No one likes war, yet war is perennial. We know the value of peace, yet we cannot keep it. And each time we fight, we pay a heavy price. The victors often lose more than those who suffer defeat.
Once the fighting is over, we clear the rubble, and pray that we will never have to face the horror of war again. But this is a sad and futile prayer. There has been no victory; the enemy—the spirit of war itself—has not been defeated. It has simply gone underground, its weapons—anger, hatred, jealousy, greed, and the thirst for revenge—intact. This deadly arsenal is camouflaged by peace talks, political negotiations, territorial settlements, and war reparations. And because the spirit of war retains its weapons, diplomatic maneuvers are ultimately ineffective. War always resurfaces.
Somewhere deep inside, we all know this, but we refuse to act on our knowledge. So far no one has devised a strategy for truly disarming the enemy and transforming the subtle agents of destruction into the generative forces of compassion and mutual understanding. Instead, we concentrate on repairing the physical damage and begin to build more powerful weapons to defend ourselves in the future.
Several millennia ago, the sages of the yoga tradition pondered these matters and concluded that the causes of war are more subtle than we realize. In ancient times, riches, territory, religion, and women were the overt reasons for war. In modern times, women are no longer given as an excuse, but the other elements remain.
Stopping the cycle of war requires delving into the subtle causes that underlie the surface motives of material gain and religious differences.
According to yoga, stopping the cycle of war requires delving into the subtle causes that underlie the surface motives of material gain and religious differences. The primary cause is ego, which gives rise to selfishness, greed, and ethnocentrism. The great scriptures of yoga—the Yoga Sutra, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Upanishads—clearly describe how these subtle causes emanate from the internal world. Violence does not originate with soldiers or governments. It originates with the most basic unit of society—with each of us as individuals.
From infancy we are entangled in a web of labels and identities which we gradually come to mistake for ourselves.
Every child is born into a sense of group awareness consisting of economic status, social class, religion, race, and a set of superstitions and dogmas. The moment a child enters the world, the parents begin to impose all this on their offspring. And thus, from infancy we are entangled in a web of labels and identities which we gradually come to mistake for ourselves. We grow into adulthood wedded to these superficial identities, a sense that “I am” one trait or another. This creates a sense of separateness and divisiveness.
Our entire value system is shaped by the elements we have absorbed from our upbringing. Differences in values arise from differing backgrounds, and because we identify with the values that have been imposed on us, those with different values become a threat to our sense of “I-am-ness.” Even the higher values of love and compassion are confined to those who share our values. That is why we can preach love and compassion while hating and judging those who do not belong to our own little group, and yet not feel like hypocrites.
According to yoga, there is a collective awareness just as there is an individual awareness.
According to yoga, there is a collective awareness just as there is an individual awareness. A family is made of its members. A community consists of several families, a society consists of several communities, and a nation is made up of several societies. Just as children in the family fight over toys, so do communities quarrel with each other over religion and territory.
Each community has a set of shared values. On the basis of these, it distinguishes itself from other communities. During the years the ego is developing, every child thinks that he or she is better than other children. The same tendency can be observed with communities. Ideally, as human beings and communities mature, they leave behind the need to feel superior to others. But this is possible only if the most important factor—ego—has been transformed, expanded, refined, and polished. Ego, “I-am-ness,” is the greatest barrier to the transformation and development of an individual at a personal level and, therefore, of society at the collective level.
This is where yoga steps in. According to yoga, the primary task of the individual is to overcome the trivial sense of “I-am-ness,” or asmita. As long as we are stuck with the idea of “I am good,” “I am bad,” “I am Christian,” “I am Hindu,” “I am American,” “I am German,” “I am superior,” “I am inferior,” “I am poor,” “I am rich,” we can help neither ourselves nor others. Instead we remain embroiled in the exhausting chore of feeding the ego we have mistaken for ourselves as we hold the mask we have assumed firmly in place.
In order to satisfy the ego, we judge others and interfere with their lives under the illusion that we are uniquely qualified to set them straight. Because we are unhappy with ourselves, we attempt to force others to submit to us, hoping that their submission will convince us of our own worth.
Every community and society consists of those who are absorbed in this deception, and together they create a grander, collective ego. There are many such collectives—ethnic groups, nations, sects, and factions of every persuasion. It is because of this collective ego that communities form nations and nations form alliances. It is because of this ego that concepts like East and West, First World and Third World emerge.
The Yoga Sutra says that attachment and aversion evolve directly from this sense of “I-am-ness.” No matter how terrible our self-image, it is extremely difficult to shed that image and replace it with a healthier one because of our powerful attachment to that original sense of “I am.” And because of this attachment, we delight in imposing the superficial grandeur of our “I-am-ness” on others. If they resist, we feel angry. If they attempt to impose their egos on us, we consider them to be competitors. When we notice that another’s self-image consists of healthier and more attractive elements than our own, we become envious. Thus anger, animosity, and jealousy are born.
War is the result of the intrinsic vanity of both the individual and the collective egos of mankind.
War is the result of the intrinsic vanity of both the individual and the collective egos of mankind. Ego suffers from poverty, humiliation, and a sense of emptiness, and it attempts to mask this by acquiring worldly objects, name, fame, dignity, and status. Lacking internal fulfillment, it tries to compensate with objects that do not belong to it in the first place; land, wealth, and property are routinely used to compensate for inner emptiness and to satisfy the ego’s vanity. Under the influence of vanity, the ego claims ownership of objects which were not earned through rightful means, and in the process it comes up against other egos making the same claims. Thus, the interests of two individual or collective egos clash, and peace and harmony are destroyed.
According to the yoga scriptures, ego has an enormous appetite. The name of that appetite is desire. A human being has insatiable desires, and in the process of fulfilling them, forgets that others are gripped by the same appetites. The ego forgets that it is impossible to possess the whole world. It forgets that others have the same urges and that its impulses will therefore clash with those of others and lead to chaos.
When that happens it is useless to try to figure out who is right and who is wrong, who is good and who is bad. The only remedy is to create a state of well-being, a state of individual and social health, of peace and concord—a state in which all forces, all tendencies, all elements can come into harmony. Only then can human beings live together peacefully.
This must begin with the individual. Only individual transformation will give rise to a transformed society. But whenever we ignore the need for individual transformation and emphasize social transformation instead, a political or religious movement usually results. Transformation has given way to social reform or a sect of some sort. Eventually the leaders become ensnared by ego and vanity, and either the movement collapses or its integrity is compromised.
A spiritual approach to individual purification and transformation runs no risk of sacrificing higher values. It is more lasting than social transformation. And once the number of individuals who have transformed themselves reaches a critical mass, social transformation takes place automatically. Furthermore, individual transformation has an immediate effect on the lives of children, whereas a mass movement affects only adults. What we do for our children lays the groundwork for the individual and collective transformation of future generations.
Individual transformation has the further advantage of being easier for families, societies, and nations to absorb. The higher virtues can be developed gradually, and society can be spared the shock of revolution. Revolutions, even for the best causes, create unrest and usually involve bloodshed. Individual transformation avoids such cataclysms. It is for this reason that Buddha repeatedly proclaimed, “Light your own lamp and the lives of others will be illuminated effortlessly”—none of us has the power to force others to rid themselves of darkness. The only power we have is to demonstrate how delightful it is to live in the light.
Peace, like war, begins at the individual level. We will stop fighting with other communities and nations when we stop fighting with our families and our neighbors. The animosity created when our home is a battleground infects the community and engenders a collective atmosphere of animosity, which in turn infects the community of nations and makes the world a battleground. Jealousy, hatred, anger, possessiveness, and feelings of inferiority held at the individual level have the same effect as a stone dropped into a pond. The unrest ripples outward, disturbing the family, the community, the society, the nation, and finally, the community of nations.
It is not possible to promote peace in the larger world until we have made our own minds calm and tranquil. According to the Yoga Sutra, there are four principles, which if cultivated and assimilated, will free our minds from the disturbances created by jealousy, hatred, anger, possessiveness, and feelings of inferiority. They are: cultivating friendship for those who are happy, compassion for those who are suffering, cheerfulness toward the virtuous, and indifference toward the non-virtuous.
In the beginning it may be difficult to discern the link between practicing these four principles and dissolving the feelings of anger, hatred, and revenge that fuel violence in the external world. But with time and practice, the link will become clear, and our minds will become free of animosity and be established in pure consciousness.
Living in God Consciousness: Four Practices
To live in pure consciousness, God consciousness, is to live without fear, anger, hatred, jealousy, and greed. Cultivating friendship for those who are happy, compassion for those who are suffering, cheerfulness toward the virtuous, and indifference toward the non-virtuous has the power to give us this freedom. According to the Yoga Sutra, these principles can be practiced and assimilated through contemplation or through meditation. Either method will purify our minds and hearts, and this purification will be accelerated if we have the courage to face our fears, the determination to transform our lives, the company of like-minded people, and grace.
1. Friendship for those who are happy.
Everyone wants to be happy. But while trying to attain it, we find ourselves surrounded by others striving for the same goal. And at some subtle level our own insecurity leads us to believe that the fewer candidates for happiness, the greater our own chances for achieving it. When others succeed, even those we love, our own feelings of inadequacy engender jealousy, and in subtle ways our envy motivates us to attempt to destroy their happiness. Misguided by the tricks of our own minds, we enjoy disturbing the happiness of others, even at the cost of making ourselves unhappy.
This convoluted behavior is not confined to a particular group. It is a widespread psychological disorder that cannot be cured by professionals. The only cure is self-transformation. What is required is an antidote for competitiveness and jealousy. And that antidote is found in actively cultivating an attitude of friendliness for those who are happy and successful.
Examine your own circumstances and see how you are creating misery for yourself by envying the happiness of others. If you have neighbors who appear more fortunate than you, cultivate a friendly attitude toward them in your own mind as well as in your outward behavior. In this way, you will begin to overcome your own feelings of inferiority, which are what torture you most.
One powerful means of developing an antidote for competitiveness and jealousy is to meditate on the concept of friendship. For by meditating on the virtue of amity, the sages tells us, one becomes the friend of all and the friend to all. Friendliness and animosity cannot coexist. The mere presence of one who is fully established in the virtue of friendship neutralizes animosity in the hearts of others. And in the presence of such a highly evolved person, one’s internally held animosity washes away.
Amity is an aspect of non-violence. When it is perfected, the virtue of amity is so powerful that all fear and animosity evaporate in its presence. But its real gift lies in the power it holds to banish all traces of jealousy and competitiveness from our own hearts and minds.
2. Compassion for those who are suffering.
Just as we pollute our minds and hearts with competitiveness and jealousy toward our happier and more successful neighbors, we also contaminate ourselves with feelings of superiority over those who are suffering. That same ego which is deflated by an encounter with someone who is happier than we are, swells at the sight of someone who is more miserable. And just as cultivating friendship for those who are happy dissolves competitiveness and jealousy, so does cultivating compassion toward those in pain dissolve vanity and feelings of superiority.
Feelings of superiority are actually feelings of inferiority cloaked in vanity. As feelings of inferiority increase, so does vanity, and sooner or later this pernicious pair is bound to express itself in our speech and action. Lack of concern for those who are less fortunate, scorning the unfortunate or feeling uncomfortable in their presence, and a general attitude of arrogance are the visible symptoms of feelings of inferiority.
As a result of these feelings, we build a thick wall between ourselves and those who are less fortunate. And because we fail to realize how damaging this wall is both to ourselves and to others, we continually add to it. Thus, differences increase, balance is disturbed, and the community fragments. The discontent that begins to smolder among those who are excluded inevitably blazes into hatred.
When the sages studied this problem they saw that compassion for those who are suffering is the only remedy. But compassion is both subtle and profound. Most people confuse compassion with sympathy, but the resemblance between them is superficial. Sympathy is an emotional response to those in pain. Compassion, on the other hand, is never accompanied by emotion; it is an expression of pure, selfless love.
Compassion is the fruit of wisdom. It is unconditional; selfless service and pure love are the springs from which compassion flows. One who is fully established in the principle of compassion expresses it effortlessly and is deeply concerned but unaffected. The compassionate person acts and moves on, with no interest in acknowledgment or reward.
Meditation on the principle of compassion is a means of erasing our own hatred, cruelty, and fear, and replacing these traits with love, kindness, and a deeper understanding for others. Those who meditate on compassion rise above the primitive urge of self-preservation, and thus their reactions toward others are not motivated by fear. Such people spontaneously and effortlessly understand and forgive others.
3. Cheerfulness toward the virtuous.
Just as we want to be happy, we also want to be virtuous—or at least to think of ourselves as virtuous. Competitiveness and jealousy are as rampant in the realm of spirituality as they are in other spheres of life. And because of ego, attachment, and desire, we want others to recognize and applaud our virtue. Without examining our own minds and hearts, we criticize others, especially those who appear to be “closer to God” than we are. If for some reason another’s virtue is praised in public, most of us feel at least a twinge of jealousy. And when it comes to religious and spiritual leaders, we are quick with our criticism and harsh in our judgments.
At the collective level, too, we compare our religious beliefs and spiritual practices with those of others, usually with the intention of finding fault and establishing the superiority of our path over theirs. In the external world the damage caused by religious quarrels is enormous—history is replete with martyrs, crusades, inquisitions, pogroms, stonings, burnings, and every other imaginable form of violence committed in the name of God.
In the internal world the damage caused by competing with others and judging their spiritual attainments is less visible, but no less devastating. Jealousy of our fellow seekers, and the habit of condemning and judging the path they have chosen, pollutes our minds, separates us from others, and leads to violence.
A cheerful person is fulfilled within, and this cheerfulness overflows, affecting everyone who comes near.
The antidote is to cultivate an attitude of cheerfulness and positive appreciation for those who appear to be more virtuous than we are. Cheerfulness is the spontaneous expression of a purified heart and a steady mind. A clear mind is naturally blessed with cheerfulness, and a cheerful person spontaneously loves all and hates none. A cheerful person is fulfilled within, and this cheerfulness overflows, affecting everyone who comes near.
According to yoga, one who cultivates transparency of mind, clarity of thought, and firmness of will becomes light and cheerful. The more cheerful we are, the more difficult it is for painful thoughts to enter our minds. Painful thoughts create fear, insecurity, and delusion. And the less we have of these, the fewer negative feelings we will have for others. A mind unencumbered by negativity is open and spontaneous. It is clear and it is quick to understand. The person possessing such a mind acknowledges and appreciates the virtues of others.
4. Indifference toward the non-virtuous.
We each have our own definition of “virtue,” and if someone is “non-virtuous” according to our definition, the judgmental part of our personality immediately comes forward and we label those people “bad.” This colors our thought, speech, and action toward them. We try to maintain a distance, either by withdrawing ourselves or by pushing them away from us. Or we try to force them to change. Any of these actions sets the stage for violence.
Again, the only way to change this pattern is to change our own attitudes. Those whom we consider reprehensible or wicked are living according to their own level of understanding, and trying to correct them by criticizing their way of life and values is counterproductive. According to yoga, if it is possible to model the higher values of love, compassion, selflessness, and non-possessiveness for the “non-virtuous,” then that should be done. Often a glimpse of the higher virtues is enough to cause someone to reevaluate his or her behavior and to find a way to begin the process of self-transformation.
If we have not acquired the skill of leading someone who we believe to be non-virtuous gently in the direction of self-transformation, the only other option is to cultivate an attitude of indifference—not for the doer but for the deed. Cultivating indifference for people we believe to be non-virtuous damages our sensitivity to others and destroys our capacity for forgiveness, kindness, and selfless love. But by cultivating indifference toward the deeds themselves, we remain free of animosity for those whose actions are non-virtuous. We allow them their rightful place, and by refusing to associate the person with the deed, we avoid becoming smug and punitive.
Practicing these four principles will purify the mind and heart. And once we have developed friendship for those who are happy, compassion for those who are unhappy, cheerfulness toward those who are virtuous, and indifference to the actions of those who are not, we will no longer pose a threat to others, and they will be neither defensive nor self-protective in our presence. Pure love, compassion, selflessness, and self-acceptance radiate from us when we have purified our hearts. And because similar attracts similar, our presence will elicit these same qualities from others. Love, compassion, cheerfulness, selflessness, and self-acceptance will begin to radiate from the individual level and affect the community, the society, and finally the world. War will no longer be possible—there will be nothing to fight about.