When war becomes dharma
In the Bhagvad Gita, Arjuna once throws down his bow and tells Krishna, “I will not fight.” Many scholars consider this an exhortation to an inner war instead of a physical one, against one’s own ego and weaknesses. While the Gita is essentially a divine message of yoga — of transforming one’s own nature while reaching for the absolute — it reconciles war with the notion of duty and dharma. Since the beginning of times, war has been an integral part of man’s quest.
Yet, war is the most misunderstood factor of human history. Sri Aurobindo in his remarkable Essays on the Gita writes: “Man’s natural tendency is to worship nature as love and life and beauty and good and to turn away from her grim mask of death.” War has always repelled man: Ashoka turned Buddhist after the battle of Kalinga, American youngsters refused to participate in the Vietnam war, and we are witnessing today massive protests against the atom bomb.
Yet, the Gita says that while protecting one’s borders, wives, children and culture, and when all other means have failed, war can become dharma. War is a universal principle of our life as Sri Aurobindo argues: “it is evident that the actual life of man can take no real step forward without a struggle between what exists and what seeks to exist”. And that humanity periodically experience time in which great forces clash together, resulting in destruction and reconstruction, intellectual, social, moral, religious, andpolitical.
According to the Gita, there exists a struggle between righteousness and unrighteousness, between the self affirming law of good and the forces that oppose its progression. Its message is, therefore, addressed to people whose duty in life is to protect those who are at the mercy of the strong and the violent. “It is only a few religions,” writes Sri Aurobindo, “which have had the courage, like the Indian, to lift up the image of the force that acts in the world in the figure not only of the beneficent Durga, but also of the terrible Kali in her blood-stained dance of destruction.”
Has India understood this great nationalist message of the Gita? Yes and no. On the one hand, you have had a Shivaji, a Rani of Jhansi, and a Sri Aurobindo, who, let us remember, gave a call as early as 1906 for the eviction of the British — by force if need be — at a time when the Congress was not even considering independence. On the other hand, the Indian masses seem never to have resisted invasions for centuries. Wave after wave of Muslims intruders were able to loot, rape, kill, raze temples and govern India, because Hindu chieftains kept betraying each other and nonational uprising occurred against them; the British got India for a song, bled it dry (20 millions Indians died of famine during British rule), because except for the Great (misguided) Mutiny, there was no wave ofnationalism opposed to them until very late.
We witnessed how in 1962 the Indian army was routed because Nehru had refused to heed the warnings posed by the Chinese. Just a year ago, we also witnessed how India reacted during the hijack of the IC flight from Kathmandu: instead of storming the plane when it was in Amritsar, India’s leaders got cowed down by the prospect of human casualties from their own side and surrendered to terrorism. But in the process India’s image and self-esteem suffered a lot and the liberated separatists are now spitting even more venom and terror.
Why is this nationalistic message of the Gita forgotten? There are two main reasons: Buddhism and Mahatma Gandhi. Buddhism made of non-violence an uncompromising, inflexible dogma. Thus it was literally wiped-off the face of India within a few centuries. Buddhism indirectly influenced Hinduism and Mahatma Gandhi, whose sincere but rigid adherence to non-violence may have indirectly precipitated the 1947 Partition.
Today, well-meaning “secular” Indians intellectuals still borrow from th Buddhist and Gandhian creed of non-violence to demonstrate why India should not have the bomb and get wiped-out by Pakistan or China, countries which have no such qualms.
There is, however, a lining in the sky: the Kargil war has shown that Hindu, Muslim and Christian soldiers can put their country above their religion and fight alongside each other. Today, we see a new wave of nationalism, both in India, as well as amongst its influential expatriate.