Non-Violence and the Bhagavad Gita
In my first ever reading of the Bhagavad Gita, it drove me crazy that the text was promoting non-violence yet Krishna seemingly urged his disciple Arjuna to go to war. On a symbolic level, the Gita can be seen as an intricate metaphor for our struggle to return to God and that the Hero, Arjuna, is fighting against his innate weak tendencies rather than human enemies. Yet, the discrepancy between the Yogic principle of ahimsa (non-violence), and the resulting war described after the events in the Gita (where Arjuna and the Pandavas win the day, bringing on a golden age of peace) nags me to this day.
The Mahabharata (of which the Gita is a part) is full of the history of wars, including others in which Krishna took an active role. Why would this particular war be strictly metaphorical? If even the Gods fight in human wars, how should we conduct ourselves as Spiritual Warriors on a daily basis as well as in the face of a truly oppressive aggressor? Is it right to use violence under certain circumstances?
The Gita starts out with Arjuna on the battlefield as his family, the Pandavas, are poised ready to take back their kingdom from the corrupt Kauravas. Arjuna is in the midst of a crisis of conscience as he sees his family represented on each side and knows that many deaths will take place. It might seem as if Arjuna is the epitome of non-violence at this point; he is ready to face death rather than to see the destruction of relatives whom he had respected in the past. But what will happen if he doesn't fight? As Krishna points out, his relatives will war anyway and without his leadership, the oppressor’s side may win and much more suffering will occur. Arjuna will be outcast as a coward and will not have lived up to his dharma. Is ahimsa (non-violence) to be tempered with dharma (right conduct)? If so, in what measure?
The example of Gandhi, who self-professedly lived his life based on the Gita, serves as a clear example that non-violence can be used successfully as a means of resistance. However, it has been pointed out that for non-violence to win, the oppressor has to be capable of being swayed by their innate humanity. If the same techniques had been used against a Hitler or some of the recent dictators in modern Africa who have perpetrated genocide, non-violent resistance probably would not have won out.
Not all of us are spiritually ready to suffer the consequences of non-violent resistance. Even Gandhi said that "He who cannot protect himself or his nearest and dearest or their honour by non-violently facing death, may and ought to do so by violently dealing with the oppressor. He who can do neither of the two is a burden (1).” Everyone has their own path and challenges – some may tend to shrink from a dispute because of fear or even laziness and this should be overcome.
We humans seem to always be at war - the battle without perhaps reflecting the battle within. Like Arjuna, our karma may lead us to a place or situation where we are bound to act and our only decision is in how to perform the act. What is the right response? In his commentary on the Gita, Paramahansa Yogananda states that “A soldier should not shrink from a righteous battle; the noble-minded and valiant will but gain in the end. If he dies in fulfilling his duty of protecting the innocent, the warrior's good karma will follow him into the afterlife (2).”
The Warrior II pose gives an understanding of the state of mind one might possess to both follow the yama (restraint) of ahimsa, yet be prepared to act in a way consistent with upholding dharma.
Our feet and legs are planted steadily in this world with enough flexion to easily move forward to parry an opposing thrust or back to avoid unnecessary conflict. From the side, we seem vulnerable – exposing the heart and the belly. There is no guile in this stance – our intentions are open and honorable. We gather Earth energy through our legs, strengthening our naval chakra while Heaven energy energizes our heart. The mix of these two energies creates a powerful center, giving us the strength to hold our arms steadily outstretched, our mind single-pointedly fixed on attaining the goal of union with the Divine; a union in which we hope all conflicts are resolved.
--------------------References and Recommendations--------------------------------------------------------
(1) Gandhi, (Vol I. P. 77). Non-Violence in Peace and War, Volumes I and II. Navajivan Publishing House, Ahmedabad, 1948.
(2) Paramahansa Yogananda, (P. 262). God Talks with Arjuna: The Bhagavad Gita. Books 1-5. Self-Realization Fellowship, Los Angeles, California, 2001. Plunge deeply into the Gita! Yogananda’s two-part series is scholarly in the sense that sources both historical and inspired are well documented, yet the text is easily and enjoyably read and understood.