Resources of the Himalayan Yoga Tradition

Ahimsa in the Bhagavad Gita

A friend has written me asking the following question:

In the Patanjali sutras, he gives us the yama of ahimsa.  In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna tells Arjuna that he must fight and slaughter a lot of soldiers.  While Krishna tells him that the atman cannot be harmed since it's eternal, immutable, etc., Arjuna still must harm a whole lot of people in battle.  How do I reconcile these two things?  If Patanjali is saying that we shouldn't harm anybody's atman, that doesn't really make sense since it cannot be harmed.  So he must be talking about the body.  If he's talking about the body this seems a direct contradiction to what Krishna is telling Arjuna.  I've been struggling with this for awhile and can not make the two things come together.

Here is a brief reply...


Please see some of the verses of the Gita that extol ahimsa, for example verse 5 of chapter 10 :



Ahimsaa samataa tuShTih…

Here, ahimsa is one of seven 'states to be' (bhaava) that arise from the Lord.

Then, the verse 2 of chapter 16:

Ahimsaa satyam a-krodhah…

Here ahimsa is one of the 26 aspects of divine wealth (daivee sampad) to which are born those who are endowed with such wealth. The complete list of 26 is in verses 1-3.

The question arises: is Bhagavad-gita (BhG) then contradicting itself. On one hand, the text extols ahimsa, and on the other hand, it enjoins Arjuna to indulge in the battle. Here, let us take other conditions placed on Arjuna by the Lord. We shall take only two verses, to avoid writing a whole book analyzing the philosophy of BhG

Sukha-duhkhe same kRtvaa laabhaalaabhau jayaajayau
Tato yuddhaaya yijyasva naivam paapam avaapsyas

Holding pleasure and pain as the same, similarly loss and gain, as well as victory and defeat --- then engage in the battle. Thus shall you not accrue sin.

BhG. 2.38

Mayi sarvaaNi karmaaNi sanyasyaadhyaatma-chetasaa
Nir-aasheeer nir-mamo bhootvaa yudhyasva vigata-jvarah

Surrendering all your acts unto Me, with a mind dwelling in atman the self, free of expectations, free of a concept of 'meum' (mine), having freed yourself of all feverishness, then fight.

BhG. 3.30

In Sanskrit the injunction is very direct. yudhyasva vigata-javarah: fight! having voided fevers. Thus the pre-conditions for engaging in battle are that Arjuna

  • should develop equanimity towards pleasure and pain, loss and gain, victory and defeat
  • should surrender all his acts to Him (the verb used is 'sam+nyas'= to renounce as in the case of a sanyasin swami)
  • should have his mind dwelling in the pure spiritual self, atman
  • should be free of expectations
  • should be free of the common obsession of 'mine'
  • should void all feverishness from his being ---
  • then he should engage in battle.

This is no common war that the world engages in today. Imagine the spiritual training required for preparing to engage in such a war. For this, one needs to look at the whole of Mahabharata to know what training and sadhana Arjuna went through during his entire life.

Even His Holiness Dalai Lama, the great contemporary proponent of non-anger, has stated that sometimes force becomes necessary to combat evil.

But, as per BhG there are spiritual pre-requisites for engaging in the use of such force.

Here I give a story I have repeated numerous times in my lectures on the subject. It comes from the Sufi tradition.

A Sufi soldier was in the middle of a battle. It came to hand-to-hand combat. He was fighting the enemy skillfully with his dagger. Soon he had the enemy down on the ground and sat astride his chest, raising his hand to drive the dagger down.

The enemy in his helpless anger spat on the Sufi soldier's face.

The Sufi soldier's hand hung in mid-stride and did not strike.

"What are you waiting for? "—said the fallen enemy. "I am totally under your power. Go ahead, kill me! "

The Sufi soldier replied: I cannot. I was doing my duty and you were doing your duty. I do not know you and you do not know me. Now you have introduced a personal note by spitting on me in anger and I have become angry. Now killing you will not be an act of duty but it will be murder.

In simple terms, Arjuna is being told to kill but not to commit murder.

What Arjuna is taught is the essence of all oriental martial arts where one is trained to hit the opponent but inside oneself remain in the centre of stillness. That is ahimsa in the battle field. This is the resolution of the 'koan' of Gita's non-violence.

Gahanaa karmaNo gatih: ways of action are very deep.