THEOSOPHY, Vol. 87, Issue 5, July/August 1999
(Pages 209-214; Size: 11K)


[Article number (4) in this Department]

Is there ever a right use of violence?

Traditionally, Cain is said to have killed Abel, and we have pondered what we would do in Abel's place, if given the opportunity to defend ourselves. In at least one version of this story (from the Qur'an), Abel does indeed refuse to defend himself. For most of us, if that's not enough of a dilemma, we can think of worse than our own personal death. Love or compassion for others often is the rationale for violent actions, especially in defense of someone. Considering duty, human rights, principles, etc. -- is there just cause? Are there obvious situations requiring forceful actions? Good Samaritans make heroes of themselves in one instance and vigilantes in another. Religions have pleaded for us to turn our swords into plowshares (Isaiah 4:2) and have thus fueled much of the bloodshed throughout history. Sanctioned violence vs. vengeance. Retaliation vs. turn the other cheek. Eye-for-an-eye retribution or karmic justice? Seeming contradictions in our ethical systems can become clearer through theosophical study, but gut-reaction decision making gives meaning to HPB's assertion that we will not find Truth in her works, only the potential path toward it. Several students offer their own views of this difficult question, leading us along different facets of inquiry.


Violence, generally defined as physical force used to damage or injure, should be avoided as a matter of principle. We find this sentiment echoed throughout all the spiritual writings of the world. Why? Because the underlying unity of all life is the fundamental fact of the wisdom tradition. Some of the active, conscious human expressions of this fact are tolerance towards others, love, harmony, compassion and understanding.

Yet life on the physical plane is not so tidy as we would wish. Principles of action do not always come pre-packaged ready to pull off the shelf -- if a child or friend is under physical attack, for instance. We can sacrifice the child in the name of nonviolence, not lifting a finger against the perpetrator, or we can use force (violence) to stop the attacker. Such examples as this show that motive is often a more compelling basis for action than an abstract principle out of relation to a living situation. On the other hand, we all know Samuel Johnson's adage, "The road to hell is paved with good intentions." Good motive linked with knowledge is wisdom. And it seems it takes a wise person to know what the most appropriate form of action is in any given situation, especially in this dualistic plane of relative truth.

Although a violent act may seem justified in extreme circumstances, such principles as love, tolerance, harmony and understanding, if practiced more by humans, would eventually reduce the use of violence as a viable choice to resolve conflicts and solve problems. Likewise, the law of karma shows that, even though violence may be necessary to prevent a person from doing harm to others, a violent tendency will also be perpetuated by the nature of the act. So dualistic karmic effects will flow even though the motive was good. In other words, there is the karma of the motive and the karma of the act.


In principle, we generally think of violence in terms of the physical sense, using force to injure or damage. Yet, two key statements come to mind: "Ideas rule the world," according to Plato. "We are dealing with ideas and forces not personalities," said Robert Crosbie. When we present the view of violence as a natural or physical energy or a force which may be directed and controlled, we move to a neutral view. This view is one of objectivity; that is to say, if it is perceived as a force or energy, then the opposite (that of inaction) must be present potentially.

Gandhi must have perceived this latter view when he chose to use nonviolence or natural energy in a way that would neutralize the enslavement of masses of people. The thought of the entire world was affected by his action. Even though many still think of annihilation as the only expedient to a problem, there are many who have been influenced by his historical stand to think more deeply about the ramifications of physical violence.

In the world of today, the martial arts have become a most popular option for skill training. Some think of it as self-defense, others as an offense tactic. Curiously, this art originated in the Buddhist temples where monks were trained in this art to protect themselves from predators while traveling. They were admonished never to use their skill offensively and never to provoke an attack. In other words, negotiate do not initiate.

If we look at the setting for the Bhagavad-Gita, it is a battlefield with opposing forces or armies. Between the two forces, a chariot is placed, carrying Arjuna and his spiritual preceptor Krishna. The arrows are already flying and Arjuna begins a dialogue with Krishna (his Higher Self or moral nature), which encompasses all of his states of consciousness and the planes on which they manifest. Arjuna, or the personality, is challenged to make choices involving the well-being of both armies, which represent his higher and lower nature. At the end of the dialogue, he realizes his relationship with all of these forces, and his duty is to metamorphose the energy of both forces into a harmonious whole.


Consider a most intriguing line in the Bhagavad-Gita (p. 14). "A soldier of the Kshatriya tribe hath no duty superior to lawful war." These words are spoken by Krishna, a master of wisdom, an incarnation of compassion, and therefore can be taken as an expression of the perennial truth. They seem to justify physical force, or violence, in certain "lawful" situations, such as the one posed about protecting a child from harm. But do they? Two conflicting schools of thought have emerged.

One school of thought says there is no such thing as lawful violence on the physical plane. Harmlessness, peace, kindness, or what the Bhagavad-Gita calls ahimsa is the true law of life, and any deviation whatsoever from it is wrong. From this point of view, Krishna's words are to be taken symbolically. It is not a physical war that is meant, but a spiritual one, the great battle of self-conquest, of the Higher Self's rightful dominance over the lower. Mohandas Gandhi was a brilliant and courageous exponent of this interpretation, and so was Martin Luther King. The spiritual seeker following this interpretation of the great scripture would recognize that it is his duty to help the child. He could use persuasion. He could thrust his body between the aggressor and child. But he could not use raw violence to thwart the aggressor. For, according to this theory, a bad means can never come to a good end. A bad means always results in a bad end. The result may not be immediately apparent, but eventually it will manifest itself -- if not in this life, then in a future one. Violence does not cease with violence. Violence ceases only with nonviolence.

The second school of thought takes Krishna's words literally. Violence can justly be used under certain lawful situations. But it takes this word "lawful" very seriously. It recognizes first of all that, yes, ahimsa is the law of life and that all peaceful approaches to resolving a conflict must first be entirely exhausted before violence can be considered. Second, a true spiritual warrior can only use violence if it is not for his own gain and, if while engaging in it, he maintains tranquility of heart and mind.

There is a story of a great Sufi master who during a hand-to-hand battle overpowered his enemy and was about to kill him. Just then, the enemy spat in his face. The master immediately walked away. The enemy, greatly surprised, said, "You were about to kill me; why did you not do so?" The master replied, "By spitting in my face you roused my anger. If I had killed you while under the influence of anger, I would have acted against my principles. Therefore, as soon as I caught myself in this fault, I became unable to carry through my first intention."

Is there a right use of violence then? Let's return to an earlier example: A spiritual seeker witnesses a small child being attacked by a large man. What should be done?

Spiritual seekers following the literal interpretation of Krishna's words would first do all in their power to protect the child by peaceful means. Failing this, they would resort to violence but only as long as they could adhere to the lawful examples cited. According to this theory, the karma engendered by performing physical violence in the lawful way to protect the child is better than the karma engendered by allowing the child to be harmed by the aggressor. As the Voice of the Silence says, "Inaction in a deed of mercy becomes an action in a deadly sin." Violence is never good, but in any given situation it may be the best choice available.

Both interpretations of Krishna's words are wise. Both are spiritual. Which should the seeker follow? We must decide for ourselves.

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(September/October 1999)
[Article number (5) in this Department]

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