Conflict and Peace in Society
If we observe American society today, we cannot but recognize an extreme polarization playing out in the media and political spheres, and a simmering discontent in plain view. Along with this there is also the ever-increasing presence of guns and gun-related violence in our midst that taken together constitute a potent and dangerous mix, threatening to bubble over into violence at any moment. That this does not bode well for America’s future, cannot be an overstatement.
On any given issue, invariably, everyone is drawn into taking sides in this divide, which makes dialog across the divide strident and fraught. But this tendency to get divided and polarized is not a new phenomenon. In the very first chapter of the Bhagavad Gita, this sharp contrast between the mentalities of Dhritarashtra and Arjuna can be seen in their respective ways of identifying and categorizing the people who faced each other in the battlefield. In the very first verse, Dhritarashtra says “What happened between my people (Mamaka) and the others (the Pandavas)?” Clearly Dhritarashtra’s expression of “my people” did not include the Pandavas, who were apparently not “his people”. On the contrary, as Arjuna confronts the people arrayed before him, he does not see any “other people”, instead all those assembled in the battlefield occur to him as his own people (Drstvemam Svajanam) – there was no sense of mine and not mine in his vision. Adharma makes this sharp distinction “Us” versus “Them”. Dharma blurs that distinction and reconstitutes it as an “Us” and “them” issue.
Any Society, it seems both from our own contemporary experience, as well as our reflection on history, is always situated in some form of tension between the polarities of both conflict and harmony. There are forces in play that threaten conflict and violence, and discourses that seek harmony and peace, simultaneously at play in our midst. In modern societies, democracy is ideally supposed to facilitate a process through which all competing constituencies such as the middle class, the oppressor class, and the oppressed classes, the progressives, and the conservatives, the left and the right, the religious and the secular, may all arrive at a compromise. Not everyone may get everything they want. But at least, they can achieve a temporary settlement that they can all live with. But in the USA, today, democracy itself is on increasingly unstable ground.
Us versus Them
So much conflict, war and violence throughout human history has emerged out of this singular formulation of “Us” and “Not Us”. When one group separates itself away from other groups, and claims to be fundamentally different, whatever be its basis, it seems to inevitably sow the seeds of conflict and confrontation. Colonialism made possible protracted confrontation between the “Civilized Us” against the “Uncivilized Them” in Asia, Africa and the Americas and inflicted untold violence and misery from which many countries are yet to fully recover. The “Fully Human Us” could buy and sell the “Not Fully Human Them” as slaves and brought about the American Civil war in due course. Islam divides the world into two clear categories i.e., Muslims and Kafirs, and not just denies the privileges granted naturally to the Muslim “Us” to the Kafir “Them” but theologically seems to sanction and even demand an endless confrontation with the non-Muslim world. Relentless violence may be justified as long as it is being done in the name of Allah and on behalf of Islam. Christianity divides the world into those “Us” who have chosen Christ and adopted the “True religion”, and the “Them” who have not yet chosen Christ and keep clinging on to “False Religions”. This particular formulation gives rise to perpetual confrontation and violence against non-Christian societies, in the name of “Saving them” and “Sharing the word” and so on. Hitler was able to divide the world into the “Aryan Us” and the “Non-Aryan Them” with devastating consequences for the Jewish people, and Europe as a whole.
Furthermore, when one Party in the confrontation, who is bent on dividing the society and draws the “other” Party into the confrontation, the other seems to have very little ability to reason with the first party, even though they may not wish to participate in the “Us versus Them” formulation. There are so many battles going on at so many levels today i.e. Capitalists versus Socialists, White versus Non-White, Aryans versus the Non-Aryans, the Left versus the Right, the Rich versus the Poor, Britain versus the European Union, China versus America, America versus Iran, Russia versus Ukraine, India versus Pakistan, China versus India, the Hindu versus the Anti-Hindu, Israel versus Palestine, Gun owners versus Gun control advocates, Climate change activists versus Climate change deniers, and on and on.
Dharma and Ahiṁsā
If the Kurukshetra war was a civil war, that pitted two halves of the same family against each other, the American civil war did the same – it divided a nation on the issue of the legitimacy of slavery. And the current political and media climate is not any different. We have two halves of a nation each living in its own virtual reality echo-chamber, responding to different facts, even making up facts, based on already predetermined conclusions. Each side believes to be the “right” side, self-righteously. Today the distinctions between Dharma and Adharma are not so easily clear. Dharma and Adharma are inter-mixed on both sides, even more now than at the time of the great war of the Mahābhārata.
How do we live our Dharma with “sanity” in our contemporary world? Is it our Pravritti Dharma to take one side or the other, in these endless confrontations? Or do we find a quiet corner in the world, where we can retreat to, and mind our own business, imagining that these confrontations do not apply to our personal lives i.e., move on to Nivritti Dharma? Even as Arjuna sees all as his own people i.e., one family (Sambandhinah), his choices are stark: Either he runs away from the whole confrontation and take refuge in Sannyasa, living on the food offered freely to Sadhus (Baikshyam) or he has to join the battle, for the sake of Dharma even though he does not have the heart to do so. This predicament of Arjuna’s is equally ours today.
In the Mahābhārata, after the war is over, and the destruction of the Kuru Vamsa is almost complete, there is this remarkable verse, in the teachings of Bhishma to Yudhishthira in the Anushasana Parvan. It is reproduced in full below:
ahiṁsā paramo dharmas tathāhiṁsā paro damaḥ
ahiṁsā paramaṁ dānam ahiṁsā paramaṁ tapaḥ
ahiṁsā paramo yajñas tathāhiṁsā paraṁ balam
ahiṁsā paramaṁ mitram ahiṁsā paramaṁ sukham
ahiṁsā paramaṁ satyam ahiṁsā paramaṁ śrutam
sarvayajñeṣu vā dānaṁ sarvatīrtheṣu cāplutam
sarvadānaphalaṁ vāpi naitat tulyam ahiṁsayā
ahiṁsrasya tapo ’kṣayyam ahiṁsro yajate sadā
ahiṁsraḥ sarvabhūtānāṁ yathā mātā yathā pitā
etat phalam ahiṁsāyā bhūyaś ca kurupuṁgava
na hi śakyā guṇā vaktum iha varṣaśatair api
Mahābhārata, Book 13. Anushasana Parvan, Critical Edition, 13.117.37-41
Ahiṁsā is the highest Dharma. Ahiṁsā is the highest self-control. Ahiṁsā is the highest gift. Ahiṁsā is the highest penance. Ahiṁsā is the highest sacrifice. Ahiṁsā is the greatest strength. Ahiṁsā is the highest friend. Ahiṁsā is the highest happiness. Ahiṁsā is the highest truth. Ahiṁsā is the highest Sruti. Gifts made in all sacrifices, ablutions performed in all sacred waters, and the merit that one acquires from making all kinds of gifts mentioned in the scriptures, all these do not come up to Ahiṁsā (in point of the merit that attaches to it). The penances of a man that practices Ahiṁsā are inexhaustible. The man established in Ahiṁsā is regarded as always performing sacrifices. The man of Ahiṁsā is the father and mother of all creatures. Even these, O chief of Kuru’s race, are some of the merits of Ahiṁsā. Altogether, the merits that attach to it are so many that they are incapable of being exhausted even if one were to speak for a hundred years.
The very same Bhishma who fought the war on the side of the Kauravas, and fell onto his bed of arrows, is extolling Ahiṁsā and positioning it almost as an inviolable law. Is this contradictory? How do we understand such a unilateral and senior commitment to Ahiṁsā in the face of the rampant Adharma in the world, the constant preparation for war, the proliferation of weapons, and the ever-escalating rhetoric of violence?
The Hindu (Human) Predicament
What do Hindus who are foundationally and unilaterally committed to this Ahiṁsā, who are taught to see this world as one undivided family (e.g., Vasudaiva Kutumbakam) do, when continually assaulted by those who readily divide the world into an “Us versus them” confrontation? If we unilaterally extend an olive branch, an offering of peace, signaling a desire for a truce, what if the other does not reciprocate? What if they simply construe our olive branch as representative of a weakness in our position, and draw us ever deeper into conflict? What will bring forth a transformation in this circumstance? Will a unilateral commitment to Ahiṁsā, from one side of the divide, call the other into a higher consciousness? How does the seeking of peace and social harmony transform the other, and move them also into seeking peace and cooperation rather than war and social conflict? Do we speak softly, and extend a hand of friendship, while also carrying a big stick, which we make visible at all times? If so, there is only one thing left to do. Procuring a bigger stick, than the other fellow’s, which is what the world is doing. ‘Big Stick’ diplomacy involves five critical steps, as articulated by the elder Theodore Roosevelt: 1) First ensure that you have a big stick; 2) Act justly towards the other – never draw them into a conflict; 3) Never bluff them – Always speak the truth; 4) Strike them only when you are prepared to strike them hard; and lastly 5) Allow the enemy to retreat and save face in defeat.
The Mahābhārata also illustrates the principle of Ahiṁsā as it plays out in the sequence of steps that need to be taken to resolve deep rooted conflicts, exemplified by the terms Sarasa, Sama, Dana, Bheda and Danda. The first step is Sarasa – always a bi-lateral dialogue, where an attempt is made to reason with the other party, one to one, through which one’s grievances can be expressed, and we may seek an appropriate redress directly. We anticipate that in civilized society, as we live in today, a great number of conflicts can be resolved using this primary method not only between individuals and groups but also between nations and alliances among nations. The second step is Sama – which requires an escalation to a mediated dialogue, where a third and neutral party is called upon to arbiter the conversation and serve as a mediator. Again, in modern society, mediation could take place informally, through the intercession of a third party, a counselor, an elder or a qualified mediator, even a court of law. In the realm of conflicts between nations, the United Nations, is often called upon to mediate, as a neutral entity, in the hope that perhaps a win-win solution can be found, even though its effectiveness may be open to question. The third step is Dana – a voluntary relinquishing of something that one holds to be valuable, in the interest of avoiding further escalation of the conflict. It represents a principle of give and take, a willingness to compromise, to negotiate a settlement of some kind. This may represent a giving up of a certain claim, however difficult it may be, and in the expectation, that the other party involved may recognize and appreciate the sacrifice that has been made, and will avoid further escalation, by in turn giving up some ground themselves. The fourth step is Bheda which involves a threat of some kind, specifically induced by creating a division, or dissension within the opponent’s camp. In modern parlance, this is applied mostly by the threat of a lawsuit, or propaganda of some kind, which weakens the opponent, and thereby induces them to see the value of avoiding further escalation of the conflict. Among conflicts between nations, threats such as economic sanctions, a boycott of trade, an introduction of a tariff on goods imported, an appeal to the United Nations to impose a ban on another nation etc. are all examples of the application of the principle of Bheda. The fifth and final step may be Danda – involving an actual act of punishment – where one commits some kind of physical act of violence that is designed to hurt the other, in a manner that would then perhaps have them see the light of day and avoid further escalation. This step is often an irreversible step and may lead to continued escalation of violence leading to war, especially if the other retaliates with an equal degree of violence.
Escalation into war, De-escalation into a troubled peace, and the maintenance of a tense truce, seems to be the way of humanity, from time immemorial. In any case, the procurement of a big stick, the preparation for war at any time, appears to be part of the process of securing a peace by appealing to people’s better angels, even if for a temporary period. Without that stick, that readiness to go to war, talk of peace and Ahiṁsā appears to be more the prattle of the weak. This is the predicament facing the Hindu people as a whole and has faced them now for over a thousand years. When Hindus talk about Ahiṁsā, Shanti, and Peace, but do not seem to have any stick at all, let alone a big one, they often seem unprepared for conflict, merely engaging in naïve, happy talk. The question is “where has the Kshatryiata gone?” Or do we even know what that is anymore? We can call this the Hindu Predicament. It is equally a human predicament.
Causes and Cosmology
Characteristically, Hindu thought in analyzing the root causes of conflict and the possibility of harmony, begins with a deep inquiry into the nature of desire itself, and its potential for destabilization of both an individual life as well as a society in general. Hinduism’s conclusion is that this worldly realm, the Vyavaharika realm, is fraught with tensions, which cannot be resolved at that level. Ahiṁsā in this world, must ground both Dharma, as well as the struggle of Dharma against Adharma. The problems that arise from the Adibhautika (material sphere) cannot be resolved at the same level, without introducing the realms of Adidaivika (ethical plane) and the Adhyatmika (metaphysical). This is a different cosmology than the one in play in western societies which are constituted primarily in terms of a historical progressivism through linear time in the Adibhautika realm.
Human aspiration, pursuit and activity is fueled by the fire of desire. Whether it be the desire for security and comfort, (Artha), the desire for pleasure and joy (Kama), the fire of desire burns like an unquenchable fire (kāma-rūpeṇa duṣhpūreṇānalena cha). So long as one is caught in the grip of this fire of desire, it is not easy to recognize its inherent insatiability. The more these desires are fulfilled, the more the experience of fulfillment is temporary, and the more they remain fundamentally unfulfilled and ready to drive the next cycle of desire, action, and accomplishment. And when the desires go unfulfilled, they merely drive a different kind of cycle of disappointment, frustration, sorrow, anger, and depression. Our lives, it seems is driven by desire. The objects of desire may be diverse and manifold, but human desire for them seems singular and universal. What it is to be a normal well-adjusted human being is to pursue Artha and Kama, responsibly and appropriately, which is what contemporary education prepares us for, it seems.
Even in pursuing one’s desires to a limited extent, we have to contend with the forces of competition and endless jostling for space of an ever-growing mass of humanity, which appears to have already exceeded the earth’s capacity to sustain it. Self-centered activity, proceeding from compulsive desire leads human beings to seek security and pleasure in ways that undermine the claims of others who also seek the same. In seeking to make profits, businesses trample upon the rights of workers and undermine the environment. In pursuit of power, politicians demonize their opponents, and countries invade and conquer others. Ultimately, it is Vladimir Putin’s desire that led him into Ukraine. And the affluent who have accumulated enormously disproportionate assets and attained a measure of security seem to turn towards endless entertainment, pleasure, hobbies, distractions, and a consumptive life that in its turn is also never adequately fulfilled. In the year 2022, three multibillionaires in the USA, own more wealth than the entire bottom half of American society – 160 million Americans. How many mansions, yachts and joyrides into outer space can one aspire for? And inter-twined with these lie the seeking of love and affirmation, relationships and esteem, respect and admiration, popularity, attention, and fame, the pursuit of Artha and Kama – seem too fleeting and short lived, at risk of ever being sufficiently fulfilled. And in the end, (Anta) there is death, when this particular turn of the wheel of life comes to its appointed conclusion. This cycle of desire, action and fulfillment seems to be a never-ending infinite loop – the Chakra of Samsara – which even transcends lifetimes, as living beings return again and again in new bodies to this earthly plane, (dehāntara-prāpti) to relive their unfulfilled lives, as per Krishna’s declaration to Arjuna.
Social Justice Wars
Further, it seems that the pursuit of profits and wealth, and the desire to secure what has been acquired from being challenged by others leads in turn to the pursuit of power and dominance, and the seeking to subjugate and eliminate competing interests. Inevitably this leads to inequality, injustice, conflict, protest, war, colonization, slavery, and calls for revolution creating tremendous consequent imbalance in our human societies. The young and the observant, quickly take to seeking equality and social justice, fueled by a righteous anger, aligning themselves with this cause or that, against that group or this. Inequality is a fact of our life. Equality, it seems is a mere empty slogan. No amount of marching for Equality actually makes the least bit of impact in reducing inequality in reality. Even if one lives a consciously ethical life, subjecting oneself deliberately to standards and norms of behavior, that take into account the rights and claims of others, (Dharma), making an effort to minimize one’s wants and needs, it is impossible not to be moved by the suffering of others, the enormous poverty and want living side by side with a callous prosperity and plenty, that seemingly drive these global engines of inequality and injustice.
Even if one deeply wishes to make this world a better place and is willing to engage in some form of effort and struggle towards it, one finds oneself to be limited in many ways – wanting in power, wanting in influence, wanting in knowledge, and wanting in the capacity to create much by way of positive change, especially in the face of adversarial forces bent on seeking advantage or maintaining the status quo. What can one human being really do, in confronting this vast human predicament? How can one be contented, happy and joyful in the face of the tremendous discontent all around, except by disconnecting from it all, turning a blind eye to it, and pretending that they do not exist at all? Is it not equally our Dharma to struggle against Adharma, as it is to uphold Ahiṁsā at all times? There is something fundamentally Dharmic about all Social Justice wars and warriors, even if their diagnosis is mostly faulty and their prescription often terrible.
Dharma and Moksha
Inadequate in the face of a never-ending spate of desires, inadequate in the face of the enormity of ushering in substantive change in society, limited in power and influence, limited in means and capacity, it appears that the helplessness and inadequacy of the human being is fundamental and profound, with no possibility of resolution of the attendant discontent. Of course, there are many who live their lives aggressively compensating for this sense of inadequacy, acquiring more and more of this or that, until they too arrive at their inevitable appointed end. Occasionally, a rare few ask a different question: that is, can a human being become totally and unconditionally free from being a seeking, inadequate, incomplete, wanting person once and for all, never to return to that condition ever again, in this life or later? This seeking of freedom is deemed to be Moksha, the fourth Purushartha in Hindu thought and that there is such a total freedom possible is itself mostly unknown, and outside the culture that sustains the distinction. Rarely, through one’s own self-initiated inner exploration, but more frequently when guided by Vedanta, through the instrument of a qualified teacher, it is possible that a human being arrives at the conclusion that all the effort spent towards pursuing the first three Purusharthas i.e. Artha, Kama and Dharma will not resolve this fundamental sense of being inadequate, centered on a universal self-judgement pertaining to one’s limited finitude; and what one needs to pursue is really Moksha, ultimate and total freedom. In recognizing this, perhaps we can consciously and willfully redirect our seeking away from the objects, pleasures, joys, and rewards of this world, away from trying to rearrange this world into being a more agreeable one (Vishayananda) and towards the seeking of a more fundamental freedom from this universal sense of inadequacy centered on oneself.
This turning away from the world, and turning inward, is a stupendous moment in the evolution of our being. It is both Viveka, discrimination and recognition of the transitory nature of human pursuits (Nityanitya Vastu) and Vairagya, dispassion towards the sense-objects of this world and their capacity to hold one’s fascination (Indriyarteshu). This transformational moment represents the possibility of a radical reprioritization of our interests and pursuits, a total reorientation of the trajectory of our lives. Even though weighed down by the force of habit, driven by the ever-outwardly preoccupied mind, it nevertheless is the beginning of inwardness – the first flowering of a new desire – the desire to become free radically and totally, the emergence of Mumukshutva. Yet, the desire for Moksha is only the first step – we are not entirely out of the woods yet. It is naturally followed by a search for freedom, the search for a path or process that will lead to freedom, a map that will show the way and a light that will guide our journey. What is Moksha? Is it an outcome of human Karma – action and effort – like all other Purusharthas i.e., Artha, Kama, and Dharma? Or is it radically different from them? Can a limited action and finite effort produce an unlimited end or outcome? If we are so blessed, with the help of the teaching of Vedanta, the possibility of a further transformation arises i.e., when Mumukshutva matures into Jignasa, the desire to be free transforms into the desire to know oneself, (Vidyananda) for the sake of that freedom. Is Moksha the same as Jnana – i.e., Atma Jnana or Brahma Jnana? Is Self-knowledge the same as Total Freedom? Is it a prerequisite for it? Do the two Jnana and Moksha arise together? Or in sequence? Does knowledge come first and become a precondition for an abiding peace (jñānaṁ labdhvā parāṁ śhāntim)? Or does freedom come first and become the precursor of knowledge? How does this fire of knowledge (jñānāgniḥ) destroy all Karmas and give rise to Moksha? In extinguishing the fire of desire (Kāmāgnih), in kindling the fire of knowledge (jñānāgniḥ), it seems, lies the journey of the Jiva as we traverse through the Pursharthas towards the abiding and indestructible joy of being (Brahmananda).
And without a clear sense of Moksha as the ultimate goal of human existence, Ahiṁsā does not have an adequate basis or foundation. Dharma and Moksha are the distinguishing features of the Hindu civilization, and they are founded upon an abiding and inviolable commitment to Ahiṁsā, even sometimes to its own detriment. But it is the only alternative to living in a state of war or perpetually preparing for it.
It is said, Krishna says, in the Bhagavad Gita, that the one who knows the Atman, is “happy in oneself, with oneself alone” (Atmanevatmana tushtah), as and when he or she “gives up all desires, as they appear in the mind” (Prajahati Karman Sarvan Manogatan). It is said, Krishna says, that the wise one whose knowledge of the Self is steady, is free from longing, fear and anger, (vita raga bhaya krodha), neither yearning for pleasure and happiness (sukehsu vigatasprhah) nor affected by adversity (dukhesu anudvignmanah), never excessively attached to anything in this world (sarvatra na abhisnehah), neither rejoicing nor hating (na abhinandati na dvesti), in the wake of the desirable, pleasant outcomes or unpleasant and undesirable situations (sukha asukham), and able to completely withdraw his or her senses from this world of sense-objects (indriyani indryarthebhyah samharate), just as a turtle is able to withdraw its limbs onto its shell (kurma angani sarvasah samharate).
As powerful a case for complete and total withdrawal from the field of battle as can be made, it seems! Yet time and again Krishna says, “Fight this battle” (Yuddhasva Bharata). This seeming conflict between the advocacy of a complete and total withdrawal, with the simultaneous injunction to engage in the battles of our lives, is one of the abiding paradoxes of the teaching of the Bhagavad Gita. Are we to withdraw or to engage? Neither impelled by desires for outcomes (Raga-Dvesha) nor besieged by a sense of doer ship (Kartrtva), Krishna seems to be saying, there is a way of being in this world, and acting in it, being totally immersed in one’s commitments towards both Dharma and Ahiṁsā yet simultaneously being totally removed and withdrawn from this world. The struggle against Adharma, the reduction of social conflict, and the promotion of social harmony, grounded in Ahiṁsā is our everyday Kurukshetra, in which we each must discover a balance that is unique to us. At the end of the day, Hinduism does not prescribe a simple and clear resolution for this paradox. It leaves us somewhat high and dry; it may seem. But its infinite wisdom lies in the recognition that each of us is a unique individual, and we come here with a particular predestiny i.e., our birth itself is a product of past Karma i.e., a Karma Phala. It is for each of us to resolve this paradox for ourselves and find our self-expression that is consistent with our Svabhāva, and consonant with our Swadharma.
May we progress on that journey of Self-Discovery which is equally a journey towards Self-Knowledge and Self-Realization (Moksha)! And along the way, may we stand for Dharma and express in our own way the struggle against Adharma that is rampant all around us in this Yuga! It is this sentiment that Swami Vivekananda so elegantly coined as the tagline and motto “ātmano mokshārtham Jagat Hitāyacha” for the Ramakrishna Mission. This is our Yuga Dharma!
About the Author
Mr. Kalyan Viswanathan is currently serving as the President of Hindu University of America and guiding its renewal and revitalization. He was a longtime student of Pujya Swami Dayananda Saraswati of Arsha Vidya Gurukulam, established in the Advaita Vedanta Sampradaya and was associated with his work for over 20 plus years. Prior to his involvement with Hindu University of America, Kalyan was a Global Practice Head for one of India’s largest IT Services Company, with a 20-plus year track record. He holds a Master’s Degree in Computer Science and a Bachelor’s Degree in Electrical and Electronics Engineering from BITS, Pilani. He is also working on his Doctoral degree in Hindu Studies, currently, with a scholarly focus on the intersection of Hindu and Western thought, the recovery of Hindu epistemology and its relevance and value for humanity.
 Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 1, Verse 1
 Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 1, Verses 28-29
 Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 1, Verse 34
 Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 2, Verse 5
 Mahabharata, Book 13, 117.37-41. Critical Edition; Kisari Mohan Ganguli, trans. The Mahābhārata of Krishna Dvaipāyana Vyāsa, Book 13. Anushasana Parva, (Available at Sacred Texts.com, 1883 – 1896): Section 117, Page 5293-5294
 Bhagavad Gita, III.39
 Bhagavad Gita, II.13
 Bhagavad Gita, IV.39
 Bhagavad Gita, IV.37
 Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 2, Verse 55
 Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 2, Verse 55
 Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 2, Verse 56
 Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 2, Verse 57
 Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 2, Verse 58
 Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 2, Verse 18, Gita Home Study Program, Page 193