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Read full post: Us vs Them — A Reflection

Us vs Them — A Reflection


When Hindus talk about Ahimsa, Shanti and Peace, but do not seem to have a big stick to back it up with they often seem unprepared for conflict, merely engaging in naïve, happy talk.

US vs Them

In the United States of America today, the Republicans and Democrats are deeply polarized into an “Us” versus “Them” divide that does not bode well for the people of the nation as a whole. Invariably, everyone is drawn into taking sides in this divide, which makes dialogue across the divide strident and fraught. But this tendency to get divided and polarized is not a new phenomenon.

In the very first chapter of the Bhagavad Gita, this sharp contrast between the mentalities of Dhritarashtra and Arjuna can be seen in their respective ways of identifying and categorizing the people who faced each other in the battlefield. In the very first verse, Dhirtarashtra says “What happened between my people (Mamaka)[1] and the others (the Pandavas)?” Clearly Dhirtarashtra’s expression of “my people” did not include the Pandavas, who were not “his people”. On the contrary, as Arjuna confronts the people arrayed before him, he does not see any “other people”, instead all those assembled in the battlefield occur to him as his own people (Drstvemam Svajanam)[2]  – there was no sense of mine and not mine.  

So much conflict, war and violence throughout human history has emerged out of this singular formulation of “Us” and “Not Us”. When one group separates itself away from other groups, and claims to be fundamentally different, whatever be its basis, it seems to inevitably sow the seeds of conflict and confrontation. Colonialism made possible protracted confrontation between the “Civilized Us” against the “Uncivilized Them” in Asia, Africa and the Americas, and inflicted untold violence and misery from which many countries are yet to fully recover. The “Fully Human Us” could buy and sell the “Not Fully Human Them” as slaves and brought about the American Civil war. Islam divides the world into two clear categories, i.e. Muslims and Kafirs, and not just denies the privileges granted naturally to the Muslim “Us” to the Kafir “Them,” but theologically seems to sanction endless confrontation and violence with the Non-Muslim world. Relentless violence may be justified as long as it is being done in the name of Allah and on behalf of Islam. Christianity divides the world into those “Us” who have chosen Christ and adopted the “True religion”, and the “Them” who have not yet chosen Christ and keep clinging on to “False Religions”. This particular formulation gives rise to perpetual violence against non-Christian societies, in the name of “Saving them” and “Sharing the word” and so on. Hitler was able to divide the world into the “Aryan Us” and the “Non-Aryan Them” with devastating consequences for the Jewish people, and Europe as a whole.

Furthermore, when one Party in the confrontation, who is bent on dividing the society and draws the “other” Party into the confrontation, the other seems to have very little ability to reason with the first party, even though they may not wish to participate in the “Us versus Them” formulation. There are so many battles going on at so many levels today i.e. Capitalists versus Socialists, White versus Non-White, Aryans versus the Non-Aryans, the Left versus the Right, the Rich versus the Poor, Britain versus the European Union, China versus America, America versus Iran, Russia versus Ukraine, India versus Pakistan, China versus India, the Hindu versus the Anti-Hindu, Israel versus Palestine, Gun owners versus Gun control advocates, Climate change activists versus Climate change deniers, and on and on.

How do we live with “sanity” in our contemporary world? Is it our Pravritti Dharma to take one side or the other in these endless confrontations? Or do we find a quiet corner in the world where we can retreat to and mind our own business, imagining that these confrontations do not apply to our personal lives and move on to Nivritti Dharma? Even as Arjuna sees all as his own people,. one family (Sambandhinah)[3], his choices are stark: Either he runs away from the whole confrontation (takes refuge in Sanyasa living on the food offered freely to Sadhus (Baikshyam)[4], or he has to join the battle for the sake of Dharma, even though he does not have the heart to do so.

If the Kurukshetra war was a civil war that pitted two halves of the same family against each other, the American civil war did the same - it divided a nation. And the current political climate is not any different. We have two halves of a nation each living in its own virtual reality echo-chamber, responding to different facts, and making up different conclusions.

What do people who see this world as one undivided family (e.g. Vasudaiva Kutumbakam) do, when continually assaulted by those who readily divide the world into an “Us versus them” confrontation? If we unilaterally extend an olive branch, an offering of peace, signaling a desire for a truce, what if the other does not reciprocate? What if they simply construe our olive branch as representative of a weakness in our position, and draw us ever deeper into conflict? What will bring forth a transformation in this circumstance? Will a unilateral commitment to Ahimsa from one side of the divide call the other towards a higher consciousness, to embrace the better angels of their nature? How does the seeking of peace transform the other, and move them also into seeking peace and cooperation, rather than war and conflict? Do we speak softly and extend a hand of friendship, while also carrying a big stick, which we make visible at all times? If so, there is only one thing left to do. Procuring a bigger stick, than the other fellow’s, which is what the world is doing. Big Stick diplomacy involves five critical steps, as articulated by the elder Roosevelt: 1) First ensure that you have a big stick; 2) Act justly towards the other – never draw them into a conflict; 3) Never bluff them – Always speak the truth; 4) Strike them only when you are prepared to strike them hard; and lastly 5) Allow the enemy to retreat and save face in defeat.

The Mahabharata also describes the sequence of steps that need to be taken to resolve deep rooted conflicts, exemplified by the terms Sarasa, Sama, Dana, Bheda and Danda. The first step is Sarasa - always a bi-lateral dialogue, where an attempt is made to reason with the other party, one to one, through which one’s grievances can be expressed and we may seek an appropriate redress directly. We anticipate that in civilized society, as we live in today, a great number of conflicts can be resolved using this primary method not only between individuals and groups but also between nations and alliances among nations. The second step is Sama – which requires an escalation to a mediated dialogue, where a third and neutral party is called upon to arbiter the conversation and serve as a mediator. Again, in modern society, mediation could take place informally, through the intercession of a third party; a counselor, an elder or a qualified mediator, even a court of law. In the realm of conflicts between nations, the United Nations is often called upon to mediate as a neutral entity, in the hope that perhaps a win-win solution can be found, even though its effectiveness may be open to question. The third step is Dana – a voluntary relinquishing of something that one holds to be valuable, in the interest of avoiding further escalation of the conflict. It represents a principle of give and take, a willingness to compromise, to negotiate a settlement of some kind. This may represent a giving up of a certain claim, however difficult it may be, and in the expectation, that the other party involved may recognize and appreciate the sacrifice that has been made, and will avoid further escalation, by in turn giving up some ground themselves. The fourth step is Bheda, which involves a threat of some kind, specifically induced by creating a division, or dissension within the opponent’s camp. In modern parlance, this is applied mostly by the threat of a lawsuit, or propaganda of some kind, which weakens the opponent, and thereby induces them to see the value of avoiding further escalation of the conflict. Among conflicts between nations, threats such as economic sanctions, a boycott of trade, an introduction of a tariff on goods imported, an appeal to the United Nations to impose a ban on another nation, etc., are all examples of the application of the principle of Bheda. The fifth and final step may be Danda – involving an actual act of punishment – where one commits some kind of physical act of violence that is designed to hurt the other, in a manner that would then perhaps have them see the light of day, and avoid further escalation. This step is often an irreversible step and may lead to continued escalation of violence leading to war, especially if the other retaliates with an equal degree of violence. The same rules for escalation can also apply in conflicts of the domestic and social variety, not just international and political.

Escalation into war, de-escalation into a troubled peace, and the maintenance of a tense truce seems to be the way of humanity, from time immemorial. In any case, the procurement of a big stick, the preparation for war at any time, appears to be part of the process of securing a peace by appealing to people’s better angels, even if for a temporary period. Without that stick, that readiness to go to war, talk of peace and Ahimsa appears to be more the prattle of the weak. This is the predicament facing the Hindu people as a whole and has faced them now for over a thousand years. When Hindus talk about Ahimsa, Shanti and Peace, but do not seem to have any stick at all, let alone a big one, they often seem unprepared for conflict, merely engaging in naïve, happy talk. Another striking case in point is the unilateral Buddhist commitment to Ahimsa, concomitant with the total inability to defend their territory in Tibet, with the Dalai Lama being in exile in India. The question is “Where has the Kshatriyata gone?” Or do Hindus even know what that is anymore?

Cover Picture Credit: Artist B. G. Sharma

Source: Internet

[1] Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 1, Verse 1

[2] Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 1, Verses 28-29

[3] Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 1, Verse 34

[4] Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 2, Verse 5

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