Bhagavad Gita and War

The story

The story is of the lead-up to a big battle between factions of the royal house of India, to decide the succession to the throne. It is in the form of a poem in 19 chapters, and is part of the huge epic Mahabharata. Chapter 1 introduces the main characters, Arjuna, a famous warrior and cousin of one of the leaders, and his charioteer, the god Krishna in human form. Arjuna is upset at the thought of going to battle against members of his own family and asks advice of Krishna, who replies over the next 18 chapters, with occasional questions from Arjuna. The issue is: Arjuna does not want to fight, and Krishna assures him it is the proper thing to do. The story is presented as a report by Sanjaya to Dhritaranshtra, an old man, father of the princes on the other side of the battle. Sanjaya is granted insight into far-off events, so he can relate it all to Dhritarashtra.

The despondency of Arjuna

Arjuna is a famous warrior, therefore a man not at all squeamish about fighting and killing, and is among the host of two armies gathered on the plain of Kuruk-shetra, north of Delhi, to decide the succession to the throne of his kingdom in northern India.

His charioteer is a human incarnation of the god Krishna, one of the trinity of chief deities of the Hindus (Krishna, Shiva, Vishnu). In chapter 10, Krishna tells Arjuna of his many manifestations:

I am the Atman that dwells in the heart of every mortal Shiva

Etc. So Krishna, one of a multitude of Hindu gods, claims he is just one manifestation of a multi-faceted by unitary, god. But for most of the Gita, Krishna is just Krishna.

This coming battle is different from any Arjuna has known before. On both sides are his close relatives, friends and teachers, who have taken sides in this struggle for control of the monarchy.

There saw Arjuna standing fathers and grandfathers, teachers, uncles, brothers, sons and grandsons as also companions. And also father-in-law and friends in both the armies.

He asks Krishna to drive out into the No-man's-land between the two armies so he can consider what is going on. He decides he cannot go ahead with lustily joining in the battle with sword and bow and trying as hard as he can to kill cousins, uncles and teachers whom he has reverenced and associated with all his life. He tells Krishna about his doubts and faint-hearted reaction, which has several strands to it:

What can we hope from this killing of kinsmen? What do I want with victory, empire, or their enjoyment?… How can I care for power or pleasure, my own life , even, when all these others, teachers, fathers, grand-fathers, uncles, sons and brothers, husbands of sisters, grandsons and cousins, for whose sake only I could enjoy them, stand here ready to risk blood and wealth in war against us? Though they should slay me, how could I harm them? I cannot wish it; never, never.

So it is partly an emotional reaction, of horror at killing the people dear to him

Tell me how can we hope to be happy slaying the sons of Dhritarashtra? Evil they may be, worst of the wicked, yet if we kill them our sin is greater. How could we dare spill the blood that unites us? Where is the joy in the killing of kinsmen?

Family and strangers

Arjuna seems to feel that the blood that unites us is shared only among close relatives. The view that all humans are related has never occurred to him, so he has fairly narrow loyalties. Even so, his reaction is horror at the enormity of the prospect.

We, clear-sighted, scanning the ruin of families scattered, should we not shun this crime, O Krishna?

All wars leave families scattered. Apparently this has not bothered him in his earlier career. But he is thinking not of the excitement of battle, but of the consequences. Warriors do not exist in a vacuum, they have families.

Rituals and proper human behaviour

We know what fate falls on families broken: the rites are forgotten….

Rites and rituals form the core of organised religious and social life. If they are forgotten, social disinteg-ration follows, as well as damage to the relation between the gods and men. It is interesting that the conversation in the Gita is between a human, who is anxious about the performance of rituals, and the god who ordained them all but seems to have very little time for them, and dismisses them as exercises for beginners:

When the whole country is flooded, the reservoir becomes superfluous. So, to the illumined seer, the Vedas are all superfluous. The Vedas are ancient scriptures which prescribe many of the rites and rituals practised in Arjuna's India.

Yet later Krishna tells Arjuna that

Sacrifice speaks though 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-pervading is dwelling forever within this ritual.

Disdain for ritual as exercises for the unenlightened, reverence for ritual as carrying the spirit of Brahman. Krishna offers both views, and does not seem to feel uncomfortable about the inconsistency.

Women and their men

vice rots the remnant, defiling the women,

The women, no longer protected and chaperoned by their men, who are dead on the battlefield, will go astray into vice. The remaining men will have unaccompanied women available to them and they will be defiled. So the only thing keeping women from going astray is being managed by men. The Gita is very strongly directed at men only, and was written in a period of patriarchal society

Caste purity and pollution

and from their corruption comes mixing of castes.

Mixing of castes is seen as a great evil. Purity of castes is something worth preserving, and very important to a high-caste warrior such as Arjuna. A product of a static and rigid order, he wants to protect the order from corruption.

The curse of confusion degrades the victims and damns the destroyers.

Not only the victims are degraded by all this, but the destroyers, too, all are corrupted. Everybody needs the social order preserved in order to live a clean life.

This is a story set in an age when the social structure was static, and technical progress did not demand a fluid structure allowing talented people to exercise their abilities and rise in the social scale, while less capable offspring of the upper classes decline into insignificance. All energy went into preserving the existing structure, the ultimate expression of which was a caste structure, or its equivalent of finely graded social levels in other societies, with detailed rules of who can marry who, and which families might socialise together. And of course, the pattern of castes is seen as god-given, as Krishna says in chapter 4: I established the four castes. It is reminiscent of the old Anglican hymn, only recently removed from the official canon, praising the god for the "station in life to which it has pleased god to call me". Until not very long ago, our own society was fairly static, too

Duty to the spirits of the dead

the rice and the water no longer are offered,; the ancestors also must fall dishonoured from home in heaven.

Arjuna lived in a society in which the souls of the dead ancestors were believed to go to heaven, but their places were ever insecure and had to be maintained by ongoing ritual performance by their descendants. So the ancient dead will fall from their places if their descendants are killed in battle and cannot sustain the required round of rituals.

The man of the family is responsible not only for the chastity of the women and the maintenance of caste purity, but also for enabling dead ancestors to keep their places in heaven. This is achieved by the regular observance of rituals to honour the dead. The rituals involve placing cakes of rice and containers of water by the shrines of ancestors. The ancestors can keep their peaceful places in heaven only if these rituals continue to be performed. If the rituals cease every one of the ancestors - vast numbers of them - will fall from their places and know peace no more. This is a heavy responsibility in any ancestor-worshipping society, and grows heavier every generation as there are more ancestors to maintain.

Heaven is up, hell is down - this spatial arrangement seems common to many religions.

The brief reference by Arjuna to rituals which maintain ancestors in heaven points to a transition in Indian beliefs which was going on when the Gita was being written. If ancestors go to heaven and are kept there by the pious observances of their living descendants, then they do not re-incarnate. Yet Krishna argues for the remainder of the Gita from a belief in reincarnation as occurring automatically to everyone but a few of the Enlightened who have escaped. If all souls reincarnate, there are no ancestors in heaven to be maintained by rituals. One system of beliefs seems to be giving way to another. So Arjuna is made the mouthpiece for the ancient beliefs which were being superceded. As well as being the Man of Action, being introduced to contemplative mysticism.

The argument takes place between the two armies - one about to be defeated, the other about to prevail. The argument on another level, is between an ancient system of belief, about to give way before a new development - the doctrine of reincarnation. So Arjuna states his arguments: that he would be condemning himself to hell, for engaging in sinful activity, and condemning the dependent women and children of slain warriors to hell, when they lost the protection of the men, and condemning the ancestors to hell when the rituals are neglected by the scattered remnants of families: the outcome of this battle will be thoroughly bad for everyone.

Such is the crime of the killer of kinsmen: the ancient, the sacred, is broken, forgotten. Such is the doom of the lost, without caste-rites: darkness and doubting and hell forever.

All Arjuna can see is social destruction, corruption of the individuals he cares for, so the excitement of the battle will only lead to bad after-effects. It is not about killing bad men, it is about one's own family.

What is this crime I am planning, O Krishna? Murder most hateful, murder of brothers! Am I indeed so greedy for greatness?

The greatness may be the victory in battle that adds to his warrior's reputation, or the greatness that goes with being on the winning side that secures the throne. But he has doubts about the moral qualities of some-one who would do that kind of deed to win such greatness.

Rather than this let the evil children of Dhritarashtra come with their weapons against me to battle: I shall not struggle, I shall not strike them. Now let them kill me, that will be better.

A very Socratic conclusion - it is better to be sinned against than sinning, better to endure an unjust end than to bring others to an unjust end.

Sanjaya, who is narrating the entire Gita, speaks of Arjuna as the foe-consuming, so this is not a squeam-ishness about death and injury in battle, but a real horror of family war, with near relations killing each other.

Bhisma and Drona are noble and ancient, worthy of the deepest reverence. How can I greet them with arrows, in battle? If I kill them, how can I ever enjoy my wealth, or any other pleasure? It will be cursed with blood-guilt.

This idea of blood-guilt is common to many religions, and appears also in the early Hebrew religion, with its cities of refuge for those accidentally killing neighbours and being liable to avenging killings to expiate the blood-guilt. Murder is seen as the ultimate crime, the stain of which follows a man and marks him as a pariah for life.

To sum up Arjuna's problem, which presents his value system:

Answering Arjuna's objections

There are two kinds of answer to these objections to taking part in this family war.

Krishna offers both kinds of answer, in urging Arjuna to overcome his faintheartedness and accept the battle.

Negative: irrelevance of death

He speaks throughout of the Atman, the inner spirit, the soul that migrates from one body to another through eternity, and sets this against the body which grows, ages and dies and is left by the Atman to move into another body. The Atman is precious, the body worthless and not worthy of any serious concern.

The truly wise mourn neither for the living nor the dead. There was never a time when I did not exist, nor you, nor any of these kings. Nor is there any future in which we shall cease to be….That which is non-existent can never come into being, and that which is can never cease to be. Those who have known the inmost Reality know also the nature of is and is not …Bodies are said to die, but That which possesses the body is eternal. It cannot be limited, or destroyed. Therefore you must fight.

No problem, says Krishna, do not worry about shooting your arrows into mere bodies, they do not matter. Do not worry about killing as the lives of bodies do not matter. Only the eternal Atman matters. This is a serious argument, with profound implicat-ions. If one accepts it, then the work of doctors is valueless, the efforts to rescue anyone from danger or death are pointless, the effort to make others comfort-able or even physically healthy all involve missing the point of existence, which is to ignore the mere body and concentrate on the Atman. The effort by parents to nurture the bodies and minds of their children, see them through to adulthood, is a waste of time as all these bodies are of no value. Even giving birth s an activity of no value as it just creates another worthless body.

Some say this Atman is slain, and others call it the slayer: they know nothing. How can it slay or who shall slay it? Know this Atman unborn, undying, never ceasing, never beginning, deathless, birthless, unchanging forever. How can it die the death of the body? Knowing it birthless, knowing it deathless, knowing it endless, forever unchanging, dream not you do the deed of the killer, dream not the power is yours to command it.

Krishna urges Arjuna to revere the Atman and concentrate on its eternal virtues. But he never tells anything about it, other than contrasting its change-lessness with the ever-shifting evanescence of the physical world and its sensations. What are its characteristics, why is it worthy of any notice at all? Krishna does not say, except that it is a part of himself (chapter 15)

Part of myself is the god within very creature. Keeps that nature eternal, yet seems to be separate, putting on mind and senses five…

If it is changeless, how do you know it is even there? All Krishna says is The Atman cannot be manifested to the senses, or thought about by the mind. So it is entirely abstract, secret, undetectable, unthinkable, no human can know anything of it, yet it is somehow the only thing in the universe of any value and all the physical objects of our experience are worthless, not to be taken seriously as of any importance in the long term.

If it never changes, and therefore does not take part in the ever-changing daily round of human life and relationships, what is its role in human society and human development and developing of mature adult values? How does this changeless thing interact with the human body in which it mysteriously seems to be housed for a few decades? Krishna says nothing of this, but apparently it doesn't interact at all as interaction implies change.

Changelessness is presented as superior to change. What is superior about being changeless? Krishna takes it for granted this is so, but does not explain, just repeatedly expresses contempt for things that appear and pass away and do not endure. He gives no criteria to help anyone understand how he ranks things as superior or inferior. The Knowledge of this simple idea is presented as a revelation, not as something a human can investigate and learn about, just something revealed by a god.

In chapter 10 Krishna says I am the Atman (along with everything else)

In chapter 11, Arjuna begs Krishna to show him his Universal Form, a vision not usually granted to humans who cannot handle such an awful spectacle. Krishna grants the request and there is a description of a multi-bodied monster, creating and devouring millions of humans, including all the senior warriors on the other side of the coming battle.

All yonder sons of Dhritarashtra together with the hosts of kinds and also Bhisma, Drona and Karna along with the chief warriors on our side too are rushing into thy fearful mouths set with terrible tusks. Some caught between the teeth are seen with their heads crushed to powder. As the many rushing torrents of rivers race towards the ocean, so do these heroes of the world of men rush into thy flaming mouths….

The reason for including this tremendous vision becomes clear in a statement by Krishna

I am come as Time, the waster of the peoples, ready for that hour that ripens to their ruin. All these hosts must die; strike, stay your hand - no matter. Therefore strike. Win kingdom, wealth and glory. Arjuna, arise ….seem to slay. By me these men are slain already.

All this is saying really is that in the long run we are all dead. It becomes a syllogism

All men die, sooner or later

When you kill, you only kill men already doomed

So go ahead, they may as well die now as later

The conclusion from this little bit of reasoning, that killing is of no importance, as all humans are already doomed by Krishna, is devastating. Try applying it to your own life - your spouse, your children, siblings, parents will all die eventually, doomed by the gods, so why not now? Get it over with.

It is an attempt to derive a moral position from the large-scale nature of the universe, a bit like the efforts in the 1930s and 1940s to derive a human moral system from the fact of evolution. That one did not work either. If it is a proper moral system, then there is no point in having any ethical code of behaviour towards other humans, as they are all doomed to die. Do whatever you like, let your nastiest impulses have free rein, it matters not a bit. Interpreted as a guide to daily behaviour towards fellow humans, it can be seen as not just wrong, but as evil, justifying all those criminal actions for which we punish people in an effort to protect human communities from violence and oppression. Homicide is not the worst of crimes, it is something of no importance at all, nothing to be bothered about.

Much of the Gita is introduced in this second chapter on the Yoga of Knowledge. The idea of reincarnation, of the eternal changeless Atman that briefly occupies a human body and when the body dies passes to another one. Bodies are said to die, but That which possesses the body is eternal. Just as the dweller in this body passes through childhood, youth and old age; so at death he merely passes into another kind of body.

The implications of this idea of reincarnation are that bodies are of no consequence, just temporary passing outer garments discarded one after another by an eternal soul.

Arjuna has no memory of his previous incarnations and Krishna comments on this in chapter 4:

You and I, Arjuna, have lived many lives. I remember them all, you do not remember.

So, if humans cannot remember their past lives, how do they know they had any? Of course, as with all religions based on revelation from gods, the answer is that gods told some humans about it and they spread the word. Not the sort of thing humans can work out for themselves.

Krishna's conclusion Therefore you must fight is a negative conclusion. There is no good reason not to fight. If this is so, then there is no good reason to hold back from any violence to any other body at any time, as bodies do not matter at all. So all the human con-cerns about violence and destruction are misguided as they do not matter. This is turning ordinary social morality on its head. Apparently the only evil is taking bodies and their pains and death seriously, when you should be thinking of more serious matters like the Atman.

Positive: a warrior's duty

Krishna then moves on to a more positive argument for urging Arjuna to charge in to battle with his usual enthusiasm. He changes the ground of the argument radically, and makes an appeal to Arjuna's high status in the Indian caste structure in which he is a Kshattriya, of the warrior class.

Having regard to your own duty, you should not falter; there exists no greater good for a Kshattriya than a battle enjoined by duty. Happy are the Kshattriyas for whom such a war comes of its own accord as an open door to heaven.

So for a warrior caste member to fight in a war is just doing his duty, and that is the highest to which a warrior can aspire. The unspoken message is that it does not matter who one is fighting - Krishna does not mention that fighting against brothers and uncles is any different from fighting against total strangers. It is all one. So if his son or his father was on the other side he should go in to the battle with the same enthusiasm as if he was fighting strange men from foreign lands. Duty is all.

This is the argument that was judged unacceptable at the Nuremburg war crimes trials in 1945-6, which established modern international law: I was just doing my duty; I have no moral responsibility for the effects of my actions. But this argument here is given the authority of one of the chief gods. So what modern Europeans have judged to be evil, this god of the Hindus judged to be the ultimate good. Truly, the ways of gods and men are very different.

He does not state whether there is a corresponding duty for the warriors on the other side, so they are all fated to fight their family members out of a rigid duty obligation. But it does seem to be implied, that if he had been charioteer for someone on the other side, with similar doubts, he would have used the same arguments. The oddity is that, late in the Gita, Krishna says that all humans are parts of himself, so this coming battle is one between what seem to be separate parts of Krishna himself, although their separateness as individual humans is just an illusion anyway as they are really all just little bits of the god.

The other part of it is that dying in battle, doing his duty, is a sure way into heaven. This is something that people are making a big fuss of in Islam, the idea that to die fighting for one's faith guarantees a place in heaven. But here it is in the Hindu religion, too, as it is in all religions that accept war and warrior castes as part of their way of life. The Gita devotes much space to an account of unavoidable reincarnation, an endless cycle of birth death and rebirth, but apparently there is a way out - go into battle and get killed, then you are off to heaven and won't come back into another body on earth.

Much of the book is about the contemplative life and the struggle to achieve spiritual enlightenment as a way to escape the cycle of birth and death, but the first-mentioned way of escape is this opportunity for the warrior doing his duty. Years of struggle to earn heaven by creeping towards spiritual perfection, or a quick slash with a sword or thwack with a well-aimed arrow. The result is the same.

Warriors who avoid their duty

Krishna continues with this argument, describing the consequences if Arjuna fails to do his warrior duty. But if you do not this lawful battle, then you will fail your duty and glory and will incur sin.

So not only is it proper for Arjuna to fight against his cousins and teachers, it is sinful not to do so.

Besides, men will ever recount your ill-fame and for one who has been honoured, ill-fame is worse than death.

This is a strange argument. It appeals to the code of honour of the warrior caste, concerned about fame and reputation above all, as is true of all warrior castes in all cultures. But then he goes on to describe ill-fame as worse than death. He has just finished stating that death is irrelevant, not worthy of notice, and here he says it is a very bad thing, but there are worse things. This seems contradictory

The great warriors will think you have abstained from battle though fear and they by whom you were highly esteemed will make light of you.

Many unseemly words will be uttered by your enemies, slandering your strength. Could anything be sadder than that?

Is Krishna here just offering an argument Arjuna the thick-skulled lump of brawn would understand, or is he serious? Does a god ever stoop to unworthy argument? It is hard to know what the writer of the Gita had in mind.

In chapter 6 (and other places), Krishna says

That serene one absorbed in the Atman masters his will, he knows no disquiet in heat or in cold, in pain or pleasure, in honour, dishonour

Or on chapter 12

His attitude is the same towards friend and foe. He is indifferent to honour and insult, heat and cold, pleasure and pain. He is free from attachment. He values praise and blame equally.

So it seems that honour and dishonour should not be taken to heart and a wise ma will be indifferent to both, but here Krishna speaks to the warrior in Arjuna who values honour and avoids dishonour above all other things. The god can offer one value and its opposite and still feel comfortable with both.

After all this urging Arjuna to fight, late in the Gita, the writer describes his ideal enlightened man, with among other qualities, these:

A man should not hate any living creature. Let him be friendly and compassionate to all…He must be forgiving… they are devoted to the welfare of all creatures

So, death does not matter, bodies are irrelevant, but the good man is devoted to the welfare of all creatures, which must mean nurturing and showing kindness to their bodies, causing no harm or pain.

Heaven: eternity or waiting room for reincarnation?

Either slain you shall go to heaven, or victorious you shall enjoy the earth; therefore arise…resolved on battle.

Here Krishna seems to be switching to an entirely different system of values. Going to heaven on one hand, enjoying the earth on the other, seem to be about equally attractive, as Krishna presents them. It seems based on the idea expressed earlier by Arjuna, that the ancestors are all in heaven. None seem to return to earth for another incarnation. But most of the Gita and its ethic is based on the foundation of reincarnation, and makes no sense without it. There seem to be two incompatible ideas of the afterlife threading through this poem.

And there is the attitude to enjoying the delights of the earth. Krishna seems to be tempting Arjuna to believe that if he goes into battle and is victorious, the reward will be enjoying the earth and his power as a member of the winning royal family. Yet most of the Gita is aimed to develop contempt for the pleasures of the earth and concentration on the rewards of the contemplative life, so why Krishna is here appealing to Arjuna's desire to enjoy the earth is a mystery. And Arjuna has just said that he couldn't enjoy the earth if he carries with him this knowledge that his victory involved killing his family and carrying blood-guilt.

Much of this chapter is devoted to teaching Arjuna to discipline his body and not seek passing physical pleasures. When the mind runs after the roving senses, it carries away the understanding, even as a wind carries away a ship on the waters.

People in all cultures struggle with this issue, expressing contempt for anybody who blows with every wind, and is now excited by this sensation, then soon after by a different one. The contrast is with someone who is not distracted by every tempting sensation, but is steadfast and purposeful. Krishna's argument takes this argument to the extreme of Stoic disregard for sensual delights.

He whose senses are all withdrawn from their objects, his intelligence is firmly set…He unto whom all desires enter as waters into the sea, which, though ever being filled is ever motionless, attains to peace and not he who hugs his desires. He who abandons all desires and acts free from longing, without any sense of mineness or egotism, he attains to peace.

But this is not just a matter of being steadfast and not easily swayed by tempting sensual pleasures. Arjuna asks Krishna: What is the description of the man who has this firmly-founded wisdom, whose being is steadfast in spirit?

Krishna's answer is in the form of paean for the Stoic philosophy: When a man puts away all desires of his mind, and when his spirit is content in itself, then is he called stable in intelligence. He whose mind is untroubled in the midst of sorrows and is free from eager desire amid pleasures, he from whom passion, fear and rage have passed away, he is called a sage of settled intelligence. He who is without affection on any side, who does not rejoice or loathe as he obtains good or evil, his intelligence is firmly set in wisdom. He who draws away the senses from the objects of sense on every side as a tortoise draws in his limbs, his intelligence is firmly set in wisdom

Krishna seems to be describing here and elsewhere someone who does not respond to joys or sorrows, pain or pleasure. Take this literally and you have a zombie, a person incapable of responding to the normal stimuli of life, who has no values other than withdrawal, and no way of deciding what to do at any moment, as none of the possibilities are at all attractive or interesting.

In chapter 3, Krishna continues along the same theme

He who restrains his organs of action but continues in his mind to brood over the objects of sense, whose nature is deluded is said to be a hypocrite

This makes good sense - mere abstention from sensual pleasure if it is still strongly desired is no solution to life's problems, as it isn't for the alcoholic who manages to control himself and not touch a drop, but who thinks about it all day and feels deprived of his main satisfaction.

Change and stability

The Atman is described as Changeless to distinguish it from the passing experiences of the sensual world and its short-lived sensations. Throughout the Gita, as in many other religious scriptures, Krishna is presented as Changeless, as opposed to the evanescent fleeting existence of all physical things on earth. A common contrast: stability v change, with stability seen as desirable and noble, while a constant flux of change is seen as a sign of worthlessness, with humans urged to aspire to something better, beyond all this fleeting flux.

Reality and illusion

Much of the Gita is about the problem of what is real and what is mere illusion. Modern logical positivism states that sense impressions are real and our abstract concepts derived from reasoning about the perceptions of the world arriving by way of sense impressions are just mental concepts. The Gita writer presents the opposite view, that sense impressions are not Reality, but a distraction from it. That which is Real is the internal spirit, the Atman, eternal and changeless, uncorrupted by the flux of sense impressions, pleasures and pain, cold and heat, anger and delight. The wise man should turn away from absorption in these shadows and aim at the Real, contemplating the Atman in all its glory. It is the view of the contemplative. The Gita is an attempt to present the contemplative life to a vigorous man of action, and to reconcile the two ways of life with a claim that the two lead to exactly the same decisions, in this case the decision Arjuna is urged to make to charge into battle against his family and kill with his usual skill and urge to win

The warrior life is about intense awareness of one's surroundings, constant alertness for situations in which one may need to defend or fight, to recognise friend or enemy, to land a blow or parry someone else's, to draw a bow and wield a sword skilfully. It is very much about bodily discipline and concentration on sense impressions as part of being aware of the external world.

The life of the contemplative is the opposite of this, withdrawal from the world of sense impressions into an inner world of meditation and pursuit of the life of the spirit. It is a contrast between and outward-looking life and an inward-looking life, finding one's way in interacting with fellow humans (comrades or foes) or in withdrawal from all interaction to concentrate on the journey of the spirit towards perfection, in which all human relationships should be abandoned. It is why those who enter monasteries sever themselves from their families and undertake to avoid intimate relationships with other humans, living in solitude.

In chapter 13, Krishna talks of the life of the seeker after enlightenment:

To nothing be slave, nor desire possession of man-child or wife, of home or of household…turn all your thought toward solitude

This is not a guide to living in a human community, but a guide to withdrawing from it and living as a hermit, with no relationships

Action and contemplation

Chapter 3 of the Gita is a long description by Krishna of the way of the contemplative:

He known 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….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….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

This description is repeated several times throughout the Gita.

This is not a description of the warrior life, intensely absorbed in the life of the senses, slashing and firing arrows in battle, and Arjuna immediately notices this, questioning Krishna about the contradiction of urging Arjuna to seek the way of the contemplative while urging him on to battle. Krishna replies with a lecture about acting with detachment from desire, and doing one's duty. Along the way he explains where all this duty comes from:

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 fulfils desire…Doing of duty honours the gods… 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

So whatever is your duty is given by the gods, and you have no say in it. Men do not decide these things, which come from the gods. All men can do is decide whether to do their duty or shirk it. What follows from this, of course, is that Arjuna's duty as a kshattriya is god-given, he cannot argue about whether that is his duty. All he can do is go into battle as his duty commands, or shirk it and be infamous as a coward. This removes all power of decision about one's values and goals from the individual, and presents them as god-given and eternal, something that comes to a person from outside rather than developing within.

Thus is the life of the contemplative and the man of action reconciled, by way of a god-given set of duties and a pronouncement from Krishna that man's highest achievement is in doing whatever duty the gods have allotted to him.

Action and motivation

In our culture, we solve the problem of what a person should do by asking what are its effects on the person's happiness, and also what are its effects on others. If you want to have a good relationship with your spouse, then avoid violence, cruelty, and oppression, behave courteously, be supportive, etc. Action is guided by its results. Figure out what you wish to achieve, then this will help you to know how to behave.

In the world of the Gita this problem of motivation is dealt with very differently. The illumined man is urged to separate his actions from any concern with results.

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


The seer says truly that he is wise who acts without list of scheming for the fruit of the act: his act falls from him, its chain is broken. Melted in the flame of my knowledge, turning his face from the fruit, he needs nothing: the Atman is enough. He acts and is beyond action. Not hoping, not lusting, bridling body and mind, he calls nothing his own: he acts and earns no evil….When the bonds are broken, his illumined heart beats in Brahman: his every action is worship of Brahman: can such acts bring evil?


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.

So, if you do things, but are not at all interested in the "fruit of the action", why do you do it, and how do you select from possible actions, which ones to do and which not to do? It is a problem of selecting proper actions and one of motivation to act at all. Krishna's answer, as always, is that action must be in accord with one's duty, which of course is god-given. All actions must be performed as gifts to Brahman, sacramentally. Then, no matter what the action is, it brings no evil. So Arjuna can go into battle and kill as many friends and relations as come with his sword's length, and if he acts sacramentally, he does no evil. In our society, when someone says he did something because god told him we put him in a padded cell (or make him President of the USA). In the society of the Gita writer, apparently gods spoke to men every day and guided them to their duty. Men only had to listen, then act without any interest in the outcome.

In chapter 18, Krishna advises Arjuna:

He whose mind dwells beyond attachment, untainted by ego, no act shall bind him with any bond: though he slay these thousands, he is no slayer.

It doesn't matter what you do, it is all a question of how you do it. This allows you to do anything, and not be guilty of any wrongdoing.

Action and renunciation

Arjuna notices the contradiction between Krishna's long lecture on the contemplative life and the life of action, and asks which is better. Krishna's answer is typically Hindu: all roads lead to Rome:

Action rightly renounced brings freedom

Action rightly performed brings freedom

The integrated personality

Every human is an Atman in a body, teaches the Gita. In chapter 5, Krishna gives a lecture on this point:

The illumined soul whose heart is Brahman's heart thinks always: " I am doing nothing." No matter what he sees, hears, touches, eats; no matter whether he is moving, sleeping, breathing, speaking, excreting or grasping something with his hand, or opening his eyes or closing his eyes: this he knows always: "I am not seeing, I am not hearing. It is the senses that see and hear and touch the things of the senses."

To the follower of the yoga of action, the body and the mind, the sense-organs and the intellect are instruments only: he knows himself other than the instrument and thus his heart grows pure."

This idea is common to many religions: separating the flesh and the spirit, identifying the Real Person with only the spirit, and the flesh as the animal nature that is the lower part of one's being. This scorn for things of the flesh and the senses has led to enormous psychological problems, of ascetics trying to subdue the flesh, of guilt in those who capitulate to what they see as worldly lusts, including what we see as normal sexuality and normal enjoyment of the beauties of the universe. It is quite different from the attitude of modern psychology to the integrated personality, in which such problems as gluttony and lechery are seen not as sins, but as health disorders leading to self-destructive behaviour, while ascetic self-denial and mortification of the flesh are also seen as disorders of the personality and failure to integrate as a mature adult for whom flesh and spirit are one.

Man as a social animal

Humans live in communities and have relationships with other humans. All the lives of nearly all people are lived with relationships to other humans as their main preoccupation. The view of the world presented in the Gita does not accept that humans are social animals, but sees them as individuals with a relation-ship to the gods, but no relationship that matters, to any other human. So their action decisions are entirely self-regarding, and concern only the relationship between the person and his god.

"No-one has the power to change the Changeless." The "soul" or Atman, "That which possesses the body", is eternal and never changes. "Change" is, in some ways a vague word, and it is hard to know what to make of this sentence. A person "changes" when shifting from one mood to another, when progressing through the daily round of feeding, digestion, and development of appetite; when moving through cycles of wakefulness and sleep, illness and health. A person changes in more lasting and long-term ways by maturing, growing up, learning new skills, by accumulating wisdom. A person also changes in starting, developing, responding, to, or ending, relationships with others.

If the "soul", the Atman, is eternal and changeless, then it has no moods or emotions, it does not mature or learn anything, and it has no relationships with anything outside itself. The words given to Krishna are brief, and it is not clear in what way the Atman is "changeless". But if it is to be interpreted as totally changeless, as never changing in any way at all, then it is difficult to understand what is meant by it, or why it is valued so much, or why Krishna even bothers talking to Arjuna about it. In fact, it ceases to be interesting.

"Therefore you must fight". This is a powerful conclusion to the lecture about reincarnation. Arjuna's objection to fighting was that he would be killing members of his own family. Krishna has said that death is an illusion. Arjuna objected that the family would be demoralised, degraded, and scattered. Krishna says the soul of each person in the family is changeless, and can therefore never be degraded, because that is a kind of change.

Krishna's contemplative view of life is entirely self-regarding - all that matters is contemplation of the mystic vision, and the state of one's soul. Relations-hips do not matter. The social structure does not matter. There are no obligations to anything outside oneself - not to family, friends, clan, tribe, nation, fellow-humans, other animals, the natural world. None of this matters at all. Krishna does not mention any relationship Arjuna should take trouble to consider that is outside himself and his progress towards spiritual perfection.

So the Gita is of no value to anybody who lives as a social animal surrounded by spouse, children, parents and other relations, neighbours, friends, colleagues. Possible relationships with any of these are of no value as all that matters is one's progress towards spiritual perfection. In its pure self-absorption it is a bit like the mantras of the personal development movement that one's own journey towards liberation of inner talents and mind-power is all that matters. An ethic for the me-generation.

The Gita and other scriptural writings from the orient have appealed strongly to the Counter-culture, reacting against the preoccupation with wealth and with consumer satisfaction of modern Western society. The self-absorption of the search for inner purity and perfection involves contempt for the passing fads of the latest gadgets or thrill-seeking activities, for the trivia of current fashions and status-seeking competitive consumption. For a generation wanting to find an alternative set of values to set against those of the consumer society manipulated by mass advertising into desperately wanting whatever new gimmick is produced to titillate the senses, this aspect of the Gita seems very attractive.

Unfortunately what goes with it is a way of life that is adapted to a static society of zero technical change, a patriarchal society in which women are seen as inferior beings of no ability to manage their own lives or control their emotional fluctuations, a ritual-obsessed society which finds its meaning only through endless ritualised performances to please the gods, in which death is meaningless and all actions directed towards preserving life or avoiding harm to others are seen as misdirected energy, and in which one of the worst offences against the social order is the mixing of castes.

It is not possible to take one part of a religious value system and discard the remainder, as they form integrated systems of belief. In the Gita, the values which are hostile to the consumer-faddist society are tightly linked to other values which in our modern society are entirely unacceptable.

Near the end of the Gita is a speech attributed to Krishna on the enlightened man:

A man who is born with tendencies towards the divine is fearless and pure in heart. He perseveres in that path to union with Brahman which the scriptures and his teacher have taught him. He is charitable, He can control his passions. He studies the scriptures regularly, and obeys their directions. He practises spiritual disciplines. He is straightforward, truthful, and of an even temper. He harms no-one. He renounces the things of this world. He has a tranquil mind and an unmalicious tongue. He is compassionate towards all. He is not greedy. He is gentle and modest. He abstains from useless activity. He has faith in the strength of his higher nature. He can forgive and endure. He is clean in thought and act. He is free from hatred and from pride. Such qualities are his birthright.

This is a heart-warming description of a gentle person avoiding causing harm to any, and full of virtues we can admire, apart perhaps from all this burying one's nose in scriptures. I find it difficult to see how any of this is connected with the main thrust of the Gita, justifying fratricidal war, and the meaninglessness of concern for bodies and any mere fleshly creature.

The values of the Gita are just a mystery, justifying as they do the life of the gentle and nurturing peace-loving neighbour and the fierce warrior who makes a life of killing fellow men and disrupting the functioning of their communities. Religion is full of contradiction, paradox, incompatible ideas and false solutions to the problem of understanding and living in our world.