The Root Cause of Conflict

The Root Cause of Conflict

I would like to go into this whole question of peace and conflict as a dialogue
with oneself. We learnt from Krishnamurti that if we really deeply want to
understand an issue, we must not form opinions about it, one mustn’t side
with a particular viewpoint, one must start with questions and rely on
observation of facts. Ask oneself deep fundamental questions and not seek
answers in the writings of others but rather explore them oneself with a
passive awareness which can discover the deeper truths which underlie the
whole issue. Such an approach is fundamentally necessary, especially for a
theosophist, because the motto of the theosophical society says that truth is
the highest religion, it has to be perceived and is therefore not the known. To
explore into the unknown and not just take sides with the known is important
for a theosophist. When one so perceives the deeper truths related to the
issue under consideration, it contributes to the wisdom in our mind, it
transforms the vision with which one looks at life and so on. So I would like
to explore the roots of conflict in this way. To get to the root, one has to dig
deep. To just understand the branches, you can use study and intellectual

So I begin by asking myself what exactly do we mean by peace and by
conflict? I find that in society we talk of peace as the interval between two
conflicts, between two wars. Right now

*Talk delivered during the Conference on ‘Peace and Conflict’ held at the Indian
Section Headquarters of the Theosophical Society, Varanasi, on 7 March, 2010.
most people would say that we are going through a period of peace because
there is no global war going on. So is peace just the interval between two
wars? And what do we mean by war? When I examine that, I find that we
call it a war only when guns start shooting and there is an armed conflict,
when planes start bombing and the army starts moving. But does warfare
or conflict begin only at that time? Is it really peace before a war begins? Is
the hatred between two communities, whether they be national communities
or religious communities or caste communities or linguistic communities, not
a form of psychological warfare? Is it not that psychological warfare which
increases in its external manifestation and eventually leads to physical
warfare? So where do I draw the line and say it is a conflict now? It seems
to me that there is no well defined border like that. It is a continuum. There
is a border only in the outer manifestation of that hatred, of that
psychological warfare between two communities. Since the one leads to the
other, the roots of the conflict do not lie just in the specifics of the situation
which has generated the conflict. For example, the specifics of the situation
in Kashmir may lie in the history of how independence was obtained and what happened at that time, what the British said and the legality of whether
the Maharaja acceded to India willfully and so on. Those facts are not
irrelevant, they are true, but they don’t seem to me to be the root of the
So if one is talking about a lasting peace and not just a temporary peace
between two episodes of armed conflict, then the question acquires a much
deeper significance. We have to dig deep in order to understand the source
from where this conflict is emanating. If we don’t do that, then our existence
becomes a series of conflicts to be resolved and we have developed various
mechanisms for conflict resolution. For conflicts between nations we have
created the United Nations. They bring about some kind of compromise
between the two nations. We have seen that happen repeatedly in Kashmir,
in Palestine and those compromises are constantly breaking down. If you
look at human history, it has been a very long history of conflict. These
conflicts are not a new thing. In exploring the roots we must be aware of the
seriousness of the problem in order to understand its nature. Conflict is not
a new problem for humanity. We have read about the Mahabharata, which is
pre-historic, but even as far as known history goes, we have always had war
and conflict in different parts of the world and we are still at it now. You
solve it at one place and it erupts at another place. So one asks oneself
whether we are not at war, is that really peace or the seeds of conflict are present always? When suitable circumstances arise, they will erupt into a
new conflict, whether large or small. The scale of the conflict is incidental,
circumstantial. You may succeed in controlling it, but the root cause of
conflict does not lie in those circumstances because circumstances are
always variable.
So where is the root cause of conflict? Where do the seeds lie? Is it not
important for us to examine from where these seeds come and whether
those seeds can be eliminated? If we are really concerned with a lasting
peace in society we must ask that question. We may not know the answer,
but we must ask that question in earnest. Otherwise we are merely
accepting conflict to be an inevitable part of life. You may say it is innate to
human nature, that it has biological roots and it can never be got rid of and it
is no use philosophizing about the roots of the conflict. You can keep dealing
with the manifestation and hope to contain it. We have been doing that for
five thousand years in various ways. We have tried political reform, we are
trying economic reform, we have tried legislation, judiciary, police. We have
also tried organised religions around the teachings of a great sage, trying to
follow him, follow the message of love and compassion, calling ourselves the
followers of Gandhi, the followers of Jesus, the followers of Buddha and so on
but nothing has succeeded. This is an observed fact. At the end of all those
attempts we are where we are today. The actual state of humanity today is revealed daily on the television screens and the newspapers. So I realize
that this is not a simple problem, it is not merely a matter of changing
circumstances or creating new outer structures. Why have human beings
not been able to solve this problem for thousands of years though we have
progressed greatly in every branch of knowledge and skills? We think we are
very intelligent and in some ways we are. But we have not been able to
resolve the problems of conflict and war.
These are the factual observations with which I begin my enquiry. If I may
raise this question through an analogy: it is like having a headache everyday
and taking aspirin each time to get rid of that headache. Would we say that
is an intelligent way to live? Or would we say, no you must find out what the
deeper cause is and whether that cause can be eliminated so that one can
come back to lasting health? One is not saying, don’t deal with the
symptom. If you have a terrible headache, you may need to take an aspirin
otherwise you can’t even think clearly. So, aspirin may have a place; but if
you just become dependent on aspirin, you will never get rid of the
underlying disease. So coming back to the issue which we are considering,
what is the disease? Despite the fact that we think we are very intelligent,
and that intelligence has shown itself in the field of knowledge, science and
technology and so on, why is it that it has not been able to solve this
problem? We have evolved various forms of aspirin for dealing with the headache, but we have not really been able to eradicate the disease so that
we can have lasting peace and a society in which there is real happiness.
Would that always remain an utopia, never become a reality? What can we
try which we haven’t tried in the last 5000 years? Is it merely a question of
trying the same thing in a better way? Should we have a better form of
politics, a better form of religion, better forms of diplomacy, better police
control? If these are only controlling the symptoms, they will never resolve
the underlying disease.
As theosophists, I think it behoves us to ask these more fundamental and
deeper questions which are concerned with educating oneself and perhaps
thereby educating also the humanity to live more wisely. One finds it being
said all over the world that human beings are the pinnacle of evolution, that
we are far superior to all other forms of life which have gone before us. I
think we need to question that assumption. Of course we are cleverer, we
can understand more than the animals but have we used our capacities of
thinking, of imagination, of planning and so on for the betterment of
humanity, for the betterment of the earth, or have we been more
destructive? About the damage to the earth we are reading every day now:
global warming, ecological catastrophes and so on, but apart from the earth
what have we done to our own species? No animals or plants have
destroyed either other kinds of species or their own kind to the extent to which we have. And yet we feel we are superior, we are more intelligent!
Are we defining intelligence in terms of power? We are perhaps more
powerful than the animals because we can kill them, and exploit them. If we
call that intelligence, then it was not intelligent to send the British away from
India. They were more powerful, they were more intelligent in this sense.
Why did we send them away and why did we think that was justified? So our
definition of superiority, our definition of intelligence changes according to
the situation. There is a biological definition given by Darwin which says
intelligence is what leads to survival. The intelligent are the fittest and
therefore survive. Even by that limited biological definition, can we claim
that we are more intelligent? Are we going towards survival or have we
brought the entire earth and the environment to the brim of a holocaust
which no other animal or other species did? They have existed for millions of
years longer than we have. So it seems to me that we may disappear from
the face of the earth and perhaps also take with us a large number of other
species which are not responsible for the state of affairs. It will happen for
the very reason that Darwin gave, namely that a species disappears when it
is not able to adapt itself to its environment and cannot live in harmony with
it. So I ask myself, whether we have become too ‘intelligent’ for survival
because survival doesn’t require this kind of intelligence which we are
cultivating. The ants and the cockroach have survived longer than us. They
have not brought the world to the level of extinction. So I am just questioning
this whole feeling which we take for granted that we are very intelligent beings. We take for granted our definition of what intelligence is. So are we
really intelligent or have we just defined intelligence unintelligently? I leave
you with that question, a very fundamental question indeed. Krishnamurti
said there is no intelligence without compassion, but we do not think so.
The other day it was pointed out that university education conditions our
mind to think along certain narrow grooves. It alienates us from the ground
realities of the world we are living in by compartmentalizing our knowledge.
We think that the university graduates and professors are very intelligent
people precisely because we haven’t examined what really intelligence
means. This kind of intelligence may not be the intelligence that leads to
survival and therefore may not be the true intelligence. I am not asking you
to believe that. We have to investigate, find out if that is true. So there are a
lot of questions we must ask if we really want to get to the root of this whole
problem of conflict which is a long lasting problem and has very deep roots
in our psyche. You can keep on solving it at the superficial level but it
becomes necessary to do so precisely because we have not solved it at the
root and therefore it never really ends. What has happened over the years
is that the manifestation of the problem has grown. War is now much more
dangerous than it was before, but the underlying disease is the same: the
hatred between human communities from where conflict is generated. It is
said that war begins in the minds of men and that is true. That is where the
roots lie; that is where we need to tackle it. The rest of it follows as logical
causation. Just as there is causation in nature which science studies, there is also causation in our psyche. Unless we go to the root cause and eliminate it
the rest follows as a logical corollary, an inevitable sequence. Therefore it is
not mere philosophy to do this enquiry; it is an urgent necessity. If we say it
is inevitable, this is the only way society has always existed, then you have
resigned yourself to the situation. I am reminded of Kahlil Gibran’s beautiful
statement “When the cup is empty, I resign myself to its emptiness; but
when it is half full, I resent its half fullness”! So is the cup empty? Again
that is a fundamental question I would like to leave you with, so that we can
explore deeply and stay with these questions.
So where does this division between communities begin because from this
division comes hatred, from the hatred comes violence and then you have a
larger and larger manifestation of violence till we call it war. When I look at
that question, I see that it begins with saying, “We are different from them”.
Each community feels ‘we are different from them’. How does the mind
define and draw that line? That is another fundamental question. Who are
the ‘we’ and who are ‘they’? On what basis does the mind draw that line?
Were the people in Pakistan our people before 1947 and we loved them as
our brothers and today, because there is a line drawn across the nation by
the British, they are no longer our brothers? So is it just a matter of drawing
a line on the earth or is the line here inside my head? When I examine that I
see that the dog crosses the border without need for any visa, the breeze blows across those borders, the forests cross the line, the mountain ranges
go through. There is no such border on the earth! I realize that it is a
creation of our own thinking and also of course of our history in the sense
some emperor at some time came and conquered and made the borders of
what is called India and now I say I am Indian because I was born in that
region. And over the years the borders of ‘India’ have been expanding and
shrinking. It all seems so unreal. Anyway that is where it begins. Let us
proceed further. Even if I see that the other person is different from me, why
does that create division? That is another question we need to examine
closely. When does a difference turn into a division and why? Difference is
natural. We are all different from each other : in our age, in our wealth, in
our knowledge, in our skin colour, in our size and shape. Everything in nature
is different from everything else. So, difference is natural. Differentiation is
also natural. If I can’t distinguish a tree from a building, there is something
wrong with me. But when does that turn into a division? Is that an inevitable
process or is that a psychological process created by my own mind? So is it
something existent in nature, or is it an illusion built up by my mind? Let me
define what I mean by illusion. Illusion is something which doesn’t have an
existence in Nature but is merely a creation of my own mind, my
imagination, or something to which I am giving tremendous importance
when it is really not important. So is the conflict coming from illusion or is
the conflict coming from facts? The fact is we are all different from each other. Is the division also a fact, or is it a creation of my own mind, my
limited form of thinking?
Let us examine that question. Is the Hindu really very different from the
Muslim? That is a very major source of conflict today in our country. I am
taking that as an example. Are these two human beings really different in
fact or they feel they are very different just because they think so? Thinking
can be changed. If they find that their thinking is false it will end. Illusion
can end through the perception of the truth. If you discover that the false is
false and the truth is true, then the false ends. Therefore illusion can end.
Therefore if the cause is rooted in illusion the cause can be eliminated but
when the cause is not rooted in illusion you can’t eliminate it. So it is
important to investigate that. Is the causation of conflict based on illusion or
on fact. If it is based on facts you can only deal with it outwardly. To give
an analogy again, if I fall down and break my bones, it causes pain. That is
not a psychological pain, it is not the creation of my own mind. The sage
suffers that pain as much as I do. But I also feel a lot of self-pity out of that
pain which the sage does not feel. So psychological suffering has to be
separated from pain which is biological. Psychological suffering may arise
from illusion, from a mental construct which has no reality whereas the other
is factual. So I need to find out whether the seeds of conflict are rooted in
illusion or in fact? So, I ask: Is the Hindu really different from the Muslim (or the Palestinian from the Jew) or they only think so? Let us examine it
scientifically. Are their bodies very different? The medical scientist will tell
you, “I can’t tell from looking at the body or the contents of the body
whether it is that of a Muslim or a Hindu”. When he was born he was born in
the same way. All this difference is imposed afterwards. Is their
consciousness very different? When you examine that, you find there is
desire, there is attachment, there is fear, there are all the instincts which are
the same in all human beings. So what is different? Just the knowledge, the
superficial layer of conditioning acquired as you grow up in this life. It is
different because I was born in a different family, different culture, a
different country and he was born in another. That superficial layer is called
the conditioning of the mind, the knowledge acquired in this life. That alone
is different. So the Hindu has been told something about God, he believes
that and he propagates that as truth. He really doesn’t know what God is.
The Muslim has been told something else about God. He also does not know
what God is, but he believes that and he propagates that as true. So it is
these illusions that divide us. If we have the humility to say to ourselves I
really don’t know what God is, which is the truth, we would be friends
inquiring together what is really meant by God! So I see that the roots of the
conflict, lie in illusion. We don’t know that we don’t know. It is not important
to say I know, it is more important to know that you don’t know and to live
with an exploring mind that posits the truth as the unknown. Hitler was very
sure that the Nazis are superior. It is out of that certainty that all the violence, all the cruelty, everything else came. Therefore it is important to
recognize the value of doubt, to doubt one’s own opinions, one’s own
conclusions. Otherwise we will never have a learning mind, we will never
come upon wisdom.
This whole national division comes about through identification. I identify
myself with India and I feel Indian culture is superior to other cultures. Also, I
feel only for these people and want to work only for them. Why? Why should
I not read Shakespeare just because he was born in England or not read Lao
Tsu because he was in China? What has it to do with where a human being
is born? Is only the inheritance of what the people in India said or wrote my
inheritance or the entire culture of the world is my inheritance? That
depends on whether I regard myself as a world citizen and feel I am part of
whole of humanity or I regard myself as part of just India? Peace requires a
global mind which feels for the whole of the earth and the whole of
humanity. That is the reality and all these divisions have come about for
historical reasons and out of our own ignorance. That brings me to what the
Buddha pointed out long ago. He said ignorance is the cause of sorrow;
ignorance not as lack of knowledge but as illusion. I see that these illusions
run very deep, that even my feeling that I am very different from the
Pakistani or the American or the Chinese is rooted in illusion, that even this
nationalism is rooted in illusion and from there comes a lot of our division and a lot of our conflict. The root of conflict lies in illusion, therefore conflict
can be ended because illusion can be ended and that is the motto of the
Theosophical Society: Truth is the highest religion. When you discover what
is true and what is false, the illusion ends. When the illusion ends, the
narrowness in the mind ends, you are no longer a nationalist, you are no
longer a narrow minded Hindu, you just know that you come from a Hindu
family and you are not different from another human being who has come
from another family, you see that difference only as a difference of skin
colour, a difference in height, difference in the kind of food you eat and it is
not important. When you give tremendous importance to that, it creates
When the British came here they looked down on the Indians because they
eat with their hands and not with knife and fork. When the Indian goes
there, he asks, why do these chaps have to eat with knife and fork when you
have fingers? Both are just opinions arising from the fact that one man was
taught that and the other man was taught something else. That is all. There
is nothing superior or inferior about it. So does division arise when we
attribute superiority or inferiority to a difference, which is a kind of value
judgment? From where does the mind make that value judgment? All
differences do not create division. We have not had a war between tall
people and short people, at least not till now! We are not yet that stupid!! We haven’t had a war between dark haired people and white haired people.
We do sometimes see a difference only as a difference. But when you see a
man doing Namaz and you see another man praying in the temple you see
more than just a difference and develop like and dislike. Why doesn’t the
mind perceive that also as just a difference? When does the difference turn
into a division and why? It is a psychological process. Difference is natural; it
is not psychological. If I did not notice that the man from Africa is black and
the man from Europe is white something would be wrong with my senses.
But the day I say whites are superior to the blacks, I have turned a racist and
I have done away with the universal brotherhood of man! So why does the
mind say so? If you examine that you will see that it comes because we
approach things with some kind of desire in our mind. If I asked you if the
peepul tree is superior to a eucalyptus tree, how would you answer that
question? You would say a peepul tree is a peepul tree and a eucalyptus
tree is a eucalyptus tree. What do you mean by superior? If you want shade,
the peepul tree is superior. If you want eucalyptus oil, then eucalyptus tree is
superior. But if you don’t want anything, what is superior? So I see that this
feeling of superiority is connected with my wanting things to be favourable to
me, which is the essence of the ego process. When we approach life in that
way, egotiscally, then our nationality, our religion is used to build our ego, to
find an identity, I use my Hinduism, I use my belief structure, I use my
nationality to build my ego. I don’t see it just as a fact. So can we cut out
the psychological and remain with only facts? It is necessary to be aware of the danger of this psychological process, which means to be aware of facts
and not to be trapped in illusion. Isn’t that intelligence? Because if you
don’t have that intelligence, you get trapped in illusion, you get drawn into
division, you start hating and destroy love, destroy friendship. Even brothers
who have grown together very closely, or intimate friends, fall apart fighting
with each other because one does not have that wisdom. This ego process
comes out of our own approach to life because we give tremendous
importance to what we receive from the trees, from this country, from our
The root of all conflict, both in our personal life and out there in society lies
in this ego-process within human consciousness. The ego is essentially a
beggar, always asking for something for itself in every relationship. From
there arises like and dislike, division and therefore conflict. We must find out
if it is possible to approach everyone and everything like a true friend, not
seeking anything from that relationship. Only then is there a relationship of
true love in which there is no division and therefore no conflict.

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