Violence is a theme that heavily re-occurs through mythologies and religious traditions. Fundamentally, it acts as a means of punishing sin that is directly caused by an individual and perpetuated by inherited societal inaction.
Violence is a commonality between the book of Exodus (שְׁמוֹת) and Bhagavad Gita (श्रीमद्भगवद्गीता), two works ofdifferent genres in religious literature.
Exodus is the second of the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures or Torah (תּוֹרָה) that recounts the liberation of the Israelites from the Egyptians. In the Exodus narrative, Moses (מֹשֶׁה) leads the disjointed Israelite people in the direction of God while receiving instruction and laws for the people. A major conflict is the resistance of the Pharaoh to free the Israelites from their captivity in spite of signs from God, provoking His wrath against Egypt.
The Bhagavad Gita is a segment of the Mahabharata (महाभारतम्), a story of a battle between the Pandavas (पाण्डव) and the Kauravas which acts as a microcosm of the fundamental moral laws that underpin the Mahabhratic universe. The story becomes a dialogue between Arjuna (अर्जुन), a kshatriya or warrior and Pandava, and Krishna (कृष्ण), one of the ten incarnations of Vishnu. Krishna justifieswhy it would be moral for Arjuna to slaughter his relatives in conflict.
The violence that is seen in the texts is largely personal and casts one party as virtuous and the other as sinful. In Exodus, the divisive force is ten plagues arbitrated against the Egyptians, the effects of which increase exponentially. They suffer as the result of existing in a time and place where the Israelites are oppressed. The text clarifies the relation between the Egyptians and Israelites saying, “[T]he Egyptians [were] well-disposed towards the people; Moses himself was very highly regarded by the Pharaoh’s servants and the people in the land of Egypt” (NABRE Ex 11:3). Yet God tells Moses that “Every first born in the land of Egypt will die” (NABRE Ex 11:4). A similar occurrence transpires in the Bhagavad Gita when Arjuna refuses to fight. “I would consider it better for the sons of Dhritarashtra to kill me unarmed and unresisting, rather than fight with them” (Bhagavad Gita 1:45).Krishna responds, “do not yield to this chastising impotence […] Give up such petty weakness of heart and arise, O chastiser of the enemy” (Bhagavad Gita 2:3). Krishna continues to use the permanence of the soul to justify violence, “No one is able to destroy the imperishable soul […] One who is in knowledge knows roar the self slays not nor is slain” (Bhagavad Gita 2:17-19).
Both texts use violence to communicate with disobedient populations in an arbitrary manner. The Egyptians favored Moses, and several Kauravas were not directly involved with the conflict that brought Arjuna and Krishna to the battlefield. Partisan divinities place two groups against one another against their wills, exposing the weight of societal sin over individual sin. The texts use violence as a means to condemn complicity. The first born Egyptians perish because they are implicated in the Pharaoh’s actions, not because they have directly wronged the Israelites. Similarly, all of the Kauravas inherit wrongdoing. Violence becomes an active response to a passive issue.
Divine violence in Exodus and the Bhagavad Gita punishes a complicit society for an individual transgression against the will of divinity. The plagues of Egypt and the sufferings of the Kauravas express sin as societally pervasive.
The Bible. New American Bible, Revised Edition.
Swami Prabhupā, A.C Bhaktivedanta, translator. Bhagavad Gītā as It Is. Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1972.