Over the last couple of weeks I’ve gone on a killing spree. I’m not proud of this fact but I can’t deny it, either: dozens have lost their lives at my hands. And it’s not a matter of self-defense, though I could argue it’s one of self-preservation. Still, the pursuit of self-interest is a poor justification for murder, to say nothing of a full-blown massacre.
It’s really a matter of land rights: I want to use the land they live on. I have legal possession of the land but they don’t ascribe any validity to my legal standing or acknowledge the legislative institutions through which I presume to obtain my rights. They won’t leave on their own and I have no legal recourse to affect their peaceable eviction so they leave me no choice: I have to kill them.
In the process I have uprooted entire families from their homes, often killing family members in the process. I make a good faith effort to minimize the casualties and even try to facilitate relocation. But the occasional severed body part adhering to my instruments of destruction bares witness to the inevitability of ‘collateral damage’.
I suppose I could pay someone to do my dirty work for me but hired assassins are expensive. Aside from saving some money, there’s an ethical consideration: I’m the one who’s responsible for all these deaths so if they’re going to die it should be at my hands. Besides, it’s a good excuse to stop sitting in front of this computer and get some fresh air.
There is small comfort to be found in knowing that I’m not alone: many of my friends and neighbors engage in similar campaigns of death and destruction. In fact, you might be one of them. Not sure? Then ask yourself this simple question:
Do you have a garden?
We don’t usually think of weeds and worms as having the same inalienable rights as human beings. But nature does not care for our special sense of privilege or the artificial laws by which we justify our callous disregard for other species. Nor does yoga philosophy countenance the oppression of one form of life by another: spiritually speaking, all living entities are afforded the right to live according to their nature. Who am I to intrude on the natural life of a worm or a weed?
In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, ahimsa – non-harming – is the first and foremost of directives. This means that one who aspires to the practice of yoga must not impede the evolutionary progress of another living being. Evolution itself has a different meaning in yoga than it does in modernity: in yoga, evolution means the gradual elevation of each quantum of consciousness through different material life forms over the course of many births. To take responsibility for the untimely death of even the lowest form of life has frightful karmic consequences. For me, it’s a peaceful afternoon communing with nature. For the living entities whose lives I disrupt or destroy, it’s a catastrophe of epic proportions from which, in some cases, there will be no recovery.
It is not possible to observe ahimsa in the absolute sense of the word: in order to survive one must eat, in order to eat one must grow food, and in order to grow food other living entities must die. There’s no getting around it: farming (or, on a smaller scale, gardening) entails unintended harm to other living entities no matter how closely we adhere to the laws of interdependency and mutual benefit that characterize actions in harmony with nature. So, how does one get around the karmic reaction to killing other living entities for the sake of growing one’s food?
Getting busy on our yoga mats won’t do it. Contrary to what you may have heard, asana does not resolve or burn off karma. Calories, yes; emotional issues, yes; stress, yes; karma, no: there is nothing in any traditional yoga wisdom text to indicate that asana burns off karma. If yoga is a practice meant to liberate the practitioner and liberation means, among other things, freedom from the obligation to endure karmic reactions, then there must be some other element of yoga beyond asana that offers absolution from actions that are injurious to others.
That element is bhakti; devotional service. Karma Yoga, union through action, finds its ultimate fulfillment in devotion. Three verses spoken by Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita illuminate the means to obtain karmic absolution for incidental sins.
9.26 — If one offers me, with love and devotion, a leaf, a ﬂower, a fruit or water, I will accept it.
9.27 — Whatever you do, whatever you eat, whatever you offer or give away, and whatever austerities you perform – do that, O son of Kuntī, as an offering to me.
9.28 — In this way you will be freed from bondage to work and its auspicious and inauspicious results. With your mind ﬁxed on me in this principle of renunciation, you will be liberated and come to me.
Bhakti is the most essential element of yoga because no other element provides for liberation from karmic reactions as quickly or as easily. Yet, liberation is not the goal of bhakti: bhakti is the goal of bhakti. Devotion is both the means to an end and the end in and of itself. Liberation is a fortunate by-product that provides a platform for pure bhakti, devotional service that’s offered without any trace of material desire, to blossom within one’s heart.
Liberation from adverse reactions to incidental harm doesn’t make bhakti a license to kill: the responsibility to maintain the highest possible level of ahimsa remains. But, just as fire is covered by smoke, any deed is likely to have some fault or shortcoming associated with it. It’s not possible to live in this world, however well intentioned we may be, without causing harm to others. Bhakti Yoga is the path of grace and that grace includes absolution from the incidental harm we cause others despite our best efforts to observe the first commandment of yoga: non-harming.