image: Wikimedia commons (link).
In the Bhagavad Gita, one of the most consistent messages expressed by Lord Krishna throughout the Gita is that in this incarnate life, we should always strive to do what is right, without attachment to the outcome.
This previous post contains some discussion of the Bhagavad Gita, and some examples of this message, which Krishna presents in various ways throughout the holy text, saying for example:
Do your duty to the best of your ability, O Arjuna, with your mind attached to the Lord, abandoning worry and attachment to the results, and remaining calm in both success and failure. The equanimity of mind is called Karma-yoga. Work done with selfish motives is inferior by far to the selfless service or Karma-yoga. Therefore be a Karma-yogi, O Arjuna (6. 26).
Prior to the Battle of Kurukshetra, in an earlier episode in the Mahabharata (one of the great epics of ancient India, of which the Bhagavad Gita is a sub-section), Krishna himself models this behavior, by making every effort to avert the war, and to convince the Kauravas to cease their wicked desire to try to destroy their cousins the Pandavas. The eldest brother of the five Pandavas, Yudhistira, asks Krishna to approach the Kauravas and explain his desire for peace, even though Duryodhana (the eldest of the sons of Dhritarastra and the absolutely bloodthirsty and insatiable leader of the Kauravas) has demonstrated over and over that he desires war and will stop at nothing to get it, so convinced is he of his army's ability to destroy his virtuous cousins, whom he has always hated.
In making this request of Lord Krishna, the temperate Yudhistira declares:
Under all circumstances, however, war is a sin. Who in striking another is not himself struck? As regard the person, however, who is struck, victory and defeat, O Hrishikesa, are the same. It is true that defeat is not much removed from death, but his loss also, O Krishna, is not less who winneth victory (5. 72).
In agreeing to go to the Kauravas and tell them to cease their aggressive preparations for war, Krishna emphasizes that even though the outcome seems unlikely to result in a change in the attitude of Duryodhana and his closest accomplices, for whom that which is evil seems to them to be good, and that which is good seems evil, nevertheless he will go.
As he explains his reasoning for going, he echoes the message that he gives in the Bhagavad Gita, and he also provides a valuable philosophical discussion in which he explains that all momentous events are influenced by a combination of divine providence in co-operation with our own efforts: therefore, we should not presume to know what will be the outcome of our actions, and should not let concerns over the ultimate outcome stop us from doing what is right to the best of our abilities, in order to try to bring about a positive outcome -- even when those doing their best to create a negative outcome seem most unlikely to be convinced of their error.
Krishna tells the Pandavas:
Behold, the soil is moistened and divested of weeds by human exertion. Without rain, however, O son of Kunti, it never yieldeth crops. Indeed, in the absence of rain, some speak of artificial irrigation, as a means of success due to human exertion, but even then it may be seen that the water artificially let in is dried up in consequence of providential drought. Beholding all this, the wise men of old have said that human affairs are set in consequence of the cooperation of both providential and human expedients. I will do all that can be done by human exertion at its best. But I shall, by no means, be able to control what is providential. The wicked-souled Duryodhana acteth, defying both virtue and the world. Nor doth he feel any regret in consequence of his acting in that way. Moreover, his sinful inclinations are fed by his counselors Sakuni and Karna and his brother Dushashana (5. 79).
Krishna goes to the palace of Dhritarastra and his wicked sons, where he announces that he will meet with them in council the next morning, and then politely refuses their offers of hospitality, saying that it would not be right for him to dine with them or stay in their palaces, instead choosing to spend the night at the hut of the humble and virtuous Vidura and his wife. Vidura tells Krishna that the Kurauvas will not be turned aside from their disastrous push for war, explaining that:
Staying in the midst of his ranks of elephants and his army consisting of cars and heroic infantry, the foolish and wicked Duryodhana, with all fears dispelled, regardeth the whole earth to have already been subjugated by him. Indeed, Dhritarastra's son coveteth extensive empire on the earth without any rivals. Peace, therefore, with him is unattainable. That which he hath in his possession he regardeth as unalterably his. Alas, the destruction of the earth seems to be at hand for the sake of Duryodhana, for, impelled by fate, the kings of the earth, with all the Kshatriya warriors, have assembled together, desirous of battling with the Pandavas (5. 92).
In reply, Lord Krishna acknowledges that the delusional Duryodhana will almost certainly continue his present self-destructive course even after being visited by the mighty Krishna, but that even though this seems to be the likely outcome, Krishna has the duty of trying to dissuade Duryodhana, and that one who desires good for others should argue vigorously against decisions that will have catastrophic consequences for them. Addressing Vidura, Lord Krishna says:
That which thou hast told me is certainly true, worthy of approbation and consistent with reason. Listen, however, with attention, O Vidura, to the reason of my coming. Well knowing the wickedness of Dhritarastra's son and the hostility of the Kshatriyas that have sided with him, I have still, O Vidura, come to the Kurus. Great will be the merit earned by him who will liberate from the meshes of death the whole earth, with her elephants, cars, and steeds, overwhelmed with a dreadful calamity. If a man striving to the best of his abilities to perform a virtuous act meets with failure, I have not the least doubt that the merit of that act becomes his, notwithstanding such failure. This is also known to those that are conversant with religion and scripture, that if a person having intended mentally to commit a sinful act does not actually commit it, the demerit of that act can never be his. I will sincerely endeavor, or Vidura, to bring about peace between the Kurus and the Srinjayas who are about to be slaughtered in battle. That terrible calamity (which hangs over them all) hath its origin in the conduct of the Kurus, for it is directly due to the action of Duryodhana and Karna, the other Kshatriyas only following the lead of these two. The learned regard him to be a wretch who doth not by his solicitation seek to save a friend who is about to sink in calamity. Striving to the best of his might, even to the extent of seizing him by the hair, one should seek to dissuade a friend from an improper act (5. 93).
The next day, Krishna goes and delivers his passionate plea for peace, addressing King Dhritarastra. The entire speech can be found here. Some of the most important points in Lord Krishna's plea include:
- "Effect peace, O chief of Bharata's race, and yield not to anger."
- "I desire, O Bharata, thy good as also theirs."
- "For the sake of virtue, of profit, of happiness, make peace, O king, and do not allow the Earth's population to be slaughtered, regarding evil as good and good as evil."
This is an extremely important passage from the ancient wisdom given to humanity, teaching us a powerful lesson about an absolutely crucial subject.
We should each resolve to "do all that can be done by human exertion at its best" and to change the minds of those who intend to commit sinful acts by aggressively seeking out war and slaughter and destruction.
It may seem that those who "covet extensive empire on the earth without any rivals" are absolutely implacable and incapable of being dissuaded, but Krishna's example and his discussion of the fact that we cannot know how our efforts may cooperate with divine providence, urges us to resolve to do what is right to the best of our abilities, without knowing whether we will succeed in those efforts, and without making our action contingent upon the "probability of success" (especially because we cannot know what positive impact our actions may have, in conjunction with the designs of action from the divine realm, the "real world behind this one" from which everything in this visible realm actually flows and upon which it all is dependent).
The Mahabharata tells us that "under all circumstances, war is a sin." And Krishna warns, "Let not the population of the earth be exterminated."