Recently an Indian politician commented that Bhagavad-Gita also teaches Jihad (a religious war). This post lists the differences between what Lord Kṛṣṇa teaches in Bhagavad-Gita (and what happened during the Mahabharata war) and religious war. It is important to have detailed answers to such questions. We will go through the historical background, the events that led to the Mahabharata war, how that war was different from modern adharmic warfare, substantiate these ideas through recent history, and finally summarize numerous behavioral rather than ideological differences between the two.
Table of Contents
- 1 The Causes of the Mahabharata War
- 2 The Rejection of Ideological Wars
- 3 Religion vs. Dharma Differences
- 4 Varied Kinds of Godly Natures
- 5 The Mood of the Vedic System
- 6 The Prescriptions for Dharma-Yuddha
- 7 The Methodology of Dharma-Yuddha
- 8 The Wars of Demons and Demigods
- 9 Dharmic and Adharmic Wars
- 10 Summarizing the Differences
The Causes of the Mahabharata War
The seed of the Mahabharata war was sown when the elder brother Dhritarāśtra could not ascend to the throne due to his blindness, and Pāndu was appointed to the throne by elders like Bhīśma. The clear criterion for a ruler or Kshatriya at that time was that he had to be a warrior. Politics and military were not separate vocations. They were instead combined. Dhritarāśtra complied with this principle and vacated the role for Pāndu, but was never happy about it. Being elder than Pāndu had greater standing for him than his shortcomings which would have hindered his performance as a ruler. His greed for power, and his inability to see his inadequacies, played a central role in later developments.
However, when Pāndu was cursed by sage Kindama to die if he indulged in sex, Pāndu vacated the position of the ruler and went to the forest and Dhritarāśtra ascended to the throne. Subsequently, both Pāndu and Dhritarāśtra had children—the Pāndavas and Kauravas—and it was not easy to decide who should ascend to the throne. Realizing the difficulty, the Pāndavas built a new city called Indraprastha and vacated Hastinapur, where Dhritarāśtra was already ruling after the death of Pāndu. Effectively, it was understood that the Kauravas will continue ruling Hastinapur after the death of their father, while Pāndavas would live and rule in Indraprastha, a city that they had created. There was no reason for conflict because the Pāndavas had left Hastinapur and vacated the kingdom for the Kauravas.
Indraprastha was so beautiful, that it exceeded Hastinapur in all respects. The floor shimmered like water, and it was hard to tell the difference between floor and water. One time, the Kauravas were invited to Indraprastha, and while walking in the palace, Duryodhana lifted his dhoti thinking that he was about to walk through water when it was just shimmering floor. Draupadi saw this and giggled at Duryodhana’s plight, and he felt humiliated. Draupadi had spurned Duryodhana’s marriage proposal earlier and had preferred to marry Arjuna, so this was the second time that he had been mocked. Thereafter, he started scheming how to steal Indraprastha and humiliate Draupadi.
All these goals were achieved when the Pāndavas were invited to a dice game in Hastinapur, where Yudhiśthira lost bets on Indraprastha, Draupadi, and a 13-year period of exile—because of rigged dices. Pāndavas accepted these verdicts and left for exile. But even after the exile was complete, Duryodhana refused to return Indraprastha to Pāndavas. Lord Kṛṣṇa then brought a peace proposal to Duryodhana, in which the Pāndavas would get 5 villages, while the Kauravas would keep Indraprastha and Hastinapur. Duryodhana rejected even this peace proposal. This is when the Mahabharata war became inevitable. It was called dharma-yuddha or a dutiful war because all non-violent approaches had failed.
The Rejection of Ideological Wars
The Mahabharata war was about property and not ideology. There is no precedent of wars being fought for ideology in Vedic history. Diverse systems of spiritual practice have always existed in the Vedic system. Different deities have been traditionally worshipped by different people. The diversities of Vedic texts and philosophies have been prevalent since ancient times. Everyone is allowed to practice their chosen system if they do not persecute others. Lord Rama did not kill Rāvana because of ideology. He was killed because he had abducted Mother Sita. Lord Narasimha did not kill Hiraṇyakaśīpū because of ideology. He was killed because he was trying to kill Prahalāda. Similarly, the Mahabharata war was not fought for ideology. It was fought because Kauravas stole the property of Pāndavas.
Of course, these rapists, abductors, thieves, and cheaters were evil-minded. But the mind cannot be burnt, dried, sliced, or drowned. You can only do these things to the body. The Vedic system teaches that a person is reborn with the previous life’s mentality. Therefore, the Vedic system doesn’t fight ideological wars because ideas cannot be killed. The ideologies can be shown to be better or worse, by evidence and argument. And those who refuse to accept reason and argument are restrained in their bodies from hurting others rather than restraining their minds from thinking whatever they want to think. You can harbor the evilest thoughts, but you would not be punished if thoughts do not become actions. There is no reprimand for evil thoughts. There is reprimand only for evil actions. Hence, there is no ideological war. A war, or a punishment, is given only if there are evil actions—raping, cheating, stealing, abducting, etc.
These are the grounds on which the Vedic system has always been “secular”. Secularism is not the inability to disprove an ideology. Proof can always be given. Secularism is not the equality of all ideologies, because some ideologies are false and others are true; within the true ideologies, some are better than others. Secularism is based on the practical fact that irrational, foolish, arrogant, and evil people will always exist. They will harbor false, malicious, and problematic ideologies. As long as they keep their ideas to themselves and don’t hurt others, they can keep thinking whatever they like.
Therefore, secularism doesn’t mean the equality of all religions. Secularism doesn’t mean respect for all ideologies. Secularism doesn’t mean the intermingling of various worldviews. Secularism means the peaceful and non-violent coexistence of different worldviews by keeping one’s ideologies confined to those who are interested in them. Secularism is broken if one person’s actions reduce the ability of others to practice their dharma. For example, you can pray in a public place as long as you don’t block the commuters, vehicles, or other daily business for that place. If you are going to hinder others, then you better take their permission and approval before you proceed.
Generally, in a tolerant society, each party makes compromises that they can easily make to accommodate other parties. If one side hardens its stance, then the other party also stops compromising. In that situation of hardened stances, you cannot do anything that hinders another’s dharma or religion—if you want to coexist peacefully and non-violently in a place.
Religion vs. Dharma Differences
A “religion” is understood very specifically as one book, one deity, one set of rules, and one practice in Abrahamic faiths. Dharma is however defined as one’s duty. Accordingly, the dharma of Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaisya, and Sudra are different. A religion is universalized, while dharma is contextualized and individualized to a person’s role in society and their abilities, proclivities, and opportunities. The inability to follow the prescribed duty to lack of ability or opportunity is not a violation of dharma.
Dharma is also defined by four universal principles of truthfulness, kindness, sacrifice, and cleanliness. These principles—while universal—cannot be upheld universally because sometimes truthfulness requires us to give up kindness, and sometimes kindness requires us to give up truthfulness. Which of these four principles should be prioritized in which case, to what extent, and by whom, requires an understanding of God. A contextualized and individualized dharma is defined as how God will act in a given situation, namely, how He will compromise one of the four principles to prioritize others.
This contextualized and individualized dharma can be discussed rationally as the greatest perfection. If compromising one of the four principles in the short term is likely to increase all the principles in the long term, then the compromise is greater perfection. For example, if showing kindness to a first-time offender by giving him a reduced sentence will scare him enough to not commit the crime again, but also prevent him from becoming a hardened criminal, then kindness is a better option. But if showing kindness to one offender encourages many people to become first-time offenders on the assumption that will be let off with a reduced sentence, then showing kindness is not the greatest perfection.
Therefore, neither showing kindness nor showing unkindness is a universal principle. One has to judge what is the most appropriate for a given time, place, situation, and person. Historical precedents do not always apply to future situations. Things that work in one place don’t always work in other places. Things appropriate for one type of person may not be appropriate for another type of person. The judiciousness of decision-making requires us to know more facts, and judge accordingly. God can make the best decisions because He is omniscient. We cannot match that omniscience, but we can try to come as close to it as possible. That sincere goal for the greatest perfection is godly nature, but it is not faith. It is also not universal rules and regulations. It is rational, but contextualized and individualized.
Varied Kinds of Godly Natures
Contextualized and individualized dharma cannot be perfected without rejecting the profit motive because the greatest harm in duty comes from the profit motive. Even while rendering justice, the selfishness of judges, lawyers, and the justice system undermines justice. Thus, one cannot follow dharma without being free of the profit motive. Conversely, if someone is free from the profit motive, but not omniscient, their mistakes (due to the absence of complete information) are forgiven.
Thus, there is a difference between doing the duty with the profit motive and without it. When duties are performed with the profit motive, the activity is called karma-kānda. But if one performs their duties without a profit motive, then the activity is called karma-yoga. God’s actions in the world are karma-yoga—they are the perfect dharma (because they lead to the uplift of the four principles of dharma) and they are performed selflessly. God subordinates Himself to the principles of dharma and eschews the profit motive, just to illustrate how life in this world must be lived by the principles of selfless duty.
However, this state of dutifulness is one in which a person doesn’t go beyond the call of their duty. Hence, this dutiful nature is considered the outermost nature of God. There are three progressively inner godly natures—(a) self-satisfaction, (b) egalitarian respect and freedom of each individual, and (c) loving devotion. A self-satisfied person, a person who respects and cherishes others, and a person who loves others, goes beyond the call of their duty. Hence, the Vedic texts draw a distinction between dharma (the path of duty), and sanātana-dharma (going beyond the call of duty).
Apart from the path of karma-yoga (selfless duties), there are three other paths that go beyond the call of duty—(a) the path of self-satisfaction propounded in aśtānga-yoga, (b) the path of reason, freedom, and egalitarian respect for others propounded in jñāna-yoga, and (c) the path of loving devotion propounded in bhakti-yoga. The path of selfless duties is God’s outermost nature, and that of loving devotion is God’s innermost nature. Accordingly, even as karma-yoga is godly nature, it is not the highest. Lord Kṛṣṇa describes these four natures in Bhagavad-Gita, culminating in bhakti-yoga.
Lord Kṛṣṇa explains how the Mahabharata war can be fought in four different moods—(a) selfless duty, (b) with willpower to endure the pains and pleasures, (c) with the knowledge that the soul is not killed when the body is killed, and (d) as an act of loving devotion. Lord Kṛṣṇa shows Arjuna how He is the Supreme Person, by displaying His universal form in which all other beings are His parts. Therefore, His instructions are like the mind instructing the hand to do surgery on the leg. This surgery can be done in four different moods—(a) it is my duty to cut the leg, (b) painful difficulties have to be endured temporarily, (c) this surgery will heal the infected part, and (d) this is the beginning of health. After describing these paths, Lord Kṛṣṇa says—”I have told you everything, now you can do as you wish”.
The Mood of the Vedic System
The Bhagavad-Gita clearly illustrates how God speaks the truth if someone inquires sincerely. He doesn’t reveal Himself or the truth to those who are not interested. Then, after revealing Himself and the truth, He doesn’t force it on anyone. He remains nonchalant. If someone is convinced, then they can take it. If they are not convinced, then they can do whatever they like. Thereby, God doesn’t force the truth on anyone. Rather, He forces a person’s ideology on them by making them live with others of their ilk.
If you like living with those of your ilk, then there is no compulsion. You can live with them as long as you like. A change will happen only if you want to live differently. For instance, if you develop a killer’s mentality, then you will be reborn as a wild hunting animal. You will be forced to live with other wild hunting animals, and in that life, you will be subjected to the same kind of killing and violence by other wild animals as you have done before until you feel that this is not for you. Nobody is going to force a change until you want it. A lion enjoys hunting when he is young. But when he gets old, then he is hunted by jackals. Then he realizes that this is not the life that he wants.
Everything in nature works on the same principle, including different religious ideologies. If you like some religion, then you can live with others of the same mindset. For some time, you may enjoy living with others of the same ilk. But after some time, you may realize that the ideologies of that religion, and the way others behave under those ideologies toward you, is not for you. Then you can change your religion. The trigger for change has to come from each person. They have to seek something genuinely and then it is provided.
On these principles, there are several unique characteristics of how dharma is taught and practiced: (a) people of different ideologies are separated to live with their own ilk. (b) nobody, including God, interferes in their way of thinking and living as long as they don’t interfere in the lives of others, (c) knowledge is imparted only to those who are interested in it, (d) even after it is imparted, the choice of accepting or rejecting it is left to the receiver, (e) the teacher, including God, imparts the truth without expecting a favor in return, (f) if you agree with what God is teaching, then you get a chance to live with Him, and (g) if you disagree, then you will not be coerced or compelled, even by God.
The Prescriptions for Dharma-Yuddha
Dharma is not a religion because:
- It is contextualized and individualized,
- It is not universal rules and regulations but based on the goal of the greatest perfection,
- Even God’s instructions have to be evaluated for applicability to a time, place, situation, and person,
- Hence, revelation is not a substitute for a rational and empirical process to decide duty,
- The words of Lord Kṛṣṇa don’t mean that everyone should fight like Arjuna was instructed,
- Action must be selfless rather than motivated by profit for it to be liberating,
- A materialistic path is one that is based on greed for profit or the fear of punishment,
- God teaches selflessly to those sincerely inquisitive, as do all the genuine teachers,
- The result of any choice is a life to be lived with those who make the same kinds of choices,
- Thus God lives with those of His nature, just like tigers are born to live with other tigers.
Once we understand the fundamental differences between religion and dharma, then we can talk about when war should be fought. It is fought only when one’s duty is hindered by others. Since there is a choice in duty (associated with the consequences of liberation, reward, or punishment), therefore, the freedom of choice becomes the freedom of religion, provided we don’t hinder others’ choices. War is permitted if someone hinders other religions. Even then, the least amount of violence needed to stop the persecution, and restore religious freedom, is permitted. The goal is individual freedom combined with individual liberation, reward, or punishment. Nobody should hinder others’ choices, although we can always describe the better path—e.g., that liberation is better than reward which is better than punishment. If such rational discussions and debates exist without coercion, then there is room for the best path to prosper, without persecuting any path and hindering the choices of other paths.
We have to distinguish between defensive and aggressive uses of power. The aggressive use of power tries to limit the freedom of others. The defensive use of power tries to protect those freedoms. Both use power, and both can cause war. But a dharma-yuddha is the defensive use of power to protect freedom and a religious war is the aggressive use of power to reduce others’ freedom. War is not prohibited, nor is war encouraged. It is prescribed as a duty for defensive rather than aggressive purposes.
The military is thus called the “Ministry of Defense” instead of the “Ministry of Attack”. Of course, many nations use the military for aggressive rather than defensive wars. The war of aggression is adharma or irreligion and the war of defense is dharma or religion. All wars are not the same. One has to look into the causes, reasons, and justifications of war to distinguish between defensive and aggressive.
The Methodology of Dharma-Yuddha
War in the Vedic system is fought between two sets of warriors, rather than between a warrior and a civilian. There is absolutely no mandate for killing civilian men, women, or children. There is absolutely no mandate for the burning of libraries, desecrating places of worship, sacking of cities, or destroying natural resources like poisoning air, water, or land to hurt the common population. Thereby, the war of economic sanctions, the war of media propaganda, the war of targeting civilian infrastructure, the war of chemical or nuclear weapons targeting civilian residences, the war of cyberattacks, a war that uses civilians as human shields for warriors, and guerrilla warfare in which warriors hide in forests, cities, villages, or mountains to launch a surprise attack, are totally excluded from dharma-yuddha.
A dharma-yuddha involves two armies or warriors gathering in a place to fight with each other. They come face-to-face, exclude all civilians from the war, and win purely based on their bravery, fearlessness, and combat expertise including the use of various kinds of weapons. Those involved in targeting civilians, places of worship, cities, towns, and villages, or applying economic sanctions, using media propaganda, chemical or nuclear weapons, cyberattacks, guerrilla warfare techniques, or civilian human shields are considered cowards. They lack manliness, courage, bravery, and self-respect.
Similarly, there is no provision for surprise attacks in a dharma-yuddha. In the Mahabharata war, for instance, every single day the armies of the opposing sides would gather opposite each other, and a conch was blown to signal the start of the war. Likewise, at sundown in the evening, a conch was blown to signal the end of the battle for that day. There would be no fighting before the morning conch and after the evening conch. The armies would not attack each other at night. When Ashwatthama killed the five children of Pāndavas while they were sleeping, he was cursed to live with leprosy till the end of the universe. A person with leprosy is excluded from human contact. Ashwatthama’s act was not war but murder. Murder is defined as an attack on someone who is unprepared, who hasn’t committed a crime, who is incapable of defending himself, and who is not involved in fighting the war. Killing such a person is murder rather than war.
Similarly, another rule of war was to not attack a warrior who had surrendered or had put down his weapons. For example, the killing of Abhimanyu by 16 other warriors was murder rather than war. Abhimanyu had put down his weapons and was trying to fix his broken chariot. Attacking him in that situation was an act of cowardice rather than bravery. After Abhimanyu’s murder, Lord Kṛṣṇa also adopted tricks to defeat the Kauravas by similar means. For example, when Karna had to put down his weapons to fix his chariot, Lord Kṛṣṇa advised Arjuna to kill him just as he had killed Abhimanyu. This is not a violation of dharma, because nature’s law, and God’s law, is tit-for-tat. You will be killed in the same way as you have killed others. If you have killed helpless civilians then you will be killed in the same way as many times as you have killed others to give you a taste of your own medicine.
A dharma-yuddha methodology is one of bravery rather than cowardice. After the decision to fight has been made based on the principles of dharma, there is also a specific methodology of a dharmic war. That methodology is nothing but the exhibition of bravery and the exclusion of cowardice. The military might of most powerful countries that indulge in nuclear, chemical, information, economic, cyber, guerilla, or other types of civilian warfare is not considered bravery. It is simply an act of cowardice. Similarly, a person involved in a suicide attack on a civilian population is an act of cowardice. Finally, the torture of captured soldiers when they have surrendered or put down their weapons is cowardice.
Of course, if someone indulges in a cowardly act of aggression, then he is punished by subjecting him to the same type of cowardly retribution to give him a taste of his own medicine. Therefore, a cowardly act against a cowardly act is justified provided it is proportionate, limited to those who previously indulged in cowardice, and not extended to more cowardly acts against the non-participants in a war.
The Wars of Demons and Demigods
One of the principles employed to prevent a war is the geographical separation of different religions. If people with different ideologies are out of sight, then they will also be out of mind. They can practice their chosen ideology, religion, or belief system with others with the same convictions. They don’t have to force their ideas on others, and they don’t have to get into conflict with each other. Therefore, if there are irreconcilable differences between two groups of people, they must be separated for peace.
The best example of this separation is the different planets of demons and demigods. As long as they don’t interfere with each other, they can live peacefully with others of their mindset. Even though demons are ungodly, and God doesn’t approve of that nature, He lets them live as long as they don’t persecute the demigods. The demigods have no interest in interfering with the lives of demons. Hence, the demigods never attack the demons. However, they respond defensively to the attacks by demons. The demons always attack demigods because they intend to destroy the demigods. When that attack happens, if the demigods are powerful, then they repel the demons back to their planets. But if they are weak for whatever reason, then God intervenes to help the demigods to repel the demons back to their planets. God, or the demigods, never go to the planets of demons to conquer and destroy them. They have no interest in a demoniac society. They have no interest in forcing them into their ideology.
The battle between good and evil is therefore never fought if they do not hinder each other. But if a battle between good and evil happens, then God takes the side of the good rather than the evil. Taking sides is not to destroy the evil, but to protect and preserve the good. Therefore, the minimum amount of violence is used to repel the evil away from good, without completely destroying the evil. Evil is completely destroyed during the course of a battle only if it doesn’t recede from the warfare.
Dharmic and Adharmic Wars
Therefore, the first principle is the choice of religion, the second principle is not attacking any other religion, and the third principle is acting defensively against any attacker to repel them back to their station.
This principle of dharma was demonstrated in Indian history for thousands of years when India faced invasions from Europe, the Middle East, and Central Asia from its North and West frontiers. For several thousand years, Indian emperors repelled these attackers by defeating them in battles. But they did not chase them back to the places they came from. They did not counterattack to conquer territories of invaders in Europe, the Middle East, or Central Asia, because the war was an act of defense rather than attack. Dharmic warfare in India has always been a department of defense rather than a department of attack.
In a dharmic war, the defending army never attacks a receding attacker’s army. The defending army may know that the receding army will regroup and attack again, and yet, they do not attack the receding army. They prepare and wait for the next attack, and then repel them again. This is how Mohammed Gazni was able to attack India 17 times. The Indian emperors would not kill the defeated attacker if he was receding or if he had surrendered and accepted defeat. They may know that he will regroup and attack again, but there is no torture or murder of one who has surrendered, put down his weapons, and accepted his defeat to recede from warfare.
There are some instances of adharmic warfare too, but even these were fought on battlefields, and always excluded civilians. Emperor Ashoka for instance fought the unnecessary battle of Kalinga in which thousands of warriors were slain. But it was not the sacking of cities, desecration of temples, burning of libraries, denigration of other cultures, murder of civilians, rape of women, theft of private properties of ordinary citizens, exertion of taxes on people of other beliefs or religions, or forceful conversation of people from one system of dharma or worship to another. The war began and ended on the battlefield. It involved Kshatriyas alone and excluded Brahmanas, Vaisyas, and Sudras. Therefore, the worst-case scenarios of adharmic wars have been infinitely more dharmic than what people now call “religious war”.
India was conquered by invaders for a couple of reasons—(a) it became internally weak, (b) the rulers forgot dharma and sanātana-dharma and were backstabbing each other, and (c) they did not know how to play the game of war in which one side follows the rules of bravery and the other the rules of cowardice. War is bravery but not brutality. Brutality is the symptom of cowardice. India was conquered by invaders because when bravery weakens, it loses superiority over brutality. It doesn’t mean that India should now embrace brutality. It means that India should strengthen the ideology of bravery.
Summarizing the Differences
Exclusivist and supremacist religions have historically rejected the freedom of choice of religion. They have attacked (and continue to attack in a hundred different ways) other lands to interfere in the life of their people, steal their resources, kill innocent civilians, subjugate people who have done no harm to them, and call that subjugation, theft, and enslavement the mandate of their religious scriptures or a religious war. When their atrocities are brought to their attention, they try to deflect attention from their past into false equivalences.
Equating Bhagavad-Gita and Mahabharata to Jihad or religious war is such a deflection. Both chalk and cheese look white. That doesn’t mean chalk is cheese. We compare two things if the points of similarity are more than the points of difference. If the points of difference exceed the points of similarity, then that comparison is like comparing chalk with cheese because both of them appear to be white.
When people try to create false equivalences between chalk and cheese, then we have to point out their differences. That is a defensive act, although in making the comparison, we have to describe both sides truthfully, which the person who wants a false equivalence will call aggression instead of defense. But we have to persist. If we don’t counter, then the falsity is taken to be the truth simply because of the absence of a firm response. The goal of that response is not to annihilate anyone. It is to repel them back to their earlier station.
Whatever people call a “religious war” is not dharma-yuddha because
- Dharma is contextualized and individualized while religion is universalized,
- Dharma rejects ideological wars and religion encourages ideological wars,
- Dharma is choice and responsibility while religion is coercion and obedience,
- Dharma doesn’t interfere in other religions if others don’t interfere in dharma,
- Religion constantly pokes other religions even if they are disinterested in them,
- Dharma-yuddha is always a defensive war rather than an aggressive war,
- Dharma-yuddha follows the rules of bravery and religious war that of cowardice,
- The goal of dharma-yuddha is to repel the opponent back to their station,
- The goal of a religious war is to annihilate the opponent out of existence,
- Civilians are excluded in dharma-yuddha and they are included in a religious war,
- Dharma ranges across four systems from selfless duty to selfless love,
- Religion ranges across systems of selfish enjoyment to selfish exploitation.
All these differences are this-worldly rather than other-worldly. All these differences are not ideological but behavioral. The story of differences doesn’t end here. We can extend it to the differences in the conceptions of space, time, matter, causality, and law. We can speak about the differences between the natures of soul and God, inanimate and animate, humans and other species, karma and reincarnation.
The problem is that when we speak about these differences, those disinterested in understanding them call these “your beliefs” that are as unscientific and irrational as “their beliefs”. They don’t have the intellect or interest in understanding the rational and empirical foundations of dharma to distinguish it from coercive, irrational, and empirically falsifiable ideologies of religions. Therefore, ideological differences are only for those interested in dharma. For those keen on confusing dharma with religion, or creating false equivalences between the two, there are behavioral rather than ideological differences.