Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Discussion of the Bhagavad Gita and of Genesis

One of the interesting facets of this course already is how each text builds on the other texts we have read or are reading.  This of course is one of the main reasons this master's program interested me but it’s also making me want to read so much more: either by the same authors or their contemporaries, or to read about what was going on in the world at the time – and I don’t have time to do this!

Today we spoke about Genesis (the 1st book of the Old Testament) and about the Bhagavad Gita, an ancient Sanskrit text that was part of the Upanishads (records of conversations between teachers and students about the nature of reality).

We were told that there are some themes that will recur through many of the texts we’ll be reading.
  • Dualism – (male/female, black/white) - is this limiting or simplifying?
  • Anthropocentrism – humans and the natural world
  •  Mutuality – opposite of dualism
There were some similarities in both texts.  Both evolved over many many years as oral texts before being written down (in about 1250 BCE for Genesis and in about 150 BCE for the Gita).  There was some discussion about how these texts would have changed many times during the oral period but then would have become fixed once they were written down.  During our discussion of Plato's Phaedrus, we had learned how Socrates did not want to write any of his ideas down because then they would become fixed, and for him the value was in discussing ideas and then rethinking them, having them continually evolve.

Both texts are smaller parts of larger works: Genesis is the 1st book of the Old Testament which in turn is part of the Bible; the Gita is part of the Mahabharata epic which in turn was part of the Upanishads.  Both texts try to explain man’s role in the natural world and to provide some hope of a better world, achievable if certain rules or paths are followed, though the Gita seems to be a more coherent work than Genesis.

In discussing both texts, the class spoke about how the Gita came out of a pantheistic viewpoint whereas in Genesis there was only one God, something very unusual in religions at the time.  The Gita conceived of the divine being the universe.  The Gita was very repetitive, with much of the same information or teachings being mentioned over and over again.  Part of this may be because it was originally an oral text and a teaching tool, and the repetition would help with learning and memorization.  Some of it may also be connected to the fact, as Surinder mentioned, that Eastern thought is not linear but is more circular.  Things are repeated but each time you should develop a deeper understanding – like peeling away the outer layers to get to the deeper core.

In contrast Genesis doesn’t really seem to have a master structure or plan.  It seems to be a recounting of some historical events, and occasionally events are used to provide guidance on how to act (or how not to act) but it is not very cohesive and does not seem to be formally organized the way the Gita is.

In the Gita, there is no mention of society, it’s all about the individual whereas Genesis is about lineage, and the cities and tribes founded by various descendants of Adam.  There is less focus on the individual and more focus on the family unit and by extension, eventually, society.  The main message in Genesis is to worship the one God, be loyal to the one God - as well as a message of healthy respect and fear of God.

We had a brief discussion about the theory of the bicameral mind: that the mind in ancient peoples (over 3000 years ago) was divided between the “speaking” mind and the “listening and obeying” mind.  Some propose that this would explain the importance and the quotidian nature of communications between mankind and gods – and the vividness of the accounts of these interactions.

We discussed whether Genesis is an historical account, a sacred text or a fable.  My perception is that it is an attempt at a historical text (though much altered by the centuries of oral transmission) as well as a text to explain the world and guide readers.  The book begins with much anger and punishment as mankind is banished from paradise, destroyed in a great flood, condemned to a life of hard labour and pain, and condemned to confusion and misunderstanding between various peoples.  I hadn’t picked up on the change from this to a religion more about love and forgiveness which occurs by the end of Genesis, being so distracted by the sacrifices, slaughter, famines & plagues, incest, rape, betrayal etc.  But in fact, this 1st book ends with Joseph forgiving his brothers and alleviating their suffering during the famine.  Genesis suggests that suffering is mankind’s lot in life but if we worship God and follow his rules, he will take care of us.  

There was much passion in Genesis, mostly negative passions: anger, jealousy, fear.  The Gita was more about ridding oneself of passion.  It was more difficult to find examples of reason in Genesis.  It seemed to be more a case of cause and effect: God dictating and mankind either obeying and surviving, or disobeying and being punished.  Towards the end of the book though, reason does seem to emerge. God seems to take a step backwards from direct involvement in mankind’s decisions and actions and we see Joseph interpreting the Pharoah’s dream and then acting in a thoughtful and reasonable manner, a compassionate and forgiving manner, and explaining his actions and the reasons for them.

The Gita contained much ‘reason’ with the entire text revolving on questions about how to live life and how to act, and then a well-reasoned, structured answer about the various ways one can live one’s life with the ultimate purpose being to rid oneself of desire, of clinging to the consequences of actions, and thus eventually achieving Nirvana.  

In both texts there is emphasis on following a circumscribed path to a better existence, with no support being given to straying from the common path or for aspiring anything different.

Imagination è Desire è Suffering

I found both texts very interesting and will continue to think about what they had to impart but I'm still looking for different answers, as a life without imagination is not one I wish to contemplate.

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