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At the Heart of Yoga Is Respect for All Creatures – and All Faiths

As another International Day of Yoga nears its end, it is important to assimilate that the ancient science is not just about physical postures or a desire to possess a healthy body.

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Paramhansa Yogananda, an icon in Indian spiritual history, was seated with his guru at the Serampore ashram when a mosquito dug a poisonous hypodermic needle into his thigh. Yogananda automatically raised his hand to strike a fatal blow at the mosquito.

He halted his hand almost as quickly though. The young Yogananda suddenly remembered one of Patanjali’s yoga aphorisms – on ahimsa.

“Why don’t you finish the job?” asked his guru, Swami Yukteshwar, whose ashram it was.

A perplexed Yogananda, who literally worshipped his guru, asked: “Master! Do you advocate taking life?”

“No, but the deathblow had already struck your mind,” came the cryptic reply.

Yogananda admitted he didn’t understand what the guru was saying.

Yukteshwar then explained a profound truth of yoga: “Patanjali’s meaning was the removal of the desire to kill. This world is inconveniently arranged for a literal practice of ahimsa. Man may be compelled to exterminate harmful creatures. He is not under similar compulsion to feel anger or animosity. All forms of life have equal right to the air of maya. The saint who uncovers the secret of creation will be in harmony with its countless bewildering expressions. All men may approach that understanding who curb the inner passion for destruction.”

As another International Day of the Yoga nears its end, it is important to assimilate that the ancient science is not just about physical postures or a desire to possess a healthy body. For those wanting to embrace yogic principles, a healthy body must be accompanied by an equally healthy mind.

This is something that both ancient sages and later yoga gurus have repeatedly stressed. 

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As Swami Bhaskarananda of Ramakrishna Mission underlined, spiritual seekers should avoid killing or committing violence. Even the thought of harming someone, Yogananda’s guru pointed out, is repugnant. “Killing or destroying other lives is caused by extreme selfishness, uncontrolled rage, or animal impulses,” said Swami Bhaskarananda.

“Killing reduces a person to the level of a beast.”

He added: “People with selfish motives who kill innocent people are murderers, and will be punished for their crimes.”

PM Narendra Modi in Mysuru for the Eighth International Yoga Day celebrations. Photo: Twitter/@narendramodi

Patanjali himself emphasised that if one wished to counter hatred or malice, it was important to be friendly and compassionate to all. “We should not be obsessed with finding faults in others. We should try to ignore the faults of others by thinking that everyone – no matter how bad – must have some good qualities also.”

Spiritual masters repeatedly stress the need to forego greed, anger, jealousy, hatred, lust and arrogance if one is truly devoted to god and wants to progress spiritually. Sarada Devi, the consort of Ramakrishna, went to the extent of saying: “If you want peace of mind, don’t find fault with others, but find fault rather with yourself.”

This is one reason why Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswati, the 68th Pontiff of the Kamakoti Pitam at Kanchi (Kancheepuram), who undoubtedly was one of the most revered sages of modern times, never spoke ill of others even if he felt they had done things he did not approve of. While speaking about different religions, he told a gathering in Kumbakonam in April 1953: “The Muslims who came to India were no doubt guilty of excesses and conversions, but once they settled down to rule and shoulder responsibility, they learned to treat all citizens alike irrespective of whether one was a Hindu or a Muslim. Some of their rulers were even better than Hindu rulers.”

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Also, in 1964, when the Pope was expected to visit Bombay, the Hindu Mahasabha planned to show black flags in protest. The Kanchi Mahaperiyava, as he was widely known, urged the Mahasabha to treat leaders of other religions with respect and not to show hatred.

This is also why Mahatma Gandhi, who was both a political leader and a spiritual persona, not only placed so much emphasis on non-violence but fully respected all religions even as he was literally married to the Bhagwad Gita. 

Although a devout Hindu, Gandhi was highly displeased when he heard about Hindu-Muslim riots in Ajmer in December 1947, a month before he was assassinated. “This is a shameful affair,” he said. “Let us pray to God to give us wisdom so that we do not destroy Hinduism by our conduct. It cannot do any good to destroy it by going against the Muslims. Man was not made by God to live through killing others. If we wish to live, we must let others live.”

Mahatma Gandhi. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The same day, addressing a prayer meeting, Gandhi – who learnt Kriya Yoga from Paramhansa Yogananda – explained why he had certain verses read out from the Koran. “These verses are ancient, composed by the Holy Prophet 13 centuries ago. The extract we recite are considered sublime. Their very reading bestows merit on the reader. It is good to know their meaning but even without knowing it, correct recitation itself is of great value. In substance, these verses in Arabic are a prayer to God. They say: God is one and the same, by whatever name we call Him.”

Swami Vivekananda, the poster boy of the Hindu right and one of India’s greatest yogis, paid equal respect to all faiths, underlining that there have been men good and able in every religion, thus making the religion to which they belonged worthy of respect; as there are such people in every religion, there ought to be no hatred for any sect. Hatred, he made it clear, impedes the course of Bhakti

Like Mahatma Gandhi later, Vivekananda held the Prophet in high regards. “The ancient message of Krishna is one harmonising three – Buddha’s, Christ’s and Mohammed’s,” he said in a talk delivered in San Francisco in March 1900. Even as he criticised some Muslims for killing others in the name of Islam, Vivekananda described Mohammed as “the great Arabian prophet” and credited him for preaching “perfect equality”.

No religion, he underlined a month earlier in California, should be blamed for devilry. “No religion ever persecuted men; no religion ever burnt witches; no religion ever did any of these things. What then incited people to do these things? Politics, but never religion, and if such politics takes the name of religion, whose fault is that?”

Indian yogic and spiritual masters have been very clear in their thinking. Hating anyone, particularly any other religion, was a major no-no. They considered even unkindness – forget inflicting cruelty on others – a spiritual disease. They forbid yogis from even allowing their voice to be harsh out of anger or vengefulness. 

Shri Nimishananda, a respected teacher of yoga meditation, advises that those on the spiritual path must wake up every morning with a positive thought: “May I be forgotten for the harm I am knowingly or unknowingly causing other beings. Today, let my thoughts, feelings, words or actions cause no harm to anybody.”

It is in this background that one must judge the true yogis and spiritual seekers around us. Yoga and spirituality and hatred and violence cannot sail in the same boat.

M.R. Narayan Swamy is a veteran journalist.