Originally printed in the September - October 2003 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Prem, Sri Krishna. "Violence of War." Quest 91.5 (SEPTEMBER - OCTOBER 2003):180-183.
By Sri Krishna Prem
Wars are psychic events that have their birth in the souls of men. We like to put the blame for them upon the shoulders our favorite scapegoat, upon imperialism, nationalism, communism, or capitalism, whichever be our chosen bogey. Not any or all of these are really responsible, but we ourselves we harmless folk who like to think that we hate war and all its attendant horrors. We may have had no finger in the muddy waters of politics or finance, we may have written no articles or even letters tending to inflame national, racial, or communal passions, yet we are all sharers in the responsibility.
Every feeling of anger, hatred, envy, and revenge that we have indulged in the past years, no matter whom it was directed against and however "justified" it may seem to us to have been, has been a handful of gunpowder thrown on to the pile which must, sooner or later, explode as now it has done.
But it is not he or they who struck the match that is or are responsible for a world in flames, but we who have helped to swell the pile of powder. For what is it that we have done? The states of hatred, fear, etc., that have entered our hearts and there met with indulgence are, as always, intolerable guests. We hasten to project them outside ourselves, to affix them like posters upon any convenient wall. Doubtless there was something in the nature of the wall that made it a suitable vehicle for that particular poster, but, all the same, the poster came from us and was by us affixed.
Whether we look at the psychology of individuals, or at those aggregates of individuals which we call national states, the process is the same. That which we hate or fear in ourselves we project upon our neighbors. He who fears his own sex desires discerns impurity in all whom he meets; in the same way, nations that are filled with hatred, fear, and aggressive desire perceive the images of those passions burning luridly upon the ramparts of other nations, not realizing that it is they themselves who have lit and placed them there. Thus arises the myth of the peace loving nations and individuals, just because we project our own aggressive desires upon our neighbors and thus secure the illusion of personal cleanliness.
This is not to say that the responsibility of all nations is alike, any more than is that of all individuals. Some of us have sinned more deeply than others, but the assessment of such responsibility is never easy. It is more important and also profitable for us to remember that all hatred, fear, envy, and aggressive desire, by whomsoever and however "privately" entertained, has been the fuel which prepared and still maintains the blaze. Every time we feel a thrill of triumph at the destruction of "the enemy", we add to it, for each time we do so we are making others the scapegoats for the evil in ourselves. This is not mere philosophic talk; it is not even religion; it is sheer practical fact which any psychologist will confirm.
None of us, not the most determined conscientious objector, not the most isolationist of neutrals, can escape his share of responsibility. Indeed, it is often just those who do not partake in the actual physical fighting who do most with their thoughts to increase the conflict. Fighting men, after a few months of experience have been gained, are often to a surprising degree free from hatred, while those who sit in comfortable isolation only too frequently indulge their own baser excitements and passions by exulting in vicarious horrors, making a cinema show out of the agonies of others, fighting to the last drop of (others) blood, and fanning the flames of hatred and violence with the unseen wind of their own thoughts and feelings.
For there is that in all men which welcomes war; yes, welcomes it even to the point of willingness to undergo its sufferings. In almost all men there is much that social and religious convention will not in normal times permit to find expression. There is a caged beast in the hearts of most of us, a beast whose substance we should like to gratify, but cannot for fear of consequences. Usually he nourishes his subterranean life on the scraps of fantasy and daydream that filter down to the den where he sits, brooding on deeds of violence and cruelty by which he may be revenged for his confinement; and each time we indulge in fantasies of hatred or revenge those thoughts sink down and add to his ferocious energy. Sometimes we can feel him straining against the confining bars, but in normal times "God" and the policemen keep him down, so that only occasionally does he escape and the world is shocked by some deed of atrocious cruelty. When this occurs, society decides that that man's cage is too weak to hold its beast, and, fearing the example on others if one should be allowed to escape with impunity, hurriedly proceeds to destroy both man and beast.
It is necessary to add that the beast is not destroyed by the killing of the body which was its cage. Unseen by men it roams about, freed of its cage of flesh, free also to enter in the heart of any man who will give it temporary shelter and to urge him to the vile deeds that it loves. If men in general became aware of the extent to which this happens, they would not be so eager to kill those who commit ghastly crimes—nor their personal enemies either. This is what happens in normal times. But in times of war all is different. "Cry havoc and let loose the dogs of war" is no mere poetic metaphor. The hell-hounds from within are loosed. All that was "sinful" and forbidden before is now encouraged in the service of the State. Hatred, violence, ferocity, cruelty, as well as every variety of deceitful cunning, all these become virtues in those who direct them against "the enemy". Even those whose States are not at war feel the contagion and, taking sides in the struggle, indulge their beasts in imagination.
Thus do the periods of war and peace succeed one another through the weary centuries of history. It is not intended to deny that in certain circumstances the open and outer violence of armed resistance may not be the lesser of two evils, for in the present state of humanity the alternative is too often a violence of thought and feeling, an obsessive brooding over hatred and revenge that is far worse than outward fighting. But never will violence bring violence to an end. As long as we nourish the brutes within our hearts with the desire-laden thoughts that are their lifeblood, so long will they break out from time to time, and so long will periodical wars be inevitable.
The only way to real peace is the taming of those inner beasts. We who have created them, bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh, must weaken them by giving them no food, must re- absorb them into our conscious selves from which in horror we have banished them, and finally must transmute their very substance by the alchemy of spirit. And that is yoga: only in yoga is peace.
The world is just one's thought; with effort then it should be cleansed by each one of us. As is one's thought, so one becomes; this is the eternal secret (Maitri Upanishad). Those who care for peace and hate war must keep more vigilant guard over their thoughts and fantasies than in normal times. Every exulting thought at news of the destruction of the "enemy" (as though man had any enemy but the one in his own bosom), every indulgence in depression at "our own" disasters, every throb of excitement at the deeds of war in general is a betrayal of humanity's cause. Those who enjoy a physical isolation from the fighting are in possession of an opportunity that is a sacred trust. If they fail to make use of it to bring about peace in that part of the world-psyche with which they are in actual contact, namely, their own hearts, above all, if they actively misuse that opportunity by loosing their beasts in sympathetic fantasy, then they are secret traitors to humanity. As such, they will be caught within the web of karma that they are spinning, a web that will unerringly bring it about that, in the next conflict that breaks out, it will be on them that the great burden of suffering will fall. Of all such it may be said that he who takes the sword in thought and fantasy shall perish by the sword in actual fact.
This is the great responsibility that falls upon all, and especially upon all who by their remoteness from the physical struggle are given the opportunity of wrestling with their passions in some degree of detachment, and so actually lessening the flames of hatred and evil in this world.
None can escape, for all life is one. As soon should the little finger think to escape the burning fever which has gripped the body, as any to escape the interlinkedness of all life. Neutral or conscientious objector, householder or world-renouncing sannyasi, none can escape his share of responsibility for a state of things that his own thoughts have helped to bring about; for neither geographical remoteness, nor governmental decree of neutrality, nor yet personal refusal to bear arms can isolate the part from the whole in which it is rooted.
It is in the inner worlds of desire that wars originate, and from those inner worlds that they are maintained. What we see as wars upon this physical plane are but the shadows of those inner struggles, a ghastly phantom show, boding forth events that have already taken pace in the inner world, dead ash marking the destructive path of the forest fire, the troubled and unalterable wake of a ship whose prow is cleaving the waters far ahead.
In war or peace we live in a world of shadows cast by events that we term "future", because, unseen by us as they really happen, we only know them when we come across their wake upon this plane.
Sri Krishna's words, pronounced before the Kurukshetra battle, "by Me already have they all been slain", refer not to any remorseless, divine predestination, but to this very fact, and they are as true of those whose bodies will perish in the coming year as they were of those who fought in that war of long ago.
Until we understand and face this basic fact, wars are inevitable, and struggling in the wake of troubled waters that ourselves have made, fighting with shadows that ourselves have cast, we shall continue to cry out against a hostile and malignant Fate, or if of a more submissive nature, to pray to God to save us from its grip. But prayers and out cries alike are useless: "Not in the middle regions of the air, nor in the ocean depths; not in the mountain caves, nor anywhere on earth is there a spot where man can escape the fruit of his evil deeds." In the inner worlds we have made war: in those same inner worlds we must make peace, for "Mind is the forerunner of all things, by mind are all things made. He who with desire-polluted mind thinks or acts evil, him sorrow follows as the wheel the foot of the ox." (Dhammapada)
Sri Krishna Prem (1898-1965), was born Ronald Nixon. As a young man, he was fascinated by Buddhism and the Pali language. In 1924, he accepted the post of Reader in English at Lucknow University in India and later accepted initiation into the Vaishnava religion and was considered the first westerner to ever become a Vaishnava. He later founded a Hindu ashram, with his guru Yashoda Mai, in the foothills of the Himalayas. His works include, The Yoga of the Kathopanishad, The Yoga of the Bhagavad Gita, and Intiation into Yoga.