Nonviolence Wins: Five Reasons Why the Arjuna Analogy Fails

Published in Elephant Journal (under a different title) on 05/02/16. Original can be found here.

The longest epic poem ever composed, the Mahabharata, belongs to ancient India. Situated in the middle of this monumental work is the Bhagavad Gita, the famous story in which the archer Arjuna confides in his friend and charioteer, Krishna. Arjuna is torn about how at act righteously, as he contemplates a war in which he must protect his brothers by destroying his very own teachers.

Yet Krishna is no ordinary man, he is God incarnate, and through a series of discourses he dispels Arjuna’s anxiety about participating in the war that lies ahead.

Recently I have been in conversation with modern yoga practitioners on the topic of nonviolence and ethical responsibilities towards animals. Considering Classical Yoga’s strict stance on the ethic of ahimsa (nonviolence), I have suggested that yoga practitioners are ethically bound to adopt an animal-and animal-product-free lifestyle. In an effort to rebut this claim, the example of Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita has been proposed as an example of righteous or acceptable violence, as God himself ultimately convinces Arjuna to engage in warfare without hesitation.

Here I give five reasons why the Arjuna analogy fails as a legitimate response:

1Lineage DifferenceMost schools of Modern Postural Yoga (MPY) refer to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, and specifically its eight-limbed yoga, as the basis for their philosophical orientation. The majority of teacher trainings, workshops, and classes unpacking “The Philosophy of Yoga” almost invariably teach yoga as it is presented in the Yoga Sutra with only peripheral reference to the yogas of the Bhagavad Gita. Since Patanjali stands as the philosophical authority for these MPY schools and sufficiently addresses the topic of nonviolence in his own text, selectively prioritizing the Gita’s perspective on the matter is inconsistent with MPY’s advertised ancestry.

2. Dharma Difference—Arjuna is a kshatriya (warrior) and his problem relates to the dharma (duty) of a warrior and not a renunciant yogin. Arjuna is not troubled by his overall participation in violence but rather the prospect of inflicting harm on those he is dharmically bound to protect, namely his teachers Bhishma and Drona. If Arjuna dutifully serves his teachers by not harming them, his own brothers will perish as a result. Hence, Arjuna is not struggling with the ethic of nonviolence itself but the uncertainty involved in discharging violence virtuously. Needless to say, modern postural yogins are not warriors tied to warrior dharma nor caught in such a bind. Thus, Krishna’s advice to Arjuna is completely inapplicable in the context of a modern yogin’s use and consumption of animals. Furthermore, from the perspective of the Yoga Sutra, nonviolence is unconditionally inviolable, and warriors do not get a free pass regardless of duty. The commentary to Yoga Sutra 2.23 specifically states that even kṣhatriyas who cause violence in battle and nowhere else are still guilty of violating the ethic of nonviolence. In sum, Classical Yoga closes all dharmic loopholes when it comes to ahimsa.

3. Availability DifferenceOne may rightfully assert that the Yoga Sutra is a text composed for ascetics, and modern practitioners are neither ascetics nor warriors; as a result they are not bound by these strictures. Not only does this argument ignore the ethical responsibilities fundamental to the Classical Yoga tradition, but also strangely assumes that a householder’s duty necessarily involves the use and consumption of animals. This is patently false. In the Gita, Arjuna is forced to decide between two conflicting and ethically comparable duties without a viable alternative. Confronted with this serious conflict he struggles desperately for reconciliation. A householder-yogi living in a modern world where plant-based alternatives are often (though not always) available has no such difficulty and is most certainly governed by the ethic of nonviolence.

4. No Lifeboat Difference(Related to #3) Modern yoga practitioners do not face Arjuna’s exceptional circumstances and hence are not in a “lifeboat” scenario. The lifeboat is a symbol for an unrealistic situation where comparable duties come into conflict and only violent options remain. Whether this involves choosing between the life of a loved one and a stranger, or drawing lots to see who will be eaten first, the lifeboat presents a dire situation of unavoidable violence. The exceptionality of the lifeboat is determined by the rare and inescapable conflict of comparable duties. It is applicable to Arjuna only in the broad sense that warrior dharma as presented in the Gita categorically rejects the option of not fighting. However, the lifeboat surely cannot be extended to the modern yoga practitioner’s selections for food and clothing, as the duty not to harm sentient beings far outweighs any concern for palate pleasure. As such, the lifeboat has zero relevance for MPY’s relationship with using and consuming animals.

5. Two Truths Difference —Verse II.19 of the Gita is sometimes summoned to offer a completely different type of argument. In this verse Krishna says to Arjuna: “He who thinks that this being is a killer and he who imagines that it is killed do neither of them know. It is not killed nor does it kill.” The verse implies that from the position of ‘ultimate truth’ (as opposed to ‘conventional truth’), no one kills and no one is killed, and thus there are no real perpetrators of violence and nor are there victims. Whether this satisfies some elevated level of philosophical contemplation (in any yoga tradition), neither the Bhagavad Gita nor the Yoga Sutra ever reject the primacy of ethics or right action. In fact the entire eight-limbed yoga is a path of right action and at no point does Patanjali sanction the transgression of ahimsa for the sake of some ultimate truth.  Moreover, this last-gasp rhetorical appeal to ultimate truth rarely aligns with how modern practitioners comport themselves ethically in their daily lives. Suppose a serial murderer stands before a judge and exclaims, “But in reality I am no killer and no one was killed. Set me free immediately!” How many modern yoga practitioners would support his release?  None. Hence the idea of ‘ultimate truth’ has no relevance when it comes to acts of unnecessary violence towards humans or non-humans.

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