In both The Epic of Gilgamesh and The Bhagavad-Gita, the gods play a cent0ral role. The Mesopotamians of Gilgamesh see their gods as very human-like creatures, often with faults and whims like their own. On the other hand, the Hindus see more all-powerful, heavenly beings free from faults. This discrepancy in the perception of gods effects the power of their gods and also the longevity of the religion. The gods in The Epic of Gilgamesh behave like human beings, and therefore, limit their power. Ishtar, the goddess of love, sees Gilgamesh and falls in love with his beauty and longs for his body (35).
This passion and longing for sex is a very human and earthly characteristic. Gods of the modern world would never participate in these carnal pleasures. Later, Ishtar shows even more emotion. The king of Uruk has insulted me (37). She takes this feeling of dejection a step further by enacting revenge on Gilgamesh. One would think a goddess would be strong enough to do this of her own accord, but Ishtar cannot. In Mesopotamian mythology, no one god is all-powerful, Ishtar must ask Anu, her father, for permission.
The goddess said to the god her father thus: Give me the Bull of Heaven that I may punish Gilgamesh the king (37). Anu replies by saying, If I should give the Bull of Heaven to you, then there would follow seven years of husks. Have you prepared for this? (37) Ishtar says she has, and the Bull is given to her. This conversation is much like the dialog a mortal father and daughter would have. The daughter asks for permission. The father makes sure she has thought the action through and then consents. This is not god-like behavior.
The fact that Ishtar has to seek permission before acting undermines her power. More examples of the gods behaving as humans can be found. After Gilgamesh and Enkidu kill the Bull of Heaven and Huwawa, the gods meet in council and bicker about whether to kill both Enkidu and Gilgamesh or just one of them (39-40). Also, after Utnapishtim survives the flood, the gods meet in council and bicker over why Utnapishtim is still alive and what fair punishments should be (62). In both of these instances, the gods all meet together in council and discuss what is going on.
This shows the sophisticated human process of discussion and possibly government. Probably, the Mesopotamians themselves would meet together to talk about the problems of the state. They personify their gods to reflect their society and way of governing. Even while reflecting their society through the gods, they are showing the gods weaknesses as well. When the gods meet, it is not in a diplomatic format. They disagree and argue about petty matters. They are not good examples about how affairs of state should be conducted. The gods and goddesses play favorites and come down to help the people.
Shamash, god of the sun, goes with Gilgamesh and Enkidu when they venture into the forest to slay Huwawa. He even helps them defeat this nature god. Then Shamash heard the prayer of Gilgamesh and raised up thirteen storms against Huwawa (34). This shows a god against a god for the sake of a human. Logically, one would think the gods would work together, but, obviously, the gods can be swayed by their human prejudices. This is further illustrated in the flood story. The gods come together in council once again and decide to flood the world and leave no survivors.
Ea, the wise god of waters, goes against the decision made by the council. The voice of Ea telling me the secret came whispering through the reed walls of my house: Utnapishtim, son of Ubartutu, abandon your house, abandon what you possess, abandon your house and build a boat instead. Seek life instead of riches, save yourself (57). Here, Ea comes down to help a human and, as a possible result, upsets the gods. It seems strange that he would place a mere mortals well being over the wishes of another god. Although the gods have power and generally command respect, this is not always the case.
When Ishtar wants Gilgameshs body, he refuses her by saying, You are the door through which the cold gets in. You are the fire that goes out. You are the pitch the sticks to the hands of the one who carries the bucket. You are the house that falls down. You are the shoe the pinches the foot of the wearer (36). Gilgamesh is showing disrespect for the gods here. He obviously does not hold the goddess Ishtar in very high regard to speak about her in this way. Most cultures hold their gods in high reverence, but since the Mesopotamian gods are so human-like, they do not command consistent respect.
It is hard to revere gods who argue with each other and show human faults. Gilgameshs attitude also shows bravery. He may not respect Ishtar, but she has more powers than he does, and, therefore, could hurt him. Ishtar did, in fact, try to kill Gilgamesh by sending the Bull of Heaven down on him, but this did not work. and Enkidu seized the Bull by reeking tail and Gilgamesh thrust his sword with the skill of a butcher between the shoulders and horns, and they killed the Bull (38). Gilgamesh won. Man beat god.
This shows that a mortal man can prevail against the gods in their own games. Can the gods really be that powerful if Gilgamesh and Enkidu can beat a divine creature? This once again illustrates that such human-like gods cannot be all-powerful. Also, if humans can beat the gods, they do not show them as much reverence and respect. In The Bhagavad-Gita, the gods are viewed as divinely supreme. These gods do things in ways above human capacity. When they know that a day of Brahma stretches over a thousand eons, and his night ends in a thousand eons, men understand day and night (79).
This concept shows that Brahma is supernatural and above the human limitations of night and day. Brahma is obviously not a personified god as described in The Epic of Gilgamesh; he is much more powerfulhe has always been here and he always will be. Never have I not existed (31). Gods do not just come and go as the civilization changes. These are strong, enduring gods and ideas. This is not necessarily true with the Mesopotamians. As new cultures move in or conquer the area, new gods and goddesses are added to the pantheon and some older gods fall by the wayside.
Hence, the religion is not around today. Hinduism, on the other hand, is one of the oldest religions, due, in part, to the steadfastness and longevity of the gods. The gods are intricately connected to the humans. Krishna says to Arjuna, (The infinite spirits) inner being is perishable existence; its inner divinity is mans spirit; I am the inner sacrifice here in your body, O Best of Mortals. A man who dies remembering me at the time of death enters my being when he is freed from his body; of this there is no doubt (77).
After the cycle of death and rebirth, man becomes one with the gods and the infinite spirit. Therefore, every man has a bit of the infinite spirit in him, and therefore, also a part of god. This gives humans a special sense of closeness and trust with the gods. The gods are all-powerful and above humans, but they also help humans out. The entire Bhagavad-Gita is a story of how the god Krishna helps out Arjuna in his time of need and confusion. Krishna comes down in the form of a human to guide Arjuna on the right path. Krishna even says, Arjuna, learn from me (145).
The gods help humans, but they want some compensation in return. Enriched by sacrifice, the gods will give you the delights you desire; he is a thief who enjoys their gifts without giving to them in return (42). This shows that the Hindu people do not expect to get something for nothing. They are willing to do their part to be loved and protected by the gods. Another important theme of the gods is the cycle of rebirth. Krishna tells Arjuna not to fear death because the body is not enduring, but the soul is. There is a continuous cycle of death and rebirth.
Therefore, do not grieve over this life and this body. Follow the duty prescribed for this life. Think of the bigger whole (32-33). This concept of accepting life roles and not fearing death is important to the Hindu faith. Look to your own duty; do not tremble before it (34). People are born into a caste based on performance in a former life. Rebirth is inevitable. People are taught to follow their dharma and not worry about where they are in this life. Even people in the lowest class are expected to accept their lot in life without complaint and focus on how to be born again higher.
Even more dear to me are devotees who cherish this elixir of sacred duty as I have taught it, intent on me in their faith (113). Even the lowest people can rise in favor with Krishna if they only are steadfast in their devotion and their lives. This fosters a desire to follow the teachings of the gods. In this way, one can hope to end the cycle of rebirth and join the infinite spirit. This concept of joining the gods in spirit after death is vastly different than the view held by the Mesopotamians. They do not believe in a life after death. When they die, it is over.
They have no hope of becoming one with the gods or living in peace. Although the role of the gods is central to The Epic of Gilgamesh and The Bhagavad-Gita, they play these roles in vastly different ways. The Epic of Gilgamesh shows gods who have human-like characteristics, play favorites among the humans while helping them, and are not always highly respected. The Bhagavad-Gitas gods are divine, all-powerful beings who hold strong connections with humans and involve humans in the complex cycle of death and rebirth before joining the infinite spirit. The contrast in these gods and the resulting religions is interesting to compare.