Perspectives on War - 1:
Facing Death

by Hare Krsna dasi
Posted March 25, 2003


(Mar 16) In a striking juxtaposition of events, both the most auspicious event and the most inauspicious event appear to be only days away. The auspicious event is the Appearance Day of Lord Caitanya. As Lord Caitanya, Krsna appeared as His own devotee -- to teach human beings how to develop their love of God.

At the same time, it appears that we face a global upheaval, to be set in motion by a U.S. military attack on Iraq. This dreaded event is full of complexities, and so is the spiritual dynamic of the situation. In October, I searched the VedaBase and found about ten pages of Srila Prabhupada's instructions on war. When I shared them with others, however, they responded that Prabhupada presented so many different perspectives that it was difficult to comprehend.

Yet, it's important for us to gain a spiritual understanding of war. At very least we should recognize the potency of the moment. Certainly, if there is no other time to turn to spiritual concerns, war is the time. The intense bewilderment and fear that come with war make it a time when philosophical and spiritual discussions take on heightened relevance.

I remember when I began to be interested in Krsna consciousness in the late 1960's. The Vietnam war was raging. I had dropped out of college and was reading various religious and philosophical texts. Of all of them, I felt the Bhagavad-gita presented the most amazing philosophical analysis of life. But there was one sticking point: Why did it have to be set on a battlefield? Why did Arjuna have to be a soldier?

Why couldn't it be a discussion among renounced sages in a peaceful forest setting -- like the Dhammapada or the Sutra of Hui Neng? After all, if Krsna is God, why couldn't He arrange for a better setting to explain of the spiritual principles governing life?

Over time, it dawned on me that the battlefield was actually the perfect setting for Krsna's instructions to the human race. For one thing, just to attempt to take up spiritual life is always a battle.

But even more to the point, there never will be a "convenient" time to discuss spiritual matters. Life will always be in turmoil. Instead of becoming more peaceful, it is likely to become ever more chaotic. Nevertheless, if we can look at a soldier on the battlefield, who is learning the highest philosophy, then that will show us that it's possible for us to pursue spiritual life also, even in the midst of the confusion and instability of modern life.

WHY DOES WAR HAPPEN?

I'm thinking about thousands of American and British kids, and their officers, too, sitting in the sands of Kuwait or pacing the deck of aircraft carriers in the Indian Ocean. Many may be thinking, "Why is this happening to me? I had other plans. I'm not afraid to defend my country, but I'm not even sure this is the right thing to do. How did we get into this mess? Why did God put me in this situation?"

As one of the leading soldiers on the side of the Pandavas, Arjuna had the same kind of question. He did not want to have to fight against his cousins, the Kauravas. He especially did not want to fight against his revered military instructor, Dronacarya, or his beloved grandfather, Bhishmadeva. He asked Krsna, "O descendant of Vrsni, by what is one impelled to sinful acts, even unwillingly, as if engaged by force?" (Bg 3.36)

Krsna replied, "It is lust only, Arjuna, which is born of contact with the material mode of passion and later transformed into wrath, and which is the all-devouring sinful enemy of this world."

By lust, Krsna meant the greed which drives humans to shut their eyes to spiritual life and blindly pursue the whole range material pleasures. This kind of intense drive for material enjoyment, heedless of the costs, inevitably leads to conflict.

I want to talk more about the complexities of lust, karma and war in later articles. But the other big challenge posed by war is not just disruption in this life, but death itself.

HOW SHOULD WE MEET DEATH?

On one side of the battlefield, are the American and British soldiers, at least at this point. To some degree they may be concerned about the possibility of their own death, but no doubt many are also concerned with the morality of the killing they'll be asked to do. On the other side of the battlefield there are a certain number of soldiers who will fight back.

But unlike Arjuna's battle-hardened Kaurava foes on the battlefield of Kuruksetra, the main target for the attack of western forces -- intentional or not -- must be women and children. The majority of the population of Iraq is under fifteen years old. So, if western forces launch a massive bombing strike on Baghdad, most of the people killed will be children. Of the adult population, the majority are women, since so many men were killed in the last war. Most of the women and children will have no weapons. With no significant way to attack others or even defend themselves, in one sense, their concerns will be simplified.

For many the focus may be simply, "When all these bombs fall on me, how should I prepare myself to die? How can I prepare to meet God?"

In fact, this is another question that Arjuna asks Krsna, "How can those engaged in devotional service know You at the time of death?" (Bg 8.2) Krsna explains that, "Whatever state of being one remembers when he quits his body, that state he will attain without fail--He who meditates on the Supreme Personality of Godhead, his mind constantly engaged in remembering Me, undeviated from the path, he, O Partha [Arjuna], is sure to reach Me."

But still, one may worry, in a state of chaos, confusion and fear, how can someone remember God? Lord Caitanya gives the answer in His Siksastakam prayers:

"O my Lord, Your holy name alone can render all benediction to the living beings, and thus have You have hundreds and millions of names like Krsna and Govinda. In these transcendental names You have invested all Your transcendental energies. There are not even hard and fast rules for chanting these names. O my Lord, out of kindness You enable us to easily approach You by chanting Your holy names."

Thus, the main mission of Lord Caitanya was to teach the joyful process of chanting the names of the Lord:

Hare Krishna Hare Krishna
Krishna Krishna Hare Hare
Hare Rama Hare Rama
Rama Rama Hare Hare
In spreading the message of how to reawaken our natural love of God, Srila Prabhupada often referred to Lord Caitanya's instructions:
"Our proposition is you chant God's name. That is our proposal. Therefore it is universal. If you like, you can chant Jehovah or you can chant Allah, but we request you that you chant God's name. Is it very difficult? It is not at all difficult. Lord Caitanya said that there are innumerable names of God according to different languages, different countries, different societies. And each and every one of them has the potency of God Himself.

-- Lecture, Montreal, 15 June 1968

Thus, although we stand on the eve of what appears to be a frightful worldwide cataclysm, by the grace of Lord Caitanya, if we humbly and enthusiastically take shelter of the Name of the Lord, in the end we may find that we have arrived at the most auspicious time.

The material world can be complex, bewildering and terrifying. Our hope in the days ahead is that everyone, whether soldier, mother, worker, leader, or child will be able to take shelter of the Holy Name of the Lord.