Found in Sanga, Sanga 2003.

War and Transcendence

September 6th, 2003 | No Comments

Q. Your Sanga Volume V, No. 8 To Fight or Not to Fight? The Bhagavad-gita and the Iraq War missed the point. The whole point of the Mahabharata was to show the futility of war. The Pandavas survived but they lived out their lives in grief because all their relatives were dead. War is never justified. The Mahabharata is a story about a tragic war that never should have happened.

A. If I understand it correctly, your opinion, as interesting as it is, implies that Krishna, at the onset of the Gita, was wrong for disagreeing with Arjuna when he chose not to fight. Arjuna argued against fighting when it would be at the cost of the lives of his loved ones. Although Krishna ultimately took the discussion to a higher level and advocated a war against the ego, he prefaced his spiritual discourse by replying to Arjuna on the level of his resistance, that of dharma. On the basis of dharma in terms of the physical reality, Krishna encouraged Arjuna to fight. On the basis of Vedanta and bhakti in terms of the spiritual reality, he encouraged him slay his ego attachments appearing before him as persons such as Drona and Bhisma.

The physical battle should have never happened because Duryodhana was wrong for insisting upon it. World War II should not have happened either, but that does not mean that Nazi Germany should have been allowed to triumph on the grounds that “war is never justified.” From the absolute perspective you are correct: war is never acceptable. This is the teaching of the Gita, a doctrine of absolute nonviolence. However, realizing this involves an ego death that most pacifists are reluctant to undergo, if for no other reason than because transcendence is not the ideal of their worldview.

If you trace out what gives rise to war in any given circumstance and try to do away with the remote causes of it in an effort to do away with war altogether, you will have to consider economic, social, and psychological realties and how they could have been adjusted to arrive at a morally just world. Yet, while the world is already fully just in a karmic sense, the moralist’s pursuit of a world ruled strictly by virtue is a fantasy. The only hope for attaining something that resembles that fantasy world lies in understanding the futility of its pursuit and coming to a transcendental ideal.

Justice and virtue are products of sattva guna (goodness). Not everyone is sufficiently influenced by this mode of nature to wholly agree with the sattvic person’s values. Those influenced more by the modes of tamas (ignorance) and passion (rajas) will not agree that the values of a sattvic mindset are any more desirable then the values they pursue under the influence of these other modes of nature.

However, if people are educated as to the value of liberation and love of God—the transcendental reality—then one can argue convincingly that sattvic values are superior to those arising from the influence of the other two modes of nature. According to the transcendental angle of vision, sattva is the mode of nature from which transcendence is attained. As Socrates said, it is only the standard of self-realization, or “tendence of the soul,” that makes value judgments meaningful, rendering sense pursuit and material advancement less valuable than virtue.

Thus if transcendence is the goal of life, it behooves us to pursue a life of virtue in the course of attaining it. Otherwise, the concepts of right and wrong hold no metaphysical significance and are mere convention. They are not even pragmatic, for they involve the pursuit of that which is unattainable, be it fulfillment through sense enjoyment, material acquisition, or a fully just world. In the case of justice, even if every individual becomes just and virtuous, the world ceases to be a moral one, for morality is but a corrective measure. Thus only in a worldview that advocates transcendence of the world as its goal is there is some hope for peace on earth and the distinct possibility of attaining residence in the plane where there is no war.

Q. I was disturbed by the support you expressed for U.S. military aggression against Iraq in Sanga Volume V, No. 8 To Fight or Not to Fight? The Bhagavad-gita and the Iraq War.

You base your support of that war on Bhagavad-gita but Lord Krishna did not incite Arjuna to fight an aimless war just for the sake of a throne. The battle of Kuruksetra was about divinity and nondivinity. More importantly, it was about the supreme will of the Lord, and one cannot compare the situation between Bush and Saddam to the Bhagavad-gita war. The Iraq war is simply a battle among demonic elements of Kali-yuga and the fact is that Bush is simply interested in oil. The war has nothing to do with liberating Iraq’s people.

Adherents of the Vedic path have no business supporting one government’s invasion of another and there is no comparison of any war to the battle of Kuruksetra, which was fought on the direct desire of the Lord. The Battle of Kuruksetra was fought for the glorification of the Lord’s devotees, who are meant to be victorious despite all odds. Therefore, it is quite disappointing when someone of your stature writes in support of war and many devotees are quite upset about your statements. Devotees are not ignorant fools, and the majority have their own realizations.

I have a lot of respect for you, and I do appreciate Sanga, but I expect discussion of rupanuga bhakti on Sanga and I am sure that neither Srila Prabhupada nor any of our previous acaryas are of the views you expressed on Bhagavad-gita and the Iraq War.

A. Aside from its spiritual ideal, the Bhagavad-gita supports the principle of qualified violence. That is, if diplomacy fails, war for a righteous purpose is an option. This is the point I made and I leave it to each individual to decide if diplomacy has failed in any given instance and righteousness is the motive of any particular war. It matters little that President Bush is not fighting, as was Arjuna, for the will of Krishna. This is a higher issue in light of which we are justified in disapproving of his actions. However, my point consistently has been that in terms of its sociopolitical stance the Bhagavad-gita does condone the use of violence for a righteous cause when diplomacy fails. The Gita instructs humanity in principle on many levels but it leaves it up to the individual to decide how to apply those principles in any given circumstance.

You have determined that the U.S.-lead war was not based on righteousness and in spite of U.S. rhetoric about good over evil you opine that this was not the motivating factor behind its decision to go to war. In this you demonstrate an arrogance of your own when you label the U.S. wholly unrighteous, as we both know that you have benefited considerably from its freedom and religious tolerance. Still, even by American standards you are certainly entitled to your opinion but you should be aware that many would reply that your opinion about the war in the least reveals a lack of objectivity.

Personally I differ from you on the issue of the war in that I have not taken sides on it. I am not preoccupied with this level of engagement but have taken the time to respond to a sincere question on the issue. You are free to disagree with it if you like.

That aside, I also differ with you when you insist that in order for war to be justifiable in any given instance the standard of righteousness (dharma) that it seeks to uphold must reach the level advocated in the Gita. I differ further when you also extend the standard for war to involve the necessity of being in pursuit of the higher spiritual ideal of the Gita, which ultimately is not righteousness for its own sake but rather pure love (prema). The principle the Gita is teaching on righteousness is far more general and universal than the specifics you choose to confine it to.

Regarding dharma, the fact that governments today do not follow the system of varnasrama does not render them entirely unrighteous. The universal principle of the Gita on this issue is that to the extent that one stands for actual righteousness one may be justified in going to war. That does not mean all soldiers fighting for the relative good will attain the same status as a warrior of dharma in the full sense of the term. But it does tell us that good is sometimes worth fighting for and such acts will incur relatively good karma as opposed to bad karma.

Regarding the spiritual teaching of the Gita, it is meaningless to apply absolute principles to relative issues. Absolutely speaking, nothing in this world other than pure devotion is justified—sarva dharman parityajya mam ekam saranam vraja. This is the spiritual conclusion of the Gita. However, it is convenient at best to cite this conclusion in support of condemning a government’s stance on any particular issue. Others will recognize that they themselves are not yet living the conclusion of the Gita and thus they must consider relative issues on the strength of their own merit. If at the same time such persons are able to cite the Gita in terms of its general stance on relative issues, such as whether or not war is ever justifiable, their position is that much better.

I have received a few letters like yours and all of them thus far betray the fact that the questioners did not read my answers in that Sanga very closely. Your position is no different. As for your idea that devotees are not ignorant fools, I agree with you but find it ludicrous for you to conclude that my statements on the war imply that I think they are. As for majority opinions, they do have some value, but it is not clear what the majority of devotees think on this issue nor is the majority opinion necessarily the correct one. Indeed, more often than not I stand either opposed to the majority opinion on issues or as a voice for an all-too-silent one of sanity. For that matter, should the majority be for or against the war, it has no bearing on my position on this particular issue, having not advocated either side myself.

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