Gita in a Nutshell #6: Gandhi’s Bible or a Call to War?

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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?

• Have you read other commentary on the Gita on this particular topic that you’ve particularly liked?

 (This blog originally appeared as Gita Talk #4a, which created a robust discussion, and is still open for reading and response.)

#5: Why Is the Gita So Upsetting At First?

#7: Is the Gita Asking Us to Repress Our Emotions?

(Complete contents at
Gita in a Nutshell: Big Ideas and Best Quotations
To receive notice of each weekly blog,
please join our Facebook group.)

18 replies on “Gita in a Nutshell #6: Gandhi’s Bible or a Call to War?”

I deal with it like this: the primary point of the Gita, as I read it, is to wake up/open completely in the midst of our lives. "The midst of our lives," is not always or even usually peaceful. Struggle in one form or other seems to be a universal experience. So whether, we happen to be a soldier serving in a war zone, a mother dealing with a two year old's tantrum, or a person dealing with office politics, the metaphor holds.



What better way to illustrate suffering than war? The complete opposite of Ahimsa, the battle field in the Gita is the battle field of life. The Gita asks us, "How do we act in a world of suffering?"

Krishna is passing wisdom on to Arjuna as a way to "win" the battle. Personally, I never really struggled with the fact that the Gita takes place in the midst of war. When compared to other sacred texts, such as the Old Testament or the Koran, the Gita is quite mild (start with Cain and Abel). Also, most of the commentary that I've read justifies the war, as Bob notes. Arjuna is facing some pretty radical people, war seems inevitable.


Hi Bob, I like the way you present this.

I see it as doing what we know has to be done, as a metaphor for tough love, using fierce discrimination and taking into account that our actions always have side effects, so using intelligence to move along, yet, moving, doing what needs to be done. I think the Gita also talks about doing the work we love rather than work we don’t, I suppose it also applies to that to following our dharma, doing what is our duty with full discrimination, then giving up e results to Krishna

Hello! I agree, the interpretations of war can vary. To me when I read the Bhagavad Gita and other religious texts. I try not to take them too literally as English wasn't the original language they were written in. When translating texts, the idea is to transfer the idea of the essence of what is being said. To me the message about Arjuna's fate to go to war is about dealing with internal and external conflict.

So many good comments. Thank you All.

Please note above, Frank, You meant the Kurauva, not the Pandava. And actually, although Duryodhana is quite "bad", certainly Grandfather Bhishma and the Pandava's guru and mentor, Drona, are exemplary, but flawed.. The blind king, Dritarashtaha is "blind" with affection for Duryodhana, who is unworthy of the affections that blind the king to dharma. Even the sons of Pandu have their weaknesses, for example Yudhishtira's gambling away Drupadhi and his brother's kingdoms, and Arjuna's depressive despair, reflecting the weaknesses and strengths in humanity. I am not judging these characters, but trying to show how their virtues and weaknesses reflect us all.

In any case, this world is made up of both Knowledge and ignorance. Krishna asks Arjuna, and the Arjuna in all yogis, to "fight" or as Frank puts it, to decide intelligently, purposefully, dharmically, to follow spontaneously the flow of Knowledge ever present in the eternal Now. We are asked to synthesize the conceptual opposites we are faced with and "fight" on, by choosing Truth, Consciousness, and Beauty.

Bob, my favorite ancient text, is the Yoga Vasishta. There is a concise version published by SUNY press that is excellent. In essence, it is a text that narrates the rishi teaching Rama, or God, how to be God! A beautiful exposition of nonduality or advaita.

Happy Yule, All. Thank you for letting me share, and thank you, Bob, for the forum.

I read the Gita for the first time at this time of year in between Christmas and New Year last year. I had no previous knowledge of it, it was a set book on my yoga course.

I read the back of the book and thought, "what" how is that, how can this book which is considered to be a great spiritual piece start in a battlefield. How does this fit together I am confused.

So I thought, ah well, it's a bit intense but I'll give it a go. The first time we step onto the battlefield and look at the choices Arjuna has to make I was "in" the story. How does he get out of this?

This part of the work is picked over and over, using it as a metaphor, or disregarding it totally but I think without it the whole song would not hold together. The awful, fowl, terrible extremes of war and killing and death are a perfect backdrop for the perfection of love that Krishna shows. I have used this "battlefield' in my own life, over and over again. When I am faced with a situation where I have power over, how am I using my power, what is the right decision, where does my service to others lie how to stop myself manipulating a particular outcome – to let go. It starts off on such an awfulness of confusion that I just couldn't help but fall hopelessly in love with Krishna by the end of it.
I rather like the battlefield – it is a metaphor, it makes sense to me.

I have always loved the drama at the beginning of the Gita, all that chest-beating and conch-blowing. Then Arjuna asks Krishna to bring the chariot right into the middle of the field…then time freezes and we are witness to this beautiful conversation between the Divine and the Divine embodied…a conversation we each seek as practitioners and a wonderful metaphor for our yoga.
I love Douglas Brooks' "Poised For Grace" published by Anusara press: "As surreal as it may be for a philosophical conversation of more than six hundered verses to take place on a battlefield in a chariot poised between two armies, it is this incongruity that offers us the text's first distinguised teaching. We must look for life's meanings whereever we find ourseves and whenever such opportunities arise…. We can ask ourselves: Is this really a conversation at all between two entirely different beings? Or is it like placing ourselves between two mirrors and being offered multiple images of ourselves?"

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