November 10, 2005

Organized Religion, Violence, and War.

I have never known a soldier--until now.

Since he knows that discipline
means unbinding the bonds of suffering,
he should practice discipline resolutely,
without despair dulling his reason.

Krishna, the mind if faltering,
violent, strong and stubborn;
I find it as diffiult
to hold as the wind.

Arjuna, he does not suffer
doom in this world or the next;
any man who acts with honor
cannot go the wrong way, my friend.

- Bhagavad-Gita, VI, 23, 34, 40

Often when in conversation with him, I feel as if I am running up against a different species, a new race of creature that I have not encountered and cannot fully understand. What must it be like, to feel fulfilled by this kind of work? What must it be like to feel drawn to conflict, to feel enabled by prowess and strength to end such conflict (if still through violent means)?

As I ask these questions, I am reminded of the Bhagavad-Gita, a holy Hindu text in which the incarnate God Krishna instructs the warrior Arjuna on the ways of sacred discipline and battle with detachment.

The Hindu society of this time, even more so then today, was organized into four castes: the laborer, the merchant, the warrior, and the priest/teacher (the "untouchables" were those so low they were outside of the caste system altogether). The merchants, warriors and priests were all considered "twice-born" souls, though according to Hindu doctrine, only priests were able to escape the cycle of life-and-death (Buddhism subverted the caste system by insisting that a member of any caste had access to this escape, this enlightenment). This system seems a rigid, unjust repression--and it is. But the question it raises about our abilities and our willingness to accept limitation are echoed even today when we consider organized religion itself.

Many spiritual seekers today insist that "organized religion" is the source of most violence and bigotry in the world. To refute this would take too long, though I believe it can be done. This is not to say that "organized religion" is the best form that spiritual life and pursuits should take, but that it is a viable alternative. It presents followers with different lessons. One of those lessons, which unfortunately few seem to learn, is that of tolerance. In communities where religion is only loosely "organized" (if at all), the issue of tolerance usually falls into the background--without obvious and defined conflicts of belief, a person can get away with assuming others think the same he does in principle, at least, even if they do not behave similarly in practice. "Organized religion" presents the challenge (a) of exploring doctrines and ideas which may seem at first to be paradoxes or nonsense, and (b) of balancing one's strong personal beliefs within a given "organized religion" with the outright conflicting views of another religion.

Some psychologists have argued that people may go through stages of spiritual development (or that such stages spread themselves across generations as each child responds to the lessons of the parents). Beginning with no clear doctrine or organized religion at all, moving towards an organized religion in a shallow sense, reacting against this shallowness with clear-cut atheism or denial of "organized religion", only to come once against to a deeper, more meaningful religious/spiritual landscape "which looks startlingly like that of the religion they denied," except that the contrast is between a television image and the three-dimensional, five-sensorial experience of the real thing. Perhaps those in the second-stage of accepting a shallow "organized religion" are more prone to intolerance and violence--but not that final stage.

Perhaps this also echoes the Hindu caste system in some ways, on a psychological level. The laborers with no real need of religion at all, the farmers and merchants (i.e. middle-class, essentially) who have limited access to the teachings of the priests and a shallow relationship to religion... Perhaps this is why priests, in a psychological sense, were considered the highest class, the furthest developed--and perhaps this is why warriors could be so easily connected to the third and penultimate stage of atheism.

This has been a long tangent. My intention is to make a connection between religion, violence, and war.

My soldier asks, "Why do people go to war?" and answers, "To protect their way of life."

Myself--I ask, "What way of life is so flimsy that it insists on war as as means to its continuation?" And what is the alternative?

A way of life that is three-dimensional, five-sensorial. That is transcendent of the individual living being, that is connected to a wider nature, a greater structure, a greater "organization," if you will. A way of life which does not exclude violence, does not seek to simplify existence in this way but acknowledges the paradox of a beautiful, messy world. For there is a difference between violence, and war.

Violence belongs to the unconscious realm--to the realm of natural disasters and hunting animals. There is no use in denying this violence, for it exists. However, this violence, in being unconscious--or, more accurately, non-conscious--cannot subvert a "way of life" if that way of life is flexible, strong and self-conscious. The violence of disease, of the death of a loved one. This violence is a tragedy, but a tragedy built into the fabric of existence. It cannot destroy a way of life because it is inherent to it. Violence is inherent to the human condition. It is part of our paradox.

War is not. War is a choice. We are not designed for war, we have chosen it. It is a self-conscious violence, not one that must be accepted but one that can be resisted, and resisted effectively. There is plenty of violence and tragedy within war, but war itself is organized, is planned and carried out with intention, it is a chosen structure which contains chaos.

You might think that those who are against "organized religion"--as a chosen structure to contain the chaos of spiritual experience--would also be against "organized violence" for similar reasons. Or perhaps, a person might support one while being against the other, depending on his or her personality. What must it be like to be called not to the life of a priestess, but to the life of a warrior? Is there a way in which war, "organized, self-conscious violence," is justified in the same way that "organized religion" may be justified?

I do not have answers to these questions. My soldier, perhaps, does not have answers either, though I will ask him. I feel, though, that there may be some hint to the relationship between religion and war found in the pages of the Gita. For in these very pages, in these instructions on war, Gandhi took his inspiration for satyagraha--the force of love. What beautiful, shining paradox.

Knowing the self beyond understanding,
sustain the self with the self.
Great Warrior, kill the enemy
menacing you in the form of desire!

- Bhagavad-Gita, III, 43


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