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Hinduism's Scriptural Epic Poetry

The Hindus went on to write epic poems that focused on the power of the gods — not unlike Homer and Hesiod did for the ancient Greeks. The better known of these are poems were the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.

Rama is a divine prince who lived centuries before the story was written (perhaps around 300 BCE). He and his brothers embody the ideals of loyalty and honor. They are faithful and dutiful sons, affectionate brothers and loving husbands, men who speak the truth, who are stern, who persevere but are ready and willing to make sacrifices for the sake of virtue against the evils of greed, lust and deceit.

The Mahabharata, meaning Great India, is said to have been written by a Brahman named Vyasa between 400 and 100 BCE, but no one really knows. Across centuries, priestly writers and editors with different attitudes in different centuries were to add to the work, and the Mahabharata emerged three times its original size.

A part of the Mahabharata is the "Lord's Song" and includes the Bhagavad Gita, commonly called the Gita. It became Hinduism's most popular scripture, to be read by many for daily reference – a work that Mahatma Gandhi would describe as an infallible guide to conduct.

The Gita tells a story of war. A dialogue takes place between a prince, Arjuna, and the charioteer alongside him as the two ride into battle at the head of Arjuna's army. The charioteer is the god Krishna in disguise. (Krishna is an incarnation of the god Vishnu, the Supreme Being in one of Hinduism's major traditions).

Prince Arjuna sees that his opponents ahead of him are his relatives. He drops his bow and announces that he will not give the signal to begin the battle. He asks whether power is so important that he should fight his own kinsmen, and he states that the pain of killing his kinsmen would be too much for him, that it would be better for him to die than to kill just for power and its glory. Krishna tells Arjuna that bodies are not really people, that people are souls and that when the body is killed the soul lives on, that the soul is never born and never dies. Krishna says that if one dies in battle he goes to heaven, or if he conquers he enjoys the earth. So, according to Krishna, one should go into battle with "a firm resolve." Krishna reminds Arjuna that he is a warrior and that to turn from battle is to reject his karma, in other words, his duty or place in life.

To give weight to his argument, Krishna reveals to Arjuna that he is not just his charioteer, that he is the god Krishna – a claim that Arjuna accepts.

Like all good men of religious faith, Prince Arjuna expresses his support for family values. And he is a defender of tradition. He complains of lawlessness corrupting women. And when women are corrupted, he says, a mixing of caste ensues.

Krishna became the most loved of the Hindu gods, a god viewed as a teacher, a personal god much like the god Yahweh of the Jews, a god who not only believes in war but a god of love who gives those who worshiped him a gift of grace. In the 'Gita (1:41), Krishna says: "Give me your heart. Love me and worship me always. Bow to me only, and you will find me. This I promise." A loving god could be found here and there in the old Vedic hymns of the Aryans, but this new focus on a loving god and the satisfaction it brought to the Hindus was a challenge to the Brahmans, for it offered salvation without the need for ritual sacrifices.

According to Krishna, as expressed in the 'Gita, one could accumulate possessions and not lose blessedness so long as one remained indifferent about success and failure. Salvation could be obtained with restrained passions in whatever one did. According to Krishna, one should be fearless, steadfast generous and patient. One should be compassionate toward other creatures. One should be without greed, hypocrisy, arrogance, overweening pride, wrath or harshness in speech. And one should "study the Holy Word, austerities and uprightness." (16:1-2)

The Bhagavad Gita (2.22) describes the soul as shedding a worn-out body like an old worn-out garment. The soul is immortal while the body is subject to birth and death. And there was reincarnation. Where a soul went depended on how well a person had behaved while physically alive. Good actions produced a soul that was elevated; evil-doing led to a soul that took the body of a lower form of life.

CONTINUE READING: Chandragupta Maurya

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Copyright © 2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.