Global Violence and Individual Responsibility



by Prof. P. Krishna

Ex-Rector, Rajghat Education Centre, Krishnamurti Foundation India, Varanasi 221001, India


The spectacular events of terrorism that took place in the United States a few months ago have focussed the attention of the whole world on the issue of global violence. At first sight it may appear that a few primitive, misguided extremists from a faraway land are responsible for these acts and therefore they should be eliminated. Not only is the United States trying to do this, it has also gathered behind it a number of countries and they think that it is necessary to wage a war against terrorism in order to protect so-called civilized society. There are, however, two kinds of questions that must be asked. The question is: are only those handful of people who were involved in those acts responsible for the phenomenon of terrorism and violence. or are the so-called civilized elite also responsible for what has taken place? Does the cause lie only with those barbaric people or are there deeper causes which we need to address? For if we deal only with the symptoms, we will find only a temporary cure; if the causes are still operative the problem will raise its head again. The second question which we must also ask ourselves is: whether the violence that is taking place in retaliation is fundamentally different from the violence that was perpetrated? In other words, is there such a thing as 'righteous' violence and 'unrighteous' violence? How are righteous and unrighteous to be defined and who defines these? Is it that violence, when it is on our side, protective of us and destructive of others, is righteous but it is unrighteous when it is destructive of us? If this is so, how do we decide who are 'us' and who are the 'others'?

Clearly several issues are involved and if we want to understand these at depth, it is important to come to these questions afresh, without pre-formed conclusions. The quality of mind with which one approaches the questions is very important. It seems to me that a mind that is both scientific and religious at the same time is needed. Scientific in the sense that it relies on observation, is precise, objective, rational and curious. And religious in the sense that it is free of pre-conceptions, interested in deep perception of the truth; a mind that has sensitivity, a sense of affection, without any division or fragmentation. This would mean that we are not caught in superficial answers, not interested in a partial and limited response.

In order to observe the global situation objectively, I propose the following thought experiment. Let us imagine an alien in space who is on a spacecraft and has the means to observe all the phenomena taking place on the globe. Not being part of any particular nationality or religion, how would he observe what is taking place on our planet? Putting oneself in the place of that alien, one may visualize looking down upon the earth from space. First of all one would see a beautiful sphere with greenish blue hues, magnificent in its shape and colour. Looking closer, one would see mountains and rivers, trees and plants, birds and animals and human beings.One would see that human beings have developed agriculture, that they have made great progress in science and technology. They have also built marvellous cities to live in, with many advanced facilities, and they use airplanes for transportation. The alien would be quite impressed by what human beings have done and the knowledge that they have amassed. But when he looks closer he will notice that human beings living in a certain area are travelling freely within that area but they are unable to move freely across certain invisible lines. Although it would appear to him that the whole globe is one, human beings would seem to have created their own boundaries. We take our separate nations for granted; but he will wonder, when mountains are continuous, the air is continuous. and so are the forests and rivers why these people stop at a certain line? Why is it that they are very mobile within certain regions and across the imaginary boundaries of those regions they are not so mobile? And if he continues to observe carefully he will also see that at several different places on the earth, human beings are arraigned on either side of the lines, pointing guns and tanks, ready to kill each other. And he will wonder what is the matter, what is happening? Why are these people so intent on killing each other and so oblivious of the beauty of the mountains and rivers? What is occupying them and why are they so divided and ready to kill each other?

If he is more inquisitive he might wonder whether this is some recent phenomenon: has something happened on the earth which causes them to behave this way? He might turn to history books to find out. What he would find is that all recorded human history, going back at least 5000 years, is full of wars. He will observe that for thousands of years these people have been fighting their own kind. And yet they consider themselves to be the the pinnacle of creation, civilized beings who are very superior to other living species. The alien, who has a religious mind and who is cultured and scientific himself, might ask if they are really superior? By what civilized criterion may it be said that human beings are superior to plants or animals? Have they been more kind, more protective of their environment and of each other ?

With the alien, we too must ask ourselves this question seriously: are we really superior, really cultured and civilized? Human beings may have greater ability, greater power, and greater so-called intelligence and are thus able to dominate the rest of nature, to kill animals and plants and destroy forests for their own welfare. But power can hardly be the criterion for superiority. When we look into history, or look around ourselves, we find that no other species has created as much destruction of nature as man has, and no other species has been so cruel to its own kind as human beings have been. Yet we deem ourselves superior to animals and plants !

Evidently, the problem of global violence goes very far back and runs deep. Although our attention may today be focussed on this issue due to the recent events of terrorism, it has been going on for thousands of years. Biologically, the scientists tell us that there has been evolution from the plant to the animal, from the mammal to the ape to man, and this process goes on. A question that arises here is: has there been any psychological evolution of human beings at all? Have we become kinder, more compassionate, more protective of ourselves and of the environment? Although humans have evolved in their technology and in their forms of government, has there been any change in our propensity towards violence and destruction?

This perspective is expressed succinctly and humorously in the following poem:

When I was at the zoo one day, I met
A most superior ape
Of frank and noble countenance
And a pleasing shape
'Superior ape' I said, pray tell
A thing I long to know,
If the summer H-bomb brought the floods,
Will the winter's bring the snow?
'A pleasure, Sir', the ape replied
After some hesitation,
'If you do not think that I presume
Above my proper station,
For surely it is obvious
There is no need to worry:
With such great risks no man will drop
Another in a hurry.'
'Oh foolish ape, you miss the point,
I cried in indignation,
'Drop them we must, we thus ensure
Democracy's salvation.'
'Indeed,' replied the ape, 'Why then
Since you're intent on dying,
I really see small difference
In freezing or in frying.
If all that evolution's done
Is bring you to this stage,
Then I should be outside', he said,
'and you be in this cage.'
-Paul McClelland in The New Statesman

Having seen that violence has been going on for more than 5000 years, we should objectively examine what our response to this has been. In the last century, to prevent disastrous wars between nations, we e created the United Nations. Thus whenever two countries are about to spark off a war, the UN's job is to intervene and enable them to talk, to resort to diplomacy and see that they don't start a war. But we must ask ourselves, when do we call it a 'war'? What is the level at which violence must reach before we declare it. as a war? Is it when guns start firing, when airplanes start crossing and when bombs start dropping,? Or is it that, if we are hating each other, wanting to kill each other, we are already at war? Though it may not have manifested itself, violence already exists in our consciousness well before a war is declared.

If we look at the level of the nation, we have created the police force, a system of law-courts, rules and regulations, in order to contain the manifestations of violence. For thousands of years we have had the police and these courts of law. But have these quelled the violence within us? Individually, human beings continue feeling jealous, feeling angry and hating. They try to control themselves and constantly fail. For 5000 years, perhaps more, from the time of the Mahabharata down till today, the phenomenon of violence has remained a part of our lives. It is a global phenomenon, an ancient phenomenon, and its roots go deep. If we treat or try to control only the symptoms there can be no change. Violence keeps erupting again and again. So obviously, there is no freedom from violence in merely controlling violence. This does not mean that one must not control it. But it is important to become deeply aware that control does not eliminate the causes of violence.

We must therefore examine the deeper causes of violence. For violence does not lie only in Osama Bin Laden and the terrorists, whose acts are but a spectacular manifestation of this. There is violence when a man subjugates a woman; there is violence between families; there is violence in crime, in the family, in the office, in the nation and between communities, castes, and religious groups, there is psychological violence going on all the time. One may not even recognise it as violence. For one can taunt or humiliate another human being, and it is legal. Only physical violence is punishable, because it violates the law. The whole mechanism of legal control cannot eliminate the violence we carry within.

The real cause of violence is the hatred and the division in the hearts of men. We must examine where this hatred is born.Unless we go to its source we are only playing with symptoms on the periphery. To understand the deeper causes of violence one has to ask, what creates division? What makes me feel that these are my countrymen, those are others? That these are my people, my family, my religion, and those are another? How do I draw that boundary between myself and another? For division starts right there and that division leads to violence. When I am only interested in the welfare of my people, I don't care about the other people. They are not my concern, not my responsibility. I even exploit them to bring benefits for my people. In a war I can kill the others and be decorated as a hero.

So from where does this division arise that is there in every human being? Every human being is born in some family, in some country, as part of some language, some religion. Growing up in the midst of the people around him, depending on them, imitating them, there inevitably develops this sense that these are my people, this is my family, this is my language, this is my culture and my religion. Along with this comes the idea of others. Our thought process and the capacity to imagine take the process further. And the mind becomes like a lawyer, interested in profits for the me and the mine, caring only about the me and the mine, and ignoring or denigrating the other.

The capacities of memory, thought and imagination are gifts we have received during the course of evolution in greater measure than the other animals. It is these gifts that generate the power which man has. Our accomplishments originate from there, but so do all our problems. For these tools that nature has given us are generally used to further the interests of the me and the mine. Though we may occasionally talk about being kind to 'others', basically this division has become embedded in us. Such is the process of the mind becoming self-centred. Thinking about me --- my body, my family, my children, my culture, my country --- becomes a self-enclosing process. I am constantly drawing my boundaries and those people outside them become the 'others'.

One might ask, isn't that natural? Since the progression by which this happens seems so inevitable, can one find fault with any step in this process? Indeed, it is something that happens to every human being. But the question we have to ask is: are we permanently trapped in this condition? Or can we come out of it? The animal, in its reactions, is completely governed by its instincts, by what nature has dictated. It is amoral, it cannot free itself from the past. But are we so completely conditioned by our instincts, by the way the past has shaped us: the biological past, the cultural past in the form of religion and language and the past of my own experiences? If I am completely trapped in this, then the sense of division, with its attendant conflict and violence, is inevitable. But there is perhaps in human beings the possibility of a different response. I can begin by seriously asking myself: how does this division between 'me' and the 'other' begin? Can I be free of it? If we deeply ponder over this question we may come to realize that inwardly we are not all that different from each other, that differences exist all around us but they need not create division. The tall people have not had a war with the short people, at least not yet ! And the dark-haired are not fighting with the fair-haired. People don't group around this kind of difference. Such difference is a natural fact: just as no two trees are alike, no two human beings are exactly alike. So when does difference create a division? If I see a black man as a black man and a white man as a white man, that does not create a division. It is just a fact. However, if I say that the whites are superior to the blacks, then I become a racist and I have created a division.

How does the idea of superiority, of value judgement, come in? There is somewhere a process of comparison, of evaluation, of preference, that is going on. I must examine this process, because it is the source from where the division starts. If one were asked whether an Oak tree is superior to an eucalyptus tree, one may find it strange to consider one as superior to the other. An Oak tree is an Oak tree and a eucalyptus tree is a eucalyptus tree. There is no such thing as superior or inferior. On the other hand, if one wanted shade, an Oak tree may be seen as superior and if one wanted oil, the eucalyptus tree may be superior ! But if one does not want anything, then there is no question of superior or inferior. Hence, it is the 'wanting something', the desire through which one looks, that creates the definition or the scale, based on which superiority or inferiority is judged. In short, that which suits me, which gives me comfort, which protects me, becomes superior in my eyes.

This process has given rise to an ego-centric approach to life, where I judge everything from the point of view of what benefit I am deriving. I identify with the family or with a nation because I feel secure and protected. I feel that I am similar to these people, I belong to them, they will look after me. At one level, one may consider this as natural, for that is how everybody feels. However, I need to see that my mind approaches life in this self-centred way in the hope that I will be more secure and safe or that I will gain benefits and advantages for the me and the mine'.

However, this hope may in fact be an illusion. We must question whether we are really becoming secure in this process of identification and division. Hasn't this division itself produced the greatest insecurity? Because,from that division comes the divide of Hindu versus the Muslim, the Catholic versus the Protestant. From this feeling has arisen perpetual conflict and the use of power to annihilate each other. It is here that violence begins and is sustained This psychological process of division may be the greatest cause of violence in man. And if all human beings are violent, how can the collection of human beings, which is society, be non-violent? If every human being is self-centred, aggressive and harbouring hate, whichever way you organize them --- as a communist society, a socialist society or a democratic society --- the violence within man will inevitably express itself in society. Therefore one cannot blame society outside of us. I must see that I alone am totally responsible for the ending of violence. When each one of us is violent. we create a sea of violence, and in that sea of violence there are storms, which are circumstantial --- sometimes it happens in Ireland, sometimes in Kashmir, sometimes in Bosnia, and sometimes in New York. The potential for it is ever present so long as this division is there and the hatred between human beings remains. There lies the nerve-centre or the core of the problem.

Though outwardly our lives have changed and we have made tremendous technological progress, inwardly we have made little progress. We are still tribal and for my country or my people we are prepared to kill other people. The same hatred which earlier manifested through bows and arrows and axes is today manifesting through our tremendous ability and power to construct nuclear bombs and other sophisticated weapons. This lopsided development of the human being is the deep-rooted source for the multiplying global violence that we see around us.

Individually, it may seem to us that the violence of terrorism is very distant from us. Yet logically and rationally we can see our complicity in it, for it is all connected. It is a process of cause and effect and the effect becomes the cause of the next effect and so on. So it starts from here, from the sense of division in each one of us, and it ends up there. Each one of us is contributing to this violence, but it is convenient to make people like Bin Laden the scapegoat. We must ask ourselves what created a Bin Laden? Have not the educated elite too contributed to creating a Bin Laden ? Because, we have all sustained the factors behind that hatred. And we are now increasing the hatred by bombing "them". A 100 other Bin Ladens will arise for the same reasons the original Bin Laden arose. Unless we understand what creates a Bin Laden how can we free ourselves of violence by just retaliating. ?

The roots of violence can only be approached by understanding that it is not the spectacular or ugly manifestations of the ego which are the problem; the ego itself is the problem. And the ego is this self-centred approach that we take for granted. Is the ego something so natural and inevitable. Or am I just assuming that the way one has been using thought, memory and imagination is the only way it can be used ? Our present education system reflects the assumption that human beings cannot change in the use of their faculties. We spend all our time educating a child to understand the external world --- how the computer works or how a rocket goes to the moon. But we don't spend even a few hours discussing the origin of violence in us and whether there is a possibility of freeing oneself from this violence. Should we not probe this question seriously? The religious quest is essentially a quest for discovering the right use of the faculties that have come to us in the course of evolution. And should this not be part of our education?

The issue of whether it is possible for a human being to transform himself inwardly acquires great urgency today. Perhaps, not too much time is left now, because the way things are going, the scientists are saying that the Third World War will be the last war. And even if some people survive, those people would be the unfortunate ones. That means the consequences of survival are far worse than the consequences of perishing. This is a scientific statement and not some kind of emotionalism. It is to this threshold of destruction that we have brought ourselves and mankind. What will it take for us to realise that this whole approach to life is really a grave danger for ourselves?

Facing these issues directly brings us to an understanding of our individual responsibility. We have to deeply explore the truth about the violence tbat is there in us. Unless each individual takes responsibility to understand the causes of violence within himself and therefore discovers the ending of violence, there is no fundamental change possible in society. But one might ask, how is this possible?

A clue might lie in the way we respond when we are able to perceive a direct threat to our lives. Nature has given us a certain intelligence which prevents us from putting our finger in the fire, from jumping off a cliff; or standing on the road in front of a truck and getting killed, One doesn't have to think, one immediately moves: the danger is so clear. Can a human being similarly perceive the danger of the ego-centric approach? If we perceive it the way we perceive the danger of fire, nature's intelligence will act. One will not then live that way. One will not approach one's friend, or any other human being, or even an animal with that ego-centric instinct.

The problem may be that we have not seen the danger. Just reining in our ego-centric impulse is not enough, for we have to see its great danger for ourselves. Krishnamurti pointed this out rather dramatically, when he said, "Your house is on fire, and you are not aware, you are sleeping". We laugh at the figure of Nero who fiddled while Rome was burning. But we too may be like Nero: our house is on fire and we are fiddling with laws and rules to contain the violence, indulging in entertainment to escape facing it, or offering some worship in the vain hope of a better future.

Therefore each individual must take responsibility for the ending of violence in his/her consciousness. Without that there is no possibility of permanently ending the violence out there in the world.

Prof. P. Krishna
Last modified: Mon Apr 25 22:21:03 PST 2005