The Bhagavad Gita, a text revered by many Hindus as one of their most influential religious texts, is set with a backdrop of the battlefield. Arjuna, a warrior about to begin the battle that will decide whether he and his brothers or his cousins will rule over the kingdom of Hastinapur, suddenly becomes uncertain of the path of righteousness. Standing in the space of land between the two waiting armies, he is overcome with grief. Believing himself about to commit the sin of killing his kinsmen, Arjuna turns to his charioteer for advice. Krishna, instead of comforting the disconsolate Arjuna and advocating for peace, chastises his unwillingness to fight and recommends him to commence the military campaign.
The battlefield motif occurs across many religious traditions from the battle of Jericho in the Old Testament to the concept of jihad in Islam. In the ancient world, this battle occurred on various strata. It was both an internal and an external struggle occurring in the hearts of the faithful and on the battlegrounds of the material earth and the various celestial and profane realms. Contemporary sensibilities, however, often struggle with these themes and the possible violence that they may promote. Indeed, in the era of religious fundamentalism that has marred the face of virtually all religious systems of the world, the Bhagavad Gita’s call for battle can be interpreted as toxic and destructive. Following this line of thought, the state prosecutor’s office in Tomsk, Russia attempted to ban the Bhagavad Gita on charges of religious extremism in 2011.
This violent interpretation of Bhagavad Gita, by either fanatics seeking justification for their blood thirst or by critics seeking to undermine the text, is a misguided one, because the battle setting is merely incidental to the message of the Bhagavad Gita. While the initially superficial recommendation of Krishna is a call to battle, the deeper message is for dispassionate and unattached action. The Bhagavad Gita’s message, in that manner, mirrors the Buddha’s teaching of the “Middle Path,” or finding a middle ground between renunciation and pleasure-seeking. Ancient India was populated with the extremities of epicurean devotees who invested in extravagant yagnas, or ritual sacrifices, for the sake of obtaining material assets, and, on the other hand, ascetics that disavowed societal life and responsibilities for spiritual inquiry. Krishna was opening up a third option of living in the world, while not living of the world.
Dispassion plays a key role in that path. Krishna advises Arjuna to sacrifice his actions and to detach himself from worldly desires and establishments. Krishna was not directing Arjuna to fight either for the sake of vengeance for past wrongdoings or for the desire of acquiring the throne of Hastinapur. His impetus should be that it was the righteous course of action, and no other thoughts, desires, or motivations should enter into his mind. This stoical path of mind is an impossibility for most of us, and even more so for those whose blood thirst turns them towards the path of violence. It is equivalent to advising a mango-picker to proceed with their occupation, but to completely abjure any thought of mangoes. It is an ideal state of being that Hindus who are guided by the Bhagavad Gita aspire to achieve. The battle, therefore, additionally acts as a metaphor for the distractions that sidetrack and unbalance the mind of followers. The calm and soothing imagery of Arjuna being advised by Krishna while surrounded by the gathering fury of the armies, parallels how a Hindu’s mind should be calm, controlled, and unswayed while bombarded by the worldly influences that would otherwise distract it.
The Gita’s setting at the battlefield and its call for Arjuna to take arms has been criticized over the years as a motivator for violence. However, with a full understanding of the Gita’s message, it becomes clear that the deeper message is a call for dispassionate action even when confronted with various motivations. It is this message that inspires Hindu followers who have turned to the text for guidance over the centuries.
Any opinions stated in this article do not reflect the views of The Hindu Students Association, but the author’s.