Spiritual Life

Stanford podcast addresses religious perspectives on war and peace

Although Hinduism is widely thought of as a peaceful religion, one of its core texts shows God advising his devotee to go to war.

The Bhagavad Gita, part of a larger epic poem, opens on the brink of a terrible war. The hero of the tale, Arjuna, faces a dilemma – whether to withdraw from a bloody war or to fight. Krishna, the Hindu name for the Supreme Being, instructs Arjuna to do his duty and fight.

In a recent lecture, Linda Hess, Stanford University religious studies senior lecturer, said that despite the clear framing narrative of war, some Hindus have interpreted the text as a lesson in spiritual nonviolence, while others have seen it as a justification of large-scale war.

Hess pointed out that every religion seems to start out prohibiting killing, yet religious realists observe that you cannot survive in this world without killing. Everything we do involves some kind of destruction, from clearing forests for agriculture to stepping on insects simply by walking down the street.

“The ways in which religion bears on violence, nonviolence, war and peace, on all levels from the personal to the political, are seen again and again to depend on how people pick up religious texts and traditions and interpret them in particular historical circumstances,” Hess said.

After stating unequivocally that killing is wrong, religious writers often spend more time discussing situations when it is OK.

“Every religious tradition has had to figure out how to deal with the apparent inevitability of killing,” Hess said.

Hess’ lecture was the first in her 10-lecture course, “Religious Perspectives on Violence and Nonviolence, War & Peace.”

Across all religions, the interpretation of texts is done not only by authority figures, but also by the general public. Hess encouraged students to be agents in this process, learning how arguments are produced, evidence is marshaled, authority wielded, persuasive tactics used and sociopolitical factors brought into the picture. With this kind of understanding, she emphasized, everyone can take responsibility for religious interpretations and their consequences in the world.

From Quakerism to the Crusades

Subjects such as war and peace are typically taught in political science or international relations programs. While these approaches emphasizing politics and economics are important, Hess said they are likely to omit other important matters typically examined in the humanities – for example, ethics, rhetoric, literature, the arts and performances that convey the subtleties of human experience and psychology; the relations between inner and outer, personal and political; and religious texts and practices.

From a discussion of the pacifist traditions of Quakerism to a look at religious perspectives on capital punishment, the diverse subjects of the lectures are connected by a number of unifying threads.

Professor Paul Harrison, a scholar of Buddhist literature and history, discussed how Buddhism could promote peace in some instances and exacerbate conflict in others, despite its serene public image.

Harrison compared religion to language: “Language can be used to do all sorts of hateful, injurious and destructive things, but no one would ever say, ‘Let’s do away with language altogether.’”

Similarly, humans have an inherent drive toward religion. The solution to destructive and injurious uses of religion is not to get rid of religion, but to learn to understand and control those uses.

Robert Gregg, professor emeritus of religious studies, took a multireligious approach to the topic, analyzing the story of Cain and Abel across the Jewish, Christian and Muslim religions. Despite differences, each tradition has taken this violent story of the first murder to reflect on questions of brotherhood and community.

Hester Gelber, chairwoman of the Department of Religious Studies and religious studies professor, tackled the topic historically through a discussion of the Crusades, demonstrating how violence became sanctified and romanticized during those religiously based wars. The notion of the dashing soldier ennobled by holy purpose “has remained a part of our cultural repertoire ever since,” she said.

Speaking on the American Civil War, religious studies professor Kathryn Gin Lum pointed out that both North and South believed God was on their side and both cited the Bible to support pro- or anti-slavery views.

Hess framed the new courses on violence and nonviolence two years ago when some of her students came to an eye-opening realization. Understanding that horrendous acts of violence were executed not just by psychopaths or evil political leaders but by ordinary people caught in conditions conducive to such acts, her students asked what they would need to prepare themselves to act differently in such circumstances.

Podcasts of the lectures are available on Stanford iTunes U at itunes.apple.com/us/itunes-u/religious-perspectives-on/id573293423?mt=10.

Kelsey Geiser is an intern with the Humanities Web portal for Stanford University.

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