Ahimsa, a talk by Bodhinatha for his Mauritius visit

Bodhinatha gives an overview of his talk that will be given in Mauritius about the importance of Ahimsa-non violence in thought, word or deed. He shares with us Gurudeva's useful guideline of only speaking words that are true, kind, helpful and necessary.

Unedited Transcript:

Good Morning Everyone.

As we mentioned a few weeks ago we're working on twelve talks for Mauritius, one for each month for the coming year.

The two purposes, one is there first Sunday of month Homa at the Spiritual Park. Three or four hundred people are attending every month now so it's a pretty good group and the main focus is on homa, burning prayers and lots of beautiful chanting, singing bhajans. But also Mardemootoo gives a talk in Creole so we thought it'd be nice to create 12 subjects that would work well in talks there, very practical subjects something you can go away with and have something to do, you can say okay I'm going to go home and do this. It gets down to that level, it doesn't just change your thinking it changes your actions.

Also we have an opportunity from Dr. Pillay who publishes a monthly Hindu newspaper called Vanakkam, he said he'd give us a full page every month. That's a generous offer so we thought we could have this same talk probably in English as part of that page

One of Gurudeva's key teachings is that we are a soul, a divine being. However, Gurudeva also acknowledges that we are a soul living in a physical body, an embodied soul. Therefore, in addition to our soul nature, we also have an instinctive nature and an intellectual nature. Gurudeva describes this as the three phases of the mind: superconscious or spiritual, which is the soul; intellectual or mental; and instinctive or physical-emotional.

It is the instinctive nature, the animal-like nature, which contains the tendencies to become angry and harm others. Therefore, part of making progress on the spiritual path is learning to control the instinctive mind. This is where the yamas, the ten ethical restraints, come into play. They give us a list of tendencies we need to restrain. The classical Hindu depiction of restraint is the charioteer pulling back on the reins of a team of three, four or five horses to keep them under control. One of the uses of the yamas is as a convenient reference list to see how well the instinctive mind is being controlled. Adults can use this for self-examination as well as a guide for thinking about their children's behavior and refining it. The first yama, of course, is noninjury, ahimsa: Not harming others by thought, word or deed. Ahimsa, nonviolence, as we all know, is a central principle of Hinduism. Of course, most of us do not indulge in physical violence. Therefore, we may conclude that ahimsa presents no challenge to us.

However, let's look more closely at the definition of ahimsa, which is not harming others by thought, word or deed. This points out that we need to practice ahimsa in our speech and even our thoughts. An important attitude to have to make progress on the spiritual path is that we need to focus on our weak points and strive to improve them. Furthermore, we need to hold the attitude that no matter how well we are doing in a particular practice, such as ahimsa, we can still do better. We can always find a way to further refine our behavior. Thus in this talk we are focusing on speech, specifically looking at words that hurt, and exploring ways we can improve our speech so that it is less hurtful to others.

There are four common forms of hurting others with our speech. They are joking, teasing, gossiping and backbiting. Let's look at some examples that illustrate joking and teasing. First example: someone has a special privilege or position that we don't. So we say "He was exempted from the work we had to do today. He really has it easy!" Second example: someone speaks French with a foreign accent. You repeat back his pronunciation and laugh. Third example: someone has difficulty multiplying numbers. When she is having trouble making a calculation, you make fun of her. The rationale for the behavior in these three situations is "I'm joking," "Just being humorous," "Creating some laughter." However, in truth, your words are himsa, you are harming another through your speech and justifying it by saying you are just joking. Words can hurt, and many don't realize their power to do so, even if they are said in jest. Your humor comes at the direct expense of the person you are joking about.

Gurudeva has given us a very useful guideline for seeing if our speech is appropriate. It provides us a fourfold test: Speak only that which is true, kind, helpful and necessary. I know some of Gurudeva 's devotees who initially took this guideline a bit too literally and decided most speech was unnecessary and almost stopped talking altogether. Of course, that was a misinterpretation!

In terms of joking and teasing, the first test to apply is the test of helpfulness. In other words, everything we say to others should be designed to help them do better in some way. Let's look at our three examples again, and see if they pass the test of being helpful. First example: someone has a special privilege, so we complain rancorously: "He really has it easy!" Second example: a man speaks with a foreign accent. You mimic his pronunciation and chuckle. Third example: a girl has difficulty with math. When she stumbles with a calculation, you poke fun at her. Certainly none of the three passes the test of being helpful.

Let's take another example, this time the case of a friend or family member who is overweight. We are genuinely worried that it is vital for his health to lose some weight. Therefore our words pass the test to be helpful because we have the person's well-being at heart. But to simple tell them straight out, "you are fat" fails the test of being kind. We need to express our concern, our desire to be helpful more gently. Such as "it might be good for your health if you lost a little weight." So that's the kindly, helpfulness. We want to be sure to be helpful that we also want to be kind.

Next is gossip. Gossip is talking about the details of others' personal lives for the delight of it when they are not present. Gossip is like creating and watching our own television soap opera. It clearly fails the test of being helpful, as it is designed to entertain the participants at the expense of the individual being gossiped about. There is no desire to help that individual. Some wives regularly gossip about their husbands. While their husbands are at work, they spend a great deal of time on the phone or on the Internet with other wives, sharing at length the details of their husbands' lives. The gossip you spread about your husband may be true, but it fails three tests: kind, helpful and necessary. Husbands usually don't gossip, but they frequently tease their wives, and that too fails the three tests of being kind, helpful and necessary. Husbands need the support of their wives to be successful. Wives need the support of their husbands to be happy. This can be achieved by controlling our speech and making sure it pass all four of the tests.

Last but not least is backbiting. Finding faults in another and sharing this finding with others is a hobby many enjoy. It is so much easier to look for faults in others and complain about them than to see the same faults in ourselves and change them. The Tirukural devotes an entire chapter to "Avoidance of backbiting", which shows mans nature hasn't changed much in over 2000 years. One verses: "If men perceived their own faults as they do the faults of others, could misfortune ever come to them?" Of course, this fails our speech test of kind, helpful and necessary. The truth is that unless we are responsible for someone's upbringing or training, such as parents to their children or supervisors to their staff, then it is best to ignore the faults of others and focus instead on finding and improving our own faults.

In conclusion, remember that we always have a choice. We can choose to hurt others through our speech by joking, teasing, gossiping and backbiting. Or we can choose to help others through our speech by speaking in a respectful, kind and constructive. And above all remember Gurudeva's key; speak only that which is true, kind, helpful and necessary.

Aum Namah Sivaya.

Photo of  Gurudeva
The intellect in its capacity to contain truth is a very limited tool, while faith is a very broad, accommodating and embracing faculty. The mystery of life and beyond life, of Siva, is really better understood through faith than through intellectual reasoning.