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Reviewed by
Dr. Antonio T. de Nicolas
State University of New York at Stony Brook
And The Bio-Cultural Research Institute, Florida


An essay-review of HOLY WAR: Violence and the Bhagavad Gita, Ed. Steven J. Rosen, Deepak Heritage Books, Virginia, 2002, Hardcover, pp. 240, Index


Steven Rosen’s latest book is an edited volume bringing together scholars from various disciplines to discuss a subject that should have been discussed many times: Violence in religion, with special attention to the war alluded to in the Bhagavad Gita. Before examining this consequential series of essays, however, it would be prudent to look at the Gita itself, and then to examine Rosen’s book in light of what we have already discussed.

Mahatma Gandhi had been dead less than eight years when I arrived to the Gujarat Vidyapit, in Ahmedabad, to study. As you may know, Gandhi lived here and made a University out of it. I lived in one of the small rooms, like the one 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. 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 learned about the Mahatma and his transformations –- how he went from being a small town lawyer in South Africa to the leader of an ahimsa movement, 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 nonviolent revolution became a success, and the Gita became 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 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 both East and West -- have claimed to know its secrets, and so it is no surprise that the Gita has the greatest number of interpreters among Indic texts.

Regarding translation, that began relatively late: Charles Wilkins was the first, in 1785, under the false belief that he was translating a text influenced by Christianity. Many followed: German intellectuals, Schlegel, Deussen, and Schopenhauer; the English, Max Mueller, of course a transplanted German, Aldous Huxley; the French Romain Rolland, a friend and correspondent of Freud; the Russian Tolstoy and the Americans Emerson and Thoreau. 

In modern times the translations have multiplied. The Editor of the volume here being reviewed also 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 really 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 in regard to 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 something that no one else had added 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, bringing it down to the consensual level of social science. This presentation of the Gita transforms the text from a sruti document, a revelation for the individual seeker with the help of his/her guru, into a smriti document, a human interpretation fit 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 the succession of sperm, the path of the Fathers, with violence, samsara, the wheel of transmigration -- from the rightful king to the rightful heirs. This is the ethical reason for the war, a war that is not only legitimate and ethical -- as Rosen ably points out in his essay in this volume --  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 learning, but only as a sixth sense, something to be careful with -- at best, it was an  aid to translation, often distancing us from  current events. 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 the Gita’s Eleventh Chapter, 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 all of this even make a difference today?

And so here we are, in the middle of the battle field, 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. So what shall we do?

HOLY WAR: Violence and the Bhagavad Gita.

From a sociological perspective, the usefulness of 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 forward, and 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. Most 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, well 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 about the Gita but about what Gandhi or Sri Aurobindo thought of the Gita. You will be surprised how interesting it is to read each essay and how intriguing if not 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, who called 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 and 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 are said to have taken sides with their favorite warriors.) And Professor Sharma establishes the historical coordinates of Kurukshetra by offering the interpretations of pre-colonial and post-colonial interpreters. Pre-colonial writers took it for granted that the war described in the Mahabharata epic was a historical one, Kurukshetra being “in the region about modern Delhi, then known as Kurukshetra.” 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 Kurukshetra.” 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. 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 in life and in translation.

Several Essays on violence in the Bible and the Qur’an follow with the appropriate commentaries and comparisons to the Gita. 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. Of additional interest to contemporary readers will be Prof. William Jackson’s article, which compares the Mahabharata war with the Islamic jihad (something Rosen also convincingly tackles 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. This alone is worth the price of admission.

My favorite essay in the whole collection is the one entitled “Of meat-eaters and grass-eaters: An exploration of Human Nature,” by Prof. 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, the reality is “matsya Nyaya”  -- 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, and that 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. 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, says Krishna, get out of your crisis! Travel in memory with me the ten yogas that lead to the vision of geometries emptied of form; open your frontal lobes; let your body become the field; embody all the structures of knowing that are present in your brain and 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 12: “this body is the field.” All we need to do is exercise it, as Krishna does with Arjuna, or chanting does through modulation. Otherwise, memory, imagination, musical-human spaces, multiple cognition-centers, gods -- all will be lost. Nature may be transformed, as Krishna shows, or one can overcome nurture, as everyone else in the battlefield embodies, and condemn people to eternal returns of the same. Remember, in the end, both the mass of Pandavas and Kauravas are destroyed; only Yudisthira becomes immortal by saving his heart (dog). The same thing 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.  

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, to 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 stain 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)