For a long time I have not been very enthusiastic about holidays such as Independence Day, Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day. I never got misty-eyed about the patriotism of it all. Though my country (The U.S.A.) is great, I often get the feeling that patriotism CAN lead to dangerous egotism if you buy into the idea that you live in the “greatest country in the world” and that as such, God somehow loves “us” more than “them.” And I never liked the idea of borders and I still think they cause most of the world’s problems.
Regarding Memorial Day, I certainly have always felt, and still do feel the importance of giving thanks to those who gave their lives in war either by choice or by draft. It was not until I read the Bhagavad-Gita that I understood what these men and women really did, however. Soldiers who give their lives in war are perfect examples of the non-detachment which Lord Krishna expounds in the Gita. Literally giving their lives for a higher ideal than his individual life. And for that it doesn’t matter if you are Hindu or not. Jesus taught loving your neighbor (your countrymen) as though he were yourself.
But fighting for one’s country can be rajasic (fighting for the glory) or sattwic (to maintain righteousness) depending on the combatant’s motives and state of mind. It can even become tamasic as we have seen with many soldiers getting caught in compromising situations regarding civilians. But let us focus on the sattwic form of war that Krishna was imploring Arjuna to fight in the Bhagavad-Gita.
There is room for speculation of course as to whether the meeting on the Kurukshetra battlefield in the Gita was an actual historical event or if it is all an allegory based on the teachings of Krishna. To me it does not matter because what it teaches is the importance of doing one’s prescribed duty in this incarnation (dharma) and this can apply to going to war just as well as it can apply to washing dishes in a diner. But let’s take it literally for a second. In the Gita, Krishna tells Arjuna that if he, Arjuna, is killed in the line of duty carrying out a war for righteous purposes (I am not talking about dogmatic or religio-political purposes) “the doors to heavenly planets” are opened to him. Interpret that as you will, but it is equivalent to how the scriptures say that a soul in an animal form that was used in the animal sacrifices of old automatically ascended to a human birth in its next incarnation. Same thing because going to war is the ultimate sacrifice a man can make. It is beyond his control and its purposes are beyond his understanding often.
And that is why Memorial Day is an auspicious day. It teaches us how to reach the state of Sattwa in all that we do in life.