Social Obligations in the Bhagavad Gita

Introduction

In the first chapter of the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna is asking an important philosophical question: what obligations do I owe to society when society has broken down (e.g. why should I fulfill my social obligation to fight in this civil war when the civil war itself represents a complete breakdown of society and society's obligations to people). This activity helps students connect that question with their own lives.

Background Information

Motivation

This activity helps students connect chapter 1 of the Bhagavad Gita with their own lives.

Logistics

This is best done as a group activity, but could easily be done as a solo or pair activity. It helps to have already introduced the idea of moral anti-realism before this activity has begun.

Texts / Connections

Relevant texts:

The Bhagavad Gita (especially Ch. 1)

Courses and Topics

  • Introduction to Philosophy, Introduction to Ethics, Ethics, Justice

Activity Plan

Present students with the following prompt:

The administration of your university has decided that moral anti-realism is correct: no ethical claim is true (so stealing, plagiarism, copying test answers are not truly wrong). Starting next semester, their updated academic policies will reflect this change in direction: for example, students will no longer be punished for cheating on tests or essays. How will you react? Will you still follow the rules as they were, or adapt to the new (lack of) rules?

Once students have discussed this idea, have them share their reactions with the class. Then, explain the connection to the Bhagavad Gita: in Chapter 1, Arjuna is struggling with this same question. As a member of the warrior caste, he has social obligations to fight in this civil war (and familial obligations as well). But, he is well-aware that this particular civil war represents a severe breakdown of social structures and obligations (family members are fighting against each other). How can it be moral for him to participate in the war?

Discussion Questions

  • Do you have any obligations to society? What would you do if, at your first job, your boss asks you to implement a policy that will cause severe social harm, but is technically legal, and will make the company a lot of money?

Authorship

Seth Robertson (University of Oklahoma)
sethrobertson@ou.edu