Gandhi on Violence in the Bhagavad Gita

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?

11 responses to “Gandhi on Violence in the Bhagavad Gita

  1. Patrick S. O'Donnell

    Gandhi’s interpretation of the Gita was uniquely his and not all in line with either traditional or contemporary interpretations. That said, his interpretation is provocative on its own terms. Some useful sources:
    Minor, Robert N., ed. Modern Indian Interpreters of the Bhagavad Gītā. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1986.

    Matilal, Bimal Krishna, ed. Moral Dilemmas in the Mahābhārata. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1989.

    There are also very helpful discussions in chapters 1,3,4,5, and 6 in Jonardon Ganeri, ed., The Collected Essays of Bimal Krishna Matilal, Vo. II: Ethics and Epics (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2002).

    Gandhi’s theory of nonviolence (and thoughts on violence) is rather complicated, more so than one would gather from what is often attributed to him. I would recommend Raghavan Iyer’s nonpareil book, The Moral and Political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973; 2nd ed., Santa Barbara, CA: Concord Grove Press, 1983). Also helpful is Bhikhu Parekh’s Gandhi’s Political Philosophy (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1989).

  2. Thank you, this article made me think!

    You can read a simple version of the Bhagavad-Gita here.

  3. donot believe gandhi. non-violence never preached by gita

  4. Gandhiji was initiated in Kriya Yoga by Swami Yogananda Paramahamsa. You can see the relevant material and photos in the latter’s autobiography of a Yogi.
    Swami Paramahamsa Yogananda has written two volumes on “God Talks with Arjuna”, interpreting the Bhagavad Gita. I had difficulty in understanding, but the first chapter seemed to stress a symbolic understanding. You can check up on the details.
    If my surmise about Swami Yogananda’s work is not incorrect, it would seem that Gandhiji’s view that Gita consists of symbolism is not very exceptional to Hindu thought.
    Gita can be translated and interpreted variously. Hinduism is the most post-modernistic of religions. It allows for many perspectives on Truth, and holds that Truth (i.e., the Supreme) is never exhausted by the intellectual explorations.
    It is therefore possible for a Hindu to subscribe to Gandhi ji’s view, as well as its opposite, depending on the context, or what is sought to be understood.

  5. Gita and Ramayana are perhaps the sum total of the fabrics of Hinduism (- a way of life; the religion generally followed is called `Sanatan Dharma’). Gita teaches us both metaphysics and practice of disciplined action. It proclaims that life is worth living, teaches how it should be lived and the path to self-realisation. It is the cream of the Upanishads, which themselves are the core of the Four Vedas.
    Lord’s teachings do not end with what He stated to Arjun. He resides in each one of us and so communicates to us through our conscience.

  6. There is a serious misunderstanding of Gita. Gita cannot be analyzed and understood using local space and local time. You must consider the entire universe and for all time – past, present, and future.

    Gita is all about the laws of nature. One of the most important laws is the action-reaction law. But it is not just Newton’s action-reaction. It is the global action reaction. All objects in the entire universe, living and non-living, are working simultaneously, continuously, and interactively, for all global time. Anything that happens at present time, and at this local place, is the result of this global simultaneity law. This law defines the result of any activity. This simultaneity law is the Karma theory. In a verse Krishna says to Arjun that you do not know the result of your action, so you only have to do your part. You follow the task at hand. Result will be determined by the simultaneity law (the Karma) and not by you.

    We are all ignorant, except a few, like Krishna, about the past space time, so our hands are tied by this simultaneity law. Yoga, and yogic power is the foundation of Vedas, and Gita is a part of that tradition. Krishna, and Vyasdev the author of Mahabharat were highest level yogis of that time. They had the divine vision to see the entire universe all at a time, including past, present, and future. They not only could see but could show also to Arjun, and Sanjoy this divine vision. Only then Arjun got convinced about the reality of life and karma. Without the concepts and knowledge of yoga, yogic power, Gita and Vedas cannot be understood.

    In this context we should remember that Gandhi was not successful in his mission to bring freedom to India. It is Hitler, who created the WW2 and destroyed the British Empire to liberate all the colonies. US presidential candidate Buchanan, said in his book on 2008, “As it was, Britain was dragged into an unnecessary war, which cost her nearly 400,000 dead, bankruptcy, and the dissolution of the British Empire”. Because of Hitler, two billion people of India are enjoying the freedom today. Along the same context, it should be remembered that Buddha also failed in his mission to eradicate poverty from earth, which was his initial mission when he left home.

    Gita represents another important law of nature: The birth-maturity-death process of every object in nature including the societies of the earth. That is why Krishna said in another verse that millennium after millennium persons like Krishna will be born to give the death blow to the rulers of the societies who abuse the majority of their population. Mahabharat was one such time in our history, and Gita explains this law.

    For more details please see the free book on Soul Theory at the blog site

  7. Please read Parmahans Yogananda interpretation of Gita . God talks with Arjuna…it will leave u changed person …

  8. Pingback: Episode 204: The Bhagavad Gita’s Hindu Theology (Part One)

  9. It was specifically told to Arjuna since at that time society adhered to the class system and also mainly due to the temperament of Arjuna. It is not a religious sanction but an appropriate means to defend obsessive and despotic rulers thereby protect the moral fabric of society from immoral power at the top. The violence was the last resort in that specific situation. It cannot be a precedent for any misinterpreted situations for the modern times.

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