When an eye for an eye will make everyone blind, why does the Gita teach that?
Transcription: Suresh Gupta
Editing: Sharan Shetty
Question: When an eye for an eye will make everyone blind, why does the Gita teach that?
Answer: Bhagavad-gita does not teach the philosophy of “an eye for an eye”. Rather, it teaches that we should act out of spiritual love and do whatever that is best for the expression of ours and others spiritual love. Krishna told Arjuna to fight the battle not just to avenge the wrongs done to him by Duryodhana but because Duryodhana was disrupting society, disrupting dharma and taking all of society towards adharma which was causing distress, disorder and disaster. Focusing on this point, “an eye for an eye will make everyone blind” reminds us of a respected Indian spiritual teacher who adapted this biblical saying which in simple term means “Tit for Tat”. For such sayings, there is a time and a place where they can be applied and there is also a time, place, circumstance where this philosophy will not apply. For example, when two people are having a street fight and both fight with each other and break each other’s teeth, both will become toothless. But if there is a larger interest involved, in the sense, that there are two states and each state is trying to conquer the other state. If one state attacks and the other state stays silent then the first state will become more and more threatening. Rather, if the first state hits and the other state hits back as harder as it can, and this goes on for a while then essentially it will lead to both states becoming cautious of each other and leading to deterrence. Deterrence means a state may avoid an attack thinking it can lead to a counter-attack but if there is no hitting back from the state which is being attacked, then the attacking state will exploit, destroy, dominate or even enslave the other state and there will be complete misery for the ruler who was submissive. For example, Hitler was on a rampage, tormenting the Jews and this Indian leader wrote him a letter asking him to not fight and tried to bring out the nobility within him, but it was in vain. There are some people who are so despotic that when they see someone surrender to them, they do not see that as an opportunity for expressing compassion but rather as an opportunity for expressing domination. Such people see surrender as weakness and a reason to destroy. Thus, when there are small petty trifles and if we start thinking of avenging each and every one of them then there will be continuous animosity and it will degrade the relationship of both people. But when one of the parties is anyway hostile and exploitative, the relationship between them will remain hostile at some level. In a situation where a husband and a wife are living together or two brothers or two sisters are living together in a family, “an eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth” is going to create continuous animosity and therefore they will need to overlook the small faults since they have to live together but say if we have a situation of countries like India and Pakistan where Pakistan keeps provoking and provoking and India keeps tolerating and enduring passively then Pakistan will become more brazen leading to a continuous and growing threat of terrorism, insurgency, violence in India. But when India hits back, Pakistan will understand that it should avoid posing any threat and be careful, else India may hit back harder. I am not recommending a war against Pakistan but simply pointing out, that in real politics, the simplistic forgiving attitude will simply lead to self-destruction.
The Bhagwad Gita teaching is that if there can be individual morality then that must be separated from social or state morality. For example, in Chapter 18, when Krishna talks about the qualities of people in different varnas, he describes kshama – forgiveness as one of the characteristics of brahmanas but when he is talking about kshatriyas he says (BG 18.43), yuddhe capy apalayanam – courage in battle as one of their characteristics. Why is this difference? Because the brahmanas at the individual level can be forgiving, but if a king at state level is forgiving, that will lead to transgressors exploiting, dominating, destroying the kingdom. This misconceived sense of charitability or forgiveness cannot be used when the opponent is hostile and bound to exploit and dominate. In history, many Indian kings who were indiscriminately forgiving thought they were very dharmic but unfortunately they did not understand the serving of dharma. They did not understand that kshatriya dharma and brahmana dharma are to be very different. Often the invaders used this forgiveness for their benefit and came back attacking. Each time they were forgiven, they repeatedly came back and attacked and eventually when they conquered, they did not forgive, they slaughtered.
The point is, certainly Bhagwad Gita is not a book which calls for violence. It is very clear about morality and codes of war. The battle took place on a war field between two armies who were prepared, equipped and trained to fight without causing any harm to innocent civilians. It in no way propagates terrorism in the name of religion where terrorists kill defenceless, innocent and unsuspecting people, such a thing is completely against any principle of dharma. Now a brahmana, who is not having a state position, can be forgiving at an individual level, but such a thing can be disastrous at state level because at the state level there are actions which affect the entire kingdom. Therefore, if a king forgives the aggressor and the aggressor attacks and destroys the king and lays pillage on the whole kingdom then sense of forgiveness is mistaken. The real world is such, that a king needs to use force – sometimes to punish criminals within and sometimes to attack and counterattack invaders from without.
Therefore, “an eye for an eye” when it is used in petty trifles among people living together in a family or in a close setting, then it leads to escalation of hostilities but when there is aggression between two states, at that time, the possible strategy of counter-attacking helps in creating deterrence and prevents the escalation of hostility and violence in that situation. Hence, the dharma of a brahmana is different from the dharma of a kshatriya. Forgiveness is the dharma of brahmana and fearlessness in terms of not fleeing from a fight and being willing to fight when necessary for the sake of protection, that is the characteristic of a kshatriya.
To summarise, the Bhagwad Gita does not recommend indiscriminate violence nor does it recommend revengeful attitude like “an eye for an eye” or “a tooth for a tooth” rather the Bhagwad Gita talks about doing whatever it takes to establish dharma and to keep those who are opponents of dharma out of power.
End of transcription.