DOES THE GITA JUSTIFY WAR?
BY LESTER SMITH
DURING the Great War of 1914-8 a large number of Theosophists in England found themselves on the horns of a dilemma. As good citizens and patriots they were naturally inclined to side with their country and support the war. Yet on the other hand were arrayed the command of the Christ to 'love your enemies', the pacifism of the Lord Buddha, who taught absolute non-resistance, and the theosophic teachings as to the One Life. Which of these two conflicting lines of duty were they to follow?
In this extremity, many turned to the story of the Bhagavadgitã, and, thinking they saw in it a justification of warfare, threw over the teaching of the Buddha and the Christ, and joined their countrymen in the prosecution of the war.
When the war concluded and the war-hatred gradually died down, the Theosophical Society returned once more to its pacific outlook.
Should we ever be faced with another war, and the problem of war resistance arise among Theosophists, it is evident that the same arguments will be used that we heard in 1914, and fighting will be justified on the ground of the teaching of one single book, notwithstanding the undoubted fact that all the best scriptures of the world teach the doctrine of pacifism and non-resistance.
I would go further, and claim that even the Gitã teaches the same, would we but patiently examine its pages. It would be well for every Theosophists to study carefully this beautiful little gem of Hindu literature, for I believe they will find that, so far from justifying war, it teaches the ancient doctrine of the Oneness of Life. Although the very early portion seems to proclaim the solder's duty to fight, as we continue our study we are led further and further from the battlefield, are taught a higher and nobler philosophy, until the high water mark of the book is reached in the sublime declaration:
He who knows himself in everything and everything in himself will not injure himself by himself.
Actually, the inconsistency is not so great as it may seem, if we consider the early portion as giving the common ethic of the soldier class, while the yoga teachings which are for more advanced individuals. In fact, half way through the second discourse we have an indication that the author is giving two different ethics, for he makes Krshna to say:
Thus far I speak unto thee
As from the Sãnkhya - unspiritually-
Hear now the deeper teaching of the Yog,
Which holding, understanding, thou shalt burst
Thy Karmabandh, the bondage of wrought deeds.
When we compare these two conflicting ethics, we can be in no doubt whatever as to which the Theosophists should follow. The arguments put into the mouth of the Lord Krshna in the earlier part of the Second Discourse are on so low a plane, that we might be listening to an old army colonel discouraging his men from desertion:
Men will recount thy perpetual dishonour, the generals will think thee fled from the battle from fear, and thou wilt be lightly held. Many unseemly words will be spoken by thine enemies, slandering thy strength; what more painful than that? Slain, thou wilt obtain honour; victorious, thou wilt enjoy the earth. Therefore, stand up, ready to fight.
But as we read on, we are insensibly drawn away from the battlefield,u to higher levels of life and thought. Describing the virtues of him who would practise this higher life, we read:
By this sign is he known,
Being of equal grace to comrades, friends,
Chance-comers, strangers, lovers, enemies,
Aliens and kinsmen; loving all alike, evil or good.
This is the very antithesis of fighting; it is the very teaching of the Christ, to love our enemies. In Book Eleven, we have a similar passage:
Who doeth all for Me; who findeth Me in all;
Adoreth always; loveth all
Which I have made, and Me, for Love's sole end,
That man, Arjuna, unto Me doth wend.
How different is this from the earlier command to slay! The man who 'loveth all which I have made' could never stick a bayonet into his brother man. And the next discourse gives the same lofty teaching;
He who beareth no ill-will to any being, friendly and compassionate, without attachment and egoism, balanced in pleasure and pain, and forgiving, he is dear to me.
We are getting far away from the battlefield now. The warlike hosts are apparently still waiting for Arjuna to lead them, but we hear nothing further of them and their doings. Here and there, throughout the book,the author feels compelled occasionally to use warlike terms to keep up the heroic fiction with which he started. Several times he drags in the command to fight, but one shudders at the anachronism, feeling instinctively that it is out of keeping with the purity of the spiritual teaching. He begins to use these terms in a symbolic sense, just as the Christian sings: "Fight the good fight.' Thus he winds up the Third Discourse:
Thus knowing that which is higher than the understanding, and restraining self by Self, O you of mighty arms! destroy this unmanageable enemy in the shape of desire.
And the Fourth Discourse, after some very beautiful teaching, closes with a similar symbol, reminding us of St. Paul's advise to 'take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the spirit', It runs thus:
Therefore, O descendant of Bharata! destroy, with the sword of knowledge, these misgivings of yours which fill your mind and which are produced from ignorance. Engage in devotion. Arise!
Throughout the book, in one passage after another, we are taught the virtue of 'harmlessness'; we are heeded 'to injure nothing that lives'. The act of 'destroying another' is condemned as being 'of darkness'. Could any Theosophist be a soldier in the face of this?
The evildoer who boasts, 'I have slain this enemy, and others also will I slay', is denounced, and his fate is thus described: 'They fall downwards into a foul hell.' On the other hand, in a beautiful passage in the Sixteenth Discourse, are these words:
Harmlessness, truth, absence of wrath, renunciation, peacefulness, absence of crookedness, compassion to living beings..... These are his who is born with the divine properties.
And a few verses further on, Arjuna is numbered among these high ones, for he is told: 'Grieve not, thou art born with divine properties, O Pãndava.' How can we possibly harmonize this with the previous command to him to slay his enemies? Could any being with these divine properties lead his army to the slaughter? Nay, rather does the following describe him:
Having laid aside egoism, violence, arrogance, desire, wrath, covetousness, selfless and peaceful - he is fit to become the Eternal.
We hear nothing further about the battle. At the end of the work, Arjuna is made to say, 'Destroyed is my delusion.' What are we to conclude? Can anyone possibly imagine that after listening to those beautiful and inspiring injunctions to peacefulness, harmlessness, and compassion to all living beings,he seized his sword, flung himself into the battle, and proceeded with the devilish work of slaughter? A thousand times, No! Rather would he wish to stay on that exalted plane to which the Divine Teacher had raised him. And surely the wish of the unknown writer of this incomparable work was to inspire all men to abjure war and rise to that lofty plane. For as he tells us in the Thirteenth Discourse: 'He who knows himself in everything and everything in himself, will not injure himself by himself.'
Reprinted from the September 2001 issue of "The Theosophist" magazine.
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