A better world

By Dr. Ganesh Mohan

This year, like none before in recent times, has shone a spotlight on inequality and discrimination. Even as a teenager, before the era of the internet, I recall reading enough biology to realize that we humans are all basically the same. In any meaningful parameter such as intelligence, emotion, or character, you are more different from a random person of your own race than racial groups are from each other. Your behavior is not an outcome of your race; it’s an outcome of the circumstances of your life and your choices.

But the circumstances of your life are influenced by your race, because of the way the world is now and history over centuries. That influence is often invisible to those who are on the advantageous side of the equation – like if you have a lot of money, you do not have to worry about it unless you choose to.

A small anecdote: I was once in an airport in the West with a friend who is white. I am from south India with brown skin tone as you can see from my videos and photos. We had to wait as the flight was delayed. We were sitting near a metal staircase. You could walk under the staircase to the other side of the room, a common layout in airports. Feeling the need to exercise, my friend casually went to the stairs and began hanging from their underside, doing stretches and other movements. I would think twice before doing that, harmless though it is, because it is a long-ingrained caution in me over many years of travel that I don’t want to risk being the brown guy doing something out of the ordinary at an airport in the West. Behavior that is given a pass as harmless or entertaining when done by my white friend could appear problematic in the eyes of the other travelers if it was me doing the same – unconscious or deliberate bias on their part, unintentional advantage for my white friend, implicit disadvantage for me.

This is an example with little serious risk (and I am not multiply disadvantaged in other ways, in education, poverty, gender etc.), but that is why I chose it. Once you start looking, you will realize how pervasive and pernicious discrimination can be, accepted unconsciously as “the normal” in situations from the trivial to the deadly.

Another example with greater impact: a friend in Asia in a large yoga studio chain was telling me that the studio’s career-advancement system favors white and brown teachers over native yoga teachers of that country. What does your skin color have to do with your competence as a yoga teacher and why should that influence your professional advancement? My brown skin does not automatically make me a better yoga teacher, but I would be advantaged by the bias in that studio’s system.

In evolutionary terms, we are apes who have taken a recent turn to greater executive function – a function that we seem to delight in using to make a mess of the world for other living beings, particularly those whom we dislike.

Delighting in dislike is a deep-seated, unconscious delusion. Intolerance and dislike cannot make a better world. Those who indulge in it are creating more suffering for themselves. How can they reduce the suffering of others?

Very few people can withdraw from the world wisely, taking no more from the world than they need to survive – staying a sannyasi (renunciate) who takes just the bare necessities. Theirs is the deeper path – the way of moksha, of transcendence, letting go of all desires and dislikes, to reach stillness and inner peace.

As for the rest of us, we all have a responsibility proportional to our participation in this world to make it a just and compassionate place for all living beings. This is why, in the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna urges Arjuna to fight. Arjuna is not planning to be a monk; he is going to participate in worldly affairs, and in that case, it is his responsibility to do the right thing and oppose injustice.

But the logic of yoga extends deeper: you owe it to yourself to nurture fairness and kindness in your heart. If you encourage dislike, intolerance, and discrimination in your heart, you may hurt your enemy or you may not; everything is uncertain in this world. But you will certainly harm your own peace of mind and wellbeing and suffer more; that is certain.

The Yoga Sutra (II.15) says this with tremendous insight. The yogi with clarity truly sees that dislike is suffering in each moment for the person experiencing it. Perceiving dislike as pleasure is delusion. The yogi not only understands this intellectually, but is convinced of it viscerally, like the difference between knowing that fire is hot and experiencing the burning of fire. If we truly appreciate the inner suffering that intolerance and injustice bring us, we can begin to say from the heart, “No more. I wish to let go of this from within me.” From that inner clarity, wisdom and lasting compassion arise, a light that may spread in the world.