The next quality Krishna mentions is ahimsa. Everyone recognizes the need for ahimsa in a violent world. In fact, in the Mahabharata, you will often find the statement `ahimsa paramo dharma’, meaning `Non-injury is like the absolute dharma/value/duty’. `Ahimsa’ means that in thought, word, or deed (deed being the most important) I will not, deliberately– `deliberately’ being the operative word– hurt another person. It may happen inadvertently, but my intention will not be to hurt another person. This is a very important value. In fact, it is the basis for many values. All your ethical values will be based on this. The logic is very simple. As an individual I do not want to be hurt by someone else. If I do not want to be hurt, there is not a single organism that wants to be hurt. Therefore, at least as far as people are concerned, I will say I will not hurt another person. Besides, you cannot hurt another person without feeling a twinge of hurt yourself. The human mind has a lot of empathy. When you see a person who is hurt, you are bound to be a little reactive yourself. Buddha took ahimsa to a very high extreme.
At the same time, we recognize the fact that we are living in a violent world. Therefore, being a non-violent person doesn’t mean that I will not know how to handle violence against myself or against my loved ones. And I’m not implying `eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth’. That’s not what I’m implying but one should know how to handle that violence. For example, a student of mine told me about a recent case in which a man, armed with a knife, entered a ladies compartment in the local train. There were 20 girls there, but he brandished his knife to threaten them and took their valuables away. I told them, `There were 20 of you but you could do nothing’. `But, Swamiji’ they replied,` you know martial arts, etc., but we are ladies, what could we do?…’.Even if they had screamed together, he would have jumped off at the next station. You don’t have to handle violence with violence; if 20 girls scream I’m sure any man will run. So there are different ways of handling violence. I’m not saying they will always be successful nor am I blaming the girls for keeping quiet. I’m the last person to say `You asked for it’. I don’t believe anyone asks for violence against themselves in any form whether it’s a woman or a man. In a case like this though, retaliating with physical violence is justified. For example, if a girl is about to be raped, you shouldn’t expect her to say `Oh, I believe in ahimsa, etc.’ She should strike back if she can.
Now what does the Mahabharata say about this? That is where the second part of the verse comes in: `ahimsa paramo dharma/ dharma ahimsa tataiva cha.’ Meaning `For the sake of dharma, himsa also has to be treated as ahimsa’. Meaning if you react with violence to protect yourself from violence, to stand up for your rights, then it’s understandable. Of course, all normal, rational clauses will come into play: that your violent reaction should be appropriate to what is done. If someone abuses me, I can’t take a gun and shoot him…that would be inappropriate. If someone abuses you, walk away; you don’t have to internalize it. Ahimsa as a value, although universal, also has a limitation inasmuch as it is not absolute.[pullquote]Why, even a soldier can practice ahimsa, because ahimsa is not to be equated with pacifism. Being a soldier, he has to fight, he has to kill or be killed, there is no other way out… For him, ahimsa will be following the Geneva convention which states, among other things, that you will not shoot an unarmed person, will not torture another person, etc. [/pullquote]
In India, even the value of vegetarianism came as an extension of the principle of ahimsa. It is important to know that after cultivating this value of ahimsa towards human beings, I extend it to the animal kingdom. But I’d rather a person be non-vegetarian and be kind to human beings than be a vegetarian and commit acts of violence against human beings. If he’s non-violent towards both humans and animals, it’s great. These are graded responses. Why, even a soldier can practice ahimsa, because ahimsa is not to be equated with pacifism. Being a soldier, he has to fight, he has to kill or be killed, there is no other way out… For him, ahimsa will be following the Geneva convention which states, among other things, that you will not shoot an unarmed person, will not torture another person, etc. All this will be ahimsa at the level of a soldier. At the level of a monk, ahimsa may be more global. That is fine. But everyone can have the value of ahimsa in their life, everyone can choose not to be reactive. Basically, it’s about choosing not to be reactive. I will act with compassion towards everyone because you have to understand that the violent person has a problem. He is struggling with his mind just as we are struggling with ours. Therefore, violence, very often, is either because of a distorted value structure or a problematic emotion not being handled, etc. So one views this with some compassion, but the compassion should not be misplaced, the compassion should not lean towards the perpetrator of the crime than the victim of the crime. One shouldn’t go that far, but one should bring the values of ahimsa and compassion into one’s life.
The next value, the fourth, is often connected with ahimsa and that is kshanti. Meaning forbearance, to be able to put up with people, to be able to tolerate people for what they are. In fact, not just tolerate but to accept people for what they are, because everybody is struggling with their minds just like you and me. Sometimes people may be reactive, sometimes a person may say hurtful things….To accept that, to forgive, which is a strong word, to accept and say `Let it be’, to let go of an inconsiderate action or hurtful words, to be non-judgemental…. That is what `kshanti’ or forbearance is.
Please note here that neither ahimsa nor kshanti is about being meek or submissive. A person with these qualities is an empowered and strong person and, at the same time, compassionate and empathetic. The compassionate understanding of the other person helps one to have kshanti/forbearance. One accepts that people can be negative at times and lets go of it. Both these values give rise to an inner calmness where the vedic wisdom—the knowledge of the self—can be understood and owned up.
We’ll look at the sixteen other qualities Krishna spoke of in future posts…
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