India’s greatest soft powers lie in her value systems, their ability to impact lives of individuals and communities across cultures, and foster the value’s growth throughout the world. It is a testament to India’s greatness to share her values and methods, allow them to transform people and communities, and guide those people to taking up these values as their own and bringing, without expecting anything back.
Ahimsa, loosely translated as non-violence or non-injury, and seen also as peace, is the core of many Indic systems, including Buddhism, Jainism, and Yoga. Therefore, we can understand its embeddedness in the culture from time immemorial. Throughout Indian history, movements of non-violence have been documented. A few major acts of ahimsa are listed below:
- 5000 years ago, Krishna propounded the Bhagavad Gita, in a time of war that was created to destroy the negative elements of the society (or perhaps of an individual). This was a just war, one with a dharmic purpose behind it. Yet, Krishna discusses with his beloved student, Arjuna, the concepts of Ahimsa, three times in the Bhagavad Gita:
- Chapter 10, Verse 5: Krishna describes ahimsa as a noble quality arising from himself.
- Chapter 13, Verse 8: Krishna mentions nonviolence as an example of knowledge.
- Chapter 16, Verse 2: Krishna lists ahimsa as a quality of a godly person.
- While ahimsa is not an overt topic of the Bhagavad Gita, closer inspection and introspection develops an understanding that spiritual nonviolence is actually a core underlying theme of the Bhagavad Gita, a book about yoga. Ahimsa is a necessary quality to uniting one’s individual jivatma to the super soul or paramatma. Each individual being must practice non-violence in order to attain salvation from this mayic cycle of samsara.
- In the 5th century BC, Gautama Buddha’s gaze or darshan itself has been told to be so filled with peace and non-violence that it could convert even a dacoit, robber or murderer, in a number of stories.
- Over 2000 years ago, with the weight of bloodshed and death on his shoulders and mind, Emperor Ashoka put an end to all his violent acts and turned to Buddhism to find peace through ahimsa, later spreading the concept throughout India as his mission and gift back to Buddhism, his newly accepted dharma.
- Somewhere around the same time perhaps (or perhaps much earlier, as historians vary on the exact timeline), Patanjali’s yoga sutras were being compiled and passed on to generations of spiritual seekers in the oral tradition. Here too, comes the topic of ahimsa, as the first practice, or sadhana, in the form of yama, prescribed in sutra 2.30 “Ahimsa Satya Asetya Brahmacharya Aparigraha Yamah.” Five sutras later, we learn about the fruits of ahimsa: Once firmly established in ahimsa, hostility towards others (and perhaps towards self) is released.
- Swami Satyananda Saraswati writes in Four Chapters on Freedom, that ahimsa is love, and an “absence of enmity, hostility, and harm” (Satyananda: 190).
- In the 1700s, The Bishnoi sect in Rajasthan, led by Amrita Devi, took to a non-violent resistance against the felling of khejari (Prosopis cineraria) and other trees in their lands, as plants and animals are considered sacred by Bishnois. Hundreds of women and girls hugged trees to their death by the army. Upon realizing his mistake, the Jodhpur Maharaja declared Bishnoi lands, animals, and plants as protected and instructed the army not to enter or extricate wood from there for undue purposes (Ayyar 2020).
- And of course, the most well-known “modern-day” proponent of Ahimsa: India’s own father, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. The mahatma used non-violent strategies throughout his struggle to free India from the hands of colonizers.
Ahimsa Around the Globe
Ahimsa is certainly not an uniquely Indic concept, though it seems that the Indic traditions have imbibed it most regularly into their social and legal systems, in comparison to other parts of the world. Moreover, leaders from around the world have observed and learned from India’s great value system. Indian President Ram Nath Kovind says, “Gandhi was born in India but he does not belong to India alone and remains one of India's greatest gifts to humankind, and his name finds resonance across the continents (Business Standard).”
Tanuja Prasad, Founder of ApplyComplexity, is a New Yorker stuck in her native Muzzafarpur, Bihar, because of COVID, who has attended the SKY Mindful Leadership workshop with me earlier this month. She writes: “Since the Universe is an interconnected web, therefore nonviolence must exist everywhere“ (Prasad 2021).
Indeed, practices of ahimsa for peacebuilding between communities, nation-states, and regions, can be seen around the world. Following the footsteps of Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., the great American Civil Rights Activist of the 1950s and 1960s, also advocated for the practice of Ahimsa in the struggle for social justice and equality for people of all colors. His dream was one of peace and equality for all, as he exclaimed in his famed “I have a dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC: “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight” (King, 1963).
Without ahimsa, the universe would cease to exist; or, in a positive way, “nonviolence keeps the Universe together,” Prasad explains. She continues to talk about ahimsa in a theory of physics: “We can certainly see this in living beings, but this holds true even in non-living systems! For example, electrons exist with other particles in an atom: each plays its part in harmony with the others. One particle is not trying to dominate the other. If it did, then the structure of the atom would fall apart.”
Cities for Peace
Mandar Apte, a student of Art of Living’s Founder, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, teaches ahimsa and peace through AOL’s Cities for Peace initiative. Based in Los Angeles, the organization works to reduce violence in cities by bringing together diverse stakeholders on issues of conflict. Cities for Peace’s Vision is a world where people are thriving in the expression of their human values like compassion, a sense of caring, love and mutual respect.
The programs goals are to gain a(n):
- Deepened understanding of and commitment towards nonviolence
- Learn a profound tool-kit of meditation techniques and wisdom for enabling transformation on a daily basis.
- Improved leadership capacity to promote compassion and nonviolence within the community (Cities for Peace, 2021).
About the programme
The Ambassadors of Peace program is a “customized leadership program taught over three months to build the capacity of community leaders to promote greater mental health, healing, and resilience within themselves and their communities”. While all participants and projects receive basic training in yoga philosophies and practices, the Cities for Peace team customizes the content to meet the needs of the various communities in conflict, in order to “build capacity… with transformative frameworks and tools that increase social connection, resilience, and bring peace across the world” (Cities for Peace, 2021).
In April – June 2019, under the direction of Apte, Cities for Peace brought together individuals from various backgrounds for an 8 week Nonviolence Ambassador Certification training program. Apte’s work builds bridges between the most unlikely of parties: police, gang members, and communities affected by gang violence (Cities for Peace, 2021).
As a result of this program, participants reported that they:
- Increased Energy and Happiness: 82%
- Ability To Stay Focused: 91%
- Enhanced Clarity of Mind: 96%
- Remaining Calm in Challenging Situations: 91%
- Ease of Social Connection: 87%
- Increased Effectiveness in both Personal & Professional Life: 84%
Several other Art of Living teachers around the world spread awareness on the power of yoga to heal and empower individuals and communities to peace. AOL’s YouTube videos are prolific on the subject, with special highlights in Syria-Lebanon, Iraq, and Palestine-Israel, along with gang violence in Los Angeles.
In addition, it is widely known that Gurudev himself has received awards from the government of Colombia for his personal work on insurrection within the nation. He is also known for complementary yogic-based work alongside diplomatic measures in Kashmir and Northeast India.
The need of the hour
In today’s racially divided United States, with the added Covid issues, programs such as Cities for Peace are required for all to recalibrate ourselves in peace and non-violence. Ahimsa, or non-violence, has become a feature of many social justice movements today, including Black Lives Matter, a US-based organization that focuses on bringing light to the injustices done to African Americans by systemic violence of state-actors such as police departments. In 2020, the world watched in shock several “phone-made” videos of Minneapolis police brutally killing George Floyd without probable cause or reason. This sparked a nation-wide movement, led by Black Lives Matter, to bring awareness to the racially-discriminating and fluctuating methods of singling out African American males by police departments around the country. Since then, the issue has been fomenting peaceful protests (and some non-peaceful) throughout the US, and even in other parts of the world. Several Indian American leaders such as Hasan Minhaj have called for Indian Americans to take action on these issues. Largely known to be silent on political and social issues in the US, Minhaj points out that Indians and immigrant Americans from around Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, often fled their native countries because of oppressive regimes, lack of equality, and even police or government-sponsored brutality, and to find “order and stability”. “We support revolutions overseas” and yet “we can’t empathize with the protestors” he shouts in outrage (Minhaj, 2020). He further explains that many Indians in the US are in positions that afford them (socially and financially) the ability to fight back, they should. In essence, Minhaj encourages sattvic peace, which I define here:
Sattvic peace is bringing peace to all parties involved, in an active manner. It is each of our individual responsibility to build peace in our lives, our communities, and thus light the path (like a Guru-- one who, through its Sanskrit roots, literally dispels the darkness) for others to follow. Sattvic peace aims at reducing the fluctuations, discriminations, and inequalities of the doshas or panchamahabhutas internally and externally, by providing justice for all living beings and non-living beings through actively support equal access to all resources.
We all must aim towards this level of peace. We have to be the change we wish to see in the world. Otherwise, we remain in a tamasic or rajasic state, which are not necessarily bad, but also not necessarily good.
Apte’s belief is that it is every Indian’s duty-- dharma and swadharma-- to bring out the best of India and share it with the world, in the communities they live in. He discusses the need for this: “Today, there are so many vectors that are affecting our global society. The pandemic itself has exposed our mental health and wellbeing fabric. There is a continued sense of fear, anxiety, depression, helplessness, frustration due to the pandemic. Herein, we have to help promote peace, regain confidence, and hope that they can rebuild their lives and communities. If our trauma is not healed, we know that it will lead to either violence towards ourselves (suicides, drugs, etc) or violence towards society. We invite people to get involved in "being the change" in their communities and organizations and build their leadership capacity to promote peace and harmonious coexistence” (Apte 2021).
Yoga teachers, in specific, hold the knowledge and power to transform the communities around them, helping them extricate themselves from socially unjust and unequal statuses. Apte teaches a short course on SKY Mindfulness Leadership, to a motley crew of individuals from the social and corporate sectors from around the world.
Practice of yoga through its philosophies, breathing systems, and meditations, can heal trauma, and allow individuals from violent histories to release their anxiety, frustration, anger, and open up to their “counterparts” across the table. Further, the program’s video logs in conjunction with discussions with Apte explain that the systems of yoga, either through Art of Living or other traditions or individuals, can be utilized to facilitate loving, compassionate, understanding non-violent communications between the parties. Finally, yoga can even empower children to stand up for their truths, and choose non-violent attitudes, thoughts, and actions, as opposed to joining gangs, as Alabama State Representative Jeremy Gray stated in an interview (Gray, 2021).
This is sattvic living, a way of building positive peace through harmonious relationships, according to Father of Peace Studies Johan Galtung’s theories on peace. Yoga is one of the greatest gifts India has to offer the world, as is clearly shown through the adoption of the International Day of Yoga by the UN, thanks to the efforts of Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, and the ratification by 150+ nations. It is a treasure that can offer inner peace to individuals, as most of the world is now aware. However, yoga can also eliminate the divides, fluctuations, or conflicts, and build peace (as a relation) “between two or more parties. The parties may be inside a person, a state or nation, a region or civilization” (Galtung, 2014).
This is where yoga’s upcoming strength lies: in the ability to transform conflicts and build peace between communities, states, nations, regions, and civilizations, through philosophies and practices designed to increase the ahimsa quotient. It is upto governmental bodies, such as the LAPD, to provide the support to make yoga a sustainable peace building practice and philosophy throughout their jurisdictions, and partner with yoga organizations, institutes, and individuals, such as Cities for Peace.
Where there is a will, there is a way
Madar Apte lights the path for others to join in his and AOL’s efforts to build peace and compassion in the world. He explains over email that “there is a systematic training program that is hosted a few times a year by the Art of Living Foundation. It all starts with an intent that one wants to be part of the solution to create a more compassionate society. This intention can keep us committed to our path” (Apte 2021).
Apte himself has worked with individuals around the world. He writes that “over the past 17 years, I have trained people in five continents - Asia, Australia, South and North America and Middle East.” Though Apte does the ground work, he credits the knowledge and wisdom to his own Guru, saying “It has been an honor to teach the program and bring the wisdom of my meditation teacher, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar to the leadership sector” (Apte 2021).
Yoga teachers from all traditions, too, should step forward and join hands to unite with one another and make India proud of its rich heritage, paying homage to the art, science, and spirituality which has brought each of them inner peace, and an opportunity to light the paths of other individuals and communities to peace.
Om. Shantih. Shantih. Shantih.
- Apte, Mandar (2021). Email Interview with Sowmya Ayyar (January 19, 2021).
- Ayyar, Sowmya (2020) https://www.softpowermag.com/environmental-security-bishnoism-stories-for-student-of-peace (Accessed on January 12, 2021).
- Business Standard (2018). https://www.business-standard.com/article/pti-stories/gandhi-s-principle-of-ahimsa-relevant-in-face-of-violence-in-world-prez-118050201220_1.html (Accessed on January 18, 2021).
- Cities for Peace, https://cities4peace.org/ (Accessed on January 12, 2021).
- Galtung, Johan (2014, November). “A Mini-Theory of Peace”, https://www.galtung-institut.de/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/Mini-Theory-of-Peace.pdf (Accessed on January 12, 2021).
- Gray, Jeremy (2021). Zoom-based Interview with Sowmya Ayyar (January 8, 2021).
- King, Martin Luther, Jr., (August 28, 1963). “I have a dream” at Lincoln Memorial, Washington, DC.
- Minhaj, Hasan (June 3, 2020). “We Cannot Stay Silent About George Floyd | Patriot Act Digital Exclusive | Netflix” https://youtu.be/i_FE78X-qdY
- Prasad, Tanuja (2021). Email Interview with Sowmya Ayyar (January 19, 2021).
- Satyananda Saraswati, Swami (1976). Four Chapters on Freedom, Bihar School of Yoga: Munger.