The teaching of yoga as found in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra does not say that violence is wrong or right or good or bad or justified or not. Patanjali does not pass a value judgment on any action for its own sake. He speaks to those who seek enlightenment, to those who want to disentangle themselves from the cycle of birth and death. To them he says choose your actions wisely, according to the results they will bring; be sure that those results are in alignment with your aims.
A yogi is someone who is not so much interested in being “right” as he/she is interested in being “free”. One can (and many do) justify violence from a perspective of being right: If someone has hurt you, you can feel justified in retaliating, lashing out. Or when someone drives a plane into the World Trade Center, you, along with most Americans, may feel completely justified in engaging in some type of revenge. When push comes to shove, habits are hard to break ..and so the world goes round and round and round… In Sanskrit this is referred to as the wheel of samsara, which literally means same (sam) suffering (sara) over and over again. A yogi is someone who is committed to moksha, which is freedom from this cycle of karma. One starts out on that journey to liberation by ceasing to react to outer symptoms and instead directing one’s actions toward discovering the causes of the obstacles to freedom.
The author Gregory David Roberts spent time in India locked up in one of the worst prisons in the world, notorious for its filthy conditions and violent sadistic brutality inflicted upon its incarcerated prisoners. From his experiences, he wrote the book Shantaram (a Sanskrit word meaning “man of peace”), which begins: “It took me a long time and most of the world to learn what I know about love and fate and the choices we make, but the heart of it came to me in an instant, while I was chained to a wall and being tortured. I realized, somehow, through the screaming in my mind, that even in that shackled, bloody helplessness, I was free: free to hate the men who were torturing me, or to forgive them. It doesn’t sound like much, I know. But in the flinch and bite of the chain, when it’s all you’ve got, that freedom is a universe of possibility. And the choice you make, between hating and forgiving, can become the story of your life.“
If your goal is to perpetuate more violence, then by all means react to violence with more violence, and you will see it will work every time.
But if you have another aim in mind – for instance peace or liberation – then your strategy must be more radical, as it must address the root cause of the issue. You must ask yourself what actions would result in peace? You must plant the best seeds to achieve your goals. If you want to eat apple pie, you don’t start by planting a pumpkin seed. You must create the kind of karmas that are “good” for achieving your desired result. And if you are still living in a time-bound reality, you must be patient, as there really is no such thing as instant karma; seeds take time to grow. Martin Luther King, Jr., said: “The non-violent approach does not immediately change the heart of the oppressor. It first does something to the hearts and souls of those committed to it. It gives them new self-respect; it calls up resources of strength and courage that they did not know they had. Finally it reaches the opponent and so stirs his conscience that reconciliation becomes a reality.“
When in the throes of symptoms, one easily feels like a victim and can think that the violence is being inflicted upon them. At that time it is difficult to reflect on possible causes, much less to calmly act from a causal place. Most of us react to symptoms, not to causes, and in doing so perpetuate the very things we want to be rid of. We attack the common cold with medicines that get rid of the symptoms, but does the cold go away? We view diseases like cancer and heart disease in a similar way by fighting the symptoms of the disease but not addressing the causes of the disease. We say we want an end to terrorism, but how many of us are willing to look in the mirror and see where we ourselves may be contributing to terrorism? We say we want peace, but are we willing to live peacefully?
It is common practice for generals, soldiers, presidents, murderers, slaughterhouse workers, vivisectionists, and meat eaters to justify violence by rationalizing that it will bring about something good in the end. Many who perpetuate violence against animals say, yes, it is evil, but it is a necessary evil. Necessary for what? When is evil ever really necessary? Can we truly afford its consequences? The fact is that violence only brings more violence.
In the example from Gregory David Robert’s experience in prison, he could not physically run away from his oppressors, because he was chained to a prison wall, but he could have reacted with violence by thinking violent thoughts about his tormentors, which is what most “normal” people would have done under the circumstances. Instead he realized that if he really wanted to change the course of his life and be free of violence, he had to make the first move toward that freedom. He addressed the root cause, not the symptom. He did this by first acknowledging the subtle violence within his own mind, and then he refused to allow the thought of violence to grow. He used magical means to shift his perception of violence as coming from outside of himself to recognizing it within himself. He then courageously turned the situation upside down by mentally/psychically showering his tormentors with forgiveness; meeting violence with compassion. With this action he freed himself; no longer did he see himself in the role of the victim. He became the master of his circumstances through changing his perception of where things were coming from.