On the Inevitability of Harm

gardening-van-houtte-coffee_emag_article_largeBy Hari-kirtana dasa

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.

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3 Responses to On the Inevitability of Harm

  1. Thank you for this article!

    I have a question if I may ask regarding this passage:

    To take responsibility for the untimely death of even the lowest form of life has frightful karmic consequences.

    Are you able to share where this idea is presented in your scriptures? The doubt that came to my mind was how much karma and will are related. For example, while gardening one’s intention is not to kill the organisms, like you mentioned. And while walking one may step on many small creatures but unwillingly. I am thus wondering whether our will is taken into account, as well, when considering the consequences.

    • Herman, whatever you do whether bad or good- has consequences. Action causes reaction and that`s what law of karma is about. Your desires and intentions are also kind of action and will produce certain results. But as article mentions it, there is no way to do absolutely no harm to others. Therefore scriptures advice spiritual practice by which one can ultimately become free from karmic bondage.

      Time to go back to the garden…

    • Thanks for your comment and question, Herman. Here are a few references from yoga scripture as well as some thoughts on your point regarding karma and intention:

      The Bhagavad-gita (15.7) explains that “The living entity, thus taking another gross body, obtains a certain type of eye, ear, tongue, nose, and sense of touch, which are grouped around the mind. He thus enjoys a particular set of sense objects.” Here we understand that the laws of karma are such that if a human being cultivates the animalistic mentality of a dog, then, in their next life, they will be able to fulfill their doglike desires through the senses and organs of a dog. The Gita (14.15) clarifies this by saying “When he (a person) dies in the mode of ignorance, he takes birth in the animal kingdom.” The Yoga Sutras also make it clear that all conscious living entities are in the category of ‘person’ (purusa) irrespective of the type of body they inhabit.

      So the person in the body of an animal may once have inhabited a human form and vice versa. Although a soul may successively occupy plant, animal, and human bodies, its intrinsic nature remains the same. A person dwelling within forms of life lower than human is not responsible for their actions and thus does not generate new karma. For example: a dog chasing a cat across the roadway will not be issued a citation for violating traffic laws since animals are not expected to understand or obey such laws. On the other hand, in both the social order and the universal order, a human being is expected to be obey the law and conventions of morality. Again, in the Yoga Sutras, ahimsa is the first and foremost of the yamas or elements of universal morality, and the yamas are to be observed without exception.

      Therefore, when a human unnecessarily takes the life of another entity, especially under conditions of great pain and suffering, this act of overt aggression produces a severe karmic reaction. We find this injunction not just in yoga scripture, but in other scriptures as well: “He who slayeth an ox is as if he slayeth a man” (Isaiah 66.3).

      The Srimad Bhagavatam offers a colorful description of the fate of humans who engage in gratuitous violence against other living beings. As for my particular statement regarding the reaction for killing even the most insignificant creatures, we find this in the 5th canto, chapter 26, text 17:

      “By the arrangement of the Supreme Lord, low-grade living beings like bugs and mosquitoes suck the blood of human beings and other animals. Such insignificant creatures are unaware that their bites are painful to the human being. However, first-class human beings—brāhmaṇas, kṣatriyas and vaiśyas—are developed in consciousness, and therefore they know how painful it is to be killed. A human being endowed with knowledge certainly commits sin if he kills or torments insignificant creatures, who have no discrimination. The Supreme Lord punishes such a man by putting him into the hell known as Andhakūpa, where he is attacked by all the birds and beasts, reptiles, mosquitoes, lice, worms, flies, and any other creatures he tormented during his life. They attack him from all sides, robbing him of the pleasure of sleep. Unable to rest, he constantly wanders about in the darkness. Thus in Andhakūpa his suffering is just like that of a creature in the lower species.”

      Not a very cheerful proposition. Which brings us to your question about intention: “What if the suffering I cause is incidental to the actual activity I’m engaged in or if I’m trying my best to avoid harm but harm occurs despite my efforts?” If I’m driving and I run a ‘Stop’ sign that I genuinely didn’t see for whatever reason (it’s obscured by bushes or I just spaced out or whatever) and kill someone in a car coming through the intersection then I’m responsible for their death. It may have been unintentional but it’s still my responsibility and I have to pay for it. In view of the absence of intention (and the assumption of sobriety) I may be charged with the lesser crime of ‘reckless endangerment’ or ‘vehicular manslaughter’ rather than the greater crime of ‘first degree murder’ or ‘vehicular homicide’. You’ll notice that the verse from the Bhagavatam specifies “A human being endowed with knowledge certainly commits sin if he kills or torments insignificant creatures…”, implying indifference to the suffering one is causing carries a stiffer penalty than an intention to avoid suffering. My sense, therefore, is that the karmic reaction for unintentional harm is less severe than it is for intentional harm.

      Anticipating a follow up question, “Aren’t vegetarians guilty of knowingly killing people in vegetable bodies?” Putting aside that many vegetarian foods such as fruits, nuts, milk, and grain do not require any killing, in those cases where a plant’s life is taken one must undoubtedly suffer some karmic reactions. For this reason, Lord Krishna explains in Bhagavad-gita that not only should we eat only vegetarian foods, but we should also offer these eatables to Him, Krishna. If we follow this process then Krishna, protects us from any karmic reactions resulting from the killing of plants: “The devotees of the Lord are released form all sins because they eat food that is offered first for sacrifice. Others, who prepare food for personal sense enjoyment, verily eat only sin.”

      I hope this answers your question.

      – Hari-kirtana das

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