The Yoga of Punching
What does the ancient philosophy say about political violence?
The Bhagavad Gita opens on the eve of a brutal battle, with Krishna (a god disguised as charioteer) and Arjuna (a warrior king and renowned archer) overlooking the field and two opposing armies, one of which Arjuna commands. In this moment Arjuna is overcome with revulsion at his coming task — some of those in the opposing army are his relatives even, and he knows the fight will be bloody. He knows many on both sides will die. While convinced of the righteousness of his cause, he thinks the gains are not worth the losses and tells Krishna he wishes to leave the battle and go into seclusion and meditation. And Krishna — the happy blue flute-playing god — tells him, and I’m barely paraphrasing here, “Don’t be such a wuss — go kill these bastards now.”
This text is foundational. Yoga teachers blithely quote it after class and say namaste. Yet it is totally and completely about Arjuna overcoming his reservations, with Krishna’s encouragement, about slaughtering his cousins.
Violence and death are life. In the Hindu pantheon, Durga and Kali are the same, the mother and the killer. In various meditation practices, we are taught to contemplate our rotting corpse. In my last retreat, it was suggested to literally google pictures of dead, mutilated bodies and stare at them. They seem to say: This will be you. I promise.
In fact, in all my haphazard study — be it in books, universities, or from gurus and monks of various stripes — there is one fundamental aspect of life I have become pretty convinced of: impermanence. Everything ends. I know,assuredly, we die. We are born, age, grow sick, and die. No one and nothing is immortal. (This impermanence includes institutions and ideas, such as, for example, you know, the United States of America.)
If I can take it a little further, another truth I have been taught (and forgotten a million times): not only will we all invariably die, but we are all intimately connected. Not only in our death — though that too — but before and after. We are connected in the composition of our bodies, the way we fill space, the minerals and chemicals that make up our skin and organs, the fact of our offspring, the air we breathe, the water we drink, the piss we take. We are the same. The factors and forms that make us up are born, degrade, and mix, millions upon millions of times. I become part of you, you of me, he of she. Some Hindu and Buddhist teachers say, speaking of reincarnation and the expanse of time, everyone you will ever meet was once your relative. That person you hate: sorry! used to be your mom. That fear mongering racist bastard on TV: oh, he was your sister. It works the other way too: your spouse used to be your worst enemy; your family wouldn’t have spit on you were you on fire.
Many people these days like to talk about the pros and cons of punching Nazis (though it seems like most of these people have never been near a punch in their lives, outside of a video game at least). As someone who has been on both the receiving and delivering end on a few occasions, my honest opinion is punching pretty much sucks whichever side you’re on, not that it can’t be justifiable and sometimes even necessary. For example, last summer, when everyone was calling Trump Hitler, I was really confused. If this dude really is Hitler, I thought, why are we correcting his grammar? Oughtn’t someone murder him? Violence is a totally reasonable reaction to that kind of evil. I would completely understand that action.
Maybe I’m totally clueless to the reality of the situation in the U.S. I have been abroad essentially the last seven years, and I have missed all of this Trump stuff first hand. My last time at a big protest was the Occupy marches in Hong Kong. I remember one night out in front of the Chinese army barracks, the protestors were thinking about blocking the major highway that leads to the tunnel to Kowloon from Hong Kong island. It was a major thoroughfare in a highly visible spot (particularly to the Chinese army, who were the real potential danger — if they entered the fray instead of just HK cops, well, it could get ugly) and tensions were high. I was standing there with another guy and we were watching them sort of tease the idea. A couple kids would run out in the road, stop a couple cars, then chicken out. The guy next to me looked very concerned. I said, “They should totally do it.” He looked at me like I was some bloodthirsty freak, “Can you imagine what would happen?” “Yup,” I replied. “I sure can.”
Violence can certainly be effective. It can gain media attention, spread the message, achieve short term goals. (Whether that’s the message one wants to send is another question.) Conversely, non-violent political action is, in part, defined by massive authoritarian violent overreaction. Ask Gandhi. Or Martin Luther King. The reason they succeeded, in part, was not non-violence, but the wanton violence that resulted. Had PRC shock troops come streaming out on the road that night in Hong Kong, I reckon a lot of kids would have been badly hurt or even killed, and the city might look very different today. Instead, the PRC kept their cool, waited out the protesters for literal months, and almost exactly nothing has changed, if anything it’s only gotten worse.
As for Virginia (my home state), I can’t even begin to figure out what will happen in the U.S. anymore, but it seems like (mostly) nonviolence beat violence that day, and a martyr was made. Few are lauding the dickheads carrying lawn decorations who like to run over pedestrians and shout century old slogans of an oft-defeated ideology. ISIS shouts old slogans and runs over pedestrians. Not a favourable comparison. The Nazis don’t appear to be conquering hearts and minds, or much of anything. But hey, punch if you must.
Back to Arjuna. When I first heard this story I was a bit upset. I thought, Krishna was a happy shepherd!? What’s the deal with encouraging massacre? It fell totally outside my moral training and inclination, particularly where I was, at yoga school. Aren’t we supposed to be pacifists? Peace, love, and downward dog? In many ways, that’s precisely the point. Krishna was exposing Arjuna’s entire moral system as a human system based on Arjuna’s preferences and desires, whereas Krishna was, you know, a god.* And here it gets a bit complicated with castes and Indian history and etc., but Krishna knew it was Arjuna’s duty, as a worldly man of action, to fight and kill. So he did. There are many more levels to this interaction, but this is probably the most literal.**
So yes, violence is undoubtedly a part of political revolution (until people massively change and political revolution is no longer required). Decorum is useless in the face of evil. But unlike Krishna, we are not omnipotent beings with overarching knowledge of eons of time. I’m not totally certain we always have the full story. Some of the story may be pretty obvious of course, but maybe there’s just a little more going on.
There are structural, historic, and yes, economic, reasons for what we see in the street. There are those who benefit from its continuance, just there are those who get clicks and sell movie tickets by manipulating the feelings around it. There are those whose miserable dead-end lives are enlivened by ideology and those simply looking for an audience, or a market. We must open our eyes to see these realities and not just be duped by an easy, and pathetic, target. We must acknowledge that people who are conditioned by racism and brutality are racist and brutal. We must have the courage of conviction to see that people who are alienated and afraid deserve understanding, not mocking or hate. We must have compassion for those we are told to despise, even if, especially if, we are to engage them with violence. We must see the barriers put in place by a brutal system whose only interest is cancerous growth. We must have humility, because we are only human.
As Arjuna discovered, it is possible to be violent without hate and rage, while it is possible to be nonviolent and hopelessly corrupted. It is better to live in compassion and awareness, for all beings, even when violence is inevitable and justifiable. Only by looking without hate can we see clearly.
*This is kind of the thing nobody gets about karma; there’s no such thing as good and bad karma; it is beyond human comprehension. It’s quite impossible for a human to understand something that unfolds over millennia, just as Arjuna can’t understand Krishna.
**Please read Sri Aurobindo’s Essays on the Gita for more detail.