Yogi Assignment: Ahimsa 2.0
Ahimsa, the first of the moral and ethical principles outlined in the eight limbs of Patanjali, is most often translated as non-violence. There is perhaps no other of the tenets presented in traditional yoga philosophy that has influenced how contemporary yogis take their practice off the mat and into the world than ahimsa. At first glance, it seems simple enough. Non-violent living indicates the commitment not to harm. It would seem that to be a yogi means first and foremost not to engage in any action that brings harm to others. But, as is often the case in morality, the reality of applying ahimsa in action is often much more nuanced than a simple dichotomy that reduces actions into categories of good and bad.
I’m not a linguist but I have a deep respect for language and the history and meaning of words. Let’s investigate ahimsa in terms of both etymology and historical context.
In Sanskrit, placing an “a” in front of a word is used to denote the opposite of the root word. Ahimsa, which is taken to mean non-violence, could literally be translated as the opposite of violence. If you ask yourself what the opposite of violence is, I’d guess that it is highly unlikely that you would respond by saying non-violence. Non-violence is in fact the absence of violence but it is not the true opposite of violence. Let’s take another pair of Sanskrit words that appears in the Sutras to illustrate my point. Punya and apunya are presented as a pair of opposites used to denote virtue and malevolence, or good and evil. Apunya is rarely, if ever, translated as non-virtue yet it takes the same linguistic structure as ahimsa. So, rather than merely thinking of ahimsa as non-violence, I’d like to challenge you to change the paradigm of your concept of ahimsa. Pause for a moment and ask yourself what the opposite of violence is. The answer that comes to me is more like healing, peace or, without falling into the often over used cliche, love. Himsa is sometimes translated as “hate” and a very easy opposite to hate is love.
Once we redefine ahimsa as love, it actually changes the entire paradigm of yogic values. one is ahimsa 2.0. Love is itself an action whose shape and form is not simple or easy to understand. But love is active, sometimes fierce, sharp, poignant, brave, courageous, strong, bold, defiant, and disruptive. And sometimes also peaceful, graceful, forgiving, quiet, patient and humble.
Ahimsa is often cited as the reason to follow a plant-based diet. What if diet had to be loving instead of just non-violent? As anyone who has followed a plant-based diet knows you can eat rather unhealthfully and still be vegan. A diet of french fries, tortilla chips, white bread, mountain dew and cotton candy is all plant-based. It easily be argued that a diet consisting of only these items is an act of violence towards the body. But there’s more. If ahimsa is understood as the active form of love, then choices in diet are an expression of both self-love and love for the planet. Imagine if every action not only came from a sincere desire to do not harm, but from a sincere desire to love yourself and your whole world. Eating as self-love and soul nourishment is in accordance with ahimsa. On a larger scale, agriculture that loves and heals the Earth embodies ahimsa 2.0 in action.
Intention matters. There is both the possibility for intentional and unintentional harm or good with every action. Sometimes there is an unplanned positive result, but sometimes there is also an unplanned negative result. Neither allows you a free pass. If your actions unintentionally harm others you cannot claim ignorance as an excuse forever. Say you own stock in a mutual fund. Due to the way that things are set up you’re unaware that some of your investments include stakes in companies whose policies are causing harm. You remain unaware. When you’re made aware, you have the choice to correct divest your shares or you will bear responsibility for the harm done. There are also some actions which will knowingly cause harm to someone else and yet must be done. Imagine that you’re in a committed relationship and your partner is deeply in love with you. While you enjoy your partner’s presence and feel love for them you are not in love with them. Accordingly, you realize that you don’t want to spend your life with this person and that you have to break up with them. If you are afraid of hurting your partner’s feelings by ending the relationship you will cause an even greater harm by staying. Ahimsa does not demand that you never hurt anyone’s feelings ever again. In this case, acting out of love for your partner means that you will end the relationship even if their feelings are hurt. Otherwise yogis would just end up being people-pleasers with no voices of their own, bending over backwards to stay popular and loved by everyone.
A classic example of the moral bind that the complexities of ahimsa often present in real life is the case of a mass murderer. Say you find yourself in a crowd and a person with a knife starts wounding and attacking the everyone in the crowd. You happen to be a trained highly skilled soldier with the means to take this person down. Should you decide not to act because you are following ahimsa much greater harm will be done. In this case, it could be argued that the small harm done to one individual outweighs the potential harm done to many others. It’s not that one life outweighs another, but that the balance of morality is defined in relationship to both the individual and the communal. Seen only from the tunnel vision of ahimsa as “good vides only” if you see harm being done to another, you give yourself permission to just walk away and focus on something else positive. But if ahimsa is love in action, then out of love for both the perpetrator and the victim, you are compelled to step in if you have the means and the power to act.
I’m not arguing against ahimsa. In fact, I would actually say I’m arguing for a vastly more powerful and empowering view of ahimsa in action than we currently have in our yoga world. Allowing yourself to tune out of difficulty or critical thinking under the auspices of ahimsa twists the core values of yoga into an excuse to bypass what are often inconvenient truths. The world needs us to act, not to sit on the sidelines. There is just more to ahimsa that at first appears. While we cannot manage the unintended consequences of our actions we can start with our intentions. As a minimum the yogi’s intention should be not to harm, to do good and to come from love. Beyond that, when unintended harm does come to light, there is no need for guilt, but there is perhaps a need for justice, apology or atonement.
When your heart really opens you are compelled to act. We need to refresh the definition of ahimsa to include social justice. To love all beings implies a sense of social justice. When harm is being done to someone in your community and you choose to condone or exacerbate that harm, you bear a little of the responsibility for that harm. If someone in your world is being harmed and you stand silently by, then ahimsa turns into just another catch phrase to print on a t-shirt. We have to be better. We have to be yogis. We have to be love. Yoga is an indictment of indifference.