I survived the People’s Climate March here in DC this past weekend; I say survived because it was seriously hot and relentlessly sunny.
Of course, the march itself was about survival, a protest against the United States government’s refusal to recognize that unregulated Capitalism’s antagonistic relationship with nature is literally a threat to our survival.
Natural though it may seem for yogis to be environmentalists, there’s another thing to consider: abhinevesa, clinging to life, otherwise known as ‘fear of death’. In Patanjali’s Yoga-sutras, fear of death is listed as one of the obstacles to yoga. If our environmental activism is motivated by fear of death, one could argue that we’re embracing an obstacle to yoga rather than trying to overcome it. If we’re supposed to be detached yogis then maybe our attitude about climate change should be, ‘whatever.’
The traditional commentators in the Yoga-sutras say, ‘not so fast: fear of death is natural for any embodied being. All living beings, from the moment they’re born, wish to live forever. We respond to the threat of death accordingly.’ The sages say that our wish to live forever is an indication that eternality, along with knowledge and bliss, is part of our true nature, that in our natural state we’re deathless: we really do live forever.
Therefore, becoming fearless is directly connected to realizing our true nature; the more self-realized we become the more fearless we become. Interestingly, both the Yoga-sutras and the Bhagavad-gita agree that the best means to become self-realized and, by extension, fearless, is to sacrifice one’s ego as completely as possible because sacrificing our ego makes it possible for us to become an instrument of Divine Will. Hence, egoism is another one of the obstacles to yoga.
Patanjali sums it up very succinctly as ‘isvara-pranidhana’, offering one’s life force to the Supreme Person. And he emphasizes the centrality of this element of yoga practice by specifying it four different times. All of the obstacles to yoga are overcome by this one element of yoga practice.
Krishna lays it out in more detail: he ties surrender of the ego directly to the attainment of fearlessness by virtue of the practitioner acquiring Divine protection as a consequence of their surrender. Here’s the conclusive instruction from the last chapter of the Gita:
sarva-dharmān parityajya – mām ekaṁ śaraṇaṁ vraja /
ahaṁ tvāṁ sarva-pāpebhyo – mokṣayiṣyāmi mā śucaḥ //
“Abandon all other varieties of religiosity and righteousness and come exclusively to Me for shelter. I will free you from all misfortune. Do not fear.”
As soon as we fall under the influence of illusion and identify ourselves with matter then a state of fear automatically follows because matter is subject to destruction. Hence, our identification with this body is the root cause of fear.
As soon as we begin the process of sublimating our ego and identify ourselves as instruments of Divine Will then a state of fearlessness automatically follows because we engage with the world under an umbrella of divine protection.
The one thing a devotional yogi can’t tolerate is the suffering of others. Therefore, those on the path of devotional yoga invoke the umbrella of divine protection for the sake of all beings, including the earth herself. That’s why it makes sense to chant “Hare Krishna’ at a march protesting the failure of a government to provide protection for the earth’s environment: the mantra is a request to be made into an instrument of Divine Will and an invocation of Divine protection.
So there’s really no contradiction between practicing yoga and participating in a protest march if we’re motivated by compassion for all beings rather than fear of our own demise. And by vigorously cultivating the devotional aspect of our yoga practice, we can march fearlessly. Or dance fearlessly! So become and instrument of Divine will… and become fearless.