Monday, January 11, 2016

The Bhagavad Gita and Black Lives Matter

Serious yoga students will, at some point in their practice, find their way to the Bhagavad Gita, the section of the epic poem The Mahabhharata. The story opens on a battle field, with the trembling warrior Arjuna, terrified to fight. The Bhagavad Gita, which served as Mahatma Gandhi’s guide to life, is basically a conversation between Arjuna and his chariot driver, who reveals himself to be the god Krishna. The translator of one of my versions of the Gita calls it “India’s most important gift to the world.”

Because this dialogue between Arjuna and Krishna takes place during a war, and Arjuna is urging Krishna not to run from battle, but to take up arms and fight, literal minded peaceniks such as myself often struggle with the Gita. Even though my teachers assure me that this is a metaphor for engaging with life, I can’t help but look around me at all the horrific effects of war, and recoil from the violent setting. But for people like me who get tangled up in the question of whether the Gita justifies war, Gandhi offered some extremely practical advice: just base your life on the Gita sincerely and systematically, and see whether you find killing or harming others acceptable.

Ultimately, the struggle the Gita is concerned with is the ongoing war inside all of us. Some might describe this as a war between the forces of light and the forces of darkness that live within every human heart. But this description of the perennial battle within us is problematic, and I hope that you, dear reader, will go on a journey with me to explore this. In yoga, we are very concerned with the light of the soul, that lives within all of us. Our practice is to help us uncover this inner Self and experience it directly. That is all beautiful and necessary. But what about when we describe the forces of evil as “dark?” 

A very poisonous mind state holds that people with more melanin in their skin are less human than those with lighter skin. Although this is patently ridiculous, we have a long way to go toward overcoming this untruth. My perception of white people in the United States in 2016 is that we think we are a lot further along in overcoming racism than we really are. If you watch television, you will see people of color in almost every advertisement for any product. So we like the idea of ourselves as a diverse nation. But if you read articles about race by people of color and then scan the comments section, you will see the most vile, hateful statements, definitely written by white people who are sure they are not racist!   

Even seemingly benign acts, like casting the British Black actress Noma Dumezweni to play Hermione in the new Harry Potter play, or Nigerian actor John Boyega to lead Star Wars, seem to bring out the crazy bigotry. But of course all we need to do is read the news to see how many more layers of our society are affected by this kind of prejudice.

The Cleveland police officer who shot and killed the twelve year old Tamir Rice is facing no charges, even though he shot the child within two seconds of arriving on the scene, and then refused to help him as he lay wounded on the ground. When Tamir’s fourteen year old sister tried to go to his side, she was instead tackled and shoved into the police cruiser. Imagine her pain as she watched her brother bleeding. Imagine the trauma she, the family, and the entire community has endured. When a police officer makes a split second decision and shoots a citizen, he is not engaging higher reasoning. He is acting on reflex and his subconscious fears and biases are directing him. We are all poisoned by racism. But most of us are not entrusted with the public safety. Most of us do not carry loaded weapons as part of our job. As citizens and tax payers, though, it is all of our responsibility to hold our public servants accountable for their actions.

We also need to hold ourselves accountable for our own prejudice. So I am very interested, in my writing and in my thinking, in finding ways to describe evil that do not include the adjective dark. For me it is helpful to visualize dark beauty. The night sky, fertile and life giving soil, dark skinned people I know and love, or admire from afar, chocolate!  I steep myself in the richness and depth of deep, dark color. We all need antidotes to the poisonous state of mind that says “dark is bad.” If we pretend this mind state does not affect us, we are simply denying reality. We are like someone with a serious health condition who refuses to see the doctor.

Verse 6:32 of the Gita says: “When a person responds to the joys and sorrows of others as if they were their own, they have attained the highest state of spiritual union.” On the battle field of the present moment, may this teaching strengthen us, unify us, and give us the courage to act.