If we suffer throbbing pain day after day for weeks on end, we need more than an analgesic to alleviate pain. The pain is a warning sign that something might need medical attention. We need to treat the cause not just the symptom.
Today’s world is going through deep pain, nearly everywhere. In region after region, the analgesic of violence is being administered to alleviate deep seated symptoms of social dysfunction. More people and governmental units are turning to the quick-fix of oppression, force, and overt violence.
People who suffer severe, chronic pain, must spend increasing amounts of money for stronger, more sophisticated means of suppressing their physical hurt. In some cases, the medications cause the demise of the patients. Just like many medications, increasing doses of violence are required to address the pain of social ills. Those of us who pay attention to our civilization’s violence addiction know that billions of dollars are intravenously administered into our military and police institutions. This money is largely spent on increasingly powerful tools of violence. Mass death and mayhem is the result.
If we are wise enough to know that people are suffering the pain of repression and oppression, we also know that short- term violence only covers up the problems. Forcing the problems under cover causes the problems to fester and become ever worse. Eventually, the symptoms recur, and violent force is again used to alleviate them. On and on we go. An ever escalating spiral of violence and oppression continues.
If we see and feel social injustice but do not wish to administer the addictive remedy of violence, what are we to do, when we’ve had enough?
We know that not taking steps to address the symptoms of illness is unwise. If we choose to passively ignore the pain by gulping down pain-killers, we stand a good chance of possibly dying from whatever illness is festering inside. The same goes for social ills. If we continue to resort to platitudes, passivity and taking the path of least resistance, we may end up surrendering to the demise of the social body.
“One has to speak out and stand up for one’s convictions. Inaction at a time of conflagration is inexcusable.”–Mahatma Gandhi
First, we need to find out what people have done in the past to try and solve the painful problems that crop up in society. What does not work, and what does work?
Unsatisfactory feelings and anger build up in the minds of a few people. They express their opinions to more people in their social circles. Anger and resentment blossom into fear and hatred. The organized hatred evolves into the desire to build armies in order to kill people from other societies and civilizations. Soon, we have the familiar plague of warfare erupting, yet again.
One group of people manages to destroy the army of another group of people. There is victory for one group and defeat for the other. In victory and defeat, we find the virus spores of future outbreaks of warfare.
Sometimes, the vanquished civilization harbors resentment and a desire for revenge. Oftentimes, the victor has tasted the sweetness of success and becomes greedy for more victories. Resentments over losses and hunger for more victories fuels further conflicts until one or both sides are completely destroyed. The treasuries of the warring powers are left bankrupt and the spirit of the people is left hollowed out.
Efforts to halt the cycle of warfare by passivity and pacifism have been largely unsuccessful. The primal heat of anger and hatred easily overpowers cool, thoughtful, philosophical reason and appeals to mercy. A favorite example is Great Britain’s appeasement of Nazi Germany in the dawning days of the second World War. Aggression beat passivity yet again.
It turns out that there are more than two ways to solve a social illness.
Something called non-violence or non-violent resistance, rejects the traditional practice of physical violence in order to achieve social and political change. This is a tactic being taken up by ordinary people around the world. Non-violent action isn’t an attempt to avoid or apply a band-aid approach to conflict. Non-violent response is an active approach. It is skillful application of effective power. Non-violence is the most effective political activity for normal, ordinary people.
The ancient tool of non-violence was revived in the 20th Century by Mahatma Gandhi in the struggle for Indian independence from Great Britain. His successful advocacy of non-violent action has become the template for other oppressed people to address oppression and repression by more powerful forces. Today is celebrated as the International Day of Non-Violence because we honor the memory of Mahatma Gandhi on his birthday, October 2nd.
How did Gandhi come up with this idea about political non-violence? He was inspired by the ancient scriptural concept called Ahimsa. Ahimsa is the abstinence from violence by thought, word, and deed. Non-violence or non-harming requires a “harmless mind, mouth, and hand”. This practice utilizes compassion and love. Advocates of Ahimsa have come to realize that, ultimately, love displaces hatred and indifference.
The word Ahimsa is derived from the Sanskrit root “hims”, meaning to strike. Himsa is defined as injuring or harming. When the prefix “a” is added, we get Ahimsa, the opposite of Himsa. The definition becomes non-injuring or non-harming. The ancient scriptures teach the virtues of Ahimsa as the essential tenent and guide for personal behavior. By extension, if everyone practices Ahimsa, society and civilization become based on non-violence.
We can approach a deeper understanding of Ahimsa, by looking at Himsa. Himsa comes about when we harbor thoughts of hatred, indifference, and prejudice. We entertain dislike and prejudice towards people who are not like ourselves. Himsa is also displayed vocally whenever we speak badly of others through gossiping, backbiting, and vilifying others. We display contempt of others by speaking ill of them. In the physical sense, Himsa is the act of causing physical injury and/or death of other living beings. Violence by exclusion is also included in the definition of physical Himsa. Hurting people by neglect, oppression, or exclusion is harmful. Himsa is the ruination of another person or being in any manner, whatsoever.
Ahimsa is when we refrain from Himsa. To engage Ahimsa is the practice of the most extreme form of bravery. It isn’t possible to sincerely practice Ahimsa by people who are afraid of severe injury and death. People who have no power of endurance and resistance cannot effectively follow the path of Ahimsa. People who faithfully follow the practice of Ahimsa do not entertain thoughts of retaliation nor unkind feelings towards their tormentors, either. Ahimsa is the highest form of forgiveness in action.
Ahimsa is not for the thoughtless. It is through thoughtful awareness of one’s life and one’s impact upon the entire world that Ahimsa can be applied. Ahimsa is a vital ingredient for anybody who wishes to be in charge of his life. In turn, Ahimsa is of utmost importance to a people who want to guide their civilization.
By nature, we are non-violent in our cores. However, if someone harms us or deprives us of something, we become angry and want retribution. The mindful practice of Ahimsa brings about an habitual change in perspective. In Ahimsa, we no longer see ourselves as victims. With this point of view, our normal knee-jerk reaction of anger is not present. Ahimsa is something we practice every hour of every day. If Ahimsa is habitual, it becomes the default behavior when crisis arises.
How do we apply Ahimsa in the face of an armed force or violent oppressors? Here is where we must mindfully use nuance in self-defense. Disputes and disagreements are inevitable in life. Some action must be taken to resolve these problems. If a person needs to counteract someone else’s forceful harm, the motivation for physical defensive action must come from the heart of Ahimsa.
If a person absolutely must exercise violence to defend oneself, it must be done out of the necessity of the greater good, without personal benefit or greed. In a larger context, Ahimsa is carried out by non-violent, civil disobedience.
We can see how this happened in the Indian independence movement. Practitioners of Ahimsa confronted the British police and military but did so with no intent to harm nor kill them. Even though great multitudes of Indians were injured or slaughtered, Ahimsa based resistance caused the moral and actual victory of Indians over the more physically powerful British overlords.
The Indian independence movement was based on the knowledge that “Ahimsa is the ultimate/supreme duty; it is only recommended for those who are willing to tread the most difficult spiritual path.”
The use of Ahimsa or non-violence depends upon the person or society who uses it. Non-violence changes depending upon the circumstances. Civil disobedience can be used for unhelpful purposes. That is, a group might organize themselves with the aim of discriminating against another group of people. They might wish to avenge actions committed by another group. Another group may use non-violent civil disobedience to pursue the unselfish, compassionate aims for society at large. The first group uses civil disobedience in the practice of Himsa. The second group uses civil disobedience in the service of Ahimsa.
The morality of non-violent, civil disobedience is entirely determined by motivation. If we use civil disobedience to exclude or punish others, we act wrongly. If we use civil disobedience to bring forth benefit, happiness, and compassion, we act rightly. Used mindfully, non-violent civil disobedience displaces hatred and indifference with love.