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The Bhagavad-Gita: A Martial Artist's Guide to Violence and Mystical Vision

Lord Krisha Speaking to Arjun as a part of Bhagavat Gita
Black Belt Plus
"Over the years, I’ve made reference to The Bhagavad-Gita a number of times in this column. It’s an ancient Indian text that speaks directly to the central problem of the martial arts—namely, how one can engage in violence when hurting people is wrong. That makes it worth a close reading by all of us. But like any philosophical or religious text, what it offers is a mixed bag."
What is The Gita?

It’s a relatively short dialogue between a hero named Arjuna and his charioteer, the god Krishna. It’s excerpted from the Hindu epic Mahabharata. In that story, Arjuna is the head of an army of brothers and supporters and is about to fight a war against his relatives over the rightful succession of a kingdom. The scene reaches a crescendo when Arjuna must make the final signal and begin the war.

The Gita begins when he asks Krishna to drive the chariot out between the two armies. Arjuna sees his kinsmen ready to die in battle and loses his resolve. He gets out of his chariot and refuses to start the war.What follows is 18 short chapters in which Krishna tries to convince Arjuna that he must fight this war. Initially, he cites the proper character of a warrior, his honor, and a sense of duty and social responsibility as reasons. But none of those mean much in Arjuna’s moment of doubt, and they certainly don’t mean much to anyone who lives outside the Hindu caste system.

The book’s universal resonance begins when Krishna argues that spiritual discipline and mystical insight are the keys to right action. For many, those premises define what it means to be a martial artist. So it’s no surprise that The Gita speaks to our dreams and doubts. What is surprising is how effective the book is despite the fact that many of the arguments it contains aren’t all that convincing.One tack Krishna tries is to insist that the social order Arjuna is part of is crucial to the cosmic order of things.

In other words, the universe will go terribly wrong if warriors stop doing their duty. Considering what we know, it’s doubtful that anyone now believes that the actions of a single man are crucial to the cosmos.Another line of argument from Krishna is that remaining mentally detached from the fruits of one’s action eliminates doubt. But this isn’t an answer. Simply insisting that one surrender desire for victory and doubts about its consequences doesn’t get rid of those doubts.

What’s more, Krishna reminds us repeatedly that he’s the supreme deity in human form and that Arjuna need only devote his actions to him to receive absolution. What that boils down to is arguing that it’s OK to kill people in war when you do it for God reasoning we should all be uncomfortable with.

The book becomes more convincing when it takes a poetic turn. When Krishna describes the necessary detachment from desire or disdain for victory, he says, “As the mountainous depths of the ocean are unmoved when waters rush into it, so the man unmoved when desires enter him attains a peace that eludes the man of many desires.”

The metaphor, once unpacked, offers more than simple appeals to divine authority.But the most affecting parts of The Gita are the central sections leading to Krishna’s theophany. The book builds from talking about the fragments of his divinity to a request from Arjuna to see Krishna’s totality.

When his wish is granted, it’s devastating and humbling. Only after seeing the sum of all creation is Arjuna’s doubt dispelled. Then he picks up his bow and fulfills his destiny. For some, me included, it’s easy to imagine that a humbling vision like that would obliterate any will to act. Why bother doing anything after seeing all of time and space at once and glimpsing the birth, life and death of everything? Wouldn’t it make you feel infinitely small and insignificant, thus increasing the emotional paralysis that started the book? It’s hard to say.

What we can say is that this kind of mystical vision is what many martial artists work toward to give meaning and purpose to their actions.As martial artists, we can never lose sight of the fact that the violence in The Gita is not mere metaphor.

Unlike literary scholars, we can’t minimize that this book is about urging a man of conscience who’s very skilled at hurting, maiming and killing to do so. If the book speaks to us at all, it’s because we take that problem and mystical vision seriously. Translator Barbara Stoler Miller probably said it best in the introduction to her version of the classic, The Bhagavad-Gita: Krishna’s Counsel in Time of War:

“We may not share Arjuna’s developing faith in Krishna’s authority or be convinced by Krishna’s insistence that one must perform one’s sacred duty, even when it requires violence. But if we listen carefully to the compelling arguments and the imagery of the dis-course, we cannot but hear the voice of a larger reality.”

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