Q: In the Ramayana and Mahabharata, it’s clear that there was killing. The Gita itself takes place on a battlefield. How is this explained and justified in terms of ahimsa (non-violence)?
Swami Satchidananda: In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna talks about non‑violence to Arjuna and says, “You should be a good yogi following non‑violence, so get up, go and fight.” What a contradiction. But, here is the key: Even doctors cause violence when they operate. If doctors follow non‑violence and don’t want to hurt their patients, what will happen? The patients will die soon. So, the motive behind the action is more important than the action itself. What is a doctor’s motive? To save the patient, but the action of surgery causes violence. So we should understand the scriptures in that light.
There is no Veda without the mention of ahimsa. “Ahimsa paramo dharmaha,” which means, “The biggest dharma is ahimsa.” Sri Ramalinga Swamigal always said, “If you want the golden key to unlock the heaven, be kind to all that lives.” No scripture has ever recommended himsa, but we should understand himsa in the right way, with the proper perspective.
Q: Sometimes I feel that telling the truth can bring more harm. Does satya (truthfulness) mean telling the truth in every situation?
Swami Satchidananda: It’s true that telling a lie can sometimes bring benefit. For example, if you refuse to tell that lie and tell the truth, it may hurt people. So that’s important. I often tell the story of a young woman running to a sadhu who was living in seclusion and wanting to hide in his hut because a bandit was trying to kill her and get all her jewels. So what should the sadhu say? Even without his permission she went and hid herself in his room. Then the bandit asked, “Sadhu, did you see a girl coming here with a lot of jewels?” What should the sadhu say? “Oh yes, I am a yogi, I practice satya and I will never tell a lie. Yes, she came here and here she is hiding in my hut.”
What will happen then? Certainly the robber will go in, kill her, take all the jewels, come out and say, “Hey, guy, I don’t want you to be a witness to my crime,” and dispose of the sadhu also. And then when the robber runs out, the police dogs will chase him, the police will catch him and hang him for double murder. That means three people died because the sadhu told a truth. Right?
So the purpose behind what you are doing is important. The example I gave earlier about doctors seeming to cause violence. Surgeons hurt us with a knife when they operate on us. It’s hurtful, painful but their intention is to save us from the problem. So it’s not the action itself; it’s what purpose it’s done for and what the outcome is. Is it beneficial to those concerned? Even a lie is taken as truth if it’s going to bring benefit and no harm. So you can apply this to every action.
Q: What is the benefit of asteya (non-stealing)?
Swami Satchidananda: All wealth will come. The scriptures say that when you walk, all the gems and rubies and diamonds will appear from the ground. Why? Because you didn’t want anything. When you don’t want, everything comes to you, wants you. These are all the proofs that the mind can achieve anything and everything, if only it’s under your total control. That’s the reason why all the great people said that the greatest victory ever achieved on this earth is not over other countries or other people but over one’s own mind. Until that is achieved your victory is not a victory at all.
Q: If things come to you after you don’t want them, then what fun is it when you get them?
Swami Satchidananda: You don’t want them for yourself, so when they come you use them for somebody else. Things come to you thinking that you won’t keep them for yourself, but you will utilize them for others. That’s why they come to you. The minute they know that you are going to use them for your sake they won’t come. They want some right person to spend them properly. They’re looking for people who could use them for the benefit of everybody else. That’s the reason a genuine renunciate will not find any want unfulfilled. Because a renunciate never wants anything for themselves. So all the wants come after that person.
Where do people who have a lot of cash keep their currency? In safes. It’s a safe for them but, for the currency, it’s a prison. There’s a beautiful Tamil word for wealth, “selvam.” If you elongate the “selvam,” it’ll be selvoham. Selvoham means, “We will be going. We won’t be staying in one place. We’ll keep rolling.” When you get money, it’s not only for you to keep. Keep it rolling. Pass it on, pass it on. That’s the purpose of making coins round! But if you lock it up, the currency feels imprisoned. It begins to pray, “Can anyone save me from this safe? Please send a savior.” And then, if this prayer is really deep and sincere enough, it will be answered. The savior will come in the middle of the night to break open the safe!
So, let these virtues get rooted in your life and then when you walk, you will see pieces of gold, diamonds everywhere because you are honest. When you don’t steal anybody’s things, they like to steal you. That way, if you have experienced that kind of Yoga in your life, you have made yourself divine. Then you don’t need to go and do anything. Just by being you, you’ll be able to help the whole world.
Q: I don’t understand what is unspiritual about sex? Why is brahmacharya required?
Swami Satchidananda: Spirituality doesn’t demand that you have to be celibate as long as you don’t overindulge. That is the main reason Patanjali talks about brahmacharya. In the Yoga Sutras he doesn’t say anything much about it, except, “Brahmacharya pratishthayam viryalabhah.” If you restrain your sexual activity you may save a lot of virya, vitality, that’s all he said. Viryalabhah: You will have enough vitality for your physical and mental use. That’s the reason people are asked to limit their physical activity, sexual activity or even to practice celibacy. Don’t suppress your sexuality but don’t go to extremes either.
Your vital energy is a great treasure, a great wealth. You can easily get dollars but not virya. The more you save, the more you become strong, physically and mentally. But if you overindulge and lose your vitality, it affects your body and mind. Many of the problems we see nowadays are because of this. We often hear the saying, “Sex sells.” That’s why modern society goes through a lot of problems. Overindulging in sensuality puts a lot of stress on the body and mind. That’s why Patanjali says to reserve as much of your vitality as possible.
Q: I’ve heard that aparigraha means one shouldn’t accept gifts. What is the reason, please?
Swami Satchidananda: If you remember the goal of Yoga, which is keeping the mind peaceful and calm, then you’ll understand why it’s not recommended that you accept certain gifts. Often, when you accept a gift, unconsciously you become obliged to that person. And then you may have to go out of the way to do something to satisfy that person. There are some who may give just for the joy of giving, but, more often than not, gift givers expect something in return. That’s what you call a business gift. There’s some kind of expectation behind the gift. And when you become obliged, it disturbs your mind. So it is for that reason it isn’t recommended.
Of course aparigraha has another meaning also: Do not hoard too many things. Don’t have more than what you need. Why? If you have too many things you don’t know which one to use, where to keep them, how to take care of them. For example, if you have too many clothes in the closet, if you want to go somewhere in a hurry, you’ll open the closet and you can waste almost two hours because you don’t know what to wear. So, too many things sometimes creates problems.
The great South Indian sage Thiruvalluvar said, “From whatever things you detach, from those things you are not affected.” That means that it’s the attachment that affects you. So if you are detached from things your peace is maintained. A person who lives a simple life is less bothered, less stressed. Peace is the most precious thing and it’s worth preserving above all else. So always test your desires, all your actions against the touchstone of peace: “Will this affect my peace?” If the answer is, “No,” Okay, let it be then. If the answer is, “Yes, my peace is going to be affected,” then stay away from it, because you should care more for your peace than for anything else. It is with this intention that all the yamas and niyamas are given: just so that you can keep your peace. And that is the goal of Yoga.