Yoga, Ahimsa, and Non-Violent Action: A Brief Cross-Cultural Analysis Of Violence by Sam Glannon

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You may recall if you've studied the most often-cited text on yoga, Patanjali's 'Yoga Sutras,' That asana, the set of physical practices which has become largely synonymous with yoga as a whole, is neither the only nor the first of the eight limbs described there. In fact yoga in the context of the system Patanjali describes is the name for a state of consciousness, not a single action or set of practices, and so no individual limb within that system (except perhaps samadhi) could be correctly described as constituting its essence. In the west, largely because of a lack of information about what it really is, the term 'yoga' has more or less come to mean a system of movements and not a state of being. This is lamentable, because only as a state of being can yoga be transformative for the practitioner in its most full sense.

I would like to recall to mind for you the first two limbs of yoga, which are the yamas and the niyamas. These are two sets of five ethical prescriptions each, five phrased in the negative and five phrased in the positive. These are as much a part of the original system of yoga as is asana or any of the others, and they are traditionally seen as preliminary to the ones which follow. Any one of these could be the subject of a lengthy reflection, but one which seems to merit particular mention in the context of the world today is ahimsa. This is normally translated as 'non-violence' or 'non-harming' and it can be understood in a number of interrelated senses. Here I will in most cases leave the Sanskrit word untranslated when it refers to the original philosophical concept as it appears in the traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism because no single English word or phrase accurately captures the breadth of the concept in the original language, and I will use the term ‘non-violence’ in referring to non-violent action and the theories which surround it outside of that traditional context. In its least subtle, most conventionally understood sense, it means not to do violence to others. It bears mention here that the concept of ahimsa as it appears in Hinduism, the religious milieu which is the progenitor of the ancient systems of yoga, has inevitably also been influenced by the Buddhist concept of ahimsa, which found its way back into Hinduism as Buddhism gained prevalence in India over the centuries. One notable contribution that Buddhism made to Hindu culture was the widespread adoption of vegetarianism into common practice in India for householders as well as ascetics. Philosophically and in lived experience, these two traditions lived alongside one another for more than a thousand years before Buddhism for a variety of reasons experienced a long and pronounced decline in India (in contrast to the rest of southeast Asia) the course of which has only begun to shift in the last one hundred years in large part because of the Chinese invasion and subsequent annexation of Tibet. In early Buddhism, especially Theravada Buddhism, the concept of ahimsa is well elaborated and received a lot of attention, and as a consequence, the version of that concept as it appears in Patanjali and in other texts on yoga inevitably owe some of their substance to that tradition as well. This is of course to ignore the long connection between Hindu and Buddhist ascetic practice, but that topic is far afield from the current discussion, so we can leave it aside for now.

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Ahimsa in its most narrow sense is an ethical prescription against doing harm to others. But it goes much beyond that. Yoga as a system aims at the shifting of the individual consciousness out of its normal mode and into a state of consciousness which takes another form completely wherein the individual consciousness merges with reality as a whole. One might say that it is transcendental consciousness, by which we might mean that it is consciousness which goes beyond the boundaries of our day to day experience of the self and the ego. It is therefore reasonable to ask in what sense ahimsa is intended to reach this goal. It is probably obvious that in some sense, doing violence is an act which must inevitably pollute the mind of the individual who undertakes violent actions, but this is only the most simple way of answering the question. Many within the tradition have described ahimsa as a sadhana in itself, in other words, as a practice by which the consciousness can be shifted to another state  on consciousness by that action alone. Consider what the nature of violence itself entails - it entails willful harming of another being, which by necessity presupposes an idea of purpose or intention based in an idea of separateness from the being which is harmed. This separation is itself the ego. This is true for Hinduism and Buddhism, but it is also the case in modern western psychology if you reflect on the matter. For Jung and Freud and the rest of the analytic tradition(s) which derive however circuitously from them, the ego is the limited sense of self which the mind creates (emphasis on creates - it is not, for any of these various thinkers in either the east or the west, an a priori organ of the psyche if you will permit me the artistic description). This sense of separation is in the conventional world a potentially useful thing as it helps us to preserve our organic bodies and to pursue our individual interests, but it can cause us a lot of trouble when it begins to run the show all on its own. You can think of ahimsa as constituting, therefore, a limit on the actions of the ego which is voluntarily taken on as a way of shifting the consciousness out of the ego's domain. By intentionally choosing not to do violence or cause harm, you are constraining the ego in pursuit of a psychological and personal good which transcends the realm of the ego.

Violence is a concept which deserves deconstruction. There is of course the most obvious and tangible instantiations of the concept - direct physical violence aimed at harming or killing another living being. But considered from a psychological perspective, the concept could be understood to take into its purview a wide variety of phenomena which are not on their face instances of the same sort of physical violence. Only slightly below the surface of an act of physical violence, there is perceivable a certain will to do harm in a more broad sense, whether that means psychologically or physically. Violence being a less conscious and more animalistic expression, these different intentions are likely only partially conscious or subconscious and poorly articulated. If they were better understood, they might well find a more productive and more sophisticated expression. We might therefore notice also that violence often results from a lack of clarity of mind and a reactivity to negative emotions. We might recall here Hannah Arendt's phrase the banality of evil, which is meant to capture in part this unthinking and unconscious and unreflective quality of action.

In both Hinduism and Buddhism we often find the idea that to fully practice ahimsa, it means not to undertake violence either in body, in speech, or in mind. The implication is twofold - first, it must mean that actions which are only acts of speech or of thought can also be violent, and second, that these actions are in some senses just as harmful as those undertaken physically. It must inevitably be concluded that the violence which is to be set aside by the practitioner of yoga is therefore not merely the violence of physical harm, but also violence in speech or in thought. We can easily see the value in this. While one may cause no physical harm to another person by insulting, demeaning, or trying to coerce them, there is a certain violence and harm which is caused by it. For our own consciousness, it is not meaningfully different to undertake these actions in non-physical terms. The harm to the other being involved, although it may not be physical in nature, is real nonetheless. The idea of separation from the object of the violence is the same, and the state of consciousness which results for both parties is not meaningfully different from the state of consciousness brought about by violence of a physical nature.

This leads us also to an idea of violence as a relational concept, which is to say violence as an interpersonal phenomena with ramifications outside the experiential components which are perhaps its most overt feature. In both Buddhism and Hinduism, there is an understanding that the ego is a source, or for Buddhism, the source of suffering writ large. This is a more complicated statement than it might initially seem - the idea here isn't only that the ego as a psychological structure is a cause of suffering, but also that the idea of separation which is a necessary component of the ego and which precedes and underlies it is itself the cause of suffering before the fact. To put it more forcefully, individual consciousness as experienced in the form of the ego is itself a state of suffering. This again is a point of convergence between modern psychology and these two ancient traditions. For the psychoanalytical community, the ego as distinct from the superego, which is the site of group consciousness and the individual's relation to the larger world and society, is the psychological structure which sets us apart from the outside, and as such can be a cause of suffering due to this sense of separation. This idea exists also in the Judeo-Christian tradition in a similar form in the ideas those traditions have about feelings of separateness from the divine and the pain which results from it. What we are talking about in basic terms is a contradiction between two different types of drive which we possess and which can cause us a great deal of cognitive dissonance if the contradiction is not carefully resolved. As finite beings, we have in a sense two competing sets of interests - those which concern us individually, and which may run contrary to those of the group, society, environment, or larger world more broadly construed, and those interests which relate us to those entities outside ourselves. Violence, from this perspective, is the misguided attempt to resolve this internal imbalance by force, either of a physical or psychological nature. In the case of physical coercion, theft, etc. the attempt exists at the level of the physical being, where a perceived material imbalance on the part of the individual is the source of the tension. In the case of coercion, hate speech, and other forms of verbal and mental violence, the situation is not much different, but the imbalance in question is internal, emotional, psychological, etc. The basic structure of the situation, however, is not different. From this perspective, violence is not a question of a monadic action, but a question instead of a set of interpersonal psychological circumstances, and as such is not amenable to the same sorts of analyses.

Political violence is inevitably violence of this sort. We live in a time when the interconnectedness of individuals, social entities and even mechanical objects is incredibly prominent and is increasing every day. This interconnectedness is not a new thing. The Buddhist concept of emptiness is in part based in this state of interconnection, although it goes much beyond that. The idea is not a new one - your actions affect me in one way or another, even if only indirectly. The world as it is today makes the much more immediate and tangible for us by its very structure. It is in fact harder and harder to divorce oneself from the actions of others in sometimes painful and uncomfortable ways. Violence as a relational concept and as a psychological concept can be seen much more clearly in this milieu. It was always the case that this interconnectedness exists, and in fact this relatedness is one of the underlying realities which necessitates moral thinking to begin with. But if ever there was a possibility of doubting the truth of this reality, it seems impossible to do so now when the world displays a high level of interdependence as a tangible, even physical property. You can send electronic signals, physical objects, and living human beings across the world with relative ease. Even to say this is almost unnecessary because it has become such a basic, elemental fact of life. This interconnectedness means that the sorts of mental and emotional violence which once might have affected only a few people or which might have passed unnoticed become easily perceived by great numbers of people, and the capacity of verbal and mental violence to cause harm is greatly increased. Tangentially, by 'harm', I mean not just the kinds of emotional and psychic harm which you might initially infer, but also the kinds of practical difficulties that arise from the divisiveness as well as interpersonal and inter communal tensions which are consequent from them. Taken from this perspective, these acts of mental and verbal violence have a real cash value both in the utilitarian and capitalist senses. The strange, somewhat reflexive consequence (an inversion worthy of treatment by Adorno) of all this is that even this simplicity of causing harm, because it arises out of interconnectedness, has a tangible reciprocal effect on the person causing the harm because they themselves cannot be isolated from the beings who are being harmed. Again, the modern era has made it all the more obvious that our own selves do not, as the ego might have us believe, end at the edge of our bodies or even at the boundaries of our near interpersonal spheres, but extend in a real and practical sense to the entire society and even to the entire planet. Buddhist ethics (I would argue all ethical systems in general, but again that discussion would range far afield) always presupposed the inseparability of all living beings from one another. The practical realities of the world have now made that contention all the easier to witness in real terms.

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Do not misunderstand the intention of what I am saying here - I do not seek to lay this sad state of affairs at the doorstep of any one group or party, political or otherwise. The very substance of the point I am making belies that interpretation. No individual or group of individuals could create this state of interdependent being alone. It is the very fact of interrelation which creates it, and that relating and the tensions resulting from it are themselves the subject of the dissonance when in the course of events those tensions arise. Therefore it is impossible to suppose that it is a question of a monadic or even a dual actor creating a set of circumstances. The very nature of intercommunal or inter party verbal and mental violence is at the very least bivalent and probably in most cases polyvalent. But this understanding of the interpersonal nature of such violence also contains within it the solution to such a problem. The sense of division and otherness which creates the internal tension within this interconnected web of beings is itself both the substance and the source of the problem, and therefore to resolve it, even in the personal sphere, is a viable path towards a solution in the macrocosmic sense. Once it becomes possible to see in the other one's own self and motivations, the division itself becomes impossible and the tension will being to be resolved.

The method of this resolution exists at a few levels - on one level it exists in a certain understanding and at another of a certain method of action, again in both the personal and interpersonal spheres. The understanding required is the one which I have been describing up until this point, namely that you are not separate from any other living being, but in ways large and small your actions relate to and have effects on them. The method of action you choose to adopt in your daily life and in your relations with other people, other groups, and other communities, if they are to be successful, must recognise this fact in meaningful ways, both in substance and in content. I would turn your attention here to the methods of nonviolent action which were worked out by various people and groups in the last century. The most integrally related to our current discussion is the method of satyagraha developed by Gandhi in South Africa and later in India. Satyagraha is in principle related to ahimsa in that it takes nonviolence and truth to have a power of their own, which when used correctly can effect change much greater than that which is possible by violence. A theme to which Gandhi returns frequently in his writings on the subject is the idea that effects carry within them the traces of their cause, by which he means that changes brought about by violence are never inseparable from that violence, and likewise changes brought about by non-violence are also inevitably shaped by that origin. This idea was later taken up in powerful ways, notably by Martin Luther King Jr. in this country and by Nelson Mandela in South Africa. Gandhi himself was able to make great use of the concept. This method of action is rooted the understanding that power is not a thing which is taken but a thing which is instead given (if you wish to explore this further, I would point you to the writings of Gene Sharp on the subject, himself a former resident of our own city). At a very subtle level, the exercise of power itself is a form of violence. Once again, the discussion of this aspect of the subject is itself voluminous and is perhaps the worthy recipient of a full treatment elsewhere. I think Deleuze and Guattari's works have gone far in elucidating this and so perhaps I will not need to do so myself. Therefore, to truly effect change, you can't force your interlocutor to go along with you, you must instead convince them, such that they will, by their own will and volition, come to agree with you. This is the method of satyagraha as Gandhi employed it. He went in front of powerful British officials and judges in India and argued in favor of changes to the law and even in favor of independence. Eventually, through non-violent means alone, he was able to succeed in this goal. What is notable about this is that the two levels of his action are in agreement with one another. He treats the other person he approaches as both a sentient being who can be convinced and as a moral actor with real moral sentiments. This does justice to the other person and indirectly to his own position. We might be reminded here of Lacan's thoughts about statements and their enunciation. This is the sense in which the two levels of speech correspond in true satyagraha - the speech act at the level of what is said is peaceful and seeks reconciliation, and the way it is said, its feeling and other enunciated content is also peaceful and non-violent. This means that the very structure of the interaction itself already embodies within it the goal being sought and being stated, and therefore it achieves it goal of being both consciously non-violent and non-violent in its means.

Now, I hear you saying it loudly into your computer monitor - 'Sam, you ludicrous street preacher of threadbare madness, what does any of this have to do with me or with yoga?' Yoga, Buddhism, and psychology as I have discussed them here share one intention, that being the shaping of consciousness away from suffering, and I am trying to describe to you the sadhana around it so that you can use the information to shape your own actions and thoughts. Ahimsa is a thing that you practice and not merely an abstraction which you contemplate, although it is that as well. It is something with which you can have an ongoing relationship and which can guide your thoughts and the way you relate to the rest of the world. I hope I have showed you some ways in which that is the case. To use it as an object of meditation is to keep the intention not to do violence of any kind and not to cause harm in any way, be it in thought, speech, or action, no matter how small that act may seem. By keeping this intention, your awareness will shift, and this is also yoga. Yoga broadly construed is a system of constraints of consciousness which change your physical and psychological relationship with the world in such a way that you will eventually attain what is referred to variously as moksha or nirvana. You might also describe it as freedom from suffering. The methods of reaching this goal themselves embody that goal, and this is the case with ahimsa specifically. In this context, ahimsa is a very powerful tool, and if used wholeheartedly is a worthy spiritual practice all on its own. Beyond that, we are living in a situation in the current era where violence, especially (but not exclusively) in its more subtle forms, has gained prevalence in our daily lives in any number of ways. There is consequently the question of how one relates to that situation. Inevitably, I think one must either willfully and consciously keep ones mind from falling into those patterns which are creating that atmosphere, or be drawn into them. This is detrimental to one's self and to the larger society as a whole, and as such is obviously not desirable. Given that the cause of this circumstance is itself violence and coercion, violence and coercion also cannot be the solution to that circumstance. In fact, they never can be, but especially not in such an instance as this. This leaves us to contemplate the meaningfulness and power of nonviolent action and the ways we have in our own lives of encountering violence in such a way that we do not succumb to it, but we also do not allow it to take over the larger world. I hope I have showed you how I think that is possible.