Are We Pacifists?

Tim Boyd – USA, India

Tim Boyd mercoled

The author

During the question-and-answer period at a recent meeting in Europe, I was asked, “Are we pacifists?” The question was prompted by two things. Although it was not my subject, during the course of talking to the group I had made some general mention of war. Another motivation for the question, which I discovered later, was that the outbreak of armed conflict in Ukraine had caused a division of opinions among the local Theosophical Society (TS) group, and the imprimatur of the International President was being sought. At the meeting I shared my initial thoughts, but the question stuck in my mind.

Peace and its possibility are central to any genuine process of self-transformation. Throughout time people have embraced spiritual paths of all types pointing toward the realization of peace in one’s life and in the world. “My peace I give unto you” is the promise of the Christ. “Peace comes from within, not from without” and “Cultivate this very path of peace” are Buddha’s words. “Shânti, shânti, shânti” is the threefold invocation of Peace that closes a Hindu session of prayer, recitation, or meditation. I

n responding to the questioner, I began with a question of my own: Who do you mean by “we”? Is the intended “we”, members of the TS? Or, the people of this nation, or humanity in general? The simple fact that there are soldiers fighting and others supporting one side or another would seem to exclude them from the pacifist camp. Even supposing that there is a “right side” in this most massively destructive of all human activities, only in the blinding realm of sophistry, can “peace” be argued as an outcome of war. The intended “we” seemed to be theosophists, or, more generally, spiritually inclined people.

Like so many words we freely use, it is easy to assume that there is a single, universally accepted meaning. Is pacifism intended in its most common meaning of “anti-war-ism”, or something deeper? Is the scope of our view confined to violent disputes among nations, or does it include violence in interpersonal relationships? Is the true pacifist a practitioner of the doctrine of ahimsa (harmlessness) and the profound teaching of the Christ that we should “Resist not evil”? Or, is pacifism a graded scale of situationally correct behaviors? While such distinctions may seem like mere shadings of meaning, the difference in life orientation associated with each expression is enormous.

A pragmatic view sees that the destruction and organized violence of warfare defiles the sanctity of human life and should be universally avoided. But given the fact that the human family still clings to war as a viable approach to conflict-solving, how is the aggression of one party to be met by the one being attacked? Is fighting “fire with fire” in the name of self-defense an option?

Some of the most profoundly transformational social movements in modern history have been rooted in a pacifism of non-violence. A core principle was that one’s body can be abused, but a violent response from the one who is attacked is an even greater injury — a selfinflicted wound to the soul. Because such a response is, at its core, unloving, it renders one incapable of uplifting the abusers, who are equal participants in the equation of transformation. Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi both advocated civil disobedience rooted in non-violent resistance to entrenched social ills. In both cases great societal goals were accomplished. However, as magnificent as was the light of these non-violent campaigns in India and America, so was the violence spawned in their shadows. Millions died in the post-Independence partition of India and Pakistan. And even devout followers in these two movements went on to advocate for the effectiveness of selectively applied violence.

There is the familiar quote attributed to Albert Einstein that “no problem can be solved at the same level of consciousness that created it”. It points to a human condition that must be acknowledged. Our functioning in all realms — political, personal, environmental, and so on — is determined by the range of our perception. We cannot embrace what we cannot see. We do not possess imagination enough to sense what we are missing.

During Gandhi’s lifetime, Sri Aurobindo made the pointed observation: “Gandhi’s theories, like other mental theories, are built on the basis of one sided reasoning and claiming for a limited truth (that of non-violence and passive resistance) a universality which it cannot have. Such theories will always exist as long as the mind is the main instrument of human truth-seeking.” Other great nation builders, like Annie Besant and Nelson Mandela, while praising Gandhi for his selflessness, character, and effectiveness in accomplishing his goals, held opinions similar to Aurobindo.

Genuine peace, the “peace which passes understanding”, is inaccessible in the realm of the mind. Lacking a clear vision we create approximations of peace according to the scope of our perception. At the lowest level the equation is: stop killing = peace. At this level suppression of physical violence through “victory” in war defines peace. Higher levels invoke an expanding vision of Love in which self and others are inseparable.

Our mental construct of peace is rooted in harmlessness (ahimsa). The scope of this construct expands according to our understanding — at the minimum, we should not fight and kill one another; a more comprehensive version would have us avoid injury to others, both physically and emotionally; a further extension relates to our interaction with all kingdoms of Nature — avoidance of harm to “sentient beings” is the language of Buddhism. This is the moral basis of vegetarianism and its extension to veganism — a dietary approach that excludes anything involving the exploitation of the animal kingdom (milk, leather, honey, and so forth). There are even more nuanced approaches to a harmless diet — fruitarian (one who only consumes fruits); then there are fruitarians who don’t even harm the tree by picking the fruit, but only eat it when it has fallen to the ground; and the ultimate, “breatharians” who live solely on the prana they draw from the atmosphere. When the mandate to “Do no harm” takes root in the mind, behavior must conform.

During his lifetime Joseph Campbell, the great writer and lecturer on myth and human experience, often spoke at the Theosophical Society’s Krotona Institute in California. In addition to his erudition he had a wonderful sense of humor. On one occasion while speaking to a group he commented that “You theosophists feel so good about being vegetarian, but how do you think a carrot feels when it sees you coming?” The real question is, where does one draw the line between “sentient” beings and those without feeling? Numerous experiments have been conducted indicating the responsiveness of plants to violence, even to the projected thought of violence.

Two central facts of embodied existence are that 1) all creatures want to live; and 2) all creatures feed on each other. To be human is to dwell in the realm of duality and with the paradoxes that necessarily arise from that condition. One of those paradoxes is that although ahimsa, no harm, is recognized as the spiritual ideal of human living, sometimes failure to engage in violence is harmful. In a world of relativism/duality, while no harm is the ideal, to do the least amount of harm is most often the practice. Surgery causes pain and damages the body, but can save the life. A difficult truth spoken skillfully and with love can bruise the ego, possibly damage a relationship, but ultimately lead to healing.

Regardless of the fact that, from a spiritual, or unitive perspective, war is regarded as reprehensible, anti-loving, and life-negating, it is also recognized as a continuing feature of our current state of consciousness. As Plato said, at our present stage of unfoldment, “only the dead do not know war”.

The great teachers acknowledged the fact, even the need of war and counseled rulers, warriors, and common folk alike on the application of compassion and ahimsa during the cycles of peace and of war. They recognized that people are at different levels of soul and personality development, have different social roles and responsibilities, and different needs according to their individual karma. So, while there are principles such as ahimsa that are universally true for all people, there can be no formula of behavior that applies to everyone. Each of us has to choose, hopefully according to our highest intuitions. For good or ill we reap the consequences of our choices, and, ideally, we learn.

One of humanity’s greatest literary expressions of spirituality, the Bhagavadgitâ, begins with Krishna’s admonishment to the warrior, Arjuna, to shake off his hesitancy and enter into battle, to fully engage in the war that he knows will kill friends, teachers, and relatives. He also described to Arjuna the nature of the devotee who, even in the fiercest battle, acts with full commitment, without anger, or personal preference, never losing connection with their spiritual center. It is a lofty teaching for everyone, but one which only a few are prepared to follow.

Buddha, who was born into the Kshatriya, or warrior, caste, was emphatic about violence and war. In the Dhammapada he is quoted saying: “All tremble at violence; life is dear to all. Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not kill nor cause another to kill.” Even so, he occasionally used martial imagery to describe the spiritual path, in one teaching equating the Victorious Monk to the Victorious Warrior. In that teaching he identifies five temperaments, or types of warriors, from the one who “falters and fails” on first seeing the cloud of dust raised by the approaching army in the distance to the one who does not falter and is “victorious in battle”. Though unequivocal in his view of violence, in dealing with actual incidents of war, he faced challenges. In the final year of his life Buddha’s birth clan, the Sâkyas, were attacked by King Virudhaka, a neighboring king with a deep enmity toward the Sâkyas. Three times Buddha met the king and his army advancing on the road. Out of respect for the Buddha, King Virudhaka turned his forces around, averting an attack on the Sâkya clan. On the fourth occasion Buddha did not attempt to stop the king, permitting the genocide and its karmic consequences to unfold. In the Mahatma Letters the statement is made: “We advise — and never order. But we do influence individuals.”

Within the TS, whose mission is to serve humanity, its founders and many of its luminaries had strong views and experiences with war. HPB was wounded in Garibaldi’s war with the papacy in Italy. Whether she was an active combatant in Garibaldi’s volunteer army, or only a bystander at the battle of Mentana is not clear. What is clear is that she wholeheartedly supported the war and the ideals it promoted. Although he did not participate directly in the fighting, the other principal founder of the TS, Henry S. Olcott, served as a Colonel in the Union Army during the United States’ Civil War, and fully supported the goals of national unity and ending the institution of slavery; Annie Besant and C. W. Leadbeater believed that World War I was a “righteous war” that was spiritually justifiable; Geoffrey Hodson served as a commander of a tank unit in that war; George Arundale, the third President of the TS, was fully committed to the Allied fight against Germany, Japan, and Italy in World War II, believing that totalitarian government was a brutal opponent to human freedom and happiness.

One of the beauties of the Ageless Wisdom is that it gives principles, not prescriptions. There is no one royal road that applies to the entire human family. Principles are universal and can be applied according to one’s karma, understanding, and will. In the Bible the statement is made: “When I was a child I spoke as a child, understood as a child, thought as a child, but when I became grown I put away childish things.” Humanity, though not in its infancy, is still developing. The fact that wars exist; that even in the face of certain knowledge of dire consequences we continue to abuse the planet, its atmosphere, waters, and life forms; that massive poverty and suffering of the many coexists with an ever-increasing concentration of wealth for the few is a testament to our collective immaturity.

We are not pacifists. We are human beings struggling to find peace, all the while unknowingly blocking our own experience of it. We are warriors, like Arjuna, engaged in a battle that becomes progressively more internal, against the massed forces of our long cultivated selfishness, ignorance, and misguided activity. Whether that battle takes place on the physical battlefield, or as the intense effort of the pacifist to refrain self and others from war, or within the recesses of our own being is the choice each of us makes.

A day will come when the useless, wasteful folly of war will end. Until that day arrives, our role is to root ourselves in the deepest peace we can access, always knowing that something more profound lies beyond, and to extend what we discover to others through our words, our actions, our living.


This article was also published in The Theosophist VOL. 144 NO. 12 SEPTEMBER 2023

The Theosophist is the official organ of the International President, founded by H. P. Blavatsky on 1 Oct. 1879.

To read the SEPTEMBER 2023 issue click HERE 

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