Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Nonviolence, Yoga, and a Government that Works (Part 1)

In my last essay, I discussed how the goddess Kali represents the archetype of wildness and destruction. We can use Kali to help us become free and liberated by learning how to stand up to others and say no. However, many people try to avoid saying no to other people because they interpret any confrontation to be an act of violence.

Modern schools of yoga have 10 yamas, or “shall not” restraints. The first of these is ahimsa, or nonviolence. Translations vary, but ahimsa tells us that we “shall not” kill or injure living beings. For many people, this means that any violence is unacceptable. For others, violence in self defense and war are permitted when opposing an evil that would cause harm to others.

Regardless of the exact interpretation, this brings us back to the first point. Is it acceptable to allow people to take advantage of us to avoid a confrontation with someone else? Take it a step further. Is it acceptable to allow an attack on us or others because resisting that attack would be an act of violence? Clearly the answer is no. I think that avoiding all confrontation is an act of selfish cowardice. It allows people to claim they are practicing ahimsa while allowing violence to happen.

However, the way that you confront people is important. If an infant hits you, are you, as an adult, justified in hitting back? If someone cuts you off in traffic, are you justified in running him or her off the road? If an angry man in a foreign country sends people to destroy a building and kill us, are we justified in mobilizing an army and endangering millions of innocent civilians? Again, the answer is no. It is the responsibility of the person in the more powerful position to find a better way.

There has to be a middle ground between complete nonviolence and excessive violence in self defense. Every situation is different and I’m not smart enough to solve the problems of the world, but collectively we are smart enough and creative enough.

In the book, The World is Flat, by Thomas Friedman, there is a statement that says, “Where people have hope, you have a middle class.” If people believe that they can get ahead by hard work and that their children will be better off in the future, they are not likely to resort to violence.

Much of the violence in the world today is coming from people living in situations where autocratic or despotic rule has prevented people from improving themselves. Poor government, oppressive rule, poverty, or an inability to see justice in their lives can cause people to lose hope and resort to violence. This can happen in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, or in the projects in Chicago or Los Angeles.

A government that works for all the people promotes justice for the people and accountability for the government officials. Osama bin Laden hates the United States for supporting the government of Saudia Arabia, among other things. He criticizes the government of Saudi Arabia because it is not accountable to the people. Referring to the rulers of Saudi Arabia, he said, “… there is no accountability or punishment, but there is only obedience to the rulers and prayers of long life for them.” When leaders are not accountable, there is no hope that things will get better. When hope is gone, people lash out and seek revenge. They try to use violence to achieve their aims because they see no other way.

A very similar situation exists in the inner cities in the United States. Many people living there feel that they can never see justice. In Los Angeles, there were riots in the streets after a mostly-white jury acquitted the police who beat Rodney King. In recent years, there have been innumerable problems in the streets of Chicago based on a perception of police brutality against poor African Americans.

Compare that to the record turnout in the 2008 presidential election. Did you see the reactions of people at Grant Park in Chicago when Barack Obama gave his acceptance speech after being elected president? Dozens of African Americans were interviewed for the television news and said variations of, “I never thought I would see this in my life.” There is hope.

For more on how yoga can help prevent violence, see my next essay, Nonviolence, Yoga, and a Government that Works (Part 2).

© 2010 Eric Borreson