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True Spiritual Living
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 6: The Royal Virtues of Ahimsa and Brahmacharya

The proper disposition on our part in regard to others is called ahimsa, and the improper disposition of ours in regard to others is himsa. The proper disposition of ours in regard to our own selves is brahmacharya, and the improper disposition of ours in regard to our own selves is the lack of it. So, ahimsa and brahmacharya may be regarded as the royal virtues, the basic fundamentals, the basic foundational values of not only yoga practice but also of all successful life in this world. It is the inability on our part to understand these essentials that makes for failure in life, mostly speaking, and also for failure in the practice of yoga.

It is very essential that we should give due regard to other people, because other people are also people. They are not stones, they are not animals, they are not trees, they are not dogs, they are not servants; they are as valuable and important as ourselves. This is the philosophy of ahimsa, truly speaking. What is the philosophy of ahimsa? It is that others are like me only. Whatever is of meaning to me has to be of meaning to others also; and whatever would be improper for me might be improper for others also. To regard others as dirt is the essence of himsa. But others are not dirt.

How is it possible to regard others as subservient to ourselves in any matter whatsoever? It happens because the ‘otherness' of people is a peculiar twist of our minds. There is no such thing as otherness, really speaking. If people around us can be regarded by us as ‘others' in a contemptuous sense, they can also treat us as an ‘other' in a similar manner. Ātmanaḥ pratikūlāni pareṣāṁ na samācaret (Mahabharata 5.15.17) is a very famous sentence of the Mahabharata, which is supposed to be the essence of the canon of dharma, or virtue: What is not good for me would also not be good for others because others are like me in every respect; therefore, whatever is not good for me cannot be meted out by me to others.

There is a very important factor that we miss in our attitude towards other people, and it is that subconsciously, or even unconsciously, we are apt to feel that we are superior to other people. We may not be able to argue this logically and philosophically, because it is an absurd feeling. But not all feelings are logical. Many of them are illogical, and they would not stand reason or ratiocinative investigation. The essence of feeling is illogicality or sometimes super-logicality, but it is not logicality because it will supersede all logic and put down all logic by a kick which is more forceful than our understanding. This feeling creeps into us in many ways: “I am, somehow or other, more important than other people.” We cannot openly say this or openly declare this, or even openly justify it in any way; nevertheless, we can feel it privately and put on an attitude which is in consonance with this illogical feeling.

“I must be comfortable, and I cannot bear any kind of discomfort” is the basic urge of individual nature; and if my altruistic attitude, my very generous disposition towards others is going to cause discomfort, pain or harm to me, then I would be thrice hesitant to be charitable to others. “Is my charitable disposition to other people going to cause pain to me? No.” Nobody likes pain because gaining pleasure, comfort and satisfaction is the ultimate aim of all our activities, behaviours and forms of conduct. But this is a great confusion that has entered our mind. It is a mess that we are making in our daily conduct.

The height of stupidity would be to regard others as less important than one's own self in any manner whatsoever. Place yourself in the position of that other person, and think through that person's mind. Then you would know the importance of that person. Even a dog does not feel that it is less important than others. Enter into the mind of a dog for a few minutes, think as the dog thinks, and see what its attitude to things is. What does it think about you?

This is a very difficult art. Charitable disposition does not mean giving money, food, clothes, etc., to other people. It is the capacity to enter into the feelings of others that is called charity. If this capacity is lacking, we are not charitable persons. Even if a person is in a fit of rage against us, we must be in a position to understand why that person has run into that rage, instead of retaliating or wreaking vengeance upon that person, which is what we generally are inclined to do at that moment. ‘Tit for tat' is our philosophy.

Any kind of attitude which would be inconsonant with what we regard as proper to our own selves would be unjustifiable from the point of view of yoga practice. Even a criticism is a kind of himsa because criticism is another form of asserting our superiority over other people. This sense of superiority of oneself can come into play in many ways.

In the eyes of God, at least, there should be some sense and meaning present in all the things of the world. Perhaps, absolutely meaningless things cannot exist. A whole and entire untruth cannot bear sustenance. There must be an element of truth even in what we call untruth; else, it would not be there at all. Even appearances are impossible unless they are impregnated with reality. There cannot be an illusion unless there is a background of substance behind it. Even an illusion cannot just appear. Total illusions are impossibilities.

So, in the endeavour we call the practice of yoga, we try our best to free ourselves from the wrong movements of our consciousness in the direction of the ‘false universal' to which I made reference the other day, which is attachment and aversion in respect of objects, and bring ourselves back to the position of a reconciliation with the true universal. The true universal is not disposed favourably or unfavourably in respect of anyone. That is the very meaning of the word ‘universal'. It is commonly valid for everyone and everything; that is universality in its essential nature. And so, in our attempt at taking a step in the direction of the true universal, which is the practice of yoga, we have to conduct ourselves in a manner consonant with the step that we are taking. We cannot be rogues outside and saints inside. There should be a harmony of our nature outwardly as well as inwardly. How can we act in a manner which is inconsistent with the nature of the universal and try at the same time to meditate on the universal?

To exploit others in any manner whatsoever, to treat others as servants or subsidiaries to one's own self, to look upon others as instruments for one's own satisfaction, in any manner whatsoever, would be an insult to the dignity of others. They have as much dignity as we ourselves have, and that would be an insult to the universal itself  because it is present equally in every person and every thing of the world. We will realise, when we actually practise it, that this is the most difficult of all forms of righteousness or virtue.

Resentment is deep-rooted in us. We always resent the attitudes of others, and we cannot bear the remarks made by others; we cannot agree with the opinions of others, and we always agree to differ. This is, in our faulty opinion, a great virtue of ours, but it is the ruin of all people.

How can we have cooperation from the world when we resent the world? Our resentment may not be consciously felt outside. Your dislike for me may not be visible outside, but there are subtle systems inside the world which can feel your resentment in respect of me. There are what we may call invisible radar systems placed by God Himself. Something will start saying, “This person does not like me,” though he may be speaking very smilingly and beautifully to me. You may be even worshipping me and adoring me from outside, but the radar system inside will work: “This person hates me.”

Even an atom will be able to feel our attitude towards it. Even an atom—which is usually regarded as inorganic, lifeless, incapable of thinking—can feel our attitude towards it. Even a plant can feel our attitude towards it. “This man is coming to chop off my head with an axe!” The plant can feel it even before we cut it. Sir J.C. Bose made tremendous researches in this field of biology. Even a plant can know what our intention is when we are approaching it, even before we have touched it. Not merely that, even inorganic substances are not really inorganic substances; they only appear to be so. They are masquerading as inorganic, but they are not really so.

So, our attitudes will be felt everywhere, dear friends. There is no such thing as a secret feeling of ours. There is no secrecy in this world where everything reverberates with a tremendous noise in the ether of this vast universe. It is futile on our part, therefore, to entertain secret feelings of resentment and hatred towards anything in this world. In Hindi, there is a humorous saying which means: “Take the name of  Ram in the mouth, and keep a knife under the armpit.” This is what we are doing. We have a subtle psychological knife in our armpit, ready for attack when the time for it comes, and we are always a warrior. This warrior-hood will not work in a system where cooperation is necessary.

We expect cooperation from others, but would not like to cooperate with others. The universe works on a system of collaboration and cooperation. Parasparaṁ bhāvayantaḥ śreyaḥ param avāpsyatha (Gita 3.11). This is, as the Bhagavadgita puts it, the original ordinance passed by Brahma, the Creator, to all his subjects: “Mutually cooperate among yourselves in your deeds, and attain blessedness.” This is the original constitution of the cosmos, but we want to violate it at every moment of time. The yoga system tells us this is a great blunder. We cannot ask for blessedness and do what is contrary to its achievement.

Ahimsa is the most misunderstood of canons and principles of virtue. Volumes and volumes have been written on this subject, and yet the question cannot be said to have been satisfactorily answered. Every situation is a new situation, and every individual case has to be treated in an individual manner. We cannot have a general recipe for the whole of humanity for all times, for every circumstance and condition. Wisdom has to be exercised. But the essence of the matter is, “Treat humanity as an end in itself, and not as a means to an end,” as the great philosopher Immanuel Kant said many years back. This is the essence of morality. Mankind is not a means to an end; it is an end in itself. Everything is an end in itself whether it is human or subhuman, or whatever it is. To treat anything in this world as an end in itself is the essence of virtue, and this will also clinch the question of ahimsa.

Otherwise, what will happen? There will be an equal resentment from those sources in regard to which we have shown resentment. There will be disturbance of our mind caused by the resentment produced as a reaction from those sources in respect of which we have behaved improperly. This is why Patanjali is very cautious about avoiding all these unnecessary disturbances before stepping into the higher realms of yoga. Therefore, he places ahimsa as the first of virtues because psychological disturbance is a greater disturbance than any other conceivable disturbance. Subtle disturbances will be there. Animosity will prevail around us, and it can pounce upon us in some form or other and disturb and impede our progress in yoga. So, as I mentioned, ahimsa is a sort of justifiable and proper attitude that we have to develop in respect of others, and brahmacharya is a similar attitude that we have to adopt in respect of our own selves because lack of brahmacharya is an insult to one's own self, as himsa is an insult to others.

You are a very valuable individual. You are not a nobody. Just as you have to treat other people as though they are equally valuable as yourself in the principle of ahimsa, you also have to treat yourself as very valuable. You are also a great treasure. You are not dirt, because you are a person like anybody else. You are also very meaningful, as meaningful as others, so how can you insult yourself ? To insult one's own self is a misuse of one's powers, which are supposed to be utilised for a nobler purpose.

Brahmacharya is as difficult to understand as ahimsa. Therefore, we are likely to spend all our time in trying to understand these things and not be able to practise them because the energies of our bodies and our minds are mostly out of our control, and they start leading us in a wrong direction instead of our being able to direct them in the proper way for the intended purpose. Mostly our energies go amok, hither and thither, in any way, in any direction that is available. They are like a river whose bunds have been broken; it is trying to find its way in any manner whatsoever by destroying things, washing away villages and killing people. It does not care; it simply wants to find an outlet for its further movement. The same applies to our energies.

Our energies are equally distributed in our personality. It is an equidistribution of energy in our body that makes us look beautiful.  A beautiful personality, even a beautiful body, is the result of an equidistribution of energy throughout the body. If it is concentrated in some part, that would be a capitalist attitude of the body which will not be tolerated by the other parts of the body. As we know, children are very beautiful. Small babies look beautiful; but when we grow older and older, we become uglier and uglier in our facial expressions and our entire physical contour. Why is it? What has happened to us? Why do we look shrunken and stupid later on? The reason is that there is a misdirection of energy, whereas in a baby it is equally distributed throughout the body.

When we see a small child, we feel happy to look at it. We keep it on our lap and kiss it. It may be anybody's child; it makes no difference to us. We like children because there is a beauty in their personality, and there is an absence of egoism in their mind. It is these two things that attract us to children: they have no egoism, and their body is beautiful. Perhaps the beauty of their body is a result of the absence of egoism. The more we are egoistic, the more we look ugly—a very important matter to remember.

The ego is the principle of centralisation of energy. It does not allow decentralisation of force in the body, and so the parts of the body and the entire personality, from whom the energies or powers have been withdrawn by this centralising principle, lose their feeling of cooperation with the whole personality. They resent this kind of attitude of the ego, and then it is that they look ugly. They are not beautiful any more. Why? It is because they have lost the cooperation of the centre and, therefore, they too do not feel like cooperating with the centre.

A beautiful person is either a child or a saint, because in a child there is no ego and there is equidistribution of energy throughout the body, and the same is the case with a saint or a great sage. He is also very attractive, very magnetic in his personality, very powerful, and looks beautiful. A great master of yoga, a great sage or a saint is as beautiful as a child, and so we are attracted to him. People run to him even from distant places. Why? It is because there is a tremendous power in him, which is the outcome of his harmony with the real source of power in the universe. Children are taken care of by nature itself. Gods themselves protect children, but they do not protect egoists. They run away: “Oh! These are very big people. We do not want them!”

I am reminded of a story that I heard from a friend. It is not written in any book. It appears that once upon a time, Lord Sri Krishna was having lunch in Dwaraka, and Rukmini, the queen, was serving food. In the middle of the meal, Krishna got up and took up a stick. Rukmini was surprised. “What has happened to you? In the middle of the meal you get up and hold a stick, as if you want to beat me! Who is your enemy here?”

Sri Krishna said nothing, closed his eyes for a few seconds, then put the stick away and sat for his food once again. She asked him, “What is the matter? What is wrong?”

Sri Krishna said, “Nothing is wrong.  About a hundred miles from this place a pedestrian, a poor man, is carrying a load on his head, and robbers attacked him. I thought I would protect him, so I took up the stick. But before I took up the stick, that pedestrian gave a slap to the robber. So I thought, ‘Let him take care of himself. Why should I go there?' Then I put my stick back.”

It is also said that as long as Draupadi was holding her sari with one hand, no help came. Because she had some strength of her own, why should any help come? When she threw up both her arms and cried before God, help rushed to her as if by magic.

Now, all these are stories, no doubt, but they are of great spiritual meaning from the point of view of yoga. We need not fear anyone in this world if God is helping us, but nobody can protect us if God is against us. The forces of nature are nothing but the fingers of God operating. They are not outside God or different from God. Our egoism is a violation of the law of God, which is also a violation of the law of nature. Lack of brahmacharya is one such violation, as is himsa. Any kind of insult to a creation of God is intolerable to God. And what is insult? It is nothing but a violation of a law that is operating; that is called ‘insult'—a lack of understanding of the operative principles.

As himsa is wrong, the lack of brahmacharya also is wrong. We have to guard ourselves from outside as well as from inside so that we may be harmonious within and without because this is the call of yoga, the requisite of yoga. We are required to be harmonious with everything—outside as well as inside. So before we try for higher harmonies of a spiritual nature, the yoga system prescribes ethical harmonies, moral equilibriums, by means of the practice of ahimsa and brahmacharya.

As I pointed out, these things are very difficult for us to understand thoroughly, because we have very peculiar traditional notions given to us right from our childhood by our parents, by our society, etc. But they are scientific principles, not merely dogmas or stories told to us. These are great imperatives and necessities in life. One who practices ahimsa and brahmacharya thoroughly will know one's own strength, and it need not be told by others. The strength will be such that our thoughts will materialise immediately. Our words will become true, our wishes will be fulfilled, and nothing will stand before us. We will be undaunted heroes. This is the power that brahmacharya bestows upon us, because brahmacharya is the art of the equalisation of the force of this psychophysical personality in such a way that our personality stands in unison with the forces of nature outside—as a consequence of which, the forces of nature enter into us.

These forces do not enter us now because we repel them by our egocentric individuality.  The egocentricity of our personality is a repelling attitude that we are adopting every moment of our life. We become hard like f lint and, therefore, the forces of nature do not enter us. The sustaining powers of nature are removed from us, so that we become helpless, weak in every sense—bodily, mentally, morally, even spiritually. We start crying that there is no help, and we are in a miserable condition. Why is there no help? It is because we do not want help. We imagine that we are very powerful ourselves. Why do we want help from anybody? The imagination that we are well off and very powerful is due to our ego and, therefore, the world outside will not help us afterwards. People will not like us. Nature will resent us. Perhaps God Himself may ignore us.

Ye yathā māṁ prapadyante tāṁs tathaiva bhajāmy aham (Gita 4.11), says the Bhagavadgita: “As is your attitude towards Me, so is My attitude towards you.” If we do not want God, perhaps He may also not want us. If we throw Him out, He may also throw us out. If we are egoistic, He may also assert Himself in His own way and teach us a lesson. We should not become Duryodhanas, Hiranyakashipus or Ravanas with an uncompromising ego, which is an insult to the whole creation of  God because creation has no ego, and nature has no ego. It is man that has ego.

So, the abolition of the ego is the final intention of the practice of these virtues of ahimsa, brahmacharya, etc.; and by actual effort put forth in this direction, you can yourself see the result of it. “The proof of the pudding is in the eating of it,” as they say. Do it, and see what result follows—how happy you will be, how fearless you will be, how strong you will be, how capable you will be, and how self-satisfied you will be, needing nothing from outside. Why should you need anything else from outside when the world is behind you to help you? But the world will be at your beck and call only if you are in harmony with it. If you are disharmonious with it, if your connection with the powerhouse is cut off, then you are in a very bad condition, no doubt—no power, no help, no strength whatsoever.

Ahimsa and brahmacharya are the essential ethical foundations of yoga. Practising them not merely because of a social mandate but as a spiritual necessity will make us superhuman beings even in a few days. It may not take many months and years to achieve this result, because a step taken in the direction of Truth should produce immediate results. Truth is immediate; it is not a mediate object. This is the reason behind the great emphasis laid by Sage Patanjali on the practice of these principles, the yamas—of which, as I mentioned, the most important are ahimsa and brahmacharya.