Indiana University Bloomington

Now I Become Death: Approaches to Violence in the Bhagavad Gita

A child dressed as Krishna holds the Bhagavad Gita (AP Photo/Sucheta Das)

By Caleb Shriner
REL-B 220
Professor Rebecca Manring

The Bhagavad Gita, framed as a dialogue between the god Krishna and the warrior-prince Arjuna, is perhaps the most well-known and widely distributed Hindu scripture in the worldIn the West, eminent personalities such as Henry David Thoreau, Aldus Huxley, and Ralph Waldo Emmerson have been profoundly influenced by its contents. The timeless themes contained within the Gita, such as selflessness, devotion, the nature of the soul, death, and the implications of action, have been a source of inspiration, reflection, illumination, and even bewilderment for generations of scholars and practitioners alike. Here, I will treat with just one of the Gita’s more difficult overarching themes and attempt to demonstrate some of the ways in which the text draws upon the deep stores of established Hindu thought to intertwine with and inform its contents. The narrative of the Gita is originally catalyzed by a dilemma that Hindu scriptures had already been wrestling with for some time. This dilemma is the universal moral impasse regarding violence. The problem of violence and its ethical reprehensibility was not a novel topic by the time of the Bhagavad Gita, which reached its final form in roughly the 1st-3rd century of the common era. Pervious Hindu scriptures such as the Upanishads[2], which began appearing in roughly the 6th century B.C.E., had already established the discussion of the problem of violence quite firmly. Furthermore, the introduction of Buddhism and Jainism at approximately the same time, with the premium that each of these religions placed upon the ideal of non-violence, added an even greater demand for an immediate resolution to the problem of violence within the pan-Indian religious environment. Each of the above approaches broaches the topic in a variety of ways and presents an equally variegated range of resolutions for it. Despite the wide array of approaches and resolutions, the essential springboard question remains largely the same. This question is chiefly concerned with how one is to reconcile the ideal of non-violence with the simple existential reality of violence. Is it possible to fulfill the ideal of non-violence in a world in which violence appears to be a manifest inevitability, a world that in itself seems to betray its own inherent violence?

In the Gita, we see this age-old discussion taken up once again. In many ways the Gita ups the ante, so to speak, as we will see. The Bhagavad Gita, which is a chapter of the larger work Mahabharata[3], opens on the battlefield of Kurukshetra just before a cataclysmic battle is to be joined between two warring factions of a single family. The five Pandava brothers, the protagonists of the Mahabharata, are locked in a vicious struggle over succession with their cousins the Kauravas. By the time the Gita enters the larger narrative, this struggle had already been raging for many years. It is here, on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, that the tragic rivalry will reach its decisive conclusion. As one of the five Pandavas, Arjuna will doubtlessly be a key figure in the impending conflict. However, it is in this crucial moment before the looming bloodshed that Arjuna, surveying the vast armies arrayed for battle and recognizing the familiar faces of family, friends, and teachers among the enemy ranks, begins to question the morality of the circumstance he has now found himself in. Here, we see that Arjuna is not expected to participate in a violent conflict with anonymous and foreign aggressors. Instead, he is expected to kill members of his own family. He is expected to participate in a catastrophically violent conflict against people that he has known intimately for his entire life. Not only is Arjuna’s dilemma one of violence in and of itself but one of violence directed toward individuals whom he loves and respects. Arjuna’s misgivings about violence are countered, and the dilemma insurmountably compounded, by the fact that he is a kshatriya. According to traditional Hindu models for the organization of society, a kshatriya is a member of the social class composed of rulers and warriors. Discipline, righteousness, justness, and bravery in battle form the paradigmatic characteristics of a kshatriya. As a member of the governing military class, Arjuna is expected to live by and uphold this strict warrior ethos. Arjuna finds himself faced with an impossible ultimatum, that is, he must choose between his personal ethical condemnation of the violence he is about to commit or his obligatory duty as a kshatriya. It is in the face of this impasse that Arjuna’s resolve utterly collapses. Arjuna states forlornly:

I see perverse omens; and before me I see no good in killing my people in battle, Lovely-Haired Krishna! Krishna, I long neither for victory nor kingship nor pleasures. Lord of the Cows, what is kingship to us, what are delights, or life itself? The ones on whose behalf we long for kingship, delights, pleasures- these are the very ones drawn up in battle…even though they are ready to kill, I don’t want to kill them… (Bhagavad Gita 1.31-35)

The Bhagavad Gita establishes the problem of violence on a very personal level and attempts to resolve it in relation to a social duty which is inherently violent by nature. The audience may very easily sympathize with Arjuna’s position, torn between two worlds, two ideals, two duties, desperately caught in the middle. To its credit, the Gita does not shy away from attempting to tackle a particularly difficult question, a question that appears to have no right answer, no ultimately satisfying resolution. Had Arjuna been anything but a kshatriya then the dilemma may have been solved quickly and satisfactorily or may never have come about in the first place. Had the dialogue been between Krishna and, say, a renunciate sage then the ideal of non-violence may have been propounded and a world-shattering ultimatum would have been easily skirted. However, had that been the case, then the complexities of the problem of violence would never have been addressed. Simply put, it is very easy to talk about violence and non-violence when the context is two sages pontificating in a tranquil hermitage. It is not so simple when the context is a warrior, whose very duty in life is to kill, on the battlefield. Again, the author(s) of the Gita ups the ante by choosing to place a warrior at the center of the narrative and framing the dilemma in an immediate and critical context. This would appear to provide some evidence for how much the conflict between violence and duty tolled on the mind(s) of the author(s) of the Gita. Ultimately, Krishna advises Arjuna to fulfill his duty as a warrior, but that is not to say that the Gita condones violence. The Gita does not appear to praise or revel in acts of violence for their own sake. Rather, it may be understood as an attempt, perhaps even a desperate attempt, to come to terms with violence as an existential reality. Wendy Doniger states “…Mahabharata as a whole is passionately against war, vividly aware of the tragedy of war, despite the many statements about the inevitability of violence.”[4] In many ways, the Gita appears to make the statement that one does not have to condone violence in order to accept its unavoidability. Understanding violence as an inevitable reality is not the same as reveling in it. Following this thread of understanding, the Gita attempts to make some sense of violence as a reality and presents several resolutions for Arjuna’s agonizing dilemma.

One of the first rebuttals that Krishna offers as a resolution to Arjuna’s doubts is the idea that death and killing are ultimately illusory and, thus, any ethical dilemma they may appear to present is a mistaken attribution. Krishna appeals to the concept of the self or soul (atman) and its ultimate indestructibility in an effort to illustrate the point that the “death” of the physical body should not be understood as death in any real sense of the word. In the Bhagavad Gita 2.18-20, Krishna argues:

These bodies have an end; but they are said to belong to the eternal embodied self- that which is never lost and cannot be measured…The one who perceives the self as a killer, and the one who perceives the self as killed: neither of them know that this self does not kill, nor is it killed. The self is not born nor does it ever die. Once it has been, this self will never cease to be again. Unborn, eternal…the self is not killed when the body is killed.

In this way, the Gita attempts to resolve the problem of killing and violence by arguing that it is not a person’s real self who kills and, likewise, it is not a person’s real self who is killed. If the self is eternal and unchanging, then it cannot be killed when the physical body is killed and, thus, killing is an illusory notion. The idea of the eternality and transmigratory nature of the self had already been established by the time of the Gita. Texts such as the Chandogya Upanishad had previously treated the doctrine of transmigration in some detail and established a belief in the rebirth of the soul into a new life after the death of the physical body.  Further, the monistic paradigm presented in extant Upanishadic literature had already posited the unitive nature of existence and the equivalency of the individual soul with that of the universal soul. According to Upanishadic sages, there was no essential difference between the self of the individual and the cosmic self, therefore the individual self was possessed of the same eternality and immutability as the universal self. These approaches are taken up in the Gita to support the position that, if a person dies, they haven’t really died and, in the same way, if a person kills, it’s not really them who did the killing. The text draws upon Upanishadic sources, in some places slightly adjusting them, in order to advance the argument that death should not be understood as being possessed of any tangible reality. To understand death as a finality is an illusion. In fact, the Gita even goes so far as to employ the metaphor that death should be understood as being no different than changing from one set of clothes to another.

The tendency of the Gita to take up preexisting or contemporaneous doctrines and ideas, such as those presented in the Upanishads, and slightly adjust them in order to fit its context is a recurrent theme in the text. We have already seen how the Gita reinforces the Upanishadic concept of the self in the example above. The Gita again draws upon extant sources when it takes up the Upanishadic ideal of renunciation. Upanishadic thinkers, centuries before the Gita was composed, had championed a radically renunciate philosophical system which encouraged complete abandonment of worldly involvement in favor of asceticism. The ideal of the renunciation of action is one which figures prominently into the text of the Gita as well. However, the Gita reorients the Upanishadic paradigm of ascetic renunciation and presents an innovative approach to this ideal. Rather than abandoning action entirely, this new paradigm posits what might be understood as renunciation in action. In the Gita, it is not the giving up of action itself that is encouraged but, rather, the giving up of personal motivations and attachment to the desired result of actions whilst still engaging in those actions. Krishna advises Arjuna to perform action for its own sake and abandon the selfish desire for its results. In the Gita, it is not necessarily what you do, it’s how you do it. Action undertaken with an attitude of renunciation suggests that the performer is untouched by, immune to, or above the outcome of that very action. Performing action simply because it must be done, without desire for its results, is an approach which Krishna extols at length in the Gita and presents as the true pinnacle of renunciation.

One who does what must be done without concern for the fruits is a man of renunciation and discipline, not one who shuns ritual fire and rites. Know that discipline, Arjuna, is what men call renunciation; no man is disciplined without renouncing willful intent… He is said to be mature in discipline when he has renounced all intention and is detached from sense objects and actions… He is set apart by his disinterest in comrades, allies, enemies, neutrals, nonpartisans, foes, friends, good and evil men (Bhagavad Gita 6.1-9).

What appears to be established in the Gita is a radical equanimity in action. It extols action and the performance of duty, but also advances the notion of detachment from the results of those actions. In this way, the Gita maintains the ideal of renunciation but reconfigures it into a new approach which allows for the continuation of action within the bounds of social duty. One can be a renunciate while still acting in the world. It is clear how this approach to renunciation may be applied to the dilemma of Arjuna. By performing his duty as a warrior while remaining detached from its outcome, Arjuna is able to effectively remain untouched by the results of his actions whilst simultaneously fulfilling the ideal of renunciation.

In addition to appeals to and reworkings of Upanishadic concepts, the Gita takes up the discussion of duty (dharma) in an effort to resolve Arjuna’s ethical crisis. The Mahabharata is a text brimming with meditations and discussions concerning the ungraspable yet paramount nature of the concept of dharma. Mahabharata is best understood as an expansive discourse on ideas of duty and righteousness. It seeks to probe the difficulties and, more often than not, flat out contradictions of human interaction. It raises questions concerning righteousness and obligation, what one is expected to do and what one should do. Referring to the relationship of dharma to the Mahabharata and, by extension, the Gita, Doniger states “dharma… is the centerpiece, for which the narration (the recitative) is merely a frame.”[5] As a part of the Mahabharata, though likely a later addition, it should come as little surprise that the Bhagavad Gita contributes a few comments of its own to the larger discussion. We see in chapter two of the Gita that dharma is largely framed in relation to social duty. The development of a system of social occupation is something alluded to as far back as the Vedas. The Vedas are the earliest collection of Hindu scripture and are generally dated to 1500 BCE. In The Hymn of the Primeval Man presented in Rig Veda 10.90 we already begin to see early references to the class system. “His mouth became the Brahmin; his arms were made into the King, his thighs the People, and from his feet the Servants were born” (Rig Veda 10.90). This Vedic hymn, detailing the sacrifice responsible for the creation of the universe, appears to posit a primordial cosmic precedence for the division of society. At the time of this hymn, the divisions may have been somewhat tenuous and lacking in full definition. However, by the time of the Gita the class system had become more fully developed and the idea of each class being possessed of a specific dharma more widely disseminated. To be fair, dharma is a difficult word and concept, as the Mahabharata delights in making a central theme of the text. Exactly when dharma came to be associated with the specific duties of a given class may prove difficult to establish. Further, the association of dharma with social duty is not the only understanding of the word, even in the Gita or the Mahabharata as a whole. Despite this, there are several verses in the Gita which explicitly treat with class duties. In the case of Arjuna, the duty of the kshatriya class is referred to in some detail. In chapter two, Krishna encourages Arjuna’s participation in the battle by appealing to his sense of duty as a warrior:

Look to your own duty, do not tremble before it; nothing is better for a warrior than a battle of sacred duty. The doors of heaven open for warriors who rejoice to have a battle like this thrust on them by chance. If you fail to wage this war of sacred duty, you will abandon your own duty and fame only to gain evil. People will tell of your undying shame, and for a man of honor shame is worse than death (Bhagavad Gita 2.31-34).

Here, Krishna is essentially telling the warrior to go and be a warrior. It may seem like a trifling argument in the face of Arjuna’s dilemma to simply remind him that he is a warrior. However, taken in the context of the understanding of the sacred precedent of the class structure presented in texts such as Rig Veda 10.90, we may begin to appreciate the way the Gita presents the performance of class duty as being of principal significance. It may be argued that the Gita understands the performance of one’s duty as central to the maintenance of not only the social fabric but of the cosmic fabric as well. Krishna’s exhortation to Arjuna to fulfill his sacred duty as a kshatriya combined with renunciation of the outcome of his actions and an understanding of the true nature of the self as separate from the physical body are key components to the Gita’s attempt at resolving the problem of violence.

In summation, the Gita takes up the discussion of violence and offers its own approaches to coming to terms with an unfortunate reality. The Gita borrows from the understanding of many sources which were prevalent within the larger religious environment of its time. At times, the text reconfigures these approaches or inserts its own unique understanding and context in order to deepen the discussion. This textual intersectionality aides in illuminating a view of the Gita as a teaching which is contiguous with preexisting Hindu thought while simultaneously offering adapted perspectives and solutions. The interesting yet simultaneously tragic truth concerning the dilemma of violence is that it never seems to go away. The only thing that changes are the ways in which individuals and societies at large attempt to grapple with the dilemma and reconcile ideals with reality. The Gita offers its own reconciliation in the context of social duty, the performance of action counterbalanced by the renunciation of self-motivated desire, and the understanding of one’s true identity as being something separate from the body that carries out said duty and actions.

 

Footnotes 

[1] Bhagavad Gita (from Sanskrit, meaning “Song of the Lord”) is a Hindu scriptural poem comprised of 700 verses located within the 6th book of the epic Mahabharata. The text is set as a dialogue between the god Krishna and the mortal Arjuna. Throughout the text of the Mahabharata, Krishna acts as friend, counselor, teacher, and comrade to Arjuna and his siblings. It is within the narrative of the Gita that Krishna’s divine identity as an avatar of the god Vishnu is finally and dramatically revealed to Arjuna. Acting as Arjuna’s charioteer, Krishna provides the warrior-prince with spiritual council in the moments before a great battle. Through the character of Krishna, the text expounds philosophical and metaphysical teachings and addresses crucial questions regarding duty and morality. For a full translation of the Bhagavad Gita, see B.S. Miller The Bhagavad-Gita: Krishna’s Council in Time of War (Bantam Books, 2004).

[2] Upanishads (from Sanskrit, meaning “to sit near”) refers to a body of literature originating from sometime in the 7th-6th century B.C.E. These texts largely contain doctrine and theory fundamental to Hindu philosophy, metaphysics, cosmology, and spirituality. Though the term Upanishad references a large -and still growing- body of literature, the 12 “major” Upanishads have historically garnered the greatest amount of study and attention. For a thorough examination and translation of the 12 major Upanishads, see P. Olivelle Upanishads (Oxford University Press, 1991)

[3] Mahabharata, composed between 300 B.C.E. and 300 C.E., is one of India’s two great national epics. It is made up of 18 books and recognized as one of the longest single pieces of literature in the world today. Mahabharata falls within the literary classification of Itihasa, or historical and epic literature. The themes taken up within this text have come to be regarded as foundational to classical Hinduism and remain influential to this day. The location of the Bhagavad Gita within the Mahabharata has garnered some speculation over the centuries. It is likely that the Gita was not included within the larger narrative until the Mahabharata had reached its later stages of development. Thus, the Gita appears to be a late addition to the text. It’s location within the Mahabharata would suggest that the Gita also be classified as Itihasa. However, some have suggested that the Gita may be seen as an Upanishad in its own right, citing its general metaphysical and philosophical themes as justification for classification as an independent sacred text.

[4] W. Doniger The Norton Anthology of World Religions: Hinduism (W. W. Norton & Company, 2015) 166

[5] W. Doniger The Hindus: An Alternative History (Oxford University Press, 2009) 258

Bibliography

Doniger, Wendy The Hindus: An Alternative History (Oxford University Press, 2009)

Doniger, Wendy The Rig Veda. (Penguin, 2005)

Doniger, Wendy The Norton Anthology of World Religions: Hinduism (W. W. Norton & Company, 2015)

Griffith, Ralph T. H. The Rig Veda (Motilal Banarsidass, 1992)

Miller, Barbara S. The Bhagavad-Gita: Krishna’s Counsel in Time of War (Bantam Books, 2004)

Olivell, Patrick Upanishads (Oxford University Press, 1991)

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