The truths contained within the Bhagavad-gita are quite profound. Those who read the book for the first time will find loads of information not found in any other religious doctrine, philosophical treatise, or even Vedic text. The Vedas are the spiritual tradition of India, the ultimate truths of life passed down from generation to generation since the beginning of time. Any scripture which follows the conclusions of the original Vedas can be considered Vedic literature. The Bhagavad-gita certainly meets this criteria. In this wonderful work, which is known as the Song of God, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, the person we refer to as God, Lord Krishna, delivers a beautiful discourse on the meaning of life, the role of the living entities in this world, and how one can go about performing their activities while simultaneously remaining on the path towards transcendental perfection
Since this work is so wonderfully composed and contains descriptions of many astounding truths of life – such as reincarnation, the consciousness of the living entity at the time of death, the laws of karma, and the temporary nature of material happiness – it is quite common for non-devotees, those who don’t necessarily believe in a God or in Krishna, to take to reading this book and expounding on it. So many commentaries and translations of the Gita are available, with each work presented in terms of the author’s worldview, their ultimate conclusion. Since only Krishna, or God, can be everything, it shouldn’t surprise us that His teachings would hit home with a large cross-section of people. Those who take the ultimate conclusion in life to be material enjoyment can find what they need in the Gita. There are others who don’t believe in a personal God, an Absolute Truth who possesses an eternal, transcendental form. For them, the Gita contains much discussion about Brahman and the impersonal nature of the Absolute Truth. There are others who believe in meditational yoga as the topmost practice, the ultimate activity derived from the ultimate conclusion. For them, there is an entire chapter in the Gita dedicated to such yoga practice.
Ironically enough, even believers in nonviolence – those who view the complete abstention from the arousal of conflict, physical and mental, to be the ultimate activity in life – take to reading the Gita. We say “ironically” because the setting of the Bhagavad-gita – the podium, if you will, from which Krishna provides His instructions – is a battlefield. Moreover, the Gita concludes with the commencement of one of the greatest wars in history. The death toll from the Bharata War, the war Krishna urged His cousin and disciple Arjuna to fight in, saw the deaths of millions upon millions of soldiers. It is said that the burden of sinful men was too great on the earth at the time, and thus the Lord Himself was petitioned to descend from the spiritual world and rid that burden. This is one of the causes for the tremendous bloodshed that took place. Yet even though the Gita has this backdrop, some use the work to justify their view that nonviolence should be employed under any and all circumstances. While the idea of nonviolence under all circumstances is certainly ideal, basing this conclusion off the Gita is quite faulty. Lord Krishna, or God, is certainly violent from time to time. This violence is not an inconvenient truth, but rather a beautiful activity that speaks to the Lord’s all-merciful nature. Krishna is the messenger in the Bhagavad-gita, but we shouldn’t make the mistake of separating the message from the messenger. The message is secondary; the messenger is more important. The message is actually meaningless without the messenger. Only when we see the message as being part and parcel of the messenger can we truly understand its meaning.
“The Blessed Lord said: Fearlessness, purification of one’s existence, cultivation of spiritual knowledge, charity, self-control, performance of sacrifice, study of the Vedas, austerity and simplicity; nonviolence, truthfulness, freedom from anger; renunciation, tranquility, aversion to faultfinding, compassion and freedom from covetousness; gentleness, modesty and steady determination; vigor, forgiveness, fortitude, cleanliness, freedom from envy and the passion for honor—these transcendental qualities, O son of Bharata, belong to godly men endowed with divine nature.” (Bhagavad-gita, 16.1-3)
Let’s quickly review the issue of nonviolence. This principle is known as ahimsa in Sanskrit and it is even addressed by Krishna in the Gita. The Lord states that a realized soul, an upper echelon transcendentalist, abides by many principles and exudes many characteristics. The most important principles and characteristics are listed in the Gita so as to allow those on the lower platform of knowledge, the aspiring devotees, to be able to better gauge who is a devotee and who isn’t. One of the characteristics listed by Krishna is nonviolence. The justification for this is quite obvious. Every living entity, every form of life, is equal in their constitutional position. There is a famous saying, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” With human beings and other life forms, the covers may be different, but the individuals inside the covers are the same. If we observe two people, where one person is wearing fancy clothes, while another is wearing simple rags, we can’t say that one person is better than the other. One person may have more wealth and pay more attention to detail, but we can’t say that they are any different on the inside. Expanding this idea to an even grander scale, we can think of every living entity as wearing a different set of clothes. These clothes manifest through the different qualities of the body: eyes, legs, hair, ears, height, weight, etc. Not only do the outward features make these “clothes”, but so do the inward features such as temperament, personality, likes, and dislikes. The outward covering is known as the material body, and it is something that gets created, developed, and then ultimately destroyed. The spirit soul within does not change throughout this process, thus making it the basis for identity.
“For the soul there is never birth nor death. Nor, having once been, does he ever cease to be. He is unborn, eternal, ever-existing, undying and primeval. He is not slain when the body is slain.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 2.20)
Since every soul is the same, a spiritual spark emanating from the giant energetic fire known as God, there is no reason to be envious of or to act malevolently towards another human being. We are all in the same boat, so to speak, thrown into this ocean of nescience. We’re all trying to find our way out of this suffering. Some of us are further along in the process than others, but our ultimate objective is the same regardless. Therefore there is no reason to be violent towards another living entity. There is no reason to unnecessarily kill another living entity, regardless of whatever personal justification we may have. This position is universally held, for even one of the Ten Commandments is “Thou shall not kill”. This has since been purposefully misinterpreted by many to mean “Thou shall not murder”, but the principle of nonviolence is still there just the same.
So does this mean that we should always be nonviolent? Should violence never be used under any circumstance? Though we should never kill another living entity, sometimes it is required. If a human being has no other means of food other than to kill an innocent animal, then it is generally allowed. The reasoning behind this has nothing to do with sense gratification. Say the human being starves to death and thus leaves the animal all alone. Can the animal do anything to further its condition? If the human being remains alive, it is capable of maybe sustaining life around it and saving other living entities. The human being has a higher level of intelligence, so it is granted dominion over the animal kingdom. This shouldn’t be taken as a sanction for unnecessary animal killing, as currently takes place with the practice of slaughterhouses.
Since the human being has a higher level of intelligence, which culminates in the ability to understand God, it has necessary functions to perform. One of these required functions is the providing of protection. Though we should be kind and peaceful towards fellow living entities, not everyone is guaranteed to act the same way towards us. Some people will take to violence regardless of whatever sound counsel is given to them. This was the case with Duryodhana, the illegitimate king of the Kaurava dynasty. Lord Krishna, during His time on earth, tried to broker a peace agreement between Duryodhana and the Pandavas, the five sons of King Pandu who had the rightful claim on the kingdom. Duryodhana rejected this peace proposal, even though it came from God Himself. Goswami Tulsidas, the great Vaishnava poet, mentions this incident in his Dohavali. Tulsidas references Duryodhana’s behavior to remind people to not turn their backs on God. Those who do will have to suffer greatly. How did Duryodhana suffer? Since he rejected the peace offering, the Bharata War was eventually started, with Krishna serving as the charioteer for the leading Pandava warrior, Arjuna. The Pandavas won, Duryodhana and all his army were killed, and the kingdom was returned to the rightful owners.
“If, however, you do not fight this religious war, then you will certainly incur sins for neglecting your duties and thus lose your reputation as a fighter.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 2.33)
What would have happened if Krishna and the Pandavas took the nonviolent approach? After all, this was the view of Arjuna and many of his brothers. They were hesitant to fight because war meant that their family members fighting for the opposing side would have to be killed. Arjuna did not want to enjoy a kingdom if it came at the expense of people he respected. Lord Krishna, through His teachings in the Gita, informed Arjuna that it was his duty as a military man to provide protection to the innocent. It was his dharma, or religious duty, to fight. This is quite a strong statement. It wasn’t as if Krishna said, “Oh okay, violence is justified sometimes. Maybe this is one of those times.” The Lord went one step further by telling Arjuna that if he didn’t fight, he would be committing a great sin. Simply based off this one fact, we see how silly it is to try to justify the theory of nonviolence from the Gita. Anyone who does so certainly is separating Krishna from His message.
Why is violence required in some instances? If those who are in charge of protecting the innocent don’t do so, where will people go for help? Who will protect them from the attacks of the miscreants? In this way, not only are the kshatriyas [the warrior/administrator class] charged with providing protection, but so is God Himself. Since Krishna is Absolute and all-attractive, everything He does is beautiful. He is beautiful while standing in the forest with flowers and a peacock feather in His hair, playing His flute, and He is equally as beautiful when killing demons.
Not only does Krishna use violence from time to time, but so do His devotees. While fighting in the Bharata War, Arjuna’s chariot was adorned with a flag bearing the emblem of Hanuman. Many thousands of years prior to Krishna’s advent, the Lord appeared on earth in the guise of a warrior prince named Rama. Lord Rama’s wife, Sita Devi, was kidnapped by a demon named Ravana who lived on the island of Lanka. To find Sita, the Lord enlisted the help of an army of monkeys whose chief warrior was a pious individual named Hanuman. Lord Hanuman famously leapt across the ocean and made his way to Lanka, where he eventually found Sita. While in Lanka, Ravana had Hanuman bound up and his tail set on fire. Shri Hanuman, though he is kind, sweet, compassionate, and learned, is anything but nonviolent when it comes to interacting with demons such as Ravana. Hanuman freed himself from the ropes around his body, and then took to battle. Since his tail was still on fire, Hanuman decided to set the entire city of Lanka ablaze. Though this was an act of violence on a grand scale, it was still a thing of beauty. Hanuman’s behavior is indicative of the protection that God’s greatest devotees offer the innocent.
We should not try to separate Krishna from His words or activities. God is the most beautiful person in the world, and this beauty is not limited to His transcendental form. This eternally blissful and knowledgeable form, sach-chid-ananda-vigraha, also takes to activities. It would make sense then that the most beautiful form in the world would have the most beautiful activities. This beauty is not limited to Krishna’s peaceful activities. His defense of the innocent and unflinching protection of the devotees evokes loving emotions just the same.