The Bhagavad Gītā

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2021)
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Abstract

The Bhagavad Gītā occurs at the start of the sixth book of the Mahābhārata—one of South Asia’s two main epics, formulated at the start of the Common Era (C.E.). It is a dialog on moral philosophy. The lead characters are the warrior Arjuna and his royal cousin, Kṛṣṇa, who offered to be his charioteer and who is also an avatar of the god Viṣṇu. The dialog amounts to a lecture by Kṛṣṇa delivered on their chariot, in response to the fratricidal war that Arjuna is facing. The symbolism employed in the dialog—a lecture delivered on a chariot—ties the Gītā to developments in moral theory in the Upaniṣads. The work begins with Arjuna articulating three objections to fighting an impending battle by way of two teleological theories of ethics, namely Virtue Ethics and Consequentialism, but also Deontology. In response, Kṛṣṇa motivates Arjuna to engage in battle by arguments from procedural ethical theories—specifically his own form of Deontology, which he calls karma yoga, and a radically procedural theory unique to the Indian tradition, Yoga, which he calls bhakti yoga. This is supported by a theoretical and metaethical framework called jñāna yoga. While originally part of a work of literature, the Bhagavad Gītā was influential among medieval Vedānta philosophers. Since the formation of a Hindu identity under British colonialism, the Bhagavad Gītā has increasingly been seen as a separate, stand-alone religious book, which some Hindus treat as their analog to the Christian Bible for ritual, oath-swearing, and religious purposes. The focus of this article is historical and pre-colonial.

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Shyam Ranganathan
York University

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