Published on January 16th, 2023 | by Harmonist staff1
Spiritual Nonviolence: From the Center of the Battlefield to the Center of Bliss
By Swāmī Śrī Bhaktivedānta Tripurāri
The Bhagavad-gita, a conversation between Krishna and Arjuna, is spoken on a battlefield prior to the beginning of a civil war, yet within this conversation, Krishna mentions ahimsa (nonviolence) three times. In the tenth chapter, Krishna refers to ahimsa as one of the noble qualities arising from himself (10.5), and in the thirteenth chapter, Krishna mentions nonviolence, along with other qualities, as examples of knowledge (13.8). In the sixteenth chapter, when Krishna describes the qualities of godly people, ahimsa is brought up again (16.2). Despite these references, it may still appear that ahimsa is not an overriding theme of the Gita; however, if we look closely, we will find that spiritual nonviolence is actually at the heart of the text, which after all is a book about yoga.
Ahimsa is part of the ethical foundation of yoga, a way of walking in the world that makes it possible to sit in meditation (dhyana). To activate the mental dimension of our lives, we are required to close down the physical dimension. For example, if we want to think deeply, we may need to close the door, turn off the television, quiet the children, and so forth. This is a beginning, but yoga is intended to take us beyond the physical and mental dimensions by exploring them to their fullest, finding their limitations, and ultimately realizing the extent to which our senses and mind oppress us.
After all our worldly effort, we want to enjoy the fruits of our work. We are attached to enjoying the results of our activities, and this attachment motivates how we walk in the world. Unfortunately, action motivated by this attachment is not conducive to sitting in meditation. As much as we take and enjoy the fruit of our work, we owe just as much. This is the principle of karma. As we take from the world, we incur debt, and as a result, we remain busy in the world, hoping to keep things we have or get things we want. By such effort, we imagine we will be fulfilled. We are distracted, attached to pursuing the fruit of our action. We should give up attachment and learn to act out of duty. This is the first stage of love.
When we see, hear, taste, or touch, our mind makes a determination: “This is good; that is bad. This is happy; that is sad.” But your good may be my bad; your happy may be my sad. As a result, we are at odds with one another. How well do the determinations of the mind teach us about the nature of being when those determinations estrange us from each other? Similarly, we may form a relationship with someone else because we feel we need them to make ourselves whole. We do not allow that person to have a life of their own because we only see them in relation to our own perceived needs. Our understanding of that person is distorted because we consider them a thing, an object that will gratify or fulfill us.
At the same time, our identity, our sense of self, remains unfulfilled because our sense of “I” is derived from our sense of “mine.” If you truly own something, you can keep it. If you cannot keep it, to what extent do you own it? We want to arrive at an enduring sense of self that is happy, but how can we gain enduring happiness in relation to things that don’t endure? To maintain a sense of self based on attachments, we must take from others and the environment. On some level, we must commit violence to maintain our material sense of self. However, when we step back from a material orientation, we gain the capacity to go within. We gradually come to know an enduring sense of self that does not need or want to take from others. This is true ahimsa.
This is what Krishna teaches in the first chapter of the Gita. Arjuna asks Krishna, “Who is here to fight?” and Krishna drives Arjuna’s chariot in-between the two armies to show him that he is about to fight Bhisma and Drona. By stopping in front of Bhisma and Drona, Krishna is saying, “These are your attachments, which create a sense of identity that cannot endure. Your attachments define what you think you are, so you have to fight with yourself.” In this sense, our material sense of self forces us to kill others to live. Instead, we must kill our taking ego, our identity derived from material grasping. How do we do that? In the Gita, Krishna teaches a particular kind of giving—bhakti—which is giving in the right place, in the right way. By such giving, taking is automatically diminished, and we become fulfilled.
Lila and Karma
The more we go within, beyond the oppressive rule of the mind and the demands of the senses, we move from the stillness of peace to the fullness of love. What possibility lies there! We enter the first phase of love through detachment. By not taking and not exploiting, we practice ahimsa. However, we still find that there is something positive to do and that is what we call lila: moving out of joy, instead of perceived necessity. The fullness of joy causes us to move in celebration. We call this rasananda, eternal loving ecstasy. Another name for Krishna is “Rasaraja,” which denotes his ability to reciprocate with any kind of love. He wants to take us to his lila where rasananda is experienced. In the Bhagavad-gita, Krishna tells us how to go there, from violence to nonviolence, and beyond into lila.
Uprooting our Violent Tendency
In one sense, the Gita’s lesson is, “Doctor, cure thyself.” We are the problem. Start in a small way, start with yourself. It may seem small, but it’s huge. Take the meanness out of yourself. This is much harder than telling others to stop committing violence although that should be done as well. The power to speak in a compelling way and have influence over others’ violence will be dependent upon the extent to which you’ve taken the violence out of yourself. Only then can you contribute a solution to the heart of the issue. This is a huge calling. There’s hope for the world if you can rise to that occasion, hope for all of us.
I really enjoyed this article. I have read various translations of the Gita before but I can’t recall any of them illustrating so poignantly the idea that the two separate armies surrounding Arjuna and Krishna symbolized attachments that helped define Arjuna’s identity-or rather, perhaps his false sense of identity.
I have gotten the idea, though, that the battle of Kurukshetra symbolizes the war we can have within ourselves to overcome our own false egos which seems a daunting war threatening to consume all of us in a world that reinforces the very things that prevent us from advancing spiritually-material attachment, the promotion of sense gratification, etc. Thank goodness for the path of bhakti and Krishna’s mercy which at least gives us a chance of overcoming our false egos and entering into the Absolute truth about reality.
Thank you for this thought provoking article. It is my first time reading one of your articles and I look forward to reading more.