Why does the Gita use a setting of war to convey its transcendental message when such a setting can be abused to provoke communal violence?

by Chaitanya Charan dasAugust 11, 2014

Such a setting can be easily misused by those wanting to provoke violence in the name of religion

Answer Podcast

Transcribed by: Argha Maji

Question: Why does the Gita use a setting of war to convey its transcendental message when such a setting can be abused to provoke communal violence?

Answer: No, the Bhagavad Gita is clearly a philosophical book spoken to an intelligent audience. Arjuna is asking deep philosophical questions and Krishna is answering those questions based on dharma. So such an audience is expected to have the discernment to understand the difference between the setting and substance. And moreover if we fear that Bhagavad Gita’s setting can be misunderstood and we need to look no further then, some of the most celebrated commentators of the Bhagavad Gita whether it is Sankaracarya who commented impersonally on Gita or Ramanujacarya or Madhvacarya or Baladeva Vidyabhusana who commented from personal tradition, none of them themselves fought war or exorted followers to fight war, even when there was sufficient provocation for war. Especially when Sankaracarya was there, at that time Buddhists were largely ruling the country and when Ramanujacarya or Madhvacarya were there at that time Muslims were ruling the country. But none of them while writing their commentaries concluded, ” Now all of you, because you are faithful to the Gita you should fight and destroy the mlecchas.” That was never their import.

So, we see that the utilisation of the Bhagavad Gita as a nationalistic book for instigating violent protest against oppresive British rule, that was a strategy adopted by modern Hindu nationalist leaders who wanted a book that would unify Hindus in their fight against the oppressive British rules, in fact some leaders of Indian National Congress even went to the extent of saying that just as Krishna incarnates periodically to destroy adharma so the Indian National Congress, they claimed as incarnation of Krishna and Britishers are personification of adharma and we should destroy them and whoever joins this war for destroying the Britishers, they would all be followers of Arjuna. So this sort of opportunistic interpretations of the Gita where the Gita is reduced from universal spiritual book to a sectarian nationalistic book which leads to the call for violence is rank opportunism which is really not faithful to the message of the Gita. Now, Srila Prabhupada while commenting on the Gita was much more nuance in his approach. He definitely accepted that the Bhagavad Gita’s setting was real and war did take place , Krishna did ask Arjuna to fight a war and Arjuna fought the war but the essential message of the Gita which Srila prabhupada illumines in his purports and which Krishna speaks is neither violence nor silence, its transcendence. And the setting is used to demonstrate the urgency of the philosophical message of the Gita. So people think that,” I don’t have time for practicing spirituality.” So who can be in a greater crunch for time than a warrior who is about to fight a war. So, the warrior, if war is delayed can even lose his life . But at such a time the person is ready to fight a war. So it demonstrates how spirituality is urgent , it cannot be postponed for anything. So, firstly the war setting demonstrates the urgency of spirituality and it removes all excuses for postponing spirituality to be done later.

Secondly the war setting also demonstrates the point of the social responsibility of spiritualists. The whole Bhagavad Gita’s message, if we read in 700 verses, war is not mentioned more than a dozen times, after the first chapter. Except for the eleventh chapter where there is a theophany of the universal form, war is not mentioned much at all. And what is essentially mentioned is bhakti and transcendence and yet at the end of it, Arjuna fights. So, that means even if one is illumined transcendentally, at that time also one should not give up one’s social responsibility whatever it may be. For Arjuna his social responsibility was fighting the war, for us our social responsibility might me something else. The war setting also demonstrates the social responsibility of the spiritualists. That they are not just meant to pursue their own transcendental realisations, but they also have a responsibility to society, to maintain the order in society by sharing spiritual knowledge and by helping create systems that will share spiritual knowledge and that responsibility should not be shirked in the name of spirituality. So, in today’s setting it may not involve fighting a war, it may involve simply sharing the message of the Gita in an effective way. And that’s what Srila Prabhupada established ISKCON for doing.

And thirdly, the setting of Gita also demonstrates that one should not chicken away from violence in the name of pacifism. So where everything else fails and there is no other way to resolve, so the Udyog Parva of the Mahabharat, the parva which comes before the Bhagavad Gita which comes in the Bhishma Parva, it delineates exhaustively how the Pandavas made every single effort for avoiding war. So, when Kauravas stubbornly, insolently rejected all peace proposals even when those proposals were offered in the most accommodating terms, then the only way to restore justice and equity in society was fighting a war. So the Bhagavad Gita with its background demonstrates that war should not be anything but the last alternative. But it does not enthrone a naive pacifism where war is ruled out entirely no matter what. And unscrupulous elements are given free hand and society is allowed to go to hell. So therefore the Bhagavad Gita’s setting demonstrates the urgency of spirituality, the social responsibility of spiritualists and the necessity for assertive action in order to correct social wrongs when everything else fails. So these are the things that the setting teaches and the possibility of that setting being misunderstood as a literal call for violence that will come only when people deliberately overlook the philosophy of Gita and intentionally, opportunistically just look at the setting and try to say that action has to be replicated in today’s setting.

So, no discriminating reader of the Gita, no discerning thoughtful reader of the Gita will get carried away by such a literalistic call for violence based on the Gita’s call for assertive action. Thank you. Hare Krishna.

About The Author
Chaitanya Charan das

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