Sun Analogies in the Bhagavad-Gita and Plato’s Republic
Given its prominence in the sky and its ability to provide humankind with warmth and sustenance through agriculture, it is little wonder that the Sun has played such an important role in literature through the centuries. To this end, this paper examine the various sun analogies that occur in both the Bhagavad-Gita and the Republic to identify what the Sun represents in each case, what can be learned regarded the role of knowledge and its implications for good conduct, followed by a discussion of whether this type of knowledge serves to illume humankind’s understanding in each of these instances. A summary of the research will be provided in the conclusion.
Review and Discussion
Examination of Sun Analogies in the Bhagavad-Gita. In this ancient work, the Sun occupies a predominant role as a life-giving force that can be compared to the Eternal Being (or “Brahm”: “Just as one sun illuminates the entire world; similarly, Eternal Being (Brahm) illumines (or gives life to) the entire creation, O Arjun (13:13)” (Prasad 2). Comparable to the Prasad translation is W.J. Johnson’s: “Just as the one sun lights up this entire world, so, Bharata, the owner of the field lights the entire field (13:33)” (Johnson 59). In both of these instances, the sun is the most important of the celestial bodies, just as Brahm is the highest manifestation of this essence.
In fact, in Johnson’s translation and analysis of the Bhagavad-Gita (1994), the translated sun analogies make it clear that this celestial body is the “Cadillac” of ancient comparisons, representing the zenith of what is the best and most pure in the universe. For example, “But for those whose ignorance of the self has been destroyed by knowledge, their knowledge is like the sun, flooding the highest reality with light (5:16)” (Johnson 23). Likewise, even the Almighty resorts to employing a sun analogy in a personal reference to make it clear that both are supreme in their respective realms: “The Lord said: Son of Kunti, I am taste in the waters, light in the moon and sun, the sacred syllable in all the Vedas, sound in the air, manhood in men (7:8)” (Johnson 33). In Chapter 10, the superlatives continue in the sun analogies with the Lord saying: “Of the Adityas * I am Vishnu, of lights the radiant sun, of the Maruts * I am their leader Marichi, of heavenly bodies I am the moon” (10:21) (Johnson 46).
Examination of Sun Analogies in Plato’s Republic. According to Daryl H. Rice (1998):
Socrates uses an analogy of the sun to ask his readers to “think of the sun, the light of which provides the energy that causes all other things to grow as well as the means by which we can see them” (79). In this regard, Rice points out that Plato has Socrates maintaining that the form of the good is just like the sun. “All other things,” he says, “including ourselves, exist because of the form of the good, and we can know these other things — which include triangles and triangularity, chairs and chairness, justice and the form justice, as well as the form of the good itself — only because of its ‘light'” (Rice 79).
In the allegory of the cave in Book VII (514a-521c), the point is also made that the vast majority of people are not able to tell reality from the shadowy images being projected on the walls in front of them; these people are chained to these images because they are unable to see the truth (the sunlight) for themselves, and they are most reluctant to believe anyone who tells them differently than what they ardently believe. According to Rice:
Philosophers who achieve knowledge of the form of the good are like prisoners who have broken their chains and made their way up and out of the cave into the sunlight. There they see just how far removed from reality they previously were. In the cave, they knew only shadows of what were only copies of ordinary objects; in the light of the sun they are able to see the objects themselves and finally the sun itself, which gives being to all else. (79)
While Plato’s forms may be difficult to conceptualize, these remains the perfect embodiment of what these objects represent, and for humankind, the attainment of light out of the dark represents the freeing of the soul and imagination. For example, Rice notes that “Plato treats the form of the good, then, as a final and highest reality upon which all other things are dependent. It is a sort of cause of all causes; without knowledge of goodness our knowledge of other things is uncertain” (Rice 80).
What Can Be Learned from These Analogies?
At first blush, the sun analogies in the Bhagavad-Gita appear to be irrelevant to modern people, particularly in view of its unfamiliarity with many Western readers. It would be a mistake, though, to overlook just how similar many of these analogies are to contemporary thoughts about the world in general and religion in particular. Despite the apparent trend that is taking place in Europe and to some extent in the United States concerning people abandoning their religion, many people around the world continue to believe in a supreme being that created the world and everything in it. When these people think about their deities and their relationship with them, there is a virtually universal tendency to make these same sorts of assertions concerning the preeminence of their respective god compared to those of other religions.
This same process has been taking place throughout history, of course, but there are some important differences today. The ancient people of India and Asia did not have the benefit of global communications and scientific inquiry; they did, however, have the same type of powerful faith in someone they could not see, and when they could not see it, they compared it to the most visible and predominant body in their world: the sun. Today, though, many people appear to be discounting the importance of religion and worshipping a god of their in their lives, but the search for truth, happiness and the best way to live one’s life still involve the same types of basic issues as they did when the Bhagavad-Gita was written.
The research showed that both the Bhagavad-Gita and Plato’s Republic contain important analogies to the sun that provide modern readers with a glimpse into how ancient peoples viewed the world around them. The Bhagavad-Gita was an attempt to explain how mankind came about and what forces were at play in the universe; likewise, Plato’s Republic was an attempt to provide mankind with specific definitions and descriptions of the nature of forms through a continuous search for knowledge. Therefore, these analogies also serve as a useful insight into how these ancient peoples gained understanding and learned how to live their lives to achieve happiness and fulfillment in a world full of mystery and danger; they also provide a framework in which people today can recognize the limitations imposed by a rigid way of thinking that precludes any new information or facts since these might contradict what is already believed. The search for knowledge is ancient, then, but is also a current imperative as well. In the final analysis, the sun analogies in these works are illustrative of what ancient mankind thought about the most preeminent celestial body and how they used it to describe and define the most important things in their lives.
Johnson, W.J., Transltr. The Bhagavad Gita. Oxford: Oxford University, 1994.
Prasad, Ramanada. (n.d.) Bhagavad-Gita. Online. Available: http://www.gita4free.com/english_completegita13.html.
Rice, Daryl H. A Guide to Plato’s Republic. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
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