The practice of non-violence: a perspective from hinduism

This comment by Sharon Gannon originally appeared in a discussion in Reality Sandwich 22 Feb 2008

The Practice of Non-Violence

Dear Daniel [Pinchbeck], you have stated: “I believe that the principle of ahimsa cannot be applied to our present (world) situation. Violence against oppression is justified in certain cases, whether Jews against Nazis or Native Americans against the US Army. In fact, there are, I propose, negative karmic effects in not opposing domination, when the dominator force represents a predatory virus whose effects are universal across the world. Yoga philosophy may have to be amended in our contemporary context.”

May I respond: The teaching of yoga as found in Patanjali’s yoga sutra does not say that violence is wrong or right or good or bad or justified or not. Patanjali does not pass a value judgment on any action for its own sake. He speaks to those who seek enlightenment; to those who want to disentangle themselves from the cycle of birth and death. To them he says choose your actions wisely, according to the results they will bring, be sure that those results are in alignment with your aims. A yogi is someone who is not so much interested in being “right” as they are interested in being “free”. One can (and many do) justify violence from a perspective of being right: If someone has hurt you, you can feel justified in retaliating, lashing out. Or when someone drives a plane into the World Trade Center, you along with most Americans may feel completely justified in engaging in some type of revenge. When push comes to shove, habits are hard to break….and so the world goes round and round and round…. In Sanskrit this is referred to as the wheel of samsara, which literally means same (sam) suffering (sara) over and over again.

A yogi is someone who is committed to moksha, which is freedom from this cycle of karma. One begins on that journey to liberation by ceasing to react to outer symptoms and instead directing one’s actions toward discovering the causes of the obstacles to freedom.

The author, Gregory David Roberts, spent time in India, locked up in one of the worst prisons in the world, notorious for it’s filthy conditions and violent sadistic brutality inflicted upon it’s incarcerated prisoners. From his experiences GDR wrote a book titled, Shantaram, (which is a Sanskrit word meaning, man of peace.) The following excerpt is from chapter one.

"It took me a long time and most of the world to learn what I know about love and fate and the choices we make, but the heart of it came to me in an instant, while I was chained to a wall and being tortured. I realized, somehow, through the screaming in my mind, that even in that shackled, bloody helplessness, I was free: free to hate the men who were torturing me, or to forgive them. It doesn't sound like much, I know. But in the flinch and bite of the chain, when it's all you've got, that freedom is a universe of possibility. And the choice you make, between hating and forgiving, can become the story of your life."—GDR

Using Violence against violence:

In your comments you not only cite historical situations in which violence was used in order to right a wrong you also justify the violence: when you say:“….I would argue that the partisans of Spain, the fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto, the US Army against the Nazis, the Native Americans against the colonialists, etcetera, did not create negative karma, but moved closer to liberation through their actions…”

In response to that statement, I must ask, “what do you mean by liberation?” Has the world been liberated? Has the war been won? Are we all free? Is there peace on earth?

Apparently you don’t think that the war has been won and is over, because you are using as the foundation for your “violent means argument” the fact that the world is in dire straits.

It is common practice for generals, soldiers, presidents, murderers, slaughterhouse workers, vivisectionists, and meat eaters to justify violence by rationalizing that it will bring about something good in the end. Many who perpetuate violence against animals say yes it is evil but it is a necessary evil. Necessary for what? When is evil ever really necessary? Can we truly afford its consequences?

The fact is that violence only brings more violence.

A mere glance, looking back in history will prove this. Referring to an example you have already given, where violence was used against violence: the Native Americans fought against the invasion of the Europeans, but in the end the Europeans did not leave America, in fact they are still coming.

But when we look at the two major non-violent movements of our present era: India’s independence from Britain and the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, have to a large extent achieved their goals.

But if your goal is to perpetuate more violence, then by all means react to violence with more violence and you will see it will work every time.

But if you have another aim in mind; for instance peace or liberation, then your strategy must be more radical as it must address the root cause of the issue. You must ask yourself what actions would result in peace?

You must plant the best seeds to achieve your goals. If you want to eat apple pie, you don’t start by planting a pumpkin seed. You must create the kind of karmas, which are “good” for achieving your desired result. And if you are still living in a time-bound reality you must be patient, as there really is no such thing as instant karma; because seeds take time to grow.

“The non-violent approach does not immediately change the heart of the oppressor. It first does something to the hearts and souls of those committed to it. It gives them new self-respect; it calls up resources of strength and courage that they did not know they had. Finally it reaches the opponent and so stirs his conscious that reconciliation becomes a reality.”—MLK,jr

When in the throes of symptoms one easily feels like a victim and can think that the violence is being inflicted upon them. At that time it is difficult to reflect on possible causes, much less to calmly act from a causal place. Most of us react to symptoms, not to causes and in doing so perpetuate the very things we want to be rid of. We attack the common cold with medicines that get rid of the symptoms, but does the cold go away? We view diseases like cancer and heart disease in a similar way by fighting the symptoms of the disease but not addressing the causes of the disease. We say we want an end to terrorism, but who is willing to look in the mirror and see where they themselves may be contributing to terrorism. We say we want peace, but are we willing to live peacefully?

When you brought up, at the Evolver event, the question about what should one do if one is being attacked, I said if you can see the person coming at you as not coming at you but as coming from you, then you can use compassion to absorb him or her back into the emptiness (shunyata) of your own heart. This is the best scenario, but it may be the most difficult. If you turn the other cheek, you perceive yourself as a victim and you perceive the attacker as victimizing you and you set up a situation for that person to incur more karma, which would lead to more violence. So, if you can’t recognize your attacker for who he or she really is and use the weapon of love to forgive and absorb this person into emptiness, then it would be best to admit that you can’t see the situation clearly and do your best to exit. Otherwise your only other option would be to fight back, reacting to violence with more violence. If you choose violence as your option then you insure a future for yourself of more violence. In other words you don’t stop the violence at that moment by attacking or killing your opponent, you only plant more seeds for more violence to be set into motion.

In the example I gave from Gregory David Robert’s experience in prison, he could not physically run away from his oppressors, but he could have reacted with violence by thinking violent thoughts about his tormentors. Instead he realized that if he really wanted to change the course of his life and be free of violence he had to make the first move toward that freedom and he did. He did it by refusing to act violently; instead he used love to shower his tormentors with forgiveness. To meet violence with love usually takes a lot of practice (sadhana).

The Bhagavad Gita addresses this issue. I think I should say something about the Gita because, someone did use it at the Evolver event, to justify killing and my answer to them that night wasn’t received very well and you also bring it up again in our latest discussion.

So here, in brief: is the Gita—-

In beginning of the story Arjuna, who is a ten-generation-professional soldier is very upset, his mind is unclear he is in a state of anxiety. He tells his friend, Krishna, that he doesn’t want to fight, he wants to quit his job. Krishna tells Arjuna that he can’t quit his job right now, he has to fight because his past karmas have set him up to fight and he doesn’t have any other options at this time. But, Krishna also tells him that if he is really serious about changing his destiny, the course of his life, then he can help him to do that through teaching him yoga. The Bhagavad Gita then unfolds as Krishna gives the various teaching on yoga, karma, shunyata, and love. Krishna tells him that in order to change his life’s path he must first bring himself to a state of equanimity of mind through the practices of yoga and from that place he will be able to perceive himself and others clearly and then he can take the necessary actions which would enable him to quit his job as a soldier. Krishna cautions him about making a life changing decision while in a state of anxiety, as he explains that no lasting positive change can come from actions that are born out of violence, anger or depression. But to alter one’s perception of reality takes time and this is what abyasa (steady practice) means. Consistant steady practice over time brings the desired result. Arjuna had been practicing violence consistently for a long time, now he wants to change and wants instant peace. It doesn’t happen that way. One must unravel one’s entanglements, using abyasa and viaragya (detachment).

Let’s backtrack for a moment: An understanding of basic yogic terms like karma,(action) shunyata (emptiness) and pratisthayam (to be established in a particular practice) may help when it comes to discussing ahimsa. (non-violence). So let’s start with karma, which simply means action. Good karma and bad karma are terms of relevance. What brings you closer to your desired goal, whatever that may be, is referred to as “good” karma and what takes you away from your desired goal could then be seen as “bad” karma.

During our talk at the Evolver event, you said that you didn’t like the way that Geshe Michael Roach commented that all the people who had come to hear his talk had good karma. You felt that with this statement he was being elitist, and you asked, “What about the security person, working downstairs, does that mean they don’t have good karma and that they have bad karma?” Karma is relative, as all actions are. The people at the Geshe M. talk had the “good” karma to be there, the security person had different karmas, which weren’t “good” for hearing a Buddhist lecture. The security person has karmas, which are “good” for something else. There is no judgment of right and wrong here…it is about what actions will best take you to where you want to go. Not everybody is interested in Buddhism for instance; this doesn’t mean they are bad people or that they are doing something wrong.

The Practice of non-violence

Central to the teachings of yoga is a belief that the nature of the universe and of the Self is ananda, which mean bliss or boundless joy. In other words it is a happy, harmonious space. Dr. Martin Luther King jr speaks of this essential space:

“Nonviolent resistance is based on the conviction that the universe is on the side of justice. Consequently, the believer in nonviolence has deep faith in the future. This faith is another reason why the nonviolent resister can accept suffering without retaliation. For he knows that in his struggle for justice he has cosmic partnership.”

How do we see ourselves? How we treat others determines how others treat us, how others treat us determines how we see ourselves, how we see ourselves determines who we are.

During the American Civil Rights movement in 1960s, Malcolm X opposed the non-violent yogic methods to which Dr. King was committed. When Malcolm X spoke to black people he spoke to them as if they were victims of violence. He wanted to encourage them to fight with vengeance for the wrongs that had been done to them. He felt that for blacks to use violence against whites was justified. In order to do this he did his best to make blacks feel like victims and to identify themselves as victims. He made them feel angry, instigating violence against their oppressors. Dr. King, on the other hand did not speak to black people as if they were victims, he spoke to them as if they were saints. He spoke to their higherselves. He spoke to them as if they were holy beings, who had already overcome anger and fear and had become so large in love that they could forgive their oppressors. He spoke to those who had a vision of the promised land and he spoke as someone who shared that vision of the promised land as a true possibility.

Ahimsa pratisthayam tat samnidhau vaira tyagah—Patanjali YogaSutra 11.35 (translation: When you stop harming others, others will cease to harm you)

Our actions are powerful, they create the reality we live in. So the question of whether or not we should use violence to combat violence should be answered by asking ourselves: What do we really want, how do we want the future to unfold? Our actions now will determine how that happens. It has always been up to us.

“Violence only brings one thing: more and more of the same. We can bomb the world to pieces but we can’t bomb it into peace.”—Michael Franti

Om Shantih,

Thank you Daniel, With love, Sharon

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