Did Arjuna Make the Right Decision?
Civil War. There are few things in life that can better quantify as morally gray. In these situations, difficult decisions must be made, and principles are put to the test. Is it truly right to undergo such a divisive and consequential action for the sake of an ideal? This is the dilemma Arjuna faces in the classic historical text The Bhagavad Gita. Guided into a way of living that promises to ultimately lead to salvation, Arjuna debates the course of action he is about to undergo with the Hindu god Krishna. What is ultimately meant to be an inspiring and enriching religious ideal turns out to be a very tailor-made and contextually specific argument, which is not without its flaws. Whether Arjuna ultimately makes the right decision by listening to Krishna and choosing to fight the war with his family is subjective, but the arguments presented within the text reveal several implications that call for further analysis.
The first conflict of ideals between Arjuna and Krishna is that of Arjuna’s conscience getting in the way of his war with the family. Upon seeing the full realization that his enemy was family, Arjuna is said to be overcome with compassion and physically withers in response to this realization (Bhagavad Gita 1: 27-30). A real life parallel can be drawn from this in the form of military propaganda, as successful reactions to warfare come from the process of dehumanizing the enemy. This has been made apparent by the drastic differences in United States reaction to World War II vs the Vietnam War.
In World War II, we were fighting beings that were made out to be these inhuman manifestations of evil ideals; not people, but rather nazi soldiers (American Historical Association). This war received widespread support from a heavily nationalistic nation to such an extent that the economy grew like never before in its aftermath due to the many sacrifices the American people had made in the name of the military. The Vietnam War, however fared an opposite reaction, as the success of the war was largely put at risk by the opposition the American people had to the conflict. Being one of the first media documented clashes to reach public attention, the American citizens saw the conflict as humans fighting humans, and became much more sensitive to the consequences of the war. This led to an opposition to the war, which put in jeopardy its very success in much the same way as Arjuna’s opposition jeopardized his own success (Peters) (History.com).
This is actually one of the counterarguments that Krishna makes to convince Arjuna that fighting is the right decision. He makes an appeal to Arjuna’s sense of honor, attempting to rally his spirits by dissuading his sudden onset of weakness (Bhagavad Gita 2:33-37). He pulls Arjuna’s reputation into play, making very surface-level arguments such as the stain Arjuna’s decisions will bring on his legacy. Arjuna counters this argument with the assertion that no good can come from killing his own kinsmen (Sawyer). This calls to attention the true moral grayness of the situation, as the war seems to offer only glory as a benefit with many consequences accompanying both decisions.
The true question is whether the damage he causes with the intent of war outweighs the lives he spares with the renunciation of the battle. If legacy is truly as important to one’s salvation as Krishna would have us believe, then the definition of what constitutes a legacy becomes very important. After a person dies, then what remains of them is memories and stories of their accomplishments, but what of the deeds that go unheralded? Would the lives of the people spared by the prevention of this war be a part of Arjuna’s legacy as well, despite his condemnation for it? Furthermore, would it not be more noble to sacrifice his own integrity in the minds of others in order to prevent the worse outcome? Krishna argues that it isn’t.
Krishna further argues that Arjuna should not allow himself to be so defeated by the idea of killing his own family due to the nature of the immortal soul, and the fact that he’ll be sending them down the reincarnation cycle as opposed to actually ending their existence (Bhagavad Gita 2:20-31). While there is some merit to this argument, the implications far outweigh the benefits of it, as it completely devalues the physical body. With the logical thought progression that accompanies the thought that the soul cannot be killed, making the fate of the body inconsequential, the conclusion is a justification for avaricious motives. Murder no longer has a relative meaning because the person’s essence cannot actually die. Gluttony and sloth can proliferate because what happens to the body doesn’t affect the soul, and many other sinful acts become very easy to justify through that lens. Granted, this is not the point Krishna was attempting to make, but it’s a logical conclusion that can be drawn via implication.
The infallible argument of the text however is Krishna’s main and overpowering statement that fighting is Arjuna’s duty (Bhagavad Gita 2:31-33). What Krishna goes on to expand upon throughout the entirety of the text is the principle of devotion to an ideal and the fulfillment of duty. Specifically, Krishna creates the ideal that: when faced with a situation where there is no right answer, the only choice you can make is one guided by good intentions. If this decision is made based on a foundation of devotion to the ideals of Krishna and chosen for the right reason, then one is exempt from the bad karma that would otherwise accompany that decision (Sawyer). This argument is infallible from a religious standpoint, because it is based on the assumption of an all powerful and infallible god guiding you.
When this assumption is in place, there is no possible way of countering this argument. However, if the assumption is removed, then two problems arise with the claim. The first is that it essentially becomes an argument of “because I said so,” which removes the aspect of choice from the equation at all. It becomes a submission to an authority figure as opposed to a moral decision, which again is not an issue assuming the authority figure is an omnipotent and incorruptible force of pure goodness. The other issue with this argument is that it can again be used as a justification to invoke sin in the name of righteousness. While the argument does make logical sense as a guide to follow in crisis, the basic principle stands as a matter of intent. “If you do the wrong thing with the right intentions, you’ll be exempt from bad karma” (Sawyer). However, if you do the wrong thing with the right intention, you still do the wrong thing.
Saint Bernard of Clairvaux expressed an ideal that would conflict with that principle of the Gita and evolve into the popular phrase “The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” which expresses that bad decisions are rarely made with the consequences being intentional (Johnson). However, many atrocious acts have been committed with good intentions at heart. The Spanish Inquisition was meant to spread the good word of Catholicism, and ended up as one of the most brutal and torturous moments in history. The Indian Relocation Act was meant to clear room for incoming settlers and provide a comfortable location for the Native Americans to move to, but ultimately spawned the Trail of Tears. Modern day terrorism attacks in the form of jihadism are largely based on this same ideal, and the attacks have a “good intent” behind them: damage to regimes that conflict with their religious beliefs. This being said, religion is perhaps the strongest destructive tool in the world, by the sheer fact that people are easiest to manipulate when they think they’re doing the right thing. This is the very reason why this argument is so dangerous and why it is so vital that it be made by an infallible god.
Taken from the proper perspective, the arguments of the Bhagavad Gita are a vital part of the modern Hindu religion, and can be a very strong force of good. The arguments however can very easily become twisted due to the implications they raise in the more skeptical modern day society. While very thought provoking and powerful, the arguments have a larger sphere of influence in the day and age the text was written, and over time, lose some relevance due to the shift in our cultural perspectives. Whether Arjuna ultimately made the right decision is still subjective, since Krishna’s attempt to persuade him to fight is based on a series of arguments with clear and exposed weaknesses. One thing is certain, however. In the eyes of Krishna, Arjuna made the right decision, and that decision will be the source of further discussion and debate for many years to come.
Peters, Brad. “Vietnam War.” AP US History. Martin Luther King High School, Riverside. 4 Mar. 2015. Lecture. Taken from notes on a lecture given in my history class in high school on the background, context, and reaction to the Vietnam War
Prabhupāda, A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami. Bhagavad-gītā as It Is. New York: Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1972. Print. The copy of The Bhagavad Gita used “The Road to Hell Is Paved With Good Intentions.” The Samuel Johnson Page. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Sept. 2015. Origin to the Quote: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”
Sawyer, Dane. “Understanding the Bhagavad Gita.” Global Ideas. University of La Verne, La Verne. 9 Sept. 2015. Lecture. “Vietnam War Protests.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, n.d. Web. 21 Sept. 2015. Used as background research on the reaction to Vietnam
“War Propaganda.” American Historical Association. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Sept. 2015. History of wartime propaganda
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