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Usha and Mercy
Kisumu - Kenya

THE AHIMSA WAY

AHIMSA 1
PATHS OF PEACE

As Indian history unfolded, HIMSA - that which is violent, hurtful and brings great disharmony - is what people were used to. Tired of himsa, kings and warriors looked for an alternative to violence to hold on to their kingdoms, wealth and power. From the minds of these ancient men evolved the idea of AHIMSA - a negation of all that was himsa. Ahimsa - being non- violent in thought, word and deed, being compassionate and peaceful in relationships and bringing harmony to all of life, quickly became a way of life to those who practiced it. It became popular for a while, then the powerful and those who believed in violence and manipulation to get their way, took over again.

Today, as ordinary people, we are beginning to think of the benefits of living the ahimsa way. Our way of life becomes increasingly violent as we live in a hurried, selfish, greedy society, with little respect for others who are lower on a social scale. We demand more, tolerate less, are busier, angrier, have less time for family and friends and are judgmental. To get what we want, when we want it, we are often harsh, unfeeling and violent in words or action. Just think of being elbowed, glared at, silenced, ignored, put down, over- ridden, slapped, frozen. Many of us live and work in atmospheres of insensitivity, harshness and unkindness. In such an atmosphere our souls cry out for attention, care, affection, softness, compassion, sensitivity - all facets of ahimsa. But what we face around us instead, is the hard, coldness of himsa. At such times we long for ahimsa people around us. But where are they?

Because of the media’s attention on violence, it sometimes seems as if himsa / violence is more powerful and more contagious than ahimsa. It seems as if those who are ahimsa people are in the minority. But that is not true. Although it may seem that violence has the upper hand, today more and more people believe, act and stand up for the power of ahimsa both in their personal and professional life. People from every walk of life are choosing not to react to violence, and search for creative ways to confront violence peacefully.

The sad fact is that we never get to hear about such people.

I hope to introduce to you, ordinary men and women, who despite great personal difficulties, put their faith in ahimsa, and choose not to react to violence with violence.

Lakshmi, the girl who picks up my daily garbage told me how she had been beaten with a metal rod by an old man, because she dared to ask for water on a hot day. She was very upset, and cried angrily that day. It so happened that a few days later, as her cart was outside his home, the lady of the house had a stroke. The old man came out and called for help. He froze when he saw Lakshmi, as he was sure she would go away pretending not to have heard him. But Lakshmi went in and got the woman back on her bed, cleaned her up and stayed with her till she was admitted in hospital. The man offered her a five hundred rupee note, but Lakshmi refused it. “ I needed him to see my dignity, not my poverty,” she said.

I wondered about her generosity and asked her about it. “Since I was a small girl, I have believed that we should not give back hurt to one who has hurt us and I try to live that way.” A very simple philosophy that we can all practice. But do we all feel the same way? Are you a himsa or an ahimsa person? What fuels your beliefs on violence and non violence?

We often think of violence as being physical. We need to remember that violence is also in the words we say, the tone in which we speak, the way we look at each other, express in our body language and show in a variety of ways. We need to remember too that the ahimsa person is not a passive, apathetic, door- mat kind of person. They are brave, strong at heart and just do not believe in a tit for tat mentality. Are you a himsa or an ahimsa person? What fuels your beliefs?

There are many, many ahimsa people around us who turn away from violence. They practice forgiveness, compromise and reconciliation. They talk to each other rather than slamming the door on faces. They build bridges , not walls. Ahimsa people inspire us. They give us an example to follow. They make us take a good look at our own himsa ways and make us long to be like them.

We need to know their stories and share them with a larger audience, so that we can encourage each other and emulate them. So if are an ahimsa person and wish to share your story, email the writer at ushajesudasan@gmail.com





AHIMSA 2
WORDS OF PEACE

We are lucky in this century because many of us have come to the realization that violence just does not work. We see that a violent way of life has not brought peace or prosperity, to those who perpetuate it, or the victims, or the innocent bystanders. The consequences of a violent way of life is death. And nobody wants to die a violent death – whether it is being blown to pieces, tortured emotionally or cast aside because of discriminations. In this new century, we are aware that violence fails, and as individuals and communities, we look for alternate ways to living with violence. We want a peaceful way of life so that we can be creative, raise our children well and live meaningfully. Thus it becomes increasingly important that we look for creative ways of living without violence.

Friends of mine who have small children who have thought about this for a while, put up a red violence box on their dining table. Anyone who expressed violent words, actions or even showed it in their face had to put a five rupee coin into the box. The second time offender put in ten rupees and thereafter the rates increased. The idea was not just that violence was to be penalized, but that the offender had to find a gentler solution to the violence. At first it was a game to see who put in the most, but as the days went on, and the children grew older, being kind and gentle and fair - all ahimsa qualities - took on their own importance.

In my own family, soon after my husband died, our family seemed to be splitting apart. Each of us carried a load of grief, anger, anxiety about the future and insecurity within us. Each of us had different ways of expressing these feelings and as we all lived under the same roof, life was either explosive or icy. I discovered that to keep a family together, there were certain words that needed to be put into our daily vocabulary and used as often as possible. As a strong believer in the power of ahimsa, and with deep faith in what I call “ahimsa words,” I began to try them out.

The words were:

I’m sorry.
Forgive me
Thank you.
That was great/wonderful.
Bless you for helping me.
I really appreciate this
Please can you……….

Initially, the words came from our lips. We realized that we cannot say these words only from our lips for long. They started moving down into our hearts slowly and began to take root there. Once they were rooted in our hearts, a smile crept in with the words. Then an action to accompany the words glued us together and brought much joy and warmth into our relationship.

Just us ahimsa words are important in a family, they are equally important in schools and work communities. Too often, violence in the form of words is practiced. Words that are hurtful and cold, or words that demean or threaten or leave others feeling anxious and insecure.

“Can’t you do anything right?”

“Stupid”

“Jerk”

“Useless fellow”

“ Fool”

When we use such mean words, our actions also become hurtful. Just as they can build or destroy a family, they can do the same to a work place. Ahimsa words bring hope, comfort, insight, and offer new perspectives. They heal, unite, calm and strengthen. Particularly with children, ahimsa words bring security, allow them to blossom creatively and grow with both the knowledge and experience of non violence.

We need to use ahimsa words as often as we can, to as many people as we can. We cannot say, “ that’s great,” or “thank you” or “bless you” without it affecting both the one who says it, and the one to whom it is said.

The more we use these words, the more they take root in our hearts. Words spoken from the heart create new life and deepen relationships. Sooner or later, such words also translate into actions that build and preserve homes, schools work places and communities.

Living the ahimsa way takes enormous inner strength and self discipline. It means being alert to what we say, how we say it and the tone we use. It also means not reacting to the meanness others throw at us, and instead using words that show friendship, commitment and love.

As we journey through different aspects of the ahimsa life, it would be nice to hear stories of how other families practice non violent living. Ahimsa stories inspire and encourage us. They also show us that more people live the ahimsa way than the himsa way. So if are an ahimsa person and wish to share your story, email the writer at ushajesudasan@gmail.com





AHIMSA 3
BUILD BONDS

The words and the tone of voice we use, is a tool for building relationships. Sadly, most of us use this tool not for building and nurturing relationships, but for destroying them. Passive violence like angry words, and a harsh tone are as bad and injurious as physical violence and cause just as much damage.

Can our tone of voice be violent enough to destroy relationships and invoke fear and mistrust? Our words may be the right ones, but certainly the tone in which we say them could be violent. Just think of the violent words used to describe various tones which we use on a daily basis……….harsh, cold, irritable, sarcastic, rude, angry, furious, cruel, snappy, aggressive, nasty, argumentative……. Now think of a more ahimsa tone ………..gentle, warm, caring, affectionate, concerned, interested………With which tone would you prefer being spoken to?

A letter from a reader says, “ I do not consider myself as an angry person, nor do I deliberately use harsh words, but several times my family has told me, ‘It’s not what you say, that upsets us, it’s your tone. Could they be right?”’ Of course they are right, because so much violence that is played out on a daily basis happens because of passive violence like words and tones. Just as our words are important, so too is our tone of voice for it reflects understanding, compassion and sincerity, or the complete lack of it.

“ Don’t use that tone with me,” we admonish our children, when they get aggressive with us. Usually most of us use a snappy tone when we are tired or anxious. At this point, if we are not aware of it, our tone becomes not only snappy, but also harsh and unloving. If we are at home, wives and children also pick up such vibes. Your snappy tone can make them bad -tempered and sullen.

When they reply you, their tone will also be unloving. And so the cycle gets repeated. If you are at work, your colleagues will label you as bad tempered and unapproachable and your reputation and work relationships will suffer.

Many a family’s harmony is ruined by harsh voices. Savitha, a mother of teenage children was desperate to get her crumbling family life back together again. “ They were such lovely children when they were small,” she said to her friend, “ but now in their adolescent years, it seems as if every sentence is punctuated with a negative, hurtful word or an ugly tone.” No matter how much I nag them, they refuse to change.” Her friend reminded her that back then, she too was a much gentler person.

“ What do you mean ?” Savitha said indignantly.

“ Don’t you realise that your tone too has changed a lot? Your job has made you constantly irritable and it shows in your voice.”

Savitha recorded her voice when she was at the dining table and found that her friend was right. She was appalled at how crabby and nasty she sounded, and how shrill her voice had become over the years. She decided to begin with herself, and deliberately made her voice soft and gentle. The result was that over a short period of time, her family life had improved.

A non violent tone of voice is important not just for families, but for teachers as well. While watching a group of small children play at ‘teachers’, I heard one child who was ‘teacher’, say, “ Don’t you dare,” – and a little later, “- just you try it, missy and see what I will do.” It was said in such a ferocious tone that scared all the other children into sitting absolutely still. The same thing happened when each child played teacher. It didn’t take long for the parent to investigate and find out that the real teacher’s tone was aggressive and scary.

A middle aged secretary working for a young boss told me how her boss’ tone drove her to always have a letter of resignation in her handbag. She became a woman who was constantly angry and brought her frustrations home. It didn’t do her home life any good. Then she decided not to let him get to her and to be her normal ahimsa self. No matter how violent his tone was during the day, Mrs B always smiled and spoke politely and wished him good night, adding an equally pleasant, “ See you tomorrow, sir, “ as she left the office. As days went by, the other staff noticed that the boss no longer said, “Get lost,” in an insulting, dismissive tone, but had begun to copy Mrs B’s tone and words to the younger staff. Just as violence begets violence, ahimsa words and tone also pave the way for more ahimsa attitudes.

We live in times where fast living , inequity in various forms, constant aggression and competitiveness makes life difficult. Perhaps for some, it is easier to turn to violence rather than walk the harder road of non violence. These people destroy lives. But those like Mrs B, who live the ahimsa way, change lives. They also show us that more people live the ahimsa way, than the himsa way. So if are an ahimsa person and wish to be counted or share your story, email the writer at ushajesudasan@gmail.com





AHIMSA 4
AHIMSA IN THE WORK PLACE: SHOW YOU CARE

Most people think of violence as physical assault or using guns and bombs. Few relate it to their own personal daily behaviour. We think that violence is perpetrated by others. Never by ourselves. But if we scrutinize ourselves, we will find elements of violence within us that will shock us. As most of our lives are lived out in the family and the work place, these places are where we are often violent.

At an executive meeting in a reputed firm, one person was particularly aggressive as his ideas were not being incorporated. After the vote, where his plan was rejected, he angrily pushed all his papers and a glass of water to the floor and walked out. This is himsa behaviour.

Workplace violence has a broad spectrum. From prejudice, discrimination, bullying, domination and oppression, to acts in which a person is abused, threatened, intimidated or assaulted, to rumour mongering, gossiping, and bitching behind someone’s back. Workplace violence also includes threatening behaviour such as shaking fists, slamming doors, destroying property or throwing objects; verbal or written threats; harassment; behaviour that demeans, embarrasses or humiliates a person; swearing, insulting or using condescending language, and of course physical attacks.

Who are the perpetrators of violence in the work place? Ordinary people like you and me, who are frustrated, over -stressed, anxious and narrow minded. Those too who are loners, who feel that nobody listens to them or has any time for them; those with emotional problems, career frustrations and those who have more power than others.

Who are the victims? Usually it is those who have no power to stand up to authority; those on a lower cadre, those who cannot express themselves well and women.

Having recognized violence in our work place, what do we do about it? The most common response is to act with a similar kind violence. Violence as we know, begets more violence and the cycle goes on.

Is there a place for ahimsa at work? In the arena of inflated egos, ambition, success and the insane desire for power and control, it may seem as if the ahimsa way is irrelevant. But today more than ever, we need people who practice the ahimsa living to stem the tide of work place violence which wrecks so many lives.

How can we react in an ahimsa way when we are at the mercy of someone else’s ego, or lust for power? Do ahimsa values fit in when one is seen as a mere pawn in someone’s ladder to success? The work arena today for many, is fraught with bad relationships and rivalry. Where does the ahimsa way of life fit into this?

A professor with a bruised ego, failed a postgraduate student every time he sat for a particular examination for five years. Recollecting his experiences, the young man said, “ I realized that the violent feelings against him within me was not harming him, but me. I began my day by praying for him. It calmed me and put away the angry thoughts. Then I began doing little things for him which he was not aware of, not with the idea of buttering him up to pass me, but because that is what I wanted to do. He failed me again that year, but in my heart I was at peace.”

It may seem as if being an ahimsa person is akin to being a door mat, allowing others to walk over you. But those who stand up for an ahimsa way swear that being so, gives them inner strength and power over the person who hurts them.

Ahimsa at the work place also translates into standing up for the underdog, and those who struggle in some way. It means taking a moment during your coffee break to listen to a colleague’s troubles; to be able to diffuse an angry person with calmness and good advice; to be fair and just.

An incompetent boss called his juniors, “ idiots,” and harassed two of them as their english was not so good. As a result, these young men from the suburbs became nervous in his presence and made more mistakes. An elderly colleague, took them aside, befriended them, taught them to speak properly and familiarized them with office etiquette. At one point, when they were unfairly criticized, he spoke in defence of them at the risk of losing his own job. Being an ahimsa person can be dangerous, but it is worth the risk.

Usually we handle the ups and downs of our professional and emotional lives at the office in a himsa way. We ignore the person who is not like us; get snappy and irritated with someone who is incompetent; and jealous of the one who is better than us. Here too, the ahimsa person is like warm oil on a wound. A young woman was going through a difficult phase after the loss of her mother. Occasionally she would cry, and be unable to cope with her grief and her work. This irritated some of her colleagues as they felt that she should put her grief aside and just get on with the work. One of them saw through her pain, and spoke caringly to her during the lunch break. One day, when the grief was too much she asked her to go home early and offered to finish the work herself. This is ahimsa in the work place – letting someone know that you care. Going the extra mile for that person and carrying his or her load as well as your own.

Take an audit of how you behaved at work last week. Would your colleagues remember you as an ahimsa person or as a violent one? Perhaps you can discuss ahimsa values and how these can be implemented at your work place. If you are an ahimsa person and wish to be counted or share your story, email the writer at ushajesudasan@gmail.com





AHIMSA 5
HAVE A DIALOGUE

We reflect again this week on violence in the work place. Most of our workplaces tend to be quite civilized. Nobody beats each other up, or carries knives or guns to work, yet, there is an undercurrent of simmering violence - one can see it and feel it. It shows in people’s tense or angry faces; in their stiff, ‘don’t come near me’ body language; in the mean, thoughtless way they react to their colleagues juniors.

I observed something interesting in one of the colleges where I did a work shop on Gandhian values for the students. I noticed that in one department, some of the teachers did not have eye contact with each other; neither did they smile or talk to each other in a friendly manner. In conversation, I learnt that some of them were targeted for coming up with new ideas and being creative. A few of the older lecturers and professors who had been there for two decades or more did not want change of any kind. They felt threatened by the younger teachers, so they made life a little miserable for them. This group was given extra classes during their free periods, and put on lunch time duties more frequently than the other staff. This annoyed them, as they felt it was unfair. When the teachers protested, harshly worded memos were sent to them. As a result some in one group were not speaking to the other, unless absolutely necessary, and when they did speak, it was rather sarcastically. The would pass by each other and look the other way. Some of the teachers in both groups were pleasant to each other and maintained friendly conversations despite the war that seemed to be going on. These teachers were targeted too. There was lot of hurt and deep wounds and the atmosphere was very unpleasant.

“ Is there violence in the staff room?” I asked them.

“ No,” they replied. Yet when they spoke they said tings like , “ I’m really hurt,” “ She wounded me deeply,” “ my feelings are injured” “He caused me a lot of pain.” “ I’m really suffering in this place.”

“ Are these words not associated with violence? “ I asked them. They looked at me blankly. This can easily sum up many of our work places.

In most work places, people have forgotten the value of dialoguing with respect for each other. Talking to each other about whatever is the problem, ironing out misunderstandings, making compromises, coming up with a new agenda that pleases everyone, developing a give and take attitude and forgiving mistakes, takes great strength and courage. Showing courtesy, being polite and good- mannered, not using abusive language and listening to what the other person has to say diffuses violence immediately.

One reader wrote saying, “ I live in a college hostel where some students keep their music very loud when others are studying. Talking to them to reduce the volume has not helped. When we hear that loud music when we are trying to concentrate we get very angry. What do we do in an ahimsa way at such a time?”

I understood this readers problem so easily as once I too was in the same situation. I and my friends too tried to reason with the inconsiderate loud music lovers. One day we came up with an idea. The opposite side also needed to sleep and study. When they did so, we too made a loud nice outside their rooms by banging tin and aluminum plates together. We did this for a week, and came to an agreement. The could keep their music loud till dinner time. And we stop making our noises.

Another reader wrote saying, “ If we live these ahimsa values, won’t people take advantage of us? Won’t we be the fools in the long run? “ Whenever we doubt the power of living the ahimsa way, we only need to look deep into our own Indian cultural heritage to find the answers. My favourite is of the snake who kept getting hurt, and of the monk who taught him to stand up for himself without hurting others. { Jataka Tales}

There are many bosses, whether in a school, hospital, corporate office or factory who believe that they can expect better efficiency, respect and competence from their staff only by shouting at them or threatening them in some way. Some also believe that correction can only be done through violent, abusive, dehumanizing means, quite forgetting that the whole point of correcting someone is to prevent them from making the same mistake again.

Can both these issues - expecting efficiency and correcting a mistake be done in a non - violent way? A subordinate who is hesitant or inefficient must have a reason for being so. Is it lack of knowledge? A low self esteem? Lack of practice? Fear? Lack of motivation? A gentle way would be to find out what the problem is and affirm him or her. In my very first job, I had to handle tilling machines. In that first hour, I made so many mistakes, irritated several people by my inefficiency and felt extremely stupid. My boss Gerda, a big Swedish lady, took me aside, gave me a spare till and asked me to practice on it till I felt comfortable enough to come back to the main one. “ You aren’t the only one, almost everyone has the same problem at first, but keep practicing and you’ll be back in an hour” she said, affirming me.

Being an ahimsa person requires creativity, time, energy and generosity of heart. It is taking the long hard way to solve a problem, but in the end, it is the only way that works.

Perhaps in your own work place you can discuss the different ways in which you bring hurt to each other. Perhaps you could even try some of the ahimsa ways and see which brings more harmony to you work place.





AHIMSA 6
EMBRACING LOVE

So far we have been looking at the concept of ahimsa and himsa in the context of our daily relationships. We need to remember that ahimsa values go further than just non violence. We also need to think of ahimsa and absorb and practice it as an all embracing love, in which other qualities are also crystallized……. compassion, justice, activism, hope, love for people and all of creation, and a vision that includes and connects everything and everyone with love and compassion.

Such an ahimsa mind does not come automatically or even easily to us as today we live at a time, when only “I” and “ Me” matter. “What’s in it for me?” “How do I benefit?” “ If I don’t benefit,” then with a shrug of the shoulder, so much is thrown away – relationships, friends, jobs and we become selfish, insensitive himsa people. We live too at a time when people around us don’t affirm ahimsa behaviour or values. Says one reader, “ We are looked at as fools and laughed at.” So is this all embracing love only an ideal? Where today do we find examples of such ahimsa love that we can believe in and emulate?

I was at a camp In Sirgahzi, Tamil Nadu where some of those affected by the tsunami are housed. There I met nine year old Murugeshwari. On the morning of January 26th, 2004, she was on her way to buy tomatoes for her sister. Her mother was outside, cleaning fish. Sudddenly Murugeshwari heard a strange sound, She turned and saw the sea rushing towards her. The people around her saw this too and urged her to run. Her first thought was to run and warn her sister and mother, but before that thought could turn into any kind of action she saw the sea swallow them both. Terrified, she ran and ran and ran.

Today Murugeshwari is at a tsunami camp. Her bright eyes fill with tears as she tells me her story. She wipes them away with the hem of her skirt. Some children playing nearby see her wiping her eyes and come running over. They quickly surround her and two of them put their arms around her.

“ We are her friends, whenever she cries, we try and make her happy, “ they said.

“ How do you make her happy?” I asked them.

“ Some of us go and sleep with her in the night, so that she does not miss her mother and sister too much,” said one.

Another said, “ We always hold her tight when we sleep.”

“I thought a present would make her happy. I asked my mother for some money to buy her a present. I bought her these, “ said another girl pointing to a row of brilliant, green, glass bangles around Murugeshwari’s wrists. Yet another little girl said, “ I gave her this,” pointing to a beautiful, black, red and gold bead necklace Murugeshwari was wearing.

“ Where did you buy it?” I asked her.

“ I didn’t buy it,” she said, “ The sea swallowed my mother and my sisters also, so I don’t have anyone to ask money from. It was mine; it was round my neck when the tsunami came. I gave it to her to make her happy,” she said.

The ahimsa love came so naturally to these children who had lost all that was important to them – their families, homes, and little possessions. While I was with them, I noticed that they were constantly looking out for those who needed some form of care - taking the older people to the bathroom, fetching water for women who were not their mothers, drying someone’s clothes in the sun, or just carrying someone’s baby on their hips as if it was their own brother or sister. Why does it not come so easily to us who have so much? Is it because our materialistic and largely uncaring society has taken over respect from people to things? Is our own personal selfishness and greed for material luxury hindering us from being sensitive and human?

Two young women in an academic institution were applying for research grants. Although both were applying for different grants, there seemed to be some rivalry between them. Their boss told them to help each other with the grant applications and check on the last dates to make sure that they submitted them well on time. One of the girls was very competitive and did not want her colleague to get her grant, so she quietly sabotaged her application.

In another institution, two other women were due for a promotion and were short- listed to head the department. One lady was thrilled to know that she was being considered for the post. She knew that she was qualified, had the right experience and had put in the required number of years in service. She knew too that if chosen, she would perform well. But after a while, she went to her boss and asked that the post be given to the other person. The reason? Her colleague and friend had recently been through a series of personal tragedies and was desperately looking for something that would bring meaning to her life. The woman felt that the promotion would help her friend find some stability and fulfillment at a time when so much in her life was being taken away. At the tsunami camp, I learnt that ahimsa love had to be self sacrificial to be real and truly meaningful. The elderly lady who willingly gave up the headship did the same –she had to put away the “I” of the ego, and look beyond at someone else. These are ahimsa qualities which need to be nurtured and encouraged by those of us who believe in and live the ahimsa way.





AHIMSA 7
A HEART THAT CAN FEEL

The concept of ahimsa comes wrapped up with the idea of compassion. Although today we have hijacked it by concentrating mainly on non violence, we need to remember that it was the idea of compassion that gave way to that of non violence. It is an amazing fact that this idea of love and caring not just for one’s own family and one’s own little circle, but also extending the same care and love to one who has done you harm, originated and was practiced in our country centuries ago, by both kings and the common person alike. Just imagine how revolutionary this idea must have been at the time when hurting the person who hurt you, or being indifferent to those who were weak or poor or sick, was the norm. The first people who practiced this kind of ahimsa with compassion as its main component, not just towards people, but also towards animals and all of Creation must have been people with great hearts.

Preserving, highlighting and drawing upon the strength of this rich cultural heritage of ours, is as important as wanting to conserve and protect and show off our ancient buildings to the world.

Compassion flows straight from one heart to another and reaches out to those who deserve it, and those who don’t. Often we think that compassion is that feeling which makes us feel sorry for someone who is poor, sick or suffering in some way. On a superficial level, we toss a coin, give away an old sari, or write a cheque. Ahimsa teaches us that real compassion is more than just this. It is using our hearts to feel someone’s pain, insecurity, fears, injustices, and reaching out to support, relieve and help them through this.

The compassion that ahimsa brings is active. We need not only to open our eyes, but also open our hearts and reach out with our hands. To do this one needs a heart that can feel. One of the lessons I learnt from a Vietnamese doctor, was to actually want a heart that I could feel. This might seem strange as in today’s world, it is easier not to feel. The mechanical way in which we live today makes us harden our hearts to any kind of feeling. When we stop feeling, we stop connecting. When we stop connecting, we become himsa people, caring only about ourselves. My Vietnamese friend who was a doctor was chased and hunted by the army and spent some rough times in refugee camps rife with TB, malaria, fevers and malnutrition. One night in desperation, he caught a boat to America and found his freedom – or so he thought. When he found a job again as doctor, he found that he was listening to well fed people talking about wanting to lose weight; healthy people wanting surgery to change their noses and other parts of their bodies; very young girls wanting to abort their children; children who were abused in a variety of ways. He became angry and hard and very mean as he listened day after day to such people. He became short tempered with his patients and did not like the person he was becoming. So he went away for a few days and forced himself to remember how the people he had met and treated in the refugee camps felt. He forced himself to remember their anxieties, pain, and fears. Then he came back to work and began to look at his obese patients and neurotic patients in the same way. He put himself in their shoes and tried to understand their fears and worries and over time found that his clinics were busier than his colleagues’ and were always over flowing with patients. The reason? The patients found this doctor was compassionate and much more caring than the others. He had discovered that having a heart that could feel anger, pain, fear, worry, were the skills he needed to being not just a good doctor, but a good person as well.

Compassion is a much needed ingredient in life for all of us, but more so for those in the healing and teaching professions. And somehow , it is here that it also seems to be missing the most in today’s life. A gardener’s children who go to local school were punished for not bringing fifty rupees for something and the parents were scolded. “ If you can’t afford to pay such a small amount of money even, then you are not fit to educate your child. ” The poor parent came away in great agony and went back to borrow some money.

A woman I know had great difficulty when she was a young mother. Her boss was a spinster and could not understand why this woman took a day off when her baby was sick, or was teething. When this woman herself became the boss, I thought she would be more compassionate and understanding to her female staff. But sadly, she was just like her old boss. Hard and sometimes very mean. A truly himsa person. When we experience himsa behaviour, it becomes even more important that we practice ahimsa, to prevent our families and workplaces from disintegrating into ugly places.

Having a heart that can feel is hard work. With each beat, we allow ourselves to be torn part by someone else’s suffering and pain or their anger or cruelty. It is easy to think, “ Why should I want to feel another person’s pain when I have enough of my own?” or “ I suffered that way, so why should they have it the easy way?”

Ahimsa teaches us that having a heart that can feel not only brings pain, but also great joy. If you are an ahimsa person and have a story to share please write to the author at ushajesudasan@gmail.com





AHIMSA 8
TO FEEL OR NOT

Several readers have written to me after reading A Heart That Can Feel. “I am a sensitive person, I don’t like being unkind, yet the more compassionate I am, the more I am taken for a ride,. “ said one person. “ My heart always lets me down, and I’m beginning to get hard, but I don’t like being this way, “ wrote another.

My grandmother and my mother have been wonderful role models for me as I journey the path of ahimsa .On my mother’s 70th birthday, a man who was our builder, said how much he wanted his daughter to study medicine. Even though she had done well and had got a place in college, he was going to ask her to turn her seat down as he just could not afford the first year’s fees. My mother had the exact same amount that he needed in her account. Her heart went out to him, and she wrote a cheque for that amount and gave it to him. I was not surprised, but hoped that the girl would use her time in medical college well. Sadly, the man began a building project for her and cheated her in every way possible. I was furious when the girl came to my mother for the next set of fees. My mother chided me and spoke to the girl kindly and did not tell anything about her father. When she had gone, she told me this story.

A holy man was having his bath in the river. He noticed a scorpion in the water, and it was drowning. His heart went out to the scorpion. So he lifted it and put it on safe dry ground. But before he could put it on the ground, the scorpion bit his hand. The man was in great pain. The people sitting around hi laughed at him for his stupidity. ‘What did you achieve? You spared the scorpion’s life only to get yourself bitten.”

The man smiled and replied, “I did what I had to do according to my nature. That is to rescue it from drowning. The scorpion did what it had to do, that is sting me, according to its nature’. I knew what my mother was trying to teach me, and since then have used it in my own life.

Readers too have commented on the worthiness of giving to beggars, servants, people who ask in emergencies…… A Jewish story teaches us a lesson here. A very poor man, dressed in rags, went from home to home in a town, asking for food, clothes and money. He looked frail and sick and many people’s hearts went out to him. So they gave freely and generously. One day, when one of the townspeople who had given him lots of good clothes was at a meeting, he saw this man well dressed, sitting opposite him. The man got very angry. “What a cheat, “ he thought. “I will expose him for the fraudster he is.” But by the end of the meeting this “poor” man had gone. In frustration, the angry man goes to a Rabbi and pours out his anger. “‘ How could he do such a thing? I would never have given him anything had I known he was not a poor man.”

The Rabbi asked him, “ When he came to your door, how was he dressed?”

“ Why in rags,” replied the man.

“And how did he look?”

“He looked as if he would die soon.”

“So you did not know then that he was a rich man?

“Of course not,” he replied indignantly.

“Well, then don’t worry about it. You gave to a poor man who came to you for help, Your heart did the right thing. It responded to the poor man’s pain. And that is the main thing. If the man cheated you deliberately, then he will have to answer for his sins.

Often we turn the other way from a beggar, or an appeal for help, because we don’t like to be cheated. Our hearts want to respond, but we are unsure if our help will actually reach them. As we reflect on how we take care of the poor, I share with you some snapshots. While we stopped at a traffic light, a young boy ran up to our car waving a packet of coloured wash cloths for the car.

" Only ten rupees for the pack," he told us, begging us to buy a pack. The person I was with shooed him away as I dug into my purse for some money. I was a little surprised by the ferociousness with which she did this. " These kids are such a nuisance," she said. The boy looked at me with soulful eyes. " Please buy a packet," he said, " It's for my books." I know so many children like him who sell flowers, car cloths, spinach and other things early in the morning before they go to school. Yes they are a nuisance, they pester us at the wrong time, when we have no change or when we are stressed about something. Life is hard for them, but yet, they go on hoping that today will be a better day…….that today they will sell one more packet than yesterday. Reaching out towards such children takes them a little nearer to the road of independence, economic stability and personal dignity.

The next incident is very different. I was on a train with a group of people. One of them dropped some coins which rolled near my feet. I bent down to pick them up. " Leave them there," said the man. " I always drop some coins on a train. I don't need them, they don't make any difference to me, but they mean a lot to the person who finds them. For that person, it's a lucky day just a few coins can turn someone's life around with hope and happiness. Life may be hard, but somehow there is a sign that today, things might be different. "

The third story is of a friend who is a teacher who keeps the money she earns during the first half of the month for herself. What she earns during the second half is used for any poor child whose parents are sick and cannot afford good health care, or for school fees, or other essentials for children at her school. It often seems that what ever we do is never enough. The poor are every where around us. Often we give up doing anything because it seems like a drop in the ocean.

I'm reminded at this point of the story of the boy who was dropping starfish that had been washed ashore, back into the sea. An elderly man rebuked him saying he was wasting his time. " I don't think so," said the boy, " For every one that survives, it makes a big difference.”

Usha jesudasan





AHIMSA 9
ABOUT RESPECTING PERSONAL SPACES

After a hard day’s work you retire to your room, pick up a book and settle down for an hour of quietness, when suddenly the peace is shattered by loud music from a nearby marriage hall. You try not to let it bother you, but after a while you become angry. You clench your teeth. And then your fists. You throw the books down. You shout at your wife who has nothing to do with this at all. You threaten to go down and cut their wires. Have you ever thought of this intrusion into your personal space as violence? And your own reaction, a violent one too?

For most of us, our personal space is sacred. Whether that space is a luxuriously quiet room, a table in the corner or a moment of snatched solitude with a cup of coffee. The personal space we crave needs quietness and solitude. But, much of our space is violated by noise. …….. ringing telephones which pierce our ears; blaring, deafening horns, loud, earsplitting music, screeching of tyres, booming voices and so much more ………and lack of space - congested roads, narrow corridors, flats built so close to each other. All of this violates our sense of space and need for solitude. Unable to bear the noise and the crowd, we turn into himsa people, snapping at each other.

Perhaps you may not have thought of inconsiderate interruptions, rummaging through drawers or papers that are not your own, reading mail that doesn’t belong to you, listening at doors to conversations as himsa behaviour. These acts are violations of space and privacy and so it is violence. When our personal space is disrupted, we become angry and this often leads to verbal or emotional violence.

How can we cultivate ahisma behaviour when our own personal space is threatened? By learning to identify and respect our spouse’s, parents’, colleague’s personal spaces. For each person, the idea of space is different, and when we live and work together we need to respect the other person’s need for space as much as we do ours.

For me, the time while I have my first cup of coffee is the most sacred time of my day. Over the years my family have learnt to respect that and not violate it. In return I too have identified their spaces and respect it enough not to violate it.

A friend of mine needs to be alone in the front porch with his cigarette, coffee and newspaper. Nobody would dare disturb him first thing in the morning during his time of solitude. His wife’s space is last thing at night watching her favourite TV serial. There have been many squabbles over this as he often interrupts her asking for a drink, or expecting her to search for something he has mislaid during that time. This insensitiveness and lack of respect is a form of violence. Ahimsa means not just being sensitive to the desires those we live and work with, but also giving them the same opportunities for quietness that we want for ourselves.

Today in many corporate establishments, the old fashioned wooden doors and desks are replaced by glass and lightwood desks. What may have originally been a good idea for transparency in work atmospheres has backfired and today it violates many people’s privacy. People sit at their desks surrounded by noise and confusion. They are constantly frustrated and annoyed by the ceaseless chatter around them and the incessant whir of printers and photocopiers. Says Roopa, who works in a corporate atmosphere, “ The sound of the printers and copiers , are just three feet away from my desk, so there is a loud constant background whirr. Then there is the guy in the next cubicle who insists on checking his voice mail through the speakerphone. Everyday, I grind my teeth and shake my head in disbelief while listening to the dull roar of the combined efforts of the printers, fax machines, photocopiers, telephones, speakerphones, inconsiderate co –workers and slamming doors. Then there are other conversations beside my desk and I wonder how I can be expected to work effectively amidst such a crazy furor. Working in such an environment has made me very intolerant and constantly angry. Basically, I just can’t stand people any more. At the end of the day I have no power left to smile, or wish anyone good night. I just leave. Then I battle through traffic for an hour or more. Life has turned me into a himsa person. “ Open plan offices leave us with no privacy, increased noise and a feeling of being constantly monitored - so it comes as no surprise to learn that many people become himsa oriented. An assistant to a CEO remarked, "A lot of my work is confidential, so working in an open plan office makes me very paranoid. I don't leave documents on my desk, and I'm always aware that other people can hear me on the phone. I have become suspicious and trust no one. As a result I have no friends in my workplace. "

Many of us face this kind of harassment and we don’t even think of it as violence. But violence it is. If this is the way your business, office, hospital is run, you cannot change it, but there are still ways in which you can practice ahimsa with yourself and others even in a corporate environment.

In such a ‘violence’ charged atmosphere, being an ahimsa person requires that you be extremely sensitive to another’s needs for quietness and space. It means being aware that your neighbour, colleague, children or spouse also have needs for privacy. Speaking softly, turning your phone off when speaking face to face with someone, closing doors gently, knocking before you enter, not listening in on intercoms to conversations, are ways in which you can practice ahimsa. So too is giving you colleagues and spouses time to be alone to gather their thoughts.

Our modern way of work and life turns us into monsters who snap and bite first and then ask questions.

If you are an ahimsa person and have a story to share please write to the author at ushajesudasan@gmail.com

USHA JESUDASAN

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