by Swami Krishnananda
The proper disposition on our part in regard to others is called ahimsa, and the improper disposition of ours in regard to others is himsa. The proper disposition of ours in regard to our own selves is brahmacharya, and the improper disposition of ours in regard to our own selves is the lack of it. So, ahimsa and brahmacharya may be regarded as the royal virtues, the basic fundamentals, the basic foundational values of not only yoga practice but also of all successful life in this world. It is the inability on our part to understand these essentials that makes for failure in life, mostly speaking, and also for failure in the practice of yoga.
It is very essential that we should give due regard to other people, because other people are also people. They are not stones, they are not animals, they are not trees, they are not dogs, they are not servants; they are as valuable and important as myself or anybody. This is the philosophy of ahimsa, truly speaking. What is the philosophy of ahimsa? It is that others are like me only. Whatever is of meaning to me has to be of meaning to others also; and whatever would be improper to me might be improper to others also. To regard others as dirt is the essence of himsa. But, others are not dirt.
How is it possible to regard others as subservient to ourselves in any matter whatsoever? It happens because the ‘otherness’ of people is a peculiar twist of our minds. There is no such thing as otherness, really speaking. If people around us can be regarded by us as ‘others’ in a contemptuous sense, they also can treat us as an ‘other’ in a similar manner. Atmanah pratikulani paresham na samacharet (Mahabharata 5.15.17) is a very famous conclusive sentence of the Mahabharata, which is supposed to be the essence of the canon of dharma or virtue: What is not good for me cannot be meted out by me to others. What is not good for me would not be good for others also, because others are like me in every respect.
There is a very important factor that we miss in our attitude towards other people, and it is that subconsciously, or even unconsciously, we are apt to feel that we are superior to other people. Logically and philosophically, we may not be able to argue this because it is an absurd feeling. But not all feelings are logical. Many of them are illogical, and they would not stand reason or ratiocinative investigation. The essence of feeling is illogicality; sometimes it is super-logicality, but it is not logical because it will supersede all logic, and put down all logic by a kick which is more forceful than our understanding. This feeling creeps into us in many ways: “I am, somehow or other, more important than other people.” We cannot openly say this or openly declare this, or even openly justify it in any way; nevertheless, we can feel it privately and put on an attitude which is in consonance with this illogical feeling.
“I must be comfortable, and I cannot bear any kind of discomfort” is the basic urge of individual nature; and if my altruistic attitude, my very generous disposition towards others is going to cause discomfort, pain or harm to me, then I would be thrice hesitant to be charitable to others. “Is my charitable disposition to other people going to cause pain to me? No.” Nobody likes pain because pleasure, comfort and satisfaction is the ultimate aim of all our activities, behaviours and forms of conduct. But this is a great confusion that has entered our mind. It is a mess that we are making in our daily conduct. The height of stupidity would be to regard others as less important than one’s own self in any manner whatsoever. Place yourself in the position of that other person, and think through the mind of that person. Then you would know the importance of that person. Even a dog would not feel that it is less important than others. Enter into the mind of the dog for a few minutes. Think as the dog thinks, and see what its attitude to things is. What does it think about you?
This is a very difficult art. Charitable disposition does not mean giving money, food, clothes, etc., to other people. It is the capacity to enter into the feelings of others that is called charity. If this capacity is lacking, we are not a charitable person. Even if a person is in a fit of rage against us, we must be in a position to understand why that person has run into that rage, instead of retaliating or wreaking vengeance upon that person, which is what we generally are inclined to do at that moment. ‘Tit for tat’ is our philosophy.
Any kind of attitude which would be inconsonant with what we regard as proper to our own selves would be unjustifiable from the point of view of yoga practice. Even a criticism is a kind of himsa, because criticism is another form of asserting our superiority over other people. And this sense of superiority of oneself can come into play in many, many ways. In the eyes of God, at least, there should be some sense and meaning present in all the things of the world. Perhaps, absolutely meaningless things cannot exist. A whole and entire untruth cannot bear sustenance. There must be an element of truth even in what we call untruth; else, it would not be there at all. Even appearances are impossible unless they are impregnated with reality. There cannot be an illusion unless there is a background of substance behind it. Even an illusion cannot just appear. Total illusions are impossibilities.
So, in the endeavour we call the practice of yoga, we try our best to free ourselves from the wrong movements of our consciousness in the direction of the ‘false universal’ to which I made reference the other day – which is attachment and aversion in respect of objects – and bring ourselves back to the position of a reconciliation with the True Universal. The True Universal is not disposed favourably or against in respect of anyone. That is the very meaning of the word ‘universal’. It is commonly valid for everyone and everything; that is universality in its essential nature. And so, in our attempt at taking a step in the direction of the True Universal, which is the practice of yoga, we have to conduct ourselves in a manner consonant with the step that we are taking. We cannot be rogues outside and saints inside. There should be a harmony of our nature outwardly as well as inwardly. How can we act in a manner which is inconsistent with the nature of the Universal and try at the same time to meditate on the Universal?
To exploit others in any manner whatsoever, to treat others as servants or subsidiaries to one’s own self, to look upon others as instruments for one’s own satisfaction, in any manner whatsoever, would be an insult to others’ dignity. They have as much dignity as we ourselves have, and that would be an insult to the Universal itself because it is present equally in every person and every thing of the world. We will realise, when we actually practice it, that this is the most difficult of all forms of righteousness or virtue.
Resentment is deep-rooted in us. We always resent others’ attitudes, we cannot bear remarks made by others, we cannot agree with the opinions of other people, and we always agree to differ. This is, in our faulty opinion, a great virtue of ours. But this is the ruin of all people.
How can we have cooperation from the world when we resent the world? Our resentment may not be felt consciously outside. Your dislike for me may not be visible outside, but there are subtle systems inside the world which can feel your resentment in respect of me. There are what we may call invisible radar systems placed by God Himself. Something will start saying, “This person does not like me,” though he may be speaking very smilingly and beautifully to me. You may be even worshipping me and adoring me from outside, but the radar system inside will work: “This person hates me.”
Even an atom will be able to feel our attitude towards it. Even an atom – which is usually regarded as inorganic, lifeless, incapable of thinking – can feel our attitude towards it. Even a plant can feel our attitude towards it. “This man is coming to chop off my head with an axe!” The plant can feel it even before we cut it. Sir J. C. Bose made tremendous researches in this field of biology. Even a plant can know what our intention is when we are approaching it, even before we have touched it. Not merely that, even inorganic substances are not really inorganic substances; they only appear to be like that. They are masquerading as inorganic, but they are not really so.
So, our attitudes will be felt everywhere, dear friends. There is no such thing as a secret feeling of ours. There is no secrecy in this world where everything reverberates with a tremendous noise in the ether of this vast universe. It is futile on our part, therefore, to entertain secret feelings of resentment and hatred towards anything in this world. In Hindi, there is a humorous saying: Muh mein ram, bagal mein chhuri: Take the name of Ram in the mouth, and keep a knife under the armpit. This is what we are doing. We have a subtle psychological knife in our armpit, ready for attack when the time for it comes, and we are always a warrior. This warrior-hood will not work in a system where cooperation is necessary. We expect cooperation from others, but would not like to cooperate with others. The universe works on a system of collaboration and cooperation. Parasparam bhavayantah sreyah paramavapsyatha (Gita 3.11). This is, as the Bhagavadgita puts it, the original ordinance passed by Brahma, the Creator, to all his subjects: “Mutually cooperate among yourselves in your deeds, and attain blessedness.” This is the original constitution of the cosmos, but we want to violate it at every moment of time. The Yoga System tells us this is a great blunder. We cannot ask for blessedness and do what is contrary to its achievement.
Ahimsa is the most misunderstood of canons and principles of virtue. Volumes and volumes have been written on this subject, and yet the question cannot be said to have been satisfactorily answered. Every situation is a new situation, and every individual case has to be treated in an individual manner. We cannot have a general recipe for the whole of humanity for all times, for every circumstance and condition. Wisdom has to be exercised. But the essence of the matter is, “Treat humanity as an end in itself, and not a means to an end,” as the great philosopher Immanuel Kant said many, many years back. He said, “This is the essence of ethics. Treat mankind, humanity, as an end in itself, and not a means to an end.” This is the essence of morality. Mankind is not a means to an end; it is an end in itself. Everything is an end in itself – man or subhuman, or whatever it is. To treat anything in this world as an end in itself is the essence of virtue, and this will clinch the question of ahimsa also.