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Dharma and Duty (lesson)

Krishna driving Arjuna's chariot

Krishna driving Arjuna's chariot, approx. 1750-1825.  India or Pakistan; Kashmir region. Opaque watercolors on paper. Gift of Margaret Polak, 1996.6.

Common Core Standards:
RL7.3:  Analyze how particular elements of a story or drama interact (e.g., how setting shapes the characters or plot).
W 6-7.2: Write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas, concepts, and information through the selection, organization, and analysis of relevant content.

Content Standards (California):
HSS 6.5.3: Explain the major beliefs and practices of Brahmanism in India and how they evolved into early Hinduism.

Dharma is a multilayered, complex concept and belief that does not have a direct English translation. Although difficult to fully explore in a single lesson, it is one of the main themes of the Bhagavad Gita, and as such must be discussed when considering this important Hindu text. This activity attempts to make dharma understandable for students unfamiliar with Hindu texts or beliefs. In doing so, we have simplified the explanations. Be aware that to Hindus and scholars of the Bhagavad Gita, this simplified explanation does not capture all the facets of dharma.

As you discuss the selected passages, it should be expected that students might jump to the conclusion that this sacred text advocates violence. However, the Bhagavad Gita was not intended to be a discourse on violence, nor should it be interpreted as such.

Mahatma Gandhi, one of history’s most respected and well-known advocates of nonviolence was deeply influenced by this text. In an article, he writes,

I do not believe that the Gita teaches violence for doing good. It is pre-eminently a description of the duel that goes on in our own hearts. The Divine author has used a historical incident for inculcating the lesson of doing one's duty even at the peril of one's life. It inculcates performance of duty irrespective of the consequences; for, we mortals, limited by our physical frames, are incapable of controlling actions save our own. The Gita distinguishes between the powers of light and darkness and demonstrates their incompatibility.
Young India, February 23, 1921

It should be noted that there is no singular interpretation for the meaning of the Bhagavad Gita. Even in India, the text is constantly being debated, studied, and reinterpreted by scholars, religious figures, and laypeople. We encourage you to discuss its impact on Hindu society and thought with your students.

The Krishna Legend; Krishna's Mature LifeReading Excerpts A-D; Image: Krishna Driving Arjuna's Chariot; 


  1.  Begin with a general discussion about religious texts. Ask students to identify religious texts they are familiar with. Many students may have heard of or studied texts such as the Bible, Torah, Koran, or the Tao Te Ching (Dao De Jing). Discuss with students:
    • What do these texts have in common?
    • Why are they important to the culture(s) that revere them?
    • Are these texts guides on how to live and/or behave?
    • As society and cultures change over time, do you think that interpretations of the meaning of these texts change as well? Why or why not?
  2. Introduce the Bhagavad Gita, one of the most important Hindu texts (see The Krishna Legend and Krishna's Mature Life).
  3. Show the image of Krishna and Arjuna on their chariot.
    • In this scene from the Mahabharata, Krishna accompanies Arjuna as he heads into battle against his brothers. Arjuna is reluctant to enter this battle because he knows he will be forced to fight against people he loves. This image portrays the discussion between Arjuna and Krishna, which would become the basis of the Bhagavad Gita.
      • Why would someone want a painting depicting this moment?
  4. Write the word dharma on the board. Ask students if they have ever heard of this word before. Please note that some students may have heard of dharma used in the Buddhist context. Although derived from the same term, the word takes on a different meaning in the Hindu context.
  5. Because there is no single word in the English language that would encompass the entire meaning of dharma, explain to students that we are focusing only on one aspect of dharma and how it relates to Arjuna’s obligation to “do his duty.”
    • Barbara Stoler Miller explains:
      Derived from a Sanskrit form meaning ‘that which sustains,’ within Hindu culture it (dharma) generally means religiously ordained duty, that is, the code of conduct appropriate to each group in the hierarchically ordered Hindu society.1
  6. Distribute Reading Excerpt B. This passage details Arjuna’s internal conflict. Discuss with students:
    • What is the dilemma that Arjuna is facing?
    • Who are his enemies in this battle?
    • Why does he not want to fight?
  7. Distribute Reading Excerpt C. In this passage, Krishna tells Arjuna that the soul can never be harmed by what happens to the physical body. Discuss with students:
    • What is the “self ” that Krishna refers to in this passage?
    • Can the “self ” be killed or harmed?
    • What happens to the “self ” if the body is killed?
  8. Distribute Reading Excerpt D. In this passage, Krishna explains dharma to Arjuna. Discuss with students:
    • According to Krishna, what is Arjuna’s dharma?
    • What are the consequences for Arjuna if he does not follow dharma?
    • Why are these serious consequences?
    • In the previous passage, Krishna spoke of the “self ” and how it does not die regardless of any harm that afflicts the physical body. How does this passage support Krishna’s urging Arjuna to fulfill his duty and fight?
  9. Writing assignment (two options):
    • Students write their own interpretation of the conversation between Arjuna and Krishna in modern language.
    • Students write their reactions to the passages they have read. What is their understanding of dharma?
  10. Possible discussion topics for upper grades:
    • Think about the duties that are expected of you.
    • What is your definition of duty?            
    • What is your duty as part of society?
    • What is your duty as a member of your family?
    • Do you have specific cultural duties that you must follow?
    • Is it difficult to fulfill your duty?

*Remember, in the context of the Bhagavad Gita, duty is more than a household chore. It is a behavior that society as a whole expects you to follow.

Written by Alina Collier.

Miller, Barbara Stoler, trans. The Bhagavad Gita: Krishna’s Counsel in Time of War. New York: Quality Paperback Book Club, 1998.