Reflections on Conflict

Conflict, whether intrapersonal, interpersonal, intrasocietal or international keeps us stuck in the past and in a state of continuous tension and agitation that mitigates against creativity and our expressing the best that is in us.

Being against the emotional and physical destructiveness of conflict does not mean ignoring the wrongness within ourselves or others or within certain situations it means being oriented to fixing the problem rather than the blame.

In the Bhagavad-gītā we find an excellent description of the mental agitation that we feel when we are in conflict or preparing for conflict. Here the warrior Arjuna is arguing against ‘fratricidal war’ and talks about the evils attendant upon that, about the consequences of conflict:

Kṛṣṇa drove the horses forward and the fine chariot moved into the center of the field. Kṛṣṇa smiled. “Just behold, O Arjuna, all the Kurus assembled here.” Arjuna looked across the field. Kṛṣṇa could understand Arjuna’s mind. The long-awaited time for war had arrived–a terrible fratricidal war. There was now no turning back. Suddenly seeing the horror of it before him, Arjuna gazed at his relatives and friends arrayed across from him–men who were like fathers, brothers, sons and grandsons, as well as teachers, uncles, friends, in-laws and well-wishers.
 
Arjuna was overwhelmed with compassion. How could he possibly have looked forward to killing his own kinsmen and friends? He felt weak, and addressed Kṛṣṇa in a trembling voice. “My dear Lord, seeing my friends and relatives before me in a fighting spirit, I feel my limbs quivering and my mouth drying up.”
 
Arjuna’s bow slipped from his hand and his body shook. His skin was burning and he felt his hair standing on end. “O Keśava, I do not think I can carry on in this fight. I am forgetting myself and my mind is reeling. It seems to me that only evil and misfortune will result from this battle. How can any good come from killing one’s own relatives? What value is victory if all our friends and loved ones are killed?”
 
Arjuna dropped to his knees. There was no question of fighting. It had been different when he faced the Kauravas on Virata’s field. At that time, he had no intention of killing them. He had only wanted to teach them a lesson. This time, however, either the Pāṇḍavas or the Kauravas would not be returning home. Tears streamed from his eyes as he revealed his mind to Kṛṣṇa. “O Govinda, I have no desire for a kingdom bereft of my kinsfolk. When I see my teachers, fathers, sons, and so many other near and dear ones standing before me, my thirst for the fight completely deserts me. Even though they may be desiring my death, I cannot possibly think of killing them. O Janārdana, I would not slay them even in exchange for the three worlds, let alone this earth. I can see no happiness arising from this battle.”
 
Sweat covered Arjuna’s brow. His breath came in heavy sighs. The sight of old and respected personalities such as Bhīṣma, Droṇa, Śalya and Bāhlika, all of whom he loved dearly, filled him with grief. The many young princes, sons of the Kauravas and their allies, were all like his own sons, and he felt compassion for them too. Even Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s sons were pitiable because they were so foolish. How could there be any virtue in killing them?
 
Arjuna implored Kṛṣṇa. “In my opinion we will be overcome by sin if we slay such aggressors. Our proper duty is surely to forgive them. Even if they have lost sight of virtue due to greed, we ourselves should not forget religious principles in the same way. If we kill the learned family elders, the traditional rituals will be forgotten, and they are essential for religious life. Without tradition, the whole of society will gradually become godless. By slaying the men, we will leave the women unprotected. They will then be prey to sinful men and unwanted children will be born. Who will train these children? O Kṛṣṇa, I will be responsible for all these social anomalies and will be worthy of a permanent residence in hell.”
 
Remembering his moral training, Arjuna based his arguments on Vedic statements. It seemed to him that killing his relatives was clearly immoral, particularly killing his elders, who were responsible for maintaining the religious traditions in his dynasty. Surely they should never be killed, especially for the dubious cause of winning wealth and kingdoms.
 
Arjuna wept. “I would rather the Kauravas killed me, unarmed and unresisting, than raise my weapons against them for the sake of my own happiness.” He threw down his weapons and slumped in his chariot.
 
Source: The Bhagavad-gītā

Krishna chastises Arjuna for his weakness saying that, given the inevitability of this conflict, Arjuna duty is to fight and that it is a misunderstanding to suppose that by killing his opponents he is actually harming them. Krishna argues that Arjuna should not be concerned about the consequences of his actions only about the principles that he maintains by doing his duty in fighting for a right cause.

Kṛṣṇa … was pleased that Arjuna, His dear friend, was ready to accept Him as teacher and guide. Holding up His hand in blessing, He said, “Although you are speaking learned words from the scriptures, you are still mourning for something unworthy of grief. A wise man laments neither for the living nor the dead. Both you, I, and all these assembled kṣatriyas have always existed and will always exist. We are eternal souls, passing from body to body. Even in this life we see how the body changes, even though we remain the same person. In the same way, when death comes, we are given a new body. A self-controlled person is not bewildered by such a change.”
 
Kneeling at Kṛṣṇa’s feet, Arjuna felt immediate relief. As usual, Kṛṣṇa had gone straight to the heart of the matter. Arjuna listened attentively as Kṛṣṇa continued. “O son of Kuntī, happiness and distress come and go constantly like winter and summer seasons. They arise from sense perception alone, O Bharata, and one should tolerate them without being disturbed. A person capable of such tolerance is eligible for liberation from all misery. The great seers who know the truth have concluded from a careful analysis that the soul and spiritual reality are unchanging, and that the temporary material body is ultimately without any basis in truth. The soul pervades the body and is indestructible. No one can destroy the immeasurable and eternal soul, but the body is sure to come to an end. Therefore, fight without any compunction for your relatives’ bodies, O Arjuna.”

Krishna is saying that the consequences of conflict that he fears are part of the illusion of the external world of perception. The cycle of happiness and distress is constant and inevitable; the wise know this and do not seek to avoid external conflict but seek inner harmony by doing their dharmic duty. By ‘dharmic duty’ I mean knowing and following the truth of one’s own being. For Arjuna his dharmic duty is related to his nature, caste and path as a warrior; our inner truth may be different and but outer conflict is still inevitable even if our purpose is to diffuse conflict. How we deal with the inner conflict engendered by external conflict is a matter that concerns each of us as much as the warrior Arjuna:

“O son of Kuntī, happiness and distress come and go constantly like winter and summer seasons. They arise from sense perception alone, O Bharata, and one should tolerate them without being disturbed.”

Krishna describes a spiritual maturity that leads to happiness that persists regardless of circumstance. His prescription is essentially the same as Buddha’s, mastery of emotional reactions through awareness and a chosen dedication to dharmic duty.

Arjuna’s duty is embedded in his caste status and yet Krishna has to explain its inner meaning, for most of us, however, there is no caste prescription; we have to find or define our own dharmic path and dedicate ourselves to it. It is in that discovery and dedication that we transcend inner conflict. Transcending conflict is more than following a path it is becoming the Path.

The transcending of inner conflict is a true renunciation because it pulls us out of the game of responding to the dramas implicit in interpersonal and societal transactions and into the reality behind the game.