The Warrior Ethos

The Warrior Ethos

The War Inside Ourselves

By Steven Pressfield | Published: April 25, 2011

Chapter 25   The War Inside Ourselves

The Bhagavad-Gita is the great warrior epic of India. For thousands of years, Indian caste structure has been dominated by two elite social orders—the Brahmins (poets and holy men) and the Kshatriyas (warriors and nobles).

Gita

The war chariot of Arjuna and Krishna

The Bhagavad-Gita is the story of the great warrior Arjuna, who receives spiritual instruction from his charioteer, who happens to be Krishna—i.e., God in human form.

Krishna instructs Arjuna to slay his enemies without mercy. The warrior-god points across the battlefield to knights and archers and spearmen whom Arjuna knows personally and feels deep affection for—and commands him to kill them all. But here’s the interesting part:

The names of these enemy warriors, in Sanskrit, can be read two ways. They can be simply names. Or they can represent inner crimes or personal vices, such as greed, jealousy, selfishness, the capacity to play our friends false or to act without compassion toward those who love us.

In other words, our warrior Arjuna is being instructed to slay the enemies inside himself.

Human history, anthropologists say, can be divided into three stages—savagery, barbarism, and civilization. Warrior codes arose during the period known as High Barbarism. Many noble cultures fall under this category, from Native American tribes to Cyrus’s Persians to the Greeks and Trojans made immortal in Homer’s Iliad. The Warrior Ethos’s origins are primitive. Its genesis lies in the eye-for-an-eye ethic of humanity’s most ancient and primordial epochs.

The Bhagavad-Gita changes this. It takes the Warrior Ethos and elevates it to a loftier and nobler plane—the plane of the individual’s inner life, to his struggle to align himself with his own higher nature.

Chapter 26   The Lord of Discipline

In the Gita, the warrior Arjuna is commanded to slay the “foes” that constitute his own baser being. That is, to eradicate those vices and inner demons that would sabotage his path to becoming his best and highest self.

How is Arjuna instructed to do this? By the practice of self-discipline. In other words, by the interior exercise of his exterior Warrior Ethos.

Arjuna’s divine instructor (one of whose titles in Sanskrit is “Lord of Discipline”) charges his disciple to:

Fix your mind upon its object.

Hold to this, unswerving,

Disowning fear and hope,

Advance only upon this goal.

Here is the Warrior Ethos directed inward, employing the same virtues used to overcome external enemies—courage, patience, will, selflessness, the capacity to endure adversity—but enlisting these qualities now in the cause of the inner struggle for integrity, maturity and the honorable life.

Chapter 27   A Rite of Passage

Why do young men and women in a free society enlist in the military? The act seems to defy common sense. Why volunteer for low pay, lame haircuts and the chance to be killed—particularly in a society that rewards such behavior with little of more substance than a “Thank you for your service” or a yellow ribbon on a bumper sticker? Why do it? Why sign up?

One answer may be that the young man or woman is seeking a rite of passage.

When we enlist in the Army or the Marine Corps, we’re looking for a passage to manhood or womanhood. We have examined our lives in the civilian world and concluded, perhaps, that something’s missing. Do we lack self-discipline? Self-confidence? Do we feel stuck? Are we heading in the wrong direction?

We want action. We seek to test ourselves. We want friends—real friends, who will put themselves on the line for us—and we want to do the same for them. We’re seeking some force that will hurl us out of our going-nowhere lives and into the real world, into genuine hazard and risk.

We want to be part of something greater than ourselves, something we can be proud of. And we want to come out of the process as different (and better) people than we were when we went in. We want to be men, not boys. We want to be women, not girls.

We want a rite of passage. We want to grow up.

One way to do that is to go to war. Young men have been undergoing that ordeal of initiation for ten thousand years. This passage is into and through what the great psychologist Carl Jung called “the Warrior Archetype.”

[Continued next Monday. To read from Chapter One in sequence, click here.]

Posted in The Warrior Ethos

13 Responses to “The War Inside Ourselves”

  1. April 25, 2011 at 4:00 am

    Hi, Steven, your books are the glue that holds our (mostly) virtual team together. Thank you! I hope you enjoy the blog post my colleague Jamie Eslinger wrote about Do The Work! http://thepromise365.com/2011/04/24/day-114-quick-like-a-bunny/

    • April 25, 2011 at 12:59 pm

      Thanks, Debbie … and thanks, Jamie. The post looks great — and I’m delighted to be you guys’ “glue.”

  2. Aaron Combs
    April 25, 2011 at 7:31 am

    Chapter 27 may be the best post yet and I’ve loved them all. Steven has hit the nail on the head regarding the motivations of young, American men and women to join the Profession of Arms. It has less to do with college money or a chance to “see the world” and more to do with being a better citizen and being part of something bigger than yourself, something that will still be there long after you are gone. I just wish more Americans pursued the chance to be a proffesional warrior. I can’t wait to see what Steven has next.

  3. April 25, 2011 at 3:12 pm

    My siblings and I all have masters degrees from big-name schools. So when my nephew came to me to say he wanted to join the US Navy, it made no sense to me. He said he “wanted discipline” and wanted to join the SEALs. My response? “You get discipline from your parents and teachers. You develop it in your self. You don’t have to join the bloody Navy to get discipline…” I was very wrong, and with today’s post I finally understood why. Thank you. BTW, he’s finishing up a distinguished career in the SEALs and is one of the happiest campers I know.

    • OPD
      January 29, 2012 at 7:42 pm

      Miss O’day,
      I don’t mean to insult your post, and I’m sincerely trying to tread lightly, but I’m curious: why is education a factor in reacting to your nephews’ decision to join the navy? A very common myth in our society is that military service and education are mutually exclusive. Is it the idea that if you’re well educated, or have “masters degrees from big-name schools” exempts you from the desire to live for a greater good? Does paying that tuition replace eagerly enduring adversity and hardship? You should never be surprised by the correlation between service and accomplishments in academia, because determination and dedication are the keys to both.

  4. Bill Andrews
    April 25, 2011 at 6:45 pm

    War as a masculine right of passage is well founded in history. What is the basis of the assertion that war should be considered a passage into womanhood? Is this an American cultural innovation?

  5. Sonali
    April 25, 2011 at 7:12 pm

    Steven,
    As a Hindu, I grew up hearing the lessons from the Bhagvad Gita (and the Mahabharata) from which it is extracted. Thanks for looking into the deeper meaning of the Gita. As you know, the enemies of Arjuna are numerous (and close relatives, friends and mentors). The righteous are few. War is the last option (and Lord Krishna attempts to play peace-maker). He sides with the righteous and eventually they prevail.
    We were always taught that the whole story is a metaphor for the human condition. Our weaknesses are many, but Divinity always sides with the nobler (but fewer) characteristics.

    • marianne
      April 25, 2011 at 10:24 pm

      Namaste!

  6. Sandeep
    April 25, 2011 at 9:07 pm

    I write from Mumbai (India). Your interpretation of the Bhagwadam is spot on. It is indeed the ‘inner’ foes that Krishna urges Arjuna to vanquish. In fact, here’s another little known fact. If you notice, according to the story, Krishna leads the 5 Pandava bothers in war against the 100 Kaurava brothers. The real message here is that our 5 SENSES are at war with a 100 distractions out there in the world, and this keeps us straying from our path. It’s the mind (Krishna)that guides the senses to vanquish the distractions, and stay on the path.

  7. marianne
    April 25, 2011 at 10:30 pm

    Pratyahara

  8. May 3, 2011 at 2:01 pm

    Thanks for these interpretations! I’m just getting into reading this lit, so it’s wonderful to see these comments.

  9. May 18, 2011 at 11:43 am

    It is an indeed a great post. In my country, it is compulsory to join the military service and even though we hate them, we can’t deny the fact that the experiences inside taught us to be a better person overall.

  10. A. S. Sam
    April 14, 2013 at 6:34 am

    Mr. Pressfield, I like your post in general and it is well intentioned. But I don’t know if you realize that your reference to “the Indian caste structure with two elite orders” is offensive to modern Indians. We value the ideal of equality enshrined in our constitution away from the harmful and anachronistic caste system. For the last 60+ years (since independence), the country has struggled to achieve that ideal and is still working hard towards it, because it is important. More importantly, any glorification, explicit or implicit, of the caste system misses the point of the Bhagavad-Gita. Its essential point is about unity — that of the human soul with the divine (from which all other principles of unity can be derived as corollaries). “Slay the enemy within”, includes slaying any notion of discrimination. The Bhagavad Gita, among other great books of the world, exhorts us all to reach our true potential, regardless of caste, color, or other artificial dividing criterion that people have dreamed up in the past. Please keep up the good work in getting that true message across sans the caste parts. Regards