The Diplomat magazine recently wrote an article on Steve Bannon, advisor to Donald Trump. Bannon, it appears, is an ardent believer in the teachings of the Bhagawad Gita because it supports an apocalyptic world view where, when there is an existential clash among races and religions, one must engage in a war.
Is the Gita a story of war, fought over issues of race, faith, or free-enterprise? The Gita, interleaved within the Mahabharatha, was propounded by Krishna to Arjuna during the Kurukshetra war . Although the discussion between Krishna and Arjuna takes place on a battle field, the discussions are anything but about a traditional war. On the contrary, it is more about moral and ethical dilemmas we confront in our everyday lives. The war is just a metaphor for our inner wars – the constant battle we fight, wavering between good and bad thoughts and between ethical and unethical conduct. Krishna and Arjuna themselves are metaphors; Krishna symbolizing the divinity within us with Arjuna representing our dilemmas. The questions that Arjuna asks are what we might have asked and the answers that Krishna provides through the Gita are the guidance that we need to overcome our moral and spiritual struggles and live effectively in a world of challenge and change.
The three fundamental concepts of the Gita are: dharma, karma, and moksha. Dharma is a difficult term to define. From a broader perspective, dharma is that which is essential to preserve harmony and integrity in the universe. Dharma is the core of a thing and that which makes it what it is. Dharma is justice, virtue, purpose, non-violence, and love and compassion offered to one and all. From a subjective perspective, dharma is that which arises from within - the moral order that resides within each of us – love, compassion, selflessness, duty without expectation, and more. Dharma reflects the unity of life and its interconnectedness. Any disturbance to it leads to chaos. The interconnectedness renders every act or thought of an individual to have consequences, not only for himself but also for the rest of the world. As John Donne, metaphysical poet from England says, “No man is an island.” While dharma signifies essential order that prevails within the universe, dharma is yet not a set of predetermined rules. On the contrary, it is ‘a book of choices.’ We can either choose to adhere to dharma or we can choose to ignore it (adharma) and follow our own selfish interests. Regardless, the choices that we make determine our destiny; we benefit or suffer from the consequences of our choices.
Our brief discussion on dharma reveals that dharma is about unity and balance within the universe. It is about greater truths that are essential for the welfare of one and all. It transcends petty prejudices such as caste, creed, faith, racial superiority, or economic dominance. Categorically, dharma is not about war or violence or its justification. As Mahatma Gandhi, an ardent follower of the Gita, says, “When one truly comprehends the Gita, one will notice that killing or even hunting is against the principles of Gita.” Therefore, when we quote the Gita as a support for war or for our prejudices and biases, we show our own lack of understanding of its principles. Our views can only be termed as “devil quoting the scriptures.”
Dr. Ram S. Sriram