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Throughout history, religious texts have been widely influential in shaping how society is run. From egalitarian societies to strict social classes, religious texts have driven societies in a great variety of directions. A fundamental example of the social impact of religious texts is the Bhagavad Gita. The Bhagavad Gita has had a tremendous impact on the mindset of people in India. It has provided a standard basis for beliefs and morals, which influenced not only individuals, but Indian society as a whole. This religious text has been an integral part of common beliefs and morals. Because it is such a significant text in India’s history, we want to know what the social implications of the Bhagavad Gita were. By analyzing the text, we are able to gain a greater understanding of what kind of society it promotes. The Gita encourages social stratification, and promotes a strict hierarchy in the form of a caste system.
The Bhagavad Gita’s idea of duty, or dharma, calls for a stratified society. With different castes each having their own duty, society is separated into distinct groups of people who are taught to act differently based on the status they are born into. The Sanskrit word dharma, is translated to “sacred duty,” which is a key idea of The Gita. Members of different castes have different sacred duties. We can see the importance of this idea through the warnings not to violate the laws of duty and caste. An example of this is when the text states, “When the family is ruined, / the timeless laws of family duty / perish; and when duty is lost, / chaos overwhelms the family” (The Bhagavad Gita 28). This verse warns the people not to go against the laws of family duty, or dharma. It introduces the idea that if people do not follow their own duty and act according to their caste, chaos will ensue. Through this, the importance of separate duties for each family is clear. This encourages people of all castes to act according to their own specific duty. Because it tells each caste to act in a different way, The Gita causes deeper divisions between people born into different families. By dividing up the people into different classes and giving them each separate duties, The Gita asks for a strict hierarchy.
The Bhagavad Gita uses fear of chaos and disorder to further divide society into the different castes. The warnings against breaking the laws of duty are elaborated on as the text continues. The fear that The Gita is trying to instill can be seen when the text says, “The sins of men who violate / the family create disorder in society / that undermines the constant laws / of caste and family duty” (The Gita 29). This passage pairs the word “sin” with not following the caste system. In telling people that undermining the laws is a sin, the text warns the reader not to disobey their duty. Those who violate the system are violating the family and cause disorder, making them severely looked down upon. To prevent disorder, all one has to do is follow his or her duty. This makes the individual feel as though they are in control of whether or not society falls into chaos. The society as a whole can avoid disorder as long as each individual follows the duty of his or her caste. This shapes the guidelines for the different castes and introduces the idea that everyone must follow these set rules. With this passage, we see how The Gita influences society’s structure, in separating people by their family duties.
Some may argue that the Bhagavad Gita encourages an egalitarian society, where everyone is equal. They interpret the text to contradict the ideas of the caste system and social stratification. For example, the text says that, “Learned men see with an equal eye / a scholarly and dignified priest, / a cow, an elephant, a dog, / and even an outcaste scavenger” (The Gita 61). This statement encourages the reader to see everything equally, which may seem to promote an egalitarian society. However, although The Gita touches on themes of equality, these ideas clearly do not mean that society should be egalitarian. Although all beings are considered equal, it is certainly not saying that everyone should have equal wealth or that everyone should be able to pursue any endeavor they choose. The structure of this verse is an immediate indicator of The Gita’s reinforcement of the caste system. In saying “and even an outcaste scavenger,” the text puts outcaste scavengers lower than priests and animals. This in itself hints to a hierarchal order of people in society. It is also important to note that viewing things with an “equal eye” does not refer to equal rank in society, but instead it focuses on the being’s core essence. All beings are capable of improving themselves. The commonality is that they all have to act on their respective duties to succeed. This means that the ideas of equality in The Gita do not have any grounding in societal structure, but instead, are meant to transcend worldly status.
While The Gita may be suggesting that all beings have equal value on a higher level, each being has a defined place in the hierarchal order, indicating social stratification. This can be seen as the text states that, “The actions of priests, warriors, / commoners, and servants / are apportioned by the qualities / born of their intrinsic being” (The Gita 141). This passage separates people into different classes and states that they each have separate actions. This idea is the outline for the caste system, as different people are meant to act a certain way based on the caste they are born into. In defining the distinct groups of people and creating a further divide between them with the idea of different necessary actions for different people, The Gita clearly supports social stratification.
The text goes on to say that, “Each one achieves success / by focusing on his own action; / hear how one finds success / by focusing on his own action” (The Gita 141). This passage tells us that each being has an intrinsic function, and all beings can “achieve success” by focusing on that. All beings are equal and equally capable of achieving that success, but they have separate ways of achieving that success. Everyone has the same end goal, which is moksha, the release from the cycle of rebirth of samsara. The different path they must take towards success is what stratifies them in the social order. People are divided into different classes are encouraged to act differently according to these divisions. This means that The Gita’s mentioning of viewing all things as equal does not encourage an egalitarian society. Instead, it further supports the caste system, as members of the lower castes feel that they are equal to members of higher castes, even though it is not reflected in societal structure. Through its definition of the castes and different necessary actions, The Bhagavad Gita encourages social stratification and a hierarchal order.
The idea of moksha as the ultimate goal for everyone further demands the people to follow the social order of society, supporting the caste system. This promotes people to do as The Gita says and follow one’s own duty. This is shown when the text says, “Look to your own duty; / do not tremble before it; / nothing is better for a warrior / than a battle of sacred duty” (The Gita 36). This clearly defines the path that one must take to reach moksha. It is referring to Arjuna’s path as a warrior and his duty to fight in battle. This outline of one individual’s caste and duty not only tells us about how people in his caste should act, but also how everyone should. This link between caste and duty tells people to follow the caste system in order to achieve the common goal of moksha. Uniting the people under a universal purpose, The Gita cleverly divides the people into separate paths to attain the ultimate release from rebirth. This division is the basis for the hierarchy in Indian society.
The Bhagavad Gita gives a sense of hope to members of lower castes, which gathers their support and cooperation within the hierarchal social structure. We have seen that in history, it is often the lower class that rises up and rebels against the system when they feel they are mistreated or underrepresented. The Bhagavad Gita takes care of this threat to the caste system by providing reason and hope for those in lower castes. The text tells that for those who are committed to achieving moksha, “Fallen in discipline, he reaches / worlds made by his virtue, wherin he dwells / for endless years, until he is reborn / in a house of upright and noble men” (The Gita 71). This passage gives those in lower castes optimism in that if they according to their caste’s duty, they have the ability to be reborn in a higher caste. This also justifies the position of those in higher castes, in that they deserve their spots. According to this passage, those who are born into higher castes earned it through their discipline and determination to follow their dharma. This passage explains to the reader why people are born into different castes, and strengthens the hierarchal ranking system.
The justification of the caste system is further discussed in The Bhagavad Gita, as the idea of duty of castes is emphasized. The Gita stresses ideas that promote hierarchy within society. This is shown once again when the text states, “The actions of priests, warriors, / commoners, and servants / are apportioned by the qualities / born of their intrinsic being” (The Gita 141). This passage gives a greater sense of necessary action. It says that all the different castes of people have different actions that they are designated. This justifies the caste system by implying that one’s duty remains the same for their entire life. Without the ability to move out of a caste within one’s lifetime, members of different castes solely focus on how they can act upon their sacred duty and following the guidelines for their caste. This shows that The Gita wants people to only focus on their own task, without worrying about anyone else’s. While there is hope to have a better life after one is reborn, the idea that one is set in their caste for their lifetime forces people to learn to endure any suffering that goes along with being in the caste. The inevitability of this suffering allows for people to deal with it more easily. With this passage, we are able to see how The Gita justifies the different castes and the actions they must make.
The Gita finalizes the ideas of the caste system through its reinforcement of the ideas of the different paths of different castes to reach a common goal. Each caste has a different duty that its members must follow and act upon to achieve moksha. The text states that it is “[b]etter to do one’s own duty imperfectly / than to do another man’s well; / doing action intrinsic to his being, / a man avoids guilt” (The Gita 142). This passage tells the reader that people should do their caste’s duty, even if they are unable to do it well. The key point in this passage is that doing another caste’s duty, no matter how well it is done, is never as good as doing one’s own duty. This clearly defines the importance of one’s caste in determining how people should act. It solidifies the hierarchal caste system by creating strict order. Through this, we can see how The Bhagavad Gita strongly promotes social stratification and the caste system.
The continuous reinforcements of the ideas of duty, moksha, and the separate castes in The Bhagavad Gita strongly show the intent of the text to stratify Indian society. While the text does hint at equality, it does not apply to an egalitarian society. Instead, it further justifies the caste system by giving a higher sense of equality, even though there are clear differences between people in this world with the caste system. The common goal of moksha unites the people and encourages them to act upon their respective duties. The different duties of the separate castes define the hierarchal structure of society that The Gita promotes. This influential text has played a key role in shaping Indian society. Through it we are able to see how the hierarchal caste system is justified. The Bhagavad Gita is without a doubt a highly influential religious text and its social implications have echoed in India’s culture.
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