Our world is caught up in perpetual waves of conflict. And this seems to be the case from the very start. Ancient founding stories of the world in Greek and Indian mythology tell of battles between gods that preceded the arrival of humans. These struggles for territory and power are often framed as battles of good and evil, of the assertion of rights and righteousness.
As humans, we continue this pattern. We are locked in arguments over who are legitimate peoples and who are intruders. Who is oppressed and who are victims. Who has wronged whom. We all have sides and a strong sense of what are our side’s rights, and much righteousness for our side of the story.
When we zoom out things appear more muddy. The Greek gods were often egotistical and ruthless. Human heroes of liberation are also often tainted. Lincoln led the battle to end slavery but also was responsible for expanding the wars against Native Americans, conducting mass executions of Native peoples (the largest executions in US history), and appropriation of their lands. Churchill may have been a war hero but was responsible for a great deal of oppression of people in India and Africa as an agent of the British Empire.
The absolute and clear claims to lands or righteousness are readily disputed. In looking at the span of history, it is clear that humans have migrated across the globe, fought wars of conquest, and committed genocide to exterminate and evict other people. Many parts of the world today are no longer inhabited or dominated by people who were there earlier. A litany of aggression, suppression, exploitation experienced can be readily recited by all sides. The score is often settled by virtue of power. And for those who have been defeated, the score remains to be settled. When we crush others, we can only expect that they will also seek to respond by the means they have available. The cycle of retribution follows. Are we doomed to endless power struggles — winning by bullet or ballot, fighting with pen or sword, attacking with words and weapons? Is there a way out?
It is notable that Jesus and the Buddha who lived in times of tumult chose not to fight political battles. Jesus lived under the occupation of Romans and advised people to give to Caesar what was his. The Buddha, who lived in the midst of warring kingdoms that tried to recruit him as a representative of their righteousness, said that those battles were not his fight. Jesus and the Buddha saw liberation as an internal struggle.
The Bhagavad Gita (the Song of God) is a core Hindu text that is centered at the scene of a battle. In the book, two sets of cousins face-off ready for a bloody war. This book set at the scene of a war was curiously Gandhi’s favorite book. This is because the battle playing out in the book is an allegory for the battle raging within us. It delves into various forms of yoga — the yoga of service, the yoga of devotion, the yoga of mind and body control (the type of yoga popular in the West), and the yoga of knowledge. The word yoga means yoke or what’s joined together and the book is about self-realization and union.
The insight is that we can’t create peace in the world without creating peace within ourselves. The inner and outer are indelibly connected.
A teacher asked her students, what do you get when you squeeze an orange. The answer they offered was orange juice. The teacher then asked, “So, what comes from you when you are squeezed.” The answer is: if you are angry, it is likely to be hate and violence. If you are peaceful, it is likely a calm response. If you are filled with love, it is likely love. We express externally what exists within us.
Jesus said that the kingdom of God is within us. If the kingdom of God is peace and justice, we have to find peace within ourselves so as to create it in the world. Cultivating this peace within us is the real battle we must wage. In Islam, there is the concept of the lesser jihad and the greater jihad. The lesser one is fought in the external world, the greater one is within ourselves.
If we can create peace within us, we can liberate ourselves from the desire to dominate others or seek revenge for the harm we have suffered. Jesus called us to turn the other cheek. This was not an expression of weakness but of great strength to not respond in kind. It takes much inner work. The exercise of yoga — in its broader manifestation — is the discipline of building this capability.
To reframe Gandhi’s famous axiom, We have to be the peace we wish to see in the world. If we create peace within us, it is the kind of change we bring into the world. This is the only path to peace.