Yoga Precepts in the Indian Independence Movement
The nonviolent campaign to free India from British rule, led by Mahatma Gandhi, relied on yogic ahimsa (nonviolence) and satya (truthfulness) to transform the political process. Subsequently, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. adopted these precepts in the American Civil Rights Movement.
Gandhi’s goal was to convert his so-called enemies into friends — without coercion, by appealing to their inherent moral goodness. Dr. King put it succinctly in a 1957 speech:
“this method… does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding.”
Gandhi recognized that the fear driving one to mistrust and harm another could be transformed into compassion. For millions upon millions of Indians, he embodied that compassion. Like the Lord Shiva consuming the deadly poison to save the world, he consumed the violence and isolated it within himself to protect his country.
Gandhi viewed his suffering — such as fasting and imprisonment — as a way of relieving the suffering of others, including his opponent:
“One’s opponent… must be weaned from error by patience and sympathy…. Patience means self-suffering. So the doctrine [of truthfulness] came to mean vindication of truth, not by infliction of suffering on the opponent, but on one’s self.”
By appealing to the moral force that lies deep within each of us, Gandhi both persuaded the British oppressors to give up their crown jewel of India, and disarmed the hate-filled sectarian mobs fighting over the spoils.
Ahimsa (Nonviolence) as a Moral Force
Mahatma Gandhi based his political movement on the yogic precept of ahimsa, which he interpreted as “nonviolence.” In fact, our widespread contemporary acceptance of “nonviolence” as an appropriate translation for ahimsa is based on his interpretation. The definition actually differs slightly:
“ahimsa literally means non-injury, or more narrowly, non-killing, and, more widely, harmlessness, the renunciation of the will to kill, and of the intention to hurt any living thing, the abstention from hostile thought, word, and act.”
Gandhi used a very broad interpretation of ahimsa:
“Gandhi sometimes inflated the term ahimsa to include all the moral virtues; he equated it with humility, forgiveness, love, charity, selflessness, fearlessness, strength, non-attachment, meekness, and innocence.”
This expanded meaning is actually consistent with the way it is accepted in yoga.
Ahimsa in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
Patanjali (ca. 200 BCE) has given pride-of-place to ahimsa as the first of five ethical precepts of yoga practice.
PYS II.30 ahimsa satya asteya brahmacarya aparigrahah yamah
Nonviolence, truth, non-stealing, continence, and non-possessiveness are the yamas (self-restraints).
Sage Vyasa (ca. 450 CE) has explained that all of the other yamas and niyamas in the Yoga Sutras are rooted in ahimsa, and that they are expounded upon only for the purpose of promoting ahimsa:
VB II.30 Of these, ahimsa is the non-intention to injure any being, at any time, and in any manner. The following yamas and niyamas are rooted in that non-violence; they are expounded only for the purpose of promoting this, as they are intended to bring about its perfection. They are undertaken only to spotlessly refine and brighten its form….
Patanjali has not equivocated about the consequences of committing violence:
PYS II.34 Thought contrary to the yamas and niyamas… is caused by greed, anger or delusion. It results in endless duhkha (pain) and ajnana (ignorance). Introspection is required to end duhkha and ajnana.
Because violence results in endless pain and ignorance, the great vow of ahimsa is not limited by jati (caste), desha (place), or kala (time). Therefore, commented Vyasa, fishermen could not fish, Vedic priests could not sacrifice animals at the temple, and warriors could not fight in battle. Thus this yogic vow of ahimsa has always been considerably more restrictive than the cultural norm.
Patanjali then asserted that nonviolence leads others to abandon hostility:
PYS II.35 When ahimsa in speech, thought, and action is firmly established, one’s aggressive nature is relinquished and others abandon hostility in one’s presence.
Significantly, Gandhi was praised for his reliance on ahimsa, proving that killing was unnecessary to achieve independence.
Satyagraha Prevents Retaliation
Through the nonviolent action of ahimsa, Gandhi sought to prevent retaliation, which would only perpetuate violence.
“‘I seek… to… disappoint his expectation that I would be offering physical resistance.’ Nonviolence is a conscious, deliberate restraint put upon one’s desire for vengeance.”
Satyagraha (“adherence to the truth”) is based on Patanjali’s second yama, satya, or truthfulness. Satyagraha breaks down into two components: satya and agraha:
“[Gandhi] used agraha in the Gujarati sense of ‘insisting on something without becoming obstinate or uncompromising,” appending it to satya (truthfulness) to denote “both insistence on, and for, truth.”
By 1909 Gandhi was using satyagraha to mean “pursuit of truth through civil disobedience,” to avoid the violent anarchism prevalent in London radical thought.
Ahimsa is linked to satyagraha because
“It excludes the use of violence because man is not capable of knowing the absolute truth, and, therefore, not competent to punish.”
Additionally, according to Gandhi,
“Satyagraha… is not based on a zero-sum calculation of how much loss can be inflicted on an opponent. There is instead a scrupulous concern for the adversary and its chief purpose is to elevate the conflict to a point where resolution will elicit the best from all parties and not reduce anyone to disgrace or humiliation.”
This search for truth is based on an implicit assumption in yoga that jnana, knowledge, leads to right action. Thus, human error is considered to be only an absence of knowledge.
Ahimsa in Swaraj (“self-rule”)
Gandhi’s concept of sva-raj (“self-rule”), a combination of political independence and spiritual liberation, had three distinct components:
- Independence from British rule with civil liberties founded on ahimsa. The emphasis on ahimsa reflects the influence of the Jain religion, and yoga, in his native state of Gujarat.
- Spiritual liberation through pursuit of self-knowledge as the basis for “unity in diversity” to afford political and social harmony in a multicultural society (of 22 major languages and 8 major religions plus tribal folk beliefs). The vehicle of self-knowledge — and unity as an expression of non-duality — demonstrates the influence of Vivekananda’s Advaita Vedanta.
- Political independence must be in exact proportion to spiritual liberation to prevent fear of the British. Ahimsa depends on satyagraha (“grasping the truth”) and sarvodaya (“compassionate welfare of all”).
To act in accord with ahimsa requires restraint. Compassion, fearlessness, and non-attachment all serve ahimsa and protect those who are nonviolent.
© 2017 Bruce M. Roger, Certified Iyengar method instructor
 Gandhi’s goal was to convert his so-called enemy without coercion: “Ahimsa is intended and expected to convert rather than coerce the wrongdoer…. Ahimsa… [includes] the acceptance of personal discomfort and tribulations… [and] helping the wrongdoer by nonviolent resistance to his wrong doing.” [Raghavan Narasimhan Iyer, The Moral and Political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi, Oxford University Press, 1973. P. 183]
 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Remarks in Acceptance of the NAACP Spingarn Medal, 28 June 1957.
 In Vishnu Purana 2.1.4, the battling gods and demons formed an alliance to churn the Sea of Milk in order to attain amrta, the nectar of immortality (cognate: ambrosia). Vasuki, the king of serpents from Lord Shiva’s neck was looped around the churning rod of Mount Mandara, the demons pulling the head, and the gods the tail. But, before amrta could be produced, the deadly poison of halahala escaped to threaten all creation. To save the universe, Lord Shiva himself consumed the poison, which turned his throat blue. Thereafter he was described as Neela-kantha (“blue-throat”). When amrta, the last of fourteen treasures, was finally brought up, the gods and demons fought to possess it. At the request of the gods, Lord Vishnu assumed the form of beautiful Mohini (“enchantress”) and tricked the demons into giving her the amrta for the gods.
 Dennis Dalton, Mahatma Gandhi: nonviolent power in action, NY: Columbia Univ, 1993. p. 38
 By appealing to the moral force that lies deep within each of us, Gandhi both persuaded the British oppressors to give up their crown jewel of India, and disarmed the hate-filled sectarian mobs fighting over the spoils: The British, under attack by the Germans at home, were vulnerable. In the final push for independence, starting in 1942, Gandhi and the Indian National Congress launched the non-violent civil-disobedient “Quit India” movement in which 10,000 died. It was the most widespread rebellion since the 1857 Mutiny, starting with mass urban strikes, then rural, and finally, underground terrorist actions. When Gandhi and Nehru were jailed, most Muslims turned their support to Jinnah’s Muslim League, which now wanted Britain to remain in India to prevent their interests from being overwhelmed by Hindus. But, by the middle of World War II, Britain had little money, and even less will, to remain in India. So, in June, 1947 the British Viceroy Lord Mountbatten exacted a promise from Nehru and Jinnah to accept the Partition boundaries between Pakistan and India — splitting off the Punjab and Bengal, drawn up by an impartial British official, sight unseen. When it was revealed the day after Independence, communal rioting and civil war broke out in the Punjab, and later in Delhi. Gandhi’s fasts in 1947-48 stopped the Delhi and Calcutta sectarian killing. He was assassinated shortly thereafter, in 1948, by an RSS Hindu fundamentalist.
 Raghavan N. Iyer, The Moral and Political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi, Oxford University Press, 1973. P. 178
 Raghavan Narasimhan Iyer, The Moral and Political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi, Oxford University Press, 1973. P. 181: quoting Harijan, May, 1939 & June, 1946
 Svatmarama’s 15th c. CE Hatha Yoga Pradipika v. I.16 includes all of Patanjali’s 5 yamas (restraints) plus 5 more: kshama (forgiveness), dhrti (endurance), daya (compassion), arjava (straight forwardness), mita-ahara (moderate diet), and sauca (purity). Ahimsa is listed as the first of ten and Brahmananda comments that, “All these aspects of yama refer to thought, word, and deed,” echoing Patanjali’s view of yamas as universal vows [PYS II.31] that cannot be violated by oneself, by another as an agent of oneself, or even condoned [PYS II.34].
Svatmarama’s additional niyamas are dana (charity with devotion), hri (modesty), mati (discerning mind), japa (recitation of mantra), and huta (sacrifice).] Inconsistently, HYP I.38 cites ahimsa as the most important niyama — a sign that yamas may have been subsequently appended to HYP I.16.
 Hariharananda Aranya: “Non-violence means the buddhi is devoid of hurtfulness towards immobile [plant] and mobile [animal] beings.” Swami Veda Bharati, Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Vol. 2. P. 476
 Gandhi’s reliance on ahimsa proved that killing was unnecessary: This differs from the approach in the Bhagavad Gita, where the warrior Arjuna justified killing his cousins to save his kingdom to uphold his dharma and the moral order, irrespective of the personal consequences.
 Raghavan Narasimhan Iyer, The Moral and Political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi, Oxford University Press, 1973. P. 182-3: quoting Young India, Oct. 1925
 Dennis Dalton, Mahatma Gandhi: nonviolent power in action, NY: Columbia Univ, 1993. p. 204
 Dennis Dalton, Mahatma Gandhi: nonviolent power in action, NY: Columbia Univ, 1993. p. 15-18
 Dennis Dalton, Mahatma Gandhi: nonviolent power in action, NY: Columbia Univ, 1993. p. 38
 Dennis Dalton, Mahatma Gandhi: nonviolent power in action, NY: Columbia Univ, 1993. p. 43
 Dennis Dalton, Mahatma Gandhi: nonviolent power in action, NY: Columbia Univ, 1993. p. 5-11