On Monday, we celebrated the life and work of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. His life offers us an inspiring example ahimsa in action.
The yamas and niyamas, the first of Patañjali’s 8 limbs of yoga, provide us with a moral code of sorts and the very first of these attitudes, and the one which all others follow is ahimsa, or non-harming. The yamas and niyamas aren’t shoulds and shouldn’ts, instead, they are attitudes that we can cultivate in our relationships to others, to our environment and to ourselves to help us to have a life that is more peaceful, more focused, and less fraught with suffering. These are guidelines for our actions. They are things that we practice and that we do. This sounds really lovely when I’m already in a state of relative peace… I’m all about non-harming. But what about when things get really hard? What if people you love, your peers, your family, your colleagues are being horribly mistreated. What if there is violence against someone you love? What does ahimsa look like then and what good does it do to abide by and commit to this principle?
When we really commit to and believe in the power of a code of ethics, not only can it guide our behavior but it can become a source of strength. In 1958, there was an assassination attempt on MLK’s life. If people are trying to kill you, I can imagine that if you are just experimenting with some interesting ideas about how to live, they might all get thrown out the window. But if you have made a commitment to live life a certain way, if you have made a vow to commit to the principles, then they serve you in a different way. They provide strength. Strength comes from the vow.
After this assassination attempt, Martin Luther King, Jr. accepted a personal invitation from Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to visit India. He was interested in seeing how Gandhi’s campaign of nonviolence had manifested. While there, he was challenged by a group of African students who said that nonviolence may work in India, but it wouldn’t suffice in their homeland. To this, he replied,
True non-violent resistance is not unrealistic submission to evil power. It is rather a courageous confrontation of evil by the power of love, in the faith that it is better to be the recipient of violence than the inflictor of it, since the latter only multiplies the existence of violence and the bitterness in the universe, while the former may develop a shame in the opponent, and thereby bring about a transformation and change of heart.
If we really choose to live according to the yamas and niyamas, then in return, we garner strength. In the head-spinning times of fear or threat or extreme difficulty, these principles can give us something to hold onto and to live by even when things seem to have turned crazy. They are an anchor.
Shortly after he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave an interview to Playboy magazine. You can read the full interview here. Here’s what he said about nonviolence:
Another of the major strengths of the nonviolent weapon is its strange power to transform and transmute the individuals who subordinate themselves to its disciplines, investing them with a cause that is larger than themselves. They become, for the first time, somebody, and they have, for the first time, the courage to be free. When the Negro finds the courage to be free, he faces dogs and guns and clubs and fire hoses totally unafraid, and the white men with those dogs, guns, clubs and fire hoses see that the Negro they have traditionally called “boy” has become a man.
It’s one thing to abide by principles when things are good, another to stick to them when times are tough. I’m moved again and again by the Reverend’s commitment to his principles and the leadership that he provided during his time as a civil rights activist. Non-harming, or nonviolence doesn’t ask us to practice turning into a wet noodle or to passively observe some wrong or injustice, instead the commitment to the principle not only serves as a guide for our behavior, but becomes a source of inner-strength and an anchor we stay tethered to when we need it most.