Looking at Our Violent Tendencies

When non-violent instincts are overridden by negative, violent forces, a human becomes even more dangerous than creatures in the wild. Fortunately, such an occurrence is relatively rare—only a fraction of humanity cripples its human virtues by nourishing the violent tendencies of the animal within. Violence is an aberration, and all societies have methods of isolating overtly violent individuals from the rest of us.

Humans are usually non-violent. Even hurting or killing our enemies is something we normally avoid. And yet, others make these decisions on our behalf. The question is, who are these others? Are they really so different from us? Are they not our representatives? As our representatives, they must represent what we feel in some way. At some level, we are all involved in violence. At some level, we seek it and delight in it; otherwise, war and bloodshed would not be so widespread.

Violence cannot be abolished by assigning the blame to someone else.

Violence cannot be abolished by assigning the blame to someone else. We can stop it only by examining our own thoughts and feelings. Human beings are masters of self-deception. To avoid listening to the voice of our own hearts, to lighten the burden of guilt, and to justify our inhumane deeds, we find grand and distancing words to describe our actions. For example, we use the word “casualty” to refer to a maimed or slaughtered human. According to psychologists, such words allow us to remain comfortable with descriptions of violence. The terms “collateral damage” and “carpet bombing” are other examples. These words are used to soften the facts so that civilians don’t become frantic and demand an end to the violence.

An End to Violence?

We must stop pretending that it is possible to end war and violence with war and violence. Short of a nuclear holocaust, there can be no “war to end all wars.” The past has shown us that the seeds of the wars to come are planted in the current war. The mind has a penchant for remembering the event but forgetting the lesson. We must train our minds to remember the lessons and somehow forget the events. The memory of the events evokes the irrational causes behind them; thus the perpetrators of irrational acts are never forgiven. And because in any war, each side considers the other to be the irrational perpetrator, the stage is set for the next act of destruction.

The Power of Non-violence

In the midst of this vicious cycle of violence, non-violence is the only constructive strategy. Before, during, and after its application, it remains non-destructive and non-painful. Non-violence is the only weapon that renders B-52 bombers, Scud missiles, and “Smart” weapons impotent. Practitioners of non-violence are the only soldiers who attain ultimate victory. Non-violence is the only force that transforms an enemy into a friend: the winner surrenders to the loser, the loser to the winner, and both attain victory.

As long as the root of violence remains, it will find expression.

This superior method of doing battle has been employed several times in the past; each time it led to victory. The practice of non-violence begins with individuals and because “similar attracts similar,” it spreads, pervading the community, then the nation, and finally the entire human race. It is a slow process but a sure one. It is long-lasting and has no adverse side effects.

Listening to the Voice of Compassion

People often argue that we need a leader like Buddha, Christ, or Gandhi to initiate a war of non-violence. A yogi would respond that there is a Buddha, a Christ, and a Gandhi in each individual heart. A part of every individual is as enlightened, merciful, compassionate, loving, and fearless as Buddha, Christ, or Gandhi. Such souls incarnate at the call of the compassionate and non-violent forces within us.

Each time we call, a Buddha emerges among us. The Bible says, “Ask, and it will be given.” But the Bible doesn’t specify what to ask for and therefore what will be given. We get whatever we ask for. God Almighty is immeasurably generous, but He must shudder when we silly children ask for knives to cut our fingers. God has nothing to do with what we do to ourselves. We can use the gifts, the grace, and the intelligence that have been granted us for either right or wrong. We often use it for wrong sharpening our intellect and using it to exploit nature and each other for selfish ends.

This is where we violate the principle of non-violence. Possessiveness and non-violence are incompatible; non-violence walks hand-in-hand with selflessness. Hatred and violence, love and non-violence, giving and receiving, accepting others and being accepted by others—these are perfect pairs. Knowing this and living in the light of this knowledge is the key to non-violence.

Non-violence must be practiced before and after a war, as well as while it is going on. In fact, practitioners of non-violence can accomplish more after a war than they can while it is raging. A practitioner of non-violence studies the nature and movement of the magma that builds up during the time of “peace,” and finds way to drain and cool it. A proponent of non-violence knows that a peace that is only the gap between two wars is a superficial peace. Deep beneath this peaceful surface, hatred, anger, greed, ego, possessiveness, and the desire for revenge brew and seethe. During the gap between two wars, nations and factions race to build or acquire arms—a race that is simply preparation for the next war.

Practicing Active Non-violence

When the volcano is erupting, it is almost impossible to practice and teach non-violence. In the midst of war, people are obsessed with winning the war or escaping its consequences: providing food, medical care, and money will save lives and ameliorate the immediate suffering. It is during the interval of peace that the real work of fostering non-violence can be done. This will spare future generations the immense physical and emotional damage that attends war.

A part of every individual is as enlightened and compassionate as Buddha, Christ, or Gandhi.

The power of non-violence is beyond the grasp of an ordinary mind. Darkness cannot face the brilliance of non-violence. If humanity is ever to coalesce into a harmonious society of peaceful nations, it will do so on the firm ground of non-violence and selfless love. But mere belief in the principles of non-violence is not sufficient. Even now, most people in the world believe in non-violence, but wars still rage. This is because non-violence is an abstract principle to most of us—a passive belief rather than an active part of our lives. Making it active requires living it in thought, speech, and action.

Just as soldiers are trained in the precise methods of finding and striking military targets, so are there precise methods of practicing non-violence and targeting the injured areas of our lives at both the individual and the collective level. Skillful use of non-violence requires that we overcome our violent tendencies within and without. There is nothing inert about non-violence. Supported by a sound philosophy and fueled by spiritual practice, it is a demanding way of life—and a rewarding one.

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