Mystic Mantra: Radical non-violence

Columnist  | Swati Chopra

Opinion, Op Ed

As sociable human beings, we might naturally opt for non-violent ways to resolve issues when they crop up, like talking or discussing.

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A gunshot and a splatter of blood. A hacked body, an exploding vehicle, bones crunching. And more blood. Such scenes have been popular fare in films and television for quite some time without causing any outrage. The normalising of violence points to a brutalisation of our collective psyche whose effect will, and does, present itself all around us — in the way we are with each other, how we deal with problems, and what we think effective solutions are. Human babies, according to recent studies (specially a 2007 study by Yale University’s Paul Bloom, Karen Wynn and J. Kiley Hamlin) have the innate capacity to choose between “good” and “bad”, and will, when presented with a simple choice, choose what is kinder. So, as babies, we have a predilection towards being good — we prefer those who help rather than those who hinder.

What happens, then, when we watch violence being inflicted over and over again, even if it is “pretend violence”? Of course, the fact that we know it is not real keeps us from being traumatised by it, which is what we would be if we were seeing the same magnitude of violence in reality. Even so, wouldn’t watching violence repeatedly have some impact on us? Some of us might wonder what the big deal is. After all, watching something does not mean we will emulate it. But it might have an effect on what feels “okay”. That is what “normalisation” means.

As sociable human beings, we might naturally opt for non-violent ways to resolve issues when they crop up, like talking or discussing. But if violence were normalised in our minds, wouldn’t it become a natural response? And once we begin rationalising any kind of violence, where will it stop? For instance, enough people in Nazi Germany believed in the rationale for exterminating an entire community for it to be carried out. Perhaps, it is for this reason, to avoid the normalisation of the smallest act of violence, that the Jain vow of non-violence encompasses even those creatures that the eye cannot see. Basically, it is not okay to harm any sensate living thing. That they are not trampled underfoot, Jain monastics will try and sweep the ground on which they walk and eschew vehicular transport.

To save any beings that might inhabit the scalp, they will pull hair out by the roots, rather than use scissors or razors. To avoid accidentally ingesting any living being, they will accept food in their palms, and will not eat after the sun sets. While these observations might seem extreme to us, they indicate the kind of awareness and focus one needs to actually practise non-violence. There is something about not harming, not killing, not violating, that is basic to our natures as social and spiritual beings. I wonder if we might retain this in the age of violence that is virtual, gratuitous, casual, and often, an easy way out.