The Bhagavad Gita is a small excerpt within the Mahabharata (one of two quintessential Indian epics), and was composed between 500 BCE-500 CE in one of the most fruitful, yet contentious periods of literary creation in Hindu culture. The text follows Arjuna, an esteemed warrior in the Pandava army who wages war against the Kaurava dynasty composed of his kinsman, due to disputes over land ownership. As he surveys the battlefield, Arjuna sees his cousins and uncles standing across from him and wonders whether there is justice in murdering them, a key ethical question providing insight on the human condition. But in The Odyssey, we follow a distinctly different hero along his
journey home to his family following the Trojan War, a path riddled with cunning, deception, duty, and disloyalty, and in this process we gain the unparalleled ability to delve into the ancient Greek society which the text was produced in. Nonetheless, through a comparative analysis of these texts, it becomes clear that both societies regarded “being human” as living a life plagued by desire and emotion, that detachment from the world and selfless duty were paths toward self-improvement, and that Gods played critical roles in influencing human behavior.
Firstly, through Arjuna’s story, the Bhagavad Gita separates humanity into two distinct components — the physical and the divine, or the flesh and the soul — arguing that humans only die in the earthly sense. Yet for the soul there exists no birth nor death, and so man is everlasting, the internal essence fastened in a vehicle of meat, bones, and cartilage. It is precisely the instant at which Krishna tells Arjuna that “from the world of the sense…comes heat and comes cold, and pleasure and pain,” that the conception of “being human” in Hindu society becomes clear.
Chiefly, they believed it imperative to detach from worldly objects and emotions, to eliminate fear and anxiety in order to uncage the perfect version of oneself. Even further, reaching true perfection in this society necessitated “[killing] desire, the powerful enemy of the soul,” finding peace not in the material world but only in the infinite, and “[leaving] all things behind.” The Odyssey provides a similar stance on human desires, that they are ultimately problematic, and that mankind in its own recklessness, “has sorrows beyond that which is ordained [by the gods].” For instance, before Odysseus’ men arrive on the island of Thrinacia where Helios’ cattle graze, they are told to “leave the beasts unharmed” or face devastation. But even though Odysseus is forewarned by Circe, and there is plenty of food aboard his ship, the crew’s gluttony causes them to slaughter Helios’ cattle and feast on the meat, an action that ultimately leads to their demise.
It is through both instances, within The Gita and The Odyssey, where we learn that the people of both cultures unrelentingly looked down upon primitive desire, and by extension structured their societies to value the human triumph over these limitations. The ideal human for them, was one who operated in the world with unswerving objectivity and righteousness, who saw no positivity in emotion and desire, and who understood that these very shortcomings were contrary to personal fulfillment. As dictated in The Gita, and both Epicurean and Stoic philosophies — which were deeply influential in the Greek culture following The Odyssey — humans would reach inner peace once thoroughly indifferent to the world’s material temptations. It must be noted however, that The Gita was written in a kind of “esoteric discourse prevalent amongst the Brahminical priestly-academic elite,” and thus its contentions around disposing of earthly wealth and desire came from a place of inherent privilege and financial stability. As such, The Gita’s origins highlight a Hindu society that was intellectually stratified — with the priestly elites dominating the marketplace of ideas and dictating the way in which the rest of society behaved. Moreover, the text’s insistence on self control, pure reason, and detachment were arguably unfeasible for those in the lowest strata of society, whose experiences were not sufficiently addressed by The Gita’s Brahmin authors, and whose livelihood were contingent on the very physical desire demonized throughout the story.
Furthermore, both Hindu and Greek societies viewed the gods as integral in achieving one’s moral obligations and establishing justice, their lessons and interventions allowing humans to take decisive action. For instance, it is Krishna’s teachings that allow Arjuna to be rid of his delusion, to finally realize that waging war is critical in fulfilling his divine duty (or dharma). By the same token, it is divine intervention that allows Odysseus to leave Calypso’s island and return home, even though she is the manifestation of all one could possibly desire — in beauty, stature, and immortality. Calypso and her island represent a form of crude hedonism that the ancient Greeks rejected, a place of unlimited indulgence where all primitive desires could be satiated. Nevertheless, Odysseus yearns to be in Ithaca amongst loved ones, to fulfill his duties as a ruler, and to live a life of righteous virtue. In these examples, the texts show that gods in both societies held a central role in lighting the path for humanity; through their teachings, one could make sense of the uncertain and complicated world ahead.
Even so, while both societies valued gods as critical in helping achieve human potential, in The Odyssey they are also presented as entities to be feared. Moreover, the text shows that in Greek society, the fear of being punished by otherworldly entities deeply motivated human behavior and cultural expectation. Through implementing customs like hospitality into The Odyssey — where hosts were expected to treat their guests well — Homer characterizes human kindness as unrelated to a sense of implicit morality, but
instead predicated on the fear that guests could be gods in disguise, who would punish their host if disrespected. On the other hand, engaging in proper host-guest behavior would result in reward or a god’s positive favor, as illustrated by Nestor, in offering Telemachus and Athena his home in which to feast and slumber with comfort. Nestor’s interactions with his guests stress the importance of helping others, that since no person could ever know if their guest is divine, it is in one’s best interest to treat all people well. But what does this say about how the ancient Greeks viewed the origins of human kindness and morality? Were they skeptical of the intrinsic human condition, believing that one did the right thing solely in order to avoid punishment, with no intention otherwise? Furthermore, what does the relationship between hospitality and fear say about whether people have the capacity to be truly altruistic? Whatever the answers to these questions may be, it is undeniable that The Odyssey displays the deeply rooted fear of the gods in Greek society, making clear the vast extent to which divine intervention could dictate the lives of humans, and even mold the infrastructure of Greek cultural practices.