Abolition is the full realisation of ahimsa

Priya Subberwal, facilitator of advaya’s Spiritual Ecology Study Club, writes about the principle of ahimsa, the Sanskrit principle to “do no harm”. They ask, what does it mean when we work to fully embody principles of nonviolence, and uphold values of redemption, not retribution, within our own movements?

Ahimsa is the Sanskrit principle to “do no harm”. It’s the first of the five Yamas, a set of moral values, and the first of the eight sutras of yoga, an eightfold path towards liberation.

Ahimsa is how we begin—an acceptance of nonviolence not only in the physical sense, of respecting the boundaries of our bodies and not forcing or hurting ourselves, but also a nonviolence of the thoughts, the actions, and the spirit, within the community.

Nonviolence as a practice is a core to many spiritual and activist circles as a way of challenging oppressive powers. But what does it mean when we work to fully embody principles of nonviolence, and uphold values of redemption, not retribution, within our own movements? How might we unlearn punitive ideals of justice enforced by the colonial, carceral state, and lean into visions of a regenerative and liberated future for everyone?

When I think of “decolonizing” our intellectual spaces, like the study club, our classrooms, or other spiritual and environmental movements, I think of how it is both an active deconstruction and an inward dialogue with institutions of power. Within the environmental movement, ideas of “nature” have been constructed in certain ways (empty, pristine, untouched) by certain people (usually wealthy white men) for certain ends (extractive capitalism and the commodification of the earth and its people). These ideas of nature draw a line in the sand and put (some) humanity on one side of it, and the rest of the world on the other.

This arbitrary line has had drastic consequences for the human and ecological world alike, and it has succeeded in cultivating a foundation of human/nature separation and human hierarchy within our own ideological framings of the natural world. Many of us have, at times, been called “unnatural”.

Who, then, do these ideas of “nature” serve?

To me, the spiritual healing of colonial violences entails an unravelling of our internalised frameworks of interpretation.

As an example, the modern environmental movement in the west germinated out of ideas of empty nature that erased Indigenous presence, pastoral narratives of dominion, and ecofeminist and ecomaternalist framings that have played into biological essentialism and the gender binary. Imperialism, white supremacy, and heteropatriarchy have played a significant role in our collective understandings of “nature”, and persist within our movements, language, and understandings of the world around us. As we imagine and dream into alternative futures, away from the industrialised capitalocene, I’m fascinated by how we might knock this house of cards to the ground with a swift breeze, and build something new.

As we attempt to “decolonize” “spiritual ecology”, how might we find new ways of knowing and relating to one another and the other-than-human world?

Ahimsa asks us to consider the ways in which we practise nonviolence towards others and towards the self, and, perhaps, how our systems of accountability aren’t always conducive to this nonviolence. Sometimes, we can be cruel in the name of justice. However, warranted cruelty is still cruelty, and there are no perfect beings among us.

There is something liberating in understanding that harm is in some way inevitable. Harm reduction is another valuable principle here, one that emerged in healthcare, largely in correlation to drug use treatment. It urges practitioners to meet people where they’re at, and to try to take care of them where they are, before trying to change them. Non-judgemental observation. It allows us to practise forgiveness a little more freely, knowing that perfection is an impossible ideal, and that perfect cannot be the enemy of good. Hypocrisy is the price of admission when we’re all entangled in systems we did not sign up for, and we will all inevitably perpetuate harm, eventually.

But we are all also capable of growth; especially in good conditions. But demanding purity, instead of accepting the imperfect, neglects to hold space for the remarkable paradoxes and quintessential tensions of the human experience.

I think of Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s abolition geography, and the imperative of placemaking, of the new worlds we are envisioning under our feet, underground, around the corner and tucked into cracks and alleyways otherwise unnoticed. I think of Dr. Bayo Akomalafe’s ideas of fugitiveness, of the anarchist imperative that who takes care of us? We take care of us. Of the Buddhist value of radical acceptance, the non-judgmental observation of what is, not what we expect something to be.

I worry sometimes that cancel culture makes people afraid of being wrong, of being shamed and punished. I know that the carceral state and the over-policing of our communities only facilitates more violence, not healing or accountability. I also know that, when I say liberation for everyone, that also includes the cops and the prison guards. Of course—boundaries are important. One person’s healing, accountability, and path to redemption ought not to come at the harm, discomfort, or expense of those they’ve hurt.

But, how else might we embark on that path as a community—protecting one another, while also holding space to heal and grow? How can we move forward, without leaving anyone behind?

Abolition is the full realisation of ahimsa. It is a belief system that sees those who have caused harm as those who have also been harmed, and believes that there is no one who is beyond redemption—even those who have harmed us.

I hear Audre Lorde in my ear, reminding us that the master’s tools will not dismantle the master’s house. This phrase churns in my head whenever I want to punish myself, or someone else, for not being good enough. Whether it be at yoga, at spiritual practices, or at activism, when we fail—as we all will—we find ourselves faced with the choice of how to react.

Do we languish in guilt, or do we try to grow? Do we punish, shame, and police one another? What other tools do we have? What other tools can we make, together?


Priya Subberwal

Priya (they/she): graphic artist and host of monthly study club

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