The Bhagavad Gita appears as a section of 700 verses within the ancient Indian epic the Mahabharata, where the warrior prince, Arjuna, collapses in dismay at the prospect of going into battle against his own relatives. He is admonished and encouraged by his charioteer Krishna (none other than an incarnation of Vishnu), and the dialog between the two amounts to a discussion of the nature of human action and human duty, and what constitutes dharma, basically, appropriate human action. Arjuna is a warrior, and as such his duty is to fight, but he is reluctant to carry out his duty, swadharma, for reasons of personal attachment: those he must kill are his relatives. Krishna’s task is to lead Arjuna to understand that he must carry out his duty, setting aside even the most powerful of personal attachments.
Gandhi called the Gita his ”mother,” and his “spiritual reference book.” It seems contradictory to many that a scripture that affirms the duty to kill is the basis for Gandhi’s nonviolence. But Gandhi explained that the story should not be taken literally. It means that to reach self-actualization, we must “kill” what is most dear to us, our personal attachments. Ultimately this means the extinguishing of the ego. So the story of Arjuna on the battlefield is the story of our own inner struggle to overcome selfish impulses like anger, fear, and greed. This is the struggle from which nonviolence springs. Gandhi further pointed out that Arjuna is not against killing on principle, but only recoils from killing his own relatives. The Gita lists ahimsa as the first of virtues, affirms the unity of life everywhere so that the yogi feels another’s joys and sorrows as his own, and explains in detail how and why to practice meditation.
Bhagavad Gita, (1985) Translation by Eknath Easwaran (Nilgiri Press, Tomales, CA)