As it Is by Jeremy
As it Is by Jeremy via Flickr

By Michael Clark

To kill or not to kill

Many say The Bhagavad Gita is the Hindu Bible. Among diverse Hindu scriptures, the Gita stands out as a unique gem, synthesizing 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 literary and philosophical sophistication, most scholars believe the Gita was added to the already existing Mahabharata around 450 BCE, approximately 500 years after the original epic was written (circa 1000 BCE).

When it comes to ancient texts, insertions like this are not unusual. 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 pretty straighforward. The hero, Arjuna, of the virtuous Pandava family, is cheated out of his 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 against 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 side of the family.

In response to Arjuna’s hesitation, Krishna launches forth on a metaphysical discourse about sacred duty (dharma) and the immortality of the soul (atman). Krishna says Arjuna is justified in killing because it’s his sacred obligation as a member of the warrior caste (Kshatriya). As a Kshatriya he’s duty-bound to restore a moral balance perilously skewed by the Karauva’s evil ways.

On a metaphysical level, Krishna says that Arjuna would not really be killing because, at the deepest level, the soul is immortal. Arjuna’s spiritual ignorance makes him believe he’d be doing wrong 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 required to do the right thing–that is, to kill the Karauvas.

A psychological interpretation

Lord Krishna Speaks to Arjuna by His Holiness Bhaktiratna Sadhu Swami Gaurangapada
Lord Krishna Speaks to Arjuna by His Holiness Bhaktiratna Sadhu Swami Gaurangapada via Flickr

Don’t let this brief summary fool you. The Gita is not a mere outburst nor artistic representation of anger. Krishna forwards a detailed philosophical and religious argument advocating the physical killing of human beings. Taken literally, the Gita says killing human beings who disrupt the moral order is not just okay, it’s holy.

Some may agree with this stance, citing rough parallels like the Jewish Holy War, the Christian Just War and the Muslim jihad. Others find it deplorable.

Like any text, literary or not, the Gita must be interpreted. So forgetting the bellicose readings of the Gita, it seems more constructive to interpret the Gita on a psycho-spiritual level. This isn’t a novel approach. Several Indian thinkers have written about 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 us that 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 conditioned by the environment. Most, however, take the middle way by highlighting nature and nurture.

But the analysis shouldn’t stop there. Many theologians from different religions believe that spiritual powers act on our personalities, a perspective often ignored within psychology.

Sri Ramakrishna and C. G. Jung

Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa - Sri Ramakrishna Ashrama, Mysore by Chetan Hegde M
Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa – Sri Ramakrishna Ashrama, Mysore by Chetan Hegde M via Flickr

The Indian holy man Sri Ramakrishna says that spiritual enlightenment entails a process of purification. This process is not always easy to endure. For Ramakrishna, the inferior aspects of the personality are purged through the mechanism of suffering.

Ramakrishna gives an 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 better understood if we compare it to Carl Jung’s work on psychological suffering within the context of alchemy.

Jung studied ancient and medieval alchemical practices and came to see alchemy as a process of inner transformation. He believed the alchemist’s desire to transform base metals into gold mirrored their psychological transformation. As metals are heated and transformed, the alchemist evolves psychologically.

Some alchemists, no doubt, were hucksters trying to scam zealous aristocrats searching for gold, but others were sincere. The true alchemist sought to create a mystical tonic to cure illness and ensure immortality. But this elixir came through prolonged boilings, just as psycho-spiritual purification entails suffering.

Jung’s view of alchemy parallels Ramakrishna’s take on the Gita because both point to a stormy and painful stage of personal growth.

As we journey through life, people and events tempt or irritate us. During moments of temptation or agitation our lesser qualities can arise. Some accept these personality aspects, leaving them unchanged. For these people it’s not degrading to express their animal – or perhaps evil – 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 fall somewhere between those two extremes. Confronted with bad habits or irritating people, we can view that as an opportunity for reflection, knowledge and self-control.

Apostle Paul. Byzantine mosaic at the...
Apostle Paul. Byzantine mosaic at the cathedral of Monreale. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A psychological interpretation of the Gita views much of life as a battlefield. We are often confronted with 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, dwells on the abrasive side of human relationships.

However, disharmony is only half the story. Perhaps not even half. Conflicts will always arise. But other people can give us a lift and not just bring us down. And instead of hitting back when people hurt us, shouldn’t we try to overcome our pain and anger 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