Pacifism and Theosophists

- some correspondence

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Battlefield Scene From Bhagavad Gita

The Bhagavad Gita begins before the start of the climactic Kurukshetra War, where the Pandava prince Arjuna is filled with despondency and doubt on the battlefield.

In its May/June 2003 issue, High Country Theosophist magazine (HCT) published two articles, one by the Dalai Lama, and one by Peter Schweitzer, Executive Director of 'Plenty', a charity. The correspondence relating to this is of interest to those seeking to reconcile Theosophy to views regarding pacifism.

link to the original May - June HCT issue (opens new window)

Geoffrey Farthing wrote a response in the September-October 2003 issue link to this HCT article (opens new window)

Geoffrey Farthing writes from Surrey, England:

... I wonder if I might make some comments on the articles by the Dalai Lama and the Friends of Plenty. I was about 4½ when the First World War began and have occasion to remember the very day when it started (not part of this story).

In the succeeding years I learned to read and still have memories of reading the news sheets, in those days proper broadsheets, not the tabloids that are so common now. After some of the major battles there would be many pages listing the names of thousands of casualties, each entry a life or a wounded man. My mother lost five brothers killed and two gassed. Everyone now has seen over the years extracts from films and newspaper photographs of the horrors of that war. We do not need reminding that war brings nothing but devastation to property and to masses of human lives, not to mention those of the soldiers involved.

I was myself a soldier in the Second World War, as a volunteer and served throughout it. I got to know the viewpoint of a soldier. During training I learned what it meant to be one. In the article from Plenty there is the story of the marine Lt. Colonel referring to men in training as being built up to a point where they are emotionally ready to kill. This is only half the story. The other half is that one has to be built up emotionally to be ready to be killed. Everything that the Dalai Lama and Peter Schweitzer have to say about war is of course true. If it were possible to avoid it no sane person would enter into it. But wars unfortunately are not born out of sanity, they are born out of insanity. Such insanity is the cause of human suffering on an unimaginably large scale through the destruction of social structures and the reducing of a nation’s resources to starvation level even without war. An example is what occurred in Germany before and during the Second World War with, as everyone knows, the anti-Semitic frenzy of hatred and killing. Later we had Idi Amin in Uganda perpetrating the most terrible atrocities and reducing his nation to penury. This is happening at the moment under President Mugabe in Zimbabwe.

We have recently all heard of the cruelties perpetrated by Saddam Hussein. His depriving the Marsh Arabs of their livelihood, the gassing of the Kurdish people in the north of his country and the multiple executions of his people on political grounds.

Do the peace lovers really feel that they can tolerate these things in our day? These leaders are not susceptible to dialogue and reason; they are insane in the worst possible way, i.e., with inflated selfishness seeking wealth and power only for themselves, never mind what happens to the population in their own country. Do the peace lovers really accept that nothing should be done? Is it not really the case that, in order to save humanity from such depravation and misery, someone must try to stop it? This is the job of the soldier. Would it not be cowardice if no one were to take up this challenge? If reasonable argument and persuasion cannot be effective, surely the only way is to use force.

Using force necessarily means all the consequences that arise from it, i.e., death and destruction. Military commanders do not go about their business with the intention of killing civilians or bombing children. They have all had experience of civil life and many of them are married men with their own children. Being a theosophist is not necessarily being a pacifist, however much one may appreciate the horrors of war. Surely there is a limit to some horrors of ‘peace’, such as the tribal genocide in Africa. Does it not have to be stopped somehow?

In the Bhagavad Gita, the discourse between Arjuna and the Lord Sri Krishna actually takes place on a battle field. It is there that Krishna points out to Arjuna that the “Spirits” of men were not vulnerable, it was their bodies only that could be destroyed, and that there was such a thing as an honourable calling as a soldier. In fact, according to Krishna, it became a duty to uphold the cause of right and justice and fair dealing even if it involves the risk of losing one’s own life and of taking the lives of others. We are told that even H.P.B. took part in Garibaldi’s war at Mentana and was wounded by a sabre stroke and several gunshot wounds. [H.P.B. Collected Writings, Vol.. 6, page 278 fn. (ed.HCT)] Yes, surely we are all agreed that the world without war would be a very desirable place but first we have to get rid of the causes of war and that is about as difficult as curing a violent patient of severe mental disorder.

Yours sincerely, Geoffrey Farthing


In the following issue - November-December 2003, HCT published the following. Link to this HCT article. (opens new window)

Letters Received
David Reigle Comments:

I was very impressed by Geoffrey Farthing’s letter in the Sep./Oct. HCT. His personal experience of losing family members in World War I, and of serving as a soldier throughout World War II, gives his view considerable weight. At the same time, he is a deep student of Theosophy. This unusual combination has allowed him to say from a position of authority: “Being a theosophist is not necessarily being a pacifist.” My own background is entirely different from his, having filed as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam war. Virtually all of my friends are pacifists, as I was too, before reading the Alice Bailey books. I now find myself in complete agreement with Geoffrey’s view expressed in his letter. Although I cannot speak from a position of authority, I am writing to offer another voice from another background in support of this view. I will leave the Bailey books out of this, since I know that many HCT readers, including Geoffrey, do not find them authentic. Nonetheless, they are what changed my view away from pacifism, and it is only fair to state this. The Bailey books were strongly in favour of using force to stop Hitler in WWII, noting that there are worse things that can happen to a person than the death of the body.

This is, of course, just what Krishna says to Arjuna in the Bhagavad-gita, as Geoffrey has noted in his letter. The Indian activist Bal Gangadhar Tilak wrote an extensive commentary on the Bhagavad-gita in the early 1900s, from the standpoint that it means just what it says when Krishna tells Arjuna that it is his duty to fight. The Theosophist Bhagavan Das says in his valuable expanded edition of Annie Besant’s Bhagavad-gita translation that, of all commentaries ancient and modern, he found Tilak’s to be the best and truest (pp. 367-368). Gandhi, on the other hand, thought that one must understand the Bhagavad-gita symbolically. Gandhi believed in nonviolence above all, and for him it was unimaginable that Krishna could have actually advised Arjuna to fight and kill. This standpoint of nonviolence above all is that of the Dalai Lama’s statement printed in the May/June HCT, that Geoffrey responded to. I know this in some detail, since I was involved in extensive interviews with Samdhong Rinpoche for a book tentatively to be called “Blueprint for a Nonviolent Society.”

Samdhong Rinpoche is the Dalai Lama’s right-hand man, and is currently the elected prime minister of the Tibetan government-inexile. He closely shares the views of the Dalai Lama. Samdhong Rinpoche greatly admires Gandhi, and has attempted to start a Satyagraha movement to win Tibet’s freedom, like Gandhi did to try and win India’s freedom. Satyagraha means holding firmly to the truth, in everything you say and do. This is supposed to create a power that will bring about a righteous aim, such as a country’s independence. The Dalai Lama and Samdhong Rinpoche are absolutely against the use of violence, like Gandhi was, and this is the principle they hold to.

They believe that through the power of truth, obtained by holding strictly to the principle of nonviolence, even the most incorrigible leader can eventually be reasoned with. Therefore, violence is totally unnecessary. Geoffrey stated that the reason violence is necessary is that some leaders are insane; they can never be reasoned with. To the examples of Hitler, etc., that he mentioned, we can add others like Milosevic. All attempts to reason with these leaders, to get them to stop their insane policies such as ethnic cleansing, failed. These examples, by the way, were mentioned to Samdhong Rinpoche, but he thought even these leaders could eventually be reasoned with. If I was a victim of such a leader, I do not think I would wish to wait and find out. As Geoffrey said, nonviolence is always desirable. But the question is, if you have an insane leader using violence (and the world certainly does), how do you stop this. The Dalai Lama, Samdhong Rinpoche, and others are convinced that these insane leaders can be reasoned with to stop their horrific violence. Geoffrey, myself, and others are not. Living in the U.S.A., I am not a victim of ethnic cleansing, nor was my family in Hitler’s Reich. But I am extremely glad for people like Geoffrey Farthing, who are willing to go out and fight to stop such insanity.

Sincerely, David Reigle


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