The Naimisha Journal





The need of the hour as seen by an American Vedantin

 David Frawley (Vamadeva Shastri)

Ahimsa in the Yoga Tradition

            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 struggle.

            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 harm. 

The Path of the Warrior

            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 to fight? 

            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.


Sattva, rajas and tamas

            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 ignorance.

            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.

The Balance

             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 followed.

             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 interests. 

            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. 

The Need for a Dharmic Reorientation

            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 the planet.