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The Social Construction of Emotions in the "Bhagavad Gt": Locating Ethics in a Redacted
Author(s): Kathryn Ann Johnson
Source: The Journal of Religious Ethics, Vol. 35, No. 4 (Dec., 2007), pp. 655-679
Published by: Blackwell Publishing Ltd on behalf of Journal of Religious Ethics, Inc
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Locating Ethics in a Redacted Text

Kathryn Ann Johnson


Religious texts and historical narratives are instrumental in defining ap

propriate emotions and moral reasoning in a culture. In the Bhagavad Gitd
the warrior Arjuna is faced with a twofold dilemma: are his emotions ap
propriate and should emotions influence his actions? The Gitd is though
to be a redacted text with three primary layers: the original verses, the
Samkhya/Yoga layer, and the devotional bhakti layer. Cross-cultural psy
chological theories of emotions are employed to analyze the layers of th
Gitd. It is argued that each of the three layers corresponds with one of thr
possible moral codes as proposed by R. A. Shweder and his colleagues (199
2000): the Ethic of Autonomy (promoting personal well-being and avoiding
shame); the Ethic of Community (maintaining social order and emotiona
detachment); and the Ethic of Divinity (upholding cosmic order and en-
dorsing emotional devotion). These three perspectives remain relevant fo
deciding emotionally laden moral dilemmas today.
KEY WORDS: emotions, moral reasoning, moral development, Bhagavad
Gita, cross-cultural psychology

THE relationship between emotions and ethics has generated an in-

creasing amount of interest in both comparative philosophy and moral
psychology for the past quarter century. An important concern in philos-
ophy is defining how one should live and most Western and South Asian
philosophers and psychologists agree that emotions are integral in mak-
ing ethical determinations. As Hindu philosopher Purushottama Bilimo-
ria opines, "emotion provides the bedrock for moral thinking" (Bilimoria
1995, 66). Presented with a dilemma about right or wrong, humans do
consult their emotions (Haidt 2001; Greene et al. 2001). But should they?
In what way, or to what extent, should emotions decide moral actions?
Should moral reason be the slave or the master of passion?
Philosophers and theologians have often sought to guide moral rea-
soning by defining the appropriate emotional experiences for individu-
als in their societies. Those theories of emotions and ethics vary across
historical periods and as cultures change. Thus, the purpose of this paper

JRE 35.4:655-679. 2007 Journal of Religious Ethics, Inc.

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656 Journal of Religious Ethics

is not to answer the question of how we should manage our passions, for
that answer shifts with the sands of time and varies among philosophers.
Instead, I want to demonstrate how such answers may be constructed
historically through redacted texts - texts that are composed in one era
and then edited or supplemented in one or more later period(s) - by au-
thors with different or new concerns. After such texts are modified, over
time, we are often left with a powerful statement of ethics, which, nev-
ertheless, may represent a range of moral philosophies recognizable in
their abstracted parts.
One redacted text that presents a moral dilemma and philosophizes
about the role that emotions should play in choosing the appropriate
action is the Hindu text, the Bhagavad Gitd.1 Philosopher Bina Gupta
(2006) has convincingly defended the coexistence of virtue ethics and
duty ethics in the Gitd.2 The sacred text is less concerned with what
Arjuna ought to do as he readies for war, and more concerned about what
sort of man Arjuna ought to be. Gupta concludes that the Gitd supports
the cultivation of emotions in much the same way that Aristotle had.
The virtuous Hindu warrior will do his duty as a disciplined activity, but
with self-control and emotional detachment from the consequences of
his action and the all-embracing virtue of indifference. Conquering one's
passions and desires precedes right action.
Bilimoria (1995, 2004) has also recently evaluated the text of the Gitd,
and he identifies three components of, or commentaries on, emotions
in the epic. He finds that the presumed author of the Gitd approves
of not only bhaktibava (devotional love) and "the more commonplace
affects" (feelings of confusion, fear, or joy) for making moral decisions, but
that the author also endorses the dismissal of emotions in the pursuit
of one's duty (Bilimoria 1995, 66). Bilimoria argues that each of these
perspectives has been incorrectly championed as the true teaching of the
Gitd at one time or another. He wants to reconcile the three perspectives
and find, in the text, a more "philosophically circumspect" understanding
of emotions and their impact on Indian moral reasoning (66). I will argue
that Bilimoria is correct in identifying these three perspectives and that
it is actually the redacted, textual layers of the Bhagavad Gitd that
evidence the three very different ways of relating emotions and moral
Since the early 1800s, scholars have debated the dating and author-
ship of the Gitd (Jezic 1986, 628) and, admittedly, there is not unanimous
agreement that the epic story is a redaction at all (Brockington 1998,

1A11 quotations of the Bhagavad Gita are taken from Barbara Stoler Miller's
(1986/2004) English translation of the Sanskrit text.
z I will usually substitute the shortened form Gitd for the full name, Bhagavad Gitd,
in this paper.

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The Social Construction of Emotions in the Bhagavad Gita 657

268). My segregation of the Gita into philosophical layers rests on the

respected scholarship of Mislav Jezic (1986), John Brockington (1998),
and Przemyslaw Szczurek (2002). Furthermore, no one claims to be able
to place each verse, with certainty, in its proper redacted layer. Each
of these three scholars will attest that the final editors ingeniously in-
terwove necessary glosses, interpolations, and additions into the already
layered text to give it the coherence that it has today (Szczurek 2002, 57).
However, because the final redaction of the Gita was done so skillfully,
the commentaries on emotions in the epic generally fail to take into ac-
count the likelihood that, over time, each layer of additions represented
a new and unique construction of appropriate emotional expression and
a corresponding code of ethics.
If scholars are correct in identifying the layers in the Gita, my analysis
will contribute to a more complete elucidation of the attitudes regard-
ing emotions and moral reasoning in each of the philosophical systems
associated with the redacted layers. Placing the passages on emotions
in their proper philosophical contexts will also explain some perceived
inconsistencies in the text. Finally, such an analysis may help prevent
overstatement or misinterpretations of the Gita that both Gupta (2006)
and Bilimoria (1995, 2004) have sought to overcome.
More importantly, however, I suggest in the concluding sections of this
essay that the power of a redacted text such as the Bhagavad Gita lies in
its ability to provide a comprehensive and integrated view of otherwise
distinct ethical systems. I use the theoretical model of ethics proposed
and tested by Richard A. Shweder et al. (1997) to argue that the Bha-
gavad Gita supports each of three types of moral reasoning as proposed
by cultural psychologists: the Ethic of Autonomy, the Ethic of Commu-
nity, and the Ethic of Divinity. I will argue that, across time and within
the Hindu culture, the redacted text of the Bhagavad Gita meaningfully
addresses various kinds of moral reasoning, as identified by Shweder
et al. The final editors of the Bhagavad Gita were able to synthesize
these three ethical codes to create an enduring text that has offered in-
spiration to many through the ages and which continues to offer insights
about emotions and moral reason today.

1. Background of the Bhagavad Gita

The Bhagavad Gita is arguably the most widely read text in Hinduism
and the authoritative text for worshippers of Krishna. The Gita is part
of the greater epic of India, the Mahabhdrata, which tells the story of the
clash between the descendents of Kuru, of the Vedic tribe Bharata - the
tribe and story from which present day India draws its name (Embree
1988, 277). The philosophical poem is structured as eighteen teachings

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658 Journal of Religious Ethics

given while the warrior, Arjuna, and his charioteer, Krishna, oversee the
battlefield just prior to the destruction of the kingdom.
The Mahdbhdrata, itself, is traditionally thought to have been com-
posed in two stages, an original 7,000-verse epic ascribed to Vyasa, and
a subsequent elaboration attributed to Vaisampayana (Flood 1996, 105).
Scholars consider the Mahdbhdrata to have been compiled by a number
of authors over the centuries between 500 BCE and 100 CE, although the
epic was probably not fully formed until 400 CE (105). The greater epic,
as well as the Gitd which is set within it, was finally rewritten by the
Brahman family of Bhargava, descended from Bhrgu, an ancient sage,
who added the final verses to the text(s).
At the opening of the Bhagavad Gitd, the two families of the descen-
dents of Kuru, the Kauravas and the Pandavas, stand poised on opposite
sides of the battlefield. The leader of the Pandavas, Arjuna, faces both
an emotional and a moral dilemma. His desire, and the purpose of the
battle, is to obtain the kingdom. The impending battle is fully endorsed
by the members of both his immediate community and by his opposing
kinsmen, as evidenced by the amassing troops. On the other hand, as Bil-
imoria sums up so eloquently, Arjuna suddenly foresees "the destruction
of the kingdom, the carnage of the elders, the collapse of the family and
tradition, the ruin of his Gandiva missile, the demise of his invincible
golden chariot, and so on - [consequences that] did actually come to pass
according to his prediction during the tragic course and un-triumphant
conclusion of the war" (Bilimoria 2004, 222).
Arjuna is overcome with a complex emotion of grief, fear, guilt, and
dread at the thought of committing and experiencing such atrocities.
He wants to know how he can kill his kinsmen when such physical and
emotional pain will result. His moral judgment, if based on his emo-
tions, is that the killing is not worth the kingdom. A dialogue between
Arjuna and his charioteer, Krishna, ensues in which Krishna explains
the relationships of emotions, knowledge, and right action (in West-
ern terms) or, in Hindu terms, kdma (desire - one aspect of emotions),
karma-yoga (disciplined, detached action - without deference to emo-
tions), bhakti (devotion - emotions directed toward deity), jndna (knowl-
edge), and dharma (right action).

2. The Psychology of Emotions and Moral Reasoning

Any discussion of emotions and moral reasoning ought to begin with an
answer to the question, "What is emotion?" This is actually a complicated
and unresolved question. Modern emotion psychologists have tended to
focus on a narrow set of emotions, and it is unclear how to define an emo-
tion more generally or which states qualify as emotions (Rozin and Cohen
2003). William James is famously credited for instituting the study of

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The Social Construction of Emotions in the Bhagavad Gita 659

emotions among Euro-American psychologists, proposing that emotion

is simply the bodily sensation or feeling of arousal (Lange and James
1922). However, James limited his study to the physiology of emotions
and, therefore, he merely provides the foundation for the more complex
theories available today.
Expanding on the James-Lange theory of emotions as mere affect,
psychologists later demonstrated that emotions include at least two fac-
tors: the felt sensation and the cognitive evaluation, or appraisal, which
follows those feelings (Schacter and Singer 1962). Philosophers have ar-
gued that emotions must also be intentional; that is, emotions must be
about something, even if that something is imagined (see Harre 1986;
Solomon 2000, 2004). This intentionality differentiates emotions from
moods, attitudes, or chronic mental states. Others have recognized emo-
tions as involving an impulse to act, sometimes referred to as an "action
tendency" (Frijda 2000). Thus, in the Western psychological tradition,
emotions are complex events that include both physiological arousal and
cognitive evaluations.
There is no Sanskrit equivalent for the English concept "emotion"
(Bilimoria 1995, 67). Moreover, a list of primary and secondary emo-
tions in Hindu theory would differ somewhat from a Euro-American ac-
count. The Hindu list would include sexual passion, anger, perseverance,
disgust, amusement, sorrow, wonder, fear, and the difficult to translate
emotion, lajya, which could be loosely translated as "shame" (Shweder
et al. 2000). Nevertheless, cross-cultural research in the Western psy-
chological tradition seems to support the South Asian view of emotions
as stirrings of the body and intellect that precede action. Despite dif-
ferences between Hindu and American views of emotions, there are
apparently some commonalities, as Americans can accurately identify
various emotions as portrayed in classical Indian dance (Hejmadi et al.
In order for feelings to be stirred, however, psychologists have shown
that there must also be some perception and/or cognitive appraisal pre-
ceding the physiological change (for a review, see Scherer 1997). In other
words, implicit and often preconscious considerations of what is good
or bad are present even before the onset of the emotion. Similarly, in
Indian emotional theory, the bodily sensations may yield mental at-
tachments that are registered as sentiments (bhdvas); these sentiments
reflect the individual's personality and previous cultural experience
(Bilimoria 2004, 216). The cognitive preface to Arjuna's physiological
arousal is not the uncertainty about whether the impending war is just -
that matter is settled in the larger epic of the Mahdbhdrata. However,
when the culturally endorsed sentiment of non-injury clashes with the
culturally constructed sentiment of war-as-duty, perturbations of the
body and intellect are inevitable.

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660 Journal of Religious Ethics

There has been some debate about whether the values or sentiments
that give rise to emotions are themselves derived from reason, some com
bination of reason and emotions, or from emotions "struggling against
the dictates of reason" (Altieri 2003, 153-80). The strong view of social
constructionist theories of emotions claims that there are no natural,
basic emotions and that there would be no emotional state at all with-
out culturally constructed views of what constitutes a sentiment or an
appropriate circumstance for emotions (see Claire Armon-Jones 1986;
Levenson et al. 1992; and Shweder 1994). However, as cross-cultural
studies of facial expression, research on basic emotions such as fear, and
linguistic analyses show, there are some universal, unlearned, emotional
states. These basic emotions are rooted in pre-conscious intuitions or an-
imalistic instincts that are only slightly modified by cultural influences
(see Ekman 1992; Scherer and Wallbott 1994; and Frijda 2000).
Arj una's emotional state at the opening of the Gitd certainly reflects
not only the cultural tension between sentiments of non-injury and duty,
but it also evidences a presumably universal and instinctual state of
arousal prior to mortal combat. One need not be trained in either emo-
tional psychology or moral philosophy to surmise that in the moments
before killing one's own relatives, in hand-to-hand combat, there most
assuredly will be a sweeping emotional experience of some kind.
Thus, socially constructed, culturally specific, reasoned values or basic
universal intuitions are both able to induce the physiological arousal of
the warrior in the moments before the battle begins. However, Arjuna's
dilemma, the concern of the authors of the Gitd, and the subject of this
paper is not how emotions occur but, rather, how a person should respond
once these mental and bodily agitations have set in.
Western psychologists and Hindu philosophers agree that emotions
have both a social and ethical function (Armon-Jones 1986; Frijda and
Mesquita 1994; Bilimoria 1995; Keltner and Haidt 1999; Shweder and
Haidt 2000; and Haidt 2001). The felt sensations of emotions alert the
person that they must take action, change or continue the present course
of action, or in cases of inappropriate action, emotions may cause them
to stop and reconsider the consequences of their actions.
Thus, immediately felt sensations cue moral reasoning in two ways.
First, the felt sensations may prompt reasoning about whether or not
to act in accordance with the emotions. Second, felt sensations may in-
duce cognitive appraisals about the sensation itself. The affected person
may ask, "What is the significance, or source, of my fear? Is this emo-
tion acceptable in my community? How should I regulate this emotion?"
The monitoring, regulation, and expression of emotions vary both cross-
culturally and historically within cultures, and emotional regulation is
subject to the same kinds of moralizing and social construction as are
rules for right action (Armon-Jones 1986; Frijda and Mesquita 1994). In

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The Social Construction of Emotions in the Bhagavad Gita 661

terms of both Western and South Asian emotional theory, then, Arjuna
must make a twofold cognitive evaluation: are his emotions appropriate
and should emotions determine his actions?
Not surprisingly, the status of these physical and mental agitations,
their ideal relationship to reason, and their presumed ability (or in-
ability) to produce right action have varied both within and between
the Hindu and Western philosophical traditions (see Bilimoria 1995;
Solomon 2000; Calhoun and Solomon 1984; and Sherman 1997). I will
argue that the final edited text of the Bhagavad Gita, too, promotes three
distinct theories of emotions and moral reason that have recently been
elucidated in cross-cultural psychological research.
In summary, psychologists and philosophers have shown emotions to
be multi-faceted and contextually dependent, the cognitive response to
which is socially constructed. An emotion is a somatic "feeling," induced
by the perception of some internal or external condition, which is im-
portant to the self, and is susceptible to a cognitive evaluation (whether
accurate or inaccurate, conscious or pre-conscious). The physiology of
emotions necessitates a twofold judgment, grounded in notions of right
and wrong: determining whether the emotional state is appropriate and
deciding what action should be taken (remembering that standards for
the self-management and regulation of the complex of emotions vary
It should be noted, however, that in "real life" one rarely has eigh-
teen chapters of thoughtful deliberation to evaluate an emotional event.
When the heart races, hands tremble, and the face is flushed with over-
coming waves of emotions, psychological research confirms that we often
respond according to who we feel we "ought to be," rather than what we
think we "ought to do" (Haidt 2003). Moral judgment often involves quick
gut feelings or intuitive responses that have been developed throughout
one's life (Haidt 2001; Pizzaro and Bloom 2003). Cultural narratives and
scriptural texts, such as the Gita, often provide competing codes of ethics
that influence those intuitive responses, direct the monitoring and regu-
lation of the emotion, and promote the different kinds of post hoc moral
reasoning that are the subject of the Bhagavad Gita.

3. The Gita as a Redacted Text

S.K. Belvalkar has aptly likened the redactive process to the reshaping
of a small coat that is enlarged piece by piece to fit a larger frame, then
re-cut and substantially altered, with nothing being discarded along the
way. Although the work was crafted into a finely tailored finished piece,
"it was inevitable that, once in a while, the seams, holes, creases and
other vestiges of the earlier stages of the coat obtruded themselves here

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662 Journal of Religious Ethics

and there" (1944, 117).3 This is the case regarding the construction of
emotions and moral reasoning in the Bhagavad Gitd.
As many scholars and readers have observed, there are puzzling in-
consistencies in the Gitd. Barbara Stoler Miller comments, "the dialogue
moves through a series of questions and answers that elucidate key
words, concepts, and seeming contradictions7' (Miller 1986, 8; my empha-
sis). How did Arjuna manage to put down his bow just as the battle was
commencing for the lengthy time it took to consult with Krishna (Embree
1988, 280)? In one instance, Arjuna is instructed that one should rely on
the emotions and act so as not to bring public disgrace and shame upon
oneself (Bhagavad Gitd 2.35); while another verse (16.24) asserts that
scripture is the authority for moral reason (Embree 1988, 280). Bilimoria
(2004, 222) asks why Krishna should scoff at Arjuna's feelings about the
consequences of the war, when Arjuna's premonition was correct and,
therefore, warranted. Additionally, Jezic (1986, 631-32) has noted that
the poem proclaims that no god or demon can see Krishna's manifest na-
ture (Bhagavad Gitd 10.14), yet all the demons and gods gaze at Krishna
amazed (11.22).
More importantly, why does Krishna urge Arjuna to go to the battle
by appealing to his sense of shame and then, later, argue for dispas-
sion? Why, after Krishna argues for dispassion and detachment, does he
encourage powerful emotions of devotion and desire for Krishna?
Various commentators have attempted to reconcile these variances in
the reasoning about emotions and right action in the Gitd. A classic in-
terpretation begins with Krishna's response to Arjuna's emotional cry, "I
see nothing that could drive away the grief that withers my senses" (Bha-
gavad Gitd 2.7a). Read as a unified whole, Krishna takes Arjuna through
a systematic argument, stressing that "learned men do not grieve" (2.10),
ostensibly showing Arjuna the folly of personal passion. Krishna leads
Arjuna through arguments for personal concern, concern for one's so-
cial responsibilities, and ultimately toward a vision of divine purpose
and right order. Miller identifies the magnificent theophanic Hymn as a
necessary "mystical experience" allowing Arjuna to finally comprehend
Krishna's argument (2004, 9).
In this synthesized reading, Krishna teaches Arjuna how to ac-
complish renunciation (forsaking the world and its illusory claims) by
combining emotional detachment and dedication of worldly action to
Krishna, while duty is explained as part of Krishna's cosmic order (Miller
2004, 12). In this way, Arjuna can continue to act in the world without
grief or fear of eternal suffering (Bhagavad Gitd 18.66). This synthesis
of Krishna's teachings may provide a fine philosophical or theological

3 As cited by P. Szczurek (2002, 71).

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The Social Construction of Emotions in the Bhagavad Gita 663

argument for attaining moksha (the release from the cycle of worldly ac-
tion), but it does not adequately account for the inconsistencies regarding
appropriate emotions in the text.
As Bilimoria (1995, 2004) forcefully argues, the classic reading priv-
ileges emotional detachment but ignores the charioteer's acceptance of
the common affects of pity, fear, sadness, and shame in the beginning
of the Gitd. In the larger philosophical argument, these emotions are
portrayed as the problem and not as an appropriate response to Arjuna's
dilemma. This dismissal is more easily accomplished perhaps due to
the fewer number of verses relative to the Samkhya/Yoga layer. Addi-
tionally, the synthesized interpretation marginalizes the very powerful
bhakti emotions of love, awe, and fear of the deified Krishna, championed
as the true teaching of the Gitd by other commentators. Furthermore, a
careful reading of the text as a redaction shows that the important con-
cern with grief, and the mandate not to grieve, is actually limited to the
Samkhya/Yoga layers of the text, which espouse detachment. Finally,
it seems logically inconsistent to endorse (and, arguably, biologically
impossible to experience simultaneously) emotional detachment, self-
focused pity and shame, and intense devotion directed toward an "other,"
Krishna. Only as we unpack the layers of the Gitd are we able to analyze
and reflect upon the three statements of emotional theory and moral
reasoning that were constructed in the course of creating the Gitd.
Jezic (1986, 628-30) reviews a list of scholars who suggest there are
layers in the Gitd beginning with W. von Humboldt (1826) and including,
among others, A. Holtzmann (1895), R. Garbe (1905), H. Jacobi (1918), H.
Oldenberg (1922), R. Otto (1934), and L. Renou (1947-1949). However,
coming to a consensus on the likelihood and composition of redacted lay-
ers in the Gitd has been an ongoing process, with a measure of agreement
finally having been reached through the work of G. Sh. Khair4 and Jezic
(Szczurek 2002, 57). The scholarship regarding the layers in the Gitd has
focused mainly on attempts to reconcile inconsistencies in tenor, syntax,
poetic meter, ultimate goals, virtue ethics, and complementary or op-
posing duplications in the poem. Other concerns have been the varying
cosmologies, nuances of action (as it relates to karma and dharma), and
the identity of Krishna between the layers in the epic. A summary of the
approximate philosophical location of the verses of the Gitd is given in
Table 1.
Scholars now theorize that the "original Gitd" was a part of the greater
epic, the Mahdbhdrata, and includes verses (slokas) 1.1 to 2.10 and
2.31 to 2.37. With the exception of these original verses, chapters two

4 1 do not cite Khair in this paper as a primary source. His work, Quest for the Orig-
inal "Gita" (Bombay, 1969) is recapped and cited by my three primary sources, Jezic, J.
Brockington, and Szczurek.

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664 Journal of Religious Ethics

Table 1. Approximate location of verses in the redacted layers

Philosophical Source:
Chapter Content Layer Verses Pagea
1 Arjuna's Dilemma Original Mahdbhdrata 1.1-2.4 J: 630
2 Philosophy and Spiritual Samkhya 2.5-2.8 J: 636
Discipline: Control of Original Mahdbhdrata 2.9-2.10 S: 58
Desires by Knowledge Yoga 2.11-2.30 J: 636
Original Mahdbhdrata 2.31-2.37 J: 632
Samkhya/Yoga 2.38 J: 632
Yoga 2.39-2.72 J: 632
3 Cosmic Significance of Samkhya/Yoga All J: 633
Action - karma
4 The Way of Samkhya/Yoga Original 4:1-4.41 J: 633
Knowledge- jfiana Mahdbhdrata 4.42 J: 633
5 Renunciation of Yoga All B: 268
Action- tydga (B: 274)
6 The Man of Discipline: Yoga All B: 268
Renunciation of Desire
and Intention - vairdgya
(B: 274)
7 Knowing Krishna Samkhya/Bhakti All B: 268, 274
8 Cycle of Death Bhakti 8:1-8
Yoga 8:9-11 J: 633
Bhakti 8:12-27
Yoga 8:28 J: 633
9 Life of Krishna Bhakti 9.1-9.19
Hymn 9.20-21 J: 633
Bhakti 9.22-9.34
10 Nature of Krishna Bhakti All S: 57
Hymn possibly begins B: 275
at 10.10
11 Krishna's Totality- The Bhakti 11.1-11.14 S: 57
Theophany Vedantic Hymn to 11.15-11.50 J: 632, 633
Bhakti 11.51-11.55 J: 632
12 The Ideal Man Bhakti All S: 57
13 The Field of Conflict Samkhya All B: 276
14 Triadic Nature of Reality, Samkhya All B: 276
Lucidity, Passion,
15 Spirit of Man Samkhya/Yoga 15:1-15:14
Hymn 15:15 J: 633
Samkhya/Yoga 15:16-15.20
16 The Divine vs. the Demonic Bhakti All B: 268
17 "Three's" of Faith Samkhya All B: 276
18 The Relationship of Yoga 18.1-18.71 J: 636
Emotions, Knowledge, Original Mahdbhdrata 18.72-18.73 J: 634
and Right Action: Reconnects to Epic 18.74-18.78
Concluding Dialogue

aI have used "J" to indicate Jezic (1986), "B" for Brockington (1998), and "S" for Szczure

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The Social Construction of Emotions in the Bhagavad Gita 665

through six are generally thought to be elaborations of and additions to

the Mahdbhdrata, composed with the intent of introducing Samkhya and
Yogic philosophies to the epic. Chapters seven through twelve, the center
of the Gitd, are generally agreed to have been the final layer (Brocking-
ton 1998, 269; Jezic 1986, 629). This layer would have been added as a
reinterpretation of the earlier epic (and its subsequent additions) in or-
der to emphasize the deity of Krishna. This central, final layer is called
the bhakti layer and it also includes chapter sixteen. Finally, in the last
third of the Gitd as we read it today, chapters thirteen through fifteen,
and chapters seventeen through eighteen, actually represent the inser-
tion of additional Samkhya and yogic teachings, added centuries after
the first six chapters were composed, but prior to the bhakti synthesis.
Jezic is also lauded (Szczurek 2002, 57) for being the first to contend
that the theophanic Hymn of the eleventh chapter was composed apart
from the emerging epic and that it was a late insertion into the Gitd by
the bhakti redactor(s). According to Jezic, the emotional intensity, the
form (the Hymn is composed in tristubhs, unlike the rest of the epic),
and certain "duplication replications"5 related to the form of Krishna, all
indicate that the Hymn was composed externally.
Jezic concludes that the incongruity of the length of Krishna's coun-
sel at the onset of the battle and the ethical inconsistencies can be ex-
plained. Samkhya, yogic, Vedantic, and bhakti teachings were added suc-
cessively to the Gitd as it developed into its final form over the centuries
(Jezic 1986, 634). Thus, I suggest that Krishna's teaching of the man,
Arjuna, actually traces the development of Hindu philosophy regarding
emotions and moral reason, with each new layer reflecting a different
perspective about the role that emotions should play in ethics and moral
I will contend that the "original" Gitd allows moral judgments to be
grounded in the visceral aspect of emotions. Krishna actually endorses
Arjuna's passions in the original verses of the Gitd and, in the final
version, he stirs Arjuna's passions again in the great theophanic Hymn
added as the eleventh chapter. The second author(s) added Samkhya and
Yogic philosophy to the epic. Thus, this second layer portrays Krishna's
counsel as didactic, teaching Arjuna the value of dispassion and detach-
ment as the only appropriate guide for moral decisions. For the third
author or authors, editing the bhakti layer, emotions are re-admitted
into the ideal moral life, albeit, passion is now to be directed toward de-
ity (Krishna). That is to say, affect with the proper corresponding object is
esteemed once again for right moral reason in this later historical period.
Analyzed in this way, the variance in emotional theory and the relation

5 Jezic's analysis is based on what he calls "continuity replications" and "duplication

replications" which evidence sequencing changes and insertions in the text.

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of emotions to right moral reason in the Gita can be more adequately

evaluated and reflected upon.

4. Analysis of Emotions and Moral Reason

in the Layers of the Gitd
Bilimoria rightly argues that the Gitd is an excellent example of the
inter-relationship of ethical discourse and the social construction of emo-
tions (Bilimoria 2004). Arjuna's dilemma concerns the appropriate emo-
tions, and the appropriate response to those emotions, of the ideal man
(specifically, the ideal warrior). How should the virtuous man reason
given his emotions? In various periods, philosophers and theologians
have advocated the "proper" balance of reason and emotions as well as
the right "kinds" of reason and emotions. I will describe how the author(s)
of each layer of the Gitd also explicated a different kind of reasoning
about emotions in answer to Arjuna's dilemma.

4.1 The "original" layer - emotions, ethics, and personal well-being

In the layer that is thought to constitute the original verses of the
Mahdbhdrata and its first elaborations, Arjuna relies on his physiolog-
ical affects to determine right and wrong. In this period of the original
Gitd, the ancients apparently viewed emotions as somatic phenomena
with real value in making moral judgments. The locus of concern was
the respect for life as evidenced by Arjuna's felt compassion for other
humans, but the ultimate goal seems to be the emotional, social, and
physical well-being of the individual.
The author informs us that Arjuna is "dejected, filled with strange
pity" (Bhagavad Gitd 1.28). Faced with the real fear and dread of killing
his kinsmen, Arjuna's reference for ethical judgment is his own tor-
mented body:

My limbs sink,
my mouth is parched,
my body trembles,
the hair bristles on my flesh.
The magic bow slips
from my hand, my skin burns,
I cannot stand still,
my mind reels.
I see omens of chaos,
Krishna; / see no good . . . [Bhagavad Gita 1.29-31b; my emphasis].

Arjuna has consulted his emotions and found the answer to his moral
dilemma; his trembling body and sinking heart cannot lie: there is no

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good in this battle. Arjuna asks how he can ever be happy if he kills his
own cousins, for "honor forbids" it {Bhagavad Gita 1.37). The emotions
of Arjuna portrayed in the original verses are so powerful that he begins
to weep (Bhagavad Gita 2.1). The warrior has evaluated his situation
according to his physiological affects and made his moral decision: he
refuses to fight (Bhagavad Gita 2.9).
Krishna's counsel in the original Gita passages is quite different from
his advice in the later layers, however. Krishna actually appeals to Ar-
juna's emotions, deliberately stirring a different set of fears. Krishna
warns of the greater terror of dejection and shame:

People will tell

of your undying shame,
and for a man of honor
shame is worse than death.
The great chariot warriors will think
you deserted in fear of battle;
you will be despised
by those who held you in esteem.
Your enemies will slander you,
scorning your skill
in so many unspeakable ways -
could any suffering be worse? . . .
Arjuna, stand up
and resolve to fight the battle! [Bhagavad Gita 2.34-37].

In these passages we learn that the ideal man is a man of honor who
has the emotional courage and fortitude for battle. War is the glory of the
warrior. Shame is worse than pity or death. Even Krishna has appealed
to Arjuna's deepest affects to justify the war that Arjuna must fight,
thus implicitly endorsing emotions as a proper locus of moral evalua-
tions. Clearly, as Bilimoria also notes, "It appears that the Mahdbhdrata's
'Great Song' is open to alternative perspectives to the stark ascetic or sto-
ical tendencies of the ancients" (Bilimoria 2004, 221).

4.2 Sdmkhya/Yoga layer - emotional balance and the social order

The second layer of the Gita is the Samkhya/Yoga layer. While
Samkhya is primarily concerned with ontology, yoga is a complementary
system of mental discipline and self-control (Flood 1996, 235). Samkhya
is the oldest Hindu philosophical system and references a dualistic cos-
mology in which nature consists of pure consciousness, which is the real
self (purusha), and matter (prakriti). According to Samkhya philosophy,
prakriti is further divided into the three mental "modes," qualities, or
gunas, evident in certain teachings of the epic (Bilimoria, 1995). The

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Samkhya system supports the discipline of yoga, an ascetic tradition that

asserts that one must gain control of consciousness (which presumes con-
trol of the emotions) with the goal of overcoming the dualism in nature.
The goal of the yogi is to attain a union with the self s true identity, pu-
rusha. In fact, the term yoga means to "yoke" Or to "unite" (Flood 1996,
According to Bilimoria, the emotions for the yogi are viewed as af-
flictions (klesas), intellectual disorders that are unfavorably linked to
karma. These afflictions are attributable to attachments (manifest as
pleasurable emotions), aversions (manifest as negative emotions), or to
desire, which is the actual source of attachments and aversions. In the
third chapter, attributed to this second layer, Krishna specifically coun-
sels Arjuna, "Great Warrior, kill the enemy menacing you in the form of
desire!" (Bhagavad Gita 3.43b).
We see then, in the second layer, that Krishna's counsel changes sig-
nificantly. Emotions are no longer useful for moral judgment. "Time and
again Krishna's sermon underscores the negative aspects of emotions
such as anger, fear, passion, and egotism rooted in desire" (Bilimoria
2004, 225). Krishna now counsels in accordance with the Samkhya/Yogic
philosophy; uncontrolled emotion is the path to ruin. This advice could
not be stated more clearly than it is in verses 2.62-63 of the second
redacted layer of the Gita:

Brooding about sensuous objects

makes attachment to them grow;
from attachment desire arises,
from desire anger is born.
From anger comes confusion;
from confusion memory lapses;
from broken memory understanding is lost;
from loss of understanding, he is ruined [Bhagavad Gita 2.62-63].

In the Samkhya/Yoga layer of the Gita, Arjuna now states that emo-
tions of pity, grief, and conflict cloud his reason (Bhagavad Gita 2.7).
Without regard for emotional theory or the social construction of emo-
tions across time and culture, we can appreciate the universality of
Arjuna's emotional state as he stands, bow in hand, on the battle-
field, about to slaughter his uncles and cousins. Krishna agrees but
further counsels Arjuna that matter is temporary; therefore, emotional
assessments are based on transitory conditions and must be forsaken
(Bhagavad Gita 2.14-15).
According to Krishna's counsel (and Yogic discipline), passion, desire,
anger, and all dark emotions are forceful, overcoming evils that obscure
knowledge and create a cloud of confusion. It is these deceptions that
overtake men, causing them to do evil. The real enemies are desire and

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these dark passions. Krishna's counsel to Arjuna, in the second layer of

the Gitd, is to restrain the senses and kill the evil (desire) that ruins
knowledge and right judgment (Bhagavad Gitd 3.37-43). The ideal man
in the Samkhya/Yoga layer of the Gitd is not the man of personal pride
and honor but, rather, the disciplined man:

The higher self of a tranquil man

whose self is mastered
is perfectly poised in cold or heat,
joy or suffering, honor or contempt.
Self-controlled in a knowledge and judgment
his senses subdued, on the summit of existence,
impartial to clay stone, or gold,
the man of discipline is disciplined.
He is set apart by his disinterest
toward comrades, allies, enemies,
neutrals, nonpartisans, foes, friends,
good and even evil men.
A man of discipline should always
discipline himself, remain in seclusion,
isolated, his thought and self well controlled,
without possessions or hope [Bhagavad Gitd 6.7-10].

The Samkhya/Yoga view is similar (but not identical) to that of Aristo-

tle's philosophical assertion that emotions can and should be cultivated
(Gupta 2006; Bilimoria 2004). Bilimoria sums up the Yogic philosophy
of emotions and ethical behavior succinctly. He writes, "If one could cul-
tivate the alternative emotion of detachment (asakti [Bhagavad Gitd
3.25]), freeing oneself from the temptations of kdma and also anger, then
one would achieve a state of reasonable intelligence . . . and in this reso-
lute state determine the best course of action" (Bilimoria 2004, 225).
In this later Samkhya/Yoga period, emotions were to be cultivated and
trained to function in tandem with the higher capacities of reason and
cognition. The highest goal was to perform one's duty in recognition of
the social and cosmic hierarchy. If the demands of the community and
natural order were at odds with the uncontrolled emotional state of the
individual, nothing but confusion and disorder would result. The ideal
warrior must master his unbalanced emotions by cultivating an indif-
ference to opposite pairs of pleasure or pain, joy or sorrow. As Gupta
has adeptly described, "samatvam is the all-embracing master or the
executive virtue. . . . Samatvam in the Gitd means inner poise, balanced
indifference, equality, sameness, and equanimity" (Gupta 2006, 387). In
fact, although this view is expressed in terms of the dualistic nature of
reality and balances in mental modes, the original Upanishadic exam-
ple was that of the driver, horse, and chariot. "The self (dtman) is the
controller of the chariot, the body the chariot itself, and the senses are

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the horses. As a charioteer controls the horses of the chariot, so the self
should control the senses through keeping them restrained" (Flood 1996,
What, then, is the ethical judgment and reply to Arjuna's dilemma
in this Samkhya/Yogic system of emotional control? Duty (dharma) has
social significance and therefore must be performed, and performed with-
out either attachment to the world or regard for the fruit of action.
Now the warrior is free to reason correctly. Knowing the relationship
between what is real (purusha), and therefore right (dharma), "reduces
action (karma) to ashes" (Bhagavad Gitd 4.37). In other words, no nega-
tive karma accrues for action without desire. Moreover, Krishna advises
Arjuna that the real self (purusha) neither acts nor dies, for purusha is
indestructible. Therefore, killing does not eradicate purusha, killing on
the battlefield merely changes the form (of prakriti) and is not wrong
(Bhagavad Gitd 2.16-30).
While Samkhya is an atheistic philosophical system, the yoga sys-
tem permits the idea of God (Flood 1996, 235). This admission of de-
ity is an important concept for the author(s) of the Gitd inasmuch as
the teacher and charioteer, Krishna, will later be identified as the great
Lord Krishna. Therefore, the teachings of the Samkhya/Yoga layer do not
preclude the bhakti perspective that will be added in the next redacted

4.3 Bhakti layer and the Great Hymn - ethics and devotion to deity
The bhakti devotional movement views the body as the locus of the
divine in the world in contrast to the Samkhya philosophy of the body
as the prison of the real self. Thus, in this third and final layer, certain
bodily sensations, which are emotions, are re-introduced as having value
for moral decisions. Moreover, the bhakti movement also emphasizes the
proper object of affect, that is, the embodied Krishna.6 In the bhakti layer
of the Gitd, the ideal man is the one devoted to Krishna. We learn that it
is possible to come to Krishna through discipline and control, but faster
and easier through devotion (Bhagavad Gitd 12.2-8). Moral decisions
are to be grounded in devotion to the will and purposes of Lord Krishna:

Acting only for me, intent on me,

free from attachment,
hostile to no creature, Arjuna,
a man of devotion comes to me [Bhagavad Gitd 11.55].

. . . performing actions for my sake,

you will achieve success [Bhagavad Gitd 12.10].

6 Bhakti (devotion) is also extended to other Hindu deities, for example, Vishnu, Siva,
or Devi.

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The emotion of devotion to God is sanctioned by the authors of the

bhakti layer and the purposes of Krishna reflect the larger cosmic order.
Thus, through obedience to the God, Krishna, Arjuna affirms the notions
of purity and pollution, the dharmic order, and the Hindu way of life.
"[Devotion to Krishna] engenders firmness (dhriti) in the mind, thus
returning one, integrated in mind and body, to the field of dharma or the
ethical life-world" (Bilimoria 2004, 227).
The ideal man is not the man of honor (who searches his emotions for
ethical decisions), nor the man of discipline (who controls his emotions
with even detachment). In the final layer of the Gitd, the ideal man is
the devotee, whose positive emotions are revitalized, whose reasoning is
clear, and whose decision is to obey his Lord:

Even more dear to me are devotees

who cherish this elixir of sacred duty
as I have taught it [Bhagavad Gitd 12.20].

Thinking and living deep in me,

they enlighten one another
by constantly telling of me
for their own joy and delight.
To men of enduring discipline,
devoted to me with affection,
I give the discipline of understanding by which they come to me.
Dwelling compassionately, deep in the self,
I dispel darkness born of ignorance
with the radiant light of knowledge [Bhagavad Gitd 10.9-11].

Finally, Jezic has argued that the theophanic Hymn of the eleventh
chapter was composed separately from either the original Gitd or the
later additions. In this Great Hymn, the charioteer is fully revealed as
the great God, Krishna, in a vision that transcends time, space, and the
imagination. Arjuna is overwhelmed with awe, an emotional response to
the perception of the vastness and power of God, stretching his joy into
ecstasy and placing his emotions at the outer boundaries of fear.
If we now consider the emotional response endorsed in the verses of the
Great Hymn, we can observe that the author has very few, if any, refer-
ences to the controlled, detached emotions of Samkhya/Yoga philosophy.
Furthermore, the author's emotional expressions toward Krishna are not
merely those of the longing or adoration of the bhakta that are exempli-
fied in the recitation of names and attributes in chapter ten. Instead,
although the author of the Hymn has relocated the locus of emotions in
the body (as in the bhakti layer), the author promotes not only the love
of God, but also the fear of God. With the deity Krishna as the object of
his emotional state, he writes:

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. . . the worlds tremble

and so do I [Bhagavad Gitd 11.23].

. . . my inner self quakes

and I find no resolve
or tranquility.
Seeing the fangs
from your mouths
like the fires of time,
I lose my bearings
and I find no refuge;
be gracious, Lord of Gods,
Shelter of the Universe [Bhagavad Gitd 11.24-25].

... I am thrilled
and yet my mind
trembles in fear [Bhagavad Gitd 11.45].

We cannot know whether this stunning tribute to the power of Krishna

was added to encourage emotional expression or to magnify Krishna in
the hearts and minds of the reader. Nevertheless, it seems likely from
the emotional theory implicitly expressed in the Great Hymn that Jezic's
hypothesis is re-affirmed. The valorization of physiological affect along
with the emphasis on the emotions of fear and awe, over and above love
and devotion, provide further evidence that the Hymn was probably com-
posed by one or more authors apart from the other chapters of the Gitd.
Presumably, the ethical response to such a glorious and fearful vision
is not moral reasoning as such but, rather, obedience to the will of the

5. Psychological Theory of Emotions and Moral

Reasoning in the Gitd
The final redacted text of the Bhagavad Gitd provides a synthesis
of three distinct, but perhaps comprehensive, theories of emotions and
moral reason. Richard Shweder et al. (1997) have provided a useful model
for interpreting the differences in emotional and moral judgment evi-
denced in the layers of the Gitd. In a study that originally explored folk
theories of the causes of suffering, he and his research team later de-
veloped and empirically tested a model of three separate, but related,
codes of ethics in contemporary Indian culture. Previous cross-cultural
analyses had shown that people attribute illness to one of three causes:
one's own moral transgressions, external interpersonal causes such as
victimization at the hands of another, or cosmic causes outside the realm

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The Social Construction of Emotions in the Bhagavad Gita 673

of human intentionality. Shweder et al. then analyzed the moral judg-

ments of residents of Orissa, India, mapping the "big three" explanations
of causality onto a triadic framework of possible moral codes. The eth-
ical discourse of contemporary Hindus revealed three groups of moral
themes that Shweder et al. identify as the Ethic of Autonomy, the Ethic
of Community, and the Ethic of Divinity (or Cosmic Order). These three
moral codes are not limited to the Indian experience, and have been sub-
sequently identified, to varying degrees, in many different cultures with
particular clusters of emotions correlated with each moral code (Rozin
et al. 1999).
The first cluster of types of moral reasoning is focused on individual
concerns such as personal rights, justice, well-being, and the right to
non-injury. In this Ethic of Autonomy, moral regulation increases indi-
vidual choices and opportunities for a personally satisfying life. Rozin
et al. (1999) correlate the emotions of shame, embarrassment, and guilt
with the Ethic of Autonomy. In the "original" verses of the Gitd, Krishna
advises Arjuna to reason that his reputation is at stake; Arjuna will suf-
fer shame if he fails to act courageously. In short, the ultimate goal of the
first layer of the Gitd is personal well-being and the author(s) promote
what Shweder, Rozin, and others would call the Ethic of Autonomy. While
the self is admittedly always construed in relation to others, the locus
of attention and the basis for moral reason in the Ethic of Autonomy is
reduced to affect, how one feels about the situation. As Nicolas Epley and
Eugene M. Caruso (2004) have argued, egocentric ethics is determined by
the emotions, and moral reasoners feel certain that self-interested out-
comes are morally justifiable. For Arjuna, Krishna is a man like himself,
simply the charioteer, advocating the avoidance of shame as culturally
acceptable and his feelings as providing sufficient justification for moral
In the second cluster of moral concerns, the Ethic of Community, moral
obligation is viewed as a duty to uphold the social order. From this view,
the objective of ethical behavior is social cohesion and support of the
group rather than one's self interest. Thus one's personal desires and
affects are set aside; performance of duty is the goal inasmuch as duty
allows for the greater good of the whole. Violations of the Ethic of Com-
munity are interpreted as detrimental to the group and, therefore, elicit
the corrective emotion of contempt from others. In a later century, this
second layer was apparently constructed and added to the original text
to promote the new discipline and philosophies of the Samkhya/Yoga
tradition in which the maintenance of the social order was (and still is)
paramount. In this second layer, Krishna is the great teacher who urges
reason for controlling passions. Arjuna is from the warrior caste, a man
who must control his passion and fight in order to uphold the social

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Finally, Shweder et al.'s Ethic of Divinity describes a moral code fo-

cused on the cosmic order. Moral reason in the Ethic of Divinity is
grounded in notions of a higher order of right and wrong (for exam-
ple, matters of purity and pollution or, in the Euro-American tradition,
sanctity and sin). I would enlarge the scope of the Ethic of Divinity as
proposed by Shweder et al. and suggest that the concern of the theist is
not limited to the cosmic order and the idea of a "god within" as Shweder
et al. describe. The ultimate goal ofbhakti is an emotionally expressive,
devotional relationship with an other-than-human person, that is, the
deity Krishna. Thus, moral judgments within the Ethic of Divinity must
include subservience to the commands and purposes of the deity as well
as concern for the cosmic order.
In this final layer, Krishna is revealed as deity in all his glory to a trem-
bling Arjuna. As psychologists Keltner and Haidt (2003) have rightly ar-
gued, the emotion most closely associated with the perception of divinity
is awe. In contrast with the negatively valanced emotions of fear and
shame endorsed in the original layers of the Gitd, awe is characterized
by feelings of fear coupled with ecstatic devotion, as well as an inabil-
ity to assimilate the perceived vastness of the divine into the cognitive
structure. Although the emotion of awe includes concerns for one's own
safety and lower status relative to the deity, the locus of attention is the
vastness and power of the other, Krishna. The terrifying is coupled with
enlightenment. The authors of the Gitd stress that passion for God will
ultimately yield knowledge and right reason. The battle is to be fought
with devotion to and awe of Krishna, mindful of his cosmic plan and
Although scholars have attributed the first verses of the closing
chapter to the Yogic authors, a closing sloka brings the three perspec-
tives on emotions and moral reason into balance. With these telling
words, Krishna counsels Arjuna to weigh the arguments presented and
to use his better judgment: "Having reflected on this [my counsel]
all its ramifications, do as you desire" {Bhagavad Gitd 18.63; my em
phasis). When overcome by emotions, one may choose, through reason,
from one of the three moral codes, in accordance with one's ultima
Discourses on emotions serve to define appropriate norms and val-
ues, perpetuate cultural ideologies and power structures, and provide
scripts for the proper experience of emotions (Lutz 1988; Keltner and
Haidt 1999). The Bhagavad Gitd is an example of a scriptural text that
addresses each of the three possible human goals: personal well-being,
community order, and cosmic order (which includes, in the text of the
Gitd, divine will). By describing Arjuna's quasi-historical emotional and
moral dilemma, the different authors were able to construct and endorse
three distinct emotional and moral philosophies that could be deliberated
in advance of being overcome by one's own sweeping emotional state.

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The Social Construction of Emotions in the Bhagavad Gita 675

Thus, in one redacted text, compiled across the centuries, the Hindu au-
thors are able to offer meaningful moral reasoning for soma, psyche, and
spirit in any era.

6. Conclusion

Emotion is not simply a "feeling," although the complex of emotions

includes physiological affects. Emotion is also characterized by pre-
conscious appraisals of good and bad, a particular locus of attention such
as the self or others, subsequent cognitive evaluations, and a readiness o
willingness toward a particular action. Emotions are often precursors to
both moral judgments of right action and to reasoned appraisals of how
to respond emotionally. Both Western and South Asian philosophers
theologians, and intellectuals have influenced their respective cultur
by constructing theories of emotions and authorizing various attitudes
about emotions over time. I have shown that one text illustrating the s
cial construction of emotional and moral philosophy, as it was composed
and redacted over centuries, is the revered Hindu text, the Bhagavad
I have described the redacted layers that certain scholars have iden-
tified in the Gitd. Then, referring to the three prominent layers and the
inserted theophanic Hymn of chapter eleven, I have argued that there
are at least three different views proffered by the authors in each of the
different layers regarding the regulation of emotions and the appropri-
ate role of emotions in moral reasoning. The three layers correspond on a
one-to-one basis with three possible moral codes as proposed by cultural
psychologist Richard Shweder and his colleagues.
The author(s) of the original verses of the Gitd find that physiologi-
cal affects such as shame and a concern for personal well-being do have
value in making moral judgments, corresponding with Shweder et al.'s
Ethic of Autonomy. However, the author(s) of the next layer in the Gitd
were concerned with presenting the arguments of Samkhya and Yoga
philosophies that teach the necessity for emotional balance and detach-
ment. In this second redacted layer, illustrating the Ethic of Community,
emotions were to be cultivated and subordinated to knowledge and right
action with an ultimate concern for social order. The third layer evidences
Shweder et al.'s Ethic of Divinity and the reaffirmation of emotionality
but only as devotion and joy (or as wonder and awe) expressed toward
the deity, Krishna. The result of such emotions were to lead the devotee
to obedience of Krishna's divine will. Ultimately, Krishna grants Arjuna
the right to choose best, with due consideration of what sort of man he
wants to be. As Bina Gupta rightly asserts, "the dharma-imperatives in
the Gita are hypothetical imperatives; they assume the conditional form,
If you wish to achieve X, then you should do Y,' rather than the simple
declaration, 'you ought to do Y'" (Gupta 2006, 382).

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Everyone has experienced stirring moral dilemmas such as the one

Arjuna faced in the Bhagavad Gitd. Today, we might ask how a nation
should respond to acts of terrorism. Should a widow's only son be sent to
war? Should she burn on her husband's funeral pyre? Should my daugh-
ter have an abortion? Should she marry for love, or for status? Should I
spank my errant child? How many children should a woman on welfare
have? Should I forgive the Holocaust? Should I forgive my enemy? Does
depression justify suicide? Chances are, the reader will "feel" strongly
about one or more of these contemporary moral dilemmas. We all must
ask ourselves, as Arjuna did: should I act in accordance with my emo-
tions, or set aside my feelings doing what is best for others, or is there a
higher authority (for example, deity) that I must look to for the answer?
Philosophers, theologians, intellectuals, and constituents of every cul-
ture, in every age, have debated about the role that emotions ought to
play in moral reasoning and, quite commonly, the messages within a
culture are mixed. In American popular culture answers have ranged
from "look out for 'Number One'" to "follow the Golden Rule" to "obey
the Ten Commandments." Western philosophers have variously cham-
pioned the notions that passions should play an important role (for ex-
ample, Hume [1711-1776]), that the good of the many should decide
right moral judgment (for example, Mill [1806-1873]), that reason should
override self-interested passion (for example, Kant [1724-1804]), or that
God's commands should determine right action.7 The present analysis of
the Bhagavad Gitd reminds us that ancient and/or religious texts, too,
are compilations of the counsel of various authors, each having differ-
ent concerns and endorsing different emotional and moral philosophies,
sometimes across the millennia.
Religious texts and cultural narratives are powerful influences on both
emotional and moral reasoning. In the Bhagavad Gitd, Krishna instructs
Arjuna that the moral reasoner should be mindful of three possible goals:
personal and emotional well-being, the good of others without regard for
personal affect, and devotion and obedience to the will of the divine. What
is a person to do when he is faced with an emotionally charged moral
dilemma? According to Krishna and the final redactors of the Bhagavad
Gitd, the wise person will act only after considering the full counsel of
the divine (Bhagavad Gitd 18.63).8


Altieri, Charles
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