Ca. fourth century B.C.E.-fourth century C.E.
The Bhagavad-gita asks the most difficult of questions. What is a just war, and when can the use of armed conflict to resolve a political stalemate be justified? Under what circumstances is it possible to engage in a violent conflict with family members, clansmen, teachers, and friends—the very people who have nurtured us since infancy—and claim a victory that is morally right? What is such a victory worth if, in the name of life, wealth, or truth, it destroys what we love? As a philosophical poem, the Bhagavad-gita does not provide simple answers, but offers explanations that are appropriately difficult because they involve dilemmas that cannot be resolved once and for all.
The work is actually an integral part of the Mahabharata, and was originally composed as the sixty-third minor book of that epic. Since it is a poem within a poem, the Bhagavad-gita is best interpreted in relation to the epic’s larger narrative, setting, and background.
The Mahabharata is attributed to a single poet, or compiler, named Krsna Dvaipayana, but it was composed collaboratively by many generations of poets in Sanskrit between about 400 B.C. and 400 C.E. Its main story concerns a protracted conflict between two branches of a royal dynasty in northern India over the inheritance of a kingdom and the succession to its throne. The embattled groups are the Kauravas and the Pandavas. The Kauravas do not want to share the kingdom with the Pandavas side of the family. The Kauravas send their brothers into a 13 year exile and give them ultimatums which, if they meet expectations, will be given their share. After the exile, lead brother Duryodhana refuses to honor his promises.
Lord Krsna (as a human avatar of Visnu) comes to guide the Pandavas. The Kauravas refuse a compromise offered by Lord Krsna. The Pandavas find the only thing left to do is war with their family. They feel just in their decision because they have a legitimate claim based on succession and inheritance. They have tried everything else before this step. Arjuna, of the Pandavas, arrives on the battlefield with Krsna at his side to guide him. He looks out over the battlefield and only sees people he knows. He throws down his weapons and refuses to fight, yet this places him in moral jeopardy. Dharma requires he be prepared to war when it is just. The Bhagavad-gita is the poetic record of that moment of crisis in Arjuna’s mind, and of the conversation he has with God on the brink of war.
The Bhagavad-gita is divided into eighteen chapters (or cantos) composed in verse, and its total length runs to seven hundred couplets. Each canto is called a “chapter”; it contains Krsna’s instruction to Arjuna about what is involved in courage, death, duty, life, violence, war, and why it is essential to fight a just war, even if it means destroying precious lives. It is a nested tale with the author of the Mahabharata granting Sanjaya “celestial vision,” so that he can omnisciently observe everything in the past, present, and future, and everything that happens on the battlefield, in public and in private. Throughout the eighteen days of the war, Sanjaya tells the blind Dhrtarastra what happens in the war, and we, the readers, also witness the entire conflict through Sanjaya’s “visionary eye.” Chapter one: Arjuna explains why he puts down his arms. Chapter two: Krsna explains the imperishable soul. Chapter 3: Arjuna questions action as related to the self and evil and Krsna teaches the discipline of action. Chapter 6: Krsna explains what complete control of the self can accomplish. Chapter 11: Arjuna comes to a new understanding and Krsna reveals his blinding real self. In this version (Norton 3rd edition) we only get a small excerpt of the entire argument for war. Krsna emphatically does not offer a general justification for violence under all circumstances; the use of violence to settle a major dispute can be justified only when every possible option for a peaceful resolution has been explored within the full scope of the law, and all such options have failed. Moreover, in a just war, only the thoroughly trained and disciplined warrior can use violence, and even he can do so only when he is in complete control of himself, and selflessly pursues his duty as defined by dharma.