A Note on Non-Violence (Ahimsa)

Namaste all!

A mail expressing some thoughts on violence, non violence and Gandhi. Since it is a lofty topic, I think i have broken my previous ‘longest mail’ record. Read only when you have time.

Yesterday was October 2nd. As an Indian, it is one date I am supposed to remember. But, in the flow of the routine, it went unnoticed, perhaps by the dim shadows of ever smouldering fire of vrttis (thoughts) in my chitta (consciousness).

Ostensibly, perhaps it was the dutiful thoughts of the morning Astanga class and maybe that scheduled interview with the writer from Health ministry which obscured it, but the real reason was purely heedlessness (pramada), one of the obstacles (antarayas) to present mindedness which Patanjali warns against. Certain dates have to be remembered, as both a matter of respect as well as a discipline.

Anyway, sometimes students save teachers, and yesterday was such a day.

Rowena and Qamarina was there with their mats rolled out. For any teacher, when a regular student stops becoming regular, it tugs. And when the student finally starts to show up again, with that old spark of enthusiasm rekindled, it heartens.

So instead of going to my room, sat with the mother and daughter team, and chatted about practice. In between, suddenly all of our eyes caught a tiny fluff of black moving on the floor. Just as I thought, ‚Äòwhat is this?’ Rowena announced ‚Äòbug’.

The bug too, in that moment, seemed to sense that it has been discovered. It darted a bit one way, then the other way, and then cowered in the middle, as if resigning its fate to the fancy of the giant onlookers.

Truly, we were in the possession of aiswarya, meaning ‚Äòover lordship’, as we could easily annihilate the bug with one tiny swat of the hand. But as I looked into Rowena’s eyes, I saw no such desire, but only a soft curiosity, coupled with compassion. With the bug still lying there, Rowena then recounted the story of how, in a packed prayer hall, she saw a bug trying to cross the room. Though her prayer concentration was not so high till then, the sight of the bug and thoughts of the bug’s safety really immersed her into the moment, and elevated her prayer into a deeply concentrated one, towards its safe passage. And as is the case with any heartfelt prayer, the bug did safely cross the room.

But to survive in an Astanga class would be difficult, I thought, with the all the jump ups, jump backs and jump throughs. To save the bug from the imminent danger, i gently brushed it to the corner of the class.

In the middle of the class I searched for it, and found it in one corner, semi conscious, perhaps dazed by the tremors on the floor formed by the efforts of the mighty Ashtangi warriors. Took it and placed on the window ledge, as no one would then accidentally step on it.

Later, as I was driving home, the plight of the bug reminded me of a poem by Robert Frost, ‚Äòthe considerable speck’.. and then thoughts of the virtue of non violence as the most important precursor for any spiritual insights and experience in yoga, and then suddenly, I remembered… ‚ÄòMy God, today is October 2nd.. Gandhi Jayanthi!’

It is the birth date of one of the greatest sons of India. The man who was one of the leaders most responsible for India’s success in her struggle for independence, and who is officially recognized as the Father of India. And his chief weapons were non violence, truth and brahmacharya etc. (the different yamas of yoga). And that way he is a great yoga teacher by example too, by his steadfast adherence to the yamas or prescribed restraints in yoga.

In fact his victory was not over the military might of British, but rather over their consciousness. His life and success shines as a true testimony to Patanjali’s verse, ‚Äòahimsa pratishthayam tat sannidhau vairya tyagah’, which means that ‚Äòin the proximity of a person who is really established in the principle of ahimsa (non violence), one looses all thoughts of enmity and hostility’. And on many occasions, from books, movies, comments, I have felt that the British respect Gandhi more than many of the Indians themselves.

And though I felt bad about forgetting to mention about Gandhi in class, felt really good that the ideology and teachings of non-violence (a-himsa) of the great man was expressed and practiced by that simple act of consideration shown towards that, what Frost calls as, ‚Äòa considerable speck’. (Those who don’t know Rowena, want to add that she is not only against the trampling of bugs, but also champions the cause of preserving endangered turtles along with her husband, and in fact runs a turtle sanctuary. Those interested to help in the project can ask us for details).

Now, coming to Patanjali, he says that Ahimsa is the first of the yamas and the most important. In fact Vyasa says that everything else in yoga should be built upon this principle of non violence.

What is non violence? It is the opposite of violence or himsa.

Violence or himsa is any action, word or thought triggered by the intention of causing hurt or loss to any prani (a being who partakes prana, or anything that breathes), whether sthavara (immobile) or jangamana (mobile).

This means that in its highest position, ahimsa is practicing restraint from causing any hurt to all living beings, including the plants and trees around us. Of course exceptions are given. Those tiny life forms (kshudra jivis), referring to bacteria or microbes, fungi etc which gets destroyed during body cleansing (shaucha) is exempted, as it cannot be helped. And so are violence inflicted from a standpoint of duty, such as those committed by soldiers in times of war. But for them too, specific rules are there, that they can do it only against soldiers of the opposite army, and only if the opponent is suitably armed and in a position to retaliate, and only in the stipulated time of war (till sun set etc).

Now, what are the motivating factors of this violence or himsa? What are its modes of expression?

Patanjali classifies the expressed modes (prakara) of violent actions as actions:

  1. Actually committed by oneself (krta)
  2. Committed through the auspices of someone else (karita)
  3. Hurtful, inappropriate actions which are not directly done, but consented and approved (anumodita)

And he says that any action (action include physical action, verbal utterances and mental activity) motivated by any of the three emotions of krodha (anger), lobha (greed) and moha (deluded infatuation) carries with it the seed of himsa or violence, meaning it can cause hurt to someone, either physically, emotionally or intellectually.

He also says that the first three subdivisions of violence can be then divided into three in the scale of intensity, as mild (mrdu), average (madhyama) and intense (adhimatra), and so can be divided the intensities of anger, greed and deluded obsessions.

So if you add all these together, then Vyasa says prima facie there are 81 types of himsa.

The end result of which is always discomfort and confusion (dukha and ajnana).

The primary reasons (hetu) for such thoughts and actions are 1) svarupa and 2)bheda.

Svarupa refers to our notion of ‚Äòself’ (‚ÄòI’) in the ‚Äònon self’ (the body, the job, the race etc), and then bheda refers to our notion of ‚Äòothers’ (other than ‚ÄòI’). What is implied is, violence stems from the excessive focussing on selfish gratification, and an inability to empathise with others (anu-bhavita).

So, how do we practice ahimsa this moment?

In big ways, such as prevention of animal endangerment, child abuse, global warming etc, as well as through simple, moment to moment incidents.

For me, as example, right now I want to type. But my daughter wants me to play a game where I am the baby, and she is the mother. And she wants me to sing some rhymes to which she will either scold or praise. I have played this game before, but right now, when I am thinking of Gandhi and Patanjali..how?

This difference (bheda) of desires between her and me immediately trigger waves of irritation, and then I can resort to either shout directly at her to keep quiet for ten minutes (krta) which will directly hurt her mentally (himsa), or get Sandhya to do it for me (karita) which will indirectly hurt her, or approve (anumodita) of another naughty action of hers which is to take out and play with all of Sandhya’s make up kit, so that I am left undisturbed.

All this is rising because of my inability to empathise with her. I am trapped in my identity (svarupa) of a yoga teacher, typing up something important, and seeing a big difference (bheda) in what my daughter wants, and then seeds of violence start to throb in different modes (prakara). Once I empathize, it is easy to see that she wants to play with someone her age, and since nobody is around, next best choice was to convert me to one. So after one round of enactment of myself as her son, quickly arranged for her to be taken to the baby pool. That resolved, I am back with the keyboard, but now I hear Sidharth calling me to watch his favourite PS 3 manoeuvres.

These of course are very small things. But the bigger forms of cruelty are also stemming from greed (lobha), ‚Äòturtle eggs for money’, and not empathizing with that dying life form, destroying forests, and not empathizing with our next generations who would not have a great atmosphere, etc.

Anyway, in conclusion, as yogis, let us all commit to this most important yama of ahimsa, and for which, may we practice the art of empathizing (anu-bhava), and from that empathy, may a certain harmony between differences emerge (bheda-abheda), and from that may ahimsa get firmly rooted (prati-sthayam), and from that root of noble feelings for all, let the tree of yoga grow in our consciousness, and may it then yield the fruits of wisdom and fragrance of love to all.



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