From the following excerpt from The Bhagavad Gita [http://eawc.evansville.edu/anthology/gita.htm], Bentley and Ziegler suggest on pages 124-130 that Indian religions in this period are “Religions of Salvation.” According to the Bhagavad Gita, from what does one needing saving? What does that salvation consist of? Can you see any social or political implications of this view of salvation?
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The Bhagavad Gita is Hindu sacred hymn that tells the story of Arjuna, a warrior sent to do battle with his family. While he laments having to fight his family, and wants to quit in fear of killing of, he is reminded by Krishna, who serves as an incarnation of the Hindu god Brahma, that it is his duty, or dharma, in life to kill. Even though he would be killing his family, because he is a warrior, that is his lot in life. It's a telling story about how fulfilling your dharma, regardless of morality, will bring you good karma, pulling you one step closer to the ultimate goal in life (moksha), which breaking the cycle of reincarnation and reuniting your soul with Brahma.
According to the Bhagavad Gita, your soul is what needs to be saved. Your soul, or atman, is the spiritual essence brahman trapped in the body. In order to release your atman, you need to break the cycle of reincarnation. To do this, you must achieve good karma over your lifetime, which is done by fulfilling your dharma. Arjuna's dharma is to be a warrior- even if it means killing his family, he would be fulfilling his dharma. Ultimately, Krishna argues that Arjuna is not really killing his family because their spirits will live on in a new body.
Hinduism, and the concept of fulfilling your dharma, has massive social and political implications. Socially, it allows the caste system to be the dominant social system for much of Indian history. Hinduism is religiously egalitarian in that each practitioner has a chance at eternal salvation, the release of the soul back to Brahma. Regardless of whether one's position is a farmer, artisan, warrior, or leader, fulfilling your dharma will get him or her one step closer to the ultimate goal. This concept propagates itself as the caste system, where everyone has an assigned position/job and there is practically no chance of social mobility- why need it? If you accrue enough good karma throughout your lifetime, you may reincarnate into a higher class in the next life, or possibly even break the cycle of reincarnation.
Politically, this creates a very decentralized India (and I'm looking specifically at classical India). Because eternal salvation is an individual goal, people behave as individuals. There is no need for a government that centralizes power; decentralized states work just as well if you have a defined position in society. Because of this, two empires that attempted to consolidate power in India failed: the Maurya and Gupta dynastys. Regionalism was a practice that was hard to break. Local governments were tightly organized by the caste system. Social order was promoted through the caste system, making local governments powerful and effective. While the Maurya and Gupta dynastys attemped to consolidate power, power never truly shifted from local regions to an urban center.
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