I’ve recently been collecting notes and reading some commentaries on the Bhagavad Gita. One interesting commentary that I started reading last month is Gandhi’s interpretation. Before I opened this book, my first pressing question was what he would say about what seemed to me to be a central theme of the Gita–that it was Arjuna’s sacred duty as a ksatriya to engage in violence. Given Gandhi’s doctrine of non-violence, I wondered how he would reconcile the violence advocated in the Gita (where Krishna recommends that Arjuna fight his relatives in war, because it is his sacred duty) with his own non-violent position.
What Gandhi says is that the Gita is largely symbolic, and the central battle which the dialogue centers around is one of the most potent of the symbols of the Gita. He says that the war of Arjuna against his relatives is meant to symbolize the war within each of us against those elements of our characters or minds that we are very attached to, but are ultimately detrimental to the performance of our sacred duty, or somehow impede our understanding of the truth about all action (that inaction within action, or “discipline” is the key to realizing the “infinite spirit”, brahman).
Is this right? Are we to read the Gita (or at least the part of it dealing with violence) as only a symbol for struggles within? The distinction of four castes is definitely not meant only as symbolic, as the society within which the Gita was written adhered to this scheme, containing these four castes. One of those castes was (and still is, though this does not mean as much today as it did in the time of the Gita) the kshatriya class, of which Arjuna was a member. It is supposed to be the duty of this class to serve as rulers and warriors. So, even if the war situation in the Gita (and I suppose in the Mahabharata as a whole) was meant to be symbolic, the adherents of the religious and philosophical system represented by the Gita would have to admit that there are times when violence is religiously justified–namely, those times when kshatriyas are called to exert force to defend society. If it were the case that such force were never justified (as Gandhi seemed to think, though I’m not sure on his exact position), then why would there exist a divinely sanctioned class of people whose task it is to exert such force, unless something morally wrong was divinely sanctioned? I guess in this way Gandhi’s problem turns into the problem of evil.
This leaves me to wonder, is Gandhi’s position consistent with the Gita?