War and Non violence in the Bhagavadgita

  • By Dr. Jeffery D. Long
  • October 2009

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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