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Bhagavad-gita—A Book of Violence?

Bhagavad-gita is famous as a harbinger of peace and good fortune. Mohandas K. Gandhi wrote, “The Gita has always been my source of comfort. Whenever I was unable to perceive a silver lining on the horizon, I opened the Gita and found a verse that gave me new hope.”

Yet even Gandhi, a great advocate of ahimsa, or nonviolence, found some of the Gita’s verses puzzling and disagreeable. Lord Krishna explains that killing can be perfectly religious and a form of yoga: “One who is not motivated by false ego, whose intelligence is not entangled, though he kills men in this world, does not kill. Nor is he bound by his actions” (Bg. 18.17). Gandhi comments in his Anasakti Yoga, “The meaning of these verses of the Bhagavad- gita seems to depend upon an imaginary ideal which one cannot find a practical example of in this world.”

What should we make of this? If Krishna’s words, or some of them, do indeed depend upon imaginary ideals that are impractical for life today, we might wonder about Krishna’s overall authority as the “perfect, infallible Supreme Person” (Bg. 15.18). We might consider that Krishna’s opinion carries only relative importance, like Gandhi’s or anyone else’s, and so why should we base our lives upon the Gita’s doctrines?

Srila Prabhupada’s purport to the verse in question (18.17) endorses Krishna’s statement. Srila Prabhupada writes,

One who knows the instrument of work, himself as the worker, and the Supreme Lord as the supreme sanctioner is perfect in doing everything. Such a person is never in illusion. Personal activity and responsibility arise from false ego and godlessness, or a lack of Krishna consciousness. Anyone who is acting in Krishna consciousness under the direction of the Supersoul or the Supreme Personality of Godhead, even though killing, does not kill. Nor is he ever affected by the reaction of such killing. When a soldier kills under the command of a superior officer, he is not subject to be judged. But if a soldier kills on his own personal account, then he is certainly judged by a court of law.

As a fellow countryman and contemporary of Gandhi, Srila Prabhupada knew well the pros and cons of Gandhi’s peaceful noncooperation ideals. He also knew of his American followers’ pacifistic ideals during the Vietnam war. But still he always stuck firmly to Krishna’s words, convinced that they contain the highest morality and gentility and will remain absolutely true for all time.

Those attached to their own sense of morality will certainly doubt Krishna’s conclusions. So let us objectively pursue the issue of violence and nonviolence and see whether or not Krishna is giving imaginary and impractical advice.

In our changing world it is not surprising that Krishna’s words often challenge some people’s conceptions. Clinging to whatever threads of peace remain today, they write of Krishna as unethical and immoral in persuading the reluctant Arjuna to fight. They commend Arjuna’s pacifism and condemn Krishna’s bellicoseness. But perhaps such opinions arise from an incomplete understanding.

For instance, if Krishna is actually a bellicose advocate of killing, war, and violence, why does He glorify ahimsa as “an exalted, divine quality stemming from proper knowledge” at least three times in the Gita (Bg. 10.5, 13.8, and 16.2)? Krishna fully supports the Vedic injunction ahimsayat sarva-bhutanam: “Do not commit violence to any living being.”

We should also note that although Krishna’s words and arguments are for everyone, His direction to kill is specifically meant for Arjuna. Not that someone can justify his crimes by pulling out of context a few sentences like “The self slays not nor is slain.”

Duty is the real principle determining what constitutes violence and nonviolence. Perhaps it was Arjuna who was proposing violence in the name of nonviolence—out of a mistaken sense of duty. Let us examine his apparent non- violent refusal to fight.

At first glance it appears that Arjuna had substantial reasons for not participating in the war. Friends and relatives opposed him, even his beloved grandfather, Bhishma, and his guru, Drona. If he won the war, he would be miserable without his friends, and he would suffer the sting of retribution from their wives and families. He foresaw that the women, bereft of their husbands and fathers, would be unprotected, and their bastard children would wreak havoc, the reactions to their sins resting upon his head. He reasoned that war is always wrong for those who see, and that blind men cannot be blamed. Why should he fight? Better the “nonviolent” path.

Lord Krishna gave a piercing reply to Arjuna’s arguments: “You try to speak so well. but you don’t know the truth of the soul. You’re forgetting your duty, and your heart is weak. Armed with yoga, arise and fight!”

Arjuna had a sacred duty to perform. As a soldier he was bound to protect the citizens from aggressors. The very word kshatriya (soldier) means “one who protects from harm.” Duryodhana, the main cause of the war, was an aggressor worthy of punishment. The Vedic scriptures describe six kinds of aggressors who should be checked and sufficiently punished, even by death: (1) one who gives poison, (2) one who sets fire to another’s house, (3) one who attacks with deadly weapons, (4) one who plunders riches, (5) one who occupies another’s land, and (6) one who kidnaps another’s wife.

Duryodhana had committed all six of these offenses. He had poisoned Bhima, Arjuna’s brother. He had tried to burn to death all five brothers with their mother, Kunti, his own aunt. He had usurped the Pandavas’ land and property and had tried to steal their wife, Draupadi and make her his slave. And now he was attacking the Pandavas with all the force he could muster. He was a violent man in every sense.

A dictionary definition of violence is “an outrage or injury: an unlawful exercise of force.” And outrage is defined as “a forcible violation of others” rights or sentiments, or an infringement on morality.”

Duryodhana’s violence was not confined only to the physical platform but extended to a violation of the spiritual rights of the citizens. In the monarchical system then existing, the people had a right to expect the king to represent God and give them full opportunity to develop their spirituality and God consciousness.

Arjuna’s duty was clear, and Krishna, far from being bellicose, was impartially removing the misconceptions preventing its execution. As a soft-hearted devotee, Arjuna hesitated to kill but Krishna reminded him of the reality of the soul which never dies in any circumstance. Certainly the souls present before them could never be touched by any of Arjuna’s powerful weapons. Only their bodies would fall. Such dull material bodies are always, in a sense, dead, whether or not they are occupied by a soul. How could Arjuna think his own “dead” body could be violent to others’ dead bodies? Furthermore, Arjuna would enable aging heroes like Bhishma and Drona to gain fresh, new bodies and so revive their depleted energy.

Someone may still complain: “Arjuna’s retaliation and punishment of Duryodhana is in itself an act of violence and is therefore censurable.”

But does force or even killing always mean violence? And does apparent friendly behavior always mean nonviolence? A factor appears to be causing injury by cutting off a limb, and a layman may jump to the wrong conclusion—“What a cruel and violent act!” Yet the doctor’s act is both lawful (because he is authorized) and protective of health. His actions are an exhibition of mercy.

A person may be trying to give up smoking, and if in the name of friendship I attempt to cajole him into accepting a cigarette, my apparent friendly gesture actually shrouds a violent attitude. Apart from causing injury to his health. I am also, perhaps unwittingly, interfering with his right of free choice.

Or suppose a policeman refrains from violence when duty dictates that he defend a person from attack? His apparent nonviolence is in fact a criminal violation of the right of a citizen to be protected by the state.

A child suffering from typhoid may be crying for food, but his doctor refuses to mitigate his hunger pangs. Giving food to the child would be an act of violence.

Without knowledge of an absolute standard, however, it is sometimes difficult for us to determine what is right.

Yet there is an Absolute Truth, in which all relative conceptions can be satisfied. According to the Vedic literature, Lord Krishna is the supreme lawmaker, and His laws are meant to be followed by everyone, in every time, place, and circumstance, for the immediate and ultimate good of all. “Unlawful” therefore means to break His laws. One who acts unlawfully, however kind and friendly he may appear, can hardly be called a good person, any more than a criminal can be called a good citizen. Thieves may talk about dividing up their loot honestly, but how can there be honesty among thieves, when the basis of their dealings is dishonest? Real honesty, morality, and goodness come from following the Lord’s laws, which are transcendent and therefore higher than any man-made edict.

A study of Bhagavad-gita under the guidance of Krishna’s representative, the bona fide guru, will reveal the universal relevance of God’s laws. For instance, as a soldier Arjuna was duty bound to defend the principles of religion, so grievously outraged by Duryodhana. And the Supreme Lord was requesting him to fight. Convinced at last, Arjuna fought and saved the people of the world from blind leadership.

Duryodhana and company were saved from severe karmic reactions and prevented from committing further sinful deeds. Everyone associating closely with Duryodhana had been influenced by his lust for power, his greed, anger, vanity, and envy. Thus, like Duryodhana’s, their own mentalities were also polluted. By destroying their bodies in battle. Arjuna acted like a doctor removing a limb to save the patient. His treatment was so effective that the soldiers killed in Krishna’s presence were liberated from all reactions to their sins. By removing such politically motivated aggressors, Arjuna and Krishna created a favorable social condition for the progressive march of civilization toward spiritual perfection.

The quest for such perfection is everyone’s highest duty. Srila Prabhupada once defined violence as “impeding a person in the performance of duty.” Duties possess different degrees of importance. Consequently the severity of a man’s violent offenses will also vary. Duryodhana, already an aggressor, made the fatal mistake of standing in the way of the spiritual right and duty of the citizens to practice self-realization under the protection of the self-realized king Yudhishthira, who, apart from being the rightful heir to the throne, had minutely studied all the Vedic truths.

Duryodhana did not care that God’s laws exist in this world to facilitate everyone’s spiritual progress. Souls who occupy the bodies of beasts, birds, and other creatures gradually evolve to the human form, where they should be offered all facility for continuing their spiritual development. If a leader is unqualified to help liberate a soul but instead acts to bind his followers further to the cycle of birth and death, he should be corrected and if necessary removed for his violation of their natural rights.

As there are clear standards today for examining the proficiency of such public services as medicine and catering, in the Vedic literature clear standards exist for every facet of individual and social behavior, both spiritual and material.

Take eating, for instance. We learn from the Gita and other Vedic literature that in this material world one living being is food for another. When an animal kills, it does not interfere with its victim’s spiritual evolution through different species, because all its activities are within the parameters of God’s laws.

When a soul is awarded a human body, however, he can make a conscious choice whether to cooperate with these laws or reject them. If he whimsically kills another creature, the soul in that creature is prevented from living out his term of imprisonment in that body and must take birth again in the same species before moving on to the next. If he kills a cow, for example, the soul in the cow will have to take birth again in a cow’s body before progressing to the next stage, the human form. A person with knowledge of this law decides to give up eating meat.

Eating plants also interferes with a soul’s evolution, although less dramatically. So what should we do?

The Bhagavad-gita supplies the answer by explaining that if we offer our food to the Lord, neither we nor the living being within the plant will be adversely affected. In fact the evolution of the soul in the plant’s body up through the lower species of life toward the human form will be accelerated. And by eating such offered food [prasadam], we will be purified of karmic reactions, and our inherent spiritual consciousness will gradually awaken. Far from advocating violence. Lord Krishna is concerned that the smallest detail of our lives be pervaded with sensitivity.

Krishna’s purpose is to free us from all ignorance and confusion. The world today is so dominated by violence, often even under the guise of spiritual life, that to save us the Lord comprehensively presents the highest principle of nonviolence, culminating in one clear course of action: “Abandon all varieties of religion and just surrender unto Me. I shall deliver you from all sinful reactions. Do not fear” (Bg. 18.66). By acting according to Krishna’s direction, we will always be situated correctly. We should not think, “Here is yet another opinion.” When we fully accept Krishna as God, we will discover His advice to be perfect for everyone.