Eight Inspirations from the Bhagavad-gita for Peacebuilders
I’ve been a student of the Bhagavad-gita for the past thirty-four years. For the past ten years I have worked as a mediator, ombudsman, and developed a global Conflict Management System for ISKCON—The Hare Krishna community. Combining my spiritual interests with my occupation, I’ve discovered eight teachings from the Gita that inspire me in peacebuilding:
1. Acknowledging that the world is a place of suffering.
In several places in the Gita, Krishna certifies that this world is a place of suffering, using phrases like duhkha-alayam, “the alaya [place] where one experiences duhkha [misery].” Sukha, happiness, also exists here, but in the end, all happiness will dead-end at old age, disease, and death.
Instead of finding the acknowledgment of some inevitable suffering discouraging, I find it serves as a reality check. As I work to help others, I’m reminded not to maintain unreasonable hopes; I cannot play God and solve everyone’s distress. Rather, I need to be realistic: people’s misery may continue in one form or another, and that is a normal condition of life. Still, I can play a part in helping to ease the pain for some people—or give them more perspective on its cause or overall importance. If I can help individuals and groups reduce their misery even a little, I will have rendered them an important service.
2. Viewing the three modes of nature at work.
Krishna explains that there are three energies (modes, or in Sanskrit, gunas) of nature that affect all aspects of our lives from our eating habits to our worldview to our relationships to our behavior in various circumstances. These modes are called sattva (goodness), rajas (passion), and tamas (ignorance).
Mediators in the mode of goodness will be neutral or equally partial to both parties. They will also be patient, calm, fair, comforting, determined, and detached. In the mode of passion, mediators often push for the solutions they think most appropriate. They will want successful outcomes and will be anxious to achieve them. At least in their own minds they will prefer one side over the other. They will also tend to take credit for successes rather than passing the credit to the disputants. In the mode of ignorance, mediators tend to be discourteous, easily frustrated or distracted, and ultimately, not very effective. Disputants often distrust mediators who are too enmeshed in the modes of passion or ignorance.
Of course, disputants are also affected by the modes of nature. The mode of goodness is beneficial for resolving and especially transforming conflict. In passion disputants may resolve a conflict to meet their ends, or dig in and take a competitive stance. In ignorance there will be a strong tendency toward avoidance, irrational anger, or revenge.
Krishna explains that it is rare that someone is affected purely by only one mode. Rather, the modes tend to combine in hundreds of subtle permutations, just as mixing the three primary colors in various proportions gives different hues. Although a person’s attraction to a particular combination of the modes is based on his or her previous karma, the soul has the ability to change the modes affecting it, just as a person having already boarded an airplane and taken flight, while not able to change his or her end destination, is able to choose what he or she does during the flight.
Association is particularly important in determining how one is affected by the modes; it is essential for me as a peacebuilder to act primarily in the mode of goodness so that I can help disputants also rise to goodness. To use a simple example, when we practice active listening, we often experience that our patience and empathy (characteristics of goodness) affects people, and the clouds of anger, doubt, fear, and other strong emotions—all products of passion and ignorance—begin to lift. People begin to think more clearly, and often come up with their own solutions to their problems.
I’ve also found it insightful, when analyzing a conflict, to consider how the modes affect the parties’ motivations. Motivation in goodness will be selfless, based on seeing things more or less objectively. A disputant in goodness will gravitate to mutually acceptable solutions (win/ win). Those motivated by passion will be fixed on getting what they want; the “what’s-in-it-for-me” factor will be more pronounced (win/ lose). Those motivated in ignorance will be based either on avoiding trouble (lose/ win) or on anger and getting even, with little regard for their own success (lose/ lose). When planning an intervention, I often take this into consideration, being aware that the mode of nature by which the disputants are primarily affected will likely indicate the direction I need to take with the intervention.
3. Practicing patience—ksama.
Krishna tells us to maintain patience even in the most trying of situations. In the last chapter of the Gita, Krishna displays this attribute Himself by asking Arjuna if he has understood everything clearly. Like a patient teacher, He indicates his willingness to again go over the points Arjuna may have missed. Peacebuilders need patience. I find, for example, that my patience can wear thin towards the end of a long mediation. By this time, the disputants have reached an agreement and I find myself thinking to cut corners to quickly get through the writing up and testing of the agreement. Patience is required lest important details are overlooked that later lead to further disagreement.
4. Treating people equally.
In the fifth chapter of Bhagavad-gita Krishna says, “One is a perfect yogi who, by comparison to his own self, sees the true equality of all beings in both their happiness and their distress. The humble sages, by virtue of true knowledge, see with equal vision a learned and gentle brahmana, a cow, an elephant, a dog, and an outcaste.”
To be effective, a peacebuilder should look beyond prejudice, likes and dislikes. We may be able to relate better with disputants who share a similar worldview, political preference, place of birth, gender, or who are simply attractive or rich. Similarly, we may find ourselves repulsed by certain types of physical appearance or cultural expressions, or especially by worldviews that seriously do not match our own. It is important to notice our prejudices at work and do our best not to allow them entrance into our peacebuilding. The Gita teaches that we are essentially spiritual, part of God, and transcendental to the temporal position in which we find ourselves. Despite differences between people, we are brothers and sisters of the same father. What a meditation for a peacebuilder! Disputants will appreciate a peacebuilder who even makes an effort to see all sides equally. And to a peacebuilder with such vision, the disputants award trust.
5. Seeing the good in others: “All living entities are part of Me, and are Mine” (Bg. 15.7)
Seeing the good in others is connected to point 4 above. The Gita teaches that everyone is a soul whose original state is pure and loving; each soul has an eternal relationship with God. Acknowledging the potential to return to this pure and loving state is a great help to a peacebuilder. This means that everyone is ultimately good, and that the bad we see is superfluous to them. This view can help us be less judgmental and more willing to see beyond the unattractive behavior disputants bring to conflict. We can be more positive about the chances of transformation, and that optimism—knowing that the disputants’ goodness can manifest—helps it manifest. The Gita also explains that on the temporal plane there are truly bad people (asuras). A person can be both good in the ultimate issue and not good in his or her present condition. It is helpful to recognize this as well, because we can then peacefully acknowledge that a particular disputant, while ultimately a good soul, may simply not be ready to deal with issues in a constructive way.
6. Considering the levels of progression—Something-is-better-than-nothing.
In the twelfth chapter of the Gita, Krishna presents Arjuna with a progression of spiritual attainment, telling him that it is best to just fully love Him and always think of Him. But if Arjuna is not yet on that level, he should perform regular religious practices to come to that level. If Arjuna can’t do that, then he should at least be dutiful, give charity, and be kind to others. In peacebuilding, we feel blessed when disputants have a transformational experience. There is nothing as satisfying as seeing disputants open up honestly to one another, developing real understanding and empathy, and going on to develop mutual trust. As much as we would love to have that happen every time, however, in reality it doesn’t. As Krishna presents a progression of “something-is-better-than-nothing,” so we can follow the same model. Should transformation seem unlikely, we can help disputants at least reach agreement on some of their issues, or to reach an evaluative agreement even if the relationship hasn’t improved. Even helping them to agree on what they don’t agree on is a step in the right direction that may lead to better things in the future.
7. Depending on God.
In the last chapter of the Gita, Krishna says, “In all activities just depend on Me and work always under My protection. In such devotional service, be fully conscious of Me.” (Bg. 18.57) Krishna further instructs Arjuna to not think of himself as the “doer” of activities, but to act instead only as His instrument. Krishna says that the living entity is ultimately dependent on Him for everything—including oxygen, food, sunlight, and all necessities. This is a favorite Gita meditation when I am mediating. Many times I’ve been in a situation where I’m convinced we will come to an impasse. I start wondering when the next flight out of town might be. Disputants have dug deeply into their positions and aren’t budging. These are the best moments to remember this verse. It helps me to let go, to enter a prayerful state, and to try to catch the flow of energy and go with it instead of fighting against it. I’ve sometimes felt that I’m floating above the stories the disputants are repeating and praying for grace as well as intelligence to say the right thing at the right time. It’s exciting to wait and see how the Lord will use us to accomplish His task. Peacebuilding is a great opportunity to experience and savor dependence on God.
8. Seeking theocentric peace.
The famous “peace formula” verse in Bhagavad-gita, states, “A person in full consciousness of Me, knowing Me to be the ultimate beneficiary everyone’s activities, the Supreme Lord of all planets, and the benefactor and well-wisher of all living entities, attains peace from the pangs of material miseries.” (Bg. 5.29) Krishna is saying here that if we want peace—either individually or collectively—we need to be God-centered. We should act only for God’s pleasure, recognize that everything we possess actually belongs to Him, and understand no one is a better friend than Him. Finding peaceful solutions short of that recognition may be helpful, but in the final analysis, they have limited value. Hindu scriptures say that true theocentric peace is like watering the root of a plant while other attempts at peace are like attempting to water the plant by watering each individual leaf and twig.
Much of my work centers on dispute resolution among people who accept the Bhagavad-gita as scripture. All of them are familiar with this verse and theoretically accept its wisdom. It is a rare saint, however, who can live by this verse’s purport day in and day out. It generally backfires to “preach” this message to disputants who aren’t “there yet.” The gap between theory and reality is too great. But as disputants come more in touch with the mode of goodness, they sometimes raise points from this verse on their own. In such cases, a successful conclusion is almost assured.