Editor’s note: In the decade since this article last appeared in print, anger and violence have continued to rock the world. In the past 18 months, we have seen the angry, election-related attack on the US Capitol; the widespread rage, expressed in many forms, triggered by coronavirus pandemic mandates; and a war ignited by Russia’s fury over Ukraine’s tilt toward the West and resistance to Russian influence. These are only a few of many examples. This article provides insight into the root of anger and violence and offers a spiritual solution.
For centuries we have been living with the hope that one day truth will prevail, compassion will triumph, and love will conquer all. But has this hope ever been realized? Buddha was poisoned, Christ was crucified, and Gandhi was shot. Why? Because someone was angry. Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr., paid for their idealism with their blood. Where have we gone wrong? To me, the answer is obvious: we have ignored the message anger brings and the action it demands.
On 9/11 al-Qaeda attacked the United States and destroyed the Twin Towers not out of love for Islam but out of anger at America. The United States then attacked al-Qaeda not so much because we were seeking justice as because we were angry. The Arab Spring was an outgrowth of the fire of anger. The people of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Syria staged violent uprisings not because they were hungry for democracy but because they were angry. And so it goes. The harder we try to suppress the fire of anger, the more violent the explosion. In the end, anger invariably triumphs.
We have ignored the message anger brings and the action it demands.
Great Britain ruled India for more than two centuries not because the British had truly conquered India but because the people were angry at their oppressive rajas, maharajas, and sultans and simply abandoned them. These people later fought the British for 90 years not because they were interested in democratic rule but because they were fed up with the British, who had turned out to be as oppressive as their traditional Indian rulers. All of these events were propelled not by lofty ideals but by anger. If you doubt it, consider this: In 1947, at the time of so-called independence, bloody Hindu-Muslim riots broke out, splitting the subcontinent into two hostile nations. Millions died and millions more were displaced. This anger continues to smolder today, flaring up periodically in violent confrontations.
Anger as Power
Anger is as pervasive as earth, water, fire, air, and space. Pakistan is mad at India, India at China, Iran at Israel, Israel at the Palestinians; and nearly everyone is mad at the United States. Environmentalists are mad at oil and gas companies, investors at investment bankers, Hindus at Muslims, Muslims at Jews, capitalists at communists, conservatives at liberals, and the poor at the rich. We rarely pause to look into the source of all this anger, nor do we consider harnessing it. Instead we spend our energies either justifying anger or condemning it.
Anger is a form of power, but most of us simply look at anger and the actions propelled by it through the lens of right or wrong. We are blind to what this indomitable force stands for and deaf to the message it brings. Often we see no difference between an angry person and anger itself. We judge one angry party against another under the assumption that one is right and one is wrong. One is to be punished, the other rewarded. As nations, we impose sanctions on one faction, arm the other, and call it diplomacy. We’ve seen that the resolution this brings is usually temporary at best, yet we insist on applying this formula again and again.
Anger is more powerful than kindness, compassion, and other positive virtues. Unlike positive virtues, which are often passive and diffuse, anger is always active and focused. Kindness and compassion readily succumb to inertia, complacency, and indifference, but anger is a fire; once kindled, it dies out only after it has consumed everything in its path. Anger is also a powerful uniting force—it galvanizes in a way kindness and compassion do not. Buddha and Jesus worked hard to gather a few apostles, whereas al-Qaeda easily collected an army of adherents, many willing to lay down their lives. This is not to say that anger’s powerful and effective qualities make it a virtue. But these qualities are a clear indication that discovering the source of anger—and the energy that gives it such vibrant life—can help us overcome our own anger and find the spiritual fulfillment and freedom that is our birthright. It is not possible to quell unrest in the larger world until we have quieted our own restlessness.
The Wellspring of Anger
Anger comes from frustration. Frustration comes from our unfulfilled desires. Here is how anger arises: Motivated by our desires, we set a goal—one we have decided is achievable. This decision is accompanied by willpower, determination, and confidence. Our mental clarity allows us to develop a plan, and our enthusiasm and courage motivate us to act on it. These actions are accompanied by expectations. We identify both with our actions and with their results. When we meet with failure, we are disappointed and try again. When we fail a second time, frustration sets in. Our inner voice tells us, “Don’t give up. This goal is achievable.” We make another attempt. If we fail yet again, our frustration intensifies. Not knowing who or what to blame, we run amok mentally and emotionally. To cope, we start searching for anyone or anything that might be stopping us from achieving our goal. Upon finding a villain, we explode.
Right before the explosion, we become assertive. We are certain we know what has prevented us from achieving our objective. Our indomitable will has no tolerance for any argument—we are determined to confront and conquer anyone who stands in our way. We know only that we are right and everyone else is wrong. The immense power of mind comes to a focal point, and the tiniest spark can set off an explosion. When that spark comes, we lose our composure. Our thoughts, speech, and actions are no longer rational. We neither know nor care what the consequences of our actions will be. We do not see how we are hurting ourselves and hurting others. We are confused and disoriented by our rage—our actions are no longer under our control.
Those affected by our angry words and deeds become defensive. If we continue to direct our anger at them, they will eventually retaliate, and a heated confrontation will ensue. Observers see us as the aggressor and the other party as the victim of our aggression. Then the endless rounds of justification, condemnation, and recrimination begin. It’s an old familiar story—we’ve seen it in our personal lives, in our communities, on the international stage, and throughout history.
The tradition of yoga and, more precisely, the tantric tradition of Sri Vidya perceives anger and its source—desire—in a unique light. In this tradition, the word for desire is kama. Kama means “the desire to be; the desire to become—the fundamental and primordial force that motivates us to come into being.” Kama is our intrinsic will, accompanied by indescribable joy, to recognize who we are and to experience the fullness of our being. In the absence of kama, we remain non-existent, non-being. That is why scripture proclaims:
In the beginning, there was neither being nor non-being, neither movement nor lack of movement. There was neither death nor life nor day nor night. Darkness alone existed and that, too, was veiled by darkness. Kama (desire) was the first thing to come into being. Desire is the very essence of the mind. Desire is our friend, the ground of our existence. Its light spreads in every direction. Desire is the seed of creation, the force behind every action. The knowledge regarding from whence it came, of what it is made, the power that presides over it, and the space where it ultimately subsides is the exclusive domain of the sages, who have entered the cave of their own heart (paraphrased from Rig Veda 10:129:1–7).
According to the tantric tradition, Kama is the primordial master of the most exalted of all mantras—the Sri Vidya mantra. Desire is our guru, our guide. It is our inner drive. It is ananga (without body), yet makes our body move, our tongue speak, our senses perceive, and our brain comprehend. It gives our intellect the power to decide and our heart the power to feel. Without this inner drive, we are an inert lump of elements. Desire seeks nothing less than its own limitless kingdom. It thrills in stretching its imagination, measuring its own expansion, and experiencing its unbound freedom. It motivates us to explore the depths of the ocean, scale the highest peak, land on Mars, splice genes, and engineer new organisms. This invincible desire motivates us to conquer the world or become a monk and live in solitude. The power of desire is such that once it has set a goal, nothing can stop it. And yet we vilify anger, which flares up from our failure to materialize desire. What could be more natural than anger?
In the Sri Vidya tradition, we learn to be mindful of the power of desire and the pain that arises when our desires go unfulfilled. We are also reminded that anger is a natural response to the mind’s insistence on fulfilling its desires. Anger has a destructive effect on those at whom it is directed, but this does not mean that our desires are either invalid or inappropriate. We are taught not to suppress our desires and not to condemn our anger. We come to understand that, like all other emotions, desire and anger are manifestations of shakti, the power which brings us to life. Shakti is to be transformed, not sublimated. Shakti is to be harnessed, not suppressed. Negative emotions, including anger, are as much a part of life as their positive counterparts. No human being has only positive emotions. Even the great sages occasionally thunder with anger. The only difference between the sages and us is that they quickly regain a calm and tranquil state, whereas we remain in turmoil for a long time.
We come to understand that, like all other emotions, desire and anger are manifestations of shakti, the power which brings us to life.
The problem is not with anger itself but with its lack of containment. Unprocessed, uncontrolled anger is disorienting. It commandeers our thoughts, speech, and actions so completely that before it spreads outward, we ourselves are consumed by it. When we are unable to contain our anger, it explodes uncontrollably and spreads aimlessly.
The second problem lies with our reaction to the angry deeds of others. We label an angry deed as “wrong” and demand the wrongdoer be punished. If the wrongdoer stands his ground, we lose our inner balance and our discerning power plummets. In a flash, we meet anger with anger. Both parties, consumed by self-righteousness, come into active conflict.
Active conflict is a byproduct of what kama (desire) is trying to achieve by expressing itself as anger. Humanity pays attention to this byproduct—active conflict—because it is dramatic and because its effects are destructive and painful. Ending the war does not quell our anger. We eventually stop fighting because the conflict is too exhausting or because we have been conquered or because we have been pressured by a third party to compromise. But the anger remains and, at the earliest opportunity, flares into another round of active conflict.
A Spiritual Solution
To get off this endless, destructive merry-go-round, we must recognize anger for what it is—the powerful roar of kama, the fundamental, primordial force of desire. It is impossible to suppress desire, for desire is the very fabric of life; it is equally futile to ignore anger. The power anger embodies must be identified and directed toward the goal set by kama—fulfillment. But how?
We can begin by training ourselves to think differently. Anger is energy. Energy cannot be destroyed; it can only be transformed. Every form of energy, anger included, has a spiritual origin. That is why we call energy Shakti (Divine Mother). Those of us ignorant of anger’s spiritual origin find it negative and frightening, but those who know its source see anger as beneficent and beautiful. Anger is rooted in our unfulfilled desires. Desire is what brought us here and desire keeps us here. Thus anger, which has its source in our desire, demands a spiritual solution.
The presence of anger is not a sign that we are bad. It is a sign that we are in urgent need of experiencing our own inherent fullness. We are—at the core of our being—beyond good and bad. Our personalities—our unique qualities, characteristics, strengths, and weaknesses—are the result of the interplay of various energies. We are a product of this interplay. Although we cannot destroy this energy field we call anger, each of us has the power to transform it. The key to this is the development of self-mastery.
In the tantric tradition of Sri Vidya, the totality of life is described in the geometrical model of Sri Chakra. The second circuit of Sri Chakra describes the entire range of human emotions in 16 different groups. Each group is governed, guided, and nourished by a presiding divine force. The Sri Vidya tradition teaches us how to recognize that divine force and receive guidance and assistance from her so that we eventually gain mastery over all the different forms of our emotions. This self-mastery gives us the ability to contain all our emotions, including anger. Self-mastery empowers us to process our emotions and express them in a skillful manner. It gives us the strength as well as the insight to use our emotions positively and constructively. Freedom from anger is not the goal. The goal is to have mastery over anger and to express it wisely and purposefully. This is the way of the sages.
Source: Adapted from Yoga International magazine
Why We Fight: Practices for Lasting Peace
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.