Written By: Rajiv Malhotra
In the Bhagavad Gita, God appears in human form as Krishna, to guide Arjuna in the fight / don’t fight dilemma that Arjuna faces. What might this 18 chapter holiest of the Hindu scriptures teach us in the dilemma we now face concerning global terrorism? Krishna’s advice fits neither of the two extremes that are presently dominating the media debate: at one end are the majority of Americans who promote revenge against the terrorists as a notion of justice — an eye for an eye. At the other end is a minority of anti-war activists who want no violence, and instead advocate that the US should take the blame for having caused hatred against itself. The Gita’s message rejects both these. Its short-term message for this situation pertains to the ethics of war, and its long-term message calls for systemic changes required by both Islam and the West in order to harmonize humanity.
Krishna scolds Arjuna for his initial attitude of abandonment, saying that there is a global evil that must be dealt with; Arjuna is the best qualified one to fight this evil given his training, capabilities, and position. This is God’s work and not his own. By analogy, one could argue that the US must play Arjuna’s role, being positioned as the only superpower and having the resources to carry this out. In Hindu dharma, a ruler has the obligation to protect the public from such menaces, and to abandon this role would be irresponsible. God’s advice to Arjuna is: “Engage in battle with equanimity and without getting overwhelmed by the extremes of joy and sorrow, gain and loss, and thus you won’t incur sin.”
A just war (“dharma-yudh” = war-as-duty) should not be for revenge but for the prevention of terrorism in the future. The Hindu idea of justice is in the form of karmic consequence; but these consequences are for Ishwara to take care of, whenever and however he chooses. The Gita emphasizes one’s rightful action, but always letting God take care of the fruits. Therefore, from President Bush down to the pilots making the strikes, the attitude should be one of doing duty for the sake of ridding society of evil, and not for revenge.
Furthermore, the response has to be relevant and proportional. The Gita does not condone indiscriminate “carpet bombing.” Since karma is individual and merit based, there cannot be racial profiling against anyone.
It is also made clear in the Gita that Arjuna has nothing personal to gain from winning. He does not seek power, wealth, fame or glory. Hence, it is not an act to be carried out by the ego and must be free of selfish motives. Applying this to the present dilemma, there are some implications:
The US should not be motivated for the sake of securing its oil supply, as that would be a selfish act.
The US should not focus on ending only the terrorism that is against the US, but rather, it should deal equally with all terrorism that hurts anyone in the world, including remote corners where the US does not perceive a direct selfish interest at this time. Everything is totally interconnected as per Indian cosmogony, and there is no morality in segregating the US’s selfish interests from the interests of humanity at large. Unfortunately, Senator Kerry, head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, amongst other policymakers, has defined the area of US interests to be from Afghanistan to Saudi Arabia, which means that the Indian subcontinent’s Islamic terrorism remains a blind spot.
The US cannot aid terrorists one year by classifying them as freedom fighters against an US enemy, and fight them the next year when they turn sour.
Arjuna is required to act in a sattvic mode (i.e. in an attitude of purity) even while carrying out a violent attack against evil. The US must note that collusion with evil cannot be sattvic, and that in the end such collusion cannot expect to result in lasting good, as the deed itself gets tainted by the affiliation. The Gita requires us to repudiate even the actions of our friends, if wrong. Have we, as the United States, had the courage to repudiate ‘friends’ who are clearly part of the problem? To have a sattvic activity, we must re-examine two countries we call friends, one that financed terrorists and the other that trained them:
For decades, Saudi Arabia has sponsored Wahhabi Islam, a fundamentalist variety of Islam, and funded madrassas (religious schools) to expand the market share of Islam in poor countries. Madrassas often teach Islamic extremism and triumphalism, and then some of the youth advance into the hands of jihad preachers who are linked to some madrassas, if not in charge of them. Yet, given their importance to the US oil supply, the Saudis have not been taken to task.
Pakistan created the Taliban, with US funding and weapons, to fight a jihad against the Soviets. This is not emphasized today by the US media, as it might embarrass prior presidencies and some of the senior cabinet members today who played a role in those governments. We must also ask whether strengthening the dictatorial army rule in Pakistan, and thus subverting democracy, is in the best interests of Pakistan’s citizens. US media has stated that 15% to 20% of Pakistanis are Talibanized, and given its population of 140 million, that is larger than the total population of Afghanistan. Pakistan has openly hosted Bin Laden’s operating bases to attack civilian targets in India, killing more Indians than any other nationality from terrorism over the past five years.
Saudi’s oil and Pakistan’s geography give them unique value to the US short-term tactics at the expense of the long-term vision. The Gita does not recommend such collusion with forces that are themselves responsible for the evil to be fought. Any such war would be a stopgap solution at best, and eventually the US would be playing into the hands of the very evil forces it seeks to eradicate. The US must encourage liberal Islamic scholars at the expense of totalitarian Islamic rulers; it must actively discourage Islamic triumphalism that drives many Islamic organizations.
Dharmic War is Jihad
It is also important to contrast the message of the Gita with that of jihad, since some western scholars have tried to draw similarities:
The Gita’s call to Arjuna is not against a country that is a thousand miles away and that has never in its history threatened anyone militarily. Moderate Muslim interpretations state that jihad is an internal fight against evil within, thereby denying the Taliban’s legitimacy. There is merit to this claim. However, for 1300 years, a great many individuals, societies and rulers have interpreted jihad as a license to kill infidels and as a mandate to expand. The 7th century invasion of Sindh (India) by Arabs was explicitly celebrated as jihad, and history is filled with one wave of Islamic plunder of India after another. The Taliban’s atrocities look benign by comparison. These Islamic jihads, such as by Mohammed of Ghazni, Ghauri, and all the way down to Aurungzeb, were not rationalized by the conquerors as a fight against any threat or based on any dispute. Rather, these were justified as wars to kills infidels and to destroy their idols. Therefore, attempts to rationalize terrorism by blaming US and Israeli policies ignore the history of jihad that precedes the existence of the United States and Israel.
The Mahabharata war, within which the Gita is revealed, was undertaken only after exhausting all avenues for a negotiated settlement, with Krishna himself as the chief envoy. Jihad theology does not require any such attempts, because it can be applied simply on the basis that the other party is non-Muslim.
Arjuna complied with the ethics of war: he did not engage in covert activities; he declared the war, warned the people concerned, allowed them to retreat, allowed them to even take rest during nights, and did not hurt innocent people. He did not burn any city or house with innocent people or even enemies. He did not consider the death of innocent people as “collateral damage.”
As interpreted for centuries by many invaders, Islamic jihad asks the holy warriors to enjoy the fruits of plunder as their reward, including the sharing of loot, slaves, and women. This scriptural authority was invoked repeatedly by Islamic invaders into India, to enlist criminals as mercenaries with the promise of becoming free and living the good life after a profitable raid of India. Such repeated jihads were selfish ventures sponsored by tribal chiefs but promoted using Islamic theology. No such enjoyment of loot, taking of slaves, or other atrocities is justified in the Gita’s call to fight evil. Arjuna was not seeking heaven, with a large number of virgins, as reward.
Beyond the dharma of war itself, there are many other lessons that Hinduism offers to both sides in this clash between Islamic fundamentalism and the west. The US must introspect about its own intellectual chauvinism towards non-western cultures, which includes all non-western people and not just Arabs and Muslims:
Chauvinism: Western scholars have often subverted other civilizations’ legitimacy. Much that the west appropriated from others is deemed to be the consequence of western superiority. This includes land and gold from Native Americans, free labor from Africans, trillions of dollars (in today’s value of money) from India under the British, enormous amounts of science and technology from India (often via translations by the Arabs/Persians), know-how from the Chinese, etc. The Gita would call for an honest portrayal of every civilization’s contributions.
Asymmetric power: Eurocentrism has had a symbiotic relationship with power, as one feeds the other. A Eurocentric representation of different cultures in history, sociology, science and technology, and the story of civilization, is often used to justify the systemic inequalities in globalization, and the hegemony of Christianity through proselytizing. In the true spirit of India’s darshanas (systems of representation and debate), there would be equal self-representation by all major civilizations in the modern discourse.
Dharmic compassion: There must be a new moral order in globalization, centered around human unity and not politics. Dharmic compassion needs to be given higher priority in policymaking at all levels and must transcend the notion of ‘us’ and ‘others’. For instance, is it moral to ignore Chinese human rights violations against Tibet, just because Tibet does not have oil or other strategic value to the US?
Cooperation amongst religions: Mere religious tolerance must be replaced with respect for all religions, and the world must invest in the preservation of religious diversity. Religious exclusivism is against dharma, as it results in cultural chauvinism and imposing one’s ideology under the pretext of ‘saving others from their own traditions’. Mono-theism has often become my-theism. There should not be competition for God’s brownie points, as it divides faiths into camps fighting for market share.
Islam Versus Islam
The Gita’s dharma is built on profound self-examination. Professor Akbar Ahmad, as quoted in Newsweek recently, says that the clash of civilizations is a clash between Islam and Islam — the liberals versus the fundamentalists. Islamic scholars need to introspect about fashioning Islam for democratic, secular and pluralistic times, and should take on social reforms seriously. Islam’s history has had some such voices of progress, but these were often dominated by radical elements opposed to pluralism and modernity.
We must remember Emperor Akbar who utilized India’s tradition of interfaith debate and cross-fertilization, to facilitate dialogs between Hindu and Muslim scholars. This resulted in spiritual innovation and syncretism of new Hindu-Muslim hybrid theologies and sociologies. India became the ground of the most progressive Islam in the world. His grandson, Dara Shikoh, the heir to the Mughal throne, was an eminent scholar of Sanskrit and Hindu texts, having personally translated the Gita and the Upanishads into Persian. His vision was to have a Hindu-Muslim harmonious society of mutual respect. However, he was murdered by his younger brother, Aurungzeb.
The oppressive rule by Aurungzeb was the longest rule amongst all Mughal rulers, in which he planted the seeds of communal hatred and the eventual collapse of the Mughal Empire at the hands of a small number of British traders. Aurungzeb’s killing of Dara Shikoh was the defining moment in the history of the Indian subcontinent, with far-reaching effects till today. This Hindu-Muslim history offers many lessons on dharma and the playing out of the karma that was created.
No religion is free from radical elements, and no religion is essentially radical. Islam has had more than its fair share of radicalism through much of its history. There are many moderate and liberal Islamic scholars, but they fear the clerics, and their voices are subdued. The Gita’s message would be for Islam’s political leaders to empower their liberal scholars, and to examine Islam’s positions on the following matters:
Promotion of Pluralism, not Abrahamism: Islamic public relations is emphasizing that Islam worships the ‘same God as Christianity’, that Islam believes in all the Christian prophets, and that Islam believes in Jesus as a prophet. This call to the brotherhood of Abrahamic religions using the ‘Monotheism card’ is at the expense of the non-Abrahamic religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Jainism, Wicca, Paganism, Native American shamanism, Shintoism, and many others. This bifurcation would merely reconfigure who is ‘in’ as a legitimate religion, and who is ‘out’ as ‘worshipping false gods’. This is a double standard, as it tries to legitimize Islam by glorifying Abrahamic exclusiveness.
The Gita promotes pluralism, explaining that different humans have different gunas (qualities), and therefore describes a variety of religious paths that are all valid. There is hardly a spiritual methodology known in the world today that the Gita does not list as valid.
Reconciling the two faces of Islam: Pan-Islamic global organizations have a westernized face of peace and tolerance, as opposed to a different internal face of Islam back home. The rulers of Islamic societies who deal with the west are projecting an image that is democratic and peace-loving, whereas the Muslim clergy who control the religious teachings and interpretations, often tend to be radical exclusivists and expansionists. Hence there is a ‘westernized Islam’ practiced by a small elite and a different ‘native Islam’ practiced by the vast majority. This has resulted in a good guy / bad guy role-playing, in which Islamic lobbyists are the good guys claiming to save the west from some bad guys of Islam.
Decoupling from terrorism: Islamic leaders are trying to decouple Islam’s image from terrorism, decrying the very use of the term ‘Islamic terrorism’. But they should also decouple Islam from various geopolitical struggles and missions where Islam gets routinely invoked to mobilize support. No dharmic end can be pursued using non-dharmic means. Extremism is basically ‘tamas guna’ (ignorance). It gets mobilized into a campaign by combining it with ‘rajas guna’ (passion). Such a dangerous mixture of tamas driving rajas cannot be controlled towards specific purposes only. In the end, it assumes a deadly life of its own, and spins out of the control of its own creators — this is the story of the Taliban.
The us / them mentality: Islam divides the world into two categories: ‘dar-ul-Islam’ (the world of Muslims) and ‘dar-ul-harb’ (the world of non-Muslims, called kafirs or idolaters). Muslim law demands different standards and norms by which Muslims must deal with insiders and outsiders. Such built-in chauvinism towards others is contrary to the Gita’s teachings and is dangerous. Pan-Islamic organizations should focus on Muslims’ respect and responsibilities towards others, and not just push for greater rights and privileges for Islam.
Minority rights within Islam: In Medieval Europe, Muslims tolerated Jews better than the Christians did. But in the 20th century, minority religions have been oppressed in Islamic countries. Rights of non-Muslims in Islamic countries need to be made comparable to the rights that Muslims demand for themselves in the west. Islamic leaders should create Islamic commissions and forums on pluralism, where non-Muslims could submit complaints and get a fair hearing on instances of Muslim hate speech against infidels, prejudicial laws or practices in Islamic countries towards non-Muslims, and crimes committed in the name of Islam. They should consider issuing fatwas to stop hegemonic Islamic triumphalism, since it has led to ‘religious cleansing’ of religious minorities in virtually every Islamic state since World War II (as evidenced by a decline in the percentage of religious minorities).
Unfreezing the Islamic Law: While Christianity is also based on canon and uniqueness of specific historical events, it has been reformed, and enlightenment secularized the west’s public space. Since the Sunni Muslim Law was frozen by order of the caliph in the 10th century, the only mechanism which exists in Islam to update the law is the fatwa, which may be considered as the case law of Islamic jurisprudence. There are many muftis who can issue fatwas, and the Holy Quran and the Hadith are often misinterpreted to promote extreme positions. Islamic leaders should immediately set up a panel to amend the sharia (Islamic Law), especially as it pertains to non-Muslims, so as to be compatible with this global era. They should invite and encourage critical examination of Islamic history and texts by all, without intimidation of scholars, just as is common for other world religions.
Fairness in education and dialog:
(a) Islam’s leaders should investigate whether terrorist campaigns were sponsored in Islam’s name, that they now want to disown since things have turned sour. They should examine whether they can ethically disown the baby of radicalism that was created many times during Islam’s history, as an expedient means.
(b) Muslim leaders who condemn terrorism have often qualified it by blaming it on US foreign policy. Yet they have failed to criticize with equal intensity Islam’s own policies and long history of aggression towards non-Muslims. They should sponsor an honest and complete account of the history of Islamic expansion since the 7th century by conquest, jihads, and plunder. While the Islamic expansion into the west and the crusades are known to most westerners, the long-term violent campaign eastwards into India is kept out of educational material in the name of political correctness. Only by honestly teaching history can the world heal and move on, rather than by one-sided PR campaigns.
Gita’s Recipe for Humanity to Advance
Imagine hypothetically that the Gita’s teachings were adopted by humanity at large. What would the way forward look like in such a scenario? Specifically, the Gita’s spiritual methodologies, to upgrade each individual in this very life, as opposed to promises for the hereafter, may be broadly grouped into four categories:
Jnana Yoga (path of higher knowing): This involves understanding and living various principles, such as (1) the complete unity and inseparability of all that exists, including all living creatures; (2) one ultimate Reality that may be conceptualized in a variety of approximations none of which could ever be complete; (3) multiple spiritual paths leading to the same ultimate Reality; and (4) the principle of rebirth and its challenge to selfishness and unethical living.
Raja Yoga (psycho-physiological disciplines): Besides the popular Yoga, these include esoteric meditation, kundalini, tantra, and transpersonal and humanistic psychologies that are becoming mainstream in America. Approximately twenty million Americans are engaged in practicing some form of these disciplines. Documented benefits merely after one generation of practice in the west include: better health, stress reduction, less violence, improved ethical conduct, and improved intellectual, emotional and athletic performance. A growing number of Americans are also advancing into the higher levels of Yoga at which one experiences exalted spiritual states and embodied transformation.
Karma Yoga (ethics and compassion): The Gita places high expectations of ethical conduct in every aspect of living, including: towards family and friends; towards society at large, without regard to a person’s religion or ethnicity; and towards nature and ecology, since the environment is sacred.
Bhakti Yoga (devotion): This encompasses a variety of techniques for worship, prayer, and rituals. These include both personal practices in complete privacy and public group activities in a place of worship.
Recognizing that human diversity is a basic principle of creation, the Gita’s spiritual repertoire accommodates as many paths as there are human temperaments: any religion’s theological principles can be accommodated within this open system. The Gita therefore has several messages to the leaders of world religions today:
Religions should stop competing. Homogenizing humanity into ‘my’ religion must stop. They should cooperate, learn from each other, and share their respective experiences as pieces of a puzzle to be solved collectively. Humanity must preserve religious diversity just as enthusiastically as we now try to preserve plant and animal species from becoming extinct.
Spiritual truths are ever unfolding, and cannot be frozen into canon. Nor do they privilege one ethnic group or culture over the rest.
Dharmic living is not achieved by joining a club of believers of any sort, or by subscribing to any theory of history of past events, but by practicing the art of living in the present in accordance with the dharma. The journey is an individual one and not a team sport to beat others. The Gita is against a triumphal attitude towards others. Its yoga is not a ‘let’s go kick some ass’ mentality.
The power of clergy and hierarchy of any sort should be lowered, as these become too institutionalized, self-serving, and obstacles to advancement.
‘Dharma’ is not a prophetic religion, but a spiritual framework and set of tools for personal righteousness and spiritual quest. The Gita calls upon all humanity to truthfully and courageously go beyond boundaries in the present crisis. Any ulterior or narrowly defined initiatives would be against dharma. Hindus must set the example by not seeing anyone as ‘other’ based on ethnicity or religion. Karma and gunas are entirely based on individual merit and not dependent upon ethnicity or religion.