Indian Philosophy in America’s Dark Night

Little over a week ago, I wrote a piece about how when we promote people (Kavanaugh) within a context that evades truth (think Judiciary Committee Hearings, the FBI Investigation), we destroy not just democracy and the rule of law, but truth and our shared basis for reality. Last week it was a national issue.

Just as we were in the throes of that story, Jamal Khashoggi disappeared into the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul. For more than two weeks we have been wandering the borders of the unthinkable, to arrive today, finally, at the all but inevitable acknowledgement of his death; not as a planned massacre but a botched rogue illegal abduction. Masking verifiable reality by reducing access to facts is the new game, not only domestically but internationally, led by America, the former force of democratic leadership for people around the world. However morally ambivalent we may have been, the world could always look to us, the American people, to uphold at least our core commitments to democracy: freedom of speech, and the right of a journalist to do his job safely while asking questions or speaking the truths he had uncovered.

Not any more.

And just to be sure the Saudis knew they weren’t alone in their sense that journalists are fair game, Trump took ownership of our homegrown assault of news reporters. He referred to Montana Rep. Greg Gianforte as his “man”, and a “tough cookie” regarding his body-slamming assault on the Guardian’s Sam Jacobs-an assault that led to a guilty plea and a suspended sentence.

Make no mistake, these incidents are not unrelated.

America right now, is on a high speed trajectory to the wrong side of history.

Our world is turning upside down at a dizzying pace. The temptation to tune it out is a growing necessity, and yet the most dangerous thing we can do.

But how do we manage our sanity in this mounting insanity?

Of course, the first point that everyone is making is VOTE. In a democracy, that’s a critical responsibility.

But before that? Since that’s still two weeks away for most of us…And after that?

For some, activism will become a very important part of their personal stability. But we have seen activists from both sides of any debate lose the plot and slip into levels of discourse that are unacceptable. One respected national news host, in his outrage over Trump’s Gianforte commentary, invited a body-slam in his own direction with a kind of “Bring it on!” attitude. In a report criticizing the very notion that such behaviors are acceptable, and noting that we expect more from our kids, he seemed to be looking for them to start a fight to justify his finishing it.

Understandably, people are scared, angry, and off balance. But we need to find more balance not less.

But how?

The greatest code for non-violent social activism lies in the roots of a traditional Indian Philosophy, in the foundations of yoga. Not in doing postures, though these will surely help; but in an understanding of the deeper principles of yoga.

The word yoga means “union, uniting”.

Uniting what?

The body, the breath, and the mind in the present moment-that sense of connection that arises between the inner and outer; when we realize we are all connected to one energy source; we breath the same air; our water comes from the same atmosphere; our food from the same earth. It is that connectedness that allows us to experience contentment, even in what appears to be a growing state of darkness, whether a personal one or the collective one that many see arising around the world. I refer to a deeper wisdom, shared with the whole world by some of India’s most important teachers of yoga.

Perhaps the best known example in the West is Mohandas K Gandhi or Mahatma Gandhi. But he placed his roots in other older treatises of the Indian spiritual tradition like Pantanjali’s “Yoga Sutras” and the “Bhagavad Gita”.

Pantanjali, also known as the father of yoga, taught the “Eight Limbs of Yoga”. The first two limbs are the Yamas and the Niyamas: we could say the social codes and the self disciplines. The five Yamas are those practices we use to keep peace with the world. They are:

  1. ahimsa - nonviolence;
  2. satya - truth;
  3. astrya - not stealing;
  4. brahmacharya - moving with a sense of the infinite-away from the greed of the senses;
  5. aparigraha - non-accumulation

Gandhi’s principle of non-violence understands the vary basis of the yamas as the power inherent in the spiritual nature of humanity; that underlying all is a loving force so implicit that standing firmly in the truth of human values would of itself correct wrong values. He believed that by maintaining a non-violent response to the worst offenses of injustice, that this underlying love would reflect to the aggressor awareness of his own violence and injustice and make him come around to right action. Gandhi called this principle satyagraha: holding firmly to truth. What truth? The all-pervading natural law that holds everything together-that which holds true for all people, at all times, in all places. Both he and Nelson Mandela followed these principles to liberate their countries from terribly violent injustice, and authoritarian governance. Martin Luther King Jr. upon return from India, applied the approach to the US Civil Rights Movement, referring to Gandhi as “the guiding light of our technique of non-violent social change”.

The Niyamas are the self disciplines to maintain our inner peace:

  1. saucha - purity of mind, body and environment
  2. santosha - practicing contentment
  3. tapasya - endurance; forbearance
  4. swadhyaya - self-study, proper application of wisdom to one’s own circumstances
  5. Isvara pranidhana - surrender to a higher power

These principles enable us to maintain our balance even in the face of outrageous injustices. It is not meant that we should ignore injustice or that we should leave it to the higher power and shirk our responsibility to participate. But rather that in the face of a rising shadow, we should use the tools of our practice; we should find the inner strength and resolve to maintain our engagement, to educate and uplift ignorance, and thereby overcome injustice.

Here, fear arises. When we think of the horrific details of Jamal Khashoggi’s story-a man clearing the obstacles to unite with his beloved, taken hostage and violently murdered for his outspoken views- we cannot help but be effected. We may be angry, or sad, or scared, or all of the above, but we are moved. But if we had to go face down the Saudi leaders, would we?

For Gandhi or Mandela or Jamal Khashoggi, the answer was obviously yes. The photo of Mr Khashoggi entering the consulate is the photo of a man fully confident as he walked into a death trap.

To find such courage, the practitioners of yoga turn to the Bhagavad Gita, the “Song of the Lord”. It is a discourse by an enlightened King, Lord Krishna, with his student and friend, the Prince Arjuna, who stands poised, but for his fear and second thoughts, to start a war with his cousin over ongoing grave injustices; a battle that has split the family in two. Arjuna in his confusion about right action, cannot act.

Krishna and Gandhi would likely give us an engaging debate on the merits of non-violence vs war. One of the most beautiful things about Indian philosophy is how the complexity of relative existence is addressed with a profound understanding of its contradictory nature. But just to be clear, by invoking a tale of war, we are not giving up on non-violence. Yet, the strength needed to maintain a non-violent stance in the face of intense conflict and possible violence, is rarely more clearly represented than in this dialogue as Arjuna stands frozen in doubt. When injustice becomes endemic, any meaningful action can lead to misery. We can become paralyzed, confused, frightened that whatever we do cannot lead to a beneficial outcome.

So here, Krishna’s words bring us clarity. He says to Arjuna, you must act to fulfill your responsibilities (dharma), but the outcome of the action is not your right; you are not the cause of your results, yet, you must avoid inaction. Be centered and act, this alone is your right. Only good will come from this. He invokes in Arjuna his valor. If you win you are hero; if you lose, you die a hero’s death, having fought for what is right. Better to die gracefully than live in disgrace.

This latter is the same idea that inspired Gandhi to unravel the British colonization of India, Mandela to bring down Apartheid in South Africa, and Martin Luther King Jr. to work to change laws and attitudes that had oppressed, demeaned, and segregated black people in the United States for so long. Living in untruth destroys the spirit in a way that dying while standing for truth can never permit.

With any luck and a collective effort, we will not be called to the sacrifices of Gandhi, Mandela, and King, or Jamal Khashoggi. But using this knowledge to keep our hearts and minds clear might allow us to stay engaged, even as the shadows seem to be rising too quickly. And if we work together with wisdom in our lives and to keep our personal communities on track, it might let us have an impact that saves not only our spirits but our lives and the lives of countless others on our beautiful, connected planet.

Acknowledgement: GuruDev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar has been my guide on the path of Indian Philosophy and Yogic Studies. You can learn more about him here.

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