War and Non violence in the Bhagavadgita

  • By Dr. Jeffery D. Long
  • October 2009

War and the Gita       
It is at this point that things became controversial in the interpretation of the Gita. For Krishna-rather than shockingly for people who associate Hinduism with Gandhi and his ideal of non-violence reprimand Arjun for losing his nerve on the eve of battle. ‘Why this cowardice in a time of crisis, Arjuna? The coward is ignoble, shameful and foreign to the ways of heaven. Don’t yield to impotence! It is unnatural in you! Banish this petty weakness from your heart. Rise to the fight, Arjuna! It is precisely in order to console his friend and to inspire him to battle at hand that Krishna begins to engage Arjuna on the fundamental truths of Vedanta. At the end of the Gita we find Krishna has been successful. Arjuna leads the charge and the battle gets underway, almost as if the entire conversation that is the Gita had never happened.

So much at odds with this warlike setting does the spiritual teachings of Krishna appear that some scholars have speculated that the Gita is a later interpolation, that it was slipped into the text of the Mahabharata by subsequent compilers who wished to subvert the popular epic in order to communicate a far more profound lesion in non-violence and detachment – attitudes which, were they to be adopted on a sufficient scale, would prevent wars like the one the Mahabharata describes.6

In the minds of many modern interpreters, particularly non-Hindu interpreters, the Gita is a deeply disturbing text. Gandhi’s love for the book, and his well-known and heroic commitment to non-violence as an instrument for political and social change, which has inspired such non-violent revolutionaries as Martin Luther King and Cesar Chavez, seem to be at odds. Is there not a contradiction between the ideal of non-violence and a text in which God-in human form-tells a human being to rise up and slaughter the members of his own family on a battlefield? Some Western scholars have been shocked by Krishna’s frank endorsement of combat. And Christian missionaries have made much of contrasting the seemingly bloodthirsty Krishna with the benevolent Jesus, the ‘Prince of Peace’.7

I would like to argue, however, that such responses are wide off the mark and, atleast in some cases, more than a little hypocritical. When a modern Western reader picks up a copy of the Gita and begins the dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna without any knowledge of what warfare meant in ancient India, prior to the large-scale arrival of Christianity or Islam, he will inevitably project onto the text his own, contemporary cultural assumptions, and be puzzled, and perhaps even outraged, by the advice that Krishna gives. ‘I though Hinduism was supposed to be nonviolent,’ he many think. ‘What a terrible religion!’ Projecting contemporary Western realities onto the text, a completely distorted picture will appear in his mind, bearing little resemblance to the message that the text is seeking to convey. If our imaginary reader does not throw the text down in disgust, but reads on, his puzzlement will only grow, as he sees Krishna at a later point in the text recommending such virtues as non-violence, truth, absence of anger, disengagement, peace, loyalty, compassion for creatures, lack of greed, gentleness, modesty, (and) reliability’.8. Is this the same Krishna from the beginning of the text?

The reader, living in the atomic age, having in mind a situation like that of the US during the time of the Vietnam War, in which many protested at having to participate in war they regarded as unjust-or war of any kind, for that matter-or the situation that we living through today, of gain being involved in a modern war in which innocent life is inevitably destroyed, will recoil from the Gita as a text that fails to question or to condemn such activity. Arjuna will remind such a reader of himself, recoiling from the intrinsically horrible nature of war. Krishna’s advice will neither anger or puzzle such a reader, who expects to find support for the ideal of non-violence in a Hindu text that Gandhi held in higher esteem than any other scripture. The reader who has lived through the terrible events of 9/11 may even be disturbingly reminded of terrorism and suicide bombers who believe that their crimes are divinely ordained. ‘The doors of heaven open for warriors who rejoice to have a battle like thrust on them perchance,’ Krishna says (2.32).

But traditional Hindu warfare was a very different affair from modern warfare. If one is an attentive student of Hindu epic literature, one will find that the warfare depicted in the Ramayana and Mahabharata is strictly governed by a code of honor. The duty, dharma, of the kshatriya warrior, is quite well defined in these texts and in the Dharmashastras, Hindu legal literature. Whenever the characters in the heroes, run afoul of this code of honor, they are reprimanded. In some cases, they are even cursed. Not unlike the Christian conceptions of just war and Islamic conceptions of jihad, the war fought by the kshatriya must be fought for just reasons and must be fought only between combatants. Attacking on non-combatants, innocent civilians – is forbidden, and a matter of grave dishonor. The degree to which this code of honor is not merely literary device, but was actually observed in ancient Hindu society, is attested to in the story of a foreign traveler – the Greek ambassador, Megasthenes. Seeing two armies fighting a fierce battle, Megasthenes noticed, in the adjacent field only a few yards away, a farmer with his ox, ploughing his field, to all appearances completely unconcerned with the fierce battle raging nearby.9. The farmer was safe. As a non-combatant, he knew the fighting warriors were not interested in him. Nor, apparently, was he interested in them!

The kshatriya code is, in fact, far more circumscribed than either the Christian idea of just war or the Islamic idea of jihad. Christians and Islam, religions of the Abrahamic family of monotheism, typically see injunctions as having a universal character. So a just war is a war for all Christians. A Christian who accepts the just war theory is at least implicitly accepting responsibility for fighting such a war, should the occasion arise. Similarly, in Islam, the obligation to fight a jihad, a war of defence against enemies seeking the eradication of Muslim faith, is an obligation that binds all able bodied adult Muslim men. 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.

In terms, then, of the perennial debate in peace and conflict studies in the West between pacifism and just war theory, the Gita can be said to endorse both-and neither-of these approaches to the question of war. In keeping with the Dharma-shastras, it recognizes that different duties obtain for different people in different times and places.

The Western reader needs to bear the whole of this cultural contact in mind when reading the Gita, in order to avoid a cruel and distorting interpretation of the ext and the religion in which it is a sacred scripture. Krishna is not encouraging Arjuna to fight a modern war, where he has to drop incendiary bombs on centres of civilian population. He is not encouraging him to fight in a war like that in Vietnam or Iraq – or even like World War II, in America the sold-called ‘good war’-waged against the entire populations without regard for age, gender, or disability. By the standards of Hindu war epics, there is nothing good to be said about such dishonorable conduct. An ancient kshatriya of the Hindu epics would say that modern warfare is adharmika-contrary to duty, and against the grain of natural order. The war in which Arjuna is being encouraged to fight is, by comparison, akin to an athletic context-albeit a contest fought to the death-a fair fight, involving only consenting adults.

Polemically minded Western authors seeking to criticize Hinduism by pointing to the warrior ethos in the Gita would do well to play attention to the kind of warfare it enjoins. Not only is Arjuna’s battle a far cry from modern warfare, it is also a far cry from that in the Hebrew Bible – the Christian Old Testament – in which God commands the armies of Israel to kill every man, woman, child, and animal in the cities of the promises land that he giving to them. 10 Arjuna is not being told by Krishna to slaughter unarmed men, women, children, and animals. He is being told to combat other armed warriors – some of whom, like the mighty Bhishma, are more than a match for him.

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