Chapter Thirteen: Nonviolence
The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.
- Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., "Where do we go from here: Chaos or community?"
It is all-too-apparent that religious teachings have been distorted to justify aggression and brutality. This blasphemous misuse of legitimate spirituality must be challenged and eliminated. All of the six traditions compared in this book have the immense theological and ethical commonalities already enumerated in the previous (and following) chapters. Furthermore the holy books of each faith command their followers to follow the path of nonviolence. This information may come as a shock to those who only know the superficial histories of the various faiths. However, when one reads the holy books of humanity, there is the unmistakable fact that each sacred scripture commands nonviolence. Violent actions disregard the Divine within all beings, are rooted in greed and anger, and are therefore inseparably tied to evil. Nonviolence is inseparably tied to universal compassion, the most vital command of all religious teachings. The inner peace to be found in legitimate spiritual seeking can only be nourished by a person who has renounced all outward violence.
Confucius, besides advocating individual moral virtues, set out to restore an ideal government and society. How is governance possible without violence? The answer to this question, which is closely mirrored in the other traditions examined in this chapter, is found in chapter twelve, section nineteen of the Analects:
Chi K’ang asked Confucius about government, saying, “What do you say to killing the unprincipled for the good of the principled?” Confucius replied, “Sir, in carrying on your government, why should you use killing at all? Let your evinced desires be for what is good, and the people will be good. The relation between superiors and inferiors is like that between the wind and the grass. The grass must bend, when the wind blows across it.”
Chi K'ang's question reflects the orthodox political perspective that government is the only legitimate dispenser of coercion and force. He wanted to know if it is wrong to use force to weed out the unsavory elements of society. Confucius replies by inviting officials to lead by example. Killing is unnecessary in the ideal society. When those entrusted with authority earnestly seek what is morally correct, others will follow. All human beings, even the wicked, carry within themselves the perfect Divine Spark. Moral example and reason are the fuel to turn this Spark into a flame. Violence, like all other material temptations, leads away from the path of imperishable Virtue. When one overcomes the strife and violence in one’s own mind and acts with justice and compassion, other individuals and society itself become more peaceful. Confucius relates a universal law. The command to lead by example and refrain from violence is found throughout humanity’s holy scriptures.
Lao Tzu, as a true spiritual teacher, also forbade the use of violence to his followers. Just like Confucius, his compatriot and contemporary, instructed his students to overcome violence through the example of moral superiority, Lao Tzu says in section thirty-one of the Tao te Ching:
It is because arms are instruments of ill omen and there are Things that detest them that the one who has the way does not abide by their use.
For those who know and trust in the Divine laws, violence is completely prohibited. By acknowledging the Eternal and All-Powerful within oneself and others, and accepting the inescapability of Divine Justice, the use of weapons and violence is properly seen as superfluous, unnecessary, and indeed, evil. Therefore violence is forbidden by the Tao te Ching. This is a common admonition to the true followers of all paths to the Ultimate Truth.
A further explanation for the prohibition against violence in found in the following piece of wisdom, imparted to humanity in section seventy-eight of the Tao te Ching:
In the world there is nothing more submissive and weak than water.
Yet for attacking that which is hard and strong nothing can surpass it.
This is because there is nothing that can take its place.
That the weak overcomes the strong,
And the submissive overcomes the hard,
Everyone in the world knows yet no one can put this knowledge into practice.
The very natural laws mandated by Heaven (particularly Divine Justice) ensure that the supple and peaceful will overcome the inflexible and strong. This immutable trend can be observed by water’s ability to wear away at rock. Although everyone can see these laws in action, there are few people who have the inner strength and wisdom to apply this lesson to their own lives. In the long run, compassion is always stronger than violence. Only those who embrace nonviolence can fully utilize this Divine and natural phenomenon, and follow the everlasting laws.
The inherent value of non-violent action is found throughout the Vedic teachings. There is a clear link between violence, evil, and ignorance. In chapter eighteen, verse twenty-five of the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna warns Arjuna:
That action performed in illusion, in disregard of scriptural injunctions, and without concern for future bondage or for violence or distress caused to others is said to be in the mode of ignorance.
Human being act with extreme ignorance when they disregard the wisdom of the true and universal religion which teaches the holiness of all life, and the inescapability of karmic reward and retribution. To disrespect the welfare of others, in the grand and perfect scheme of existence, is to ignore one’s own wellbeing. Therefore violence and other harmful actions are to be avoided at all costs. The ignorance of violent action is again contrasted with the wisdom of actions that shun aggression in chapter thirteen, verses eight through twelve:
Humility; pridelessness; nonviolence; tolerance; simplicity; approaching a bona fide spiritual master; cleanliness; steadiness; self-control; renunciation of the objects of sense gratification; absence of false ego; the perception of the evil of birth, death, old age and disease; detachment; freedom from entanglement with children, wife, home and the rest; even-mindedness amid pleasant and unpleasant events; constant and unalloyed devotion to Me; aspiring to live in a solitary place; detachment from the general mass of people; accepting the importance of self-realization; and philosophical search for the Absolute Truth -- all these I declare to be knowledge, and besides this whatever there may be is ignorance.
Nonviolence is truth and violence is illusion. Krishna equates nonviolence with self-control, detachment from materialism, devotion to the Ultimate Spirit, and all other characteristics of true knowledge and a legitimately spiritual life. These admonitions may seem contradictory to other sections of the Bhagavad Gita which describe the duty of Arjuna as warfare against evil. However, the verses of the Gita which seem to condone violence must be understood in context. Arjuna was fighting against depraved usurpers of power who threatened to conquer the entire (known) world. It is highly unlikely that a contemporary human being would find themselves in such a situation, and receive permission to engage in armed struggle from an embodiment of the Godhead. The above verses make clear that nonviolence is an unavoidable duty to all true followers of the teachings of Krishna. Violence, as it is based in greed and the will for earthly power, and is harmful to other beings, is the very antithesis of all true religious thought and action. All scriptures reflect this ancient truth, and the sincere followers of all faiths know to restrain anger and renounce violence.
The Buddha taught his disciples that nonviolence is an essential attribute of one who truly seeks the liberation of Nirvana. Only those who attempt to satisfy transient sense desires and negative emotions will deliberately injure others. Just as in the Gita, the Dhammapada teaches that inner turmoil is manifested in outer violence, and similarly to his Chinese counterparts, the Buddha told all people to overcome the moral imperfections of others through the example of sincere self-discipline. Chapter seventeen, verses one through four of the Dhammapada read:
One should give up anger, renounce pride, and overcome all fetters. Suffering never befalls those who cling not to mind and body and are detached.
Those who check rising anger as a charioteer checks a rolling chariot, those I call true charioteers; others only hold the reins.
Overcome the angry by non-anger; overcome the wicked by goodness; overcome the miser by generosity; overcome the liar by truth.
Speak the truth; yield not to anger; when asked, give even if you only have a little.
In order to achieve the Perfect State, human beings must give up all their imperfections, including anger. We must use self control to restrain anger, much like a skillful horseman directs his mount. Just as Confucius told his followers “let your evidenced desires be for what is good, and the people will be good” the Buddha instructs his disciples to conquer the wicked with goodness, the miser with generosity, the angry with non-anger, and the liar with truth. We can only improve others by first improving ourselves. Finally, one is to display his or her trust in the inescapable laws of karma by always giving to those who ask, even if one’s material means are lacking. The basis and inspiration for this moral perfection is to see, with the light of true knowledge, the welfare of other’s as one’s own. Anger and violent force are based on ignorance and greed, and are therefore universally forbidden.
Violence always feeds the material illusion, for it creates artificial distinctions and animosity between human beings. The first four verses of the tenth chapter of the Dhammapada relate the following truths:
All tremble at violence, all fear death.
Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not kill nor cause another to kill. All tremble at violence, life is dear to all. Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not kill nor cause another to kill.
Human beings are blessed with the awareness that allows us to see the simple veracity of the Buddha’s words. We all naturally value our lives and fear violence and the destruction of our physical forms. Listening to the inner, perfect Nature allows one to recognize these common fears in other beings. Violence is forbidden for all those who overcome greed and seek to act with compassion and empathy. The Buddha taught the common message that actions which are violent and harmful to others are strictly prohibited.
The instructions for Jesus’ followers to embrace nonviolence are a famous component of the teachings of the Gospels. Similarly to the other Divine messengers, Jesus taught the link between nonviolence, true knowledge, and the holy life. In verses twenty-seven through thirty-one of chapter six of the Book of Luke, Jesus instructs his followers to:
Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you,
Bless them that curse you, and pray for them which despitefully use you.
And unto him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other; and him that taketh away thy cloak forbid not to take thy coat also.
Give to every man that asketh of thee; and of him that taketh away thy goods ask them not again.
And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.
Moral perfection is to act with benevolence towards all people, even those who mistreat others. This teaching is virtually identical to the instructions found throughout the other holy scriptures. If struck on the face, one is not to retaliate, and if goods are stolen, yet more possessions must be offered to the thief. These moral instructions are only possible when one recognizes the Divine within all people, and trusts in the inevitable victory of benevolence. Jesus invites his followers to inspire the higher nature of all people through perfect and limitless compassion. The Golden Rule - to act towards others as you would wish them to act towards you - must be followed regardless of the moral deficiencies of other individuals. Thus the teachings of Jesus, just like the messages of all the prophets, strictly forbid all coercive force.
The teachings of the Prophet Muhammad contain many verses which admonish his followers to the path of forgiveness and nonviolence. However, many misinformed Westerners often dismiss Islam as a “violent religion”. This ignorance is based on the unfortunate misuse of Islam to justify violence by a minority of members of certain Muslim schools of thought, and the deliberate propaganda of certain Western leaders and institutions. A careful and unbiased reading of the Qur’an clearly reveals that violence is to be completely disavowed by all true believers. This is particularly true when regarding the means by which “Islam” is to be spread. Verse two hundred fifty-six of the second sura unambiguously declares:
Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from Error: whoever rejects evil and believes in Allah hath grasped the most trustworthy hand-hold, that never breaks. And Allah heareth and knoweth all things.
One is never to impose their beliefs on others through force. Such an act would be contrary to the fundamental teachings of the Qur’an, and all other holy texts. One trusts in the Divine not for earthly desires or a will to dominate, but in recognition of and submission to the fundamental laws of existence. Those who truly believe in the All-Powerful and Eternal never have a legitimate reason to succumb to the temptation of violence. Furthermore, sura three, verses one hundred thirty-three and one hundred thirty-four instruct humanity to:
Be quick in the race for forgiveness from your Lord, and for a Garden whose width is that of the heavens and of the earth, prepared for the righteous,-
Those who spend, whether in prosperity, or in adversity; who restrain anger, and pardon men;- for Allah loves those who do good.
This unequivocal instruction to overcome anger and violence is based on the imperatives and sacred realities taught by all religions. In order to receive forgiveness from the Ultimate Divine, one must acknowledge the Divine presence within all people through merciful and compassionate action. The similarity of these verses with the words of other holy books quoted in this chapter is striking. One must give away earthly goods in charity, whether materially fortunate or otherwise. We must overcome anger and forgive wrongdoers. One should constantly remember that the Divine will reward those who act compassionately, so there is no need for strife, discord, and violence. Vengeance belongs solely to the Knower and the Gatherer. Other verses of the Qur’an, which appear to sanction violence, need to be understood in context (like their counterparts in the teachings of the Gita). The Prophet and his followers faced a campaign of extermination from those opposed to his message. Self-defense was necessary and specifically sanctioned. In the modern world, violence is obsolete. The above verses make it clear that the Qur’an shares the feature of forbidding violence to those who truly believe in its message. To engage in violence is to rebel against Divine mandates. Violence and exploitation are a disservice to the Divine, for these deeds mistreat the Breath of Allah found in all members of the human family.
The use of religious differences to justify violence is always based on a (often purposefully) horrific misinterpretation of true spiritual sentiment. As seen throughout this book, the common teachings of all six religions are much more relevant than their superficial differences. To kill in the name of That Which Forbids Violence is a tragedy that has been perpetrated by members of all faiths at one time or another. Flawed and exploitative human beings will always find a justification for violence, but the use of religious differences to incite oppression and slaughter is a particularly egregious violation of universal moral principles. True religion does not sanction murder, but rather inspires compassion. Humanity cannot afford continued violence if we seek to survive the coming century. The common teaching of nonviolence, found in each of the six holy books, is a remedy to one of humanities oldest social diseases.