Why does the Bhagavad-gita call for violence?
Answer: The Bhagavad-gita calls not for violence, but for transcendence.
It may seem to call for violence because of its battlefield setting, but it uses that setting to demonstrate that its call for transcendence is practical, responsible and dynamic. Let’s see how the setting serves these three purposes:
- The practicality of spirituality: Many people feel that spirituality is too other-worldly and so is impractical or irrelevant given the urgent practical demands of this world. To address their concern, the Bhagavad-gita’s spiritual message is delivered on a setting that is eminently this-worldly and calls for the most urgent practical action: a battlefield. By showing how its spiritual wisdom solaced and empowered a responsible head of state, Arjuna, who broke down on a battlefield, the Gita illustrates poignantly the universal applicability of its teachings. If a person on a battlefield spared time for gaining its spiritual wisdom and found it relevant, practical and empowering, then no one needs to doubt the practicality of the Gita’s message and no circumstance needs to warrant relegating the Gita’s message to the “to be done later” category.
- The social responsibility of spiritualists:While the Bhagavad-gita offers a message that can guide any individual in any circumstance to personal transcendence, peace and fulfillment, it also recognizes that people at large can benefit from its message only when the prevailing sociopolitical order fosters moral and spiritual integrity. When the ruling heads of state are morally and spiritually depraved, as they were before the Kurushetra war, assertive action is essential to prevent people from being exploited, abused and ruined. The Mahabharata sections preceding the narration of the Gita describe vividly
- The multiple injustices and atrocities committed by the ruling heads of state, the Kauravas
- The repeated efforts of the victims, the Pandavas, to restore justice and morality in a peaceful way
- The utter disdain with which the Kauravas rejected all the attempts for peace, thus making a peaceful solution impossible
For those victimized by massive injustice, the Gita doesn’t condone a passive spectator role that reduces noble pacifism to impotent and suicidal utopianism. Instead, the Gita advocates pragmatic assertive action for protecting basic human rights. That violence should be the last expression of such assertiveness – and never anything other than the last – is illustrated by the exhaustive peace efforts that preceded it. The very fact that several globally acclaimed champions of non-violence like Mahatma Gandhi found inspiration in the message of the Gita demonstrates that violence is not its core message. Of course, those who find the battlefield setting discomforting have tried to explain it (away) in metaphorical terms, but such an explanation undoes the intrinsic pragmatism that makes the Gita’s message of transcendence so appealing. By delivering this message on a battlefield, the Gita illustrates that even those who consider life’s ultimate goals to be other-worldly have a this-worldly responsibility to contribute to establishing and protecting the moral and spiritual fabric of society.
- The inner dynamics of spirituality: The metaphorical interpretation of the Gita’s setting is not wrong, but it best harmonizes with the overall spirit of the Gita when seen as a supplement to –and not a substitute for – its historical context. Then, the battlefield setting, in addition to its historicity, represents our internal consciousness that features the battle between godly desires and ungodly desires. Each of us needs to win this inner battle if we are to play our part in establishing moral and spiritual integrity in society and not let our ungodly attachments to selfish interests sabotage our godly aspirations for personal integrity. Even when our godly aspirations are outnumbered by our ungodly attachments, as was the case with the godly Pandavas fighting the ungodly Kauravas, the Gita’s setting conveys the morale-boosting reassurance that when we harmonize our godly desires with God’s will, then his supreme power will empower us to attain inner victory and self-mastery.
To summarize, the Gita’s battlefield setting, when seen in its historical and philosophical context, reveals itself to be a call not for blanket violence, but for thoroughgoing spiritual activism.