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Om Sweet Om

In the midst of many celebrating the demise of Osama bin Laden, there has been an ongoing debate amongst many of us at the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) around whether it is right to rejoice over the death of another, even one as “evil” as bin Laden.  A core Hindu belief is that of ahimsa, or non-violence, which is closely linked with another key concept that the Divine resides in all living beings.  Thus, one may commonly hear the Hindu greeting of Namaste or  “The Divine within me bows to the Divine within you.”  So, how then as ahmisa-loving people, can Hindus applaud the death of bin Laden? 

The problem I see is that when both of these beliefs are taken at face value, they do not fully account for the bigger picture of dharma, very loosely translated as righteousness and our duty in life to preserve it.  Dharma is conceptually challenging to define because while it is encompassing of societal harmony and justice, it is also applicable on the individual level and is not the same for everyone.  It is distinct for people, based on a number of factors including their stage in life, their role in society or path in life, and the overarching situation at hand.  Simply explained, the dharma of a school teacher is quite different from the dharma of a soldier.  Both have equally important places in society, but both have vastly different paths in preserving societal righteousness.

This past Sunday, I was at an HAF fundraiser where our guest speaker was Rajiv Srinivasan, a Lieutenant in the U.S. Army, who also happens to be Hindu.  We at HAF came to know Rajiv when he won our 2009 NextGen essay contest with a brilliant piece describing how he reconciled his belief in ahimsa with his dharma as a soldier.  Both in his essay and his speech on Sunday, Rajiv aptly quoted from the sacred Hindu text, The Bhagavad Gita, and his words are just as applicable to the ongoing debate at HAF.

The Gita is delivered by Lord Krishna just moments before the start of a great war – the ultimate fight between good and evil.  On one side are five brothers, known as the Pandavas, who have suffered countless injustices at the hands of their vindictive cousins.  The Pandavas have consistently humbled themselves in an effort to avoid this war.  Opposing them are scores of members of their extended family, led by a prince (who is also their cousin) in his ill-sought quest for complete domination of the land as a means to quench his jealousy of the Pandavas.  The two opposing armies are lined up at the battlefield when suddenly Arjun, the middle Pandava brother and the greatest warrior of his time, asks his chariot driver – who just happens to be Lord Krishna – to advance his chariot right to the middle of the two armies.  There, Arjun is crippled with emotion as he sees his loved ones in the opposition, and he begins to question the violence and futility of war.  Arjun turns to Krishna and asks why he should kill these people who he loves and with whom he has grown up.  What’s the point of fighting for a kingdom if half the family will die? Why shouldn’t he just let the other side keep it and become a hermit and pray?

Thus, begins the Gita – on a battlefield, quite literally on the line between “good” and “evil,” with a warrior torn between an unjust but peaceful resolution or a righteous but painful war.  Krishna explains that this war is Arjun’s dharma as a warrior and is necessary for righteousness to prevail in society.  While peace is important and every reasonable option to achieve it must be explored, peace for peace’s sake is not in accordance with dharma.  In this fight between good and evil, Krishna says, Arjun’s desire to give up his identity and duty as warrior to become a hermit is not only cowardly, but also not dharmic.

“One acts according to one’s own nature…Better in one’s own dharma, even if imperfect than another’s dharma followed perfectly,” explains Krishna (3.33).

One logical argument at a time, Krishna urges Arjun to fight.  Fight, Krishna says, not because you are in anticipation of victory or glory, but because it is your righteous duty in life, because it is the path of dharma, because it is in the best interest of society at large.  One who fights on the side of dharma will always prevail. And here he goes on to explains that this fight is not always one on the battlefield.  More often than not – and particularly for most of us today – it is an internal struggle we face, when acting ethically and in accordance with dharma is more challenging than the alternative.  It is, as Gurcharan Das so aptly titles his book, The Difficulty of Being Good.

After a lengthy philosophical discourse which covers not only dharma, but also the immortality of the soul and the paths of yoga (discussions for following blogs), Arjun is ultimately convinced and picks up his weapon.  He fights and prevails, though not without catastrophic losses – the five Pandava brothers were left standing alone amongst a sea of dead bodies which included countless loved ones.  My intention here is not to suggest that the Gita is a text that should be used to justify violence – on the contrary, prior to the start of this war, Krishna tries every means possible to avoid the war.  Even when all those surrounding him were ready to fight, Krishna makes one last genuine attempt at reconciliation.  It was only when this offer was rebuffed that he agreed to the necessity of war.  There are many morals to the Gita, but today’s takeaway is that while ahimsa is a core Hindu belief, it cannot be viewed as a stand alone value.  It must always be considered within the bigger picture of dharma.

Alone, the death of bin Laden, while symbolic, will not bring lasting tranquility.  The U.S. must now work to translate that into peace through legitimate foreign policy that acknowledges the serious issues in our relationship with Pakistan and aims to correct them.  So, while some may not celebrate the death of bin Laden, per se, we can all applaud the heroism of our great soldiers who acted according to their dharma.

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