A Life of thinking globally, acting locally, and seeking peace internally.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

On Torture

As a Hindu, I was raised in the tradition of Advaita philosophy, where individuals are all part of the cosmic continuum Brahman. There is no duality: we are all God’s family (Vasudaiva kutumbakam). Thus, torture is an issue is of profound moral and religious concern since violence – himsa – that I inflict on another being is as much violence on myself.

The Sanskrit word ahimsa, where the negating prefix “a” is placed before the root word himsa, is the act of abstaining from causing harm or injury. Ahimsa is a central tenet of several religious traditions of India – my Hindu beliefs as well as Buddhism and Jainism– and was at the core of Gandhi’s concept of Satyagraha, meaning “holding to the Truth.”

In my search for Truth, I can look to so many Hindu scriptures… In the Manusmruti, which can be considered the Hindu religious rule book, ahimsa is considered the foremost amongst the five restraints (yama) necessary in personal behavior. I can run through many quotations from the ancient Hindu epic, the Mahabaharata, such as: One should never do that to another which one regards as injurious to one’s own self. This, in brief, is the rule of dharma. Yielding to desire and acting differently, one becomes guilty of adharma. Mahabharata 18.113.8. or Ahimsa is the highest dharma. Ahimsa is the best tapas. Ahimsa is the greatest gift. Ahimsa is the highest self-control. Ahimsa is the highest sacrifice. Ahimsa is the highest power. Ahimsa is the highest friend. Ahimsa is the highest truth. Ahimsa is the highest teaching. Mahabharata 18.116.37-41.

In yet another text I read that “harming others, even enemies who harmed you unprovoked, assures incessant sorrow. The supreme principle is this: never knowingly harm anyone at any time in any way,” and that virtuous conduct “is never destroying life, for killing leads to every other sin.” And I can tell you of many shlokas (verses) in the scripture I refer most often, the Bhagavad Gita, which speak to the importance of ahimsa in attaining the Divine or moksha – freedom from the cycle of rebirth - chapter 10, verse 5; chapter 13, verse 7; chapter 16, verse 2.

But as a mom of a sixth grader and a ninth grader (all three of us are bookworms, by the way), I can also find my philosophy against harming another human being - for whatever reason - in Harry Potter. Torture is something acutely different from self-defense: Harry’s signature use of the spell “Expelliarmus” to disarm his opponent, as opposed to the unforgiveable killing curse “Avada Kedavara” that is used by the villain and his supporters, the Death Eaters.

Consider the horcrux, which Tom Riddle, aka Voldemort, creates by splitting his soul into pieces by committing unspeakable violence. The horcrux is analogous to the evil that is torture. How devastating to one’s soul not to be able to find compassion and forgiveness, and how blessed is the hero Harry to be marked by love. If only more of humanity could find love and forgiveness in their souls instead of committing torture and splitting our world into pieces… As Paramahansa Yogananda wrote: "Let nations ally themselves no longer with death, but with life; not with destruction, but with construction; not with hate, but with creative miracles and love."

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