(Warning, this is a long and somewhat heady post. Footnotes, even. And if even the mention of politics turns your stomach, there will be a post about asana for runners later this week just for you)
Just in case you haven’t seen or heard one of the hundreds of TV and radio ads being aired by politicians, interest groups and anonymous rich folks this month, or read a paper, here in Boston, and nationwide, we are in the thick of a particularly loud and fractious election season. I watch very little TV, so I’ve missed most of the ads, but I’ve always been interested in politics, so I’m paying attention. This year, though, rather than focusing on tax cuts or Tea Parties, my mind has been coming back to a quote I read a few years back from, of all people, hip-hop mogul and Jivamukti yogi Russell Simmons. From a Yoga Journal vignette (italics are the interviewer’s question, full text here):
So you want to change the world? What if the yogis were the only ones who voted? “People who are into scripture and chanting and meditation, and people who just do the asanas—if you got all those people together and told them to vote, this country would be dramatically different. We’d be less fearful and more loving.”
Which got me to thinking, how does a yogi vote? Should a yogi vote? Is there a should here? I realize, and hope, this question provokes some discussion. I feel like it should.
First, I don’t think there’s any definitive answer. I grew up in a very Catholic house, and in at least every presidential race I can remember that each time I heard and read thoughtful, theologically grounded endorsements of both candidates, Reagan/Carter, Dukakis/Bush, Obama/McCain. I’m sure the same goes in most religions, most philosophies, or other “guides to being”. Which is as it should be, I suppose- government is complicated, and someone who agrees with you on one issue may drive you up a wall on another. And we have to realize that even the deepest Western understanding of the ancient yoga texts is seen through prisms of translation and context that mystics were unlikely to foresee a thousand years ago, so moving past the realm of metaphor is an inherently fraught proposition.
So, to be clear, I don’t think “yoga”, whatever that means, ever endorses one candidate or party. And I don’t think yoga teachers should be telling their students to vote on way or another. However, the important thinkers and books of yoga have some thoughts and guidelines that I think are useful in an election season.
The Bhagavad Gita, part of the India epic the Mahabharata, and one of the seminal works not just of yogic but also of Indian civic thought (Gandhi spoke and wrote about it extensively), takes place in the moments before the critical battle of a civil war. (online version here) The hero, Arjuna, looks out on the battlefield with his charioteer Krishna (a god in disguise), and sees many relatives on both sides who he knows will perish. Depressed by the sight, he says to Krishna “I will not fight.” And Krishna unleashes a tremendous monologue, the thrust of the text, telling him why he must. Early in the argument, Krishna tells Arjuna that, paraphrasing, not to act is to act. The battle will happen with or without you, the question is, will you play your role?1 What does that mean for us? Not to vote is in itself a vote, a vote to let someone else make the decision for you. So if we want a more yogic society, then its up to us, and that may (I think does) include a role for us in civic life, and voting.
Now, as I said, I don’t think yogic philosophy endorses candidates or parties, platforms or platitudes. However, another critical yogic text, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, lays out what is often called the Eightfold Path (Ashtanga, not to be confused with the asana practice of the same name), a way of being to bring oneself closer to enlightenment. The first of these is the Yamas, basically guidelines for ethical behavior. I suppose you could take all eight limbs of yoga to judge candidates, but I think from a public policy point of view, the yamas are the most relevant. So using the yamas, here’s a little “yogic voters guide”, questions to ask about candidates in the races in your yogic neighborhood.
Ahimsa- (nonviolence) Do the candidate take positions that actively promote the goal of a nonviolent, peaceful society? Does the language of their campaign encourage or discourage non-violence? (Remembering that in the yogic texts, physical violence is not the only or even primary target of teachings about ahimsa.)
Satya- (truthfulness) Are the candidates honest in their descriptions of their positions on issues, and their anticipated effects on the people they serve? Do they accurately describe their own backgrounds and qualifications? Are attacks on their opponents’ positions accurate and honest, or misleading and perhaps attacks on their opponents’ character rather than their policies? (I believe, certainly for myself, that one’s relationship to truth evolves, so that a change of heart on one or another issue is not in and of itself dishonest.) And especially now, when there are so many powerful interests poring so much money into their small causes, and when being a demagogue seems to win elections, will the candidate as an elected official be willing to speak truth to power, even if there will be political consequences?
Asteya (non-stealing) This one’s a little trickier in the political realm. Does the candidate promote positions that forward a fair, equitable economy? Issues of tax policy, job creation, eminent domain and corporate rights and responsibilities come to mind here. (Again, I’m not going to pretend that my yoga has given me any answers on equitable tax policy. However, I am reminded of the Ben Franklin quote: “taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society.”)
Brahmacharya- (variously translated as continence, abstinence, sexual responsibility) Also pretty tricky. Does the candidate advocate policies that promote healthy, responsible sexuality in society, policies that respect both the personal space necessary for a healthy sexuality and the safety of the public at large? Does the candidate speak and behave in a way that respects his/her own, and others’, sexuality?
Aparigraha- (non-covetousness, abstention from greed) Does the candidate speak, and does s/he promote positions that respect all their constituents. Have they used their positions in public life in the past to feed their own greed ahead of the needs of those they are elected to serve?
In my life, I can’t remember a single candidate who perfectly answers all the questions I present here. Nor would I expect them to- what I’ve read about Gandhi himself, perhaps the closest thing to a flawless saint in the 20th century, was his own worst critic, and didn’t think a whole lot of his worthiness to serve in office. So if he can’t meet a yogic criteria, heaven help the rest of us. But maybe the great texts give us a context to evaluate the people who are asking for our vote in a way that will serve our goals as yogis, on and off the mat. Thoughts?
Postscript- as I was writing this, my teacher and hero Seane Corn posted a project on Facebook called “Yoga Votes”. Funny how these things move…
1. Some of the scholarship I’ve read on this places this in the context of a movement at the time of the Gita that said basically, that renouncing the world and becoming a hermit was the only path to enlightenment, and the Gita was arguing against this school of thought.
Additional references- Stephen Mitchell’s translation of Bhagavada Gita, especially the introduction.
Ram Dass- Paths to God
Shambala Press translation of the Yoga Sutras of Pantajali
Translation of Yoga Sutras in Body Awakening Teacher Training manual, 2008, southbostonyoga.net
Rebecca Pacheco: http://omgal.blogspot.com/2009/10/ya-wanna-talk-yamas-niyamas.html
Yoga Journal Basics: the eight limbs
Special thanks also to Rebecca, Professor Peter Valdina, Sandy Kalik and Luke Donaher for edits to this post.