Home » The Bhagavad-Gītā and Nonviolence Part I: A Controversy

The Bhagavad-Gītā and Nonviolence Part I: A Controversy

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Part I: A Controversy [1]

The Bhagavad-Gītā stands out shining above the rest of the many-volume Mahābhārata which is by itself reckoned among the top of world literature. It is a discourse between the noble warrior and army chief Arjuna of the Pāṇḍava-clan, and God, here in the form as Kṛṣṇa. The opposing armies are standing opposite each other on the field of Kurukṣetra. Despite all earlier efforts made by Kṛṣṇa to resolve the conflict nonviolently, a point is reached when war has become unavoidable. Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna stand on the same chariot, and the fighting can begin every second. The opposing party consists of the Kauravas, the king of whom is blind.

In India is much discussion about the first two chapters of the Bhagavad-Gītā. Arjuna, the warrior, loses courage at the moment the battle is to begin. Not out of fear for his own life and body, but because he sees in the opposite party, the Kurus, his own family members and teachers, and he fears that waging war on them and killing his own kin and teachers to whom he owes the greatest respect bring more evil than good. Not talking about the personal suffering of those involved in the war – apart from the leading military, some 6 million ‘innocent’ soldiers will find death in the 18 days the war continues – Arjuna doubts whether from the point of view of ethics and duty such a war can be justified. He would rather lose everything, including his life, than be responsible for irrevocable disturbance of what is right, and all the evil in its wake.

So if Arjuna ‘loses courage’ it is not out of selfishness, but out of doubt what is ultimately the best way to pursue. Nevertheless, Kṛṣṇa, i.e. ‘God Himself’ urges him with all arguments to start the war and do his duty as a member of the warrior caste, including killing all his opponents. Kṛṣṇa even tells Arjuna that he ‘has already won’ and no harm can be done to him.

Two important religions stemming from India are Jainism[2] and Buddhism[3]. Both preach non-violence as a core issue. The Jain religion especially is the nonviolence religion [ahiṁsā paramo dharma – ‘non-violence I the highest religion’], and reject harming and killing any living being, whether humans, animals, plants and ultimately even elemental spirits etc. Nonviolence not only is to be practiced in action, but even more in speech and in thought. A thought, even when not applied practically, has the greatest force to attract karmas that will cling to the soul, and determine the character and future of the man or woman who thinks these thoughts. Buddhism teaches the same, though in Mahāyāna Buddhism positive compassion’ stands more on the foreground than non-violence, which is of course a natural aspect of compassion.

We can hardly image God to be unaware of the tremendous suffering a war brings. In epic poems and modern movies, only the great kings and soldiers are hailed, and the enemy represents all types of evil, so that he ‘earns’ to be killed. This might be useful to teach children a distinction between good and evil psychologically, but a real war does not only include the ‘lucky’ ones who are killed and ‘go to heaven’ (Why should they, if they are otherwise simple-minded people?). Those who win and hailed and deemed ‘great’ by the populace, but more importantly thousands of widows, often deprived of income and in many cultures, including the Indian, are ‘stained’ and can never marry again. The millions of children who have no more father and miss opportunities for good education, and the wrath and hatred that becomes imbedded in such children, because for them the killer of their father and countrymen is always evil, whatever the ‘noble motives’ of the adults. They carry with them the seeds for the next conflict, and this may run over generations. Little or no honor befalls the wounded and life-long physically disabled soldiers – however great the heroic promises by the authorities may have been before the war. And what about the suffering among the innocent animal kingdom, and the destruction of other life and the environment? What about the ‘spooks’ of killed soldiers who roam the battlefield for a long time after, and the spirits of fear and anger and aggression that were invoked in the soldier’s minds? They sustain a gloomy influence on passers-by and the people of the land which is, to say the least, contaminated. Did not Kṛṣṇa realize all these things? To me it seems that such a ‘god’ is only born from human fantasy, and therefore a great blasphemy to the real Kṛṣṇa.

Then why does Kṛṣṇa teach the apparently opposite of peace and tolerance? There are several explanations. One is that at the time the Bhagavad-Gītā was inserted in the Mahābhārata, the kṣattriyas, the warrior caste, which includes the royalty and the military, wished to establish itself in the midst of the ‘sentimentality’ of non-violence. It is noteworthy, historically, that the Brahmins succeeded in driving the Buddhists entirely out of India. The Jains have undergone much suffering, persecution and killing by the Hindus, and have become numerically insignificant in the Indian society.

Most experts suppose that Bhagavad-Gītā (as well as the Anu-Gītā[4], the ‘After-Song,’ another dialogue between Kṛṣṇa en Arjuna, but after the end of the war, and wherein it is confirmed that ‘nonviolence is the highest religion’) was not an original part of the Mahābhārata, an epos entirely about problems between kings and princes, which ultimately leads to war. This epos touches all areas of the normal human psychology, rather than ‘divine psychology.’ Throughout the Mahābhārata Kṛṣṇa plays the role of adviser, quite often in the function of abandoner of established war ethics and opposing non-action, i.e. nonviolence. But the Bhagavad-Gītā is a philosophical treatise about yoga, and apart from the first chapters, has nothing to do with the war.

Also the setting of the Gītā is improbable. Just as the two armies stand opposite each other on the battlefield and conch shells announcing the beginning of the battle are blown on both sides, including that of Arjuna, Kṛṣṇa, as Arjuna’s unarmed charioteer, leads the chariot between the two armies, and at that point Arjuna and Kṛṣṇa start a deeply philosophical discourse about various forms of yoga, which forms 18 chapters. Imagine generals and thousands of soldiers standing there on the battlefield waiting for many hours, if not days for two people having a philosophical discourse! Moreover the first weapons had already been thrown (I.20). The warriors would have been exhausted long before even the first arrow was shot. Included in the Gītā is a deep mystical, or rather occult, experience of cosmic magnitude by Arjuna, introduced to him by Kṛṣṇa, and which has a huge emotional impact on Arjuna. This too, does not really the most effective way of preparing a soldier standing on the battlefield with the arrows of attack already in his hand!

So there can be little doubt, it seems, that the Gītā (and also the Anugītā) was composed separately and then inserted in the popular epos. Many of the ideas of the Gītā had also been formulated in the earlier Upaniṣads. Perhaps it was put there by ‘reactionists’ against Buddhism (or against pre-Gautama Buddhism, or against Jainism)? It’s all our speculation though, and perhaps we will never know the real course of events as it took place.

Another option, which seems quite defendable, is that the first part of the Gītā did not really belong to the ‘original Gītā,’ but was composed as a transition between the main story of the Mahabharata and the actual Gītā. This portion includes the enumeration of a whole list of important warriors (up to verse 25), which however never return in the text of the discourse between Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna. Most of this section seems to have no significance for the rest of the sacred discourse. Then follows the doubt and despondency of Arjuna, verses 26-47 (i.e. the last verse) of chapter I, expression his serious ethical objections against the war. Next, in verse 2 and 3 of chapter 2, Kṛṣṇa answers Arjuna, accusing him of ‘consternation’ ‘unworthy of an Ārya’ [noble man], ‘unmanliness,’ ‘weakness of heart’ etc. But Arjuna, expressing himself in verses 4-8 is not convinced, and decides that he will not fight.

From verse 11 in chapter 2 on, Kṛṣṇa starts his famous preaching about the eternity of the soul and reincarnation, starting with: “The wise grieve neither for the dead nor for the living.” He explains ‘killing’ in the sense of ‘there is no existence for the unreal; there is no non-existence for the Real.’[5] (2:16). In fact this is a core teaching of Buddhism, which proclaims the emptiness (śunyatā) of inherent existence (i.e. illusionary nature) for the conventional worldly and mental reality, which they call ‘the unreal,’ but an ultimate Reality which is Consciousness and Mind, but beyond anything that can be conceived as by average people as consciousness and mind. From that phrase on, the rest the Gītā is entirely philosophical, except when in 2:31 Kṛṣṇa says: “There is no better thing for a Kṣattriya that a struggle consistent with duty.” And (2:32:) “This which has come unsolicited, and which is an open gate to heaven, is a struggle, O Pārtha, such as Kṣattriyas joyfully meet with,” But if not, “he enters upon sin,” and he will reap ‘ill fame’ and be ‘considered insignificant.’

Now, if we would mentally remove these verses discussing to the difference of view between Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna concerning ‘duty’ and nonviolence (ahiṁsā) in the war context of the Mahabharata, or we approach these verses from a spiritual background, the whole Gītā comes in a different light. The ‘struggle’ of a kṣattriya becomes the struggle of an aspiring mind, any aspiring mind, who decides to direct himself away from the material and worldly life towards the spiritual life. Then, of course, the ‘fight’ against one’s lower tendencies and weaknesses, and against dogmas and attachments (teachers and family) becomes obvious. It is the struggle and devoted effort of every individual man or woman who aspires to become a spiritual pupil – what a real human should be – of his own inner god or ‘silent voice.’ Then, suddenly, there would be no further reason for discussing the military opinion of ‘God.’ The Gītā has become a book of philosophy and yoga for every individual human being who strives upward.

In later chapters is hardly any reference to the actual situation on the battlefield. Only is VIII 7 the word ‘fight’ is used: “Therefore at all times keep your mind on me, and fight. With mind and understanding fixed on me, you will go to me, there is no doubt.” But here ‘fight’ does not refer to physical war, but to the difficulty of keeping one’s mind (which usually wavers to all sides) fixed on the spiritual.

Then, in chapter 11 we find a description of Arjuna’s cosmic vision of the real nature of Kṛṣṇa. In verse 26 the kings and some of the warriors of the Mahabharata are mentioned, which seems to link the story to the actual war situation. But if we read the surrounding verses, we see that the vision is entirely cosmic in extent, and refers to the natural destruction of worlds at the end of a kalpa (a period of billions of years – the death of the earth):

“Seeing, O you of mighty arms, your great form, with many mouths and eyes, many arms, thighs and feet, many stomachs, many projecting fangs, the worlds, and I too, tremble ! (11:23)

“For seeing you touching the skies, radiant, many-hued, with wide-spreading mouth, with great radiant eyes, I tremble in my inmost self; nor do I find fortitude and courage, O Viṣṇu. (11:24)

“Seeing too your mouths with gaping fangs, like the fire of death, I do not know the [different] quarters [of space], nor do I gain a refuge. Resume thy former state [: prasīda: settle down, became tranquil, clear quiet], O lord of gods, who art the abode of the universe ! (11:25)

“All these sons of Dhṛtarāṣṭra together with all the hosts of the guardians of earth [kings], Bhīṣma, Drona, and that charioteer’s son [Karna] together with our chief warriors, (11:26)

“hastening to thee, are entering your mouths, terrific with gasping fangs ! Some, with crushed heads, appear clinging to the spaces between your teeth ! (11:27)

Here it should be noted that ‘the (eight different) quarters of space’, i.e. the karmic activities of the lokapālas [from loka world + pāla protector from the verbal root  to protect], and their mundane representatives (originally) ‘the hosts of the guardians of earth [kings]’,means much more than normal kings. The lokapālas are the mystical guardians of the four directions, deities, not incarnated people as such, who are involved in the regulation of the karma of the earth and its hosts of living beings. They are the servants of karmic necessity, not the servants of their own worldly interests, as kings and presidents etc. have too often been and some still are. Arjuna in the vision, sees them no longer – he cannot be protected, he has to completely face his own deeds and their consequences. Why mention Bhīṣma and Drona at all in relation to this doctrine of cosmic extent? When one regards Bhīṣma and Drona and all the other leaders involved as servants of karmic necessity at the points of changing cycles, the whole Gītā the Mahābhārata come to stand in a different light. Then it becomes a story of the turmoil flowing from cyclic necessity, when the new has to replace the old for the sake of progress, an aspect of natural law.

This episode, the cosmic vision of Kṛṣṇa or the universe is a report of occult initiation. Death and Occult Initiation are the same – the first without one control, the second in full control. In Mahāyāna Buddhism in texts like the Bardo Thödol, ‘Liberation through Hearing in the Bardo’, better known as ‘Tibetan Book of the Dead’ and the also in the Pert em hru, ‘Coming Forth into Light’, better know as ‘Egyptian Book of the Dead‘ and other papyri, we find partly symbolic, partly ritual and partly ‘actual’ descriptions of the processes of consciousness after physical death. In all cases we find that there is a choice or confrontation – which can be quite awe-inspiring and terrifying (even more so than confrontations with ourselves in daily life because of the absence of a physical body) – between our purity or impurity of character (spiritual ignorance, untruthfulness, karma) and our divine essence. Always the lower aspects of our being leads us to suffering and rebirth and ultimately to annihilation (because illusionary) whereas the higher aspect of our being has to be recognized by our consciousness as Real – however much we would wish to turn away from at first). A like story we find here in the Gītā when Arjuna, transcending his normal waking consciousness, experience ‘death’ or initiation in a vision of the destruction of individuals and even of the whole earth – the views of which we cherish with our ignorant mind are all illusionary and have to perish. The destruction of ‘enemies’ en ‘relatives’ does not refer to men and women, but to there outer forms. No human being, whether Bhīṣma or Drona (if they would exist physically), millions of soldiers or you or me, ever die in their essence.

That does not mean that we should not take in account the suffering of all direct and indirect war victims – for those, like ourselves, who live within this illusion, the pain presents itself as extremely real suffering, and should be inflicted on no-one in any case and for any excuse. Causing suffering will receive suffering, according to karmic Law, and if we don’t break through it, the cycle will go on forever.

Continuing the quotations:

“As innumerable currents of water in rivers hasten on towards the sea alone, thus these heroes of the human world enter your mouths flaming before [them]. (11:28)

“As flying things enter into a flaming fire, with growing speed, to [their] destruction, just so to their destruction these beings [or worlds] enter with growing speed into your mouths. (11:29)

“You lick up from every side all worlds, swallowing them down with your flaming mouths. Filling all the universes with energy, they glare consumes, O Viṣṇu ! (11:30)

Arjuna says:

I desire to know thee, the Primeval, for I am ignorant of they courses. (11:31)

The Holy One said:

“I am Time [or Death] full grown, the destroyer of worlds engaged here in the withdrawing [from outward life] of worlds. Even without thee, all the warriors facing each other in the opposing ranks shall cease to be. (11:32)

Here reference is again made to the doctrine of cycles is the universe. One day (after more than 2 billion years in the future) the earth and all life will ‘die,’ like we die after some of decades. Death means no end to life, but only ‘withdrawing from outer life, for the time being, as the human soul withdraws from outer life at death until the next incarnation. Nothing ever really dies. Arjuna, the human mind, the yogi who wishes to reach union with the divine, has to face every challenge, and ultimately he will ‘withdraw from physical life forever,’ i.e. will be immortal for the duration of a larger cycle. Therefore it is right to say that enemies (i.e. illusions’) have already been overthrown by the higher self of the yogi.

We can also regard the Gītā as referring to cyclic transition on a smaller scale, but still within the universal context. As said, in the Mahābhārata, Kṛṣṇa does everything he can in this function to prevent the war. But intelligence has to fight blindness. The Mahābhārata war is also a symbol of a transition of cycles, in Hinduism called yugas. An important transition (but not the most important in the earth’s history) took place 5114 (this article being written in 2011 CE) years ago at the transition of the so-called Dvāpara yuga and Kali yuga, the ‘iron age’ in which we find ourselves at present, lasting 432,000 years. Something new is given to the world, and new souls are incarnating. The old has to make place for the new. The old can not always understand the young. But evolution goes on. That also, is why Kṛṣṇa new destiny, and why the war was almost unavoidable. In the same light, in relation to still smaller cycles within the great ones, the major wars of the 20th century were probably karmically unavoidable, because they were the confrontation of accumulation of long built ‘evil’ of the previous centuries with new ideas and ethics taking hold of the human mind and culture. Such cyclic wars are not just created by simple contemporary quarrels between peoples or their leaders.

To continue:

“Therefore stand up: seize glory! having conquered [they] foes, enjoy increased empire. Verily, these have been overthrown by me already. Become the [mere] instrument, O Savyasāchin! (11:33)

“Drona and Bhīṣma and Jayadratha and Karṇa, as well as any other heroic warriors, struck by me, so you smite. Be not dismayed. Fight! You shalt conquer your foes in battle.” (11:34)

Sañjaya said:

Hearing this discourse of Keśava [Kṛṣṇa], Kirītin [a name of Arjuna] trembling with joined palms, having made reverence again, with faltering voice and stricken with awe, and having bowed down, thus addressed Viṣṇu: (7 35)

Arjuna said:

“It is right, O Hṛṣīkeṣa, that the universe be delighted and charmed by praise of thee. All the rākṣasas flee affrighted in the [different] directions [diśo: points, quarters, of the compass], and the hosts of Siddhas pay obeisance. (11:36)

If we would interpret this holy scripture, the Song off the Lord as an actual propagator of war, we find some sayings by Kṛṣṇa which compare oddly with his earlier ‘aggressive’ pronouncements, for example in Chapter XVI (italics mine):

The Holy One said:

“Fearlessness, purity of nature, discrimination in the yoga of knowledge, liberality, self-restraint, sacrifice, study, penance, rectitude, (16 1)

Harmlessness, truth, freedom from anger, renunciation, equanimity, freedom from tale-bearing, compassion for all beings, absence of agitation, gentleness, modesty, absence of fickleness, (16 2)

“Spiritedness, patience, fortitude, cleanliness, freedom from malice, freedom from pride, are the divine accomplishments of him who is born, O son of Bharata. (16 3)

“Deceit, arrogance, self-conceit, anger, harshess too, ignorance, are the demoniac accomplishments of him who is born, O son of Prithā. (16 4)

Divine accomplishments are deemed to be for liberation, demoniac for bondage. Grieve not, O son of Pāṇḍu. You are born to divine accomplishments. (16 5)

In 17 14 ‘harmlessness [to all beings]’ is again mentioned.

And in 18 53:

“Who has become free from egoism, violence, pride, desire, anger and possession, who is unselfish, and calm, is fit to partake of the nature of the Brahman.”

So, summarizing, we should realize that the Bhagavad-Gītā can be understood at different levels. The first is the worldly level, the exciting story of two armies ready to fight a war, as discussed above, and overcoming cowardice. This how most people read it.

The second level is social-political: two fundamental views of how to life valuable and noble lives that lead to final emancipation stand opposite each other.

The third level is symbolic. Symbolically it is the struggle which every individual man or woman, you and me, has to fight in his life to conquer illusions, and ultimately (after many lifetimes) to gain liberation or nirvāṇa, to know the unshakable and eternal Truth.

The fourth level is esoteric. It can only be understood by those few who have proved worthy – by their genuine desire to gain real knowledge and their inner courage, and have been given the unwritten keys to a deeper understanding.

The first level, the military one, is why the Gītā is often criticized, as discussed above. It seems to spur people to war, and indeed soldiers are carrying the Gītā in their pocket while fighting. They use it to give themselves courage in their fear for pain and death. However as we shall see, Arjuna is already a person of the highest nobility, a kṣattriya, who would rather give up his life than to surrender his principles. He does not need this kind of mundane encouragement.

On the second level, which is interesting in relation to our present discussion, it is a discussion between the two basic principles of the śrāmaṇas who adhere to non-violence (ahiṁsā), and the Hindus, for whom the fulfillment of duty (dharma) is the most important. I’ll come back to this in a few minutes.

On the symbolic level it has nothing to do with physical warfare and weaponry. It is the inner struggle which each of us will have to fight, our spiritual duty or dharma. The battlefield, Kurukṣetra, is the body in which we live this life. That is why mundane existence exists: to learn to distinguish between what is universally True and what is untrue. Once one has decided that the only goal of life is to know Truth beyond illusion, we face the inner confrontation with our own illusions – to which one is much attached – and weaknesses like fear, egotism, and clinging to perishable things. That is why Arjuna sees in the opposing army: friends (i.e. things that agree with our style of life), teachers (who have taught us the things useful up to a certain point), and family members with whom he has been connected since ages (the bonds of mundane and social duties). All these are illusions which have to be conquered and left behind.

(to be continued: Part II)  The Bhagavad Gītā and nonviolence II: Symbolic Interpretation

– Rajasthani




  1. This article is the first part of The Bhagavad Gītā and Nonviolence. Part II is: Symbolic Interpretation [<<]
  2. see the section on Jainism on this website [<<]
  3. see the section on Buddhism on this website [<<]
  4. Describing another discussion between Arjuna and Kṛṣṇa besides the Bhagavad Gītā, after the war; in Mahābhārata, Parva 14. [<<]
  5. Translation by G. de Purucker. For his complete translation, click here [<<]