Effects of Bhagavad Gita Imagery on Indian Philosophical History
Note: this piece was originally written for an Asian Art History course
The Bhagavad Gita is widely hailed as one of the greatest works of philosophy that Indian civilization has produced. Many see its widespread fame as a direct result of the quality of its ideas, but could this instead be a case of cum hoc ergo propter hoc? The present work will make the argument that the Indian philosophical school of Vedanta was propelled into popularity due primarily to the emotional tools employed by its brainchild, the Bhagavad Gita. These tools, specifically of striking literary imagery that could be replicated in popular art, appealed to the elementary emotional functions of commoners, thereby circumventing the philosophical discourse to achieve ideological domination of the subcontinent. An idea of a personal relationship with god also arose during this period of Vedantic growth, accompanying the shift to a personal idea of philosophy which inevitably manifested out of the personal imagery present in the Gita. These traits that the Gita carried, of emotional imagery as well as a both physically and psychologically personal experience of God, were bolstered by the grandiose scene that the events take place in. The combination of these factors resulted in virtually all artistic depictions of the Bhagavad Gita being riveting to the core, and resonating deeply with an average person upon viewing.
Before we can engage with the influence of this artistic theme, it’s vital to gain a basic framework for understanding Indian philosophy, religion, and history. Indian cultural continuity begins around 1500BC, with the composition of some of the earliest hymns of the Rig Veda. These orally passed poems dealt with a wide pantheon of gods, the duality of satya (truth) and rta (righteousness), and an emphasis on ritualism. Then around 800BC, we see a sudden change in literature with the composition of the Upanishads, a set of texts that were quite metaphysically elaborate in stark contrast to the materialism of the Vedas. Along with the Upanishads came the Sramana movement, which saw the rise of Buddhism and Jainism, propounding similarly abstract philosophical ideas. From this milieu emerges a few schools of philosophy in the final centuries BC: Samkhya and Yoga, Nyaya and Vaisesika, Mimamsa and Vedanta. The first pair were well known for their metaphysical theories of the nature of existence, the second pair were schools of logic and epistemology, and the final pair were embodied by their allegiance to the Vedas and Upanishads, respectively (Perrett 34). These orthodox schools were also in competition with Buddhism, Jainism, and various atheistic sects for followers. After a golden age of lively debate and competition in the Gupta era, the Vedanta begins to grow in intellectual circles alongside its more populist rendition, the Bhakti Movement. At the end of the medieval period, Vedanta was clearly the dominant school; in modern day, the other schools are all but gone.
So where does the Bhagavad Gita play into this? While it’s widely believed that the Bhagavad Gita was composed in the final few centuries BC, it only gained widespread popularity in the 7th century as a result of a new Vedantic commentary by Adi Sankara. After this, the Gita gained popularity at an immensely quicker pace, becoming idolized as the embodying scripture of Hinduism in the modern period (Nicholson 28). The Gita was a powerful scripture because it was written as an insertion into the Mahabharata, the longest epic poem in human history and one of the most well known stories in Hinduism. By tying itself to this piece, the Gita could focus on pure philosophical dialogue without having to set up too much setting or characterization, while reaping the benefits of them all. This is important because the philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita is closely dependent on the character of Arjuna and the organization of the battlefield upon which the dialogue takes place. In short, the Mahabharata is a story of the dynastic struggle between the 5 Pandava brothers and the 100 Kauravas, who are cousins of one another. It’s a multifaceted story, but the core conflict utilized by the Bhagavad Gita is an internal one—whether Arjuna, a Pandava, should take action and kill his cousins, friends, and teachers in order to secure his rightful claim to the throne, or remain peaceful and allow the immoral Kauravas to continue their rule. The former proposal is generally considered part of the materialist, ritualistic Brahmanic line of thought, while the latter is of the immaterialist, philosophical Sramanic line of thought. This duality between material (prakrti) and immaterial (purusa) is seen throughout the Gita, and the scripture’s essential thesis is their synthesis: one should take material action but in the name of an immaterial cause. One must accept that yes, in the broader scheme of things, time will destroy everything, but that is precisely the reason one should take action—an elegant battle between the creative forces of life vs the entropic forces of the universe.
The deeply emotional aesthetic of this concept, a man fighting for what’s right in a world where the simple state of nature stacks the cards against him, is one of the key elements that contribute to the Bhagavad Gita’s strong imagery. Sure, Arjuna isn’t fighting alone, but it’s just 5 Pandavas against 100 Kauravas, who are currently the royal incumbents. This “underdog” aesthetic can be best seen in the piece below.
Arjuna and Krishna with famous verse of Bhagavad Gita (4.7), painting, India, Modern Period
The focus of the painting is on Arjuna’s chariot, with the background full of war elephants and soldiers. This focus serves to emphasize the point that Arjuna is indeed physically alone and the odds are against him, but he must still do his duty in the name of righteousness. There’s also another dimension of pathos in the Bhagavad Gita: the fact that he must kill his very own relatives and childhood friends in this war. Although this point can’t be very effectively conveyed in visual art, it nevertheless remains prominent in the mind of viewers because of how integral it is to the story. Emotion is instrumental in the spread of the Gita because the Bhakti Movement strongly valued emotion, which is understandable as the general populace of humanity throughout history has generally tended away from the side of logic and empiricism. So by appealing to emotion, through imagery of the Kurukshetra War as an underdog fight where the protagonist must kill his own cousins in the name of duty, the Bhagavad Gita successfully appealed to the minds of the masses.
Some may argue that Arjuna very much was not alone though—his charioteer was Krishna, the physical manifestation of God himself. To this I bring up the point that Arjuna doesn’t even realize Krishna is God until more than halfway through the Bhagavad Gita where he says “Thinking of you as my friend, … I was ignorant of your majesty, showing negligence and undue affection. And if, jestfully, I treated you with disrespect… for that I crave forgiveness” (Sargeant 528). This tells us two things: 1) it definitely was seen as an underdog fight in Arjuna’s mind until this point, and 2) Arjuna unknowingly had an intimate friendship with God himself. Point 1 substantiates the previous claim of the centrality of emotion, while point 2 brings us to recognize another vital facet of the Gita’s success. There are three paths to liberation (moksha) described by the Bhagavad Gita, namely, the path of action, the path of knowledge, and the path of devotion (Bhakti Yoga). This final path is the one that led to the development of the Bhakti Movement, which advocated for a deeply devotional, loving relationship with God. This doesn’t come as a surprise, because the desire for intimacy and devotion is common across human cultures, so the Bhakti Movement simply takes advantage of that instinct.
Krishna preaches to Arjuna on the battlefield, painting, British India, 19th century
This piece exemplifies Arjuna’s intimacy and devotion to Krishna, showing him kneeling alone with him in the center of the battlefield, surrounded by troops respecting their interaction. Throughout the Kurukshetra War and in virtually all depictions of the Gita, Arjuna and Krishna can be seen together in a chariot, symbolizing the one-on-one connection with God that a Hindu should aspire to. In fact, the paths to liberation mentioned earlier are known as “yogas” which literally translates to “union [with God]”. So “Bhakti Yoga”, which is ultimately deemed the best path by the Gita, can be best conceptualized as the “devotional path to union [with God]”, itself unifying these two very base desires of humans to be devoted to something bigger than themselves, and to feel intimate love with another being. Together, these instincts can be very effectively depicted in scenes of the Kurukshetra War that serve to create new members of the Bhakti Movement.
The final component that drives these paintings home is their grandiose depictions, and the sheer majesty of the Kurukshetra War’s setting. Although the prior two images are also solid examples of this trait, I’d like to use this section to exhibit some pieces from the Medieval Period when the Bhakti Movement experienced its most rapid growth.
Arjuna and his charioteer Krishna confront Karna, tapestry, Mughal India, 17th century
The tapestry above is significantly different from the other depictions, yet it retains the feeling of grandeur. The lead generals of each side stand in the center with their chariots, surrounded by hundreds of soldiers ready to put down their lives in the name of righteousness. Scenes like these emphasize the almost cosmic nature of the Kurukshetra War, lending credence to the ideology propounded in the Bhagavad Gita.
Gods observe Kurukshetra War, painting, Mughal India, 16th century
The piece above takes a slightly different approach to depicting grandeur. Rather than portraying the war with hundreds of men, the artist illustrates the gods looking down on the Kurukshetra War, eager to see what the result will be (Violatti 1). Although the strategy is different, this artistic strategy achieves the same aim, that is, to lend credence to the story and setting around the Bhagavad Gita. In effect, paintings like these provide a visual ethos argument, using our minds’ instinctual association of large numbers of people and hierarchical role of gods with importance to encourage Hindus to pay attention to the ideas spoken in the Gita.
Bringing everything together, It’s vital to recognize the importance of visual art in the growth of any movement. Literature, by its very nature, requires long-form thought and examination to truly comprehend. A painting, on the other hand, can be consumed in a single moment and subconsciously influence opinions. In intellectual circles, the assumption is generally made that through the process of logical examination, the most true ideas will come out on top. But in the real world, ideas that appeal to our base human nature are often the most successful. This isn’t to say that ideas that have instinctual appeal are inherently worse than those based in only logic, but it’s vital to recognize the very real implications that come into play when dealing with artistic renditions of intellectual claims. Through its effective use of pathos and ethos in Bhakti Movement paintings, the Bhagavad Gita brought widespread success to its parental school of philosophy, Vedanta.
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