56. Does Bhagavadgita Teach Violence?

Mahabharata war scene

by Jayaram V

Notes: I have translated the Bhagavadgita twice. The first one was a loose translation. The second one was a word to word translation with a detailed commentary. The commentary is however different from what you will find here. In this section I will share with you my thoughts about the knowledge, philosophy and wisdom of the Bhagavadgita as I understand it from my perspective. Jayaram V

Synopsis: This essay refutes the argument that the Bhagavadgita instigates violence and explains why it was delivered in the battlefield amidst two armies with war as the backdrop and warriors as the main participants.

One of the chief arguments against the Bhagavadgita is that it instigates violence, which is usually made by those who have no understanding of it or who want to speak negatively about Hinduism or the scripture. However, it is not true.

The book is not about violence or war, but about duty, knowledge, intelligence, renunciation, purity, service, sacrifice and devotion. It is not about causing death or destruction, but overcoming the problem of death and destruction and achieving liberation through spiritual and transformative means.

The Bhagavadgita does recognize the implications of violence in human life and how human beings with wicked nature and the predominance of impurities or demonic qualities can lose discretion and engage in sinful actions which will lead to suffering, delusion and bondage to the cycle of births and deaths.

One of the verses (2.21) in the second chapter of the scripture explicitly clarifies its stand on violence. It states, “He who knows that the Self is indestructible, eternal, unborn and inexhaustible, how can he kill or instigate others to kill.” Elsewhere it affirms, “He who does not cause disturbance in the world and is not disturbed by others, he is dearer to God.”

The scripture clearly identifies the distinction between the physical self and the spiritual Self or the gross and subtle bodies. The bodies of the beings are perishable, whereas the Self is eternal and indestructible. It is absurd to kill something which is not subject to birth and death, which was never nonexistent in the past and will never be in future.

Further, the Self is unborn, permanent, most ancient and remain untouched even when the body is killed. When the body dies, the Self survives and takes rebirth according to his karma or goes to the eternal heaven. Since the Self is indestructible and exists in all, in truth no one truly dies. Death is just an illusion or a temporary phenomenon.

However, it does not mean that anyone can kill anyone, without consequences. Virtue is still important, and no one can escape from the consequences of sinful and desire-ridden actions. God is the protector and upholder of Dharma and he who defies his laws or causes disturbance in the world will face divine retribution and falls into lower hells.

Nonviolence is thus the ideal, unless there are exceptional circumstances. Nonviolence is the natural state of the Self, which is passive and does not perform any action. Pain and suffering are for the body which is perishable. The Self remains unchanged and passes on from one birth to another and one body to another, until its liberation. It remains impervious to the happenings of the world and the impurities of the mind and body even when it is in bound state.

Spiritual people who stabilize their minds in the contemplation of the Self know the consequences of evil nature. They practice nonviolence as their natural state and do not engage in any form of violence to fulfill their desires or to defend their egos and interests. In exceptional circumstances when it becomes necessary and when it is part of their obligatory duties, they may engage in fighting wars.

Even then, they must perform their actions with indifference, free from desires and attachments, and as a service or sacrifice to God. By performing selfless actions and by renouncing the desire for victory or defeat or loss or gain, they uphold the order and regularity of the world and their essential Dharma.

To understand why the Bhagavadgita was delivered in the battlefield amidst two large armies rather than anywhere else, one has to know why the main participants of the scripture are warriors. Lord Krishna, Arjuna and Dhritarashtra were renowned warriors. Sanjaya, the seer, was not a participant in the real sense, but a witness. The choice of the characters was intentional to convey the relevance and importance of its message to the warrior community.

We have little doubt that the scripture was originally meant for the warriors, who frequently faced the prospect of killing others or being killed by them in the performance of their duties. It was probably recited before or during the wars, which used to be brutal, to motivate the soldiers and teach them importance of duty and sacrifice in the line of their duties so that they could engage in war with courage equanimity, detachment and renunciation and embrace death if necessary as a sacrifice, service and an act of devotion to God.

The battlefield is a difficult place to perform any duties, more so without losing grip on one’s emotions and sanity. It is where your faith and values are tested to the core. It is difficult even for the most courageous person to participate in any war or war like situation without suffering from moral and mental dilemmas, ignoring the brutality of the war and violence it unleashes. Unfortunately, although peace is the most desirable option in a civilized world, wars cannot be entirely avoided due to the vulnerabilities of human nature and the clash of ideas, egos, desires and interests.

In such circumstances, one needs a valid philosophy which is rooted in eternal values and divine wisdom, and a strong, moral and spiritual basis which can withstand human judgment and clear doubts and fears. The Bhagavadgita precisely does it. It teaches people how to deal with difficult choices, even the prospect of facing death or causing death and engage in actions with sacrificial attitude as a service or offering to God.

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