The Bhagavad-gita recently shot back to fame. It was encouraging seeing all kinds of people discussing its subtleties. From students in college cafeterias to panel discussions on news channels to columns in popular newspapers, many Indians were a part of this never-before hype that the Gita has generated in recent times. Strangely enough, the sudden interest was sparked by an attempt in Siberia to brand the Bhagavad-gita “extremist literature” and ban its publication, possession, and distribution throughout the nation. The list of books already branded “extremist” includes titles like Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Needless to add, there were many protagonists on both sides of the fray each trying to stake his claim to the truth.
To set things straight for myself, I opened my Merriam-Webster dictionary for a definition of “extremist.” I got two entries: 1. the quality or state of being extreme; and 2. advocacy of extreme measures or views. Both these definitions are not positive. “Being extreme” refers to someone who in an unbalanced manner is always prone to choose extreme solutions for his or her problems. Who would want such a person around? Sometimes, we ourselves could have unknowingly reflected this quality and yet we would not willingly and conscientiously choose the company of such a person. Such a person would be driven by negativity and would be a quick, often rash decision-maker. Non-extremists tend to be more positive and rational and also slower to act, more thoughtful, more conscious of the repercussions of their actions. A person working and thinking on these lines is a symbol of hope. Thus, we would rather have around someone who is rationally inclined and positively oriented in life than an “extreme” person.
Is Krishna an Extremist?
Time and again the pages of the Gita pronounce boldly the concept of equanimity. The Gita is spoken by Lord Krishna on a battlefield. Some of us can think this is certainly not a place to maintain equanimity; after all a war calls for rapid action, not assertive declarations. But what greater challenge can there be than this ? To remain equipoised in a place of peace is fairly easy almost any of us could do it. But if someone could achieve equanimity in the midst of a battlefield, that would be something worth praising. Krishna wants Arjuna to be equipoised. Krishna wants us to learn to be equipoised on the battlefield of our own lives. Arjuna’s challenge thus forms an extremely valuable instruction for us.
This could be the place where the Gita really does get extreme in its expectations from the readers that they rise to a high level of tolerance to what life has to offer to them. Whatever life offers us, if we can remain undisturbed in the middle of it, that would be something worthy of achieving. Also, it is important to mention that a war is not always fought on the field, it is also fought on the planning board of the generals where decisions have to be taken not in a fit of rage but in the calmness of contemplation; equanimity could be a very desirable asset by this consideration.
Does Krishna Advocate Extreme Measures or Views?
Arjuna approaches Krishna for guidance, so Krishna is in the role of someone who suggests solutions. Speaking philosophically, He presents the truth at various levels of understanding. Sometimes advising on the platform of reward, sometimes on the level of duty, and sometimes on the level of devotion to the Supreme, Krishna informs Arjuna different ways to approach the dilemma he is facing. On the practical front, Krishna wants Arjuna to fight the war. Is that wrong? Considering that Arjuna is from a warrior clan, he is expected to wage war against anyone who wishes to disturb the smooth functioning of dharma. Someone could brand violence (an unavoidable component of war) as an “extreme measure.” Is performing surgery not violent to the patient? Yet anyone who has ever undergone a surgery heaves a sigh of relief and yet, from one perspective, the surgery has exposed the patient to “violence.” So it seems there is “necessary violence” and “unnecessary violence.” Surgery is “necessary violence” necessary to free the patient from his relentless pain. Similarly, a war that saves a citizenry from injustice is like social surgery and so it is “necessary violence.” In fact, not performing a surgery when it is necessary could indeed be categorized as “unnecessary violence.”
Coming back to the original question, could advocacy of war then be termed as “advocacy of extreme measures or views?”To someone who is unaware of the events that led to the mega-battle of Kurukshetra yes. Just as someone unaware of the severity of a patient’s disease might think surgery unwarranted. Those who know the details of the situation will not be so quick and harsh at his opinions and would take the time to consider the applicability of measures of “necessary violence.”
To give credit to those who have raised a ruckus over the Gita, let me say that Krishna is an extremist in that He is extremely concerned about the sad state of His children who, in separation from Him, are burning in the wild forestfire of material existence. In my opinion, this is the closest the Gita gets to extremism.
Nanda Dulal Dasa serves full-time at ISKCON Mumbai and teaches Krishna consciousness to youth.