For many in our modern yoga culture, ahimsa has exactly one translation: vegetarianism. Or, potentially more focalized: veganism. I understand this and for many years (most of my life, actually), I have adhered to this practice. However, there's something wrong with this translation of ahimsa. It's not completely accurate.
Ahimsa, if we break down the word, simply means the absence of violence. It's a much broader stroke than this one focused idea. Patanjali (author of the yoga sutra, where the directive of ahimsa is cited for yogis) goes on to add four other suggestions for how we can become compassionate contributors to society (truthfulness, non-stealing, conscious intimacy and non-hoarding). He's pretty specific with these suggestions, but nowhere does he give us the exact, one practice that is going to cover all this moral high ground.
He leaves it to us.
In all my years as a yoga practitioner, I've heard all the arguments for why veganism is a good idea. And I've also made those same arguments. I used to be the one in the room telling students and fellow teachers that without a vegetarian diet, they were simply not practicing ahimsa. I cast the judgement and threw the stones. Until they hit me square in the face.
I realized at some point that my judgements of others were actually the most scathing antithesis to this sacred practice. By setting myself and my own actions apart from them and creating a hierarchy, I was missing the point of the practice itself, which is meant to create connection and dissolve boundaries. We connect when we hurl judgement out the window and move beyond what is right and what is wrong, and favor instead what will make us free and keep our hearts open. If any position in life (be it choosing a diet or a political party) separates us from another and puts them on the other side of the fence, how do we ever hope to create our much-longed-for unity?
Now, I understand this isn't easy, and as tempting the debate over whether being vegetarian (or placing any kind of label on oneself, for that matter) is right or wrong, it's ultimately not the point here. Our work as yogis is not to determine who's actions are better than others', or what actions are "correct" given the yogic guidelines. Our work is to find it in our hearts to forgive all actions and accept all beings as they are, even if they make different lifestyle choices than we do.
Look, I think being vegetarian is a great service to the world. Being a vegetarian is a great way to practice ahimsa, but not the only way to practice ahimsa. I also think being an aid worker in a third-world country is a great service to the world. I think teaching children the value of non-violence in their actions is a great service. There are a million great ways we can serve others in the scope of ahimsa, because the most important moral compass is the one that sits in our own hearts.
We have to clean up our own mess, first.
We can eat a diet of air and sunlight, and if we're looking at other people for doing it wrong because they're doing it differently, we've steered off course. The meat-eater could be saving lives as an ER doctor by working extra shifts. The carnivore could be working on weekends to build houses for the poor. The great thing is that there are so many opportunities for us to be actively kind in our world. Thank goodness Patanjali didn't specify.
T.S. Eliot is quoted as saying, "For every life and every act, consequences of good and evil can be shown and as in time results of many deeds are blended so good and evil in the end become confounded." Joseph Campbell responded to a similar quote by Voltrim by stating, "The best we can do is lean towards the light."
I lived for years thinking that all who eat meat will be condemned to repay that karma with their death in future lifetimes. It's a pretty grim guilt-trip to be on while practicing yoga. Luckily, I heard a philosophy teacher recently re-illuminate this misunderstanding with this simple teaching:
"If you choose to take a life, then you must save one."
I understand that each life is precious, and this could be misconstrued as an over-simplification of the process. This is neither a justification or absolution. What it does is re-frame the process so that without guilt, we can make the best choices for our own lives. These choices will be different for all of us, and all the choices we make are valid, provided that they are done with an open heart.
You see, the scholar Joseph Campbell did much of his research based on the premise that "life lives on life." It just does. We can all make arguments around this, and I'll never disagree with those who say factory farming is cruel. But judgement is also cruel, because it poisons our own hearts and cramps our ability to connect with others and find ways in which we can uplift and forgive those we interact with. It separates "us" from "them," and gets us farther from the interconnectivity that is the crux of yoga practice.
When we possess an expanded understanding of ahimsa beyond only vegetarianism and accept every person as they are, we then have the best capacity to support transformation and positive change of any kind. If we begin with resistance to a particular behavior (like eating meat), then we're already creating alienation and separation -- which are both antithetical to yoga.
To practice ahimsa means to be firm in our authentic practice of active kindness and accept everyone as they appear to us -- no matter how they choose to live their lives and no matter how we choose to live ours, because there are eight billion different ways to live. If we can manage to live with an open heart and a genuine ability to connect to another, then we've dissolved any need for violence to arise.
Start there, and you might find that the life you're saving is your own.
For more by Alanna Kaivalya, click here.
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