The Naimisha Journal
The Yoga tradition emphasizes the principle of ahimsa or non-violence for
its ideal way of action in the world. Therefore, we might assume that the yogic
response to the terrorist attack on America would not involve any violent action
against the terrorists. However, a deeper examination of the Yoga tradition,
which has several teachings about political and military situations, shows that
this might not be the case. The Yoga tradition can under certain circumstances
recommend a violent response in order to prevent greater harm from occurring.
This is like a surgeon removing a harmful tumor so that it does not grow and
damage the whole body.
Many people in the Yoga tradition look to the non-violence of Mahatma
Gandhi, which was applied against the British, as the appropriate yogic response
to the current situation. They don’t realize that perhaps even greater yogis,
like Sri Aurobindo, who headed the Indian independence movement before Gandhi,
felt that Gandhian non-violence was too weak a strategy. He supported the allied
military action both in World War II and during the Korean War. One is also
reminded of the situation of Kashmir in 1947 in which Gandhi, though
reluctantly, approved of bringing in the Indian army to deal with bands of
brigands or terrorists who were plundering the area. In this regard, the Yoga
tradition recognizes a warrior or Kshatriya path that did involve military
training. So let us examine this difficult question further.
Ahimsa literally means ‘non-harming’. It refers to an attitude that
we should wish no harm to any creature, even to those attacking us. But ahimsa
is not simply a passive strategy. It has an active side. It entails reducing the
amount of harm that is going on in the world, which requires effort or even
Ahimsa does not simply mean ‘non-violence’ as a physical action, nor
is it not necessarily opposed to the use of violence in order to prevent harm
from happening. In addition, ahimsa must be applied with courage and
fearlessness, in order to expose and eradicate evil. It is not an attitude of
tolerating or excusing evil. It is not a form of appeasement in which one lets
bullies get away with their action or which rewards violent action by
surrendering to its perpetrators in order to prevent them from causing more
The Bhagavad-Gita, which teaches about the spiritual aspect of yoga in
great detail, was taught on the battlefield, during a civil war. While some will
say that this outer battlefield is a metaphor for an inner struggle, which is
true, that an outer battle was involved is clear from many historical records
from ancient India. Krishna, the great yoga teacher, encouraged his disciple
Arjuna, who was a great warrior, to fight, though Arjuna was reluctant and
wanted to follow a way of non-violence instead. Why did Krishna encourage Arjuna
There are two main types of ahimsa in the Yoga tradition. The first is
ahimsa as a spiritual principle that is followed by monks, yogis and sadhus,
which involves non-violence on all levels. The second is ahimsa as a political
principle, the ahimsa of the warrior or the Kshatriya, that is followed by those
who govern and protect society, which allows the use of violence to counter evil
forces in the world, including to protect spiritual people, who often cannot
defend themselves and become easy targets for worldly people. Krishna taught
this Kshatriya ahimsa to Arjuna for the benefit of future generations. Sages
before Krishna also taught this, like Vishvamitra who taught Rama and Lakshmana
to destroy the evil forces that were persecuting spiritual people, so it is a
very old tradition of India.
Yoga teaches us about the three great qualities of nature, the gunas or
Prakriti, of sattva (harmony), rajas (action and aggression), and tamas
(inertia, ignorance). There are several important laws of the interrelationship
of these gunas. One important law is that sattva cannot defeat tamas. The
quality of sattva being harmony, balance, meekness and surrender cannot break up
the inertia of tamas, which is deep-seated anger rooted in ignorance, hatred and
violence. For this the application of rajas or action to force change is
required. Sattva or harmony cannot survive unless rajas is used to suppress
tamas, which sees sattva as an unarmed enemy.
To put it more simply: Sattva means peace; rajas means pain; tamas means
Tamasic people being dull will only respond to pain. Only pain will bring
about change for them. Otherwise they will continue, like a drug addict, in
their destructive way of life.
Sattvic political action like non-violence can work with an opponent who
has a conscience like the British that had mainly a rajasic mentality. It cannot
work against an opponent like Hitler who had no conscience and had a tamasic
(insensitive and ignorant) nature. Even Gandhi in World War II reduced his civil
disobedience against the British in order to not damage their war effort against
Hitler. In fact, such sattvic methods can be manipulated by a tamasic enemy for
its own end, like how Hitler took the peace offered to him on Czechoslovakia in
1938 only in order to wage further war. Given the action of the terrorists on
Sept. 11, who used suicide bombers to kill thousands of innocent people,
claiming to be acting in the name of God (Allah), it is clear that their nature
is tamasic or deeply deluded.
The Kshatriya or warrior path is a common theme elsewhere in the
Mahabharata, from which the Gita comes. The Mahabharata teaches that the masses
of humanity are composed of mainly rajasic (egoistic) and tamasic (deluded)
qualities, which makes them insensitive and unresponsive to sattvic (spiritual)
methods. It states that if a ruler does not know how to properly apply the danda
(rod), the symbol of punishment, that his subjects will end up ‘eating one
another’. Ahimsa as a spiritual principle should not violate common sense that
requires a social order that has well-defined and fair laws and punishments to
keep disintegrating influences in check.
I am not a Buddhist scholar, but historically Buddhist kingdoms also
defended themselves with the use of force, notably China and Japan, which had
many Buddhist rulers through history. They have their own traditions of warrior
monks, who like Arjuna strive to promote total non-violence, but will put up a
resistance when they have to. We should note the Dalai Lama approved of
India’s recent nuclear tests in 1998 reflecting a similar attitude.
However, there are two forms of rajas (aggression), one leading to sattva
(peace), the other leading to tamas (resistance). This means that the response
to terrorism, which is a condition of tamas, must be done in the right way. The
application of force, done wrongly, can make the situation worse. But some force
will be necessary, including military action.
Afghanistan has a unique geography and a special government support that
allows for the training of terrorists such as can occur nowhere else in the
world. It is imperative that those bases are eliminated. Yet such force should
be applied seeking the greater good of all countries, not merely promoting one
group or country over another.
This is the problem for the United States today. We are ready to apply
force but not always in a progressive or dharmic way. We are inclined to act
without understanding the entire situation. Let us look at the history of the
problem. The US helped unleash Islamic terrorism as a weapon against the Soviet
Union in order to defeat that ‘evil empire’ in the Afghanistan war of the
1979-1989. In this process we promoted a form of Islamic militancy that was
different from and opposed to that of Iran, our other main enemy at the time. We
supported a Sunni form of extremism that was against the Shia form that Iran
After we left Afghanistan, however, the Islamic militancy that we had
fostered continued. In the beginning it mainly targeted our old enemies from the
Cold War era, with militants spreading their sphere of action to other parts of
the Soviet empire and to Kashmir, which is part of India, an ally of the Soviets
in the Cold War era. We ignored this terrorism until it began to strike our own
In addition, over the last ten years America’s leadership as the
world’s sole superpower has not always been progressive. We have opposed
agreements on environmental protection and arms reduction. We have used our
dominance to promote our own national and business interests, not the long-term
needs of the planet as a whole. We have continued to spread a sensate consumer
culture to the entire world, to the detriment not only of the natural
environment but also destroying other cultures that might be in the way.
Even our response to the Sept. 11 attacks is a bit hypocritical and
self-serving. Terrorism has been a global problem for decades, and one that we
have sought to profit from in various ways. Only when terrorism attacked America
did we regard it as a global problem, as if we are the globe. We have aimed at
attacking terrorism that has a ‘global reach’, meaning that is capable of
reaching America, suggesting that we may ignore more local forms of terrorism
that don’t affect us. We still have not addressed the greater problem of
global terrorism that we have been involved with for years.
One of the main causes of global terrorism is the massive global weapons
sales and arms industry. The United States is the largest provider of weapons to
the world and many terrorist groups are fighting with weapons supplied by us.
We have also propped up various military and religious dictatorships in
the world that deny human rights and, overtly or covertly, support terrorism.
Two of our major allies the war on terrorism, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, are of
this type. Saudi is a religious dictatorship that helped found the Taliban and
has a similar repressive religious social order. Pakistan is a military
dictatorship that has been the main supplier of arms, training and fuel for the
Taliban. Looking to such governments, which have aided or tolerated terrorists
to help defeat terrorism is a highly questionable strategy.
Global terrorism is also rooted in our dependency on foreign oil, for
which we support such dictatorial regimes, which in turn reflects our
materialistic way of life and environmental pollution that we are unwilling to
curtail. Global terrorism is also connected to the drug trade, with Afghanistan
as the leading supplier of heroin to the world. Yet it is only because people in
the West buy the drug that it enters the world market. We cannot simply blame
the growers for the problem. Therefore, our claim to be the ethical or dharmic
force on the planet in this issue is not clear. Our ability to inspire to
support is limited.
While a forceful response to terrorism may be necessary in the short-term, a greater dharmic reorientation of our society is the only long-term solution. This requires not only defeating the terrorists but also adopting a more responsible way of life and returning to a greater harmony with both nature and the rest of humanity. It means dealing with the greater global problems that include not only terrorism and religious fundamentalism but also poverty, lack of education, overpopulation, destruction of the natural environment. It requires questioning and changing our materialistic way of life, in which we consume a disproportionate amount of the global resources. Otherwise we may lack the ethic power to defeat terrorism or we may create further problems down the road, even if we win this battle.
This does not mean that as a nation (US) we need to practice
self-flagellation, which might cripple our power of action. We should rectify
our past mistakes so that we don’t repeat them. We need to recognize both our
strengths and our weaknesses and adjust them relative to global concerns.
Whether our leaders or our media has the vision for such an action remains to be
seen. Our need for oil may still blind us to the greater needs of humanity and
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