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Consequentialism And The Gita

Consequentialism And The Gita
by Sitansu S. Chakravarti, PhD

The author expresses his thanks to the Infinity Foundation for a grant that made it possible for him to complete the paper. In its earlier versions it was delivered at the Friday Philosophy Seminar, 2002, Calcutta, WAVES conference, 2002, University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, and the International Vedanta Conference, 2002, Miami University, Oxford, Ohio.

Consequentialism And The Gita

In his article ‘Consequential Evaluation and Practical Reason’1, Amartya Sen makes it known to the readers his philosophical disapproval of Sri Krishna’s advice to Arjuna in the Gita, vis-à-vis the latter’s stand regarding not to fight and kill people ‘for whom he has affection’. In the wake of defending his broad based thesis of consequentialism, to be contrasted with the narrowly focused variety known as utilitarianism on the one hand, and the non-consequential deontological theses on the other, Sen dwells at a considerable length on the ‘classic argument’2 of the deontological variety, believed to be found in the Gita, where he notices ‘insistence’ laid ‘on making consequence-independent judgments’3 . Sri Krishna’s ‘high deontology’, according to Sen, consists in his preoccupation that it is ‘Arjuna’s duty to fight, irrespective of his evaluation of the consequences,’4 in as much as the cause is just and the latter belongs to the fighter caste.5 Arjuna, on his own part, is disturbed by the possible consequences of his action, viz., mass killing that would certainly include people for whom he had special affection. He is not particularly convinced by Sri Krishna’s argument that ‘he cannot waver from his obligations (no matter what results from that),’6 when Arjuna refuses to cause the devastation he considers highly undesirable. Sen finds Arjuna’s consequentialist position commendable in the face of the allegedly deontological one posed by Sri Krishna, for ‘one must take responsibility for the consequences of one’s actions and choices …’7 Sen is apparently at a loss that the tradition in India has not sided with Arjuna’s point of view, and has failed to find a detractor even in a modern time pacifist of the stature of Mahatma Gandhi. Sen is rather amazed by the influence that Sri Krishna’s position holds in Hindu theology with his ‘gradual transformation from being a noble but partisan patron of the Pandavas in the epic to being an incarnation of God, as he is in later Hinduism …’8

In this paper I would like to contest the readings of the points of view of Sri Krishna and Arjuna by Sen. I would attempt to show that Sri Krishna’s position is consequentialistic, and not deontological, contrary to Sen’s claim. As evidence of my argument, I would draw upon the interpretations of the text in the Gita in the age-old tradition of Indian Philosophy, over and above the straight readings of it, while treating it as embedded in the epic the Mahabharata. At the end I would indicate in passing the contribution that Sri Krishna’s variety of consequentialism may offer to Sen’s.

Before starting our assessment of the line of thought as presented by Sen, we feel tempted to make a quick comment on his remark on the historical transition of Sri Krishna in the Hindu tradition of later days. If we look at ‘Bhishma Stavaraja’,9 for example, we see the great Bhishma extolling Sri Krishna as God incarnate. Unless we are determined to categorizing any such passage in the Mahabharata as interpolated, thus taking an a priori stand on the issue to start with, we must admit that even during the life time of Sri Krishna people were prone to accepting him as a laudable incarnation of the supreme. This, indeed, is a minor point in the line of thought Sen advances in his paper in so far as the philosophical issues he deals with do not in any way depend on its validity. We, therefore, should rather move straight to the main ideas involved.

We have to keep in mind that the Gita contains the words of counsel offered by Sri Krishna to his friend Arjuna when the latter is gripped by dejection, a situation diagnosed as coexisting with predominance of tamas (meaninglethargy and darkness) and is considered detrimental to one’s spiritual as well as psychological well-being. While taking note of the parameters pertaining to the states of affairs in respect of which Arjuna should be spiritually, and morally, counseled, Sri Krishna does not lose sight of his dear friend giving way to tamas. He surely does not ‘insist on an impoverished account of a state of affairs in evaluating it,’10 in so far as he includes the sattva-rajas-tamas(satisfaction-excitement-lethargy) dimension in it, in order to pay ‘particular attention to “comprehensive outcomes” (including actions undertaken, processes involved, and the like along with the final outcomes, instead of confining attention to only the “cumulative outcome” (what happens at the very end).’11 The total process that Arjuna is involved in, in Sri Krishna’s eyes, is certainly richer and more stratified, according to the requirements of Sen’s broader consequentialism, than merely the killing or its absence. Sri Krishna takes a lot more into consideration while analyzing Arjuna’s sudden spurt of “affection” toward his near and dear ones that Sen is so keen to highlight in order to bring to our attention that Sri Krishna might have ignored it owing to his allegedly deontological moorings.

Sri Krishna, we should not forget, was not intent on the war to start with. It was never a deontologically foregone conclusion for him. He had tried his best to avert it, even at the cost of severe possible privation for the five Pandavas, when proposal was made to settle for the share of the kingdom with the Pandavas’ entitlement to five villages only. The war was arrived at consequentially. Sri Krishna’s exhortations to Arjuna are not dictates. At the very end of the long deliberation in the Gita, he asks Arjuna, ‘the friend of his choosing’, to act ‘as he thinks best’.12 Given Sri Krishna’s theological position of omnipotence in the Gita, he does not need Arjuna’s help to win the battle. However, he wants Arjuna to be existentially involved in the state of authentic existence when the latter is in an extreme state of dejection with his ‘mouth parching’, ‘limbs weakened,’ ‘body trembling,’ so much so that the bow Gandiva, that he refuses to part with ever, ‘slips off the hand;’ his ‘brain is whirling round and round’ and he ‘cannot keep standing any longer’.13 This certainly is not a state of sattvika compassion, (i.e., love in its true form) that Arjuna has for the near and dear ones, but one of loss of life’s balance, some kind of cowardice14 that has infected the great hero. Instead of considering it as a reaction in the field of morality, we need rather to consider his refusal to fight a psychological reaction on Arjuna’s part that it is incumbent on the friend at hand, viz., Sri Krishna, to take care of through the process of counseling. In order to be able to make the right moral decision, the former must have the right psychological balance first. All this, needless to say, is consequential calculation on Sri Krishna’s part.

Sri Krishna does not insist that an action constitutes duty for all, for he knows that

When someone has found delight, peace and satisfaction in the Self, he is not bound by the constraint of duty.

He has nothing to gain in the world by action, nor anything to lose by refraining from it. He is independent of all considerations regarding things. (Gita, 3/17,18.)

Such a person belongs to another world with presuppositions for life being absolutely different for him, as contrasted with the others around. Since Arjuna has not reached such a state yet, Sri Krishna counsels him to fight, which the former has come prepared to, till having lost his psychological balance. Apart from Arjuna’s need to go back to the required state of his mind, from where he can grow psychologically, ethically and spiritually, it seems that once he has come to the battlefield with his responsibility to give leadership to the Pandava army as a General, it may be quite questionable whether he can relinquish his commitment all of a sudden, at the very last moment. At any rate, he has to get over his stupor immediately, which he is confusing with compassion, in order finally to be in a position to make the decision that suits him. It is weakness and cowardice that Krishna incites Arjuna against, and not love. When indeed love takes the form of cowardice, that is the real existential fall. We wonder if Sen would mind counsel offered to the chief of the army fighting against bin Laden, (suppose, he happens to be the cousin of the latter) as the chief gives up his arms in the battlefield, and starts trembling, overcome with emotion in the prospect of fighting his very dear cousin. When maintenance of justice is the principle involved, it is incumbent on the ksatriya (the warrior) to take to the appropriate means, including the arms,15 if needs be. Here Sri Krishna is inciting Arjuna to fight in the consequential consideration of maintenance of justice.

To repeat, Arjuna has yet to grow psychologically, and spiritually, to be able to attain the state of freedom where all duties evaporate. Till then, he must perform the duties pertaining to his station in life according to his specific constitution (svadharma), in the proper way, i.e., in all seriousness, maintaining a phenomenological detachment at the same time from success or failure that the actions undertaken might result into. Actions are undertaken toward success, although success, or its opposite, failure, must not overshadow the psyche of the one undertaking their performance. The sense of duty dictates that there must not be any slackness in the actions performed in anticipation of the result. Sri Krishna knows that Arjuna being what he is, a General, indeed a ksatriya, of the rajasika (extrovert) type, fighting for the just cause is in his very nature. He diagnoses the latter’s refusal to fight not as ahimsa (non-violence), but as stupor triggered by infatuation. ‘If, in your vanity,’ he says to Arjuna, ‘you think you will not fight, your resolve will verily be in vain, for your nature will induce you to the act.’16 Thus, Sri Krishna inspires the latter to take up his arms in a battle he is justified to fight. Executed in the right spirit, the act will prepare him for the state of freedom, which is yet another consequential consideration on Sri Krishna’s part. Krishna certainly does not subscribe to the Kantian categorical imperative in so far as we see him taking the consequences of an action into consideration while maintaining the mystic, phenomenological detachment, which ensures the quality of life and a greater effectiveness in handling things. Fighting, or its absence, is not deontologically given to him as duty for Arjuna. Here it is both the act, as well as the attitude associated with it, that relate to the concept of duty in a consequential frame of reference. This is the upshot of karma yoga (i.e., the yoga of action).

Karma yoga is the ‘technique of action’.17 It is indeed consequential in so far as it allows for choosing and planning for a course of action to follow. If, however, karma yoga implies distancing oneself totally from whatever consequences result from the action undertaken, then it is virtually impossible to plan a course of action in the context, where the results of a set of actions become the basis for other actions to undertake toward completion of the plan. If Sri Krishna is advising Arjuna to be insensitive to consequential considerations in the war he is encouraging the latter to be involved in, it may not be possible for the latter to heed the words of the friend to take part in the fight without at the same time going back on those very words in not following the consequential strategies fighting necessarily involves. Sri Krishna is aware that in as much as deciding on courses of action according to the rational process of evaluative choice is in one’s own hand, success or failure following the courses of action pursued is not. He advises Arjuna not to be overpowered by success or failure even as actions are undertaken on consequentialistic considerations. The only consequentialistic parameter that he would advise Arjuna to rise above is extreme attachment manifest in intense joy of achievement, or grief for loss. Greed, often suspected as the motive force behind the modern civilized society, is rooted in extreme attachment that isolates individuals in the society, instead of providing a unifying bridge between them. Sri Krishna counsels Arjuna, and certainly does not dictate, to get over it, to an extent, in an existential process, by dissociating himself attitudinally from the joys of achievement or frustration of failure. A minimum of mastery of this attitude to life is a must for all actions performed, including the ones pertaining to welfare economics toward its proper functioning and success. The motive of actions here is not pleasure, but the attainment of unconditional joy, to be aware of, in other words, what is innately there, which indeed is a consequential consideration, as we hinted before.18 In his commentary on verse 2/46 of the Gita, Madhusudana Sarasvati says:

The intention (of Sri Krishna’s words to Arjuna here) is this:

When your mind is pure with practice of actions without attachment, the consciousness of the self will dawn, and you will partake of the joy of the Brahman (the ultimate Truth). The urge to partake of petty pleasures will evaporate when all Joy is with you. Therefore, practice action without attachment in order to reach the highest joy on the basis of the highest knowledge.

To my mind, Sri Krishna’s exhortations to Arjuna could very well be accommodated under the broader consequentialism that Sen advocates, with the important proviso that the precondition for performance of any action considered a duty in the Gita is an attempt at distancing oneself from greed. Success at that attempt, even in a limited measure, ‘saves one from great fears’, says Sri Krishna.19 This overall precondition for action, too, as we noted already, has a consequential ring about it. The goal is peace and satisfaction, for the individual in society, in and through a balance that prevails in justice. Here satisfaction is interpreted not in sensual terms, but in the frame of reference of a psychology where pleasure is subsumed in the phenomenological state of peace and harmony. Peace coexists with an inner and outer balance, in a broad, over-encompassing spell of justice that touches the ecological, the individual and the social levels.

The main difference of Sri Krishna’s position with Kant’s is this. According to the latter the goodness of an action consists in the Good Will determined by the motive of the action, apart from the benefits following from it as a consequence, whereas according to the former consequential consideration is important. Although Kant’s Good Will has welcome consequences, it is not constituted by their consideration at all. In other words, in so far as it determines the goodness of an action, the consequences are irrelevant. For Kant, once an action is considered a duty, it must be performed for its own sake, not in consideration of achievement of consequences, or following one’s inclination for them, however laudable it be. For Sri Krishna performance of a good act is a spiritual journey toward achieving virtues which are sure springboards for such acts. He is ready to literally lie, on some rare occasions, if the act leads to a greater end. To be properly charged in the affective mode toward performance of a good action, that results in a greater good for the individual as well as the society, is what his advice in the Gita is all about. The imperative, viz., that Arjuna must fight, for the ksatriya has the responsibility to fight for justice, is not categorical. At most it is an instance of rule consequentialism. However, the rule here is conditional, as circumscribed by act consequentialistic considerations in so far as one must perform the kind of action best conducive to one’s unfolding to the final existential goal of freedom. Actions toward others’ benefits, taking all life into consideration, are part of this unfolding process. The rule for a ksatriya to fight comes under such consequentialistic considerations.

Sri Krishna has specially emphasized the importance of action in the effective functioning of society at a time when social maladies are rife, and leadership is lacking. He connects performance of action in the proper spirit to spiritual practice toward attainment of freedom which is the goal of life. Action is important and cannot be shunned, under ordinary circumstances, in the consequentialist frame of reference. Gandhi concurred with this point of view which explains his allegiance to the Gita. Pacifist as he was, he sided with the allied forces in order to put an end to oppressive moves under emergency situation.

In his new value system that Sri Krishna introduces in the Mahabharata, he has given a new interpretation to the expression ‘yajna’ (meaning sacrifice). In the fourth chapter of the Gita, in sloka (i.e., couplet) 28, Sri Krishna enumerates the six different meanings for the expression ‘yajna’ in the tradition. However, all the six kinds of sacrifice enumerated there are to be subsumed under the concept of sacrifice of each and every action performed in the proper spirit of non-attachment that Sri Krishna advocates. Thus, the right spirit is not to abstain from action, but to perform it as pertaining to God. This spirit is highlighted in the sloka

It is Brahman (the ultimate Truth) to whom the offering is made, He is the offering, made by the one who is He, in the fire that is He Himself; the ritual, which again is He, leads on to an attainment that is verily theBrahman. (Gita, 4/24.)

There is a pronounced emphasis here on an ever-encompassing, phenomenological aspect of God, apart from the ontological, later on developed by Tagore in his unique way of philosophizing.20 Life after all is a holistic process. Knowledge coexists with ananda (joy unbound), and does not sever itself from action. Once we accept the distinction between the two faces of truth, satya and rta, – one factual and the other existential – , knowledge pertaining to the latter kind transcends the cognitive dimension and spills over onto and encompasses the affective, connecting itself with the dimension of values that leads to action. This points to our universal form of life at the deep level where karma yoga fits in. Sri Krishna’s new interpretation of yajna is indeed intimately tied with his doctrine of karma yoga. The ‘other’ can never be lost sight of. Thus, action always has its place, pointing to a new dimension of work ethics. ‘By doing works other than for sacrifice,’ says Sri Krishna, ‘this world of men is in bondage to works; for sacrifice practise works, O son of Kunti, becoming free from all attachment.’ (Gita, 3/9, translation by Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, p. 104.21) Needless to say, all this holds in the consequentialistic frame of reference.

In the above I have shown that Sri Krishna advises Arjuna to fight on consequential consideration. First, Arjuna must be ready to face the eventualities of life, and not be paralyzed by debilitating emotion. Second, there is the consideration of justice, both for the Pandava brothers themselves and the people of the kingdom. The fight is the means to settle the brothers’ scores regarding entitlement to the share of the kingdom, and it gives the people at large the opportunity to prosper under a just rule, at a time when there is a void in the political scenario of the subcontinent. Peace and prosperity can be achieved only when actions are performed with a selfless attitude, i.e., as pertaining to karma yoga, while greed and pleasure-seeking fade away, well-entrenched though they are in the politico-economic institutions. Arjuna, the agent, is ultimately seen as taking responsibility for his own choice, at the end of a protracted deliberation, in heeding the advice of his friend and the consequences following from it. He readies himself to the goal of real freedom to be achieved through selfless action. It is quite appropriate that Sen refers to the message of Sri Krishna in the Gita in his paper on consequentialism. However, the relevance of the message is clear only when it is understood in its proper consequentialistic moorings. The ideal for Gandhi, who is mentioned in Sen’s paper, was similar to that depicted by Sri Krishna. No wonder, Gandhi found karma yoga of importance to his own goal toward its achievement in an effective way, in so far as the means help maintain the quality of life that the goal incorporates. Both Arjuna, as well as Gandhi fare, I claim using Sen’s words, ‘”well,” and not just “forward”,’22 in life’s journey.


1. The Journal of Philosophy, vol. XCVII, No. 9, September 2000, pp. 477-502.

2. Sen, p. 479.

3. Ibid.

4. Sen, p. 481.

5. See end-note # 15.

6. Sen, p. 481.

7. Sen, p. 482.

8. Sen, p. 479.

9. Mahabharata, 12/47.

10. Sen, p. 491.

11. Ibid.

12. Gita, 18/63-4.

13. Ibid, 1/28-30.

14. Ananda Giri, in his commentary to sloka 1/29 of the Gita says that the expression ‘trembling’ signifies fear. Swami Vivekananda in his Karma-Yoga says:

Arjuna became a coward at the sight of the mighty army against him … (Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Vol. 1, p. 39, Advaita Ashrama, Calcutta, 1963.)

15. Madhusudana Sarasvati, in his commentary Srimadbhagavadgudarthadipika, to sloka 2/31 of the Gita, refers to the saying of Parasara:

The ksatriya will preserve the world according to dharma, protecting his subjects, arms in hand, meting out justice, while vanquishing others’ soldiers.

Sridharaswami, in his Subodhini Tika, a commentary to the Gita, comments that for the ksatriya there is no preferable preoccupation ‘to the just war’.

16. Gita, 18/59.

17. Gita, 2/50.

18. It is worth developing a model in ethics and philosophy of religion here paralleling the linguistic model of Chomsky, incorporating some of its broad features, which would point to the universality of ethics and spirituality. With all their richness and complexity, the universal elements are innate at the deep level, and manifest themselves in the variant surface forms in societies, giving rise to different ethical customs and religions. The Gita specifically speaks about the same goal for the divergent ways of religious pursuit (e.g., 4/11, 7/21-2, 9/23).

19. Gita, 2/40.

20. Tagore, Rabindranath, The Religion of Man, London: Macmillan, 1931. Sadhana: The Realization of Life, London: Macmillan, 1931. Chakravarti, Sitansu S., ‘The Spirituality of Rabindranath Tagore: The Religion of an Artist’,Hindu Spirituality: Postclassical and Modern, Ed. Sundararajan, K.R. and Mukerji, Bithika, New York: The Crossword Publishing Co.

21. This translation by Sri Aurobindo, along with his comments pertaining to the sloka, reflect the spirit of Madhusudana Sarasvati’s commentary on it, where yajna covers all action. We feel tempted to give partial translation of the commentary:

The saying in the Smriti (i.e., the tradition of Hindu Law), viz., ‘People are bound by actions’ signifies that all action relates to bondage; so those desirous of attaining freedom better shy away from it. Anticipating this (objection to work as such, Sri Krishna) says: …If work is done for the sake of God, it does not bind. Therefore, you, son of Kunti, who have responsibility for action, perform it as sacrifice, without attachment, but perfectly, i.e., with all (seriousness and) respect.

22. Sen, p. 482.

Sitansu S. Chakravarti, University of Toronto