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III – Heraclitus and Nietzsche on War, the Upanishadic view

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“Destruction is always a simultaneous or alternate element which keeps pace with creation and it is by destroying and renewing that the Master of Life does his long work of preservation. More, destruction is the first condition of progress. Inwardly, the man who does not destroy his lower self-formations, cannot rise to a greater existence…”  [1]

Creation, destruction, war and the principle of harmlessness – what could they have in common, if anything at all?

Hunger, that is death, is the creator and master of this world”    [2]

War, said Heraclitus[3], is the father of all things, War is the king of all; and the saying, like most of the apophthegms of the Greek thinker, suggests a profound truth. From a clash of material or other forces everything in this world, if not the world itself, seems to be born; by a struggle of forces, tendencies, principles, beings it seems to proceed, ever creating new things, ever destroying the old, marching one knows not very well whither, —to a final self-destruction, say some; in an unending series of vain cycles, say others; in progressive cycles, is the most optimistic conclusion, leading through whatever trouble and apparent confusion towards a higher and higher approximation to some divine apocalypse. However that may be, this is certain that there is not only no construction here without destruction, no harmony except by a poise of contending forces won out of many actual and potential discords, but also no continued existence of life except by a constant self-feeding and devouring of other life.

Ancient thought accepted this starting-point so far as it could see it by scrutiny of the universe. The old Upanishads saw it very clearly and phrased it with an uncompromising thoroughness which will have nothing to do with any honeyed glosses or optimistic scuttlings of the truth. Hunger that is Death, they said, is the creator and master of this worldMatter they described by a name which means ordinarily food and they said, we call it food because it is devoured and devours creatures. The eater eating is eaten, this is the formula of the material world, as the Darwinians rediscovered when they laid it down that the struggle for life is the law of evolutionary existence. Modern science has only rephrased the old truths that had already been expressed in much more forcible, wide and accurate formulas by the apophthegm of Heraclitus and the figures employed by the Upanishads. Nietzsche’s insistence upon war as an aspect of life and the ideal man as a warrior, these now much-decried theories of Nietzsche have, however much we may differ from many of the moral and practical conclusions he drew from them, their undeniable justification and recall us to a truth we like to hide out of sight. It is good that we should be reminded of it; first, because to see it has for every strong soul a tonic effect which saves us from the flabbiness and relaxation encouraged by a too mellifluous philosophic, religious or ethical sentimentalism, that which loves to look upon Nature as love and life and beauty and good, but turns away from her grim mask of death, adoring God as Shiva but refusing to adore him as Rudra; secondly, because unless we have the honesty and courage to look existence straight in the face, we shall never arrive at any effective solution of its discords and oppositions. We must see first what life and the world are; afterwards, we can all the better set about finding the right way to transform them into what they should be. If this repellent aspect of existence holds in itself some secret of the final harmony, we shall by ignoring or belittling it miss that secret and all our efforts at a solution will fail by fault of our self-indulgent ignoring of the true elements of the problem. If, on the other hand, it is an enemy to be beaten down, trampled on, excised, eliminated, still we gain nothing by underrating its power and hold upon life or refusing to see how firmly it is rooted in the effective past and the actually operative principles of existence.

War and destruction are not only a universal principle of our life here in its purely material aspects, but also of our mental and moral existence. It is self-evident that in the actual life of man intellectual, social, political, moral we can make no real step forward without a struggle, a battle between what exists and lives and what seeks to exist and live and between all that stands behind either. It is impossible, at least as men and things are, to advance, to grow, to fulfil and still to observe really and utterly that principle of harmlessness which is yet placed before us as the highest and best law of conduct.

All this is not to say that strife and destruction are the alpha and omega of existence, that harmony is not greater than war, love more the manifest divine than death or that we must not move towards the replacement of physical force by soul-force, of war by peace, of strife by union, of devouring by love, of egoism by universality, of death by immortal life. God is not only the Destroyer, but the Friend of creatures; not only the cosmic Trinity, but the Transcendent; the terrible Kali is also the loving and beneficent Mother; the lord of Kurukshetra is the divine comrade and charioteer, the attracter of beings, incarnate Krishna. And whithersoever he is driving through all the strife and clash and confusion, to whatever goal or godhead he may be attracting us, it is—no doubt of that—to some transcendence of all these aspects upon which we have been so firmly insisting. But where, how, with what kind of transcendence, under what conditions, this we have to discover; and to discover it, the first necessity is to see the world as it is, to observe and value rightly his action as it reveals itself at the start and now; afterwards the way and the goal will better reveal themselves. We must acknowledge Kurukshetra; we must submit to the law of Life by Death before we can find our way to the life immortal; we must open our eyes, with a less appalled gaze than Arjuna’s, to the vision of our Lord of Time and Death and cease to deny, hate or recoil from the universal Destroyer. [4]

 

Related links

War_I : Can we ever reconcile war?

War_II : The elimination and passing of war?

War_IV : Peace, Force and the Psychological basis of war

War_V : The Imperative before us

 

[1] From “Time the Destroyer”, [Book_3], p 387

[2] This point forward excerpted from “‘Kurukshetra”, [Book_3], p 40.

[3] Greek philosopher, and contemporary of Pythagoras, Lao-tsu, Confucius, and Siddhartha Buddha

[4] This para excerpted from “‘Kurukshetra”, [Book_3], p 45

More info on the book names & references are in the first post : War_I – Can we ever reconcile war?

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  • http://aryaputr.com/ Uday

    Just adding to this study a related passage which I came across :

    “Heraclitus..is the first thinker to see the world entirely in the terms of Power. He would agree with the modern Teuton that commerce itself is a department of War. Everything here is a clash of forces and by that clash and struggle and clinging and wrestling
    things not only come into being, but are maintained in being.
    :
    War, contends Heraclitus, is not mere injustice, chaotic violence; it is justice, although a violent justice, the only kind possible.
    :
    Not only between being and being, force and force is there war, but within each there is an eternal opposition, a tension of contraries, and it is this tension which creates the balance
    necessary to harmony. Harmony then there is, for cosmos itself is in its result a harmony; but it is so because in its process it is war, tension, opposition, a balance of eternal contraries.
    :
    Real peace there cannot be, unless by peace you mean a stable tension, a balance of power between hostile forces, a sort of mutual neutralisation of excesses. Peace cannot create, cannot maintain anything, and Homer’s prayer that war might perish from among Gods and men is a monstrous absurdity, for that would mean the end of the world. A periodic end there may be, not by peace or reconciliation, but by conflagration, by an attack of Fire, to pur epelthon, a fiery judgment and conviction.
    :
    Force created the world, Force is the world, Force by its violence maintains the world, Force shall end the world,—and eternally re-create it.”

    – from Sri Aurobindo’s essays on Heraclitus, in the book ‘Essays in Philosophy and Yoga’