The news reports of the Falkland Islands War revealed one fact that went unrecognized by most commentators: both Britain and Argentina were confident that God was on their side. During Pope John Paul II’s visit to England, millions of Britons cheered him and prayed with him for peace. The United Kingdom felt united with God—confident of His blessings in peace and war. On the other side, Argentina’s then leader. General Leopoldo Galtieri, stood before TV cameras and vowed, “We will never surrender to Britain, for it is only before God that Argentines kneel.” And, of course, the Argentines greeted the Pope with as much fervor as did the Britons.
For warring nations to claim divine sanction is nothing new. Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition was a hit song in America during World War II, while Nazi stormtroopers wore the slogan “Gott Mit Uns” imprinted on their belt buckles. In the recent war between Iran and Iraq, soldiers on both sides shouted “Allah-U-Akbar!” (“God is great!”) as they flung themselves into battle. No, claiming divine sanction for war is nothing new. It’s as old as religion, as old as war itself.
But claiming divine sanction is a far cry from actually having it. Since God is all-powerful, there is no question of defeat for the side He favors. Yet history is full of military campaigns launched, fought, and lost under the banner of divine sanction. One may well ask,“Does God ever approve of war?”
The answer is yes, but only in special cases. Perhaps the most famous of these is told of in the Bhagavad-gita, a part of the world’s longest epic, the Mahabharata. The war in question was fought in India five thousand years ago on a sacred plain called Kuruksetra. In this great struggle for world rule, God (Lord Krsna) actually did takes sides—the side of Arjuna, His devotee. What’s more, God ordered the reluctant Arjuna to fight and even took a role in the battle itself.
That Lord Krsna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, was present during the fighting sharply distinguishes the. War of Kuruksetra from today’s wars. Unlike modern combatants, the five Pandavas (Arjuna and his brothers) were neither pietistic generals, religious fanatics, nor misguided victims. They were pure servants of Lord Krsna, totally devoted to carrying out His will. As such, they could count on his protection in every difficulty.
Here is a brief account of what led to the War of Kuruksetra:
Yudhisthira, the eldest of the five Pandavas, was cheated out of his rightful claim to the throne by his envious cousin Duryodhana. Duryodhana exiled the Pandavas for fourteen years, and when they returned to claim their kingdom he refused them even so much as a village to rule. “If they want as much land as fits under a pin,” he sneered, “they will have to fight for it.”
Despite such insults, the Pandavas still wanted to maintain peace. On their behalf Lord Krsna went to Duryodhana to seek a peaceful settlement, but Duryodhana was totally bent on war. Only as a last resort did Krsna direct Arjuna to fight.
Although Lord Krsna was Arjuna’s benefactor, He wanted to remain neutral in the actual combat. After declaring that He would wield no weapons on the battlefield, He proposed that one side could have His army and the other side could have Him personally. Naturally Duryodhana, thinking to strengthen his forces, chose Krsna’s army. But Arjuna chose His dearmost friend and master, Krsna Himself. Lord Krsna took the role of Arjuna’s chariot driver.
The Kuruksetra War was a religious war in the true sense, for it pitted the pious devotees against the impious demons. In his commentary on the Gita, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada explains: “As in the paddy field the unnecessary plants are taken out, so it is expected from the very beginning of these topics [Bhagavad-gita] that in the religious field of Kuruksetra, where the father of religion, Sri Krsna, was present, the unwanted plants like Dhrtarastra’s son Duryodhana and the other Kurus would be wiped out and the thoroughly religious persons, headed by Yudhisthira, would be established by the Lord.”
Men today wage war not for principles of religion but for selfish, national interests. The Vedic scriptures condemn such base motives. Indeed, they declare that a person who considers his country worthy of worship is no better than an animal. Nationalism is simply an extension of our basic misidentification: thinking the body to be the self. The body is a fleshy bag of bones, muscle, blood, mucus, and various other ingredients; it is an outer covering of the eternal spiritual soul, the real self. When the spiritual soul leaves the body, the body becomes valueless. And the nation to which we pledge our allegiance is dear only because the body, which we are mistaking for our real self, was born there.
One’s homeland has no real connection with the eternal soul. That a person takes birth in England or Argentina does not mean his eternal identity is English or Argentine. One may be an Englishman in this life and an Argentine in the next, depending on the actions one performs and the desires one cultivates. The law of karma knows no nationality.
Having obtained the human form of life, we should move beyond bodily self-identification and its expansions, such as nationalism. A self-realized person sees that all other beings are of the same spiritual nature as himself; therefore such an enlightened soul never acts on the false basis of body or nation.
Those who fight for selfish and nationalistic interests forfeit any claim to God’s sanction, despite their sanctimonious rhetoric. Such sectarian parties may claim God’s sanction, but their claim is as meaningless as the goals for which they fight. God, the father of everyone, is equal to all; He doesn’t favor a certain nation, group, or person. But to accomplish His mission of establishing the principles of God consciousness, protecting His devotees, and punishing the sinful atheists. He may have His surrendered devotees fight on His behalf. The War of Kuruksetra was one among many such instances related in the Vedic literature.
Devotees of God are by nature non-violent in the deepest sense: in the normal course of events they refrain from hurting any other living entity, and they strive to propagate the knowledge that can release one from the painful cycle of birth and death. Yet devotees also understand that war, when fought for the right cause—the cause of God—has its place in the world.
For a nation actually to have God on its side, its leaders must govern according to the instructions given in the revealed scriptures and imparted by great spiritual teachers. In the Gita Lord Krsna promises that the God conscious citizens of such a nation are never vanquished. Not only do they conquer the enemies of God, as the Pandavas did, but by breaking free of material entanglement and returning to God’s kingdom, they conquer even death.—SDG