In the Bhagavad-gita Lord Krsna teaches that the body is a temporary, lifeless piece of flesh, an inanimate vehicle that appears to be alive and conscious only because of the presence of an eternal individual soul. When the soul leaves, the body loses its life and we pronounce it dead, although in fact the body never had life of its own at any point.
On the basis of this fundamental teaching. Krsna orders Arjuna, a soldier. general, and His intimate friend, to fight and kill. "Do not lament," Krsna exhorts soft-hearted Arjuna, "for you will kill only the outer body, not the eternal person inside. Death is sure anyway, so why should you hesitate?"
Quite obviously, these are instructions that, if they fell into the hands of the wrong person, could produce horrible results. Arjuna, we have to remind ourselves, was a general, a military man poised on the brink of a battle that, as the Mahabharata recounts in great detail, had been years in the making, and that both Arjuna and Krsna had made every diplomatic effort to forestall. If General Eisenhower had, on D-Day morning, been riven with doubts about the morality and propriety of fighting and killing his dear Nazi brothers, he would have been in a position roughly analogous to Arjuna's. The Gita does not sanction killing in ordinary circumstances.
On the contrary, the primary instruction we receive from Vedic sources is that one should never unnecessarily commit violence to any living thing. Only in self-defense or in defense of one's dependents may one kill. For a soldier like Arjuna, a man responsible for many dependents, or citizens, that might entail going to war and bloodying an entire battlefield. Most of the rest of us should pass our life, if possible, without harming a flea.
And not that every war is justified, either. By Vedic standards, neither the Nazis nor the allied forces were fully justified in the deaths they caused in World War II. In fact, the whole question of when and where killing is justified often appears quite delicate, even when scriptural injunctions. Vedic or otherwise, are unequivocal.
On the question of capital punishment, for example, the Manu-samhita enjoins that a murderer be put to death, and that execution should not ultimately be considered an act of violence.
But aside from rigid adherence to scripture, we have to consider whether we can answer the objections raised by opponents of capital punishment: Isn't execution an act of cruelty equaling the murder it is designed to punish? Can we guarantee that the death penalty be administered fairly, without discrimination based on race, color, creed, or political affiliation? Does execution have any effect in deterring future murderers?
Deterrence seems to be one of the weakest objections. Obviously execution would prevent the murderer from killing again. And how could it not affect the behavior of potential criminals? American opponents of capital punishment point out that states that allow the death penalty don't have consistently lower murder rates than states that do not. But the fact is that even states with the death penalty have never executed more than five percent of their convicted murderers. Everyone would agree that an execution rate of one in twenty has no deterrent value.
Even assuming, though, that a higher execution rate would deter potential killers, can the cruelty of execution be justified? Isn't a murderer someone like you and me who got a bad break?
On this question the Vedic texts shed some new light. According to Vedic authorities, a human being, unlike an animal, is responsible for his actions not only under state laws but under the universal laws of karma,and the Manu-samhita states that the karmic punishment a murderer receives in his next life is far worse, far more cruel if you will. than the guillotine, gas chamber, electric chair, or firing squad. The Manu-samhitafurther asserts, however, that capital punishment by the state obviates karmic punishment in a future life. Thus the party who benefits most from an execution is not the society relieved of a criminal element, not the victim's family and friends pacified by the retribution, but the killers themselves, relieved as they are from all karmic reaction and free to start afresh in a new life.
But assuming that both karmic justice and the deterrent effect of the death penalty are facts, how can we assure ourselves that those with the power to use the death penalty would do so fairly? If we again refer to Vedic sources, we find that the leaders in Vedic history who held this power of life and death were rajarsis, or saintly kings, men who perfectly combined absolute monarchical power with wisdom and impartiality. One might contend that the saintly qualities of these kings are exaggerated, if not purely mythological. But sidestepping that debate for now, the more relevant point here is that the Vedic texts strongly associate an unwavering stand on capital punishment with its implementation by men of perfect character.
Although this counters the argument that the death penalty is itself a criminal, unsaintly act, we must face the fact that we don't have an overabundance of saintly characters in the ranks of our leaders (or any other ranks, for that matter) anywhere in the world. If the death penalty must go hand in hand with saintliness, where are those saintly hands?
We are therefore back to square one: any instruction, however valuable, can wreak havoc if misused. In the hands of a surgeon, a book on liver transplants may be an asset, but you can't let just anyone cut you open, no matter what they've read. The prescribed Vedic cure for the capital punishment controversy is available, but saintly leaders to administer the prescription aren't.