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Why War?

Urban Sadhu Exploration December 2023

BG 3.37kāma eṣha krodha eṣha rajo-guṇa-samudbhavaḥ

mahāśhano mahā-pāpmā viddhyenam iha vairiṇam

Meaning: Unrighteous actions come from lust, which is born from unbridled passions and later transforms into hate and anger, the all-devouring enemies of the world. – – Interpretation, Austin Sanderson

War: what can anyone say about it that has not already been said? And yet war is not easy to discuss even though generations after generations of humans have grappled with it. We continue to ask ourselves: “Why war?” In truth, the one thing that we can say about war is that it is a systemic contextual feature of the human culture that is born out of a fear of “otherness.” “Otherness” allows humans to resent, envy, and even hate those that we see as separate from ourselves or our tribe. “Otherness” is the cause of all pain and suffering within the world.

For those of us who practice yoga, looking to the Yoga Shastras (yogic scriptures) for spiritual insights may seem helpful on the issue of war, but we ultimately discover that the Yoga Shastras are confusing and contradictory. Ancient yogis were no different from modern people when it comes to the divisive issue of war. An early scripture, the Rig Veda, states that all have a right “to drive away the attackers” and gives clear rules for warfare. Most yogis, however, look to the wisdom of the Bhagavad Gita (and the Mahabharata) for spiritual guidance; they seek understanding of how a yogi who is practicing ahimsa (non-violation) should respond to war. In reality, though, the Bhagavad Gita (Mahabharata) is as bloody and violent as any other text that humans view as historical or holy.

Before diving into what the Bhagavad Gita has to say about war, we should reflect on how the text has been used as a political football. British colonizers used the violence and war in the Bhagavad Gita as reasons to subdue and domesticate the Indian subcontinent (ignoring their own culture’s violent, war-torn mythology and history). Christian missionaries followed, pointing to the violence as a reason for Christian conversion, even though the Bhagavad Gita is no more or less violent than the Old or New Testaments of the Bible.

Mahatma Gandhi (promoter of non-violent protest) argued that the war in the Bhagavad Gita was a metaphor for an internal war happening in the human mind – an illusion. While Gandhi’s concept of non-violent resistance is the gold standard for all ethical spiritual activism within the world today, his denial that the war in the Bhagavad Gita was real detracts from the horrific violence, death, and destruction that the war inflicts upon all those in the story. Gandhi’s influence can be seen in the teachings of A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, founder of ISKCON (the Hare Krishna movement), who also promoted the same misinterpretation that war in the Bhagavad Gita is in the minds of the readers and the protagonist Arjuna. Prabhupada preached that “war is a metaphor” to a generation of young Americans in 1966 who already had strong anti-war sentiments against the Vietnam War. “War is a metaphor” quickly became the accepted yogic teaching in American Yoga, a belief that “if we can get people to understand the parable, we can end all wars before they start.” Unfortunately, this approach to the text has not worked. And we see just how easy it is to manipulate the Bhagavad Gita (like any other spiritual text) into a narrative to suit one’s agenda.

First, the war in the Bhagavad Gita is a real physical war that brings death and destruction to those who fight in it. This is a war within an extended family. Krishna, who is an avatar of God, gives advice to his friend Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. At first, Arjuna does not want to fight. It’s important to note that Arjuna has no problem with killing, fighting, or going to war in general, because he has done it many times before in earlier stories of the Mahabharata leading us up to this point. Arjuna is no Mahatma Gandhi! However, he has a problem going to war and killing his own cousins, uncles, and teachers whom he has sentimental feelings about.

Why are the Pandevas and Kauravas going to war anyway? In a nutshell, “otherness.” The Kauravas are richer and more powerful; the Pandevas want that wealth and power. Over the years, the Kauravas have ensured that Arjuna’s family were kept powerless, poor, and under their thumb; they have abused and humiliated Arjuna and his immediate family (mother, brothers, and wife). The Kauravas are selfish, cruel, and sadistic, and the Pandevas hate them for it. Both the Pandevas and Kauravas can only view each other through the lens of “otherness.” Neither side of the family is able to show empathy or compassion toward the “others.”

The Kauravas are adharmic (unrighteous) in their actions; they are the more powerful family, but they lack the ability to share their wealth and power, and this leads Krishna to encourage Arjuna to go to war with them. For Krishna, those in power are ethically bound to care and protect those who are outside of power.

It is true that Arjuna is struggling with the fluctuations of his mind, and Krishna’s teachings on yoga bring steadiness to Arjuna’s mind. After Krishna’s teachings, Arjuna then sets out to kill all those he was so sentimental toward only moments earlier. After winning the war and obtaining wealth and power, Arjuna and his family sit around talking about how rotten their cousins were. Even in death, they are still viewed as the “other.” This is the irony of all wars, because war has “winners” and “losers” war centers itself in “otherness”; the cycle perpetuates.

When confronted with war, we have to ask ourselves “Why war? Why not peace? What will it take for me to let go of my fears based on “otherness” and start to see the “oneness”? Yoga means “union” – union within and without. Yoga asks us if we can find a solution to conflict by letting go of “otherness” in exchange for “oneness,” which gives peace the opportunity it so deserves.

Austin Sanderson – Urban Sadhu


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