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Holy WarReview - Holy War
Violence and the Bhagavad Gita
by Steven J. Rosen (Editor)
Deepak Heritage Books, 2002
Review by Antonio T. de Nicolas
Jan 10th 2003 (Volume 7, Issue 2)


Mahatma Gandhi had been dead less than eight years when I arrived to the Gujarat Vidyapeet, in Ahmedabad, to study. Gandhi lived there and made a University out of it. I lived in one of the small rooms, like the one in which he used to meet the press and spin his cotton wheel. I have never felt greater bereavement than in those people at his absence. And yet they went about their work with a smile, even if it was a sad smile. Outside the University it was a world in transition. How to get rid of the legacy of colonial power, unify India and Pakistan, make a Nation out of a multitude of tribes. It was a time of responsibility, celebration and open joy.  This was the time when the radio stations were blaring “gori, gori, O banki chori…”   But at the University it was very different. There we all chanted the Gita daily and I knew its verses by heart before I learned Gujarati. Nehru and Morarji Desai were frequent visitors. We all learn about the Mahatma and his transformations, from a small town lawyer in South Africa to the leader of ahimsa; from his familiarity with the Isa Upanishad to his learning and quoting the Gita when needed in political circles. He became a truer Hindu as his non-violent revolution became a success, and the Gita our spiritual guide. Ahimsa and the Gita stayed with us at the University, and with her, Gandhi’s presence. Chanting the Gita, became a daily long memorial.

There is little doubt that of all Indic texts, The Bhagavad Gita has exerted the most influence on the aspirations of the would be spiritual person, even mystic. So many outstanding individuals from East and West have claimed to know its secrets that it is no surprise the Gita has the greater number of interpreters among Indic texts. It was translated relatively late by Charles Wilkins in 1785, under the false belief that he was translating a text influenced by Christianity. German intellectuals, Schlegel, Deussen,  Schopenhauer; the English, Max Mueller, a transplanted German, Aldous Huxley; the French Romain Rolland, a friend and correspondent of Freud, the Russian Tolstoy and the Americans Emerson and Thoreau followed later.  In modern times the translations have multiplied. The Editor of this volume himself has a previous book Gita on the Green and I myself have two volumes, a large one Avatara: The Humanization of Philosophy and The Bhagavad Gita, a short volume with the minimum of introduction and the maximum of its original Sanskrit musical rhythm in the translation. I also included Winthrop Sargeant’s Bhagavad Gita, with Sanskrit text, transliteration and translation, edited by Christopher Chapple, in my Series on Cultural Perspectives at SUNY Press. All in all there are about two hundred different translations, and now this volume. Do we need it?

In the past, studies on the Gita were mostly individual efforts, individual perspectives of those of us who knew the culture, the language and the rhythm of the work, trying to update what we thought was an incomplete understanding on the part of our older fellow translators. After all the world had changed, we were more sophisticated now and felt our past teachers were also dated with the work they produced; or, while the other translators were focusing on the text as religion, its true context was philosophical and so on, the excuses for the proliferation of translations went on. Does Holy War add anything no one else had done before?

The answer is yes. Holy War places the Gita in the Mahabharata, not as an addition to it but rather as the historical background on which the text of the Gita stands.

In this manner the Gita becomes history, and by doing so it avoids the pitfalls of trying to interpret it with the individual lenses of religious revelation and brings it down to the consensual level of social science. Could a presentation of the Gita in this manner become a text of revelation for the individual seeker with the help of his/her guru, or will it be reduced for ever to a simple human interpretation fit only for the classroom? The oral/audial text, the epistemology of sound on which the oral texts are based disappears. The written text and its statements take over. What is said is important and the act of focusing on those sayings is the primary task of the student. The legitimacy of the participants is key to making this a holy war, from Krishna, God, to Arjuna the disciple. The legitimacy of their claims to the throne is based on following the path of the Fathers, on the succession of sperm, of violence, of samsara, of the wheel of transmigration, from the rightful king to the rightful heirs, and this is the ethical reason for the war, a war that is not only legitimate and ethical, but also holy because God himself is one of the participants. Questions about the mythical origin of the characters involved are not important; the fact that royal sperm, for example, appears inside a fish, or lines of succession are changed because of a curse, or women are impregnated by a mantra, or a royal child is put on a river inside a basket of reeds, or one hundred heirs are born to a blind king, who is not supposed to be the king, by simply cutting apart a ball of metal born of a woman that has been bearing that fruit in her stomach for two long years. Haven’t we seen these myths in other cultures with Oedipus and the House of Cadmus, for example?

From the perspective of teaching, the problem becomes a bit more sophisticated since a written text can be apprehended swiftly by a quick “mind”. However, at that time in history, Indic texts did not accept the mind (manas) as a faculty of knowing, but only as a sixth sense, something to be careful with, at best an aid to translation and, in the case of the Gita, a way for Krshna to distance Arjuna from his initial trauma. What happens to the real faculties of the people of the Gita, to the path of the gods, to breaking the chain of karmic conditioning, to memory, to imagination, to the heart, to the frontal lobes, to geometries of geometries and forms, as in Chapter eleven, and most importantly, to decision making?

The contemporary reader, of course, will not be intimidated by a text he/she can understand easily through a simple reading. Let’s get the history first, faith will follow later. But is this text as presented through a social science approach a continuation of the Vedas and of the original culture, or has a different group of people, outsiders, taken over the life and literature of Indic texts, when Ganesha, the elephant scribe, wrote it down or now, when interpreted by modern criteria of social science? Is the Gita a text of revelation, sruti, or a text of interpretation, smriti? And does it make a difference today?

            And so here we are, in the middle of the battlefield, in the field of dharma trying not to take sides between the followers of the path of the gods, or that of the fathers, among friends, to kill no one, to follow ahimsa, non-violence, and yet having already started the battle by reviewing this book. What shall I do? Which dharma is the present dharma? As you can see dharma, in my present battlefield, is each and every word, each and every act, each and every faculty, and each and every geometry holding forms and statements together, then and now. There is no one universal dharma we can follow and be done with. What shall we do?

HOLY WAR: Violence in The Bhagavad Gita.

            From a sociological perspective, this book, considering the variety of perspectives of both teachers and students, is a remarkable accomplishment.  The book is divided into twelve chapters, plus a summary biography of the contributors.  Almost all of them are Professors of Religion. They are all from different parts of the world; some are Indian, some American, some French, one Hispanic, a Harvard Professor and a Swami. They all work in the United States, and the book is primarily directed to American readers. With the exception of Steve Rosen, the Editor of this collection of Essays, known for his work on the Gita through his book Gita on the Green, who writes two chapters, the rest give us only one different perspective each.  In some cases the perspective is not the Gita but what Gandhi or Sri Aurobindo thought of the Gita. You will be surprised how interesting it is to read each essay and how surprising the themes are. It is not surprising that the editor’s focus is on the events of 9/11 or the regrettable remarks of the Professor of Chicago University, Wendy Doniger calling the Gita, “a bad book that incites people to war and violence with God’s complicity,” (my paraphrase). Isn’t the title of this book under review Holy War: Violence in the Bhagavad Gita? These two events frame the presentation of this book to American audiences. Steve Rosen and Prof. Sharma set up the historical fact of a just war in the first chapters. Steve Rosen claims: “The most just (war is) …that war in which God is personally present…tangibly present,” and he adds: “no other religious tradition makes an even remotely similar claim.” (This is not correct, of course, in the Trojan War all the gods took sides with their favorite warriors.) And Professor Sharma establishes the historical coordinates of Kuruksetra by offering the interpretations of precolonial and postcolonial interpreters. Precolonial writers took it for granted that the war described in the Mahabharata epic was a historical one, Kuruksetra being “in the region about modern Delhi, then known as Kuruksetra.” With time, however, the meaning changed, “ for Sri Aurobindo it is an existential, martial, and typical (place); for Bal Gangadhar Tilak, it is (a) national, political, and metaphorical (place); for S. Radhakrishna, it is a universal, ethical, and allegorical (place); for Gandhi  “the human body is the battlefield where the eternal duel between right and wrong goes on,” and thus, according to Gandhi, the human body itself is Kuruksetra.” (p.38).

We are lucky the editor decided to stick with this plan, and immediately we have Sri Aurobindo’s views on the Gita, and those of Gandhi. It is most interesting reading, especially for those working on, or teaching the Gita. While Sri Aurobindo feels so at home in the Gita, Gandhi came to the Gita the way most of us did, late and in translation.

Several essays on violence in the Bible and the Qur’an follow with the appropriate commentaries and comparisons to the Gita. . Of particular interest to contemporary readers will be Prof. William Jackson’s article, which compares the Mahabharata war with the Islamic jihad (Rosen also convincingly tackles this issue in his paper) -- this is a subject that all scholars of religion and many a layman wonder about, especially after September 11.  In easy-to-read format Jackson takes us through relevant questions and answers, showing that, while there are no easy answers, there is much to show that the battle of Kurukshetra is in a class by itself, a different manifestation of what we understand by war. In every instance it is the fundamentalism of the word that destroys the balance in humans, and violence against one another follows. Ahimsa and non-violence are more present in the Gita than in any other document and the cycle closes with a short, insightful essay and brilliant translation of Ahimsa in the Mahabharata by Prof. Chris Chapple. My favorite essay in the whole collection is the one entitled “Of meat-eaters and grass-eaters: An exploration of Human Nature,” by Patrick Olivelle. Following the textual analysis of the Gita and of the Panchatantra, the author establishes that no matter what arguments are put forward by the wisest sages; in the end “Matsya Niaya” the big fish eats the small one. The meat-eaters, craving power and dominion will always crush the grass-eaters, the poor, the helpless, the good ones. 

“Nature always triumphs over nurture and individual aspirations… Nature

(svabhava) defines an individual’s habits, activities and duties… Trying to counter one’s nature is not only immoral but also futile.” (Panchatantra) (p.115)

“One’s own nature is hard to transcend,” (Panchatantra) (p. 131)

My question is, what did the people of so many centuries ago know then that we in the West are beginning to realize only now thanks to neurobiology? War and violence are pursued by those humans that have been unable to overcome nature through the nurturing process. What is called, in the classical texts, nature: violence, meat-eating, war, hate, fear is no more than a limitation in the brain development of those individuals,at the appropriate time in their lives, when the “windows of malleability” were open and exercised. But in most cases they are not, one brain overrides all the others and dictates what to do, and the same with translations. As a result, where a heart would be, we find only a rock, and where fear is, we find only war. There is no limbic connection to the grass-eaters or meat-eaters, there is no connection possible, and there are no brain receptors to reciprocate. There are not enough brain-centers to exercise the heart in a communion of eternal beings, and so the wheel of samsara goes on.  And this, above all other messages, is the message of Krishna in the Gita: Arjuna get out of your crisis, travel in memory with me the ten yogas that lead to the vision of geometries emptied of form on chapter/yoga eleven; open your frontal lobes; let your body become the field; embody all the structures of knowing present in your brain and the culture, and then you will make, by habit, wise decisions for the benefit of all. This transformation exercise has taken place in the battlefield without one single arrow being shot. As Gandhi understood and the Gita proclaims in chapter/yoga 12: “this body is the field.” All we need to do is exercise it, as Krishna does with Arjuna, or chanting does through modulation. Nature may be transformed as the Avatara Krishna shows, or it can overcome nurture as everyone else in the battlefield embodies, and condemn people to eternal returns of the same. Remember, in the end Pandavas and Kauravas are destroyed; only Yudisthira becomes immortal by saving his heart (dog). The same that happened to the House of Cadmus and Oedipus and his descendants in Phoenician Greece.

If all I have pointed out in this essay-review can be taught in a classroom, the book Holy War: Violence and the Bhagavad Gita, will accomplish what previous, one-sided presentations, failed to do. The least we can do is to try it and give it a chance.  

But how can one teach those that teach that the fundamentalism of language they bring to the Gita is not in the Gita? That while there is talk at the beginning about war, while Arjuna is in crisis and needs distance from the trauma of war, (Chapter/yoga one), that this talk is only talk, the talk of a clinical philosopher to a traumatized client.  It is only at the end of the Gita, chapter/yoga XVIII, after Krishna and Arjuna have traveled the corridors of the memories of the cultures, and Arjuna is ready to fulfill his dharma, that Krishna offers the most unexpected advice: “And now that you know, Arjuna, now that your frontal lobes and heart are open,” “yatha iccasi tatha kuru, do as you wish.” Whatever happened to violence in the Gita, to the complicity of God to fight a war?

There is one hidden mystery, when it comes to translations from the Classical Indic Texts, the sruti corpus, revelation, that makes a farce of literally made or appropriated translations. I have seen translations of the Gita into other languages I know; translations into English are the most numerous and also the most misleading. English is a colonial language, and continues to be so unless challenged by other languages. Translations are mere projections of those languages. The challenge is not to translate Sanskrit into English, but rather to translate the English mind, that translates and reads, into the Sanskrit mind that chanted and composed the Indic Classics. This is impossible unless the translator knows more languages than just those two.

Cultures divide into at least two recognizable groups: oral/audial and literary or logomachic. Oral/audial cultures or texts are ruled by the correspondence between the innate auditory sense of harmony and tone on the one hand and the arithmetic properties and ratios of the vibrating strings on the other. They also possess inner mandalas, or proto geometries homologous with musical arithmology charting the path of the imagination. An audial culture or text takes the car as primary sense and organizes sensation and the criteria of interpretation or of knowledge by the criteria of a model based upon certain demonstrable criteria of sound properties. The literary culture or text takes the eye as the primary sense and organizes sensation by the criteria of a semiotic model that takes sight as primary. These texts are based upon the properties of sentences as embodied in grammar, two-valued logic, mathematics, classical physics, constructivism. Such texts tend to reduce all issues, all languages, to one or another form of logomachy: disputes about words, their meanings, relationships and implications. Several elements contribute to establish certain variable criteria as fixed or invariant. The invariant criteria determine the reading or the listening. The process by which certain criteria become invariant is the process of verification and it is always in the hands of one or more sciences. In the case of oral texts, the sciences that formed and verified the invariant criteria were music and acoustics. In the case of literary texts the invariant criteria were fixed by a logic, physics, geometry and optics. Any culture or text that would not take these sciences as the method of verification was never considered a 'text' or a 'culture' and was automatically exiled to the limbo of pre literacy or subcultures. What we normally call prose is the sediment of many scientific and non-scientific, audial and logomachic translations and transliterations of these texts and subtexts. In the wake of scientific verification philosophers and others followed with justifications of what had already been verified and epistemology was equated with a 'theory of knowledge'. Depending on the science of the times philosophers were mostly mathematicians, physicists, theologians, biologists or musicians. My friend and Professor Thomas Harris reminded me, on reading this article, of Joyce’s Fennigans Wake, for it “arose in my ear as a purely aural document belonging to the ancient traditions…and making great parody of the logocentric world. Yes, he said he wrote it to keep the professors busy for a hundred years. His advise: “and don’t be so abcdarian, learn your ebro!. And he urges us, as we cross the waters in our little boat, to keep our “ohren in”.”

Returning, however, to India, Ahmedabad, in order to close this visit, I remember one memorable day hearing a young woman cry outside the door of my student room.  For more than half an hour I tried to console her and find out what had happened. At last she spoke: She had been curious of a nest of birds across from my door… She could not reach the nest so high…so, she pulled it down.

For a second I felt relieved, I knew the birds had gone hunting for the day.  But she started to cry and finally she showed me, on the lower fringes of her sari, the yellow stains of birds’ eggs. “I killed them,” she said. There was nothing I could do but let her cry. Ahimsa was alive even if Gandhi was dead, and so was the Gita.   

“He who sees me everywhere and sees all in me,
I am not lost to him, and he is not lost to me.” (B.G.6.30)


© 2003 Antonio T. de Nicolas


Professor Antonio T. de Nicolas, State University of New York at Stony Brook and The Bio-Cultural Research Institute, Florida


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