History of Literature Episode 33 – The Bhagavad Gita

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Written over the span of 800 years from ca. 400 B.C. to ca. 400 A.D, the Mahabharata tells a riveting tale of disputed kingship and warring families. But just as the action-packed narrative reaches its climax, the story pauses to convey a dialogue between the reluctant warrior Arjuna and his charioteer Krishna, who dramatically reveals himself as the incarnation of God. This passage, known as the Bhagavad Gita, has proved inspirational to hundreds of millions of religious seekers and was regarded by philosophers from Henry David Thoreau to Mahatma Gandhi as perhaps the greatest distillation of philosophy and religion ever written.

How does this philosophical treatise fit into this fast-paced story? What lessons does it have for us? And how did a two-thousand-year-old argument that a warrior should fulfill his duty on the battlefield end up inspiring some of the most famous advocates of non-violence in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries?

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