All forms of violence are common among human beings. But this is not ordained—violence among humans is not inevitable. Far from being an intrinsic part of our nature, as is commonly assumed, violence is an aberration.

—Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, PhD
Transforming Our Inner Beast

According to the scriptures, every human being is born with three qualities: animal, human, and divine. During infancy and early childhood, all three tendencies manifest, and all three seek an environment in which to grow and find expression. Because there is a divine being, a human being, and an animal within each individual, a baby can be raised as a sage, as a gentle loving human, or as a criminal. Through proper training, education, and loving guidance, the beast within can be transformed first into a pet and then into a human. The same human can later expand his or her consciousness and become divine.

Every human being is born with three qualities: animal, human, and divine.

If the parents have not freed themselves from the negative forces of attachment, anger, hatred, jealousy, greed, and fear, and thus do not care for higher virtues, such as selflessness, love, compassion, and generosity, then the animal tendencies will be strengthened in the child they rear. If the parents nourish these animal tendencies, the child will grow outwardly as a human, but internally as an animal, and will exhibit animal behavior as an adult. Although this being may not have a tail and horns or walk on all fours, in terms of behavior, such a human differs little from the members of the animal kingdom.

Becoming Fully Human—and Divine

The scriptures say that humans and animals have four qualities in common—the four primordial urges of hunger, sleep, sex, and fear (or the desire for self-preservation). All emotions spring from these four urges. The degree of control one has over these emotions marks a being as either human or animal. Fear and hunger seem to be the most dominant of the four primordial urges. Animals devote most of their energy avoiding their predators and searching for food.

Although all four urges play a key role in the lives of humans, in most cases, the faculty of discrimination serves to balance their effect on our actions. Much of our behavior is controlled neither by these urges nor by the emotions they generate. To some extent, we have the capacity to subordinate our individual urges to the needs of others. But if we allow these urges to drive our behavior, they will consume us and we will become self-serving, defensive, and fearful. These are animal tendencies. Rising above such tendencies—by cultivating concern for others and deepening our sensitivity to the needs of others, even in the face of self-serving urges—elevates us from animal to human. From here, we can unfold the higher virtues of selfless love and compassion and move toward the divine. But we can become divine only after we have become fully human.

Taming the Animal Within

According to yoga tradition, the process of training and taming the animal within and transforming it into a human and then into the divine is accomplished by the practice of non-violence. The power of non-violence to transform a human can be understood by examining the relationship between violence and fear, and between non-violence and fearlessness.

Fear of death is the greatest of all fears. All other fears are pale shadows of this primal terror. Fear of death is innate to anything that is born—a human, an animal, an insect, or even a plant. Every living being has developed defense mechanisms in response to this inborn fear. Other species focus more of their energy on developing their defense mechanisms than do humans. This, according to yoga, is because they are consumed by fear. In humans, there are many other tendencies balancing the survival instinct.

We can become divine only after we have become fully human.

Seeking to understand fear, the yogis searched for a cause and found twins—attachment (raga) and aversion (dvesha). A human being forms a more powerful bond with family members and pleasing objects than do animals. And this strong attachment to some people and things automatically results in aversion to other people and things. Humans constantly strive to achieve what they like and to rid themselves of what they dislike. Furthermore, it is usually a personal sense of liking and disliking, rather than need, that makes us characterize an object as good or bad. Humans are afraid of not getting what they want and of ending up with things they do not want.

Overcoming Fear & Transcending Violence

Because humans are highly developed beings, their wants, desires, likes, and dislikes are legion. Therefore, the sources of their fears are more numerous than those of other, less-evolved species. One facet of evolution is the development of a self-identity—asmita (“I-am-ness” or ego). A human being is a conglomerate of numberless identities. Each individual’s sense of I-am-ness contains myriad elements—good, bad, healthy, strong, rich, poor, Hindu, Muslim, American, European, wife, husband, son, daughter, and so on. Within each of these identities, an individual carries an enormous burden of likes and dislikes, attachments and aversions. Each element of this burden creates a fear that some part of the identity will be lost or taken away or that an unwanted identity will be imposed.

The more fearless we are, the more non-violent we become.

All fear can be traced to attachment and aversion, and attachment and aversion can be traced to self-identity—the sense of I-am-ness. Our inclination to defend or attack has its genesis in our fear of losing something that we believe to be integral to our identity. Just as pain is a symptom of disease, violence is a symptom of fear. Fever counters threats from a virus or bacteria, and violence counters threats to identity. Fever and violence are both indications of an internal struggle. An uncontrolled fever can jeopardize life, as can violence. As long as there is fear and the cause for fear, violence will recur. The more fearless we are, the more non-violent we become.

The freer a person is from fear, the more open that person is. A fearful person is sealed in his or her own little world and, as a result, suffers from emptiness and loneliness. But a person who is free from fear is open and loving. Such a person has minimized his or her attachment and aversion, and so is naturally less caught in the idea of losing and gaining—and is thus free of stress and tension. Such a person remains tranquil in all situations.

Further Reading

Why We Fight: Practices for Lasting Peace

by Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, PhD

War is the most ancient and primitive way of dealing with conflict. According to yoga, stopping the cycle of war requires delving into the subtle causes underlying material desires and religious differences. These are selfishness, ego, greed, ethnocentrism, and sense of inferiority. Because of these attributes, we fail to do what we know is right, and persist in doing what we know is wrong. In the scriptures, this phenomenon is called killing the conscience.

Source: Why We Fight: Practices for Lasting Peace (Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, PhD)
More in this Series

The Origins of Violence and the Power of Non-violence