yudhishthira also wants to stop fighting and retire to the forest; but Krishna tells him to ask Bhishma how he can be killed, because Bhishma has control over his own death. Shikhandin, reincarnation of the woman Amba, who had been rejected by Bhishma and swore to kill him, is able to attack Bhishma because he will not fight a woman. Tired of all the killing Bhishma wants to die, and he is mortally wounded by Arjuna’s arrows.
Drona is given command of Duryodhana’s armies. He is practically invincible, but he is discouraged by the lie that his son is dead. Yudhishthira, who is known for his truthfulness, says that Ashvatthaman is dead after Bhima kills an elephant with that name, but the intent is clearly to mislead Drona. Drona lays down his weapons, and his head is cut off by Dhrishtadyumna. In a family quarrel Arjuna is on the verge of killing Yudhishthira, but Krishna intervenes and says that nonviolence (ahimsa) is even more important that truthfulness. Truth is the highest virtue; but when life is in danger, even lying is permitted. Karna has sworn to kill Arjuna, but he is killed by Arjuna after his chariot gets stuck in the mud. The rules of fair fighting are increasingly being ignored.
On the eighteenth day of the war Duryodhana is wounded in the legs by Bhima even though this was also a violation of the rules they agreed on before the war. Krishna responds to Duryodhana’s taunts by reminding him that the dice game was crooked, how Draupadi had been insulted, and how Arjuna’s son Abhimanyu had been killed. All of Gandhari’s sons have been killed, but the five Pandavas have miraculously survived a war that was supposed to have had millions of warriors involved. In revenge Ashvatthaman violates another rule of war by attacking the Pandava camp at night and kills all of Draupadi’s sons. In anger Arjuna readies the weapons that could destroy the three worlds of heaven, earth, and hell, but the sages Narada and Vyasa appear to dissuade him from this use of omnicidal weapons.
Most of the rest of the poem after the Great War is probably stories and ideas added later. Vidura explains that the story of the man enjoying a few drops of honey while in a well caught between a carnivore and a monstrous snake, hanging by a vine eaten away by rats is told by the knowers of liberation to suggest serenity in the midst of troubles.
The long twelfth book called Peace (Shanti) has been discussed in relation to Samkhya philosophy. Bhishma, before he dies, gives his teachings. Ironically the nine duties common to the four castes seem to have been much violated by the characters in this poem; they are: controlling anger, truthfulness, justice, forgiveness, having lawful children, purity, avoidance of quarrels, simplicity, and looking after dependents. According to Bhishma the duty of the warrior (Kshatriya) is to protect the people. Truth is the highest duty but must not be spoken if the truth actually covers a lie. From desire comes greed and wrong-doing, wrath, and lust, producing confusion, deception, egoism, showing-off, malice, revenge, shamelessness, pride, mistrust, adultery, lies, gluttony, and violence.
Vidura believes that justice (dharma) is more important than profit (artha) or pleasure (kama) ; but Krishna argues that profit is first, because action is what matters in the world. However, Yudhishthira chooses liberation (moksha) as best. Bhishma says that nothing sees like knowledge; nothing purifies like truth; nothing delights like giving; and nothing enslaves like desire. By being poor one has no enemies, but the rich are in the jaws of death; he chose poverty because it had more virtues. Giving up a little brings happiness, while giving up a lot brings supreme peace. Before Bhishma dies, the preceptor of the gods, Brihaspati, appears and explains that compassion is most virtuous, because such a person looks at everyone as if they were one’s own self. He teaches them the golden rule that one should never do to another what one would not want another to do to you; for when you hurt others, they turn and hurt you; but when you love others, they turn and love you. Brihaspati ascends to heaven, and Bhishma realizes that ahimsa (not hurting) is the highest religion, discipline, penance, sacrifice, happiness, truth, and merit.
In the years that follow the war Dhritarashtra and his queen Gandhari, and Kunti, the mother of the Pandavas, lived a life of asceticism in a forest retreat and died with yogic calm in a forest fire. Krishna Vasudeva and his always-unruly clan slaughtered each other in a drunken brawl thirty-six years after the war, and Krishna’s soul dissolved back into the Supreme God Vishnu (Krishna had been born when a part of Vishnu took birth in the womb of Krishna’s mother).
Yudhishthira performs the kingly horse sacrifice and rules over a wide realm his family has subdued before he passes on the kingdom to Arjuna’s grandson Parikshit and retires with his brothers to seek heaven. On their divine ascent each of the brothers dies because of their shortcomings, but Yudhishthira will not leave behind his faithful dog, who is allowed into heaven with him as a symbol of dharma. Yudhishthira is thus able to enter heaven alive where he finds Duryodhana. Narada explains that there are no enmities in heaven, but Yudhishthira asks to see his brothers. He is led to a stinky unpleasant place, but he prefers to be in hell with his brothers. This too is a test, and he is reunited with Draupadi, who was an incarnation of Lakshmi, goddess of prosperity. The author concludes that profit and pleasure come from virtue. Pleasure and pain are not eternal; only the soul is eternal.
This poetic story of a great war that probably took place in the late tenth century BC is filled with stories and situations that describe the culture of ancient India and has been an entertaining schoolbook for millions. Along with the virtues it also reveals the vices of the conquering and warlike Aryans and their racist caste system. Even the divine Krishna becomes a spokesperson for the warrior mentality, as a nearly apocalyptic disaster destroys millions and threatens their whole world. Still a heroic epic of military glory like the Ramayana, the Mahabharata contains much more real and well defined characters and portrays many aspects of life. If only humanity could learn from its negative lessons of violence and ambition, perhaps the peace of the sages could be found.
UpanishadThe philosophical concepts contained in the Upanishads served as the basis of one of the six orthodox systems of Hindu philosophy, Vedanta.
The term “Upanishad” indicates knowledge acquired by sitting close to the teacher. They were revealed knowledge, which were imparted sitting near the Guru (Teacher). They contained more practical knowledge. Such knowledge as the disciples used to acquire from their teachers had been included in the Upanishads. They consisted of discussions on several problems such as the creation of the universe, the nature of God, the origin of mankind etc. There are five main Upanishads : Brahadaranyaka, Chandogya, Taitarya, Aitrya and Kena Upanishads.
Most are written in prose with interspersed poetry, but some are entirely in verse. Their lengths vary: The shortest can fit on 1 printed page, while the longest is more than 50 pages. In their present form, they are believed to have been composed between 400 and 200BC; thus they represent a comparatively late aspect of Vedic Hinduism. (Some texts, however, are believed to have originated as early as the 6th century BC.)
The underlying concern of the Upanishads is the nature of Brahman, the universal soul; and the fundamental doctrine expounded is the identity of atman, or the innermost soul of each individual, with Brahman. Formulations of this doctrinal truth are stressed throughout the writings of Upanishads. Other topics include the nature and purpose of existence, various ways of meditation and worship, eschatology, salvation, and the theory of the transmigration of souls.
Shrimad Bhagwat GitaShrimad literally means ‘beautiful, glorious’. Bhagavad means ‘divine one’ and Gita is ‘song’. Shrimad Bhagavad Gita therefore means ‘beautiful song of the divine one’. This magnificent dialogue between man (Arjuna) and creator (Krishna) forms the Bhagwad Gita, in which the Hindu doctrine is fully explained.
Popularly known as the Gita, it is believed to be part of the smritis. The poem consists of 18 chapters divided into three sections of six chapters each, and contains about 700 verses. It is believed to have been composed around 300 AD by an unknown Brahmin. However, its authorship, or its revision, is sometimes ascribed to Shankaracharya. Although now considered part of the Mahabharata, it was composed later, and therefore added to the epic later.
The poem is in the form of a dialogue between two major characters in the Mahabharata,: Arjuna and Krishna. Just before the epic battle at Kurukshetra, Arjuna asks Krishna, his charioteer, to take his chariot forward to enable him to size up the opposition. When he looks at them, he sees that their army consists of his cousins, uncles, gurus, and others whom he reveres. Arjuna is suddenly struck with remorse at the thought of attempting to gain the kingdom by killing his kinsmen. He tells Krishna that he cannot fight them. Krishna tells him that a warrior’s duty is to fight and not question the wisdom of war. Everyone born is destined to die, but it is god or destiny that destroys. The slayer is only an instrument in the hands of god or destiny. Krishna’s advice and guidance to Arjuna constitute the text of the Gita.
The first section deals with Karma Yoga or the philosophy of action. Nishkama karma, or an action performed without thought for any compensation and without fear of the consequences, is the central teaching of this section. It explains that one must perform one’s karma, which is decided at birth depending on which caste (Varna) one is born into. A Brahmin’s duty is upholding righteousness; a Kshatriya’s is protection, a Vaishya’s, agriculture and trade, and a Shudra’s, to serve.
The second section considers Gyana Yoga or the philosophy of knowledge. It teaches that although good work is important, most of one’s time should be devoted to attaining knowledge of the Supreme. It says that knowledge dispels delusion, destroys sin, and purifies the one who attains it.
The third section, Bhakti Yoga, explains the philosophy of devotion. This portion of the Gita teaches that every form of worship, even if apparently crude, is a stepping-stone towards a higher form and therefore should be respected. Different forms of worship are compared to different roads that lead to the same destination.
The philosophy behind the Shrimad Bhagavad Gita, therefore, is: not mere knowledge, nor mere action, but action with perfect knowledge, without any desire for its fruit and consecrated to God.
A philosophical work on the meaning of duty, the Gita has been translated into almost all the languages in the world, and is the second most-widely translated book after the Bible. This work is revered by all and while testifying in a court of law, it is on the Gita that a Hindu must place her or his right hand and swear to tell the truth.
The Vedic & Epics Periods (1500-500 BC)
Things changed in the Indus Valley when a new group arrived, called the Aryans. The Aryans came from Central Asia (modern day Russia). They entered the Indus Valley through the fabled Khyber Pass. The Aryans were nomads. They raised livestock, rode chariots, and loved to gamble. They had no sophisticated government. They grouped in clans, and were ruled by warrior chiefs called rajas. Their history is one of constant war amongst themselves, between the various clans. We have little archaeological evidence, but have something else we can use to learn about them. The Aryans created marvelous stories, stories they told or sang for centuries.
The VEDAS : The Aryan beliefs and daily life are described in the four Vedas, a collection of poems and sacred hymns, composed in about 1500 BC. Veda means knowledge.
The Vedas are composed of the Rig, Sama, Yajur, and Atharva Vedas. This is why the period from roughly 1500 BC to 1000 BC is called the Vedic Period. It is named after the Vedas.
The Ramayana & the Mahabharata : Around 1000 BC, the Aryans started to create two marvelous epics. We know about daily life during this period from these famous epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.
These epics are stories about Aryans life, wars, and accomplishments. School kids in India, today, know these stories very well. They’re great stories. The Ramayana tells a story in which the (good) Aryan king Rama destroys the (evil) pre-Aryan king Ravana. The other epic, Mahabharata, talks of Aryan wars amongst themselves, where two clans, the Pandavas and the Kauravas, battle it out, and the Pandavas emerge victorious. This is why the period from roughly 1000 BC to 500 BC is called the Epics Period. It is named after these two great epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.
How did the Aryans live? The Aryans clans, or tribes, settled in different regions of northwestern India. The tribes were called Gana (literally a “collection” – of people). The chief of each tribe was a hereditary job. If your father were the chief, someday, you would be chief. It was the only way to become a chief. The chief made decisions, after listening to a committee, or perhaps even to the entire tribe. People had a voice, but the chief was the boss.
Yagna (central fire-place) :The life of the tribal Aryans was focused around the central fireplace called the Yagna. Dinnertime was social time. The tribe would gather around the central fireplace, and share news, and the day’s happenings. Those who tended the central fireplace also cooked for the rest of the tribe. This was a very special job. The fire tenders were the go-between between the fire god and the people. These fire tenders, later on, formed the caste of priests. The Aryans ate meat, vegetables, fruit, bread, milk, and fish.
Entertainment : What did they do when they were not working or fighting each other? The Aryans loved to gamble. They introduced the horse to ancient India and raced chariots. They played fighting games.
They loved to tell stories. The ancient Aryans were proud and fierce, and deeply religious. They had many gods and goddesses.
Jobs : As the Aryans settled in and began to grow crops, people started to have occupations. In each tribe, people began to belong to one of four groups: the Brahmana (priests), Kshatriya (warriors), Vaishya (traders and agriculturists), and Shudra (workers).
In the beginning, these were just occupations. You could move from group to group. This changed over time, until a person’s occupation or group depended upon birth. If your father was a farmer, you had to be farmer. Change from one group to another became very difficult.
Education : Kids were taught by a guru (a teacher). Even chiefs sons had to obey the guru. All students followed a rigorous course of studies, which were imparted orally. Writing was done on bark and leaves, and hence was perishable, so we have very few rock edicts to tell us what they studied or what they wrote.