In my last article, I mentioned towards the end that ahimsa can often be a luxury of those with nothing to lose in the world; indeed, more to the point, exterior renunciation or an interior detachment are necessary to live in the world without violence for any creature, since inevitably the logistics of conventional responsibilities demand a willingness to defend or attack or use or whatever that transgresses against ahimsa. This is why, in Jainism, ahimsa is only really possible when one surrenders one’s claim to having the market cornered on absolute truth (anekantavada) and one’s sense of ownership, especially of other beings (aparigrapha). But the questions arise: how can one who lives in the world embrace ahimsa? And how can ahimsa be good news to a world defined by the cycle of violence?
The first question is closely connected to the impetus behind the sixth book of the Mahabharata, Bhishma Parva chapters 23-40, better known as the Bhagavadgita, “the Song of God.” The Gita is arguably the most popular and famous text in Hindu culture, and if Western outsiders to Hinduism know any Hindu text, it is far more likely to be the Gita than to be the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Ramayana, or the Mahabharata as a whole (whereas in South, Southeast, and some parts of East Asia, the Ramayana performs virtually the equivalent function that Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey do in the Western world and the Gita is lesser known in non-Hindu settings). As Graham Schweig puts it, the Gita “is essentially a book on yoga,”1 though its isolation as a philosophical or theological text in the abstract from the Mahabharata in which it appears can skew the context in which its yogic doctrine is expounded.
The Gita’s structure is a dialogue between Arjuna, a Pandava and ksatriya prince, and his charioteer, Krishna, who advises him in response to Arjuna’s insecurity about fighting in the war given that it will mean killing his family, friends, and other loved ones (Gita 1.1-47). Arjuna faces a dilemma: his dharma as a ksatriya is clearly to be a warrior, and yet following his dharma betrays his personal conscience by encouraging him to take up arms against people he knows and loves. What Arjuna is experiencing is the ubiquity of “ethical conflict in the outer world,”2 that is, dissonance between what social, conventional, and even religious definitions of morality enjoin upon us and what our personal experience and hearts tell us to do. From its opening line (1.1), the Gita insists that “in the world of human interaction, we have an opportunity to life a life of dharma—a godly life promoting true happiness in relation to our worldly responsibilities and ultimate spiritual goals—or an ungodly life, in which forces destructive to dharma constantly prevail.”3 What Arjuna experiences at the front line of the battlefield is the liminal space where such convenient moral binaries break down, and he is distraught:
If without my acting in opposition and without any weapons for myself, / The sons of Dhristarashtra, with weapons in their hands, should slay me in battle—that would be a greater peace for me! / Thus speaking in the midst of conflict, Arjuna sat upon the seat of the chariot. / Casting aside his bow and arrow, his mind was tormented by sorrow.—Gita 1.46-47
Arjuna, who admits that his “thoughts on dharma are completely bewildered” (2.7), asks Krishna to tell him what to do. In so many words, Krishna’s advice in response is to go ahead and fight in the war, though with the metaphysical illumination that constitutes the heart of the Gita’s content: namely, that Arjuna has the possibility of engaging in the action appropriate to his dharma without attachment to its fruits. “You have grieved,” he famously says, “for that which is not worthy of grief:
and yet you speak words of profound knowledge. / The learned grieve neither for those who have passed on, nor for those who have not departed. / Never truly, have I ever not existed—nor you, nor these kings, who protect the people, / And never shall any of us ever cease to be, now or forevermore. / Just as the embodied while in this body passes through childhood, youth, and old age, / So also the embodied attains another body—the wise person is not bewildered by this.—Gita 2.11-13
The one with equanimity—Krishna calls him the “wise one for whom suffering and happiness are the same—that one is prepared for immortality” (2.15)—is the one who understands the transience of samsara and neither mourns nor rejoices too much for the things that come to be and pass away within it. The only truly “indestructible” thing is that “by which all this is pervaded” (2.17); for that reason, Krishna advises Arjuna, “fight, O Bharata!” (2.18). The distinction between “slayer” and “slain” is illusory: the ground of being does not become or pass away, but “is unborn, eternal, everlasting, and primeval. It is not slain when the body is slain” (2.20). Because the fundamental reality is “unmanifest,” “inconceivable,” and “unchangeable,” Arjuna “should not grieve” (2.25)—that is, at the death of his loved ones. Arjuna “should not waver” from his “dharma” (2.31), which as a warrior is to fight; following this dharma, he “shall reach the celestial world” if he dies in battle “or conquering [he] shall enjoy the earth” (2.37).
But how can Arjuna possibly do that? By “be[ing] absorbed in yoga with discernment,” says Krishna, “by which [he, Arjuna] shall throw off the bondage of action” (2.39).4 This “bondage” is the desire that motivates action and manifests in a karmic result, whether rewarding or punitive: people “whose intent is on the celestial world” may well, through the repetition of Vedic chant and ritual, attain it through “another birth as the fruit of action” (2.43), just as those “directed toward the goal of worldly pleasure [kama] and power [connected but not quite equivalent with artha]” also attain the fruits of karmic actions (2.43). What Krishna is suggesting here goes far beyond both Vedic religion and the dualism of Samkhya philosophy, and has to do with “possession of one’s self”—not the worldly self or the self that acts in its own interests, but the eternal self that remains changeless even in the world of change (2.45). “Established in yoga,” he says, “perform actions, having relinquished attachment, O Conqueror of Wealth, / While remaining the same in success and in no success—such sameness is said to be yoga” (2.48). “One absorbed in the yoga of discernment casts off in this world both good and bad acts,” since “yoga is skillfulness in action” (2.50); this is how Arjuna may fulfill his dharma. “When a person gives up all selfish desires arising from the mind, O Partha, / Satisfied within the self by the self alone, then that person is said to be established in profound knowledge” (2.55); “such a person, established in thought, is said to be a sage” (2.56). This state of detached equanimity through yogic discernment is the means to “the Nirvana of Brahman” (2.72).
This is simply Krishna’s introduction to yoga; he goes on to suggest to Arjuna a hierarchy of successive yogic disciplines, karma yoga (3.1-43), jnana yoga (4.1-42), sanyas or the yoga of renunciation (5.1-29), and dhyana yoga (6.1-47), but ultimately bhakti yoga, the yoga of devotion, especially, for the Gita, to Krishna as the avatara of the supreme Brahman or Vishnu (12.1-20). Krishna’s self-revelation as the descent of the infinite God in 11.1-55 undergirds his transmission of “[t]he greatest secret of all,” Krishna’s “supreme message: ‘You are so much loved by me!’” (18.64).5 Having heard all this, Arjuna’s “confusion” has been “destroyed,” his “memory is restored,” and he is now “firmly resolved with doubts dispelled” to “act according to [Krishna’s] guidance”—i.e., to fight in the war (18.73).
Though the Gita takes place within the wider epic of violence and dharmic breakdown that is the Mahabharata, and though the overall rhetorical goal of Krishna is to encourage Arjuna to do his dharma by fighting in the war, the Gita’s goal is not to encourage violence; in its reception in Vedanta and by modern Hindu sects and spinoffs, too, it is often taken to be the ultimate manual for ahimsa (e.g., the pacifistic efforts of yogic societies like Sadhguru’s Isha or the vegetarianism commended in, say, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness). Because its primary purpose is to educate about the nature of yoga, and about the identity of Krishna as the infinite God made personally manifest in the world, the Gita’s exhortation to Arjuna to fulfill his dharma as a ksatriya is less an injunction to violence for the reader and more an injunction to detached fulfillment of dharma through refuge in Krishna, who has “impassioned love for humans” and “desire for humans to love him.”6 Krishna’s love is universal and all-encompassing; he is as much the ground of reality for the enemy army as he is for Arjuna, and yet this is, at least in Krishna’s teaching, the very reason not to fret over the slaying and deaths of the enemy. Just as Ydishthira will later find in Indra’s heaven, terrestrial polemicism is reconciled at higher stages of metaphysical vantage and heavenly reward, relativizing the tragedy experienced in earthly sorrow. Yet this, too, shall pass: the positive karma that gains one a svargaloka eventually dries up, just as does the negative karma that commits one to a naraka.
For the Gita, Arjuna’s violence, even against the pangs of his own conscience, is licit because it is swallowed up in a higher universal ahimsa of the permanence of Being underlying all beings, of the love of God summoning all beings back to Being. Ironically, Arjuna—the textual icon of Krishna’s devotee—is commanded to fight, but is told by Krishna himself that ahimsa comes exclusively from him (10.4), that ahimsa is a fundamental element of knowledge (13.7), a quality of divine birth together with “[c]ompassion for all beings” (16.2), that it is part of “austerity of the body” (17.14). If we remember that the Gita is mainly a text about yoga, set within the beguiling and epic violence of the Mahabharata, its simultaneous injunctions to Arjuna to fulfill dharma and to yogic embrace of nonviolence are reconcilable: no one is supposed to be reading the Gita and then going out to the battlefield; they are supposed to read the Gita and march forth to their own dharma in the world newly pacified with respect to the inner turmoil dharma can cause. Arjuna’s ksatriya vocation simply offers a stark (and startling) exemplification of such dharma. And, probably not coincidentally, it may serve to signal that his character is one ready and well-disposed for enlightenment. Mahavira was also a ksatriya, as was Siddharta Gautama; as the Mahabharata is being composed and edited many centuries after these two famous renunciant figures and the monastic schools that followed them, it stands to reason that Arjuna might be seen as the enlightened representative of more thoroughly Hindu, Vedantic, yogic, and bhaktic religion.
The Gita is older by a few centuries than the Apocalypse of John, also Latinized as the Book of “Revelation,” and is separated culturally and geographically from it by several jumps. Where the Gita reflects a Hindu perspective emerging in the later era of Upanishadic composition and already in dialogue with Jain and Buddhist schools of thought, the Apocalypse was composed by a Jewish follower of Jesus who probably originated from Judea rather than the Diaspora (he appears to be bad at Greek) and may well have had connections to the Jerusalem Temple, which shapes the imagination of his book from beginning to end.7 But the way that violence functions in the Gita, as a stand-in for dharmic life as the appropriate external barrier between the individual yogically connected to Krishna and the outside world, might shed some helpful light by way of comparison to the function of violence in the Apocalypse.
There is violence intimated, accomplished, threatened, initiated, and consummated throughout the Apocalypse, mainly by God, Christ, and the angels against the world and demonic powers, but also by the world and demonic powers against Christ and the faithful, and occasionally by Christ against the apostate (Apoc 1:7, 16; 2:5, 16, 23; 3:3, 16; 5:6; 6:1-17; 8:1-9:21; 11:1-12:17; 14:8-11, 17-20; 16:1-18:24; 19:11-20:3, 7-15; 22:18-19). The violent imagery of the Apocalypse is interspersed at various points by scenes of sublime worship and relief for the faithful: heaven worships God and Christ for their acts of creation and salvation, and for the implementation of the Kingdom, even at the cost of violence to the world; God provides refuge and relief for the faithful (4:1-5:14; 6:9-11; 7:1-16; 11:15-19; 14:1-5; 19:1-10; 20:4-6; 21:1-22:5). Indeed, these scenes of worshipful relief are interwoven with scenes of violent judgment, which is often the grounds for doxology: where previously the cosmic and terrestrial mighty, both Satan and the dark powers he commands as well as the wealthy and powerful humans of the world, oppressed God’s people, God now takes up their cause in the judgment and exacts vengeance upon the wicked. In exchange, God offers the previously suffering poor of the earth—sometimes perionymically associated in Jewish apocalyptic literature with the righteous—the relief of clean, fine clothing, pure water, the fruit of the tree of life, status as a pillar in the Temple of God, access to a celestial banquet, the promise of future rule, and so forth.8
Unlike in the Gita, violence is never enjoined on any of the righteous in the Apocalypse of John: Revelation is not a call to arms, nor is it a justification of worldly violence. Consistently throughout the book, the model is one of human ahimsa through nonviolent resistance to the cosmic and human imperial powers that oppress the Christ-following community, albeit one predicated on the promise of divine violence to come. Krishna might say that, just as he descends into the world periodically to restore dharma, the state of the world in which the righteous suffer the violence of the powerful is one of adharma which the crucified, risen, ascended, glorified, returning heavenly Christ of the Apocalypse seeks to rectify through the violence of divine judgment. Moreover, divine violence responds to creaturely and worldly violence: judgment in the Apocalypse is about vengeance on behalf of the suffering righteous and liberation for the oppressed, just as in the Gita, it is Arjuna’s job as ksatriya to wage war to restore dharma. Jesus’ messianic identity is, for John of Patmos, largely predicated on the extent to which he comes to the aid of the suffering faithful in this regard.
But salvation is not limited to the scope of retribution and reward in the Apocalypse, of course: beyond the Final Judgment awaits the New Jerusalem, whose gates stand open in perpetuity (21:25), presumably implying the possibility of entry for anyone who emerges from the purifying flames of the lake of fire and sulfur. No such rehabilitated afterlife is explicitly narrativized in the Apocalypse, but neither is it out of bounds interpretively; and, in fact, John’s very interest in a transcendent eschatological horizon beyond the messianic kingdom of chapter 20 implies that what is dealt with at the end of this heaven and earth stays there.9 Likewise, in the Gita, the fruits of karma are only ever experienced contingently; to achieve true and lasting peace through union with God, the yogi must renounce these fruits and take refuge in Krishna. Arguably, many of the images of the afterlife in the New Testament, positive and negative, are about the fruits of karma and are enjoyed or suffered by those who have yet to renounce them; it is only the statements of universal salvation, reconciliation, and restoration that constitute images of the final Kingdom. The Gita can therefore help Christians in identifying the eschatological horizons inherent in their sacred texts; conversely, Revelation, and the apocalyptic expectations of violence occasionally found in the New Testament, might well suggest in dialogue with Hinduism the appropriateness and necessity of contingent afterlives that constitute the central focus for many Hindus whose primary energies are spent on worldly life. After all, it will probably be necessary for the poor, the suffering, and the righteous to find blessed rest and relief, and perhaps even reward for merit, in the patriarchal vales or one of the svargalokas or messianic pure lands or what have you, just as it will be necessary for the wicked to undergo the rehabilitation of any one of a number of narakas; transcendence from samsara will prove difficult for us if we do not first face the meaning of this life, and of what we have made of it. And because indeed it is the absence of basic material and psychological conditions necessary for human flourishing that is the most egregious obstacle for the majority of people to contemplating and cultivating genuine liberation,10 the two-stage eschatology of messianic kingdom before olam haba, of cosmic Sabbath before the eighth day or first day of the new creation, of intermediate states of ascent prior to the final arrival on the far shore, has its own kind of superiority to an eschatology of instant resolution of the tangled threads of this world.
Ahimsa is then, on one Christian way of looking at things, that quality of sanctity which looks beyond Judgment, and the necessary role it plays, to the eternal validity with which God beholds all creatures in his own Divine Wisdom concerning himself, that Breath of Life he imparts to each and all as willed by him and for him. The true kevalin, the master yogi, the real saint puts her consciousness there to dwell; it is we novices who concern ourselves with dharma and karma, with rewards and punishments and the like, we who have things to protect and things to avenge and things to forgive and so forth. The one truly crucified to the world has none of that. That is not to say that these concerns are not legitimate in their sphere: if God will not finally do something to rectify the world, then it is unclear what the world’s moral calculus finally means; if Kali Yuga is eternal, if the prison-house is never dismantled, then it is unclear how the eternal state of all things in union (again, yoga) with God should be gospel, since the dualistic possibility of this world and its violence should in that scenario never really have been accounted for. At the minimum, this is true from the perspective of the denizens of the world, the brutality of whose sufferings must be resolved so that they can forego attachment to the karmic fruits of their lives. In that sense, just as ordinary people, householders and ksatriya and kosmikoi and whoever, live stretched between the ideal of ahimsa and the reality of life in the world, in a breach that moralism alone will not bridge, so the saints may find themselves condescending to the necessity of dharma and the rewarding fruits of karma for the sake of the world’s pedagogy. That, in fact, must logically be part of what anchors the bodhisattva to the world: deigning to partake of beatitude so that, with a foothold in the world of becoming, he or she may also make the descent in mission to those who suffer the violence of samsara. Likewise, those who partake in Christ transcend the world and its merits; but precisely the logic behind the veneration of saints and prayers offered to them in historic Christianity is the notion that even in Paradise they may condescend to hear our prayers and act on our behalf. Indeed, the ambiguity in Christian texts about what exactly the present life of the glorified saints is—embodied? disembodied? celestial? awaiting a future resurrection? etc.—may imply that it is nothing other than compassion that stays their feet from rushing into the Kingdom of God this very moment, a compassion borne from an ultimate ahimsa, but which, in order to get there, may in fact skillfully participate in the karmic structures of the world for the salvation of all, even in ways that seem, mundanely, to be retributive or preferential. Like Krishna and Arjuna in the Gita, Christ and the saints consent to the collapse of the violent order of the world in on itself, in order to open the path to a world without violence, in which, beyond the appropriate recompense for the lives we have lived, all embrace all in the all that is God (1 Cor 15:28).
See Graham M. Schweig, Bhagavad Gita: The Beloved Lord’s Secret Love Song: A New Translation (SanFrancisco: HarperOne, 2010), 3. As Schweig points out, yoga (योग), a Sanskrit word meaning “union,” appears 78 times in the Gita, and cognates like yogi or yukta appear a combined 155 times. It is this translation which I will use throughout, though the Gita is one of those texts whose antiquity and classic status has rendered a variety of translations into English, some more or less scholarly, some more or less poetically impressive.
Schweig, Bhagavad Gita, 8.
Schweig, Bhagavad Gita, 8-9.
As Schweig notes, the Sanskrit word here is buddhi (बुद्धि), which can mean “intelligence,” “wisdom,” “insight,” or “understanding”; given that the Gita was written long after Buddhism’s emergence, some interaction with Buddhist ideals is probably unavoidable here. See Schweig, Bhagavad Gita, 46.
Schweig notes that it carries “the sense of an impassioned love, divine yearning”; Schweig, Bhagavad Gita, 237 fn7.
Schweig, Bhagavad Gita, 261.
On the authorship and dating of the Apocalypse, see the bibliographic entries under these headings in the General Bibliography of David Aune, Revelation 1-5, Word Biblical Commentary (Waco, TX: Thomas Nelson, 1997); for generic information about apocalypses, see James C. VanderKam and William Adler, eds., The Jewish Apocalyptic Heritage in Early Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996); John J. Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to Jewish Apocalyptic Literature, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016); Benjamin E. Reynolds and Loren T. Stuckenbruck, eds., The Jewish Apocalyptic Tradition and the Shaping of New Testament Thought (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2016); Craig Koester, Revelation and the End of All Things, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018), 38-47.
Candida Moss makes the argument that the white robes offered to the martyrs in the Apocalypse ends up reifying the status structure of the ancient world, simply in the reverse, rather than obliterating it. While this is true, it is noteworthy that the book offers this status to those who have not experienced it in this life as relief for suffering and reward for fidelity. See Candida Moss, Divine Bodies: Resurrecting Perfection in the New Testament and Early Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019), 89-113.
See David Bentley Hart’s commentary in the Second Meditation of That All Shall Be Saved (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019), 92-129.
See Anatanand Rambachan, The Advaita Worldview (New York: SUNY, 2006) and A Hindu Theology of Liberation: Not-Two is Not One (New York: SUNY, 2015).