Since time immemorial, ahimsa or nonviolence, has been a central part of spiritual practice in many cultures. The holy Bhagavad Gita is just one of many ancient sacred texts that supports living a life of nonviolence and equal treatment of all beings. It is an instruction manual for seeing and understanding that Lord Krishna is ever-present and nothing in creation is separate from Him. It is also a guide, illuminating our path towards spiritual progress and ultimately enlightenment.
Now, at first glance, the Bhagavad Gita seems to be anything but non-violent…but things are never what they seem. Lord Krishna is actually commanding Arjuna to kill his family members… Yes, his own relatives; the very people who helped raise him. The Gita is conveyed in the form of a poem consisting of 19 chapters, and is just a part of the tremendous Mahabharata epic. The story is based on the huge battle between the royal houses of India, who are fighting over succession of the throne. The characters include Arjuna, who is a well-known kshatriya (warrior) and Lord Krishna who is Arjuna’s charioteer. Lord Krishna is the Supreme Personality of Godhead, manifesting himself into human form in order to counsel Arjuna in this very important battle. The battle is being fought against Arjuna’s relatives who were power-hungry, lustful, murderous and consumed with greed. Arjuna is reluctant to fight in this battle because he does not want to be the one to kill his relatives so he naturally declines and refuses to fight. But Lord Krishna tells Arjuna that he has a sacred duty to carry out and as a kshatriya, he is required to protect the people from aggressors and those who are only out for power and wealth. Lord Krishna says,
“This despair and weakness in a time of crisis are mean and unworthy of you Arjuna. How have you fallen into a state so far from the path to Liberation? It does not become you to yield to this weakness. Arise with a brave heart and destroy the enemy.” (Bhagavad Gita 2:2-3)
In essence, Arjuna is required to fight against injustice, even if that means fighting against his relatives, friends and close family members. The actual word ‘kshatriya’ translates as, “the one who protects from harm” and it is considered a great honor to be a kshatriya. However, Arjuna was very soft-hearted and very hesitant to kill anyone or anything, let alone his own family members. He says that he does not desire any victory or happiness or even the kingdom so he would rather not fight. Lord Krishna reminds Arjuna that the soul cannot be killed, only the impermanent bodies will be destroyed but the soul can never die. Arjuna had a sacred to duty to perform and Lord Krishna was there to make sure that he did it. Lord Krishna is the supreme lawmaker according to Vedic scriptures, and His laws are to be adhered to by everyone and rightfully so, for the ultimate good of all. So commanding Arjuna to fight against injustice was not actually a violent act; It was a necessary and benevolent act. Striking down evil forces, -however familiar,- in order to uphold the good and righteous is an honor, not a sin. Lord Krishna explains to Arjuna that to rise up and fight and defeat his enemies is actually his Dharma. Dharma means to live in accordance with one’s purpose in life and Arjuna was born into royalty and trained as a brave warrior, so his dharma was to fight. Krishna says, “It is better to strive in one’s own dharma than to succeed in the dharma of another.” (Bhagavad Gita 3:35) To refuse to fight would be going against his dharma and it would been more violent than actually killing those who were aligned with dark forces. Eventually convinced, Arjuna defeated the enemy and saved the people from corrupt leadership. Arjuna’s act of killing his family members was necessary in order to ensure continued goodness and righteousness in the kingdom. This can be likened to when a doctor has to remove a limb in order to save a patient’s life; Painful and unpleasant but absolutely necessary. Arjuna had to complete this somewhat unsavory act for the good of all. Killing doesn’t always mean violence… there is a difference.
To have blatant disregard for the lives of other people, animals and even plants is violent. To use and exploit anyone or anything is violent. To act only to satisfy one’s own senses is violent, destructive and wasteful. Everything in existence has a consciousness. Everything is permeated with life, regardless of the outer form. In the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna explains,
“I am the source of all spiritual and material worlds. Everything emanates from Me. The wise who perfectly know this, engage in My devotional service and worship Me with all their hearts.” (Bhagavad Gita 12:13-14)
So, Krishna is in everyone and everything, at all times. Upon realizing this, it becomes impossible not treat everything and everyone in the world around us with thoughtful consideration. Our own words and actions are sacred opportunities, for we actually come face to face with the Divine through each interaction and every exchange that we engage in. Nonviolence paves the road to liberation. The ultimate Truth of existence is that we are all One; there is no separation. Humans, fish, birds, beasts and insects alike; the same spark of consciousness that lies in one of them, lies in all of them. After all, why wouldn’t it? Their bodies may appear to be different, this is true, but the Light behind their eyes is the same. It is the Light of Life. It is the presence of awareness, of being, of consciousness, and it exists in everything that walks, flies, crawls and slithers. Considering and recognizing the ever-present awareness in all creatures is the ultimate state of Self-realization. One begins to see the Divine in everyone, in everything, all the time. Upon reaching this heightened state of consciousness, there is no other alternative than to live a life of nonviolence.
“An enlightened person – by perceiving God in all – looks at a learned person, an outcast, even a cow, an elephant, or a dog with an equal eye.” (Bhagavad Gita 5:18)
This concept is not just exclusive to the Bhagavad Gita. It is actually found in many ancient scriptures from many different cultures, at various points all throughout human history. In all walks of life, compassion is held in the highest esteem and considered to be biggest step in self-realization. Compassion, or ahimsa, is the first Yama in Patanjali’s Eight Limb Path of Yoga and there is a reason why it is number one: It is the most important. It is the foundation, the base, the very root of the sacred Eight Limb Path of Yoga. The one who pursues the path of Yoga must first start with adopting a nonviolent approach to life. Only after this is established can one move along to the other higher limbs of the yogic path. Ahimsa can actually be applied to every aspect of life. Each and every situation is an opportunity for kindness and nonviolence.
In the Christian Bible, it says, “A righteous man regardeth the life of his beast.” (Proverbs 12:10) Compassion requires one to see themselves in everyone and everything around them. This means cultivating a level of consciousness where it is understood that each and every thing is connected to everything else. Nothing exists independently or is isolated from the web of existence. The same light of life that exists in one being, exists in all beings. When looking at an animal, one doesn’t just see a foreign beast…They see another sentient being who is also participating in this cosmic trip. While looking into its eyes they see someone staring back at them. An animal has all of the same body parts as a human does; he breathes, he eats, he sleeps, he walks, he reproduces…Why do some believe that his perception of reality is any different than ours? Why would anyone think that animals do not possess the same presence of awareness that humans possess? In His lengthy discourse with Arjuna, Lord Krishna says,
“He who hates no creature, who is friendly and compassionate to all, who is free from attachment and egoism, balanced in pleasure and pain, and forgiving, ever content, steady in meditation, possessed of firm conviction, self-controlled, with mind and intellect devoted to Me, he, My devotee is dear to Me.”
(Bhagavad Gita 12:13-14)
By being friendly and compassionate to all, one becomes more and more aligned with the Divine. Choosing the perception that all beings are conscious and aware, creates more of a connection with all that is. It demolishes the boundaries of ‘us’ and ‘them’ or ‘subject’ and ‘object.’ As participants on the spiritual path, it is necessary to become aware of the things of this world that cultivate separation and create divide. Progressing spiritually, it is necessary to only align with that which unites with the Supreme Consciousness. The Christian Bible says, “It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble.” (Romans 14:21) It also says, “Thou shalt not kill.” (Exodus 20:13) This is actually the first of the Hebrew Ten Commandments. Makes one wonder why there are still so many people who think it’s acceptable to kill animals and eat them. Killing an animal for food is very violent and even just eating it without actually killing it is not only violent but disgusting and cruel. There is no such thing as humane slaughter because animals are living, breathing, feeling, thinking beings just like human beings, so when faced with a brutal death, they experience the same feelings that a person would experience. Killing a sentient creature for food is hateful and violent and only carried out in order to satisfy one’s sense desires; no other reason. Mother Earth has provided humanity with plenty of living food that satisfies all of the needs of the body. Fruits and vegetables are given freely…they fall from the trees…they grow from the ground…they display visible ripeness when ready to be eaten… they don’t need to be killed violently and they exist without a central nervous system and are packed with nutrients! This is food and yet fruits and vegetables can still be handled with thoughtful consideration and Love and thankfulness while being prepared.
According to ancient Vedic beliefs, the soul migrates through 8.4 million species of being before finally taking birth as a human being. The soul must endure and withstand a great deal as mineral, plant and animals before being fortunate enough to attain a human body, and inhabiting a human body means that the soul has a chance to strive towards self-realization. Plants have a lower state of consciousness than animals do and have no means of making choices or running their own lives. Animals also do not have the gift of free will nor the facilities for journeying towards self-realization, as far as we know. They are bound by their instincts and are not able to choose differently for themselves. They are essentially helpless and defenseless. So by needlessly keeping animals captive, killing them and using their broken bodies to satisfy our own senses, we are clearly interfering with the path of their soul. Being nonviolent and having consideration for the other being allows the evolution of life to continue on its natural path, while violence obstructs the primordial evolutionary flow of life. The only reason that humans do these things is because we have been mislead by the illusion of separation; The illusion that humans are stronger, smarter and more important than animals. But even in the Christian Bible, it says,
“Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; humans have no advantage over animals. Everything is meaningless.” (Ecclesiastes 3 :19)
There truly is no separation between people and the animals, aside from the fact that humans have a higher intellect and have the gift of free will and choice. But is this what humans are doing with this gift and choice? Torturing animals, killing them and feasting on their pain? Surely a better choice would be nonviolence, and a better use of the gift of free would be to participate in this world causing the least amount of harm as possible.
Upon learning that human beings are all parts and parcels of Krishna, living a life of nonviolence becomes the only way of being. Looking out for others and protecting the innocent from harm is our duty because are we not kshatriyas? Are we not obligated to fight against injustice and protect those in need? What is the difference between ourselves and Arjuna? Standing up and fighting against slavery, murder and injustice is not violent… it is heroic and it is our duty as decent human beings. Nonviolence does not require inaction, it is not a passive stance. The world does not need pity or sympathy, it needs action, it needs people who aren’t afraid to act when necessary. Being compassionate in every area of life requires constant effort and awareness, especially in the case of our commonly over-looked dietary choices. This is the simplest yet the most difficult step to take in the pursuance of ahimsa.
“The purchaser of flesh performs violence by his wealth; he who eats flesh does so by enjoying its taste; the killer does violence by actually tying and killing the animal. Thus, there are three forms of killing. He who brings flesh or sends for it, he who cuts off the limbs of an animal, and he who purchases, sells or cooks flesh and eats it. All these are considered to be meat eaters.” (Mahabharata, Anu 115.40)
Every choice we make effects everything else and we must always be on the lookout to notice if our choices are tangled up in violence in one way or another. Nothing we do happens in a vacuum so we must be mindful, careful and considerate with our words, actions and even our thoughts, always. Violent thoughts lead to violent words and inevitably actions. The consciousness can be purified by realizing the oneness of all of creation. Upon realizing our oneness with animals as well as with each other, there is nothing else to do but have unconditional and unbiased Love for all beings.
Compassion, ahimsa, nonviolence. This sanctified state of consciousness brings one to the feet of Lord Krishna. Seeing Him in all things, in all people, all the time is the ultimate height of Truth. Acting without compassion for others is self-serving and brings one further away from the ultimate reality. But adopting a life of bhakti, of pure unconditional Love and selfless service to others, we honor the Supreme. “I bless you to be free from malice. To live in concord and harmony with all. Love one another as a cow loves its new born calf.” (Atharva Veda 3.30.1) Compassion requires strength and fortitude… it is not for the easily manipulated or the weak. Standing up against the dark forces and instead aligning with Love is not always easy yet it is our duty on the path to oneness. In the holy Bhagavad Gita, it was Arjuna’s dharma to rise up and fight for what was good and righteous. His actions were not violent, they were required of him as a kshatriya. We are all kshatriyas fighting out there in the world every single day against evil and dark forces. It is our duty to take the side of righteousness, of compassion and it is our duty to protect those who cannot defend themselves. Being a warrior in our modern times does not necessarily involve chariots, shields, weapons and armor, it is just a matter of choice and free will. Choosing to be on the side of Love, compassion and nonviolence serves the greater good and brings us into Oneness with all that is.