Isherwood and the Gita

    Religion and War -2

    Esherwood and the Gita

    Kees Boukema

    The English writer Christopher Isherwood had emigrated to America in 1939, before the outbreak of World War II, and applied for American citizenship in 1941. When the Japanese attack on the American fleet in Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the U.S. was drawn into the war, Isherwood, a pacifist at heart, decided to enlist for alternative service as a “conscientious objector” (classification 4-E). He started working as an English teacher at the ‘Friends Service Committee’ hostel of the Quakers in Haverford for the integration of refugees from Europe.

    Since October 1939, Isherwood regularly visited and participated in the activities of the Vedanta Center in Hollywood. On November 8, 1940, he was formally initiated by Swami Prabhavananda. When the Quakers center in Haverford had to close in July 1942, Prabhavananda offered him accommodation at the Vedanta Centre. As an assistant in translating the Bhagavad Gita, he could then apply for exemption from military service (classification 4-D) as a ‘student of theology’.

    On October 12, 1942, Isherwood notes in his diary: “Most days I see the Swami, and we work together on his translation of the Gita, turning it into more flexible English. This is a very valuable way of studying, because I have to make absolutely sure I understand what each verse means. [Memories I, p. 252]. And later: “By the time we had finished translating the book I realized that I had been studying it with an ideal teacher and in the most thorough manner imaginable.” [Exhumation, p. 98].

    During the work on the translation, his “pacifist beliefs” were also put to the test (Exhumations, p.103-111). The Bhagavad Gita is a doctrinal poem in the form of a dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna. There is a civil war going on. Arjuna is the commander of one of the fighting factions and Krishna is his charioteer. They are in the no man’s land between the two armies. When Arjuna sees his opponents and realizes that he is expected to kill friends and relatives, despair sets in. He himself would rather lose the battle and be killed. Arjuna throws off bow and arrows and declares, “I will not fight!” [chapter. 1: 46 ff.]:

    The rest of the Gita contains Krishna’s response to Arjuna’s point of view, Arjuna’s objections and Krishna’s rejoinder. At the end of their conversation, Arjuna has changed his mind: He is ready to fight and the battle can begin. For Isherwood, a thought-provoking outcome.

    Christopher Isherwood in 1945

    Most people conclude from this that the Gita thus approves of the use of military force. However, some commentators point out that this was not a war as we know it, but a “knight’s tournament, where strict rules of fair play applied”. Others think they know that this is actually an ‘allegory’: The inner battle that every person must wage against his evil inclinations.

    Isherwood found both interpretations unsatisfactory. The Gita is not a fable or a sermon, but part of an epic: the Mahabharata. From the first chapters it is abundantly clear that the Gita is about the duties of a warrior. Arjuna is a warrior by birth and profession. Krishna is his friend, a mortal human being, but also an enlightened teacher: God. As such, Krishna represents two value systems: a relative and an absolute value system. As a fellow human being, Krishna articulates the relative values that apply to Arjuna’s situation. But as God, he interprets the absolute truth, the highest ideal. [Exhumations, p.105 ff.]

    In an absolute sense, the Atman is the only reality and the body is appearance:

    “Some say this Atman is slain, and others call It the slayer.

    They know nothing. How can It slay, or who shall slay It?”

    Then Krishna addresses Arjuna as a friend:

    “If you refuse to fight this righteous war, you will be turning aside from your caste-duty. You will be a sinner, and disgraced. People will speak ill of you throughout the ages.”

    The Gita assumes a ‘class society’ of priests, warriors, merchants and workers. But if we do not see these classes as socially separate categories, but as psychological types, then they are visionaries, leaders, entrepreneurs and workers. Every human being has the duties and responsibilities that come with his nature or “karma” (the result of previous behaviors and thoughts). There and only from there on he can develop spiritually.

    Arjuna is the type of leader:

    “The leader’s duty, ordained by his nature, is to be bold,

    unflinching and fearless, subtle of skill and open-handed.

    Great-hearted in battle, a resolute ruler.” [………].

    “All mankind is born for perfection and each shall attain it,

    will he but follow his nature’s duty.” [Gita Chap. 18; 43 and 45.]

    It is not only Arjuna’s duty but also his karma to fight. Although he is not free to decide whether to fight, he can choose with what mentality, with what mindset, he will fight.

    The Gita here contains a teaching (karma yoga), which applies not only to the warrior Arjuna, but to all people, of all times (Chapter 2: 47 ff.):

    “You have the right to work, but for the work’s sake only.

    You have no right to the fruits of work.

    Desire for the fruits of work must never be your motive in working.

    Perform every action with your heart fixed on the Supreme Lord.

    Renounce attachment to the fruits [….].

    To unite the heart with Brahman and then to act:

    that is the secret of non-attached work.”

    The Gita does not speak for or against war, but warns us not to judge others, writes Isherwood. How could we tell our neighbor what his duty is, when it is so difficult to find out what our own duties are. The pacifist should respect Arjuna and Arjuna should respect the pacifist. Both strive for the same goal. There is an underlying solidarity between them. We can help others to fulfill their duty only by doing what we think is right [Exhumations, p. 111].


    Mr Kees Boukema is a scholar in Vedanta and Comparative philosophy. His brilliant and thorough-going articles on various philosophical and spiritual subjects  are being published since the first issue of the magazine. His latest work is De Beoefening van Meditatie.