‘Ahimsa’ & the Violence of Being
To kill or not to kill… That is the question. Such a quote could be from Shakespeare….It’s actually an unavoidable aspect of life – killing is everywhere.
Yoga itself talks of the opposite, Ahimsa, or non-violence, the means by which we should leave a harmonious life, and cause no injury to ourselves, or others. In some religions such as Jainism, this extends to all walks of life, including the sweeping of paths to ensure that no insects are inadvertently crushed.
However, defining a virtuous quality by the opposite of a negative action means the very presumption is that we live in a society that is already violent.
Let us take a look at what ‘killing’ means in our complex, interconnected society.
In the first instance, there is the act of self-defence, for which the killing of others when using reasonable force is legitimised. It would seem hard to argue against that when your very own life is threatened to be killed.
The next most egregious legal act of violence or killing is shooting game. For most First-World hunters, shooting is for mere pleasure. In parts of Africa, foreign hunters pay for the privilege of killing wild game: for the hunter, it is about the pride and thrill of the kill; for the government, it is a source of revenue which allegedly is used for general conservation purposes. Killing becomes a metaphor for ‘fun’, at a cost.
Carnivores come next in the spectrum. For some, meat ‘tastes good’, for others, it is seen as a nutritional necessity. In any case, the act of killing is an unavoidable first step in order for something to be edible – the life that is taken is rarely, if at all, acknowledged.
Even being a vegetarian or vegan is not good enough in some religions’ books. In Jainism, root vegetables such as potatoes and onions are avoided, because the effect upon tiny life forms when the plant is pulled from the soil and the bulb itself is seen as another living being (since it can sprout).
Even if we are to live a restricted plant-based lifestyle, the source of our produce may be morally questionable. I recently learnt that avocados grown in parts of Mexico involve land clearing and deforestation, causing enormous environmental degradation. Who doesn’t love avocados? Our insatiable appetite for such delicious fruits is causing butterfly populations to plummet, not to mention the effect upon climate change!
Moreover, the soils in which our food is grown is often degraded and contaminated with the effects of pesticides leaching nutrients from the soil. Such pesticides and heavy metals find themselves in the food chain, the build-up resulting in disease. Everywhere we look it seems we see death and destruction in the quest to ensure our daily survival through the food that we eat.
But this doesn’t stop just there at food – from the paper we write on (the act of killing trees) to the products we use to clean our houses, they all in a way invoke the act of killing, as it dawned upon me when buying some Aussie organic essential oil cleaning products. This was the authorised use of deadly force, on a microbial scale. As if the mould has anywhere to hide in the first place…
Now mould, you might say, is no comparison to a sweet spring lamb, but it is alive, and has life energy. It is even capable of killing itself. If scientists were to discover bacteria or mould on Mars, we would be celebrating! Yet, we buy products that are ‘anti bacterial, ‘anti fungal’ etc…. Who then is sticking up for the bacteria and mould?
Such a ludicrous proposition is merely a thought experiment, but really a case in point that to live a harmonious, non-violent life is incredibly difficult, perhaps impossible – unless we lived in an igloo, perhaps. Oh wait, the eskimos survive off the blubber meat from seals… What else grows in the artic?
If we step back for a second and observe what goes on around us in the natural world, we will also see that the many beautiful birds, mammals, marine life and other living creatures that we all love and admire, are constantly eating each other, in their race to stay alive – the survival of the fittest, one would say. By creating a hierarchical food chain, nature seems to have also promulgated the act of violence to ensure the continued evolution of life on the planet – on an epidemic scale.
That said, even if we arrive at the conclusion that to live means to kill, what this has shown to me is that we live in a world which on the one hand, aspires to be peaceful and harmonious, but, on the other, is in many respects incredibly violent.
C’est la vie.