Thursday, February 21, 2013

Satya - harmony with fact and motives

सत्यप्रतिष्थायं क्रियाफलाश्रयत्वम् ॥३६॥
satya-pratiṣthāyaṁ kriyā-phala-āśrayatvam ||36||
Once a state of truth (satya) has been established, each statement will form the basis for a truthful result.

Satya is the second yama and generally translated and summarised as 'non-lying' or 'benevolent truth'. Truthfulness is central to the concept of satya (सत्य), a term derived from the Sanskrit root 'sat' - truth; being. In yoga tradition, satya is more than a commandment along the lines of "thou shall not lie". First of all, it describes the mindful exploration of facts, followed by an honest investigation of our motives to either hide or communicate them.

A lie is not just the act of telling something untrue. More often then not, lying involves the art of either concealing embarrassing facts, or the exaggeration of facts to make ourselves look better in the eyes of others, or even ourselves. Lying can also involve long and contrived accounts with the aim to justify our mistakes and blame others. Sometimes, lying can be as simple as the use of habitual phrases, such as "I love you", in order to avoid further engagement or a confrontation.

Satya can be seen as an exercise in transparency, and it starts with questioning our motives. Try and understand how and when you lie, to yourself, and to others. Only self analysis of our motives to communicate in given circumstances in a particular way will allow us to be truthful.

Satya demands more then the simple adherences to facts. It is also important to question our motives in telling the truth. When taken together with the other four yamas, is clear that it is not always ethically right to speak truth. Compulsive truth telling, as simple and perhaps compelling as such fundamental concept is, can have harmful consequences. Speaking truth can be an act of aggression, for example by exposing private secrets and thereby harming relationships. Finally, even the right speech can be inappropriate under the wrong circumstances, and make you look self righteous, or simply not trustworthy.

Siddhartha Gautama perhaps best qualified satya by emphasizing that truthfulness means not telling lies, not talking about others in a way that can result in disharmony among people, and not speaking harshly or carelessly for the sake of making an impression on others. Along these lines, the application of satya has been summarised in the "the four gates of speech", which follow four simple questions:
1) Is what I want to say the truth?
2) Is it necessary to say, i.e, is it benevolent?
3) Is this the right moment and place to say it?
4) Can it be said in a positive and kind way?
If not, it is best to remain in silence.

Truthfulness requires a high degree of self-understanding, attentiveness to present circumstances, and emotional intelligence. Arguably, satya can be said to be less about speaking than about cultivating silence. Instead of speaking, we should exercise the art of listening, of looking beyond the concepts we try to express in words and the images that we mistake as reality.

Satya is harmony with fact and motives applied to speech

Friday, February 8, 2013

Ahimsa - harmony with life and society

अहिंसाप्रतिष्ठायं तत्सन्निधौ वैरत्याघः ॥३५॥
ahiṁsā-pratiṣṭhāyaṁ tat-sannidhau vairatyāghaḥ ||35||
Once a condition of non-violence (ahimsa) has been established, all enmity will be abandoned in your environment.

Ahimsa is the first yama and traditionally translated and summarised as as 'non-violence'. The avoidance of harm and violence is central to the concept of  ahimsa (अहिंसा), a term that is derived from the Sanskrit root hims – to strike; and/or hinsa - injury or harm, with the prefix a indicating practice of the opposite.

It would be a limitation to equate ahimsa with "thou shall not kill". In yoga philosophy, a more complete translation is to refrain from causing pain to any living being, including yourself. This pain can be inflicted either physically, or by speech, or by thought. Thoughts can play a significant role in what you say and how you act. And as stated elsewhere, "in the beginning was the word".

How is this concept of not afflicting injury to others or ourselves lived in our modern world? Simply contemplate on what is required to live in harmony with nature and society. Think of and engage with others positively, create a positive working and living environment. Be open and kind to your family. Refrain from excerting pressure on your fellow beings by managing your expectations. Contemplate on the things you create, support, or simply consume and make sure they are free of cruelty and exploitation. What about your clothes and shoes? Make sure they have not been produced in sweatshops and that the production processes have not polluted the environment. What about the entertainment you choose? There can be a lot of psychological and sexual exploitation in magazines, a lot of gossiping in the television series, a lot of violence in video games, all of which we support by watching and playing.

Ahimsa applied to food will require a good understanding and critical assessment of the sources, processes, and means of transport of what ends up on our plates. Ahimsa is sometimes used to argue for a vegetarian diet. Arguably, a vegetarian diet is often inflicting less harm than the consumption of meat, but this is not always the case. Farmland for growing crops is created by replacing wilderness and destroying all the life dependent on it. Farmland needs to be maintained by irrigation, often exploiting rivers and groundwater resources, and by the application of pesticides, with potentially far reaching impacts on other ecosystems. In many areas, farming is simply not sustainable and can cause desalination, erosion, dust storms and climate change. Even organic vegetarian goods can be transported a long way, by ship, rail and on roads - burning fossil fuels, polluting oceans and the atmosphere. Fresh vegetables are often cooled for weeks in storage facilities, requiring energy. Processed food, in particular vegetarian as opposed to vegan products, often contain animal proteins, fats and sugars from egg and milk. While it is fairly easy to buy free-range and organic eggs and milk, it is generally impossible to trace components such as milk solids, lactose, egg white etc. to their source and thereby ensure that the domesticated animals lived a species-appropriate life.

In contrast, indigenous societies who are intimately connected with their land such as the Aborigines in Australia rely on sustainable fishing and hunting for their main intake of proteins and fat. Arguably, their impact on the land and its life in general is less than the clearing that preceded farming and grazing. Furthermore, shooting of feral animals or those species advantaged by human activity such as rabbits, pigs, goats, camels, and some species of kangaroos, are critical to limit further harm to native wildlife. Not eating this meat would be wasteful. Finally, we also need to look at traditional herding societies such as the Bedouins in the Middle East, or the Mongolians in Central Asia, who settle areas unsuitable for farming but perfectly adept for grazing livestock. Having said that, a yogic diet considers more aspects than ahimsa, in particular the three gunas and shaucha discussed elsewhere.

Ahimsa is a truly universal principle in that is also concerned with you. It is perhaps the most difficult aspect of ahimsa to prevent harming yourself by your thoughts, words, and actions. This continuos exercise could also be summarised as "yogic life".

In conclusion, ahimsa is harmony with life achieved through mindful action. Living ahimsa is not about following a dogma or a commandment, but about developing a fine sense of the impact of one's daily actions. Ahimsa is about living in harmony with one's current social and natural environment, and with oneself. The following four yamas - satya, asteya, brahmacharya, and aparigraha - explore particular universal aspects of ahimsa in more detail, while the five niyamas - shaucha, santosha, tapas, svadhyaya, ishvarapranidhana.

Mahatma Ghandi demonstrating ahimsa in action;