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What Hindus Need To Know

War And Non Violence In The Bhagavadgita
By Jeffery D Long, October 2009

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Does the Bhagavadgita, the ancient and influential Hindu scripture that Mahatma Gandhi
called his ‘dictionary of daily reference’,1 support war? Or is the Gita’s central message compatible with pacifism? This article will argue that projections of Western, Christian-influenced positions on war and non-violence – such as just war theory and pacifism – onto the Gita involve inevitable distortions and misunderstandings about the ways both war and non-violence were understood in ancient India.

Specifically, such interpretations of the Gita operate from a universalist understanding of ethical injunctions regarding war and non-violence: that the same rules of action apply to all people in all circumstances.  This particularly Western assumption is largely foreign to Indic traditions, in which the concept of svadharma – the particular duty of the individual in particular situations – tends to be of central concern. This paper will also argue that the Gita’s complex teachings on war and non-violence can only be understood with the Hindu idea of different stages of life and spiritual evolution, to which different ethical codes are appropriate, and that Krishna’s criticism of Arjuna stems not from just a war theory, but from a transcendental conception of reality of which Arjuna’s compassionate despair falls short.

The ideal of ahimsa, to which the Indic traditions point – including the tradition that finds expression in the Gita – is not an ideal of simply refraining away from harm due to some divine command or injunction. It is both a consequence of and means to the realization of a state of consciousness in which all distinction of ‘I and mine’ is transcended and in which one makes no differentiation between the suffering of the ‘self’ and suffering of ‘others’. From such a perspective, the compassion of Arjuna for his teachers and relatives on the field of battle is still rooted in the ego and body-consciousness, and so is deficient.

The Context of the Bhagavadgita
For those less conversant with Indic traditions, let me briefly outline the literary context of the Gita and the issues that often arise in the course of its interpretation in a non-Hindu setting. The Bhagavadgita, or ‘Song of the Blessed One’ – lovingly called the Gita, ‘the Song’, by many Hindus – is a relatively brief discourse that occurs in a much, much longer epic text called the Mahabharata. The Mahabharata is a vast ocean of a text. It can be compared to the Bible in as much as it is very sacred to the community in which it is preserved – the Hindu community – and also inasmuch as it constitutes a whole literature unto itself. Like the Bible, the Mahabharata has been the inspiration for numerous other literary works – poems, plays, philosophical treaties, and songs as well as paintings and sculptures, often displayed in the context of a Hindu mandir, temple. Like the Bible, the Mahabharata contains material spanning a variety of genres, from straightforward narrative to philosophical discourse to legal text. The comparison with the Bible only fails inasmuch as the Mahabharata is only one of the many sacred texts of the Hindu tradition – and not even the most sacred, that status being reserved for the Shruti, the Vedas.2 But it is nevertheless a widely revered and seemingly inexhaustible source of inspiration for Hindu popular culture. There is even a Mahabharata television series, which was first broadcast in the 1980’s and is now available on DVD.

Within the Mahabharata, the Gita would best be classified as a dialogue on the topic of dharma. Dharma, one of the most difficult Sanskrit words to translate, is a word with a range of meanings that encompass truth, cosmic law, justice and social duty. This relatively tiny snippet from the Mahabharata came to help in reverence in the classical period of Indian philosophy – from roughly the 2nd to the 12th century of the Common Era – when bhashyas, commentaries, were written upon it by such great acharyas, authoritative teachers, as Shankara, Ramanuja and Madhva. Each one of these teachers was the founder of an influential system of Vedanta, or Hindu theology. 3. It was the regard in which these teachers held the Gita that also contributed to its current high status.

The status is such that the Gita is sometimes called the Gitopanishad, a name that places it on the same level as the most sacred of Hindu texts; the Upanishads, the final portion of the Vedas, on which Vedanta is based.4 One possible reason for the high regard in which the text is held is that, despite its brevity, it manages to consolidate and synthesize all of the major trends of Indic philosophy that were current at the time of its composition- right around the turn of the era, some time between the 2nd century BCE and CE. It is also presented as the word of God, its chief interlocutor being a most revered avatara, divine incarnation, Bhagwan Sri Krishna. So in terms of its spiritual authority, the Gita is probably the closest thing to a bible in modern Hinduism.

Within the context of the Mahabharata, the Gita occurs just moments prior to the great battle towards which all the previous action of the text has been converging; for the Mahabharata like the Iliad, is a war epic. It narrates the tale of two branches of a royal family in ancient Northern India – the Kauravas and the Pandavas – who are fighting for supremacy. The Pandavas are the rightful heirs to the throne and the ‘good guys’ of the epic, despite the fact that they all have very real human flaws, and sometimes fall short of the idea of dharma. The Kauravas, led by their wicked eldest brother Duryadhana, are the villains who have disinherited their heroic cousins, the Pandavas, using deception and trickery. When the Gita is about to begin, repeated efforts to bring about a peace accord have failed and war is inevitable. Each side has assembled a vast army on the battlefield of Kurushetra, where the matter is to be decided. Arjuna, one of the Pandava brothers and their greatest warrior, has the job of leading the charge. He directs his charioteer and best friend Krishna to lead him between the two armies. Looking upon the warriors that are assembled on both sides, Arjuna is overcome with despondency. He is not frightened or himself. His heroism has been demonstrated repeatedly throughout the course of the epic. Nor has he suddenly become a pacifist. But realizing that there are good and noble people on both sides of the conflict – many of whom are his dear friends and relatives – he is filled with sorrow, knowing that many of these good and noble people will die.


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[6] Comment(s) Posted
  1. Comment By - KT Kishan Date - 26 Dec 2012 Time - 6:50PM
  2. Gandhi said he was heavily influenced by Geeta. In Mahabarata just before the war, Arjuna was given all the knowledge, support, encouragement and wisdom by no other than God himself. With all these things and with the presence of Krishna himself it was no big deal on Arjuna’s part to perform his action in going after the enemy. Arjuna knew the Lord was right there next to him. Krishna gave him everything he needed. Let us look at the scene when Gandhi was thrown out of the train in South Africa. He was a handsome well dressed young Indian attorney n South Africa. He had bought a first class ticket and he was travelling in a train to Johannesburg on his business trip. He was confronted by a white ticket inspector who threw him off the train just because of his color. Can you imagine the shock, disappointment, anger and utter humiliation? Within no time he was made nothing and to fall flat on his face. He was totally dehumanized. This has to be very hurtful experience Gandhi ever experienced. Until this episode he did not realize the harsh reality of being oppressed. Did he become angry then? I do not know, probably yes like most of us. Could he have struck the enemy back? Absolutely not. He knew he had no physical power. I wish Lord Krishna had appeared at the scene and given him His power tool at that moment. Unlike Arjuna in Mahabarata there was no Krishna physically present next to him. Krishna was not there to hold his hands. There was no one to wipe his tears, not even his Mom. I have read this episode so many times, each time I read it, it stirs my emotions. But a huge human history was made on that cold night at Pietermaritzburg railway station. It made Gandhi to wake up. It stirred his passion. It was time to build up a fighting strategy. Unlike what happened in Mahabarata, strategy to fight the mighty British had to be different. Arjuna was a powerful warrior having the luxury of weapons of destruction. Gandhi could not even dream about it. In his deep search he was not only influenced by Geeta but also profoundly influenced by the teaching of Jesus through the works of Ruskin and Leo Tolstoy. Sermon on the Mount did arm him, he believed it was true and he wanted to practically demonstrate it. He never thought Arjuna’s action was physically violent. All he was interested was putting the truth in action. In truth he said “I recognize no one as my enemy on the face of the earth. In the dictionary of Satyagraha, there is no enemy. This is the core of the Bible, God loves us unconditionally. It calls for the strength and courage to suffer without retaliation, to receive blows without returning any”. In that truth he believed that he would hurt the heart of the enemy much more than his physical body. This sounds very radical and irrational, making no sense to most of us. But Gandhi believed it, he was a different kind of warrior. Action is all that required here, but how we perform the action is left to us. In my view Geeta first says you have the right. ‘Right’ means absolute freedom with full conscience to find appropriate tool of action. Then it demands to act using the tool we select. Geeta goes further telling that the fruit of action is not even guaranteed. What a bummer? At least Arjuna knew he had the mighty help of Krishna himself, for Gandhi, it is just the word of God, talk about his strong conviction... This was indeed a huge risk on the part of Gandhi. He knew there would be enormous pain, suffering and even death, (violence). He had to wield the new weapon of Satyagraha that was never tried in human history before. Did he think about the fruit of action? I do not think so as he firmly believed in the Sermon on the Mount and Geeta. Gandhi’s work proved that Satyagraha (violent form of Truth?) did prove to be effective in getting the British out of the country. He succeeded in his efforts and so did his follower Martin Luther King Jar in his civil right activities in United States. He stayed faithful, by offering his body as target but never as a weapon breaking the moral calluses of white people then. The real goal, King used to say was not to defeat the white man but to awaken a sense of shame within the oppressor and challenge his false sense of superiority... the end is reconciliation, the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community”

  3. Comment By - Dr Satya Pal Bindra Date - 09 Jul 2012 Time - 6:29AM
  4. There is no place for justification of violence in Gita. Indeed soul is not impacted by sacred war. Great spirit of victory over injustice is being misunderstood by esteemed author. Indeed so called voilence is a call for jutice to give new life to mortal bodies. Real self is immortal.

  5. Comment By - vidula chitre Date - 19 Dec 2011 Time - 7:12AM
  6. Great article.The battle ground is an analogy for life and war is an analogy for the challenges of life. Krishna tells Arjun to do his duty while facing life`s challenges, and not concern himsef with the outcome. Regarding caste and racism there are some extremely racist passages in the bible as well. The difference is that a hindu can reject caste and still remain a hindu, whereas proponents of the abrahamic religions have to believe each and every line in their books. No wonder they have to meet each week at least once to re-convince themselves.

  7. Comment By - varuna singh Date - 17 Dec 2009 Time - 3:54PM
  8. “But only the kshatriya is obligated to fight a just war, by just means, against other kshatriyas. A non-kshatriya does not have to agonize about whether to accept a just war theory or to be a pacifist. Not being a warrior, he is a pacifist by default. So also, and more to the point, a good kshatriya has no point in agonizing about whether or not to engage in a just war. He has no choice in the matter. This is his duty, his dharma, and this is precisely what Krishna is reminding Arjuna.” Nice piece of writing however , the author needs to be reminded that being a Kshatriyas is by choice and not by birth. He seems to be perpetuating the very corruption of caste whereby, many hindus have been oppressed because of such a misunderstanding of this system of division of labor as opposed to the concept of social structure. In other words, a brahmin could go from being a Brahmin to being a Kshatriya just as the latter could opt to become the former . This basic misunderstanding of caste undermines the very essence of the hindu theories of dharma . When Karna shows compassion and hesitation he is actually questioning the very essence Dharma .Arjuna finally leads the charge into battle after Krishna’s explanation that in any society that which is malignant must be cut off before it infects the whole . Hinduism is steeped in the very same contradictions as Judaism , Christianity and Islam but Sanatan Dharma remains surpreme . I wonder at which point in India’s history did the brahmins hyjack sanatan dharma and reduce it to a religion called Hinduism ? Anyone care to comment ?


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