Chapter 68 – What Would Arjuna Do?

 One who excels as a warrior does not appear formidable;
One who excels in fighting is never roused in anger;
One who excels in defeating his enemy does not join issue;
One who excels in employing others humbles himself before them. 

This is known as the virtue of non-contention;
This is known as making use of the efforts of others;
This is known as matching the sublimity of heaven

Translation by D. C. Lau (1963)

The earliest versions of the Tao Te Ching were not divided into chapters.  The “modern” division of the work into 81 chapters probably did not occur for several hundred years after it was written, probably in the 1st Century B.C.  (See Chan, Two Visions of the Way (1991) at 41-44).  The number of chapters is probably more symbolic than anything, as the number “9” is considered lucky in China, and 81 is 9×9.

Bhagavad GitaSometimes the way in which the text is divided can make a difference in how it is interpreted.  This chapter and the previous one may serve as an example.  Some translations, such Wing-Tsit Chan’s (1963) end Chapter 67 this way:  “When Heaven is to save a person, heaven will protect him through deep love.”  That seems to imply that the external world is not important when one may bask in the love of God and the eternal Tao.  Further, there is a sense that such divine love can be a shield against the perceived dangers of that external world, just as the three Hebrew children were protected as they passed through the fiery furnace in the Bible’s Book of Daniel.

However, there are different interpretations that are equally plausible.  Let us assume that the end of Chapter 67 was not really the end of a thought, and combine the last two lines of that chapter with the first four lines of this chapter.  Then we have:

Through compassion, one will triumph in attack and be impregnable in defence.
What heaven succours it protects with the gift of compassion.
One who excels as a warrior does not appear formidable;
One who excels in fighting is never roused in anger;
One who excels in defeating his enemy does not join issue;
One who excels in employing others humbles himself before them.

Reading the parts of the two chapters together presents a somewhat different meaning.  Rather than the individual being blessed and protected by the divine love and compassion, it is the individual’s own compassion that protects and guides him.  No matter how accomplished a warrior may be, his success depends not on his own ego, but on his compassion for others.  He does not fight because he is angry or to show his formidable skill.  Instead, he does what is necessary, understanding the human foibles and emotions of his adversaries and his companions.  Consider in this context a quotation from martial arts legend Bruce Lee:  “The world is full of people who are determined to be somebody or to give trouble. They want to get ahead, to stand out. Such ambition has no use for a gung fu man, who rejects all forms of self-assertiveness and competition”

As we saw back in Chapters 30 and 31, and elsewhere, Lao Tzu appeared to feel that war is sometimes inevitable.  When the war must be fought, he says it should be done with compassion and respect – an extension of the life the sage would counsel in peaceful times.

There are, of course, questions about whether there could ever be a “just war”; and, if that was once possible, whether it remains so in this age of potential mass-annihilation.  I will defer those issues, though, to launch into an all-too-frequentTao Te Ching Tuesday” digression.

Whenever I read this chapter, I think of the Bhagavad Gita

I will not attempt any extended discussion of the Gita, but would like to make a few comments.

The Bhagavad Gita is the most well-known part of the Hindu epic, The Mahabharata, which tells the story of two related branches of a royal Indian family, the Pandavas and the Kauravas.  The Pandavas are the rightful heirs to the throne, but the Kauravas have ousted them through underhanded deception and trickery.  Many peaceful attempts to resolve the issues between the families have failed and war becomes the only alternative.  The Gita begins as the two armies are facing each other and preparing for battle.

The principal human character in the story is Arjuna, one of the Pandava brothers and their greatest warrior.  In fact, he is the finest archer in the world.  The other main character is the divine being, Krishna.  Krishna is a maternal cousin of the Pandavas, but has promised the Kauravas that he will not fight in the war.  He does participate, though, as Arjuna’s charioteer.  That is a menial position that calls to mind Lao Tzu’s observation that “one who excels in employing others humbles himself before them.”

Before the start of the fighting, Arjuna requests that his chariot draw up between the armies so he can see who is fighting on each side.  He is greatly disturbed by what he sees.  On each side are those who are his friends, his relatives and others he knows to be noble and good people.  He dreads what is going to happen because he knows that these fine human beings will soon be maiming and killing each other.  Like the excellent warrior described by Lao Tzu he is overcome with sympathy and compassion for both sides.  He is not angry, but sad.  He resolves to turn away from the war and not fight, not kill.

In what often seems strange to us here in the 21st Century, his friend and charioteer, the god Krishna, counsels against Arjuna’s impulse.  He says:  “Why this cowardice in time of crisis, Arjuna?  The coward is ignoble, shameful and foreign to the ways of heaven.  Don’t yield to impotence!  It is unnatural in you!  Banish this petty weakness out of your heart.  Rise to the fight, Arjuna.”

Krishna explains that war is sometimes inevitable and when it arises, it is the duty of warriors to fight.  He shows that there is, in fact, such a thing as a just war, and that war must be fought in accordance with rules to assure the safety of non-combatants.  He shows that war is the natural result of having a human ego.  He tells Arjuna that he has no real choice for it is his duty to participate in a just war, so there is no use agonizing over the decision.

Finally, Arjuna is convinced and he leads his forces into the epic battle.

Is that the kind of advice we would expect from a divine being?  During the discourse, Krishna does tell Arjuna that the true enemies that must be slain are greed, hatred and delusion.  So, is the Gita only an allegory

On the most obvious level, the Gita counsels violent, martial action.  Yet, Mahatma Gandhi proclaimed it his favorite book, which he read each day.  Wouldn’t that appear to be a typical Taoist juxtaposition of seeming opposites?

What is important?  Is it that one must do his or her duty; do what is right without attachment to the outcome?  Is it that the true self is immortal, so life and death should be experienced without concern for the outcome?

I don’t know if I could ever answer those questions.  I am not going to try – my excuse being that such a discussion is really beyond the scope of these comments on Chapter 68 of the Tao Te Ching.  My advice is to take a little time (it is a short text) to read the Bhagavad Gita if you haven’t; or re-read it if you have.


Note:  The picture use in this post is from

4 thoughts on “CHAPTER 68 – WHAT WOULD ARJUNA DO?

  1. I think the shock of facing this battle, with compassion and our hearts on our sleeves, is exactly what we need to do in order to face ourselves, our true humanity. When we can look with compassion on what we have done, collectively, yet also remain outside of all of that knowing that we exist beyond all of that, we are able to begin to see who we really are.

    This story is a beautiful metaphor of our struggle in being human, seeing all that we are doing to each other with our battles and arguments. I think that Krishna is right, we need to look at it. In order to really live this life, we need to get in there and be amongst it. We can’t remove ourselves. The people in the battle are another part of ourselves. If we are removed, then they will always be “the others”. If we are a part of it, and we witness this pain and agony of being both the aggressor and the victim, we can see ourselves truthfully. Only then are we able to move past needing this sort of life.

    Great post, as always, Louis.

    • I appreciate your thoughts. I remember a workshop I took several years ago in which one of the questions we were asked is what is the purpose of life on Earth. My answer was that the purpose is to live on this Earth. The person conducting the workshop told me I was wrong. If I had said, as you have here, that in order to really live our lives we must “get in there and be amongst it,” he might have agreed with me a little more. I think that your good phraseology is basically the same as my seemingly obvious tautology (though there is more to the answer than the tautology).

      • “Henry Miller remarked that “life has to be given a meaning because of the obvious fact that it has no meaning.” But he also said that “the aim of life is to live, and to live means to be aware, joyously, drunkenly, serenely, divinely aware.”

        “In a conformist society, the attainment of that joyous, drunken, serene awareness is both an act of resistance and a personal achievement, for it says to hell with Caesar and his tawdry coin, and leaves each of us to invest life with all the intangible and unaccountable forms of wealth that the imperial minions in their counting house can scarcely begin to imagine.”

        John Burnside


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