Reclining Buddha

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Violence and the Just War

With so many different schools, holy books and interpretations of scripture within Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity, one might wonder how anything meaningful can be said about Krishna, Buddha and Christ.

No matter what we say, it seems there’s always an exception. If we claim that Jesus is about love, one could cite the Catholic Church’s teaching about the so-called Just War. If we say Krishna is all about killing as outlined in the Bhagavad Gita, one might refer to the following passage from the Mahabharata (the epic in which the Gita appears):

This is the sum of duty; do naught onto others what you would not have them do unto you. (Mahabharata 5, 15, 17)

One should not behave towards others in a way which is disagreeable to oneself. This is the essence of morality. All other activities are due to selfish desire. (Mahabharata, Anusasana Parva, 113.8)

Also, a popular Hindu myth tells of a peaceful Krishna sporting with milkmaids, symbolizing the playfulness and love through which God enters the soul.

Buddhist scriptures speak of peace and non-violence, and Buddhism is often hailed as a non-violent path. But Moojan Momen points out that scriptural, philosophical and folkloric justifications for violence are found in the Buddhist tradition.† Bernard Faure also maintains that Buddhist doctrine has been adapted to justify war.

While some theological overlap can be found among Krishna, Buddha and Christ and their respective religions, clear differences are also present. I don’t intend to outline a detailed and comprehensive analysis of these three religions. This would take up several volumes and, even then, would be incomplete. But a few main points can be made.

Let’s begin with Krishna as he appears in the Bhagavad Gita.

The sacred scripture of the Gita is often hailed as the Hindu Bible, located, as I’ve noted, within the larger epic of the Mahabharata. Some scholars see the Gita as a later addition to the Mahabharata, although nobody knows for sure just how or when the Gita originated.

Hindus and many non-Hindus around the world love and admire the Gita. Some enthusiasts say that, like a jewel in a crown, the Gita synthesizes and elevates all previous aspects of Hinduism within a meaningful and coherent system. By the same token, it would be a bit misleading to say that the Gita epitomizes a religion as multifaceted as Hinduism. But it certainly represents a central part of the vast array of beliefs and practices that comprise Hinduism.

Various attempts have been made to define Hinduism. Some say Hinduism has no dogma nor creeds, but this is questionable. The Himalayan academy summarizes three leading definitions of Hinduism:

In all definitions, the three pivotal beliefs for Hindus are karma, reincarnation and the belief in all-pervasive Divinity.

Again, this article looks at Krishna as depicted in the Gita and not Hinduism as a whole. Along these lines, one definition of Hinduism, a judicial one drafted by the Indian Supreme Court in 1966 and affirmed in 1995, asserts the necessity of believing in the sanctity and truth of the Vedas, not the Gita.

While aspects of the Vedas affirm the ancient caste system and animal sacrifice, they’re intrinsically non-violent when it comes to human affairs. The Gita, on the other hand, is mostly about good people being cheated by bad and the restoration of political, ethical and cosmic balance through the idea of sacred warfare.

If we interpret the Gita literally, it might appear that, in some instances, killing for God is acceptable. All peaceful attempts to resolve a disagreement have failed, and the deity Krishna urges the reluctant hero, Arjuna, to fight. And Arjuna eventually becomes a slayer, par excellence.

However, psychological interpretations of the Gita emphasize interpersonal dynamics and self-growth instead of physical violence. The non-violent Indian hero, Mahatma Gandhi, for instance, once said that the Gita could “untie any spiritual knot.” Here, the warfare depicted in the Gita is really about the struggle between light and dark, good and evil, superior and inferior. This is a healthy interpretation that doesn’t advocate violence but addresses the realities of developmental struggle.

The psychiatrist C. G. Jung upheld a similar perspective in an entirely different context with his intensive psychological study of alchemy. For Jung, the inferior parts of the self are purified through suffering, symbolized by the intense heat applied to raw materials as the alchemists searched for the so-called “philosopher’s stone,” the apparently eternal aspect of the self.

A non-violent, psychological interpretation of the Gita and Jung’s take on alchemy both point to the idea of purification through suffering. However, the Gita could also be seen as legitimizing Holy War (or in Catholic terms, The Just War), and the idea of alchemy doesn’t really fit with some kind of justification for physical violence. So the similarities between Jung’s take on alchemy and psychological interpretations of the Gita end there.

† Moojan Momen, The Phenomenon of Religion: A Thematic Approach, Oxford: Oneworld, 1999, p. 410. For more on world religions and violence, see Crosscurrents.

© Michael Clark

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