Gita on Fighting Terrorism
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.

Dharmic War

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 God 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:

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:

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 stop gap 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 not 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:

Questioning Eurocentrism

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, with includes all non western people and not just Arabs and Muslims:

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:

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 under 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:

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 religions' theological principles can be accommodated within this open system. The Gita therefore has several messages to the leaders of world religions today:

'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 (qualities) are entirely based on individual merit and not dependent upon ethnicity or religion.