Gandhi’s Bible or a Call to War? (Gita Talk 4)

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.”

The reading for this week was Chapters 3-4, thru p. 80.

The reading for next week is chapters 5-6, p. 81-98.

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 did you feel about the reading for this week, Chapters 3-4, p. 61-80?

–What did you like?  What did you dislike? 

–How does it relate to your life?

–What questions would you like to ask?

We would like to hear from all of you, even if it’s just to let us know you’re out there!

If you feel lost and need a roadmap, see Gita in a Nutshell: Big Ideas & Best Quotations

The reading for next week is chapters 5-6, p. 81-98.

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Previous Blogs In This Series (latest first):

Why Is the Bhagavad Gita So Upsetting At First? (Gita Talk 3)

It’s Showtime. Please Start Talking All At Once! (Gita Talk 2)

Falling Head-Over-Heels In Love with the Universe. (Gita Talk 1)

Ten (mostly funny) reasons to read the Bhagavad Gita.

Ongoing Resources:

Gita in a Nutshell: Big Ideas & Best Quotations

The Original Sixteen Session Gita Talk

Yoga Demystified (free eBook)


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and to meet fellow participants.

33 replies on “Gandhi’s Bible or a Call to War? (Gita Talk 4)”

We sometimes assume that the Gita is always being serious and never humorous. Perhaps that is the case, I tend to wonder if this is not one of those places where the sudden contrast of spirituality set against this stabbing and slashing of one human being by another is like a literary koan. That is, it may be a mind-stopping contradiction. The greater question to me and many hatha yoga practitioners, is–what is the relevance of this? It may be that the Gita is using the most extreme context, as if to say “if Karma yoga applies here then it certainly does in your situation also”. Whatever the challenge is which we must face, the common mental preparation must be 1st the awareness of our anguish, 2nd to take a stand firmly in our commitment to the calm confidence and presence of mind which our teachers (like Krishna) assure us is is possible.

It seems that the lord has made it clear to Arjuna, that he is called to duty and to leave the results to the gods. And because Arjuna is trained at a specific art of war he is told to "get up" and get busy. The topic of karma and divine conciousness will continue and will seek justification with right action. I suppose. Start Chapter five now or may I offer some deeper insights? Krishna speaks of evil preventing Arjuna (or anyone) from ever knowing the truth and blames "desire" as the enemy. For me I wouldn't be out there dressed for battle unless I was protectimg something I desired very much. My way of saying I'll defend what I love but I do see the higher faith in a greater power that has existed throughout the ages. Krishna gets into sin and even dilusion but the wise through service can find the truth, cut doubt out of our hearts and act or not…

–How do you choose to deal with the battlefield setting of the Gita? For me the Battlefield setting of the Gita is a metaphor for life, whe are confronted with choices and some are more tough than others

–How did you feel about the reading for this week, Chapters 3-4, p. 61-80? I found chapter 3 immediately resonating with me, re-reading it now completely rather than going back to it every now and then as I have been doing in the past year. Chapetr 4 was more difficult for me, particularly all the parts related to sacrifice, until in a different version (the Italian translation of the S. Radhakrishnan version/commentary) it appeared that sacrifice was to be intended as self-control

–What did you like?  What did you dislike? The Yoga of action is definitely the one I relate to the most. In the Jnana Yoga chapter I loved the idea of a wise entity coming back to us when time is ready. I found the caste system dififcult to accept, but again as from may translation it would appear that they are not defined by birth but by personal predisposition, I can accept it better

–How does it relate to your life? I tend to apply the BG traching in the wo rk setting

–What questions would you like to ask? I need help with the last stanza in p 78 (4.36): “even if you were the most evil, wisdom is the boat that would carry you across the sea of sin”. Does this mean that knowldegde is a mean to overcome wrong thinking?

Hi, chiara ghiron. Interesting question about 4.36. I think you're right about it. I think it's saying that this wisdom is universal and applies to everyone, not just the holy among us. This wisdom is so universal that it applies even to the most evil, both in the sense that the world is still infinitely wondrous (divine) with or without evil and in the sense that this wisdom can provide redemption from evil.

I see Krishna's urging Arjuna to war as a definite metaphor for struggle. Personally, when I have walked into (instead of resisted) the biggest challenges in my own life I have seen amazing spiritual transformation. I suppose when we walk away from struggle or metaphorically "war" we don't walk into that opportunity for personal transformation. In other words, our pain seems to be the pathway into learning our divine nature.

Here's a different interpretation – not my original thoughts, but from a Brahma Kumaris perspective: " One of the last significant statements that is very moving is when Lord Krishna explains, "Whether you kill them in your mind or on the battlefield, it is the same thing." Lord Krishna was urging him to fight, not the violent battle, but the internal one of the web of attachment."

Hi! Just now making time to dialog… so grateful for the discussion. It's been good to eaves drop but wanted to join the conversation- a little deviation from the war topic…
In 3.7-11, Krishna tells Arjuna: "if you want to be truly free, perform all actions as worship."
How does Krishna define worship? I usually think of it as devotion toward the Divine or God. But what does that devotion look like? And, if the Divine/God is the Self (you and I), what really then, does "worship" look like?
I'm talking day to day, practical stuff. You see people stop and close their eyes before eating. A prayer ("men are released from their sins when they eat food offered in worship") giving thanks to food/ the rain/ to everything to what/whom: the Self?
Then, in 3.17-21, "but the man who delights in the Self, who feels pure contentment and finds perfect peace in the Self- for him, there is no need to act"… but then the prior verses, he also says "worship is from ritual action. Ritual action, from God… Thus, the all-present God requires the worship of men".
I'm not asking for a debate here (I really don't care for debates…it's more fun to look at things with open curiosity.) I would like to know, though, what you think worship looks like. Coming from a "religious" background, my worship was more centered on faith, prayer, study, praise… absolute acknowledgment that the glory – any praise should go to the Divine. To glorify God = worship.

Hi, Melissa. To me worship is seeing the infinite wonder in everything–seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary, and this is the same as worship, whether one does that in a church or looking out one's kitchen window. See Honey I Shrunk the Kids. Excerpt:

To someone practicing advanced Yoga, everything is wondrous and divine, from outer space to a paper clip, and everything in between. We are all like astronauts all the time, always able to perceive the infinite wonder of the everyday world if we just train our minds to do so. You don’t have to travel into space to enjoy the astronauts’ overwhelming experience of union with the Universe.


It's mind-stuff, conceptual thinking and attachment on the part of Arjuna. We become attached to kith and kin,, as can be seen in the 150,000 innocent men, women and children slaughtered when America went into Iraq, which we don't consider for one moment, and the not quite 3000 innocent people slaughtered in the twin towers, which we wont ever forget.

There is no difference, only how we attach ourselves to it, our concept of it. We are energy and spirit which never dies, our physical body manifests into another form of energy when we die, nourishing flora and fauna. And our spirit? well in the context of the Gita, we reincarnate into another facet of the grand scheme of things. So why morn the passing of one more than another?

Understanding one's dharma and negotiating within the context of daily life is a vague and exquisite thing. We are constantly reassessing our roles in a changing world. When all is interlocked and it's often hard to see the truth of the fight all we can hope for is the heart and tenacity for the soul searching of Arjuna and after that, the clarity of Krishna. Whether the war was a metaphor or an actual battlefield what is important is that no act of aggression was done thoughtlessly. Because sometimes aggression is called for. Enjoyed the post and discussion! Hilary

I find and am somewhat bothered by something that I feel is an apologist attitude towards the Gita and it’s setting in a battle. Battles of this sort were not uncommon in the day and age that the Gita was written, therefore the reality of their existence would make the idea of death and killing something people of the time could relate to and therefore hopefully gain a deeper understanding of the ideas being taught. I think by implying that it is purely metaphorical it is easier for us to approach the Gita with a “well they really didn`t mean that!” attitude. Which in turn gives us license to avoid the tougher questions presented by it. It`s a form of intellectual or even spiritual sanitization that allows us to conform the lessons of the book to our own ideals without needing to open ourselves fully to the ideas of the book first. I don`t disagree that it can be used as a metaphor but ignoring the possibility that the Gita teaches us at times that our own Dharma may involve unimaginably challenging situations to be faced (imagine staring down a friend, teacher or family member with a blade raised) limits our perception and understanding of where we may be required to go. By limiting the depths of moral challenge by eliminating the possibility of this being `real` we also limit the heights we may aspire and climb to. Yoga is not about a black and white answer, it`s about embracing the constant flux of our own existence. I feel the apologists wish to make a “peace at all costs” argument, and I realize that I seem to be disagreeing with a man who I respect in the deepest ways. Even his peaceful ways brought on violence in certain realms and for certain other ethnic and religious groups. Arjuna faced an unjust, totalitarian regime which refused to even work towards an agreeable peace. Had Ghandi been facing the Communists of China and not the United Kingdom, the outcome may well have been a Tianemen Square of even more epic proportions. This is the grey area, no one proper answer for every situation. It teaches the skillful negotiation of each situation and to apply the proper response at the proper time. It opens you to the understanding the challenges and opportunities of life are limitless and we cannot simply rest upon a moral high-ground and refuse to take responsibility for what is demanded of us by our individual Dharma. This is the beauty and challenge of life, and the beauty and challenge of the Gita.

[Battlefield Setting Part One:] Most translations of the Gita’s first verse (1:1) agree that this battlefield—Kurukshetra—is a very special battlefield: it is the battlefield of dharma, of religious duty, or the center of religious activity. Kshetra means “field” and the Gita’s 13th chapter, whether or not it was added by authors other than those who were responsible for the first twelve chapters, is devoted to “The Discrimination of the Kshetra and the Kshetranja.” The idea here is that the former is the body and the latter is the indwelling spirit. Here it matters less who the authors of Chapter Thirteen were than it matters that the Sanskrit term for a field could be used as a metaphor for the human body. I have read the arguments for and against seeing this battlefield in metaphorical terms. I am persuaded that Radikrishnan and Ghandi (and many others) are correct: the only warfare taking place on this battlefield is spiritual warfare.

[Battlefield Setting Part Two:] There are striking parallels with the metaphorical use of a field for the human body and the absolute requirement for engaging in spiritual combat in the teachings of Jesus. In his teachings the only locale metaphor where full spiritual maturation takes place is in “the good soil” (The Sower) and in “prepared soil” (Grain of Mustard Seed). In the gospel of Thomas is a saying of Jesus that literally suggests that the human body can be used for spiritual growth (Thomas 29). Jesus, too, urged his followers to do battle. In Strong Man’s House he urged them to enter and loot the house of a strong person, and in The Assassin he advised them to “kill the powerful one.” The strong or powerful one is a metaphor for the ego.

[Battlefield Setting Part Three:] Ancient and modern hearers and readers of these combat sayings of Jesus have struggled with them just as they have with Krishna’s urging Arjuna to fight. In Jesus’ teachings the battle takes place between two houses: the house of the spirit and the house of the demon/ego. In the Gita the battle takes place between the house of the Pandavas and the house of the Kauravas. I have come to the view that the former is a metaphor for the spirit and the latter is a metaphor for the ego. In the Gita the ego is defeated by detachment, concentration and meditation. Jesus called this practice “marveling.” [END]

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