By Valerie Faneco –
Soon after I embarked on my yoga studies I started to ask myself the following question: how can we reconcile the non-violence advocated by Patañjali in the Yoga-Sûtra with the need to fight presented in the Bhagavad-Gîtâ? Is this a conflict and how can we untangle it?
Broadly speaking yoga is a path to release us from bondage and attain freedom (kaivalyam or moksha). Freedom from what? What are the ties binding us? The list is long: negative habits and unwelcome tendencies, fluctuations in the qualities of nature (gunas), changes, fear, identifications, limitations, unexplored potentials, and more… all of these can be summed up in one word: suffering (duhkha). Conflicts with others and within ourselves also fall under this category.
If you try to be a well-rounded yogin, you probably consider that the way you react to a confrontation is a yoga practice in itself. And if you studied Patañjali’s Yoga-Sûtra then your practice begins with the yamas, the five restraints or rules that frame our relationships in society. The first rule is ahimsâ or – in biblical terms – “Thou shall not kill”. The basic idea of ahimsâ is to cause no harm to any living entity, including yourself. This sounds noble in theory but is extremely difficult to practice in all circumstances. Given that almost every moment in our life is devoted to some kind of action (yoga considers speech and thoughts as actions too), can we go through life without ever having a negative impact on any living being? If you manage to do it, you are a saint.
Action and surrender are two essential pillars of our practice. We can regard our daily practice as our work to remove or at least reduce suffering and what causes it. It is a lifelong effort, but Patañjali also tells us that this work is meaningless if it is not accompanied by the renunciation of its fruits.
This idea is echoed in the Bhagavad-Gîtâ which defines the right action as “work” because it is what flows from one’s dharma or duty: “Fixed in yoga, do thy work, O winner of wealth [Arjuna], abandoning attachment, with an even mind in success and failure, for evenness of mind is called yoga.” (BG 2.48). * In other words yoga is defined as the ability to do one’s “work” with equanimity and without attachment to its results.
The Bhagavad-Gîtâ or “Song of the Lord” is India’s most famous epic poem and jewel of the Mahabharata. It is special because it may be read as a poem, a devotional hymn, and a yoga-shastra – a text of yoga. It consists in the conversation between Arjuna, a wise ruler and warrior, and Krishna who acts as his charioteer and later reveals himself as the Supreme Spirit. This conversation is held at a most unlikely location, right on the battlefield, just as a war is about to break out. The two armies are facing each other and Arjuna is suddenly overwhelmed with doubt. His opponents are his friends and kinsmen and he cannot bear to kill them. It disturbs him so much that he loses his faculties: “My limbs quail, my mouth goes dry, my body shakes and my hair stands on end.” (BG 1.29). The first chapter is appropriately called “The yoga of Arjuna’s collapse”; it shows how even the bravest can turn weak at the most crucial moment.
As humans we cannot help but to live by certain moral codes. Losing them would mean chaos. Arjuna’s problem is the struggle between right and wrong: on one hand there is what he has to do (fight), and on the other the urge to surrender to his emotions. We can say that the Bhagavad-Gîtâ begins with Arjuna surrendering to his own doubts and doing it out of weakness, crushed under the weight of his emotions. In the following chapter Krishna tries to convince Arjuna that it is wrong to back down from his duty based on false sentimentality. He uses all the arguments he can muster to convince Arjuna that it is shameful to act in this manner: “If thou doest not this lawful battle, then thou wilt fail thy duty and glory and will incur sin.” (BG 2.33)
Krishna assumes different roles throughout the poem: at the beginning he is the driver of Arjuna’s chariot so he is there as his servant. Then he speaks to him as a friend. Later he becomes his teacher, instructing Arjuna through reasoning and logic on the necessity to fight. Eventually he reveals himself as Godhead and continues to instruct Arjuna in this capacity. At last, when Arjuna has heard enough to collect himself and go to war, Krishna becomes a charioteer again and the war can begin.
As the dialog unfolds we see that Arjuna needs to surrender his Self to Krishna before he can see the Absolute truth. This happens gradually and it is only when Arjuna is able to “see” Krishna’s godly form that he finally sees everything clearly. But that is not the end of it. Once he “knows” God, Arjuna cannot float indefinitely on a cloud of bliss. Where does he go from there? Back to the reality at hand to perform his duty, which is to enter the fight. So Arjuna completes a full circle: at the end of the poem he surrenders again, but this time to the Supreme Spirit, and this makes him ready to fight. Here is what Krishna says: “Surrendering in thoughts all actions to Me, regarding Me as the Supreme and resorting to steadfastness in understanding, do thou fix thy thought constantly on Me.” (BG 18.57). Once again it is clear that renunciation is not separate from action.
Unlike Arjuna we may not all experience God (or even believe in God for that matter), but as yoga practitioners our practice provides frequent opportunities to remember this dual concept. A high level of detachment makes it possible to surrender and in yoga we learn that action and detachment are equally important: abhyâsa and vairâgya (practice and detachment) in chapter I of the Yoga-Sûtra (I.12) are closely linked and work hand in hand. This is illustrated by the dual quality sthira-sukha further along (YS II.46): firmness (sthira) stands for everything we actively do in the practice of postures, and comfort (sukha) stands for what we let go in order to be at ease. Another pair of opposites comes to mind: prayatna-shaitilya, (YS II.47) is the right dose of effort combined with the release of tensions. These pairs of opposites are not pushing each other away but reinforce each other, as two magnets would.
Our lives are typically focused on actions and results. We cannot escape them and therefore daily conflicts are bound to occur. It can be useful to use our practice as a platform of reflection and observe whether there are struggles on the yoga mat as well, since those struggles (if there are any) would reflect our habits and behaviors. Are we forcing ourselves into yoga postures? When we practice on the mat we need to find ways to reverse that tendency, to let go. Sometimes this release or what we refrain from doing is more significant than what we are set to do, if doing it involves forcing a round peg into a square hole.
But after all I think the most valuable lesson is taught in the Mahabharata in the lead up to the Bhagavad-Gîtâ: the inevitability of this war. It is not the first step taken but comes as a last resort after other solutions (negotiations, incentives and threats) were attempted without success. The moment war is about to begin is the climax of an escalating conflict. This reminds me of something my daughter said recently. She is studying WWII at school this term. Her comment was: “Sometimes fighting is necessary, like when the French fought against the Germans to regain their freedom.” Therein lies the simple yet profound message of the Bhagavad-Gîtâ: if the fulfillment of our dharma demands a struggle, then we cannot skip it. Ahimsâ is a beautiful principle but it must always be subject to dharma.
Having said that, non-violence is certainly one of the cornerstones of any well-rounded yoga practice. The yoga tradition teaches that amongst the five restraints it must prevail over the other four. It means that we need to adjust our attitudes in order to make non-violence the priority. For example, honesty (satya) should be put on the back burner if to speak the truth means hurting someone. Speaking the truth matters but only at the right moment and if the person is equipped to hear it, otherwise it creates distress and this contradicts ahimsâ. Taking this a step further we can add that ahimsâ is not only refraining from causing harm but also doing what is good for our self and others. So if I hold back words that are potentially harmful (even if I do not intend them to be so) I refrain from “violence” towards my friend but at the same time I am also fighting my own tendency to “blurt something out”. This minor internal struggle is useful in order to protect someone else.
It is obvious that not all fights involve violence. We are sometimes required to confront other people’s opinions without an argument, without even raising our voice. We can stand against an opinion that we consider morally wrong or – to use yoga’s terminology – “against the Cosmic Order (dharma)”. This firm stance can be in the mind to begin with, or expressed through silent protest as the Mahatma Gandhi and his followers famously did in the 1940s.
This brings us back to the three “shapes” of our yogic actions: thoughts, speeches, and actions directly performed. When Ingrid Betancourt (the Colombian politician) was released from the jungle after being held captive by the Colombian guerrillas for six years, she told an awe-inspiring tale of resilience and courage in dealing with that ordeal. She said: “They [the guerrillas] could make me do whatever they wanted. But I decided that they would have no power over my mind.”
In light of all this I believe that it is possible to cultivate non-violence while at the same time being clear about the battles we need to fight. We can try our best to humbly practice ahimsâ whenever we can, and if doing this makes us reflect on our actions before rushing into them, we have not wasted our time.
* Bhagavad-Gîtâ verses translated by S. Radhakrishnan – “The Bhagavad-Gita” – Harper and Collins – 2006