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Since the dawn of time, the best minds have been preoccupied with the peculiarities of human nature. It is impossible to find a single philosophy school or religious teaching that would not attempt to outline what constitutes the meaning of life and what a person is to do in order to become happy. One of the oldest literature masterpieces that dealt with the concept of respectful duty – pietas – was Aeneid by Virgil. The present essay will interpret the themes of belief, attachment, and desire in two books – Bhagavad Gita and The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon – through the lens of Aeneid.
Belief is defined as whether a religious conviction or acceptance and recognition that something is true, real, and existing, for instance, a divine entity or the good in people. In Aeneid, faith is one of the central themes as Virgil puts numerous sense of divine intervention (Nawall 930). Throughout his work, the gods do not stay indifferent nor impartial – on the contrary, they actively partake in the main characters’ lives by influencing the events and outcomes.
The phenomenon of absolute trust in gods is not unique to classic Roman literature. Interestingly enough, the cultures across the world whose emergence and development took place in another time period also gave birth to literary works that dealt with divine wisdom. Bhagavad Gita, a sacred Hindu book of songs, contains numerous verses addressing the concept of belief and how people should practice the faith.
For instance, in Bhagavad Gita, it is argued that the Vedas are eternal, and so is Krishna’s consciousness (Bhagavad Gita 78). Following Krishna’s injunctions takes absolute belief despite a possible inner protest or the feeling of hopelessness in the face of God’s law. Krishna says that without belief, human beings are bound to their earthly goals and fruitful actions. While it might be appraised while they are alive, in the grand scheme of things, it does not matter unless they obey the Divine law and break free from their karma. Moreover, when put in the context of Aeneid, cravings may appear to be not only harmful but also futile for the gods’ ability to overrule individual action and judgment.
Duty and desire are seen by many as two polar opposites. Aeneid introduces a complex concept of pietas – a selfless sense of duty and toward one’s obligations, be they religious, familial, or societal. As the main character – Aeneas – overcomes struggles, pietas which takes form in religious devotion and passionate patriotism, is pushed to the extreme. Led by the duty to serve, Aeneas does not fear death – something that contradicts the human instinct to survive and desire to continue leaving.
In Bhagavad Gita, human desires are seen as redundant and harmful. For instance, when Arjuna asks Krishna how he would describe an individual whose personality is stable, Krishna replies that inner peace is only attainable if one overcomes desire. It is reasoned that desire creates trouble in life, and an array of wants and wishes takes a person on a long trip of search and dissatisfaction where each new object of interest only amplifies suffering. “Dropping” desire, however, makes a person content and enlightened as little things stop distracting him or her from creating a greater vision and finding their path (Bhagavad Gita 96).
All in all, the two literary works clearly distinguish duty and desire even though the authors give the notions of different definitions. If in Aeneid, the duty to serve is directed to the outside world – for instance, winning a war the enemy wages against one’s homeland, Bhagavad Gita focuses on an individual’s inner work to overcome selfishness.
The most frequent word used by Virgil to describe Aeneas is pious, which means that the main character of the epic poem is so devoted that he puts obligations above his desires. Absolute commitment often means depriving oneself of things that one may love dearly – for instance, when Dido tempts Aeneas with love and passion, he still leaves her as he ought to. Thus, while following his calling, Aeneas cannot afford to be attached to anything.
An ancient Japanese masterpiece, The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon, puts the concept of attachment in an interesting perspective. The first reading might give an impression that the narrator focuses on everyday things such as religious ceremonies, insects, and the appearance of people around her (“The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon” 1143). However, as the plot unfolds, it is easy to notice that the woman is never truly attached to the small details.
Instead, she perceives their passing beauty without wishing to own them. Together, her observations constitute a concept in the Japanese philosophy called mono no aware or the Pathos of things – appreciation of impermanence. Comparing Aeneid and The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon, it is possible to see the difference between Western philosophy that is straightforward and black-and-white, and Eastern philosophy that focuses on contemplation and merging the incompatible.
There are concepts pertaining to the human character that permeate several fields – psychology, philosophy, and theology, and others, and among such phenomena are belief, desire, and attachment. One of the world’s most famous literary works – an epic poem by Virgil, Aeneid – puts each of the enlisted concepts in its own unique perspective. It is possible to trace the listed themes in other books belonging to different cultures.
While belief is mainly appraised in both Bhagavad Gita and Aeneid as it strengthens the will in the face of adversity, desire and attachment are often seen as distracting. The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon finds a middle ground between selfless contemplation and selfish possession as its narrator shows affection towards small things while accepting that they are not eternal and everything shall pass.
Bhagavad Gita. Path of Truth Leads To Salvation: The Essence of the Bhagavad Gita. Evincepub Publishing, 2018.
Newall, Sarah N. The Norton Anthology of World Literature. 4th ed., Vol. A Norton, 2003.
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The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon. Columbia University Press, 2018.