Monday, February 24, 2014

Ahimsa: What is Non-Violence? Is Killing ever Justified?

Ahimsa, or the practice of non-violence, as taught by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras, is not an absolute standard of behavior, but a relative one. The absolute standard lies in the realm of intention and consciousness. In a world of relativities (aka "duality" or "dwaita") it is often impossible to apply a precept "absolutely."

Thus it is that India's most famous and beloved scripture, the Bhagavad Gita ("The Song Celestial), teaches that one must fulfill his duties to fight injustice and evil by taking up arms against his enemy. Now I am purposely misquoting that scripture because my interpretation is merely a literal one, for the scripture (a dialogue between Lord Krishna and his disciple, Arjuna) takes place on a battlefield (a historical one, in fact) but the dialogue (and the teaching) is allegorical. Nonetheless, Paramhansa Yogananda (author of the now famous Autobiography of a Yogi), and many other respected teachers, concur that in human history and ethics there are times when self-defense and killing one's attackers, when necessary, is the lesser evil and the greater duty than the literal practice of non-violence.

In American culture these last thirty or forty years, the issue of abortion has pitted non-violence against freedom of individual choice. In the mainstream of traditional yoga, it is taught that the soul enters the embryo at time of conception. Hence abortion is traditionally frowned upon. Yet, the astrological chart for the newborn is cast at the time of the first breath, at birth. Add to that all the issues around the mother's or fetuses' health, cases of rape or incest and on and on, and well, you have a very challenging issue on your hands. I am not here to propose a resolution to this social debate. Yoga stands for the principle of individual choice and accountability in the pursuit of an individual soul's many lifetimes of evolution up and down the ladder and spiral staircase of consciousness. The discussion goes beyond my topic today and, even if it did, would do little, if anything, to contribute to the social debate.

A student in one of our classes raised the issue of the killing of a doctor in an abortion clinic. Was the murder of this abortion doctor an example of the lesser "sin" of killing in self-defense (of the unborn children)? Talk about a chicken and the egg intellectual bull fight!

For starters, intuition is the only means by which we can discover the truth of something like this. For another, intuition occurs only through an individual (and yes, perhaps through many individuals). Can two people intuitively arrive at opposite results? In theory, no; in practice, yes. In theory, intuition is unitive but in practice our individual karma and dharma is directional. We only get the guidance from our higher, intuitive self that pertains to us. "Take steps northward" (if you are south of the equator and wanting to go there); "Take steps southward" (if you are north of the equator and wanting to go there).

In society, the murder of the abortion doctor is, simply, that: murder, and a crime punishable by imprisonment. That speaks for itself but while very important, it is not the final statement as to an individual act. 

In the language of yoga, we speak of karma and reincarnation as two sides of the same coin of right action. In a worldview that sees the soul's evolution as extending in time beyond anything we can easily relate to, right action can be extremely subtle. "Karma: represents seeds of past actions which, on the basis of actions taken in egoic self-affirmation, wait, hidden, for their final resolution in the forms of their natural and appropriate opposite responses. If I kill someone, I plant the seed for being killed in return (whether by that soul or another). "Those who live by the sword, will die by the sword." Yet many killers, Joseph Stalin, e.g., die peacefully in their beds. The Bible cautions us not to imagine that one does "not sow what one reaps." This is why many lifetimes are needed. For our actions, which include our thoughts, run into the billions even in one lifetime! (Let's not go there right now, ok?)

The abortion doctor who was murdered presumably, however cruel or clinical the conclusion might seem to others (like to his wife or children), earned that sentence by his actions, not least of which could possibly be the work of performing abortions. We simply cannot "see" the threads of karma and those threads might not have anything to do with his performing abortions. That conclusion is possibly too "pat" and too obvious. The karmic thread may even lie between the doctor and his murderer: meaning, "it's personal."

Such karma may account for the fact of the doctor's murder but what does that fact mean to his killer and the killer's karma? Indeed, it may be the doctor's karma to be killed, but the one through whom, as an instrument of karmic repayment, that repayment is delivered may incur the burden of his own karmic debt for having taken a life! The killer presumably was a fanatical opponent of abortion and we probably do not know wherein lay the seeds of such intensity but it would not be difficult to speculate if one takes the perspective of many lives. Does that "justify" the killing? No, but it might "explain" it. That's all. 

How then do we ever extricate ourselves from the entanglements of karma? Well, that's a big subject. But a few words are necessary here. The one centripetal fact of karma is not so much the act but the intention, or, put another way: the ego. An act which is done without regard to self-interest and which is not an affirmation of the ego principle, but is performed dutifully and in harmony with one's true and higher Self, does not incur a karmic debt or plant a karmic seed. Such acts, however, might, indeed, neutralize or cauterize seeds of past karma, however. Hence the value of such actions in the process of purification and repayment of karmic debts as the soul rises towards ego transcendence. Thus "good works" are useful. But good works performed with the expectation of reward, including recognition, still revolve, at least to some degree, around the ego principle. Nonetheless, it is better to do something good for the wrong reason than not to do good out of fear of incurring more karma. Karmic release is always directional, never absolute. The teaching of karma is such that it recognizes that over many lives we have the karmic burden of "sin" (ego-encased ignorance, in fact) that must be repaid by right action and by the uplifting and redeeming power of grace.

Is it possible to imagine a religious fanatic who kills others (and himself) as making a forward direction towards karmic release? In theory, yes, though the act be condemned in all other respects. Perhaps in a prior life, this terrorist killed others for sport or for money or for revenge. In this lifetime, this karmically inclined murderer kills others and sacrifices his own life for a higher reward or in the name of a higher cause. However ignorant and evil-seeming that intention may be to us, it is at least theoretically possible that it is a step forward for that soul. Could such an act be recompense for cowardliness in past lives? All of these things are theoretically possible but such a person is obviously incurring even more karmic debt by hurting others. 

No wise counselor would suggest such actions. There are other, better, and purer forms of karmic release than killing more people! Nonetheless, the world of human actions is just as subject to the law of cause and effect as are the laws of nature. The difference is that reason and intuition, whether coming from within, or arising from the influence and counsel of others, can accelerate the soul's progress faster than the bullock cart of fulfilling every desire and paying every debt on their own terms and on their own level. We can "outwit the stars" of our karmic debt by other means.

This latter statement is the "promise of immortality" and grace offered, with whatever terminology or spiritual precepts and through whatever means of "being saved," that all great religions and their greatest teachers aver. In part, this power of redemption lies in the existential reality that our soul is eternal, changeless and ever untouched (as God "himself" is) by our ignorant and even evil actions. This doesn't mean we are free to murder and create mayhem but it does offer a back door, so to speak, to win karmic release without cracking rocks day after day in the prison of past karma. We are trapped in the ego and if the ego turns to find the back door for itself, it has already condemned itself. 

Thus in the story of Moses who led his "people" from bondage, he could not enter the promised land. For while the ego may awaken to the desire to win karmic release, the ego, itself, cannot "go there." The ego, like Bhishma in the Mahabharata, must surrender himself to the soul (to God) by self-offering. Hence too the symbol of Abraham being asked to sacrifice his son, Isaac. There is no real destruction or sacrifice of the ego, but the ego doesn't and cannot know this. That takes faith and intuition: only the soul knows that the ego has no intrinsic, existential reality.

In God, we are free and nothing about us is ever lost. Our release is not destructive to our self-awareness. It is blissful release.

As humans, as egos, we cannot but decry the murder of that abortion doctor even if we, ourselves, do not, perhaps, counsel abortion as a day-to-day means of contraception or family planning. Each act is an individual choice and each act brings to itself its natural and metaphysical consequences. In this we have the opportunity to gain compassion for all beings and wisdom to guide our own actions. It is through the power of grace, which is the divine and latent power within us and which is awakened and transmitted to us soul-to-soul from those who have achieved it, that we can win our freedom from the prison of karma.

Bless all who have done wrong, including any of may have hurt you, that their own actions awaken within them the desire to be free and that you be shown how to be an instrument of that awakening to others. Live in the thought and consciousness of freedom and you will attract the power and light of freedom into your mind, heart and soul.

Blessings to all,

Nayaswami Hriman