The Bhagavad Gita in a Complicated World
Krishna says kill?
It’s often said that The Bhagavad Gita is the Hindu Bible. Among a great diversity of Hindu scripture, the Gita stands out as a unique gem, bringing together several core aspects of Hinduism. At least, this is how enthusiasts talk about the Gita. Critics tend to see it as a misguided justification for violence.
The Gita belongs within the Mahabharata, an epic about two warring families. Because of its remarkable literary and philosophical sophistication, most scholars believe the Gita was added to the Mahabharata around 450 BCE, approximately 500 years after the original epic was written around 1000 BCE.
This is not unusual for ancient texts. Almost all contemporary biblical scholars say that diverse oral traditions and authors run though many Old Testament books formerly believed to be written by just one person.
The story of the Gita is straighforward. The hero, Arjuna, derives from the virtuous Pandava family. He’s cheated out of his rightful palace by the wicked Karauva family. As a result, the deity Krishna, seated at the back of Arjuna’s chariot, urges him to fight in a massive battle to vanquish the evil Karauvas. Because the Pandavas and Karauvas are kith and kin, the noble Arjuna hesitates when Krishna exhorts him to kill members of the Karauva family.
At this point, Krishna launches forth on a metaphysical discourse about sacred duty (dharma) and the immortality of the soul (atman). Arjuna is justified in killing, Krishna says, because it’s his sacred obligation as a member of the warrior caste (Kshatriya). As a Kshatriya he’s bound to restore balance in a moral order perilously thrown out of sync by the Karauva’s evil ways.
Krishna says that Arjuna would not really be killing because, at the deepest level, the soul is immortal; it’s Arjuna’s spiritual ignorance that makes him believe he’d be sinning by slaying the Karauvas. In fact, Krishna says physicality is an illusion spun by the web of maya (deception arising from ignorance). Krishna adds that Arjuna’s ignorance must be dispelled before he can attain the clear vision needed to do the right thing—that is, kill the Karauvas.
A Psychological Interpretation of the Gita
The Gita is no mere outburst or artistic statement of anger.† Instead, Krishna’s discourse is an intricate philosophico-religious argument in favor of killing. And it’s not too hard to read the message as if it were meant literally—i.e. killing is okay because it’s holy.
Some may agree with this stance, citing the Jewish Holy War, the Christian Just War and the Muslim jihad as parallels. Others may find it deplorable.
But like any text, literary or not, the Gita can be interpreted.
Putting aside bellicose readings of the Gita, it seems far more constructive to interpret the Gita on a psycho-spiritual level. This isn’t a novel approach. Several Indian thinkers have written on the psychological aspects of the Gita. In fact, the great champion of non-violence, Mohandas Gandhi, said the Gita was his favorite book, one that could untie any spiritual knot.
Gandhi’s notion of spiritual knots reminds me of a roadside conversation I had in West Bengal where an Indian man once said, “The Western mind is very complicated.” He seemed to be alluding to the multiplicity of personality traits and desires in Westerners. Perhaps he was also saying that Indians are more centered, peaceful, and less psychologically convoluted.
Myself, I try to avoid racial stereotypes like that. And it seems that all of us – North, South, East and West – exhibit more than just one personality aspect.
But the Indian man raised a good point. The psyche can be complicated. Some psychologists say that the complexities of the psyche are genetically determined. Behaviorists, on the other hand, say the mind is fully conditioned by the environment. Most, however, take a less extreme stance by highlighting the importance of nature and nurture. Meanwhile, theologians in several different religions believe that spiritual powers act on our personalities, a perspective often overlooked within contemporary psychology.
Sri Ramakrishna and C. G. Jung
The Indian holy man Sri Ramakrishna says the spiritual quest entails a process of purification, not always easy to endure. For Ramakrishna, the sluggish, inferior aspects of the personality are purged through suffering.
Here Ramakrishna gives the analogy of rotten tomatoes. Old tomatoes rot faster, he says, when bashed up and thrown out the window.
This might sound enigmatic but Ramakrishna’s analogy might be more easily understood if we compare it to Carl Jung’s work on psychological suffering and alchemy.
Jung did an extensive study of the ancient and medieval practice of alchemy and came to see it as a process of inner transformation. He believed the alchemist’s desire to transform base metals into gold mirrors a psychological transformation. As metals are heated and transformed, the alchemist’s self likewise evolves.
While some alchemists were, no doubt, hucksters trying to scam zealous aristocrats in their search of gold, other were sincere. The true alchemists sought to create a mystical tonic to cure illness and ensure immortality. But this elixir came through prolonged boilings, just as the process of psychological purification entails suffering.
Jung’s interpretation of alchemy parallels Ramakrishna’s take on the Gita because both point to a stormy and painful stage of psycho-spiritual growth.
As we journey through life, people and events can irritate us. During moments of agitation and temptation our lesser qualities may arise. Some accept these personality aspects and leave them unchanged. For these people it’s not degrading to accept their animal nature. It’s just natural, healthy and whole. By way of contrast, potential saints are consumed with the idea of eradicating lower personality traits. Some may even self-flagellate in an attempt to conquer sinful tendencies.
Most of us are somewhere between those two extremes. When confronted with irritating people or bad habits we can view it as an opportunity for reflection, knowledge and self-mastery.
Accordingly, a psychological interpretation of the Gita takes much of life as a battlefield of antagonistic influences, personalities and opinions. But life isn’t quite that simple and a psychological interpretation of the Gita, while superior to a literal one, still focuses on the abrasive side of human relationships.
However, disharmony is only half the story. Conflicts will always arise. But instead of religiously hitting back when people hurt us, shouldn’t we at least try to overcome our pain through understanding and compassion?
As Saint Paul says:
If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.
1 Corinthians 13:1-2
† Bruce Cockburns’ song, “If I had a Rocket Launcher” comes to mind. Here Cockburn explains that he’s not advocating violence but, instead, artistically expressing a moment of personal rage in response to the 1980s killings in South America.
The Bhagavad Gita in a Complicated World Copyright © Michael Clark. All rights reserved.
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