Ahimsa

In his series of talks on Hindu beliefs and practices Bodhinatha presents the third practice, ahimsa. Ahimsa is discussed from the point of view of karma and then from the deeper perspective of the divinity within us all. There is no intrinsic evil, all souls without exception are lead one day to enlightenment. Bodhinatha expands on the concept that non-violence is not just refraining from causing physical harm but also refraining from causing harm through thoughts and words.

Unedited Transcript:

Good morning everyone. Getting ready to travel to Montreal for kumbhabhishekam, for Lord Murugan. Should be a very powerful event, and nice to be able to be there, receive Muruga's blessings. So we've been invited to give three presentations: talk on, short talk on friday night, a short talk sunday morning which is the main day and participate in a seminar for college age youth on saturday afternoon. So this is part of our seminar, we've been given forty-five minutes to present and then the rest of our participation is to participate in the questions and answer session. So I created ten points to mention in forty-five minutes. So each one gets four and a half minutes, right? You can time me and see how close this is, four and a half minutes.

So we tried to choose ten, lets say really basic Hindu ideas and so we have five of them are beliefs and five are practices. So we have a balance between the theoretical and the practical. Walk away with something to do as well as something to know.

So this is the third practice, very important one, ahimsa. And there's a Tamil word, because this is a very Tamil oriented group, so each of these ten has a Tamil phrase, it's translated. So this, ahimsa here is translated as: "innaa seyaamai," non-violence.

Certainly the practice of non-injury, ahimsa, is a practice that needs to be included in any list of key Hindu practices. It is more fully defined as not harming others by thought, word or deed, even in your dreams. The instinctive tendency that the yama of non-injury harnesses is of course the tendency to injure others to acquire what we want. It is also the tendency to respond to challenging situations by becoming upset, angry and finally harming others with our words or our fists.

Here are some common examples of not following the first yama of non-injury.

First example: An older brother hits the younger brother as a way of acquiring the toy the younger brother is using. (That's a regular one.)

Second example: Husband and wife have a serious disagreement and rather than sit down and talk the problem through the husband gets angry and solves the problem by hitting his wife. (Not much of a solution.)

Third example: A young child is playing in the living room and accidentally tips over a table with a sculpture on it which breaks. The father yells at the child calling him stupid and worthless. (So that's violence through words.)

Fourth example: At work we are working with another employee on a joint project and get frustrated by the employee doing the work slower than we are and speak harshly at him to speed up.

The law of karma provides us with our first insights into the philosophical basis of ahimsa, that whatever harm you cause another will unfailingly come back to you. The scripture, Tirukural, has an excellent verse to express this concept. "If a man visits sorrow on another in the morning, sorrow will visit him unbidden in the afternoon."

It is quite clear that if we initiate harmful actions we will be harmed in the future. But what about retaliation? Isn't that justified? The other person has harmed me first. Surely I'm justified in harming him back. A deeper reflection on the law of karma will show us that it was our karma to be harmed in the first place. The other person was just the instrument for it. We can't blame him or her for what happened. We can only blame ourselves. We caused this to happen to us by our past actions. If we retaliate, it starts an endless cycle of being harmed and harming others which is only stopped by our finally considering the consequences before acting and not harming back.

Mahatma Gandhi once said: "An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind." (Well, that's the Asian point of view.) So too instinctive retaliation ultimately makes the whole world angry. Tirukural verse 141 states the perspective of non-retaliation. "It is the principle of the pure in heart never to injure others, even when they themselves have been hatefully injured." However, the fact that we do not retaliate does not mean that the offender should not face the consequences of his or her actions. It simply means we channel those consequences through a person authorized to handle the matter and give out a proper discipline or punishment. For example for children at school, they would tell the matter to a teacher. For problems with a neighbor's children they would tell the matter to their parents. For an adult at work we tell the matter to a supervisor and if the person has broken the law you can tell the matter to the police.

Even when we control ourselves and don't retaliate, it is easy to still be upset with the offender and inwardly hold a grudge against him for doing what he did. Of course the goal is to totally forgive him for what he did to you and move on without any grudge. The Tirukural again has an excellent verse on this. "If you return kindness for injuries received and forget both, those who harmed you will be punished by their own shame." So that's a very interesting concept if anyone hasn't heard it before. It's a very subtle form of punishment. Someone's nasty to you so you're kind to them in return and they feel bad about themselves. So, you're actually punishing them by being nice to them. Very subtle form of punishment because then they regret what they did.

But what about evil people? Axis of evil, right? What about evil people? Isn't it acceptable to harm them? From the Hindu point of view all people are intrinsically good. Even those who act in misguided adharmic ways are still good intrinsically good people. What we can guard against is taking on the western perspective that some people are intrinsically evil -- the enemy -- and therefore it is all right to treat them in a different way than those who are intrinsically good -- our friends. They are simply young souls and need to be disciplined by the justice system for their misdeeds but certainly not harmed. The Tirukural addresses this issue as well. "Harming others, even enemies who harmed you unprovoked, surely brings incessant sorrow."

So far we have looked at ahimsa from the point of view of the law of karma. A deeper philosophical perspective for the principle of ahimsa is the viewpoint of the divinity within all. When we see the divine in others we naturally do not want to hurt them. Gurudeva gives us a simple but quite effective way of seeing the divine in another person, which is to look deeply into the eyes of the other person. Look beyond the individual's personality. Go deeper than his or her intellect and see the pure life energy within them as God. The great saying or mahavakyam that describes this approach of experiencing the divine is: "God is the life of our life." This practice does not stop just with people but should also include trying to see the life energy in trees, birds and animals. This is because God is our life. God is the life in all people. God is the life in the trees and the birds and in the animals. Becoming aware of this life energy in all that lives is becoming aware of God's loving presence within us.

The rishis who revealed the principles of dharma or divine law in Hindu scripture knew full well the potential for human suffering and the path which could avert it. To them a one spiritual power flowed in and through all things in this universe, animate and inanimate, conferring existence. To them life was a coherent process leading all souls without exception to enlightenment and no violence could be carried to the higher reachers of that assent.

(So there we are, about four and a half minutes, anybody time it?)

Thank you very much. It's certainly a key practice and one of, say one of the values of Gurudeva's elucidation of it is this breaking it down into thought, word or deed. Not harming others by thought word or deed. Because sometimes it's just thought of in terms of a deed. You know, don't harm others. Well I didn't hit anybody today, you know. I never hit anyone. But most people that attend religious gatherings don't. You know, that's taken for granted. You're not a hitter. That's why you're here. But, how many times do we hurt others with our words? You know, we still have that possibility within us. These are no word, the kinds of individuals that like to come to spiritual gatherings, because we haven't thought that much about it. You know, but Gurudeva points out, we're not supposed to harm others with our words. It's just as important as not harming others physically with deeds. Not harming others with our words.

So, then it goes on thoughts. How can you harm another with your thoughts you might think? Well you can actually cause someone an accident. I remember one of the devotees was talking to me as he was driving the car and he was confessing. You know confessing a violation of ahimsa and he said: "You know sometimes when a car cuts in front of me, I have these nasty thoughts about that driver." So, why worry? Well, if the thoughts are strong enough, the driver could feel them and could actually cause an accident, you know. Has to be strong thoughts, not just a passing thought. But our thoughts do, our thoughts are like a radio transmission, they go out and the person who we're thinking about receives them. They may not be aware of it but they do receive them. The stronger the thought is, the stronger the reception of the thought. That whoever we think about is receiving our thoughts and Yogaswami was very interesting in that regard because he was aware of everyone who was thinking about him. You know he knew what anyone was thinking about him at all times. Very unusual ability or state of mind would you say, if someone was thinking about him he knew exactly what they were thinking, was no secret to him.

So, that's the most subtle form of course of ahimsa is our thoughts but it is important to realize that, you know once we get beyond controlling our deeds then we need to focus on controlling our words. And once we're good at controlling our words and we don't hurt others with our words, we should look at our thoughts and make sure you know we're not suppressing it inside and actually kind of violent towards another person. We're suppressing it really rather than not experiencing at all, it's ending up in our thoughts. So we don't want to even do that. We want to find a way of having kindly thoughts toward everyone.

[End of transcript]