(Disclaimer: The title is a reference to the Buddhist saying: “If you meet Buddha on the road, kill him.” meaning something like: To fetishize your interpretation of Buddha is to disregard his teachings. If you think that you’ve discovered the truth, shatter your illusion.)
This will be a response to some of the criticism I’ve received on and offline for the post The Yoga of Arjun’s Despondency.
The most common criticism I receive is that I didn’t “get” it. I interpreted the text literally, whereas it is a metaphorical or spiritual treatise. Its really about an “inner battle” whereas I focus entirely on the external battle.
The second criticism I get is that since I disagree with Krishna’s conclusions, I must not understand, or disagree with his reasoning.
I find these criticisms unsatisfactory, but they comes up a lot so I might as well address them:
Levels of Analysis: First of all, Hindu exegesis has (at least) three levels. First, adhyatmika (analysis on a philosophical, spiritual, transcendental level) second adhidaivika (analysis of cosmological, ritualistic, psychological factors) and third adhibhautika (analysis of physical events, the sphere of matter and nature.) Check out Page 76 of this paper for a better set of definitions.
My criticism of the Bhagavad Gita is an adhibhautika analysis. That doesn’t mean its invalid, it just means its premised on events of the story which take place in the naturalistic universe.
Secondly, both adhyatmika and adhidaivika interpretations are grounded in the adhibhautika facts on the ground. In other words, whatever spiritual or philosophical meaning exists in the text are premised on the physical events of the story as the basis of their symbolism. So an adhibhautika analysis will have adhidaivika and adhyatmika implications.
So, yes, the Bhagavad Gita describing an inner battle. But the premise of that symbolism is an external battle. If the outcome of the external battle was misery for the Pandavas, that has symbolic implications for the internal battle. The adhibhautika or material facts matter, because they are the base upon which more abstract, philosophical or symbolic interpretations rest. In fact, as we’ll see in a moment, Krishna himself was no stranger to adhibhautika analysis.
Holding Krishna to his Own Standards: Incidentally, I quite value the Bhagavad Gita in many regards: The gunas system, which directs one to a spiritual path most suited for their temperament. The idea that actions committed without ego in mind will be less anxiety provoking, more spiritually fulfilling and more efficient. The value of doing one’s duty even under highly difficult circumstances, and facing moral crises with bravery. These are all great. However. the fact that the Gita contains these useful truths doesn’t mean that Krishna’s ultimate conclusion is correct.
In the Mahabharata, Krishna illustrates the following three points in regards to Dharma, which somewhat overlap:
1) Sometimes one should violate Dharma: This could also be reformulated as different levels of Dharma exist, the less important being a strict adherence to rules, rituals, and codes of conduct, and the more important being upholding morality. Sometimes adhering to one’s strictly defined Dharma is a bad thing, because because it ignores the broader moral context of one’s actions. In fact, Krishna and the Pandavas illustrate this counterpoint all the time when they violate the strict rules of war in pursuit of the “higher goal” of defeating evil. So how is the “higher Dharma” determined? How is morality defined? On to point 2…
2) Moral considerations are to some degree, determined by utility calculations: When choosing which action to take between two morally distasteful alternatives, utilitarian cost and benefit calculation should factor in, and frequently override deontological principles. Krishna implies this when he makes arguments about the welfare of the kingdom under Pandava vs. Kaurava rule as a justification for the Pandavas to violate the rules of war. Also when he says that Arjun should violate his promise to kill anyone who insults his bow, because doing so would entail killing Yudhishtra. In the latter case, to explain his point Krishna retells the story of a sage named Kausika who saw a fleeing man, and then encountered bandits in hot pursuit of the man. The bandits asked which way the man went, and Kausika told them in order to keep his vow of honesty. In the story, he didn’t attain heavenly reward for his action. Point number two implies point number three…
3) Sometimes, Dharmic truths handed down to us by tradition are incorrect: This is the big one. Krishna, in urging the Pandavas to violate the established rules of war, implicates the ancient system of Kshatriya Dharma as promulgated by the religious and philosophical orthodoxy of their time. Even the principles we read in the Shruti don’t contain all the answers, and it’s wise words can lead you astray if not contextualized to some degree in materialism, practical experience, and common moral intuitions.
Now lets apply these conclusions to Krishna himself. Was the battle of Kurukshetra justified? What are the arguments for it? The most common argument is that it was justified because Duryodhana was a bad king who was fostering adharma in his kingdom and ruling like a despot. But this is disproved by the many lines in the Mahabharata which refer to his skill in ruling, the happiness of his subjects, and the unhappiness of his subjects, and of the Gods, when he is eventually killed.
Another argument is that Arjun was a Kshatriya, and needed to fulfill his duty to make war on a political enemy who had deprived himself and his family of their kingdom. But this is precisely the sort of deontological argument which Krishna frequently advises that Arjun ignore throughout the Mahabharata. Really, Arjun should see if adhering to his duty would cause more harm than good, and adhere to it only if it benefits life overall. As Arjun predicted and as the story bears out, the war was cataclysmic, and generated only net-negative results for humanity. Millions died, and the kingdom which emerged from the ashes was not better off as a result.
Other arguments center around justified revenge. Duryodhana should be killed for disgracing Draupdai, or for the house of lac incident. But again, these are deontological arguments which Krishna has already dismissed in principle.
You might have heard the Buddhist Zen Koan: “If you meet the Buddha, kill him.”
I often think it would be good for Hindus to adopt this attitude towards Krishna.
If you take Krishna seriously, you should probably examine him in light of his own teachings. Don’t fetishize one interpretation of him. If you find him lacking or inconsistent by his own standards, then “kill” him (by which I mean destroy whatever imaginary idealized concept you have of him) to reveal the meaning of his teachings which transcends his character, and even his words. It is always sad when a philosopher’s conclusions are unblinkingly accepted by those who have no familiarity with the reasoning process and logical system which produced those conclusions. We can see this with Marx, the American founding fathers, Jesus, and indeed with Krishna. In all of these cases, the philosopher wrote things, the logical implications of which refute some of their own most cherished conclusions, and the doctrines of their followers.
What does it really mean to be a follower of Marx, or Jesus or Krishna? To believe in their doctrines, or to try and apply their way of thinking about the world for ourselves?