War and Non violence in the Bhagavadgita

  • By Dr. Jeffery D. Long
  • October 2009

The Higher Teaching      
But can the question of war and non-violence in the Gita be resolved – or rather, dissolved-so easily though? The issue does not arise at all in the commentaries of any of the great pre-modern acharyas. This is presumably because they shared the Gita’s view on Dharma – that there is no such thing as a ‘question’ of warfare versus non-violence in our modern times because every non-kshatriya in ancient Hindu society was expected live a life on non-violence, and every kshatriya was expected to be prepared to engage in warfare, with other kshatriyas, should the need arise. This state of affairs was so taken for granted in ancient India that in those places where we see ahimsa-non-violence in thought, word, deed –  emphasized, it means far more than simple non-engagement in warfare or non-killing of other human beings – a universal expectation from non-kshatriyas – but non-violent behavior towards animals, insects, and even in some cases, plants. Non-violence in the modern Western sense, typically seen as a heroic act of refusal to participate in warfare, as embodied in such phenomena as conscientious objection, is simply the way good and civilized people were expected to behave in ancient India.

The issues does arise, however, in modern Hinduism, where the notion of jati, caste by birth, has become the object of widespread – and I would say justified – criticism. In any case, Hindu scriptures say that in the Kali Yuga, the period of history through we are now living; caste is no longer a valid category, since castes have become mixed, and people no longer follow the profession of their ancestors. In such a situation the question of just war as a universal option begins to emerge, for anyone could conceivably fulfill the kshatriya dharma, regardless of birth caste. Gandhi argued, as have other Hindu reformers, that although birth caste may no longer be a category, caste can be seen instead in terms of innate qualities, particular to an individual, as described in the Gita.11. A kshatriya is anyone who is, among other things, courageous, constant and resourceful.

In my view, though, the kind of war that Arjuna was enjoined by Krishna to fight is no longer an option. Modern warfare is utterly adharmika by the standards set by the Dharmashastras and the epics. This means, therefore, that non-violence is enjoined for all. This was the view that Gandhi held as well. The devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or of 9/11/ in the US, is not something that a truly dharmic civilizations can countenance. Humanity has reached a point of technological development in which its moral, dharmic imperative is to find a peaceful solution to many of its disagreements. The idea here is not that people have no right to defend themselves from violent attack, or that nations do not have a duty to protect their citizens. But humanity as a whole needs to work towards creating a set of conditions that minimizes – and ideally eliminates – the occurrence of such situations. Otherwise, we risk self-annihilation. 

Gandhi addressed the issue of war raised by the Gita essentially by setting it aside as irrelevant. He famously said: ‘Try following the teaching of the Gita. Live as it teaches you to live. Then see if you are capable of harming any living being’. Gandhi believed that someone who practiced the yoga of karma-phala-vairagya, the discipline laid out in the Gita of ‘detachment from the fruits of action’ of seeing and serving God in all beings, and of regular meditation and devotional activities such as rama-nama, chanting the names of God, would inevitably and naturally become a being endowed with moral purity, non-violence and compassion.

Other contemporary Hindu thinkers, such as Swami Jyotirmayananda, have read the Mahabharata, and therefore the Gita, as a symbolic text, describing not a physical war, but the war ‘within’-what Muslims scholars have called the ‘greater jihad’ and what I have heard Christians call ‘spiritual warfare’ – the inner struggle with ignorance and the ego that all aspirants on the path to God realizations must undergo.12 In fact, there are a variety of hints in the text of the Gita that suggest such an interpretation. The 13th chapter opens with a straightforward assertion that ‘the field (kshetra – also the word used to denote the field of battle) is the body’. 13

Krishna also tells Arjuna to arise and slay his true enemies: greed, hatred and delusion. Finally, the entire discourse takes place in a chariot. The Katha Upanishad presents the detailed image of a chariot as a metaphor for the physical body, which carries the rider, who is the soul, and a driver, who is the mind, and is drawn by horses, which represent the senses. Gita, chapter two, verse 19th, is virtually identical to Katha Upanishad, chapter two verse 19, which may be a hint at link between these two texts. Significantly, the verse reads, in its Gita version: ‘He who think his Self is a killer and he who thinks it is killed, both fail to understand; it does not kill, nor is it killed’ (2.19). If the warfare of the Gita, and indeed the entire Mahabharata, is metaphorical and spiritual, then the question of warfare is again dissolved, or at least deferred, against an assumption that the way of life enjoined for all human beings is one governed by the principle of ahimsa.

Whether one takes Gandhi’s practical approach of simply living the teaching of the Gita – setting aside the question of war and non-violence as irrelevant – Or Swami Jyotirmayananda’s approach of regarding the conflict as symbolic of the struggle to live that teaching, the point is that both modern Hindu masters direct the attention of the reader away from the conflict that forms the setting of Krishna’s teaching and towards the teaching itself. It we are attentive to that teaching, yet another level of Krishna’s advice to Arjuna emerges.

It is significant that the first truth which Krishna directs Arjuna in order to cure him of his despondency is the truth of the immortality and immutability of the Atman, the Self. Again: ‘He who thinks this Self a killer and he who thinks it is killed, both fail to understand,; it does not kill, nor is it killed.’ Arjuna’s word seem wise, Krishna at one point says, because he is speaking from compassion. He does not want to see these brave warriors killed, especially his family members. But from the perspective of Vedanta such compassion is ultimately defective, being based on the ego and false consciousness born of maya, which identifies the Self with the physical body. This is why Arjuna is said to be deluded.14

Arjuna is compassionate towards these people because they are his biological relatives. In other words, their bodies are related to his. But what about all the warriors and wild animals and demons and other creatures that Arjuna had slain in the Mahabharata up to this point? Are they not also worthy of compassion? True compassion, paradoxically, is the fruit of detachment – detachment from this body and temporary identity in which the Atman resides in this lifetime. True ahimsa is impartial, encompassing all beings. It comes from seeing God everywhere. It is not the ultimately egocentric and superficial compassion that arises because a particular person is related to me – which really means ‘that body is related to my body’. Are not all beings interrelated? Is the Self not ultimately one? This is the higher truth to which Krishna’s teaching directs Arjuna – and the reader. Arjuna’s despair in the face of battle arises from a noble sentiment, but not noble enough for an aspirant on the spiritual path. It is this higher, universal compassion to which Krishna’s teaching directs him. The battle is merely the occasion for its expression. 

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Also read
1. Did Gandhi’s Ahimsa get India freedom. To view Click here
2. Gandhi, Ahimsa and Christianity .To view Click here
3. Impact of Ahimsa on thinking in independent India. To view Click here
4. Sri Aurobindo on Gandhi Ahimsa . To View Click here
5. Tolstoy and Gandhi: Genesis of an ideological revolution . To View Click here

Notes and References
1. M K Gandhi, Gandhi: An Autobiography (The Story of My Experiments with Truth) (Boston: Beacon, 1957), 265.
2. It should also be pointed out that, at 100,000 verses, the Mahabharata is four times longer than the Bible.
3. Why do I see the term theology and not philosophy? To be sure, each of these thinkers was a great philosopher. But in the context of writing commentarial literature on works of scripture, and taking the received tradition as the starting point for reflection, I use the term theology, to contrast such reflection, I use the term theology, to contrast such reflection with reflections that begins from a more abstract starting point. It is not a pejorative term, although I have encountered scholars who have taken it as such, as implying something less scientific or rational than the term philosophy. But that is not my understanding. As a reflection on the Gita, this essay is itself a work of theology.
4. According to Swami Vivekananda, Vedanta is ultimately based not on any text, but on the experiences of the enlightened sages who wrote those texts. The Gita itself makes a similar claim for the priority of direct experience. (Bhagavadgita, 2.46). The Upanishads were widely regarded in the various Vedanata traditions, though, as pre-eminent among the texts that communicate the insights of the realized sages.
5. Gita, 2.2-3. All translations from the text of the Gita are my own.
6. Beyond the seeming contradiction between the Gita’s teaching of non-violence in some sections and apparent endorsement of war in others, scholars have cited linguistic and stylistic differences between the Gita and the larger portion of the Mahabharata, of which it forms a part, to argue that the Gita, atleast in its current form is a later composition. See C Jinarajadasa, The Bhagavad Gita (Madras: Theological Publishing, 1915) and S Radhakrishnan, The Bhagavad Gita (Harper Collins, 1993).
7. An excellent collection of articles that explore this issue from a variety of perspectives is the volume edited by Steven J Rosen: Holy War: Violence and the Bhagavad Gita (Hampton: Deepak Heritage, 2002).
8. Gita, 16.2
9. Wilhelm Halbfass, India and Europe: An Essay in Understanding (Albany: State University of New York, 1987), 14-16.
10. Joshua, 6.21: ‘They devoted the city to the Lord and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it-men, women, young and old cattle, sheep and donkeys’.
11. Gita, 18.41-4.
12. Swami Jytotirmayananda, Mysticism of the Mahabharata (Miami: Yoga Research Foundation, 1993).
13. Gita, 13.1
14. M K Gandhi, The Bhagavad Gita According to Gandhi (Berkeley: North Atlantic, 2009), 36-7.

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