Non-violence Relative Economics And A New Social Order: Historical Sources of Nonviolence BHAGAVAD-GITA

Published: 31.05.2015
Updated: 13.07.2015

The Bhagavad-Gita (literally meaning the Song of God) is found in the middle section of one of India's great epics, Mahabharata. Most scholars of the Gita believe that it was written between the fifth and second centuries B.C., and they agree that was not originally a part of the Mahabharata itself. However, as a separate piece of Hindu literature the Gita has made a greater impact on Western thought than either of the two classic epics, the Mahabharata or the Ramayana. The selection from the Gita which follows is a dialogue between the two central speakers, Krishna and Arjuna. Sri Krishna (Sri meaning Lord, a title of reverence) is the divine incarnation of Vishnu, one of the important Gods of the Hindu religion. But more essential to the message of the Gita, Krishna is Brahman, the ultimate Reality. Brahman is the source of ultimate Oneness from which everything returns. Arjuna, the other principal character, is mortal. He is a famous warrior confronted with the task of performing his caste duty even if it means killing his relatives in a civil war. The conversation in the Gita between Krishna and Arjuna presents to the reader various possibilities for interpretation which range from a literal reading - Arjuna and his problems regarding his caste duty - to a spiritual reading - every one and her search for a way for achieving oneness with Brahman.

I have explained to you the true nature of the Atman. Now listen to the method of Karma Yoga.[1] If you can understand and follow it, you will be able to break the chains of desire which bind you to your actions.

In this yoga, even the abortive attempt is not wasted. Nor can it produce a contrary result. Even a little practice of this yoga will save you from the terrible wheel of rebirth and death.

In this yoga, the will is directed singly toward one ideal. When a man lacks this discrimination, his will wanders in all directions, after innumerable aims. Those who lack discrimination may quote the letter of the scripture, but they are really denying its inner truth. They are full of worldly desires, and hungry for the rewards of heaven. They use beautiful figures of speech. They teach elaborate rituals which are supposed to obtain pleasure and power for those who perform them. But, actually, they understand nothing except the law of Karma, that chains men to rebirth.

Those whose discrimination is stolen away by such talk grow deeply attached to pleasure and power. And so they are unable to develop that concentration of the will which leads a man to absorption in God.

The Vedas[2] teach us about the three gunas[3] and their functions. You, Arjuna, must overcome the three gunas. You must be free from the pairs of opposites.[4] Poise your mind in tranquility. Take care neither to acquire not to hoard. Be established in the consciousness of the Atman, always.

When the whole country is flooded, the reservoir becomes superfluous. So, to the illumined seer, the Vedas are all superfluous.

You have the right to work, but for the work's sake only. You have no right to the fruits of work. Desire for the fruits of work must never be your motive in working. Never give way to laziness, either.

Perform every action with your heart fixed on the Supreme Lord. Renounce attachment to the fruits. Be even-tempered in success and failure; for it is this evenness of temper which is meant by yoga.

Work done with anxiety about results is far inferior to work done without such anxiety, in the calm of self-surrender. Seek refuge in the knowledge of Brahman.[5] They who works selfishly for results are miserable.

In the calm of self-surrender you can free yourself from the bondage of virtue and vice during this very life. Devote yourself, therefore, to reaching union with Brahman. To unite the heart with Brahman and then to act: that is the secret of non-attached work. In the calm of self-surrender, the seers renounce the fruits of their actions, and so reach enlightenment. Then they are free from the bondage of rebirth, and pass to that state which is beyond all evil.

When your intellect has cleared itself of its delusions, you will become indifferent to the results of all action, present or future. At present, your intellect is bewildered by conflicting interpretation of the scriptures. When it can rest, steady and undistracted, in contemplation of the Atman, then you will reach union with the Atman.

ARJUNA: Krishna, how can one identify a man who is firmly established and absorbed in Brahman? In what manner does an illumined soul speak? How does he sit? How does he walk?

SRI KRISHNA:

He knows bliss in the Atman
And wants nothing else.
Cravings torment the heart;
He renounces cravings.
I call him illumined.
Not shaken by adversity.,
Not hankering after happiness:
Free from fear, free from anger,
Free from the things of desire.
I call him a seer, and illumined.
The bonds of his flesh are broken.
He is lucky, and does not rejoice:
He is unlucky, and does not weep.
I call him illumined.
The tortoise can draw in his legs:
The seer can draw in his senses.
I call him illumined.
The abstinent run away from what they desire
But carry their desires with them:
When a man enters Reality,
He leaves his desires behind him.
Even a mind that knows the path
Can be dragged from the path:
The senses are so unruly.
But he controls the senses
And recollects the mind
And fixes it on me.
I call him illumined.
Thinking about sense-objects
Will attach you to sense-objects;
Grow attached, and you become addicted;
Thwart your addiction, it turns to anger;
Be angry, and you confuse your mind;
Confuse your mind, you forget the lesson of experience;
Forget experience, you lose discrimination;
Lose discrimination, and you miss life's only purpose.
When he has no lust, no hatred,
A man walks safely among the things of lust and hatred.
To obey the Atman
Is his peaceful joy:
Sorrow melts
Into that clear peace:
His quiet mind
Is soon established in peace.
The uncontrolled mind
Does not guess that the Atman is present:
How can it meditate?
Without meditation, where is peace?
Without peace, where is happiness?
The wind turns a ship
From its course upon the waters:
The wandering winds of the senses
Cast man's mind adrift
And turn his better judgment from its course.
When a man can still the senses
I call him illumined.
The recollected mind is awake
In the knowledge of the Atman
Which is dark night to the ignorant:
The ignorant are awake in their sense-life
Which they think is daylight:
To the seer it is darkness.
Water flows continually into the ocean
But the ocean is never disturbed;
Desire flows into the mind of the seer
But he is never disturbed.
The seer knows peace:
The man who stirs up his own lusts
Can never know peace.
He knows peace who has forgotten desire.
He lives without craving:
Free from ego, free from pride.
This is the state of enlightenment in Brahman:
A man does not fall back from it
Into delusion.
Even at the moment of death
He is alive in that enlightenment:
Brahman and he are one.

ARJUNA:

But, Krishna, if you consider knowledge of Brahman superior to any sort of action, why are you telling me to do these terrible deeds?

Your statements seem to contradict each other. They confuse my mind. Tell me one definite way of reaching the highest good.

SRI KRISHNA:

I have already told you that, in this world, aspirants may find enlightenment by two different paths. For the contemplative is the path of knowledge; for the active is the path of selfless action.

Freedom from activity is never achieved by abstaining from action. Nobody can become perfect by merely ceasing to act. In fact, nobody can ever rest from his activity[6] even for a moment. All are helplessly forced to act, by the gunas.

A man who renounces certain physical actions but still lets his mind dwell on the objects of his sensual desire, is deceiving himself He can only be called a hypocrite. The truly admirable man controls his senses by the power of his will. All his actions are disinterested. All are directed along the path of union with Brahman.

Activity is better than inertia. Act, but with self-control. If you are lazy, you cannot even sustain your own body.

The world is imprisoned in its own activity, except when actions are performed as worship of God. Therefore you must perform every action sacramentally, and be free from all attachments to results.

In the beginning
The Lord of beings
Created all men,
To each his duty,
'Do this,' He said,
'And you shall prosper.
Duty well done
Fulfills desire
Like Kamadhenu[7]
The wish-fulfiller.'
'Doing of duty
Honours the devas:[8]
To you the devas
In turn will be gracious:
Each honouring other,
Man reaches the Highest.
Please the devas:
Your prayer will be granted.'
But he who enjoys the devas' bounty
Showing no thanks,
He thieves from" the devas.
Pious men eat
What the gods leave over
After the offering:
Thus they are sinless.
But those ungodly
Cooking good food
For the greed of their stomachs
Sin as they eat it.
Food quickens the life-sperm:
Food grows from the rainfall
Called down out of heaven
By sacrifice offered:
Sacrifice speaks
Through the act of the ritual.
This is the ritual
Taught by the sacred
Scriptures that spring
From the lips of the Changeless:
Know therefore that Brahman
The all-prevading
Is dwelling for ever
Within this ritual.
If a man plays no part
In the acts thus appointed
His living is evil
His joy is in lusting.
Know this, O Prince:
His life is for nothing.

But when a man has found delight and satisfaction and peace in the Atman, then he is no longer obliged to perform any kind of action. He has nothing to gain in this world by action, and nothing to lose by refraining from action. He is independent of everybody and everything. Do your duty, always; but without attachment. That is how a man reaches the ultimate Truth; by working without anxiety about results. In fact, Janaka[9] and many others reached enlightenment, simply because they did their duty in this spirit. Your motive in working should be to set others, by your example, on the path of duty.

Whatever a great man does, ordinary people will imitate; they follow his example. Consider me: I am not bound by any sort of duty. There is nothing, in all the three worlds, which I do not already possess; nothing I have yet to acquire. But I go on working, nevertheless. If 1 did not continue to work untiringly as I do, mankind would still follow me, no matter where I led them. Suppose I were to stop? They would all be lost. The result would be caste-mixture and universal destruction.

The ignorant work
For the fruit of their action:
The wise must work also
Without desire
Pointing man's feet
To the path of his duty.
Let the wise beware
Lest they bewilder
The minds of the ignorant
Hungry for action:
Let them show by example
How work is holy
When the heart of the worker
Is fixed on the Highest.

Every action is really performed by the gunas. Man, deluded by his egoism, thinks: 'I am the doer.' But he who has the true insight into the operations of the gunas and their various functions, knows that when senses attach themselves to objects, gunas are merely attaching themselves to gunas. Knowing this, he does not become attached to his actions.

The illumined soul must not create confusion in the minds of the ignorant by refraining from work. The ignorant, in their delusion, identify the Atman with the gunas. They become tied to the senses and the action of the senses.

Shake off this fever of ignorance. Stop hoping for worldly rewards. Fix your mind on the Atman. Be free from the sense of ego. Dedicate all your actions to me. Then go forward and fight.

If a man keeps following my teaching with faith in his heart, and does not make mental reservations. He will be released from the bondage of his karma. But those who scorn my teaching, and do not follow it, are lost. They are without spiritual discrimination. All their knowledge is a delusion.

Even a wise man acts according to the tendencies of his own nature. All living creatures follow their tendencies. What use is any external restraint? The attraction and aversion which the senses feel for different objects are natural. But you must not give way to such feelings; they are obstacles.

It is better to do your own duty, however imperfectly, than to assume the duties of another person, however successfully. Prefer to die doing your own duty: the duty of another will bring you into great spiritual danger.

ARJUNA:

Krishna, what is it that makes a man do evil, even against his own will; under compulsion, as it were?

SRI KRISHNA:

The rajo-guna has two faces,
Rage and lust: the ravenous, the deadly:
Recognize these: they are your enemies.
Smoke hides fire,
Dust hides a mirror,
The womb hides the embryo:
By lust the Atman is hidden.
Lust hids the Atman in its hungry flames,
The wise man's faithful foe.
Intellect, senses and mind
Are fuel to its fire:
Thus it deludes
The dweller in the body,
Bewildering his judgment.

Therefore, Arjuna, you must first control your senses, then kill this evil thing which obstructs discriminative knowledge and realization of the Atman.

The senses are said to be higher than the sense-objects. The mind is higher than the senses. The intelligent will is higher than the mind. What is higher than the intelligent will? The Atman Itself.

You must know Him who is above the intelligent will. Get control of the mind through spiritual discrimination. Then destroy your elusive enemy, who wears the form of lust.

AFTERWORD

Henry Canby in his biography of Thoreau writes, "It is not too much to say that Thoreau was made by two books, Emerson's Essay on Nature and the Bhagavad-Gita."[10] It is not too much, either, to believe that Ralph Waldo Emerson influence the thinking of Thoreau but in what way did that ancient Hindu literature, the Bhagavad-Gita with its background of violent civil war affect the mind of the Concord poet? The answer is found in the way Thoreau understood this literature. If this is the case, then it is necessary for us to be aware of some of these interpretations of the Gita and to see the relationship of these interpretations to the concept of ahimsa (nonviolence) which developed out of this literature.

The opening lines of the Gita present to us the spectacle of Arjuna, the great military leader, hesitating to kill his relatives in a civil war. Krishna, his charioteer who is really the Hindu God Vishnu, tells him to stop trembling, to pick up his bow and to do his duty as a warrior. Is this the message of the Gita, a lesson from God instructing us not to be cowards but to do our duty without fear? It -is possible to answer "yes" after a superficial reading of the first two chapters. However, if you read the Gita more carefully and completely, you find that cowardice is not the essential issue concerning the warrior Arjuna or the God Krishna. Arjuna's reluctance to fight is a very serious matter because he has an obligation to perform this duty as a member of the warrior (Kshatriyas) caste in Hindu society. Being a member of this caste, Arjuna must fight to perform his caste duty in order to escape repeating that duty all over again in a next rebirth, or worse, to be reborn into a lower caste position. Is the meaning of the Gita then a divine command to do the caste duty so that the next rebirth brings to the faithful follower a more advanced spiritual stage in the long series of rebirths? Again, the answer may be "yes". Orthodox Hindu thought interprets the Gita precisely in this way, a divine summons to caste obligation. And yet you may ask, "Certainly Henery David Thoreau did not interpret the Gita in terms of caste duty and how that duty related to a series of rebirths?" Indeed, he did not. Thoreau along with Gandhi and other scholars from both East and West, found that this type of interpretation of the Gita omits its most important concern. The Gita, they believe, deals with the ultimate issue in our life, how we are to be and to act in harmony with our real self. Arjuna exemplifies not only a man who fails to do his caste duty but also a man who is attached to his duty with a sense of selfish ego-involvement. It is my duty, he believes, even though I choose not to do it. The Gita's main task is to remove from Arjuna's mind - and all minds - this sense of ego-attachment, this sense of mine! Krishna knows from his endless incarnations that it is precisely this attitude of possession which causes a man to be selfish, jealous and violent. This is my right! This is my wife! This is my land! On the other hand, the way of Truth for man is the way of detachment (detached from all ego-desires and attached to the life of the spirit). A man committed to Truth is unselfish, open-minded and nonviolent. He has moved from himsa to ahimsa.

It is this type of interpretation of the Gita which appealed to both Gandhi and Thoreau. In Walden, Thoreau attempted to find his own unique life-style inspired by these principles described in the Gita. He sensed, in the power of "living deliberately" the influence of its spirit[11]

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.[12]

Gandhi, in his own original response to the Gita understood this literature as an allegory in which the battlefield is the soul, Arjuna is a person's higher impulses struggling against evil, and Krishna is the Dweller within ever whispering in a pure heart.

I venture to submit that the Bhagavad Gita is a gospel of non-co-operation between the forces of darkness and those of light....I do not believe that the Gita teaches violence for doing good. It is pre-eminently a description of the duel that goes on in our own hearts. The divine author has used a historical incident for inculcating the lesson of doing one's duty even at the peril of one's life. It inculcates performance of duty irrespective of the consequences, for, we mortals, limited by our physical frames, are incapable of controlling actions save our own. The Gita distinguishes between the powers of light and darkness and demonstrates their incompatibility.[13]

If the essential meaning of the Gita is to teach us to "live deliberately" and to do our duty without fear, then how are we to learn this lesson? The entire text of the. Gita is concerned with this question, but basically, we can understand its answer as a commitment to the belief that any sense of "mine" in regard to any aspect of life is an illusion! Perhaps by thinking about our physical bodies, we can begin to understand the meaning of this illusion. The body which sees, smells, tastes, feels, hears is not real but it is only a garment which will be thrown away when it is worn out.

Worn-out garments
Are shed by the body:
Worn-out bodies
Are shed by the dweller
Within the body.
New bodies are donned
By the dweller, like garments.[14]

Your real self, which the Gita calls Atman (spirit), will continue to live and will eventually find another body for its physical expression. Thus the first lesson to learn is that your body is not the real you but that you are spirit (Atman), deathless, indivisible and one with God (Brahman-Atman).

Know this Atman,
Unborn, undying,
Never ceasing,
Never beginning,
Deathless, birthless,
Unchanging for ever.
How can It die
The death of the body?[15]

The importance of this lesson is to realize that the concerns of the body are secondary and that the concerns of the spirit (Atman) are primary. The Gita states that only a person who has this perspective on life can live without attachment to the body, a family, a home, a nation. However, it takes a life-time of rigorous discipline for a believer to acquire this sense of detachment. In fact, many Hindus believe in the theory of reincarnation because they know it takes many rebirths (many lives) in order for the spirit to fulfill this idea and not to allow itself to be seduced by the lower concerns of the body and its possessions.

The Gita points out that there are several ways to discipline your life away from the illusion of attachment. There is the way of action (Karma Yoga), the way of love (Bhakti Yoga), the way of knowledge (Jnana Yoga) and the way of psychological exercises (Raja Yoga). The first way, yoga of action (Karma), is the most relevant to our study of nonviolence since it is the person of action (such as Gandhi, Thoreau, Martin Luther King) who has the greatest impact upon our understanding of what is involved in a commitment to nonviolence.

Gandhi, who called the Gita "Mother" because it nourished his spirit, took the way of Karma Yoga as his personal discipline. Temperamentally, he was a man of action rather than a man of wisdom (scholar) or a man of devotion (priest) although both wisdom and devotion were essential aspects of his life. The section of the Gita cited previously was his favourite section. He memorized it and used it as a constant reminder of the ideal he should meet in his attempt to use the means (ahimsa) to attain the end (Truth). This section specifically described the one discipline Gandhi and all its adherents need to develop-selflessness in action.

You have the right to work, but for the work's sake only. You have no right to the fruits of work. Desire for the fruits of work must never be your motive in working.[16]

The ideal of Karma Yoga, therefore, is to take action for a just cause without thought of any personal advantage. This does not mean that persons of action are indifferent to the results of just action or that they refuse to act out of frustration (this was Arjuna's problem). The Gita commands us to act and to act in the way of Truth but we cannot brood over the results. Gandhi described the reason for this demand: "He who is ever brooding over results often loses nerve in the performance of his duty. He becomes impatient and then gives vent to anger and begins to do unworthy things; he jumps from action to action, never remaining faithful to any. He who broods over results is like a man given to objects of senses; he is ever distracted, he says goodbye to all scruples, everything is right in his estimation and he therefore resorts to means fair and foul to attain his end.[17] To renounce attachment to the "fruits" of action is to discover, Gandhi believed, the ideal of desirelessness. To the Hindu devotee of Karma Yoga this type of renunciation gives to a person that inner peace and poise necessary to achieve real lasting results, even material results, untainted by ugly means.[18]

In this way the Gita becomes the inspiration for a life committed to nonviolence (ahimsa). If you are able through discipline to detach yourself from the results of your action, an action which you believe is right, then you are able to perform this action again no matter how distorted the truth of this action or the motive behind this action becomes because of the misunderstanding of other peole who are judging its validity by the consequences alone. It is very difficult to understand the motive behind someone's action. How difficult it is then for us to expect other people to understand completely our intentions and to understand our actions by the way the results of those actions work out in public life. We become angry when our truth is misunderstood and abused by other people. However, the Gita points out that this attitude occurs when we are attached to the consequences of our "just" action with a selfish concern. Consequences are sensory reflections of truth and as sense-objects, they present to different people a limited view of truth.

Thinking about sense-objects
Will attach you to sense-objects;
Grow attached, and you become addicted;
Thwart your addiction, it turns to anger;
Confuse your mind, you forget the lesson of experience;
Forget experience, you lose discrimination;
Lose discrimination, and you miss life's only purpose.[19]

If we have no selfish involvement in our actions, if we don't make a one-to-one relationship between the consequences of our action and Truth, if we believe Truth still survives even when it appears to be destroyed in the outcome of our actions, then there will be no opportunity for us to feel angry or violent. From the perspective of the Gita, the power of Truth makes even the thought of anger and violence unthinkable. The only alternative possible for a person who holds this perspective is an inward and outward life committed to nonviolence (ahimsa) as the essential way to Truth.

He knows bliss in the Atman
And wants nothing else.
Cravings torment the heart;
He renounces cravings.
I call him illumined.
Not shaken by adversity,
Not hankering after happiness:
Free from fear, free from anger,
Free from the things of desire.
I call him a seer, and illumined.
The bonds of his flesh are broken.
He is lucky, and does not rejoice:
He is unlucky, and does not weep.
I call him illumined.[20]

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Sources

Title: Non-violence Relative Economics And A New Social Order
Publisher: Jain Vishwa Bharati University, Ladnun, India
Editors: Prof. B.R. Dugar, Dr. Samani Satya Prajna, Dr. Samani Ritu Prajna
Edition: First Edition, 2008

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Page glossary
Some texts contain  footnotes  and  glossary  entries. To distinguish between them, the links have different colors.
  1. Ahimsa
  2. Anger
  3. Atman
  4. Bhagavad Gita
  5. Bhakti
  6. Body
  7. Brahman
  8. Concentration
  9. Consciousness
  10. Contemplation
  11. Devas
  12. Discipline
  13. Fear
  14. Gita
  15. Greed
  16. Gunas
  17. Himsa
  18. Jnana
  19. Karma
  20. Krishna
  21. Kshatriyas
  22. Mahabharata
  23. Meditation
  24. Nonviolence
  25. Pride
  26. Rajas
  27. Ramayana
  28. Soul
  29. Swami
  30. Tamas
  31. Upanishads
  32. Vedas
  33. Violence
  34. Yoga
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