Karma Yoga: A Philosophy For Social And Political Change In 2017 (And Beyond)

Wikimedia / Shekhartagra
Wikimedia / Shekhartagra

Many find themselves feeling disillusioned or disenfranchised in light of the results of November’s election. I think it’s worth keeping in mind the many grassroots movements at the state and local levels we can get involved in in order to feel empowered and be involved in change, and in order to feel our voices do matter in the political process.

I recently did some part-time volunteer work from home for Ballot Question 3 in Massachusetts, (which became known on the ballot as Massachusetts Minimum Size Requirements for Farm Animal Containment) It aimed to phase out the most severe confinement practices used by industrial agriculture, and, (since it passed with 78% approval), will basically do away with the most severe confinement practices utilized by the industrial agriculture industry in Massachusetts, and ensure products sold in Massachusetts adhere to these more humane standards by 2022. Many volunteers participated in this grassroots effort by knocking on doors across the state. They spoke to people in person about the campaign and engaged them one-on-one to make them aware of the reasons they, the activists, were supporting Question 3.

Admittedly uncomfortable with door-knocking, I decided to put together some mailings to organizations, asking them to put up fliers supporting Question 3. I also put up some fliers around the community, and wrote a couple of Letters to the Editor, as did many other citizens around the state. People found various ways to get involved which suited their talents or preferences. Question 3 was opposed by some in the egg and pork industries, a retailer’s association, an Indiana oil tycoon, and a committee of agricultural organizations worried that the passing of the Act may essentially lead to higher food prices on certain items. However, the ballot question was was supported by many veterinary groups, citizen activists, nonprofits, and some small farmers, for both the humane and food safety measures it promoted. Many people concerned with the humane treatment of animals donated whatever they could to the campaign and volunteered their time and other resources without being certain how much public support such a measure would receive at the polls.

It was refreshing to see the victory of a grassroots campaign like this one, particularly this year, when so many seem disappointed in the political system as a whole. In the current political climate when many people are reminded yet again that the winner of the popular vote does not always become President, citizens can still take action at the local and state levels to influence decisions. This sort of ballot measure, which was dependent on receiving a certain number of petition signatures and then a majority of votes, could pass regardless of who is President, and other ballot measures can do the same.

But ballot measures (and the work leading up to them) are just one example of citizen engagement. Charity drives, benefit 5Ks, fundraising efforts for nonprofits, attending town hall and state house hearings, contacting legislators via nonprofit action alerts online or via legislators’ web pages, numerous volunteer positions, part-time and even virtual, are all ways that citizens can feel empowered to make a difference during this time in our history when many may feel their voices have not been counted.

Recently, while taking an online comparative religion class on Hinduism, I reflected on how citizens can maintain motivation and inspiration to stay involved in efforts at social change. The answer seemed to come from an unlikely source: the Bhagavad Gita. But then, it inspired thinkers like Ghandi and Thoreau.

Ghandi espoused the ideals of selfless, skillful action and nonviolence, and with great success.

We are a country of people with widely diverse spiritual, religious, agnostic and atheistic upbringings. Whether one has chosen to accept or reject his or her upbringing, the tenets that informed Gandhi in his quest for nonviolent social and political change can help those of us looking to make a positive impact on the world we live in today by providing background into the skillful means that informed his decisions and philosophy.

Aldous Huxley said:

“The Bhagavad-Gita is the most systematic statement of spiritual evolution of endowing value to mankind. It is one of the most clear and comprehensive summaries of perennial philosophy ever revealed; hence its enduring value is subject not only to India but to all of humanity.”

A concept we encounter in the Bhagavad Gita is that of karma yoga: For our purposes, it can be summed up the following ways.

When working for social or political change, we can shed some of our ego, and when we are conflicted over what action to take in a conflict of any kind, to act according to our duty, and to have no strong feelings of attachment one way or another to the results. This might sound counterproductive, but basically, the most important point to keep in mind is to act skillfully, no matter how small each action in the process, without overwhelming emotions such as impatience about the eventual outcome or hatred for any perceived enemies or adversaries clouding decisions.

The outcome of a particular social movement or effort of any kind is often influenced by many factors, not simply our own intentions and actions, and to do our best regardless, not losing heart for future endeavors if some efforts do not produce the results we most hope for every step along the way.

Another tenet of skillful action laid out in the Gita may feel foreign to many secular or agnostic people, but is worth bringing up. It involves the dedication of one’s work to “God”. Many of us in secular societies may be uncomfortable with this concept. It might be helpful to keep in mind that many Hindus believe “God”, or “Brahman”, is present in everyone as the eternal soul. This belief is the origin of the greeting “Namaste”, used often in yoga settings in the West, and as a respectful greeting by many in Eastern societies, to show respect for the divine spark in another person.

Anyone who does not believe in the literal existence of God may be interested to learn there have been many debates regarding the nature of God in Hinduism, and whether “God” should be considered a creator god, or should be considered to represent the divine spark present within all beings, the Ultimate Reality, the Universal Principle. Dedicating oneself to a universal ultimate reality all beings share may be easier for some secular humanists to relate to than dedicating their work for social change to any abstract Western idea of “God” they were raised with as children.

Ghandi maintained that skillful means, or karma yoga, put into practice to affect change in society, could make people more peaceful while working for that change, and allow them to remain dedicated and effective. It would make them less prone to be violent or corrupt.

Perhaps we can take the principles that inspired Ghandi, Thoreau and others and apply them to local and state activism. Perhaps we can also keep the tenets of skillful means in mind to avoid the burnout that some people feel occasionally when seeking to advocate for social change of any kind. TC mark

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