Culture of Violence

McDonaldsGun_USEAfter the shock wears off what remains is a desire for understanding; we long for something that will explain the inexplicable. Convenient rationalizations like “it was God’s will” or “it was just their karma” top the list of platitudes that no one wants to hear. And with good reason: such banal consolations trivialize unfathomable depths of grief and anger by decorating God with causeless cruelty or blaming victims who are entitled to a presumption of innocence.

This most recent and particularly horrific tragedy has, predictably, been blamed on the ease by which ordinary citizens can acquire military-grade armaments, a collective indifference to the scourge of mental illness, and the glorification of violence in everything from video games to news coverage that relentlessly sensationalizes the very events from which we wish to be spared.

It all adds up to a culture of violence. And the severity of our malaise is amplified by a societal incoherence insofar as its intensity and causes are concerned. The depth of our derangement is hiding in plain sight, jumping out at us every time we drive down Main Street, USA, dancing in our faces every time we turn on a TV. But we don’t notice it because we’ve become so acclimated to it, because insanity has become the new normal: Wendy’s, Red Lobster, Chick-fil-A, Tony Roma’s, Chuck-E-Cheese, Olive Garden, KFC, Benihana, Burger King, an endless parade that celebrates the violent deaths of millions of innocent living beings.

This is where our culture of violence actually begins: at the dinner table. When we insist on keeping fragments of cooked corpses on the menu for the pleasure of our senses or some health-related excuse that usually has the word “need” in it somewhere, we throw fuel on the fire of the very state of affairs that we despair over when some un-hinged loser blasts his way into an elementary school with an assault rifle.

One may object by saying that one living being is food for another; that’s nature’s way. For lower species of life, this is true; for human beings, it’s rubbish. Whether you judge by the structure of our digestive systems or the constitutional equality of sentient beings, there is nothing inherently natural about human beings killing animals for food. It’s a symptom of madness, of a misidentification of the self so profound that it qualifies as something beyond mental illness and reaches into the realm of what we might properly call Numipathology; a disease of the spirit.

Unfortunately, this inability to relate to other life forms on a spiritual level is the condition that most people call “normal”: the adaptation of consciousness to a state where we feel well adjusted in a radically disordered world, a world that would drive any sane person crazy. This is why Patanjali begins with the establishment of yoga as a moral philosophy; to give us a behavioral framework by which we can restore our sanity, rise to the level of ‘human being’, and from there proceed to progressive stages of spiritual awareness.

Great thinkers throughout the ages, from Pythagoras to Einstein, have understood the relationship between normalized violence against other species and man’s inhumanity to man. Unfortunately our leaders do not heed the advice of such great thinkers. President Obama wears his role as Consoler in Chief  well: I thought his address to the Newtown community Sunday night was sensitive and heartfelt, the right tone for the time and circumstance. Personally, I trust that he’s genuinely chagrined by the sprays of mayhem that have peppered his tenure with repeated tragedy. And I really think he’s doing the best he can. Perhaps he’ll authorize an innovative mental health initiative or press for a comprehensive ban on Assault Rifles. But, however much truth there may be in his invocations of the unseen that is eternal, if he doesn’t stop eating Five Guys burgers then he’s still watering the tree that produces the poison fruit.*

Those of us who think of ourselves as serious teachers, practitioners, and advocates of yoga – at least yoga descending from the Vedic tradition that includes the Yoga Sutras – should accept what for some of us may be an uncomfortable truth: that yoga is a moral philosophy that begins with non-violence. It’s a blanket directive that covers all sentient beings, it’s mandatory, and it’s something that, at the very least, should be understood as a baseline standard that we should all aspire to. I readily admit my own failings in this regard: bits of butter and other such dairy products from less than cruelty-free sources make their way to my palette from time to time. But events such as the ones that have transpired at the Sandy Hook Elementary School last week are strong motivators to absolve myself completely of complicity in our culture of violence. As President Obama said last night, we don’t go wrong when we are showing acts of kindness.

*In the “credit where credit is due department”, the menu at the White House Mess, to which we are all invited, now includes numerous vegetarian selections. This is an encouraging indication, courtesy of the Obama administration.


  1. Kris
    Posted December 17, 2012 at 8:18 AM | Permalink | Reply

    Beautiful, Hari! Simply beautiful. Thank you for sharing this insight. In Ahimsa…

  2. Posted December 20, 2012 at 8:20 AM | Permalink | Reply

    Many grains and legumes are grown in a mono-cropping format which destroys ecosystems, destroys topsoil, wastes and energy AND kills many animals. It’s not true that “vegetarian food” is necessarily “peaceful food.” The death toll on a vegetarian meal maybe be far greater than eating a grass-fed heirloom cow from a local organic farm. Please read Lierre Keith’s magnificent book which addresses the issues you speak about here: “The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice and Sustainability.” Human beings have been eating meat for millennia — of course it’s true that factory farming and animal cruelty is evil– but so is mono-cropping grains. Our ancestors who hunted had more respect for animals than probably we could ever understand– they understood animals so deeply, and needed to, for hunting and for survival. We are made of brains and blood and we need amino acids– and no, you can’t get them from plants. We were designed for meat– check out the book and then you can write another blog post about it!

    • Posted December 20, 2012 at 12:09 PM | Permalink | Reply

      Thank you very much for your comments, Ruthie. I was actually hoping someone would bring up the important issues that you’re raising here and that appear to be the gist of Ms Keith’s book, which I will give all due attention as per your suggestion. My anticipation is that I will find a very important truth to be upheld and an equally important premise to be refuted. In any event, any reply that can do justice to these issues and place them in the context of yoga will require a follow-up blog post so please stay tuned. – Hkd

  3. Karin
    Posted December 21, 2012 at 2:43 PM | Permalink | Reply

    The killer in Connecticut was a vegan.

    • Posted December 21, 2012 at 4:01 PM | Permalink | Reply

      So I hear. My argument is not that being a vegan will make an individual less prone to violence or madness or whatever possessed the killer to do what he did. My argument is that we have a society that glorifies violence and the normalization our consumption of glorified violence begins with our food culture and proceeds from there to eventually, but inevitably, manifest in acts of violence within human society. My thoughts on the relevance of the killer’s personal dietary choices are expressed nicely here:

  4. Esteban
    Posted December 25, 2012 at 8:38 AM | Permalink | Reply

    Not all violence is created equal. We do accept the violent storm and it’s destruction without putting blame on the culture which is why for thousands of years, man has accepted the violent killing of animals for sustenance. To draw a correlation between that violence and the western culture of glorified murder including the glorification of the warrior, is a totally different concept. This obsession with war/power/money associated with violence in our culture is just a symptom and like you said, it does manifest in various ways throughout our world from madness to murder. But, it has nothing to do with food anymore than you can use a Twinkie sugar rush as a defense against committing murder. If you teach people that being a carnivore is wrong, you once again, alienate and do what most power structures try and achieve which is to divide and conquer. There are healthy carnivores who respect all animal life but believe that animal food products will make you healthier.

    • Posted December 25, 2012 at 2:07 PM | Permalink | Reply

      I agree, Esteban: all violence is not created equal. There are times when violence is not only necessary but glorious and even liberating in the spiritual sense of the word. Obviously, defensive violence for a righteous cause without attachment to the result and for a purpose greater than one’s self is not what I’m talking about here.

      For thousands of years man has accepted the violent killing of animals for sustenance and for thousands of years man has been forced to accept the violence of war as a fact of life. Since wars are as much about control of natural resources as they are about conflicting ideologies and the natural resources required to maintain a carnivorous diet are vastly greater than those required for a vegetarian diet, it’s pretty easy to understand, on a practical level, how the elimination of the former can lead to the elimination of the latter. On a more subtle level the consciousness of killing for selfish reasons, be it for bodily health, for earthly wealth, or for ego-centric political domination, is still based on a disease of the spirit that will not be cured by the propagation of violence. In any case I think the correlation between these two facts of life is pretty obvious.

      If I tell people who insist on eating meat, despite all the evidence of the damage that such a diet does to the planet, one’s body, and one’s consciousness, that eating meat is wrong then I will surely alienate people who insist on eating meat. I’m okay with that: contrary to popular belief, yoga is not about being all-inclusive in some artificially non-judgmental way. On the path of yoga we do not achieve peace through appeasement; we make distinctions between right and wrong, which is what the Yamas in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are about. As yoga teachers, we strive for peace by teaching people how to live in a way that promotes peace and, conversely, by defeating those who are belligerently determined to behave in a way that is detrimental to society, other living beings, and, ultimately, themselves. There is no reason to passively accept wrongdoing; sometimes spiritual love is tough love.

      Power structures are not bad by definition: bad power structures are bad and good power structures are good. Yoga comes with both spiritual and material hierarchies and, from the standpoint of social activism, includes working towards the establishment of a power structure meant to benefit all living beings. The gist of my post is that industrialized slaughter and abuse of animals for food is the root of a violent culture. Therefore yoga teachers should do everything they can to disengage themselves from such a destructive system and actively support the establishment of an alternative culture. There are most certainly carnivores who are somehow able to reconcile a respect for animals with the killing of animals for food. Native Americans are a good example. I think that if everyone were required to kill their own animals rather than have factory workers do it for them I think that would produce a very big change in the collective consciousness of global culture in general and American culture in particular.

      Believing that animal food products make you healthier does not make it true any more than believing the world is square makes the world square. There are some Muslims who believe ‘Honor Killings’ are a legitimate form of justice. Does that mean that a society that otherwise forbids murder should make an allowance for such a thing in order to respect such a persons beliefs? I don’t think so.

      Thanks very much for taking the time to offer your comment. – Hkd

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