Home » The Bhagavad Gītā and nonviolence Part II: Symbolic interpretation

The Bhagavad Gītā and nonviolence Part II: Symbolic interpretation

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

The Bhagavad Gītā and nonviolence

Part II1: Symbolic interpretation.

Note: in the second article a different translation is used than in the first.2

We will quote a number of verses from the first two chapters (of the18) of the Bhagavad-Gītā, and comment on them from the symbolic point of view in relation to our question concerning non-violence versus military duty.

I 24-40 44 – 47 (=end)

II 1-9 11-32 40-44 45 2nd half


I 24 –

Sañjaya said: “King, Kṛṣṇa drew the fine chariot between the armies of both parties and stopped there, as Arjuna had asked him. (1:24)

I 26

Arjuna saw, arrayed in both armies were fathers and grandfathers, maternal uncles, brothers, sons and grandsons, comrades and friends, father-in-laws and teachers – all were there. (1:26)

I 27-28

When Arjuna saw his friends and kinsmen in the ranks of two armies he was overwhelmed with deep pity (or softness) and said sadly: (1:27)

Dear Kṛṣṇa, when I see my friends and kinsmen ready to fight one another, all in such a fighting spirit, my limbs start shaking and my mouth is parched. (1:28)

Arjuna, seeing all this, is overcome by compassion for all living beings, friends and foes alike. OR IS HE? In the coming verses he shows himself almost as a Jain or Buddhist. This is indeed the compassion as thought by Buddhism. It is the core of the Buddhist teaching. In one Buddhist text it says: Compassion is no attribute. It is the LAW of Laws – Eternal Harmony …; a shoreless universal essence, the light of everlasting Right, and fitness of all things, the law of love eternal3

See how Arjuna speaks about compassion and non-violence:

I 29 – 35

My body trembles, my hair stands on end. The bow Gandiva slips from my hand. My skin burns. (1:29)

I cannot hold myself steady. My head turns, I see bad omens. (1:30)

I do not see any good in killing my relatives in battle. I do not wish for an empire or any pleasure, nor do I want to win the battle. (1:30)

Govinda (Kṛṣṇa), what avail to us is the empire, enjoyments, and life itself? (1:31)

What avail to us is all that when all those [As listed in verse 26] we may desire these things for, are arrayed here in battle, staking their wealth and lives? (1:32-34)

I would not kill them, Kṛṣṇa, though they should kill me – not even for the sake of ruling over the three worlds ((Earth, Intermediate state and Heaven – the three states in which the human conscious has experience during the cycle of life and death)) – how much less for this earth! (1:35)

Arjuna – mystically he is the son of Indra, the god of the mind – stands symbolically for the human mind, of which knowledge can only be partial. Kṛṣṇa however stands for his higher Self, or Inner God, the Knower, which in reality speaks to our mind as a silent voice. The mind, Arjuna, even says that he does not need mastery over the earth or even the three worlds (earth, the astral and the heavenly world). He does not want to kill, least of all the sons of the blind king Dhṛtarāṣṭra (material or physical wisdom without the eye of spiritual intuition).

I 36 – 40 –

Kṛṣṇa (Janārdana), what joy can we get by killing these sons of Dhṛtarāṣṭra? Sin will overcome us if we kill these felons. (1:36)

Therefore we ought not to kill our kinsmen, the sons of Dhṛtarāṣṭra, for how could we be happy by killing our own kinsmen? (1:37)

Overtaken by greed, these men see no fault in killing one’s family or hostility to friends. Why, Kṛṣṇa, should we, who see the sins involved, engage in these acts? (1:37-38)

With the decay of a family its right course [dharma] dwindles and disappears. Then the family will be involved in unrighteous deeds. (1:40)

I 44-47

Kṛṣṇa, we have heard it told that those of ruined family traditions live in hell. (1:44)

Alas, we are resolved to commit very sinful acts, ready to slay our kinsmen to satisfy our greed for the pleasure of a kingdom! (1:45)

It would be far better for me to let the sons of Dhṛtarāṣṭra kill me, unarmed and unresisting. (1:46)

Sañjaya said: Arjuna, having thus spoken on the battlefield, cast aside his bow and arrows and sat down on his chariot-seat. His mind was overcome with grief. (1:47)

This is the end of the first chapter of the Bhagavad-Gītā, in which Arjuna defends the standpoint of compassion and non-violence. But what is compassion? Is it a sentiment, or is it a Universal Law of Helpfulness and Self-Sacrifice (i.e. action, yajña) for the good of all, for which our personal wishes and comforts are but petty illusions. Practicing impersonal Compassion without any self-interest always guides us into the direction of the Universal Goal of self-consciously becoming what we really are?

II 1-9

Sañjaya said: “Seeing Arjuna overwhelmed with compassion and sorrow, eyes full of tears, Madhusudana (Kṛṣṇa) said. (2:1)

The Lord said: Arjuna, in this crisis, from where comes such lowness of spirit? It is unbecoming to an Āryan, it is not honorable, and an obstacle to attaining heaven; not befitting at all. (2:2)

Do not yield to unmanliness, son of Pritha. It does not become you. Shake off this trivial faint-heartedness and arise, you scorcher of enemies. (2:3)

Arjuna said: “Kṛṣṇa, how can I fight with arrows on the battlefield against men like Biṣma and Drona, who are worthy of my worship? (2:4)

It would be better for me to live in this world on alms rather than to slay these high-souled teachers. It I kill them, what wealth and pleasures I would enjoy, would be tainted with their blood. (2:5)

We do not know which would be better – conquering them or being conquered by them. Arrayed against us stand the sons of Dhṛtarāṣṭra; after slaying them we should not wish to live. (2:6)

I feel shattered inside and am terribly confused about my right course. Therefore, please, tell me clearly what is best. I am your disciple. Instruct me, who have taken refuge in you. (2:7)

I see no means to drive away this grief which is drying up my senses. I will not be able to get rid of that sorrow, even if I should conquer and become the unrivalled and flourishing ruler on earth, and becoming lord over the gods in heaven.” (2:8)

Sanjay said: “Having spoken thus, Arjuna, chastiser of enemies, told Kṛṣṇa, “Govinda, I will not fight,” and fell silent. (2:9)

Arjuna’s mind continues to argue with the inner voice (Kṛṣṇa) and decides in verse II 9: “I will not fight.” But Kṛṣṇa, who knows destiny, smiles, and starts talking now. And Arjuna listens to Kṛṣṇa, his higher Self, who he regards as his real and ultimate guru. The Bhagavan (= Lord Kṛṣṇa) then said:

II 11

The blessed Lord said: “While speaking learned words, you are mourning for what is not worthy of grief. Those who are wise lament neither for the living nor the dead. (2:11)

We ‘normal,’ apparently unwise, people mourn continuously over the dead or the living – at least if we have a heart. See the daily newspapers; and you feel it in yourself. But the mourning is only our pain; it does not help the one’s we mourn for.

Then the explanation becomes based in Kṛṣṇa’s deep occult knowledge. He says:

II 12

Never was there a time when I didn’t exist, nor you, nor all these kings; nor in the future shall any of us cease to be. (2:12)

This signifies that the real Kṛṣṇa or God, or jīva as the Jains call it, in a man or any creature had no beginning and will have no end. Our true essence is there all the time. If we know this consciously, we have become immortal. Arjuna, being a highly intelligent and a morally very sincere man, is ready to understand this. This is the beginning of his Path to Truth.

II 13-15

As the embodied soul continuously passes, in this body, from boyhood to youth to old age, the soul similarly passes into another body at death. A self-realized soul is not bewildered by such a change. (2:13)

Son of Kunti, the nonpermanent appearance of happiness and distress, and their disappearance in due course, are like the appearance and disappearance of winter and summer seasons. They arise from sense perception, scion of Bharata, and one must learn to tolerate them without being disturbed. (2:14)

Best among men [Arjuna], the person who is not disturbed by happiness and distress and is steady in both is certainly eligible for liberation. (2:15)

In the verses 13 to 15 is explained how to rise above the concept of mortality, and to become immortal. It is to pay no attentions to things that are transient – which is equal to what Jainism teaches – which manifest themselves only temporarily. They are not real, and someone who knows better passes through sufferings as a student through an examination: the examination is not real compared to the knowledge one wants to gain, and the fear helps neither the examination nor the knowledge. Failures do not exist in the spiritual world, except if the mind imagines one. Therefore Kṛṣṇa says somewhere further on in the Bhagavad-Gītā that Arjuna has already won. He can lose everything, even his life, which are all temporary phenomena, but his immortal Self can not get lost once his inner Vow is decided. Finally Arjuna’s mind will no longer torment him.

II 16

Those who are seers of the truth have concluded that of the nonexistent there’s no endurance, and of the existent there’s no cessation. This seers have concluded by studying the nature of both. (2:16)

This is a difficult verse. It says that the unreal does not exist. That means that nothing what is perceived by the mind – which can but bring forth illusions – is real, including our body, our feelings, our mind itself, and our very existence. This is difficult to except. I do not exist. Suffering does not exist. Whatever I think that I am, whatever I think that is my character, or what I have, is but a temporary illusion creates by the mind – the Arjuna of the Gītā.

But, you may say: “I know that I am, I experience it, I see myself, I think, I feel, I am conscious, so I exist. This is of course true, relatively. All these forms are there, but only as we think they are. Due to the mind, which itself is not real, the unreal is a part of the real, but is not the real. The Real is immortal, it has ever been and will ever be, but the Real is Nothing, or Empty as the Buddhists say, for our mind, The mind, like the senses, is but a feeble instrument. Ultimately nobody wants to live in illusions with continuous false hopes and sufferings, so a wise mind, like Arjuna and every spiritual person, seeks the Truth.

Note: This subject is extensively discussed in the Laghu Yogha Vāsiṣṭḥa4, one of the deepest texts of Indian philosophy and advaita, also posted on this website.

II 17-18

Know that which pervades the entire body is indestructible. None is able to destroy the imperishable soul. (2:17)

Only the material body of the indestructible, immeasurable and eternal living entity is subject to destruction. So, fight, descendant of Bharata. (2:18)

Here Arjuna is urged to fight all that which is not real. The unreal does not exist so its killing also does not exist, while the real can not be killed. So why not fight? We can not fight illusions with swords. We can only fight them with knowledge. Knowledge and understanding are of course fatal for illusions.

So why fight, if there is nothing real to fight? Arjuna, symbolizing our mind with its struggles, has to fight – this is his nature and his duty. The Gītā is a book on yoga, i.e. to reach conscious unification with one’s inner God. After the first two chapters the war plays no more role in the story. It deals with philosophy and yoga only. The setting of the story in the middle of the war is only introductory to the rest of the discussion between Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna.

II 19-22

He who thinks that the living entity is the slayer or that he is slain, does not understand. One who is in knowledge knows that the self slays not nor is slain. (2:19)

For the soul there is never birth or death. Nor, having once been, does he ever cease to be. He is unborn, eternal, ever-existing, undying and primeval. He is not slain when the body is slain. (2:20)

Partha, how can a person who knows that the soul is indestructible, unborn, eternal and immutable, kill anyone or cause anyone to kill? (2:21)

As a person puts on new garments, giving up old ones, similarly, the soul accepts new material bodies, giving up the old and useless ones. (2:22)

Here Kṛṣṇa establishes the doctrine of reincarnation. The imperishable take son perishable bodies and personalities for a number of years.

II 23 – 27

The soul can never be cut to pieces by any weapon, nor burned by fire, nor moistened by water, nor withered by the wind. (2:23)

This individual soul is unbreakable and insoluble, and can be neither burned nor dried. He is everlasting, all-pervading, unchangeable, immovable and eternally the same. (2:24)

It is said that the soul is invisible, inconceivable, immutable, and unchangeable. Knowing this, you should not grieve for the body. (2:25)

If, however, you think that the soul is perpetually born and always dies still, you still have no reason to lament, mighty-armed. (2:26)

For one who has taken his birth, death if certain; and for one who is dead, birth is certain. So, in the unavoidable discharge of your duty, you should not lament. (2:27)


This verse seems to be a little bit more down to earth. Even if you would (erroneously) regard the soul as subject to birth and death, there is no reason to mourn the death or the living, because it makes no difference to the soul – that which we eternally really are.

II 30

Descendant of Bharata, he who dwells in the body is eternal and can never be slain. Therefore you need not grieve for any creature. (2:30)

II 42-45

Men of small knowledge are very much attached to the flowery words of the Vedas, which recommend various fruitive activities for elevation to heavenly realms, resultant good birth, power, and so forth. Being desirous of sense gratification and opulent life, they say that there is nothing more than this. (2:42-43)

In the minds of those who are too attached to sense enjoyment and material opulence, and who are bewildered by such things, the resolute determination of devotional service to the supreme lord does not take place. (2:44)

The Vedas mainly deal with the subject of the three modes of material nature. Rise above these modes, Arjuna. Be supernatural to all of them. Be free from all dualities and from all anxieties for gain and safety, and be established in the self. (2:45)

With this the Jains would agree. Turning oneself away from worldly things and self-control is exactly what Jain and Buddhist monks do. In fact here Kṛṣṇa, the incarnation of a Hindu good, rejects the authority of the Veda’s as it had become understood by the Brahmins even in his day: a selfish interpretation and hollow ritualism for personal gain on earth or in heaven. But this was not where the Vedas were meant for.

Kṛṣṇa died 5114 years ago. During his life he is said to have had a cousin, Nemināth. Nemināth was a Jain Tīrthaṅkara (‘Buddha’), and according to Jain sources, Kṛṣṇa had great respect for him. Once, so tell the Jains, Kṛṣṇa complained to Nemināth, “Why can I never reach peace of mind, like you. Nemināth would have answered: What you do is now your duty. And he predicted that Kṛṣṇa would become a Tīrthaṅkara in the next upward cycle. In other words, the now functioning part of Kṛṣṇa himself had not yet reached the highest insight. In the Jain view, peace is always higher than war.


– Rajasthani


  1. Part I is: A Controversy []
  2. For the complete translation by Gottfried the Purucker see Bhagavad Gītā on this website []
  3. TheVoice of the Silence, Blavatsky, H.P. – translator and editor. []
  4. Online on this website: The Laghu-Yoga-Vāsiṣṭha []