The Bhagavad Gita and One Thousand and One Nights are two of the most important works of Eastern literature and philosophy; not only do they tell fascinating stories full of intrigue and entertainment, they also provide a degree of enlightenment and insight that is completely unlike anything seen in Western literature. Both stories handle the idea of storytelling and character, as well as plot structure, in extremely innovative ways, showcasing the ways in which unorthodox ways to tell stories can help to convey large ideas of faith, virtue and the universe. While the Bhagavad Gita relies centrally on one conversation between two people, One Thousand and One Nights takes the act of story-telling itself and uses it to span entire eras and swaths of the world.
The Bhagavad Gita is, at its core, a treatise on the ideas of reincarnation, yoga, moksha and others, all told through a single conversation between the lord Krishna and Arjuna. Instead of being a framing narrative, like in One Thousand and One Nights, the conversations between Arjuna and Krishna form the primary narrative. Krisha speaks the most, as he mostly discusses the ideas of Hindu philosophy and the rules of society as Arjuna must obey them, being a prince and a warrior. Krishna’s advice to Arjuna is meant to be read almost as a self-help tome for the reader, instructing them as well as Arjuna on the best way to live according to Hinduism. The epic-poem form of the Bhagavad Gita allows it to cover a wide range of issues, all in the form of Krishna’s advising of the young prince. By being so directly concerned with Hindu values, it acts as a clear and detailed representation of its Indian setting and genre. The use of the Gita as a means to advocate for these specific ideas of enlightenment make it a much more overt polemic than One Thousand and One Nights, which tells a series of moralistic fables that all have slightly different meanings, instead of the singular purpose of the Gita.
The plot of the Bhagavad Gita echoes the spiritual importance and cultural context of the words Krishna uses; the setting is the eve of a great battle, which mirrors the conflict between good and evil that karma and yoga (amongst other Hindu values) exemplify. Unlike One Thousand and One Nights, in which the stories being told are fictional and the ‘reality’ of the framing narrative is largely grounded, the Gita depicts a god being incarnated into a man (Krishna) in order to teach another man the nature of the universe, lending it a supernatural element that is not as overtly present in Nights. Krisha’s words are lent an authority in the Gita due to his supernatural, godlike nature, making it more imperative for the reader to take this advice to heart. Krisha’s conversation with Arjuna mirrors the unity of man and spirit that is advocated in the poem, as the world is determined by the actions of men and their consequences. This lends a singularity of purpose to the Gita that is not found in the myriad tales of One Thousand and One Nights.
Comparing the Bhagavad Gita to One Thousand and One Nights, many differences can be found, most notably in format and plot. Unlike the Gita, where the story focuses almost exclusively on the conversation between two people as a means to impart spiritual advice to the reader, Nights is a series of short stories and fables connected by the framing device of a capricious king being told interesting stories in order to stave off the execution of a woman he had just slept with.
One of the biggest similarities between the two stories is the presentation of the main character – both Arjuna and Shahrayar are violent people whose experiences over the course of the story make them less inclined to violence. At the beginning of the Gita, Arjuna is set to go to war, only to be stopped by Krishna over the course of their conversations about the nature of the universe. Shahrayar, meanwhile, is a violent ruler who is jealous and possessive, being driven to murder and misogyny because of his belief that women will inevitably become unfaithful to him. Both protagonists have very masculine, violent character flaws that are repaired or addressed by the actions and storytelling of another party over the course of the story. To that end, One Thousand and One Nights reveals the setting of Arab culture as having a substantially more violent and misogynistic attitude to it, which women like Shahrayar need to address. On the other hand, Krishna in the Gita seeks to actually talk Arjuna into having the courage to fulfill his duties as a warrior and kill, as he is having second thoughts; one text advocates for violence as a means of acting out one’s duties, while the other uses trickery to stave off unnecessary and senseless violence.
Shahrazad is the ‘Krishna’ of One Thousand and One Nights, in that she is the other party to the conversation (not counting her sister Dinarzad, who watches and listens to the story as well but largely without comment). Like Krishna, she provides the lion’s share of the exposition and dialogue, as she is the one telling these stories within stories within stories. Her goal is to keep herself alive and also impart lessons in story form; Krishna, meanwhile, is teaching direct lessons to Arjuna in the form of direct dialogue. To that end, both works seek to be educational and instructive, but do so in different ways; Krisha through direct poetic teachings, and Shahrazad through fables and parables.
One thing that sets One Thousand and One Nights apart dramatically from the Gita is its use of creative narrative structure and episodic stories. In addition to the frame story of Shahrazad telling these stories to Shahrayar to stave off execution, the stories themselves are uniquely told. Stories will often be told within stories, as characters within a story Shahrazad tells will themselves tell a story, held within the narrative itself. This happens particularly clearly in “Sinbad the Sailor,” as Sinbad tells the porter Sinbad about his seven voyages. Most of Nights’ stories are incredibly descriptive, creating lifelike or incredibly detailed visualizations of the characters, objects and drama that occurs within each story, creating engrossing works that draw the reader into each individual story. Foreshadowing is often a thematic element in the stories, like in “The Three Apples,” when the apple with the Caliph’s name, found earlier in the story, is brought up at the end just in time to prevent Ja’far from being killed.
Another element that the two works have in common is their overall themes of fate and destiny. Arjuna in the Gita is destined to fight and kill, as per his responsibilities as a warrior hero and the concepts of dharma. Meanwhile, the stories of One Thousand and One Nights often feature characters getting their comeuppance for injustices they have committed, with foreshadowing and prophecy often being the harbinger of their doom. While the Gita overtly discusses ideas of fate through karma and the cyclic nature of the universe, the stories in One Thousand and One Nights also deal with characters meeting their fates due to coincidence, self-fulfilling prophecies and people experiencing poetic justice. While not overtly mentioning elements of Hinduism as a central part of Nights’ narrative, these recurring types of resolutions also seem to indicate a close relationship with similar elements of Hinduism.
There are many things that tie One Thousand and One Nights with the Bhagavad Gita as texts that are clear indicators of the culture and priorities of the East. Namely, both feature a similar structure by ultimately being about the grandeur inherent in a conversation between two people, as well as having recurring themes of fate, destiny and virtue. However, whereas the Gita features a conversation between a god and a violent prince about the tenets of Hinduism and how they should be followed, One Thousand and One Nights is much more global in character and widespread in its reach, with varying stories of different genres and entertainment values. The Gita demonstrates the more spiritual, transcendent priorities of the Hindu religion, allowing earthly violence as long as it fulfills greater karmic duties, while One Thousand and One Nights takes a very critical approach to ancient Arab culture, especially its misogyny and warlike nature. Despite the different approaches they take to similar themes, both works prove to be worthwhile reads in understanding the history and interests of Indian and Arab cultures.
The Bhagavad Gita. Atma Jyoti Ashram. Retrieved from http://www.atmajyoti.org/gi_bhagavad_gita_intro.asp.
One Thousand and One Nights.