The practice of ahimsa (non-violence) is arguably the most important practice for an aspiring yogi. In “The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali” by Edwin F. Bryant, the practice of ahimsa is described as not bringing harm to any living thing, under any circumstance (p.243). The book also mentions that even the act of washing the body and thus killing bacteria can be seen as an act of violence on another living thing. So yes, to some extent we find ourselves in a position that makes the practice of non-violence nearly impossible to obtain, however, it does not mean that we should not give it our best effort.
One major step for many aspiring yogis is to practice ahimsa through diet. We are aware that the consumption of animal flesh to nourish our own bodies is certainly not ahimsa. But what about other things that we consume, for instance, media. At the time that these texts were written there was no television, cable, satellite, or media industry to account for. However, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali did in-fact give us a powerful concept that tells us what exposure to violence in media does to our psyche, and how it affects the practice of ahimsa. To better understand this we will use modern studies that examine the effect of violence in the media on human behavior.
In a study conducted LR. Huesmann titled, “The Impact of Electronic Media Violence: Scientific Theory and Research.” found in The Journal of adolescent health : official publication of the Society for Adolescent Medicine, data complied suggests that there has been a significant rise in the amount of violence in media. The data used is from 1991, but even twenty years ago it states that 60% of programs contain some form of violence. Violence in video games is 94%. And the amount of time that test subjects were exposed to this stimulus was anywhere from one to three hours per day.
In the “Yoga Sutras of Patanjali” with translation and commentary from Sri Swami Satchidanada, pratipaksha bhavana is introduced as a method for replacing negative thoughts with positive thoughts. The translation states, “When disturbed by negative thoughts, opposite [positive] ones should be thought of. This is pratipaksha bhavana.” The following verse gives us deeper insight into this concept and displays the power of the mind and thought. In this verse it is explained that even the thought of violence has just as much force as the act of violence, and so we move on to look at how violence in the media, creates violence in our thoughts, and lives (p. 127-129).
As you read Huesmann’s introduction to the study, you may recognize the common thread between this study and pratipaksha bhavana:
“One of the notable changes in our social environment in the 20th and 21st centuries has been the saturation of our culture and daily lives by the mass media. In this new environment radio, television, movies, videos, video games, cell phones, and computer networks have assumed central roles in our children’s daily lives. For better or worse the mass media are having an enormous impact on our children’s values, beliefs, and behaviors. Unfortunately, the consequences of one particular common element of the electronic mass media has a particularly detrimental effect on children’s well being. Research evidence has accumulated over the past half-century that exposure to violence on television, movies, and most recently in video games increases the risk of violent behavior on the viewer’s part just as growing up in an environment filled with real violence increases the risk of violent behavior. Correspondingly, the recent increase in the use of mobile phones, text messaging, e-mail, and chat rooms by our youth have opened new venues for social interaction in which aggression can occur and youth can be victimized – new venues that break the old boundaries of family, neighborhood, and community that might have protected our youth to some extent in the past.” (Huesmann)
Yoga and this study indicate that the mind is shaped by what it is exposed to. The second yoga sutra tells us that yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind. The fluctuations or, vritti as Patanjali calls them, are categorized into five distinctions. Knowledge, False-Knowledge, Imagination, Sleep and Memory. All of these things that we experience leave impressions on the mind, and all with potentially equal power. In the study by Huesmass, we see that four of these vrittis play an important role in the ramifications of violence in the media. We will use this study to examine the practice of pratipaksha bhavana with the help of the vrittis.
Pramana, Correct Knowledge In the study Huesmann uses the example of recognizing a gun and associating it with aggressive behavior. We can identify the correct knowledge about the gun being associated with violence as correct knowledge, because we can infer that the only use for a gun is to shoot, to damage.
Viparayaya, Misconception As defined by Sachidananda, this term is when knowledge of something arises because of something that is not based on reality. Huesmann took into consideration video games, television, movies, the internet, and cell-phones. Let’s use video games as one example. In a simulated world, a player is able to kill humans at will, and not suffer any consequences. Although the world is simulated, the taken in the game are still recognized by the brain as violence.
Vikalpa, Imagination Think about how someone can tell you a story and your mind creates the scenery and story only for you to see. In the media, not only is a story created by someone, but then it is brought to expression in life through acting, storytelling, imagery and animation. It is easy to see how close vikalpa is to viparayaya. In fact, it could be said that imagination is an evolute of misconception. However, they both find their root in correct knowledge. Even though we can understand that we are watching a violent movie that is fictional, the cognitive awareness of violence still leaves a very real impression.
Smrtayah, Memory There is a big loop that happens when we get to memory. All of the understandings that we get from correct knowledge (pranama) are stored in our memory banks. Wether the memory is of correct knowledge, misconception, or imagination, they all end up in the memory. In the study, Heusmann looks at the long-term effect of exposure to violence in the media. Findings indicate that observational learning, desensitization, and conditioning occur. So the more we are exposed to violent media, the more we learn from it, and the more likely we are to express it through some form of action.
SIDE NOTE: In regards to the vritti, they are five in number. The one not listed here is nidra, or sleep, because I do not understand how it would pertain to this example. It should be noted that sleep comes before memory (which is last on the list of vritti) because we do remember the act of sleeping.
The Study Concludes…
Unfortunately for the subjects in this study, their pratipaksha bhavana was exposure to violence in the media. In the chart below the findings indicate a 30% correlation between exposure to violence and aggressive behavior. This means that if a person is considered to start off having a 50/50 chance of displaying aggressive behavior, after exposure to violent media, that 30% increase would mean that they are now 65% more likely to display aggressive behavior. When the data is looked at with other public health threats, we see how profound the correlation between media violence and aggression.
What to Practice?
So does this really mean to just NOT watch violent programming or play violent video games? Well, yes! It actually makes it quite easy for us. It’s simple to understand that violence in any way shape or form do not help anyone, even if it’s not real. Making a commitment to practice non-violence has to start within our own minds and hearts first. When we find ourselves leaving a situation that is asking us to invest time with violence through the media, use that time to do something uplifting and positive; Meditation, reading, painting, cooking, practicing yoga, the choices are limitless. The yoga sutras tell us that when we become firmly rooted in non-violence, then no harm will come to us, and no living creature will fear us, hopefully this article will help you with your cultivation of ahimsa.
This version of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
Also, for a link to the study by Heusmann click here: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2704015/