One of the oldest religions of the world, Hinduism is often seen as the set of stories, myths, and morals, which promote pacifism. At the center of its teachings lies the Hindu scripture Bhagavad Gita. The entirety of the writing comprises the dialogue between the major Hindu deity Krishna and a warrior Arjuna, who receives instructions from the God. Krishna is known for his attitude against war and violence. All the more surprising is the fact that in some verses, Krishna actually encourages Arjuna to fight in war. Understanding what constitutes the essence of the Bhagavad Gita in relation to war and violence is essential in ascertaining how it supports and condemns war.
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Krishna encourages Arjuna to fight because it is his sacred duty. In Hinduism, there is a concept of dharma. It regulates what a person should do based on their caste. Class and caste determine the extent of duties. The essential characteristic of a caste is that a person could not leave one caste and join another. Instead, people were bound for life to perform the same duty. Arjuna belonged to the warrior’s caste, which means that his purpose in life was fighting. In fact, Krishna stated :“If you [Arjuna] fail to wage this war of sacred duty, you will abandon your own duty and fame only to gain evil” (De Clercq 17). It would appear that waging war is encouraged by the Bhagavad Gita.
Another element, which is critical in understanding Hinduism is what Krishna means by war. First, Krishna explains that by engaging in murder, Arjuna will in reality kill the senseless bodies (De Clercq 17). At the same time, their souls will not be damaged and will be reborn in new bodies. Moreover, Krishna teaches Arjuna not to fuse with his emotions. He instructs him to “perform actions, firm in discipline, relinquishing attachment” (De Clercq 17). This is a stark contrast to the act of killing done in passion. Detaching oneself from one’s emotions is key to performing the duties, including fighting in a war.
However, there is an alternative interpretation of the manner war is presented in the Bhagavad Gita. It is possible that the idea of fighting a war is meant metaphorically. This interpretation was propagated by Mahatma Gandhi, who suggests to look at the Bhagavad Gita “as a story of the war between good and evil that is present within each of us” (De Clercq 20). The refusal to participate in war is seen and despised as inaction. Instead, forcing oneself to fight is meant as “stimulation to discipline, hard work and performing one’s duty” (De Clercq 21). All the while, the war waged in passion is immoral.
Altogether, it should be evident that a large part of understanding the Bhagavad Gita lies in distinguishing the allegory and remembering the historic context. When Hinduism was born, India was divided into castes, which followed very specific lifestyles. Some castes were designed for fighting. However, it was essential to detach from emotions when engaging in violence. This way, it would constitute an act of duty rather than violence. Overall, Bhagavad Gita supports war as the necessity, but passionate fighting is condemned.
De Clercq, Eva. “In Defence of War: the Bhagavad Gita.” Philosophy of War and Peace, 2017, pp. 15-22.