Minimizing Violence Through Ahiṃsa

“We can’t gain enlightenment through ahiṃsa. We can gain a degree of ahiṃsa through enlightenment. Enlightenment first, and all of these virtues spontaneously come next.”

Thom Knoles

Ahiṃsa is a term made famous outside India, in large part, as a result of Mahatma Gandhi’s ‘non-violent’ approach to securing independence for India.

It’s often thought of as pacifism, rejecting violence altogether. For some, that means non-violence towards fellow humans, and for others, it means non-violence towards all living beings.

As is often the case, this common understanding of Ahiṃsa is incomplete. Thom explains the meaning of Ahiṃsa in this episode and clarifies the role of Ahiṃsa in our personal evolutionary process.

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Episode Highlights


Yoga – A Place Inside of Us



Ashtanga, Samadhi, and Ahiṃsa



Misinterpretation of Ahiṃsa



Story of Meditation and Ahiṃsa



Ahiṃsa in Practice



The Reality of Ahiṃsa



Inevitability of Hiṃsa in Life



Pure Ahiṃsa Can Never Be Achieved by Human



Yoga and Ahiṃsa



Vedic Worldview on Veganism



Gandhi’s Non-Violent Approach to Indian Independence



Influence of Vedic Philosophy on Gandhi



Ahiṃsa in Warfare



Ahiṃsa Unfolds Naturally through Meditation Practice



Nishkama Karma Yoga


Jai Guru Deva


Minimizing Violence Through Ahiṃsa

[00:45] Yoga – A Place Inside of Us

Jai Guru Deva.

Today, I’m going to speak a little bit about a Vedic term and concept that comes from the yoga tradition of Maharishi Patanjali.

Patanjali was a great master of our tradition, a Maharishi, a great seer, who lived about 2,700 years ago., and he is famous for many things, including having written a treatise known as the “Yoga Sutras.” A sutra is an aphorism, a concise statement.

And that aphorism has in it the yoga sutra, the sutras, the aphorisms of the state of unity. Unification of individual consciousness with universal consciousness. There is a place inside of us, which is the yoga place.

In the West, we have begun thinking of yoga as being you put on your spandex and go to a place where you’re going to meet friends for coffee afterward and get in front of a bunch of mirrors and listen to various kinds of music and see if you can achieve breakthroughs in your flexibility and gymnastic capability. This is all too often what yoga has come to mean. In India, that’s referred to as asana, physical asana.

Patanjali created the yoga system. The yoga system is the means whereby you get to experience that layer in you that is yoga, that layer in you in which unification spontaneously occurs. Unification of individuality with Universality. Unification of individual consciousness, universal consciousness.

So there’s a layer inside of us to which we transcend when we practice Vedic Meditation, that is the yoga state.

[02:48] Ashtanga, Samadhi, and Ahiṃsa

Yoga is a layer of consciousness which we experience in that least-excited state during meditation.

And when Patanjali notes this, he notes that there will be certain symptoms of living in the state of yoga. Very often, these different symptoms are considered to be the angas or limbs of yoga, and there are eight of them. Ashtanga. Ashta is eight, in Sanskrit. Anga means limbs.

Ashtanga is the terminology of Patanjali, not for means of gaining yoga. The means of gaining yoga is Samadhi. Samadhi, S-A-M-A-D-H-I.

Samadhi is the least-excited consciousness state. That least-excited consciousness state is the condition of pure yoga. And one of the things that comes out of it, there are many things that come out of it, is ahiṃsa. Ahiṃsa is spelled A-H-I-Ṃ, with a dot under it. A-H-I-Ṃ-S-A. Ahiṃsa.

Ahiṃsa is a condition of not finding a usefulness in violence. It’s sometimes referred to as non-violence because of the literal grammatical structure of the word ahiṃsa. Well, let’s be very clear: ahiṃsa, or non-violence, is not a means to gaining samadhi. No, this is a misinterpretation of the ignorant.

Samadhi, gaining pure consciousness, will spontaneously give rise to ahiṃsa. Ahiṃsa is a close cousin of another quality identified by Patanjali, asteya. A-S-T-E-Y-A. Teya means theft. Ah is the negating sound. Asteya, non-theft.

And there are other qualities, Brahmachari, Brahmacharya which means, acharya which is teacher, my teacher, and Brahma, which is Totality. Brahman. Brahman Acharya turns into Brahmacharya.

[05:16] Misinterpretation of Ahiṃsa

So, this is very often interpreted incorrectly as “celibacy.” But Brahmacharya simply means my teacher is the Totality, and there are others. But let’s focus just on Brahmacharya, asteya, and ahiṃsa, particularly, which is our pivot here, ahiṃsa, today.

So people who don’t understand what yoga really is think that it’s a practice, that you practice non-theft. Let’s practice not stealing anything. Let’s practice celibacy, Brahmacharya, which is a misinterpretation of the word. Let’s practice not having desires of having sexuality with another human being. Let’s practice non-violence, ahiṃsa.

And then those who don’t understand this will take the word ahiṃsa, and turn it into a virtue, and then their great desire to carry out virtue signaling. Virtue signaling is sets of behaviors in which one demonstrates I am holier than thou. Ahiṃsa is very often bandied about as something that you should be very careful about.

I remember once being in the ashram in Rishikesh, which is set in a jungle, and that thick jungle had every kind of jungle creature in it, including jungle spiders, and some of those spiders are deadly poisonous. One bite from them, and unless you’re in a hospital within the next 30 minutes, you’ll be needing reincarnation.

[06:54] Story of Meditation and Ahiṃsa

And so, one day, there was a young man who was very concerned because he was doing his meditation program in his little room, which the rooms were more like caves. And there was a spider on the wall. And so, afraid of the spider, he wasn’t able to meditate undistractedly, and he went to Maharishi and said, in the lecture time, “Maharishi, I’m very distracted by a spider in the room.”

Now, Maharishi had a very close colleague by the name of Brahmachari Satyanand. Satyanand was a Swami of great stature who was slightly older than Maharishi, a few years older, and who had also studied at the feet of Swami Brahmananda Saraswati, whom we know as Guru Deva. Maharishi’s teacher was also Satyanand’s teacher.

Satyanand was slightly more worldly than Maharishi, primarily because he had spent the larger part of his life as a householder. Meaning he had been not a monk for most of his life, but then his wife had died, and after a year of grieving, he finally met Guru Deva and was able to succeed in becoming one of Guru Deva’s disciples.

After Guru Deva left his body, Brahmachari Satyanand teamed up with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, my master, and began to help Maharishi in the spread of Maharishi’s meditation technique all around the world.

Maharishi heard the complaint of spider boy and said, “You need to talk to Satyanand. Satyanand will take care of it.”

[08:37] Ahiṃsa in Practice

Satyanand went with the young man back to his cave. I call it a cave, it’s a man-made structure made out of stones in a dome-like shape and an egg-like shape, sat inside the cave with the young man and said, “Let’s close our eyes and meditate, and if you hear any noise, just develop a neutral attitude to the noise.”

The kind of instruction that one might hear from a teacher of Vedic Meditation.” Just have a neutral attitude to the noise if you hear any noise. Don’t worry about anything.” And meditation began.

And about 10 or 15 minutes into the meditation, the young man, to whom I spoke afterward said he heard a little bit of rustling around, and he couldn’t help but peek. He looked with one eye open over where Satyanand was sitting, and he saw Satyanand taking off his flip-flops, his sandals, and then he saw Satyanand stand up. And then he closed his eyes again, and then he heard, “Whack!” A great loud ‘Whack’. And then he saw Satyanand exit the room.

And after about ten minutes, Satyanand came back in, and he said, “Now we may open our eyes slowly. Come out of meditation. There won’t be any trouble from the spider anymore.” And off he went.

Whatever happened to ahiṃsa? What happened to ahiṃsa was that there was a decision made about the hierarchy of consciousness. In that hierarchy of consciousness, we have to be mindful of what it takes actually to be a living embodied being. To be a living embodied being, one has to allow hiṃsa. Hiṃsa means the violation of the life of another being.

[10:26] The Reality of Ahiṃsa

So very often, I’ve heard people say, “You know, I only eat salad because I can’t stand the thought of killing anything. If something dies, I can’t stand it.”

I said, “You should read an old book from the late 60s, early 70s, but it still has knowledge in it that is current and non-controversial. The book is entitled The Secret Life of Plants.”

The two scientists who wrote the book were able, non-controversially, to measure various kinds of sounds and vibrations emitting from plants when the plants were being picked.

By picked, I mean removed from their root system in order to be consumed by a human, let’s say, a leaf of lettuce. Because we can’t perceive the lettuce screaming doesn’t mean that it’s not screaming. Because we can’t perceive the lettuce leaf going through lettuce leaf agony when it’s being taken from the ground, doesn’t mean that it’s not experiencing some lettuce leaf agony.

In the book The Secret Life of Plants, we can see how plants that are intended for human consumption shrink away measurably from the humans who are about to pick them because they know they’re about to be slain and probably consumed.

Whether they know they’re going to be consumed or not could be controversial, but what’s not controversial is that they actually react to the presence of someone, not just a human, including a rabbit or a slug or little bug that’s going to eat them.

[12:06] Inevitability of Hiṃsa in Life

So the idea that the plant world doesn’t react to being slain in order to allow someone to be fed, is farcical. As a scientist, I can tell you that this approach to trying to practice ahiṃsa, non-violence, is a failed approach. It doesn’t work. And so then, you know, so conscience-driven that we don’t want absolutely anything to die, then what happens is the human condition itself has to die.

And we really have to look at, in the order of things, there’s always a process of the sacrifice of the lesser and less sophisticated physiologies, microbial, and other kinds of physiologies, plant physiologies and what not, in the process of sustaining life at a higher level of more sophisticated brain functioning.

In other words, it’s just not possible to be a human and not be killing something just by virtue of being a human, and every second of your existence, something is dying.

So, in this misinformed practice, people think that if all I eat is plants, just eating plants, lettuce, and salads, and broccoli, and all good things that grow out of the ground, then I’m not committing Ahiṃsa in any way, and if I practice this non-violence, I’ll arrive in the virtuous state of unbounded awareness.

Actually, the whole thing goes the other way around. Experiencing the unbounded state, experiencing the state of complete fulfillment from inside will give rise to a minimization of hiṃsa.

[13:56] Pure Ahiṃsa Can Never Be Achieved by Human

Ahiṃsa, in its purest truth, can never be achieved by the human condition because in order to exist, in order to breathe, in order to swallow saliva, in order to exist in any way, some kind of hiṃsa, some kind of violence, is always committed, whether we intend to do so or we don’t intend to do so. We really have to look at the idea that living in a human body, to live in a human body requires, if we go from the microbial level up, requires the death of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of microbes and other kinds of beings, different kinds of bacteria, different kinds of viral phenomena.

Our body has a powerful antivirus set of killing machines called macrophages. Our body possesses bacterial-killing machines called antibodies. Our body, in order to exist, requires the death of thousands of beings.

Now, to what extent can we consciously allow ourselves to minimize the violence? That would be our natural preference. And there are 1.4 billion people in India. At least 1 billion of them, perhaps more than a billion, more like 1.2 billion of them, do not participate in the killing of animals in order to nourish their bodies. They are vegetarians in that regard. I’m not necessarily recommending vegetarianism. What I am recommending is yoga. And by yoga, I don’t mean wearing spandex and going and having coffee with your friends.

I recommend the state of consciousness, of discovering Samadhi, the state of consciousness of discovering the least-excited layer where your individual intelligence is merging with Cosmic Intelligence.

[16:01] Yoga and Ahiṃsa

When you have that experience on a regular basis, one of the things you’ll find is more and more tendency toward non-violence, ahiṃsa. Ahiṃsa is a spontaneous outcome of the experience of yoga, samadhi, the least-excited state, the pure consciousness state.

We cannot get to an enlightened state by not killing because it’s not possible, as I’ve illustrated, for the human body to exist without something dying, in fact, death by the hundreds of thousands or millions, is a requirement in order for the human body simply to exist.

So, we have to be conscious of opportunities for less violence. And where there are opportunities for less violence, if we find ourselves spontaneously attracted to that, if we find ourselves spontaneously leaning in the direction of less violence, then beautiful, so be it. Go with what you find charming.

But, if, on the other hand, there is some particular helpfulness in the consumption of some animal product, then, from the Vedic perspective, there may be some value in that.

Ayurveda, A-Y-U-R, new word V-E-D-A, sometimes put together as Ayurveda, is the Vedic body of literature that deals with how to have greater longevity for different body types. Different body types means different psychophysiological conditions.

Each one of us, at any given moment, has a body that is expressive of the consciousness that inhabits it, in the way in which that consciousness interacts with the environment.

[17:57] Vedic Worldview on Veganism

In the Ayurvedic texts, although it’s not recommended that on a regular basis, people partake in the consumption of what is referred to as flesh, nonetheless, there are certain conditions that are near disease-like states of imbalance in which meat-eating is, in fact, condoned or even recommended for certain body types under certain conditions, in order to bring about balance.

So then, what is it that is the Vedic worldview about eating? It’s not veganism per se because veganism is a relatively new concept, less than a hundred years old. There haven’t been multiple generations of vegans yet. Veganism is an experiment whose multi-generational outcomes are yet to be fully interpreted.

And although many of you may find veganism to be, for you, the solution for the time being, from the Vedic perspective, we simply say, practice your meditation twice a day, and allow spontaneous refinements in taste to reveal themselves.

Allowing spontaneous refinements in taste to reveal themselves over a period of time may appear as a thematic style of eating that you particularly enjoy or find helpful to your own physiology, to your own mind-body combination.

[19:28] Gandhi’s Non-Violent Approach to Indian Independence

There are some who point out the actions of Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi was a great proponent of the political freedom and liberation of the country of India to break hundreds of years of rule by Great Britain and to have India achieve its independence.

He advocated that this could be done by not engaging in warfare, and the way that he did it was through a method known as civil disobedience. That if you instead of taking up arms against the British, which would have created a tremendous amount of hiṃsa, a tremendous amount of violence, taking up arms against the British would have resulted in the slaying of hundreds of thousands of Indians.

And, being someone who was a proponent of the Vedic worldview, in fact, Gandhi was deeply influenced by the teachings of my master’s master. My master’s master was named Swami Brahmananda Saraswati— we call him Guru Deva— and his teaching had already percolated throughout India through the 1930s and into the 40s when, when the independence movement was going on. Gandhi was very influenced by him.

And one of the ways in which that influence showed up was rather than taking up arms, simply don’t do what it is the Britishers, as they called them, what the Britishers tell you to do. If they tell you go here, don’t go there. Go on a strike. If they tell you go over here, don’t go over here.

[21:17] Influence of Vedic Philosophy on Gandhi

If they raise a cane against you and strike you, handle it. But don’t strike back, because striking back or then taking up arms or giving the Britishers an excuse to fire their very superior guns at the Indian populace would be a very ineffective way of India achieving its independence.

And there were some killings. There were some British who fired upon innocent Indian civilians, particularly in the town of Amritsar in the 1940s. But, by and large, we can’t say that the independence of India was a bloodless transition. But it certainly is world famous for having minimized the amount of violence.

Minimizing of violence is one of the spontaneous effects that comes about through the experience of pure consciousness. There’s a much more intelligent way of getting a thing done than to initiate violence in order to get it done.

So Gandhi’s drawing upon the philosophy of yoga, the Patanjali philosophy of yoga, which he heard about through other friends of his who were disciples of Swami Brahmananda Saraswati, and that ending up in being a policy of not initiating violence, but instead of that going on general strike in order to make it impossible for the nation to move.

And when a nation like that, of that size, is experiencing the process of the civil disobedience, that is to say, general strike of millions, tens of hundreds of millions, and there were only a hundred thousand Britishers in the whole of India at the time, it made it impossible for them to continue to rule the country and having brought the machinery of India to a halt in that way was the key to getting the British to agree to leave the country.

So Ahiṃsa, in this regard, needs to be understood. Gandhi himself was not somebody who, in daily life, was trying to practice Ahiṃsa. He was simply living a normal, natural life of an Indian.

But in general, we would say that just by meditating twice a day, you’ll know what it is that you should eat and not eat. You’ll know what it is you should do or not do. And this was the whole idea of Krishna.

[24:04] Ahiṃsa in Warfare

5,000 years ago, Lord Krishna advising Arjuna, “You have to fight in this war against your cousins,” because his cousins were going to create an abomination. They were going to completely destroy, and debauch the Indian civilization if they were allowed to continue doing what they were doing.

And Krishna’s advice to Arjuna was, “You’ll have to fight.” Arjuna was very resistant to the idea of fighting.

Krishna said to him, “If you really wish to have been a pacifist, you could have talked to me about that 14 years ago, and it could have been arranged. But now, due to your neglect and that of your brothers, you’ve allowed your cousins to become the terrorizers of the Indian population in the way they have. And now you’re on a battlefield. And right across from you is your cousin’s army, and you’re going to have to fight.”

And Arjuna complained that this wouldn’t be ahiṃsa, and Krishna argued, “It is ahiṃsa because it’s the minimizing of violence to do this now rather than what’s going to happen if you don’t use your skill to bring this to an end, bring this to an end now with the minimal loss of life and as quickly as possible and peaceful return to the country.

Whereas if you don’t do this now, there’ll be nothing but bloodshed and violence and on a scale that is unimaginable. Many, many decades to come.

[25:43] Ahiṃsa Unfolds Naturally through Meditation Practice

So sometimes Ahiṃsa calls for warfare. Sometimes Ahiṃsa is the minimizing of violence that’s brought about, but can only be brought about, intelligently, by a mind that has been allowed to settle into the least-excited state and then come forward.

There is such a thing as a spiritual warrior. And Arjuna was one of those and a great inspiration of Gandhi. But in Gandhi’s time, Ahiṃsa, or relative non-violence, because the Indians didn’t take up arms, relative non-violence could be attained or attained to by other means, and those means were general strike and civil disobedience.

So, we don’t want to be confused about, “Oh, Gandhi advocated Ahiṃsa, and it was because of that actually what it turned out to be was simply the most intelligent approach to getting the Britishers to go home, and to enjoy life in the British Isles rather than trying to enslave the hundreds of millions of people, the population of India.

So, it was actually, it turned out to be the less violent of the various kinds of means is the most intelligent way of getting it done.

Had there been no other choice, had Gandhi been in the same position as Arjuna, then Gandhi is on record as saying he would have done what Arjuna did. He would have taken up arms against his cousins if he’d been in that situation. But he wasn’t in that situation.

So, minimal loss of life, bring it. If war has to happen, then it should happen in the shortest possible time with the minimal loss of life. This is also Ahiṃsa.

[27:32] Nishkama Karma Yoga

And so, we don’t try to base our lives on spontaneous outcomes. The practice of Nishkama Karma Yoga, which is the proper name of our practice in the Sanskrit language, that state of union between individuality and universality, which is attained to through activity hardly done Nishkama Karma.

Minimizing activity, thinking the mantra effortlessly, transcending thought, and experiencing the yoga state gives rise to certain outcomes. You find that you’re stealing less, asteya happens. Lack of theft.

You find that you are more sensible in your sexual predilections, more balanced Brahmacharya is achieved. You find that ahiṃsa, where there’s an opportunity for minimizing violence, you find that spontaneously you can lean into that.

But the idea that you’re going to get to enlightenment by there being no violence whatsoever between the human state and existence and the physical environment. This is a fallacy.

Ahiṃsa is not a practice.

Ahiṃsa is a spontaneous capability brought about through regular practice of Vedic Meditation with eyes closed and going into the least-excited state of consciousness.

We can’t gain enlightenment through ahiṃsa. We can gain a degree of ahiṃsa through enlightenment. Enlightenment first, and all of these virtues spontaneously come next.

Jai Guru Deva.

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