The Seven Deadly Sins - III. Non-Violence and Regeneration

by Raghavan Iyer @ Theosophy Trust


THE SEVEN DEADLY SINS
III. Non-Violence and Regeneration


  The seven deadly sins can be viewed independently of their historical and theological interpretations. They may be seen as an open-textured set of human actions, attitudes and dispositions related to each other through their common participation in an underlying spiritual condition of the soul. In particular, in a Gandhian perspective they may be seen as complex instances and ramifications of violence deriving from untruth. One may leave open the question whether all forms of violence are comprehended within the moral connotations of the seven deadly sins. Certainly, a broad and important range of ethically problematic action does arise through what we understand as pride, avarice, lust, anger, gluttony, envy and sloth. Each of these terms has a rich penumbra of meanings, and each at the core represents the obscuration of an essential aspect of human strength (or virtue, in the classical sense of the word). In a Spinozist analysis they are passions, passive reactions of the human being informed by inadequate ideas — a lack of fullness of spiritual vision of the wholeness of Nature, the wholeness of Man and the wholeness of God. In a Kantian sense they are all fallings off from the ideal of a purely good will. They are forms of moral self-contradiction, inherently non-universalizable, and therefore constituting corruptions of the soul's faculty of reason. In a Pauline sense they are failures of love, of charity and of sympathy. They display the lifelessness, coldness and cruelty that are inescapable so long as the soul lies bound in the coils of mortality and is unable to ascend through an intimate adoration of the divine — that in which we live, move and have our collective being.

  All three of these themes — blinded vision, corruption of will and erosion of sympathy — are crucial to an understanding of contemporary moral, psychological, spiritual and social violence, whether one considers the small circle of friends and family, the wider circle of the city and nation or the great circle of the globe. These three tendencies are like powerful vectors flowing from the centre of one's nature and forming a kind of inverted constellation of force. Where there ought to be vision, strength and love, there is instead blindness, weakness and hatred — a sort of dwarfed and perverted caricature of human nature, a tragic realization of a Hobbesian view of man.

  This condition is no doubt pervasive in modern civilization, which Gandhi compared to the South American upas tree, a maleficent tree that emanates noxious vapours, choking out life for miles around. But the crucial question is whether this is the natural and inevitable condition of humanity, or whether it is, as Spinoza, Kant, St. Paul and Shankaracharya would affirm, a superimposition upon underlying powers of wisdom, courage and love. The latter view, like its opposite, is unverifiable and therefore also unfalsifiable. Neither optimism nor pessimism about human nature can be given an unexceptionable warrant on narrowly empirical grounds. Yet as Plato observed in the Republic, it makes all the difference in the world whether we tell small children that Nature is inherently consistent with human good and also non-deceptive, or the reverse. We either encourage the child's sense of responsibility and natural capacity to learn, or we cripple them. Where there is a firm optimism about Humanity, Nature and History, there will be a lifelong inclination to learning and self-correction. No man or woman would willingly harbour in the heart an untruth, a falsehood, a lie about the most important things, since this would subvert at the core all one's attempts to realize any good in life. Paradoxically, the worst falsehood one could clutch to one's bosom would be the pessimistic doctrine that evil and ignorance are the inevitable moral condition of man. No matter how ugly the moral visage of humanity may seem in an age obsessed with murder, rapine and deceit, and terrified of mass self-annihilation through foolish or self-righteous misadventure — nevertheless, despair and doubt are the most disabling dangers. Perhaps this is why faith and hope are mentioned before charity, even though charity is greatest of all.

  In a similar manner Gandhi displayed a marked reluctance to begin with an affirmation of the power of love and then to derive from it all other modes of human strength and goodness. Instead, he began like Plato with an affirmation of the centrality of the vision of truth in one's life and the necessity of unwavering adherence to the truth as one knows it in one's heart. Without this devotion to truth, one's life is worth nothing. It is like a vessel with no compass. It cannot lead one to any fair haven. Yet the Gandhian idea of truth is much more than any merely cognitive state of mind. It is first and foremost an ontological precondition. In Indian thought Sat is absolute reality, beyond the realm of genesis and corruption. It is the ineffable ground of all truth and existence, the source both of differentiated subjectivity and objectivity. The satya in a human being is his or her relative and partial realization of the abstract ideal of Truth, what one might call the tap-root of one's true being. According to many cognate metaphors, the life of true Nature is stifled and choked out by a secondary and sporadic growth. In the Bhagavad Gita this is powerfully expressed in terms of the great Ashwatha tree of the world, growing downwards from its roots in heaven and branching out to fill all space with its mayavic or illusionary foliage. To reach wisdom, one must hew down this tree with the sharpened blade of discrimination. In Chaucer's Parson's Tale the whole assemblage of the seven deadly sins is seen as the trunk of a great tree from which ramify all the hosts of sinful acts. In either case, what is necessary is to cut this false growth at the root so that the true individual may flourish. The vision, strength and compassion needed to do this are themselves aspects of the higher life of humanity, and their awakening is the obverse of the extinction of spiritual ignorance, impotence and malice.

  Like Gautama Buddha, Gandhi held that "Hatred ceaseth not by hatred but by love", and like Jesus Christ he held that the direct measure of one's love, and therefore truth, was in one's daily conduct in relation to others. One treats everyone with whom one comes in contact either with violence, or himsa, arising out of one's own untruth or asatya, or with ahimsa, non-violence, arising out of one's realization of truth or satya. There is no intermediate course, according to Gandhi, and thus human nature either sinks or soars at every moment. There is an earnestness to human life, a moral significance that is either sensed and seized through self-discipline, or allowed to slip away through the insidious influence of the elements of untruth in oneself. This is an especially dynamic view of moral life, and whilst perhaps explaining in part the amazing intensity of Gandhi's own life, it also draws attention to the volatility of the various vices and virtues with which moral self-discipline is concerned. Every situation brings with it fresh opportunities for learning and new tests and trials in one's grasp of truth. What one may have understood yesterday is valuable but insufficient to meet the challenge of today. Gandhi, therefore, readily recognized that "sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof", and he often recited the invocation in Cardinal Newman's hymn, "Lead, kindly Light, one step enough for me."

  This willingness to take an incremental view of moral growth while holding to the exacting universality of truth and non-violence as twin moral absolutes is the Gandhian key to progressive self-transformation rooted in self-transcendence. In this way, one avoids the Scylla of self-righteousness and the Charybdis of despair. No attainment can exhaust the potentiality of truth and non-violence. Hence, every realized good must point beyond itself. No failing can divest truth and non-violence of their vital relevance to the future. Hence, every misdeed must also point beyond itself. By holding to the possibility of progressive growth, and thereby recognizing the possibility of moral regression, one can avoid the static smugness of those who are too confident of their salvation, as well as the stagnant inertia of those who are too assured of their damnation. Either extreme extinguishes initiative. Unlike any conception of a fixed or homeostatic mean between two extremes, Gandhi sought a dialectical balance between theory and practice, ideal and act, which could release the energies of the soul and of truth itself. No doubt this vision of life is both exacting and elusive. But it holds the promise of the amelioration of human misery, transmitting hope and human dignity to the civilization of the future.

  If the ontological core of ahimsa or non-violence is satya or truth, then the various forms of violence must be seen as varieties of untruth manifesting with differing degrees of intensity. Just as one can adopt the ideals of truth and non-violence at a minimal or mundane level and also at a maximal or mystical level, one will find that the moral afflictions of human nature have their grosser and subtler forms. One might exemplify truth and non-violence in certain limited contexts and in one's relations, while at the same time one may have far to go inwardly. This is perhaps what Gandhi meant by saying, when asked whether he had no vices, that he had no visible ones. Whilst anyone could overcome one or another of the seven deadly sins outwardly, this would be but a preparation for a more intensive internal struggle. This is only common sense, and it is also the essential teaching of every great tradition of spiritual training, such as that of Gautama Buddha and John of the Cross. Both warn against the subtle recrudescence of the sins awaiting the spiritual seeker. One is never safe until the diseases of the soul are removed at the root. It would clearly represent a tremendous improvement in human affairs to remove physical violence, especially rape, murder and warfare. But this advance means little if it is purchased at the price of a psychological reign of terror and the spiritual murder of souls. It is not so much that the contemporary theory of repression is wrong about human nature, which it is, but rather the reason that it is wrong: it is simply another case of treating the symptoms and not the disease. The roots of ignorance, egotism and attachment must be cut if the poisonous tree of deadly sins is to die and the tree of life is to spring up in its place.

  Classically, pride signifies spiritual blindness, overweening self-concern, and arrogant disregard of others in the pursuit of one's own supposed good. Spinoza called pride a species of madness, thereby suggesting that it springs from a fundamentally delusive conception of one's own existence. The image of the tower as the isolated haunt of pride points to its divorce from reality. Pride is the opposite of the sagely posture portrayed in the Bhagavad Gita, wherein the wise man is said to be content in the Self through the Self — the universal Atman. Instead of this divine sufficiency and transcendent unity, the proud man is restlessness incarnate, holding forth against the world but also hopelessly entangled in snares of his own making. The story of Alexander and the Gordian knot is a parable of pride, and so too is Milton's study of Samson Agonistes, doomed to toil "eyeless in Gaza". In both cases, pride seizes upon seeming strength to undo the soul. Even the tragic grandeur of such failures has a magnetic attraction for the proud, a higher self-destructiveness or violence of the soul towards itself. According to John of the Cross, spiritual neophytes take pride in their fervour and diligence, taking on a new layer of false identity directly from their sincerest endeavours. This is known in Buddhist practice as the shadow of oneself outside the Path. To become fascinated by it is fatal to inner growth, since it involves turning away from the source of one's being — the metaphorical and noumenal inner light — towards the image cast by oneself on the field of one's awareness. As Patanjali stressed, the underlying ignorance or avidya gives rise to the false idea that the ephemeral non-self is the enduring Self. This false sense of identity is subject to myriad vicissitudes, lifted up and cast down by turns through attraction and aversion. Because of this involuted posture, the capacity of the will is subverted and the power of sympathy for others is blocked. What begins in a form of violence towards one's true Self results in an obsessive self-regard which sees others merely as means to one's own selfish ends. As a form of madness, pride is the root of self-destruction.

  All the other deadly sins may be seen as arrayed around the core of pride, some related to its subjective and some to its objective manifestations, obscuring the powers of vision, strength and sympathy. Thus, one may think of avarice, anger and envy as a turning outwards of pride into the objective field. Avarice represents the ignorant attempt to compensate for the felt insufficiency of the false self through external goods. Anger represents the impotent assertion of the unregulated centrifugal force of desire turned outward by the ego into the hall of mirrors of the phenomenal world. Envy represents the loveless striving, contention and opposition of the separative personal will against the seeming otherness of other wills in the world. On the other side, lust, gluttony and sloth may be thought of as manifestations of pride turned inward upon the subjective field of awareness. Lust seeks to fill up the void in the centre of one's being that is due to the ignorance of the joy of awareness of supernal unity with a riot of subjective fantasies of pleasure. Gluttony represents the imbalanced operation of the centripetal force of desire turned inward into an all-consuming vortex. Sloth is the careless indifference of will even to one's own well-being, a perverse inattention to the health and purity of the soul, and a sick lovelessness towards oneself that is rooted in the corruption of the will through despair. In practice, of course, any such systematic conceptualization should function as an aid to reflection and a guide to thought. Nonetheless, it would be useful to trace out the specific relations of the deadly sins to non-violence according to this schema.

  Ignorance of the true nature of things, for Plato and Jesus, for Spinoza and Gandhi, is the source of all the futile attempts to fill up life with one or another form of compensatory activity. When these pursuits focus upon external outlets, they involve the acquisition of objective possessions from a deceptive realm wherein to divide is definitely to take away. This striving after external goods is insatiable, since it is a pointless persistence in seeking spiritual fulfilment through material means. Thus, avarice inevitably draws the individual into recurrent conflicts with others. Socrates remarked, after depicting the origin of the luxurious society, that herein lay the cause of expropriation and warfare. Proudhon simply defined property as theft. Gandhi elaborated a similar conception by extolling the virtues of asteya, non-stealing, and aparigraha, non-possession, as essential to the votary of non-violence. His own individual stance towards personal possessions is well known, but he also put forth a subtle theory of trusteeship for all external goods as an ethically superior alternative to the violence of aggressive capitalism as well as militant communism. When this ontological and psychological sense of deficiency is internalized, there is a futile effort to compensate for it through subjective claims and ideological propaganda. This quest for gross or subtle pleasures is, as contemporary psychology has discovered, extremely malleable and elusive, and is able to adjust itself internally to virtually any external conditions.

  Pleasure and pain are not simple terms with stable referents, but amount to a pair of concepts convertible in denotation, depending upon circumstances. In all cases, however, whether one is caught in the attractive or repulsive side of the effort to compensate for a sense of non-being, the direction of attention is away from the centre and towards the elusive focus of desire. For Gandhi, the letting go of all these lustings and longings involved the practice of brahmacharya, a term that certainly includes chastity in the ordinary sense, but also means the pursuit of Brahman, identical with Sat, with one's whole being. True inward chastity is full devotion to the truth, and therefore essential if one is to release the active energy or force of truth through ahimsa. According to Patanjali, true brahmacharya releases virya, inward strength, the strength needed to persevere in one's pursuit of the truth. This strength is vital in the face of the innumerable distractions and snares that trap the ego, annoying and disheartening it. Typically, anger and gluttony are seen as failures of self-control in the face of provocation from without or seduction from within. We sometimes speak of them as connected with sore spots and weak spots in our nature, certain points of vulnerability. They are like apertures through which energies violently rush out or rush in.

  For Gandhi, anger and gluttony, krodha and lobha, are manifestations of a deceptive reliance upon that which is false. They are essentially opposed to true sovereignty and freedom of the will, swaraj, and also true self-reliance, swadeshi. Where there is reliance upon the truth, it is possible to release the non-violence of the brave and fearless. Where there is true freedom, there is joyous self-mastery. In their absence one will be beset by anger towards those who seem to threaten one's weakness or by a gluttonous craving for whatever seems to veil it from one's view. The oscillation between these two can itself be quite violent and extreme. As John of the Cross noted, anger at others, owing to their perceived virtues, is the reverse of an impatient ambition to see oneself as a saint. When anything happens to challenge the seductive image of one's own goodness that one has swallowed, this is quickly vented in indignation against the merits of others. At a grosser level, everyone is familiar with the infantile and impotent attitude which says, "If I cannot have it, none else can have it." Whether this is said of a plate of cookies or the entire world, the interplay of anger and gluttony is the same, though the degree and scope of violence involved may differ. Essentially, the forces of violent striking and grasping are substituted for the continuous and harmonious noetic energies of the spiritual will.

  The strength of the will cannot be separated from the spiritual and moral texture of one's conception of oneself as an ego or individuality in the world. For Gandhi, the question of the ego resolved itself into two complementary ideals. The first involves the reduction of oneself to a zero or cipher. The second involves training oneself as a champion of truth in the world, an exemplar of heroic non-violence, a satyagrahi. Gandhi's conception of beatitude is not a state of exile or stoic aloofness, but rather of incessant striving on behalf of universal welfare, sarvodaya. At every point, there are unexpected opportunities for service to others and for relieving their spiritual distress. It is through humility, tolerance, and a willingness to work for the welfare of others that the constructive force of ahimsa, or love, is released. To abolish the separative ego is like removing an obscuring disc in front of the sun, allowing its beneficent light to stream forth. The absence of obscuration is not anything to be reified in and of itself, in contrast to the reality of the light released. But from the standpoint of the soul seeking to individuate and realize its true relation to the rest of humanity, the removal of this disc blocking the aperture of the inner light is the crucial task. Every thought of envy towards the light of others, and every trace of slothful indifference to the obscuration of the light within oneself, does violence to the life of the soul. It is perverse, as well as loveless, to deny the light of others. It is suicidal to deny one's own light or, what is the same, to insist that it be kept apart from that of others in the name of the separative ego. True individuation involves the universalization of the heart and the mind in what Spinoza called amor Dei intellectualis, the intellectual love of God, and what Jesus called the love of God with all one's soul, heart and mind. This is the existential prerequisite to realization of the concrete ability to love one's neighbour as oneself, as well as the Pauline apotheosis of the finest and fullest love.

  Clearly, it is not possible categorically to compartmentalize all the vices, sins and misdeeds that arise out of ignorance and to sharply separate them from their effects upon one's strength of will and one's ability to sympathize with the lives of others. This is part of what is meant by saying that all the seven deadly sins arise through proud ignorance manifesting as egotistic violence. The root of the Ashwatha tree is not to be understood through any set of analytic terms derived from the phenomenal world. It can be known only by rising in consciousness to the noetic realm of pure ideation, sublime tranquillity and universal benevolence that is hidden deep within the heart of every man and woman alike. Then, descending again into the field of moral action (Dharmakshetra), one may use conceptual tools and categories, not for their own sake or for intellectual sport, but rather as practical tools in the tending, refining and purifying of one's habitual nature. One may see oneself as agitated by many modes and manifestations of violence, arrayed in terms of the seven deadly sins. But all of this, like the physician's diagnosis, is only for the sake of applying curative powers to the soul. Bringing forth all violent tendencies into the light of self-awareness is itself a great therapeutic.

  In no case, however, should one allow oneself to become hypnotized by the essentially banal and boring assemblage of one's sins and vices. It is like the story Gautama Buddha told of the man wounded by a poisoned arrow. Instead of pulling it out, he succumbed while asking many questions about the arrow maker, the material of the shaft, the type of poison and the feathers with which the arrow was fletched. In thinking of the seven deadly sins in relation to non-violence, the emphasis should be upon the ability to awaken spiritual vision, to recover the lost virtues of the soul, and to release a current of healing sympathy and love towards all other human beings. This was always the focus and intent of Gandhi's life, and the basis of his indomitable goodwill to all. Rather than make one's failings, however portrayed, the immutable centre of one's metaphysical and psychological perspective, one should instead meditate upon the potential of the good, in oneself, in others and in Nature. Then, even if one cannot at once go forth to sin no more, one can at least go forth to sin less and less.

  For Gandhi, however, non-violence or ahimsa is an infallible and immediately available means to the arduous task of cutting down the ever-expanding tree of sinfulness with the axe of selflessness in word and act, as well as in thought and feeling. Ahimsa becomes no less than the gateway towards moksha or emancipation from man-made illusion and delusion. Gandhi regarded the aim of human life as moksha, liberation from impure thought, and the total elimination of impure thought is possible only as a result of much tapasya. The utter extinction of egoism is moksha and he who has achieved this will be the very image of Truth or God. "Government over self is the truest swaraj (freedom); it is synonymous with moksha or salvation." He also said that "ahimsa means moksha and moksha is the realization of Truth". "The test of love is tapasya and tap asya means self-suffering. Self-realization is impossible without service of, and identification with, the poorest. The quest of Truth involves tapas — self-suffering, sometimes even unto death. Satya then requires the tapas of ahimsa and this means self-suffering and self-sacrifice in the midst of society . . . ."

  Gandhi's interpretation of moksha as the full realization of Truth and his justification of ahimsa as an exercise in tapas, the self-suffering and service needed for the attainment of satya, gave traditional values a new meaning and a fresh relevance to politics and to society. In deriving satya and ahimsa from what were essentially religious notions he not only gave spiritual values a social significance but also infused into his political vocabulary an other-worldly flavor. His emphasis on suffering as an intrinsic good needed to secure the summum bonum is somewhat reminiscent of Kierkegaard's assertion of the concreteness of suffering men against the concept of man as an animal rationale. Kierkegaard held that as gold is purified in fire, so is the soul in suffering. Unlike passive and impotent suffering, active and meaningful anguish takes away the impure elements in human nature. It is always man himself that stands in his own way, who is too closely attached to the world, to the environment, to circumstances, to external relationships, so that he is not able to come to himself, come to rest, to have hope, "he is constantly too much turned outward, instead of being turned inward, hence everything he says is true only as an illusion of the senses". If a man has love beyond all measure, he has thereby been laboring for all. All the time he was laboring for his own sake to acquire love, he has been laboring for all others. "It is required of the sufferer that he call a halt to his erring thought, that he reflect what the goal is, that is to say, it is required of him to turn himself about . . . . The difference between man and man is whether they succeed or not in attaining it."*

*The Moral and Political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi, pp. 237-239.

Hermes, January 1986
by Raghavan Iyer