The Bhagavad Gita comprises the sixth book, and is the central component, of the Mahabharata. Because it centers on the struggles between kings and princes, the Mahabharata can be read as a reflection of the ideological components of rulership in ancient India. At its center is a power struggle between the descendants of two brothers, culminating in a comprehensive war that ends in the victory of one branch of the family over the other. Elements of philosophy, religion, and moral behavior appear throughout the poem, and the concepts of dharma (natural law, correct behavior) and chaos are introduced by Krishna, the wise sage who appears at critical moments to explain the wider implications of what seems a simple battle narrative. The speakers in the following excerpt are Dhritarâshtra, a blind king in the midst of a succession crisis; Sañgaya, the visionary narrator of the battle; and Arjuna, one of the five sons of Pandu, the Pandava.
The Bhagavadgita, with the Sanatsugatiya and the Anugita, trans. Kashinath Trimbak Telang (Oxford: Clarendon, 1882), 37, 39–41, 42, 73–75, 87–88, and 91.
The Rig Veda is the oldest of the Vedic texts, and consists of 1028 hymns. It was transmitted orally for centuries, and probably assumed its present shape c. 1200 BCE. There are three other Vedas, two of which contain material from the Rig Veda, thus making the Rig Veda the foundational text for the entire Vedic tradition and its successors, including Buddhism, Jainism, and Hinduism. Most of the hymns in the Rig Veda relate to the rituals of the Aryan religion, although a few explore more theoretical questions “Purusha” can be translated as “cosmic giant”.
From Sources of Indian Tradition. Theodore de Bary, ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1958.
The worship of Agni, as the fire principle animating a burnt offering to the gods, features prominently in the Rig-Veda. The voice of Agni was thought be heard in the crackling of the fire beneath a sacrifice, and it was a crucial element of Vedic tradition that the priest perform the ritual correctly. Fire was conflated with the emanations of the sun, and the priestly varna, or caste, was thought to be the community’s best representative to the god.
The Hymns of the Rigveda, trans. Ralph T. H. Griffith (Benares: E. J. Lazarus, 1889), 333–338.
Thomas R. Trautmann
Few things are more tantalizing to historians than an undeciphered script. Hundreds of broken and intact Harappan seals have been discovered in numerous sites throughout the Indus Valley, many that combine a line of symbols assumed to be text with an image of an animal. Denoting them seals, historians have determined that most were used to identify someone involved with an object (owner, craftsmen, or merchant). It is also possible that the seals, and other examples of the Indus script, were protective in nature, operating as a talisman. However, without the ability to read the symbols, how the seals and other objects with writing were used to convey information is a matter of speculation. It is hard to understand how a text is used if one cannot read the content. In the excerpt below, historian Thomas Trautmann, a leading specialist on ancient India, provides an overview of the mysterious Harappan seals.
The most intriguing artifacts of the Indus sites are rectangular steatitei seals, because of the writing on them. These seals, little more than an inch square, generally bear an incised image, beautifully carved, of which the humped bull is a common type. Other animals (tiger, elephant), composite mythological beasts, and the rare human form are figured on other seals. They also bear a short inscription across the top, in a script that has defied many attempts to decipher it. This script contains more than four hundred signs, too many to be purely alphabetic or syllabic because no language is known to have more than a hundred phonemes. Although many of the signs are obviously pictographic, other elements act as modifiers, perhaps as word endings, and others are clearly numerals. The seals were meant to be pressed into soft clay as a mark of ownership, in all likelihood. The inscriptions are short, presumably recording little more than the owner’s name. The language of the script is unknown; a Dravidian language would be our best guess because of islands of Dravidian language in the Indus and Ganga valleys, but other languages cannot be ruled out. We do not have a bilingual inscription, like the Rosetta Stone by which the Egyptian hieroglyphics were deciphered, or the Greek and Prakrit inscriptions on coins by which the inscriptions of Ashoka were read. However, because the Indus people were involved with seagoing trade with other literate people, especially the Elamites and perhaps the Mesopotamians, there is a chance that a bilingual inscription will be found one day…
From India: Brief History of a Civilization. Thomas R. Trautmann. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011, pp. 22-27