अहिंसा the Yoga of Consumption

The second in the series on Yoga-off-the-mat, Iyengar instructor Rahul Dhari cleans a beach in Goa

by Ricky Toledano

“I have known many meat-eaters to be far more non-violent than vegetarians” were the famous and perplexing words of Mahatma Gandhi, whose greater commitment to non-violence, ahiṃsā (अहिंसा), demonstrated the power in refraining from aggression with thought, word and action. It liberated a people. Contemplating its ancient meaning as one of the values to Yoga, the refusal to hurt not only others, but oneself and the world around, is part of a path that liberates the individual. While it is true that vegetarianism is one of greatest expressions of ahiṃsā, it is only part of the path of no longer seeing oneself as a competitor against All That There Is, and thereby becoming the bearer of gifts.

At the time, Gandhi’s words referred to the hatred some are capable of in the name of righteousness. Ironically, it may be that his words take on a new meaning today, as I discovered some years ago when visiting a paradisiacal tropical island off the coast of Rio de Janeiro. Not only did I have to choose if I would actually use the sunblock that would pollute the waters and kill coral, I had to decide what to do with the plastic bottle afterwards, and I also had to choose between fish and pizza for dinner.

The action in non-action that is ahiṃsā is much easier said than done, especially in a world where there are more choices to be made about what to harm and what not to harm within an Order in which all life depends upon the destruction of other lives. As a way of expressing this wisdom in action, many yogis refuse to eat animals, but in today’s world, the original discernment for ahiṃsā has more complexity.

On that island, the vegan argument struck me: I was not so certain there was less hiṃsā (harm) in choosing cheese over fish in that particular location. Local fishing families earned their livelihood from traditional fishing of the emerald waters; whereas the cheese on the pizza would be the plastic-covered, industrialized kind that systematically tortures cows and kills steer. My calculations for ahiṃsā no longer seemed so obvious. While vegetarianism is certainly a profound contribution that arises naturally out of a commitment to Yoga, choosing between a chicken and a tomato might seem like a simple choice between right and wrong, since one will run to protect its life and the other won’t; however, in today’s world, where we are perversely removed, often thrice removed, from the cultivation, transportation and preparation of our basic sustenance, a closer analysis might reveal the undesirable: many detrimental chemicals are used to grow and to get your tomato to you, to say nothing of the fact that even many of your packaged, vegetarian (even vegan) snack foods, like namkeen, are made with palm oil, which might connect you to the murder of many orangutan mothers who bravely defend their forests, leaving behind charred and/or orphaned babies. Moreover, consumption does not end there: What you might consider just a simple gold bracelet probably started with clear-cutting forests in the Amazon, after murdering indigenous people and before poisoning the water with mercury, slowly and painfully killing fish, as well as the remaining indigenous people who live there. It is probably better not to go into the real cost of your vacation plane ticket; although I believe it is not much worse than the computer screen you are reading right now.

Are you really so sure you’re vegetarian?

If answering that question is already complicated before choosing what to consume, Iyengar Yoga instructor Rahul Dhari discovered its complexity after consumption, while on what should have been a pristine beach in Goa. He was on holiday with family, when he encountered the beach completely littered with the remains of all our choices for comfort, convenience and hygiene that surreptitiously require plastics. Petrochemicals are used to fertilize and protect your food; generate the energy for light, transportation and communications; provide hygiene and many other conveniences around you, whether the acrylic of your eyeglasses, the polyesters in your clothing, the plastic bags used to carry and to dispose of things, condoms, toothbrushes, or food packaging. Ironically, the more time saved by the convenience of plastics, the more we fill our free time with other plastic distractions, leaving a trail that can be followed in some places more than others – and the beach was not supposed to be one of those places.

Bhai, the ocean is vomiting plastic”, he texted me in a concerned message. Good, I thought, at least the ocean can discharge them, which is more than I can say for the many whales and cows that cannot spit up the plastic in their guts, from which they die a slow death of starvation.

The shock of so much plastic strewn on an idyllic Goan beach, together with a certain degree of resignation from locals, led Rahul to make the only choice for ahiṃsā that he could: he picked up the garbage, mobilizing others to help. But when he said the ocean was vomiting plastic, however, he was not exaggerating: the next day he woke up to find the beach littered again after a night’s heavy rainfall.

Hardly the first to make such a decision, there are many individuals around the world have have moved to stop, substitute, and clean up plastic waste. In India, however, there is an added frustration: there is simply no reliable waste management system anyway. And that is probably why he encountered the empty and clean beach once again littered within a few hours, as the ocean vomited more refuse.

While India uses only one-tenth of the plastics of the US, it is responsible for a horrendous amount of unmanaged pollution. If that were the only environmental concern, the country might be able to manage it. However, together with coal-fired energy, mismanagement of water resources, and more than a billion people, India is on the brink of environmental collapse

Although the destruction of our world from our very own consumption is at the same time a grave injustice and a gargantuan problem for which it seems nothing can be done, I do not think that Gandhi-ji would agree. No challenge was too big for him, especially when firstly taking the initiative of looking inside – and not outside – to correct a problem. Each individual can seek ahiṃsā and in doing so, transform the world. Regardless of whether you are vegetarian or not, reviewing the necessity and the alternatives of all that you consume – with the vision that there is nothing you can use, acquire or possess in this world that will ultimately satisfy you and end all desire – will not only change the way you make choices, but it might make you the bearer of a gift.

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A native of Chicago, Ricky Toledano has lived in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for over twenty years as a writer, translator and teacher. [a]multipicity is multi-lingual collection of reflections through the humanities.

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