Gita Talk #4a: Gandhi’s Bible or a Call to War?

One of the first difficulties that confronts the new reader of the Gita is that Arjuna is being urged to fight a bloody war, one in which he knows many of his friends, teachers, and relatives will be killed. 

This can be somewhat of a shock to someone reading the Gita for spiritual enlightenment, perhaps aware that it was one of the guiding lights for Gandhi.

How can we resolve this issue of the Gita’s attitude toward war?  Here are a few suggestions: 

1) You can decide that this is a justified war. Think of his opponents as like the Nazis–they need to be stopped or they will enslave us all. It’s not obvious in all commentaries, but some make it clear that Arjuna’s opponents, at least its leaders, are really bad people. They are dishonest, violent, abusive, immoral, materialistic, and power-hungry. 

2) You can see war as a metaphor for struggle. It’s true that the Bhagavad Gita was Gandhi’s bible.  The ultimate pacifist concluded that war was an ordinary human activity back then, like going to the office for the elite classes.  It’s what they did, so that was an obvious example to use at that time.  But it’s just a metaphor now.  Perhaps it was a metaphor even back then.

Gandhi and others simply convert Arjuna’s battle into their own life struggle, even a rigorously pacifist agenda like Gandhi’s.  This point of view removes the difficulties of justifying violence.  The Gita helped Gandhi give himself completely to his mission, which was to free India though non-violent means.  See Gandhi’s The Message of the Gita, p. 211-221 in Mitchell.

3) A third way to reconcile the war setting is that many commentators think the Gita was grafted into this context from another source, since the vast majority of it has nothing to do with war, and, in fact, much of the Gita is more supportive of Gandhi’s pacifism than war.  It really does seem like a complete non-sequitor when, after a long flowing passage about loving all beings as one, Krishna will suddenly say, “So now go out and kill like crazy.”  Probably a bolt on?

Just when I was feeling self-satisfied about the “war as metaphor” and “Gita as bolt-on” approaches above, we got this moving comment on Gita Talk #3 from Debyoga: 

The first time I read the Gita…was several years ago when my son was in Iraq. It was actually an assignment for my 200 level yoga teacher training. I can definitely relate to p. 18 when Mitchell says the following: “When you approach it as a sacred text, you can’t help standing, at first, in the place where Arjuna stands, confused and eager for illumination”.

I think I felt that at the time because war was so real to me. It was difficult as Mitchell wrote about whether Arjuna should fight as being the secondary question. I was a little angry about the wars and the fact that my son and other sons and daughters were there too. Overtime after several readings, even if I didn’t have the exact clarity of the primary question, “how should we live?”, p. 18 I think I got to that place with the Gita. 

I suppose what I’m trying to say, it that it was then as it is now, very much a part of my yoga journey and I think by the focus being on “how should we live” wars would cease to exist.


Please give us your thoughts:

• How do you choose to deal with the battlefield setting of the Gita?

• How do you feel about Gandhi’s essay The Message of the Gita?  Why do you think Mitchell chose to take the unusual step of including it in his book?

 • Have you read other commentary on the Gita you’ve particularly liked?

Next week will be our last regularly scheduled Gita Talk.
If you’ve been away, this is a great time to rejoin us for the Grand Finale.
We’ll look back at all the “Big Ideas and Best Quotations” of the Gita.
I hope you’ll dive in with all your ideas and questions.

Please see
Welcome to Gita Talk
for all Gita Talk blogs and general information.
Jump in anytime and go at your own pace.

39 replies on “Gita Talk #4a: Gandhi’s Bible or a Call to War?”

Hi Bob!
In the Gita, I think that we are being called to reconcile the human struggle with divine inclinations. And rather than fleeing from suffering with a great cosmic Om, that we are being called to deal with the nuts and bolts of life–or maybe that’s just me…

So in a sense, I agree with Gandhi in his references to ‘work without attachment to results’:

“This is the unmistakable teaching of the Gita. He who gives up action, falls. He who gives up only reward, rises. But, renunciation of fruit in no way means indifference to the result.” 

In terms of these texts I have a teacher that says that we should take what is helpful. Disregard the rest. And never force yourself to believe what an authority says if it doesn’t resonate as true for you.

Not just you at all, Brooks!

I would say "deal directly with the nuts and bolts of life" is one of the primary messages of the Gita. It specifically rejects escapism by pounding on the theme of action on page after page. It seems to me that even the idea of the wondrous (=divine) reality is partly for the purpose of reducing our penchant for immobilizing worry.

That Gandhi passage you quote was actually a huge breakthrough for me personally. Before reading that right here in the Mitchell Gita, I kept saying to myself, "how can I even decide how to act if I don't give a damn about the results, and if results don't matter, how can we be ethical and moral and caring?"

Then I read that passage. Huge "AHA" moment. Renunciation of fruit in no way means indifference to the result. Bingo. Now I get it. It's more like a cosmic "Don't Let the Turkeys Get You Down". Just get out there and do stuff and don't worry so much about what it means for you.

Bob Weisenberg


I choose not to reconcile the contradictions in the text. I think it has multiple meanings and it is equally valid to see it as supporting war as anything else. It is what it is.

I liked most of Gandhi's take on the Gita. It provides a good example of how to use it as a practical text in the modern world and offers ways to interpret the text that are more palatable to the modern tongue.

I tend not to read commentary or reviews of important works until I have read them for myself to my own satisfaction, so I haven't read any other commentaries. I am glad I read this one though.

Hi, YogiOne.

That's a great way to approach an ancient text–no commentary until you've absorbed the text on your own!

I tend to do the opposite–read all the commentaries, preferably disagreements and debates if I can find them, then read the text armed with a lot of ideas and understanding going in.

But I can certainly see the virtues in you your approach. I'll try that next time.

Bob Weisenberg

I wonder if the war could be understood as a metaphor for how to live and act with spiritual integrity when faced with what seems like an impossible situation to do so in. War itself is an extreme example of what could be seen as many analogous situations. For example, I read about the oil spill and feel heart sick over the photos of the oil-covered wildlife. But living my life and even going to yoga class requires getting in my car and driving, contributing to the demand for oil that produced the disaster in the first place. Just one example but to me it feels relevant – the Gita presents an understanding of how to live a life of action and involvement in the world despite what seems like many situations in which it would appear impossible to do so with ethics and integrity. It is an alternative to the view that to be spiritually engaged you need to withdraw from worldly live as much as possible.

Right on, Carol.

I heard a radio show about Yoga the other day in which the host stated matter-of-factly that a certain modern famous Yoga teacher had "brought Yoga out of the caves", saying that Yoga used to be all about escaping from the world and meditating in the forest before our hero, alive today, made it into something we all could practice.

Obviously that radio commentator was not familiar with the Gita! Yoga has been about living in the real world from the very beginning.

Thanks for writing, Carol.

Bob Weisenberg

RE: commentators think the Gita was grafted into this context from another source.

Indeed, Gita is part of the Mahabaharata, an epic about the Kurukshetra War.

The emphasis is on dharma and karma; war is just a manifestation of that.

Hi, Amy.

Probably a little misunderstanding here, Amy. We know, of course, that the Gita is part of the Mahabaharata, and have talked about that in previous Gita Talks, with links to Wikipedia for background.

But by "grafted on", commentators mean they think it might have existed quite separately originally, without the battlefield setting, and then someone decided to fit it into the Mahabaharata, altering it at the beginning and end and just a couple of minor places in the middle to fit.

Very controversial, I know. But that's what #3 means. Perhaps you can tell us how widespread this theory is among Gita scholars.

Bob W.

The Kurukshetra War was a war fought with Arjuna's cousins and extended family. Arjuna didn't want to fight the war because he was torn between the love for the brothers and cousins he grew up with and the unwillingness his extended family had to meet him halfway. Arjuna and Krishna are one and the same. The "war" being referred to is an internal struggle to do what Arjuna is being called to do, which is slaughter his cousins and make things historically accurate. I am not a scholar, nor am I an expert, however I would also agree w/ @Jelefant that life is war. You must decide to do what you have do, and as a person, you can succumb to the popular opinion and drink the Kool-Aid, or you can follow your own path and remain true to your nature.

Thank you Bob,

To my understanding of the Kurukshetra War, the Pandavas and the Kauravas where related through bloodline. Arjuna had grown up with his "cousins." There are many alliterations that when Arjuna arrives on the battlefield, (of Dharma) he sees his enemies are his actual family, IE: grandfather, cousins & loved ones, and he has doubts about fighting his family.

The conversation that ensues between Krishna and Arjuna is the complete story contained within the Bhagavad Gita.

I think that Krishna is Arjuna and the entire conversation is about a person fulfilling his destiny, be it war, be it whatever life throughs your way, and your "spiritual" dharma is to do that thing. Again, I am no expert.

Hope that clears it up,

Thanks for writing Brian.

The phrase I don't understand is not "slaughter his cousins", but rather "make things historically accurate". Is that just another way of saying "predetermined destiny"?



Even as a yogi with nearly 10 years of practice, I'm saddened to say that I've not taken the time to read the entirety of the Gita. Shameful? Yes, but this post makes me all the more intrigued to jump in with both feet (or eyes, as it were). My husband recently joined the Marine Corps & plans to stay in for at least 20 years. As a practicing yogi & Buddhist, I was naturally disturbed by his interest in a career in warfare. While I can't say that I approve of a military career, I do support my husband in everything that he does & have begun a journey of knowledge to understand more about the nature of conflict on a military scale. We all struggle & we all have something to fight for (even if we don't know what it is yet). When these struggles collide, we find war – the internal battle becomes external & invariably hurts innocent people. The human race still has a lot of growing up to do.

Thanks for commenting, VIctoria.

I was never in the military, but my father was a career Navy officer, so I grew up in it, going to 8 different schools in 12 years of school up through high school.

Your situation with the Gita is very typical. That's one of the main reasons I started Gita Talk and now Gita in a Nutshell, to encourage a reconsideration of the Gita by those who have either never read it or have read it but have only a distant or even antagonistic relationship with it. It can be a difficult text. I'd like to make the path less rocky than it was for me.

Bob W.

Wow, I didn't know that you had a military history. Even as a military brat, you experience a unique side of the lifestyle that many don't understand. All in all, it sounds like you managed quite well 🙂

Thanks for writing, Joe. Actually, you don't sound confused to me. You're just supporting the main point of the blog–that the Gita, like all great spiritual texts, can be interpreted in a variety of ways.

But you're in good company if you think the Gita is anti-war. Gandhi was not confused by this point. But he knew others would be, so he wrote an eloquent essay about the Gita. Mitchell thought it was so important that he included the entire essay as the sole appendix to his book!

And people change their minds depending on the circumstances, too. I just finished reading a wonderful biography of Einstein. He and a whole generation of the best and the brightest European intellectuals of his day were ardent pacifists until Hitler started taking over Europe, and the vast majority of them underwent an instant conversion.

Thanks again for a thoughtful comment.

Bob W.
Yoga Editor

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