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Mahatma Gandhi and the Bhagvad Gita

By: Kalyan Viswanathan
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(Author is The President, Sanatana Dharma Foundation, USA)

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In the Bhagvad Gita, Shri Krishna encourages Arjuna to fight the Kauravas, in a bloody fratricidal war for the kingdom of Bharata. This happened a long time ago, perhaps around 3000 BCE. The kingdom had been usurped by the Kuru Prince Duryodhana, who was loathe to share power with the sons of Pandu. Krishna helped Arjuna recover his vision and balance, and recognize his responsibility and undertake the Mahabharata war, without being attached to the results of his actions. "Do not yield to unmanliness", exhorts Krishna, "Arise and Awake, and take up your bow".

5000 years later, once again, we had in our midst a similar situation - the kingdom of Bharata had once more been usurped, this time by the British, and there was once again a Mahatma amidst us to exhort us to fight the British. There is one difference though - Gandhi asks the people of India to fight the British without violence, without taking up arms; without causing injury to the British; he asks the Indians to wake up from their weakness and stupor; he asks them to be courageous and demonstrate valor, but do it through the instrument of "Non-violence"; through Non-Cooperation and through Civil Disobedience.

But the really remarkable thing about these two scenarios is the fact that Mahathma Gandhi, derived a lot of his inspiration from the Bhagvad Gita, and Krishna"s message! Yet while Krishna encouraged Arjuna to fight a violent war, Gandhi asked his people to avoid violence at all costs.

How do we explain this inconsistency? How did Gandhi come up with Non-violence especially after reading the Bhagvad Gita? Very often Hindus get confounded by this question. In fact a cursory study of this will show that there are only three possible explanations here:

1. Hypothesis I - Gandhi had a better grasp of Dharma than Krishna did. In fact Gandhi was not only upholding the great value "Ahimsa Paramodharma", but he was also effective in getting the British out of India. What could be better than that ?

2. Hypothesis II - Gandhi did not really understand the message of The Bhagvad Gita at all, and somewhat foolishly encouraged Indians to be non-violent; when perhaps violence could have achieved better results, and made us stronger.

3. Hypothesis III - Gandhi"s reading of the Bhagvad Gita is completely consistent with Krishna"s message to Arjuna, and it is we who do not see the consistency, and therefore need to study both the Gita and Gandhi in more detail.

In this article, I argue that it is in fact the third hypothesis that is perhaps closer to the truth. Perhaps we need to upgrade our understanding of the principles of Dharma, Ahimsa as well as the personalities of Krishna and Gandhi.

Denying Krishna"s wisdom

There are many who are quick to reach a conclusion that Krishna was goading Arjuna to war unnecessarily. In fact Professor Wendy Doniger, the Mircea Eliade Professor of History and Religion, University of Chicago and award winning author of numerous books on Hinduism has said the following :

"The Bhagvad Gita is not as nice a book as some Americans think. Throughout the Mahabharata, Krishna goads human beings into all sorts of murderous and self-destructive behaviors such as war. The Gita is a dishonest book".

The quotation can be dismissed as innocuous, and immaterial - but it is being made by one of the most influential figures in modern American Academia on the subject of History, Religion and Hinduism. There are many Hindus who also are easily confused on this point, (almost as confused as Wendy Doniger herself) and wonder how to defend Krishna. If all human beings are ultimately divine, in their essence, and are in fact one with Brahman, what is the difference between a kingdom ruled by Duryodhana, or a kingdom ruled by Yudishtra; Is it not all maya ? Why get into a violent war; why not surrender to Duryodhana"s will unconditionally? Thus goes their essential confusion.

Denying Gandhi"s wisdom

There are equally many Hindus who think that Gandhi was too pacific, and conceded too much to his enemies, when perhaps standing up some more, and being violent might have yielded better results. In fact, it was the patterns of concession and appeasement that he initiated that has resulted in an Indian State that is too soft, too peaceful, and too much given to compromise against aggressors, easy to target militarily and by the terrorists. Not only did we lose all of the land associated with Pakistan and Bangladesh, at the time of partition, we even had to pay the newly formed State of Pakistan a huge amount of money.

In criticizing Gandhi, there are many well meaning Hindus who get further carried away and begin to argue that in fact Mahatma Gandhi had little really to do with India becoming free. India would have become free anyway; it was only a matter of time. It was really the weakening of the British empire, after its conflict with Adolf Hitler, that led to the independence of many of Britain"s former colonies, including India.

Understanding Ahimsa

To reconcile these two historically similar scenarios, we must begin by asking ourselves: What is Ahimsa? At its heart, Ahimsa represents a "Value" for non-injury or not hurting others. Clearly then Ahimsa goes against the nature of War or any kind of violent action that could cause injury to others. Unfortunately though, violence is inherent in life. Even when we pluck a flower, cut a tree, uproot a plant, and take vegetables away, we are committing some form of violence, not to speak of killing animals or other people. Therefore, if we understand Ahimsa as a principle of minimizing the violence that we cause to the world, then we can begin to stand on a little more firmer ground.

Yet even this is not as simple as it sounds. Today, I may be completely non-violent in my activities and interactions with others, but if I come home today, from my intensely cerebral, but unquestionably non-violent software job, and find that the security of my family is being threatened by some armed and dangerous intruder, in my home, I will have to react by calling the Police. I would hope that the Police don"t lecture me on Ahimsa over the phone, and show up swiftly at my doorstep, with their guns, and armory intact!

Thus we find that there is a distinction between an "offensive war", which involves the commission of unprovoked violence, against a people who have done nothing to hurt them in the first place; (e.g. the intruder, in my home) and a war that is fought in self-defense, to protect oneself against an aggressor, which may also involve violence (e.g. the police coming to my family"s rescue). So not all wars are equal - The war fought by the Allied forces against Hitler, was a war fought against an aggressor, who had declared war on many nations without provocation. Similarly the first war of independence fought by Indian princes and maharajas of India in 1857, was also a war fought in Self-defense, against an aggressor - the British, who had forcibly occupied our land, and declared it their colony, on the basis of their military superiority alone. Thus Dharma applies even to Yuddha.

But whether offensive or defensive, war involves violence. It involves the killing of numerous people, who were involved and committed to the war, and numerous others who had nothing to do with it in the first place - who were simply by-standers and got pulled into the action - whose deaths are very cleverly called "collateral damage" in modern terms. How can we reconcile this fundamental Violence with the Value of Ahimsa ?

Ahimsa and the Kshatriya

Let us imagine what would happen to a society of non-violent people, who suddenly found themselves under violent attack by armed and dangerous gangs. Further let us also assume that the intruders violate the property, the women, they steal and loot the non-violent people, kill their children and are not interested in any form of compromise or agreement. They assert their right to such looting and killing, and indulge in it, whenever they feel like it. In fact the concept of Rakshasa or Asura in Indian Puranas, essentially captures this behavior - this ability to violate Dharma, by committing acts such as attacking, killing, robbing and torturing people, without any act of provocation on the part of those who are being victimized. Ravana was a Rakshasa because he violated Dharma, even though he is said to have been born in a Brahmana family.

So what should such a non-violent "Dharmically inclined" society that has no arms, weapons and capacity to fight back do? Surely they would need to be protected, from the intruders. Even as the modern state is supported by an army, navy, airforce, a police force, a paramilitary force, a criminal investigation department, a homeland security apparatus, the Kshatriya Kula of India, was historically assigned the role of protector, and commander. If the Kshatriya then takes on the Intruder, the Rakshasa, and slays him, he brings and end to the violence unleashed by the Rakshasa, thereby "reducing the overall violence" that is occurring in the society at large. Even as we recognize that the principle of Ahimsa abhors violence, generally speaking, there are special circumstances when violence may be required.

The violence committed by the killing of the Rakshasa (the trouble maker), even though is an undeniably violent act, ends up "minimizing the violence" occurring in the society overall, and therefore is entirely in conformity with the principle of Ahimsa. In other words, reducing the violence in society, which has succumbed to it, or is prone to it, and bringing solace to the weak, who are being victimized by aggressors, is as much in accordance with Ahimsa, as abandoning violence altogether. As another analogy, the surgeon performs a violent cut in the body, only to save the body from further injury and harm. Therefore, the motivation and intent is very critical here.

To unilaterally abandon violence, altogether in the name of Ahimsa, under all circumstances, therefore opens up a society to external aggression without any defense. Further it can be Adharmic too - since it makes one"s people vulnerable to the aggression of the foreigner"s forces. When Draupadi was being stripped in the court, Vidura is said to have remarked, to those who were sitting in the court, being silent, "The one who watches an Adharmic action, and fails to raise his voice in protest incurs half the "Papa" of the one who actually commits it".

Today, Tibet is being forcibly occupied and brought under Chinese control, and the Dalai Lama who is in exile in India has no recourse except to appeal to the international community for intervention that is clearly not forthcoming. His sorrow at the fate of the people in Tibet is patent to see, but so is his essential helplessness. Buddha"s philosophy and teaching ultimately converted the whole of Buddhist society into monks, and there were no Kshatriyas left to defend their lands. That is why the Dalai Lama, is considered both a head of state and the Spiritual head of Tibet. The distinction between the Raja (Head of State) and the Rishi (Spiritual Master) which had been a core organizing principle of the civilization of Hindu Dharma, had been lost within Buddhism, where a Raja himself had abandoned his kingdom and become a Rishi.

Arjuna and Duryodhana

The conflict between the Pandavas and Kauravas was essentially a symmetric contest, between two groups of Kshatriyas born of the same lineage. Both were well versed in the art of warefare, and had taken great pains to develop their fighting skills. It was not an asymmetric contest, even though temporarily the Pandavas had been stripped of their kingdom, and had been sent on exile, and were being denied their rightful share of the kingdom. Both sides had developed numerous allies who had come to fight this war on their behalf.

Further, the Pandavas had tried all manner of negotiations with Duryodhana and his allies - They had tried talking to him, they had sent Krishna as their messenger to mediate a truce between them; They had even agreed to concede the kingdom to Duryodhana, if only he would give them five villages in which to live. After all this effort to avoid confrontation came to naught, it had come to this war. And Arjuna had been nursing his anger towards Duryodhana, and preparing for this moment of destiny, for many years.

We also need to recognize that Kauravas, were on the side of Adharma, and the Pandavas on the side of Dharma in this war. If we do not recognize this, we will confuse the warring parties, as "Dharmic equals" in a battle for territory and kingdom. The Pandavas had completed the terms of their exile, and fulfilled every agreement they had made with the Kauravas, and then having completed that, were now asking for their rightful inheritance. Only on their being denied what was rightfully theirs, only after being faced with the complete loss of their kingdom to the Kauravas, did the Pandavas resort to the final step in the conflict - Yuddha.

What would have happened if the Pandavas had surrendered the kingdom entirely to the Kauravas and retired to the forests, as Arjuna was inclined to do at the beginning of the Bhagvad Gita? We must envisage the worst possible future for the people of Bharatavarsha, under an Adharmic and Unrighteous king. Therefore, for the sake of establishing Dharma in the land, for the sake of correcting the moral wrongs that had been committed by the Kauravas, the war had to be fought. This was no longer a war of revenge or personal desire or gratification. It was verily a war for Dharma - A Dharmayuddha.

It is in the context, that Krishna"s Bhagvad Gita, serves to raise Arjuna from a state of moral confusion, hesitation and predicament and turns him into a dispassionate Warrior - A nishkama Karmi - One who performs his duties (Dharma) without fear, and without attachment. Arjuna had to transform his attachments, that included his desire to fight as well as his despondency in having to fight those he held in high esteem, into a dispassionate performance of his Kshatriya Dharma. This was the spiritual transformation that Krishna enabled in the psyche and consciousness of Arjuna through his Bhagvad Gita.

India"s struggle for independence

When Gandhi came back to India, in 1919, the Indian National Congress was mostly comprised of a few well educated Indians, particularly a few English educated lawyers and intellectuals who had traveled to Britain and returned. In fact Gandhi himself was one such person, although he had been seared into a different mettle by the struggle in South Africa. Gandhi traveled the length and breadth of India, upon his return from South Africa and was struck by the terrible poverty of its primarily agricultural society. It must be recognized that England had systematically turned what was a very prosperous nation (India), which had a significant manufacturing industry (even if this was a pre-industrial kind of manufacturing), in addition to its traditional agricultural economy, into a substantially agricultural one. In other words, England was feeding its own nascent industrialization with the plunder of India, by sourcing raw materials from India and then bringing back its manufactured products back into India, which was a captive market. The people of India were caught in a terrible cycle of deprivation and suffering, through famines, disease and death stalking vast parts of the country, in which England was the beneficiary.

Gandhi"s main insight about the situation in India, was that the struggle between England and India was terribly asymmetric. The vast masses of India were emasculated, poverty stricken, and had not even a desire for freedom - for they knew not what freedom would look like, and what it would bring. Long years of terrible suffering had become their lot. Even the possibility of freedom from the British and its consequences had to be explained to them, and the desire for such a freedom had to be kindled.

On the other hand, the British Administration had a massive military machinery at its disposal. It had an army, which consisted of a majority of Indians, who had long since given their loyalties to the British, unquestioningly, even though the generals were all British. England was not numerically strong, but militarily it was entirely capable of brutally suppressing any form of violent uprising of India"s masses, as it had done in 1857.

Gandhi saw that unless the desire for freedom, which was confined to a marginal number of elitist Indians, was transformed into a mass struggle that caught the imagination of the people across the length and breadth of the country, India could not challenge the might of the British. Also, he wanted all of India to raise its awareness, and arise from its psychological slavery, (quite apart from its physical slavery) and participate in the freedom struggle. He also had to invent a way in which such a mass uprising would not result in brutal reactions from the British, resulting in terrible losses amongst the Indian masses.

This then was the background in which he walked about the masses, dressed like them in a single piece of homespun cloth, with a song in his lips (Raghupati Raghava Raja Ram) speaking about the need to protest against the British. He invented Sathyagraha, which was based on Ahimsa, as a vehicle for offering protest, and resistance against the British. The Sathyagrahi had to be willing to die like a soldier (A Kshatriya), for the cause of India"s freedom, but not kill anyone. Non-cooperation and Civil Disobedience, became an expression of resistance that was available to all, the rich, educated and the poor and the downtrodden of India. It brought reappraisals no doubt, and large numbers of people were thrown in prison and had to suffer long terms of prison sentences, but the suffering of prison was one of choice and was self invited, and therefore it strengthened the people, whereas the suffering under the British was an oppression that only weakened and broke their spirit.

Thus Gandhi"s reading of the Bhagvad Gita strengthened his resolve to fight the Adharma of British occupation, but he also found a way to fight this battle in a way, that involved the masses, and strengthened them. This was his unique contribution to India"s struggle to be free. And whatever we may say about how much he was a factor in India"s securing freedom, we cannot deny that he caught the imagination of the agricultural, rural poverty-stricken masses of India. He connected with them, and deeply felt their suffering, and they responded to him, as they responded to no other elitist leader of the Freedom struggle. This mass awakening of India"s desire to be free was Gandhi"s contribution, and in causing this awakening, he came to symbolize India itself.

In Conclusion

Thus we see that both Krishna and Gandhi were completely consistent in their applications of the principles of Dharma, Ahimsa and Yuddha to their respective situations.

Without understanding these contexts, it is easy to interpret Ahimsa in a very narrow way, and abhor all kinds of war, even defensive ones. The sacrifice of one"s life that a Soldier (A Jawan) is willing to do, is worthy of great honor, and it must be done appropriately for the right cause, fully recognizing all the intermediate steps of negotiation, mediated negotiation, multi-lateral negotiations, sanctions and threats, before a full escalation to a war is committed. Ultimately Dharma should prevail in the decision to go to war.

At the same time, Hindus should not jump into criticizing Mahatma Gandhi, for his adherence to the principle of Non-Violence either. He brought his principle into action, at a time in India"s history when she was deeply impoverished, and could not mount much of a resistance, on a mass scale. The Hindutva movement in India, is in some respects yet to recover from its unfortunate association with the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi.

Let us therefore embrace both Krishna and Gandhi, as two of the greatest Hindus who lived on this land. Perhaps we would gain in some measure from their teachings and their lives - in ourselves learning to live a life, that is not so selfish and given to the pursuit of the trivial; unable to see a larger purpose and vision for our lives. May we inquire into the nature of Dharma, and find a deeper purpose and meaning to our existence, beyond our career advancement and mindless entertainment.

Kalyan Viswanathan

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