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Nonviolence or War

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—by Damodara das Adhikari
(ISKCON—Washington, D. C.

War is inevitable: an eye for an eye, dog eat dog, kill or be killed. Human history is a history of wars. Lust, anger and greed run amok in our minds, and for the sake of power and increased facilities for sense gratification, we become less than the animals. War is misery; and after victory there is still more misery, for the victor must protect himself against new opponents.

Violence does not necessarily mean political warfare. It can be seen in smaller groups as well, in wars of minds, personalities and egos. Each combatant is trying to successfully lord it over the others, hoping he can thereby satisfy himself. Even within the individual there is war, as he strives to overcome his conflicting desires

Even the millions of viruses, bacilli, and microbes within the body are engaged in a fierce struggle to gain predominance. Just to walk outside on a cold, rainy day is to participate in another war, defending ourselves against the attacks of an unfriendly environment. Where does it end? Death itself is the greatest opponent, the fact that frustrates a lifetime of aspirations. Who can conquer death? No one. Material life is war, and from the very beginning of hostilities, our defeat is sure. Krsna says in the Bhagavad-gita (11.27): “For one who has taken his birth, death is certain; and for one who is dead, birth is certain.” So it is not so that when death comes we can at last have peace. No. Not at all. That is just the beginning of more conflict and misery. The mothers of the war dead may wail for peace, the poets may sing the longing for peace in their funeral dirges of a war-torn world; but as long as there is birth and death, there must be war. And love, unless directed toward the all-blissful resolution of all struggles, Sri Krsna, cannot end this war.

Krsna has kindly spoken the Bhagavad-gita to His friend Arjuna just for our sake. He tells us how to achieve actual nonviolence, how to be liberated in the supreme peace, Brahman-nirvana. Oddly enough, however, He is simultaneously telling Arjuna to engage in fighting as a warrior on the battlefield of Kuruksetra. Even more baffling to us, He is asking him to kill his teacher, his cousins, and other intimate and venerated associates! At this point, we might well conclude that we have come to the wrong place to study nonviolence. It is the assurance of all Vedic authorities, however, that nonviolence can be achieved by following the Bhagavad-gita, so let us take the counsel of these great souls.

Arjuna offers the best arguments for nonparticipation in the fighting. He pleads that he has no desire to enjoy the fruits of victory, especially when those with whom he would want to share the fruits will be dead. He states that he cannot contradict the will of the revered persons standing against him. He says that it is sinful to kill them and that their greed is no excuse for his sinking to their level. Arjuna thinks that the family, with so many of its members destroyed will become corrupt and irreligious, polluting the community. He concludes that he would rather be killed unresisting than engage in killing.

Arjuna declares: “Alas, how strange it is that we are preparing ourselves to commit great sinful acts, driven by the desire to enjoy royal happiness.” (Gita, 1.45)

He throws down his bow and arrows and announces his plan to become a beggar, hoping thereby to practice a nonviolent life. This is what we would expect from a spiritually advanced person like Arjuna, but Krsna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, exhorts him to fight. Throughout the entire Gita, He repeatedly encourages Arjuna to do battle.

What’s more, in the most spectacular section of the Gita, the Eleventh Chapter, Krsna reveals His universal form to Arjuna, who exclaims in terror as he sees the soldiers on the warfield being killed by the all-pervading person: “Every one of them is rushing into Your mouths, his head smashed by Your fearful teeth.

And some I see being attacked between the teeth as well … I see You devouring all people in Your blazing mouths and covering all the universe by Your immeasureable rays. Scorching the worlds, You are manifest.” (Gita, 11.17) So it seems that, of all destructive persons, Lord Krsna is supreme. And yet another name of His is Hari, which means one who can rescue us from the miseries of material life. How is it that He who is supremely violent can also be supremely peaceful?

The key to understanding this transcendental point is knowledge of the difference between matter and spirit. In our present situation, this refers to the difference between the body and the person. The person, or spirit soul, is not the same as his material body. According to the Bhagavad-gita, the person is a spiritual body covered up by a series of layers called false ego, intelligence, mind and body. The violence rejected by Arjuna and then shown to be inevitable by Krsna takes place on the bodily level. Krsna wastes no time telling this to His friend:

“No one is able to destroy the imperishable soul. Only the material body of the indestructible, immeasureable and eternal living entity is subject to destruction; therefore, fight, O descendent of Bharata.” (Gita, 11.17-18)

We must remember that Krsna is not an ordinary general building morale in his troops. He is the Supreme Personality of Godhead and is not concerned with material victories or defeats. His only concern is that all living entities come back to Him and enjoy with Him.

“The self slays not nor is slain.” says Krsna. And by His instructions, Krsna begins to turn Arjuna’s consciousness from a limited vision of a grassy plain filled with temporary bodies to a sublime understanding of spiritual activity—developing the life of the eternal body in peaceful devotional service to Him. “Free from attachment and aversion,” Arjuna will ride into battle, knowing that his apparent violence is really nonviolence. Following the Supreme Lord’s order, he is beyond the actions and reactions of the material nature, so he is doing no violence to himself; and inasmuch as all the warriors have been already vanquished by Krsna in His form as inevitable time, Arjuna is only acting as Krsna’s instrument. It would be absurd to consider this attitude as being on the same level as the Nazi Eichmann’s statement, “I just followed orders.” Eichmann followed Hitler, the dying politician, and Arjuna is following Krsna, the Supreme eternal Person. The difference is obvious.

Lord Krishna is pictured sticking out the life of the demonic witch Putana

Those enemies of the Lord who are personally killed by Him gain eternal salvation.

Yet it cannot he denied that swords and bows and arrows were being used, blood was flowing, and material bodies were dying on the battlefield. In a material sense, it certainly was violent. His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada explains this nicely in his purports of The Bhagavad-gita As It Is:

“For the administration of justice, so-called violence is permitted. A surgical operation is not meant to kill the patient, but is for his cure.”

Still, this nonviolence is not what we have been accustomed to call nonviolence . Our acquaintance with the doctrine has been by way of an ethical, moral arrangement. Although the basis of this arrangement is material consciousness, at least it is the most justifiable aspect of materialism, the mode of goodness. Relative goodness, however, can easily blind us to the persistent violence of the world of birth and death. The humanitarian is kindly toward all those living beings of his species, but he does not hesitate to eat a cow or a chicken and burp complacently. Would he eat a human? No. Why does he eat a chicken? Because he is not broadminded enough to extend his magnanimity to communities with bodies unlike his. In other words, he claims to be philanthropic, but actually he is selfish. He is helping out the people who are like him and eating the people who are not like him.

So, in response to this particular problem, we find that many people have at least become vegetarians, which is certainly laudable. But there is still a problem. It is not that easy to jump out of maya’s stringent punitive system. Even if we restrict our diet to vegetables, fruits and grains, we must accept a reaction from killing a potato or hurting an apple tree, because even these nonmoving living entities are people; they just have simpler bodies than you or I. They have life, and they can feel pain. So we still are left with our hands dirtied by violence, in spite of our good intentions.

Similarly, in politics, many have tried nonviolence as a means toward their particular ends. Gandhi is the most familiar example. But in the last days of his life Gandhi was distraught because his passive resistance had simply engendered violence, even among his own followers; and he himself was killed by an assassin’s bullet.

Even though such material nonviolence is pathetic in its failure to achieve its avowed purpose of peace, Krsna does advocate nonviolence of this more generally recognized variety as a code of conduct. In the seventh verse of the Thirteenth Chapter of the Gita, He mentions it, along with humility, pridelessness, tolerance, simplicity, and other good character traits, in “an aggregate called knowledge.” So Lord Krsna certainly has a high regard for nonviolence. But let us look at Srila Prabhupada’s purport to the verse to clarify the concept:

”Nonviolence is generally taken to mean not killing or destroying the body; but actually nonviolence means not to put others into distress. People in general are trapped by ignorance in the material concept of life, and they perpetually suffer material pains. So, without elevating people to spiritual knowledge, one is practicing violence. One should try his best to distribute real knowledge to the people, so that they may become enlightened and leave this material entanglement. That is nonviolence.”

So ours is not a passive process. A devotee does not want to disturb other people. He does not want to hurt them. He wants to help them get out of suffering. He offers vegetarian foodstuffs to the Supreme Lord, and even though there is some killing and pain involved, the offering enables the plant to advance to a higher stage of life in his next birth. As for humans, he asks them to chant Hare Krsna and feel the bliss of association with the Lord. Now, Arjuna was asked by Krsna to kill, but that was an extraordinary circumstance. Since the Supreme Personality of Godhead was personally present on the battlefield, all who died there in His presence were liberated from the material world. So there is no question of violence. Krsna gave them the greatest gift.

Nonviolence, as also humility, tolerance, etc., is not meant to be taken as an isolated aspect of moral behavior. It is one facet of a transcendental process of purification from material contamination. Part of that material contamination is the mode of goodness; so the yogi should be able, when the occasion arises, to reject even moral behavior and do what is necessary to serve Krsna. Devotees are usually vegetarian, but if they must eat a dog to stay alive to serve Krsna, then they will eat a dog. It is not recommended to eat dogs, however, and similarly it is not recommended to be violent in a bodily sense. Actually it is possible to become completely liberated from attachment to sense gratification only after the point of being elevated to the material mode of goodness. Suta Gosvami says in the Srimad-Bhagavatam, “As soon as loving service is irrevocably fixed in one’s heart, the effects of nature’s modes of passion and ignorance, such as lust, desire and hankering, disappear from one’s heart, and one becomes fixed in the mode of goodness which makes him completely happy. When a person of enlivened mind is thus affected by the contact of devotional service to the Lord, he can, in the stage of liberation from all material association, gain positive scientific knowledge of the Personality of Godhead.”

Development of the mode of goodness may make a person completely happy on the material platform, but we can understand from the Bhagavad-gita and other Vedic sources that this happiness is still on the temporary platform, and, conditioned by material happiness in the mode of goodness, one is obligated to continue in the material struggle for existence. However, if one can understand Krsna by contact with devotional service, he becomes eligible to escape entirely from the conflicts and miseries of the material world and return to his eternal position in the spiritual world. So the separate cultivation of nonviolence, or any other individual quality in the mode of goodness, is of no particular value. Nonviolence should be understood as merely a small part of a transcendental whole. If one takes to the process of devotional service in Krsna consciousness, he automatically develops all the transcendental qualities characteristic of the modes of goodness and can, in addition, free himself from all material conditioning. We must not be misled. Srila Prabhupada clarifies this in The Bhagavad-gita As It Is: “To pursue the transcendental path is more or less to declare war on illusory energy.”

Krsna is supremely destructive. In His form as material time, He is killing millions of bodies daily. But that is all part of our desire; and part of His subsequent plan is to show us that real enjoyment is enjoyment according to His desire, not according to our plan for satisfying a miserable material body. So in the end, Krsna’s activities are all nonviolent because His only purpose is to give peace. (The only place where there is no war is in the spiritual sky, where Krsna has His abode.)

We must declare war on maya, or illusion, and on her influence over our activities, if we are to become purified. Once having attained Krsna consciousness, however, there is no more war. The pure devotee is not touched by maya. He sees how the material nature is serving Krsna nicely deluding the fallen souls again and again until they slowly learn to take shelter of the lotus feet of Krsna and become freed from maya’s laws.

Our present separation from Krsna is not caused by innocence or lack of knowledge. We are aware of what we’re doing. We envy Krsna. We hate Him and the thought of bowing down to Him; we want to be Krsna. We are rebellious criminals; this world is a jailhouse where we continually riot, living like dogs and hogs.

To get out, we have to listen to the spiritual master, who is sometimes compared to a king visiting a penitentiary—he is not subject to its laws. But many people are trying to get out the wrong way. They are accepting the advice of puffed-up philosophers who claim it is possible to storm the gates separating them from the world of freedom. These philosophers are telling the inmates, “You are God. Everything is perfect. Everything is love. It doesn’t make any difference. Nothing exists. We are all one. Do whatever you want to do.” Of course, such philosophers used to live very strict lives, reading difficult literature, restraining their diet and their sex life, in order to be always situated in the highest aspect of this kind of consciousness, which is called merging with God. Actually they are no different from the usual egotistical inmates of the cosmic prisonhouse, but they have rarified their egotism to an amazing extent. The inmates in general, however, do not have the ability to do this, and the result is that their envy of God, instead of being controlled, becomes whipped up by the philosophers’ statements, and they indulge in an unrestricted riot of sense gratification, imagining that thereby they can get out of the grey walls of the prison.

These philosophers, who maintain that God is impersonal energy or impersonal nothingness and that everything and everyone is therefore God, are murderers. They are not murdering bodies; they are murdering souls, people. They are casting souls down and down, farther into hell, by their demonic doctrines of rebellion against Krsna. So if we are looking for real violence, we can find it here. Of course, these persons are very often outwardly gentle and magnanimous, dressed in robes, calling themselves holy men, revered by crowds of followers. But what they most seek after is nothing but spiritual suicide, annihilation of their personality in the radiance of the supreme. Violence means destruction, and the worst form of violence is destruction of reality, or the spirit. To think of myself as God is to commit violence, both to myself and others.

The pathway to this violence is material. A man may take up religion in order to get some material benefit, a business deal with God—it’s common enough. Then, having achieved his economic benefit, he can take up advanced sense gratification. And finally, after having been through all the “kicks” of maya, he tires of it all and seeks liberation from matter. He is then ready to listen to the philosopher who will tell him he is God.

The fighting ends when one surrenders to Krsna or His representative. We must admit: “I am not God, I am fool number one.” That is self realization. “I am lower than the straw in the street. I am the most fallen, so please, Krsna, come to me first.” Krsna is beyond us, inexplicable; if we surrender to His grace, then He will gladly pull us out of the material mire and wash us in the ocean of spiritual bliss.

What is the fighting about? We are fighting against ourselves and against God. How silly it is. Krsna has won anyway. He has killed our bodies millions of times, in hopes that we’ll learn something from it. So let’s give up this vain fighting! Surrender to Krsna! Then there will be peace.

After the Battle of Kuruksetra, when the great devotee Bhismadeva was lying on a bed of arrows, ready to give up his body, he spoke many verses to the Lord, who was next to him. In one verse, Bhisma says: “Let Him, Lord Sri Krsna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, who awards salvation to others, become my ultimate destination. Being wounded by my arrows, His shield was scattered and His body was smeared with blood from the wounds, and He therefore moved towards me in an angry mood as if he were my aggressor.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam, 1.9.38)

In the previous verse, Bhismadeva had said that Krsna ran at him “just like a lion goes to kill an elephant.” This is actual nonviolence, because Bhisma’s mind was always fixed on the form of the all blissful Lord. Bhisma wanted to see Krsna as a valiant warrior, so Krsna, out of His boundless mercy, gave to His pure devotee what the devotee wanted.

If we follow Bhismadeva, we will have peace. The following is a description from the authoritative scripture Brahma-samhita of the peaceful atmosphere of Krsna’s eternal spiritual planet, Goloka, the ultimate destination of the devotees of the Supreme Personality of Godhead:

“In Krsna’s abode the ground is made of touchstone, and the trees are all desire trees, giving any fruit that you desire for Krsna. And the cows that they have are all surabhi, giving fountains and fountains of milk endlessly. And Radha and Krsna are seated on a throne decorated with all valuable jewels. They are served by hundreds of thousands of girls who are all goddesses of fortune. I worship Govinda, the primeval Lord, the source of all sources.” (Brahma-samhita, 5.29)

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