Bhagavad-Gītā is India’s favorite scripture. Or, at least, it is the most popular and widely read in and out of the country’s borders. The book has no real plot per se, because it is actually an excerpt of 18 chapters from India’s epic poem, Mahābhārata. All the plot is in the Mahābhārata, the Gītā is straight dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna at the crescendo of Mahābhārata’s storyline of warriors and kings.
So, the first chapter or so is really a transition from the high-action plot line of Mahābhārata into the deep, Upaniṣad like guru-disciple dialogue of the Gītā. Because it links the pure philosophy of Gītā with the war-poised storyline of Mahābhārata, a few sticky topics pop up in this first section.
The most jarring of these has got to be the fact that Arjuna wants to avoid war, but Krishna wants him to fight. This really seems pretty backwards. Isn’t humanity supposed to be violent, and divinity supposed to inspire us to peace?
But Arjuna is not really a proponent of peace. He is a warrior through and through. That is his occupation, his career, his life. The reason he says, “I shall not fight!” is not that he wants to put flowers in every soldier’s gun or something like that. Arjuna, and he admits this himself in plain language, doesn’t want to fight because he doesn’t want to suffer the misery that is sure to result to him personally if he does fight.
A very fundamental and central philosophical point of the Gītā is that morality means doing what you are responsible for, regardless of if you like it or not. Irrespective of pleasure or displeasure, we are supposed to do what we are supposed to do. We are to carry out our responsibilities, regardless of if they make us smile or frown, relaxed or stressed. That is what purifies a human being from selfishness and makes him or her eligible for liberation and divine love.
The Gītā starts out with Arjuna displaying an example of behavior completely contradictory to this principle. He is a warrior. It is his duty to fight against what is unjust and wrong. That is his responsibility. His responsibility is to wield weapons, not to pick flowers. He wants to give up his responsibilities, not because he suddenly realizes that peace is some glorious ideal and he shouldn’t have been a warrior in the first place. No, he wants to give up fighting because it is going to bring him stress and distress in a huge way.
Krishna is telling Arjuna to fight, because his message is to never abandon our duties based on personal pleasure or displeasure.
But, what if I decide that my duty is to kill a thousand people in a train, movie theatre, or skyscraper? Would Krishna’s encourage me to do my duty?
What a ridiculous idea! You cannot choose your duty. Duty is not chosen, it is given. Otherwise it is not duty, it’s recreation.
OK, then what if some guru figure tells me it’s my duty to kill thousands of people. Would the Gītā support this?
“Gurus” also have no right to independently choose anyone’s duty. Who has the right? “Śāstra” does. Śāstra literally means “authority” and practically means the laws and morality of the human culture, typically codified in law books and scriptures.
So, if I am lawfully a warrior, and my country deems that it is my duty to fight, and I follow that duty, does the Gītā support it?
Yes, basically. In my opinion the Gītā says that you are acting in a moral manner by doing your duty. If it is an unrighteous war, then the people who sent you to fight will suffer horrible karma for it, but not much of that guilt will fall on you. You are following your duty.
So who decides the laws and morality of human culture?
That’s the real question!
In India the most of the laws and morality were decided by very enlightened persons. Therefore in history we never find India a violent country. Indian morality and law is far from perfect, especially in recent centuries, but still, her very non-violent history really serves to illustrate an undeniable point that the morality of Gītā, taken in natural context, doesn’t cause terrorists and holy wars – as some people rather ridiculously try to claim, probably as a result of some preconceived bias against India and her culture.