Thoughts on War and Peace
Shaunaka Rsi Das
Posted April 3, 2003
Some 20 years ago, on my first visit to India, I happened to find
myself in Vrindavan - a village unchanged since medieval times
which is the centre of Krishna worship - for the festival of
Holi, which Hindus in Britain will celebrate in the coming days.
Traditionally this festival takes place just after the crops have
been harvested and the rural community becomes ecstatically
jolly. But the festival was unknown to the party of Irish Hare
Krishnas to which I belonged as we toured on pilgrimage to places
associated with Krishna's birth and life.
When we arrived, as soon as our bus stopped, one of our party
opened a side window of our battered old coach to a little child
who was waving from below. As he opened the window, a multitude
of children appeared, throwing gulal - coloured powder, greens
and blues, yellows, reds and purples - some of it in bags that
burst on impact. They then squirted us with water from syringes.
My fellow pilgrims near the window were inundated. The children,
thrilled, were soon joined by all kinds of people including the
middle-aged, professional people and elderly. We told the driver
to drive away at high speed; we had no idea what was happening.
We thought they had gone mad. But when we parked elsewhere and
disembarked, within 15 minutes every single member of the party
was smothered in coloured dyes. Our pious pilgrimage turned to
At Holi all social convention breaks down, all barriers are
pulled away. Everyone is covered in powder, their clothes
permanently stained when the water is added. All are fair game.
Yellow-coloured people approach you with broad smiles, and smear
your forehead and cheeks with red powder. And in the evening
there are tremendous bonfires.
One of the stories most closely associated with Holi is that of
the great devotee Prince Prahlad whose evil father tried to force
Prahlad to renounce his great love for God. Frustrated with his
son's refusal to do so, he eventually decided to kill him. He
employed his sister, Holika - who had been blessed with a yogic
boon, whereby she would remain unscathed by flames - to carry
Prahlad into a blazing fire. However, in agreeing to act against
the Lord's devotee - and against the greater good - she forfeited
her benediction, and in the end Holika was burned to ashes, while
Prahlad inherited her power and survived. The story celebrates
the victory of love, devotion, compassion, tolerance, and
integrity over hatred, selfishness, conceit, greed, and
This year the festival takes place against the threat of war on
Iraq and leads Hindus to ask - if you will pardon the pun -
whether this might be considered a Holi war? That is to say, are
those set on waging it conforming to the principles of Prince
Prahlad or those of Holika? This is more than a rhetorical
question. The looming conflict is being labelled a war for peace
- a notion which has been heard many times in the last hundred
years. But if we are going to use the word peace we need to
examine it from a universal perspective, not from a culturally
The Hindu perspective on peace is fairly different than that
being bandied about by the belligerents in the threatened
conflict. In Hindu culture it is recognised that we are not in
control of the polarities of nature and that there will always be
those passing through this world who are willing to cause
suffering. Our happiness in this world will always be tempered
with misery. Peace is a gift from God. In trying to be peaceful
our intense desire must be for a peace which is internal as well
as external. That means if our dedication to peace is real we
must be seen to use every means to avoid violence - and that must
be reflected in everything we say and do. If we are not dealing
with our selfish desires of anger, deceit, lust and greed, we are
not peaceful people. As long as we are driven by these base
desires we will be drawn to conflict and we can never credibly
World peace requires us to ask questions about these same selfish
desires at a societal level. Hindu culture is not a pacifist one.
It recognises that in extreme cases violence may be necessary.
But when we consider the example of Holika we see someone who was
privileged and gifted, but she lost it all because she became
conceited and adopted violence. The start of the fight against
this lies in our being truthful with ourselves, acknowledging our
weaknesses and being honest about whether it is our principles or
just our desires which drive our actions.
Today, when war seems closer than ever, is the time to be
truthful about the motives for war which are about nationhood,
power, economics, ideologies, culture, personalities and about
pride. To use peace as an excuse for war is a great violence and
a deceit. It defines peace in political terms. But peace is an
internal experience which grows from honesty and humility and is
then reflected in all our thoughts, words and deeds. It begins
with ourselves, extends to the Supreme and then all of creation.
Unless we acknowledge that, whatever the outcome of this war,
peace will not be the result.