Tuesday 16th April 2024,
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Is the Bhagavad Gita a War Manual?

Is the Bhagavad Gita a War Manual?

Image result for krishna in the mahabharata artIn recent times such a criticism has often been made of the Bhagavad Gita, that it contains material that exhorts or exalts war, and worse, that it is a type of ‘war manual’ in the mode of the Chinese ‘Art of War’.

But such a view can come only by a cursory reading, without reference to the Gita’s background in Vyasa’s great epic, the Mahabharata.

Much of Mahabharata is actually dedicated to the description of the eponymous war that leads to the destruction of the Kuru clan of the Bharatas, and the creation of the new super-state of Kuru-Panchala after the war.

The stage for the epic war is set in phases, starting with what seems like a normal and petty quarrel between competing branches of the Kuru clan: the initial events in this saga start with the almost childish rivalry between the sons of Dhritarashtra and those of Pandu, the two brothers who are the claimants to the Kuru throne at Hastinapura.

However, the dark and paranoid feelings harboured by the blind Dhritarashtra who ascends the throne after the younger Pandu is exiled due to tragic events, cast a shadow that amplifies the arrogance of his sons, led by Duryodhana, to the decidedly evil.

Gradually, the actions of Duryodhana take on greater hues of evil, starting from the poisoning of Bhima, to an attempt to burn the Pandava brothers to death in a house of wax. The Kauravas steal the hard-earned capital of the Pandava brothers by cheating them in a game of dice, and worse still, humiliate and insult the honour of their common wife, the feisty Draupadi, the princess of the neighboring Panchala kingdom.

Image result for krishna in the mahabharata artEventually, Duryodhana goes on to build a coalition of evil princes and kings on his side, from all over the expanse of ancient India, supported by the prowess of warriors like Karna and the silently suffering elder patriarch Bhishma who is yet loyal to the Kuru state.

The combined forces are used to track down the exiled Pandavas and brow-beat the tiny kingdom of Virata who give them refuge.

Thus were ranged the forces on the two sides before the war: Duryodhana, with his powerful set of allies, clearly on the side of Adharma with their ideology of grabbing and holding on to power at all costs with scant regard for ethics and the rights of women; The Pandavas, with Krishna as their mentor, the long suffering branch of the family, who had never resorted to unlawful means till then.

Image result for krishna in the mahabharata artEven so, as per the ancient Indian formula for avoiding war, Sri Krishna as the mentor of the Pandavas, attempts various ways of securing peace, including Saama (negotiation – suffering insult and humiliation for delivering a message of peace in the Kuru hall), daana (enticement – asking Duryodhana to give just 5 villages to the Pandavas, who rebuffs them saying not even a needle-edge will be offered), bheda (weakening the Kauravas by trying to wean away Karna).

In all this Sri Krishna displays extraordinary courage and statesmanship, suffering personally in his attempts to secure peace. None but an Avatar could take the humiliation of Duryodhana trying to imprison him in the Kuru hall and yet not lose his composure. Or seem like a scheming politician when he has to reveal the secret of his birth to Karna.

It is when all these attempts fail, and after Duryodhana has ridiculously chosen Krishna’s famous army the Narayani Sena over Krishna himself, that the war starts.

At this critical juncture, when Arjuna the lynch-pin of Pandava defense begins to lose heart, is when Sri Krishna proclaims the famous verses at the start of the 2nd Chapter of the Bhagavad Gita:

kutastvA kaSmalam idam viSamE samupasthitam|

anAryajushTam asvargyam akIrtikaram Arjuna||

(wherefrom this delusion that grips you amidst a challenge, not befitting a noble warrior, unfit for heaven and not conducive to your reputation, or Arjuna)

klaibyam mA sma gamah pArtha na etat tvayi upapadhyatE|

kshudram hridaya daurbalyam tyaktvA utthishta parantapa||

(wherefrom this un-manliness, not befitting a heroic warrior like you – giving up this lowly faint heartedness, rise O Arjuna!)

Image result for arjuna in the mahabharata artNow these are not words that are meant to incite Arjuna to violence – the war was not imposed by the Pandavas, and at stake is the future of the whole of ancient India, since Duryodhana has put together a coalition of evil forces. The situation was not unlike the one at the start of the 2nd World War:

Hitler had put together a coalition of dark forces, that were perpetrating some of the most gruesome crimes against humanity. Even so, world powers tried to negotiate with the Nazis and tried to pacify them. But that kind of evil is seldom pacified – rather emboldened by inaction.

Extraordinary evil has to be resisted by those that are capable of doing so – it was useless to expect a subjugated India or China to take on the Axis powers – rather the greatest powers of that time, USA and Russia, had to come together to check its ascendence.

At its heart therefore, the Gita has a great lesson on practical religion for mankind – to resist evil by whatever means, and if necessary by using force as the last resort. But when that last resort appears, the leaders cannot be half-hearted or chummy faced in their efforts. Otherwise they risk emboldening the evil. The ethics of the Gita does not favour indiscriminate killing in the name of war. But fighting for a just cause is the very reason why a Kshatriya is allowed the freedom to bear arms and when such a war is imminent, a warrior cannot seek refuge in other-wordly escapism.

Prabhu Iyer

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