September 9, 2013

Does Military Service Conflict with the Yoga Lifestyle? ~ William Hunnell

Being a practicing yogi and serving in the military, I was recently asked if I find military life conflicts with a yogic lifestyle.

I love it when I’m asked a question that can be answered in many ways. I don’t make a habit of defending my personal choices yet I saw this as a learning experience.

“What you do does not matter: it’s why you do it that matters.”

~ Anonymous

I can’t speak for the U.S. Navy or the U.S. Air Force as I’ve never served in either branch. Nor can I speak intelligently concerning other countries military forces. However, I did serve ten years of Active Duty in the U.S. Marine Corps. Additionally, I have served and am now serving in my 7th year of Active Duty in the South Carolina Army National Guard.

I trained my share of Marine recruits, and recruited my share of Army National Guardsmen and women; many who have served, or currently are serving in Afghanistan and other countries around the globe.

Each branch espouses traits that are expected of a member. The Marines speak of the 14 Leadership Traits while the Army speaks of 7 Core Values. I won’t go into all of them. The one, in my opinion, that speaks volumes and can be found in both is selfless service or unselfishness.

Selfless service or unselfishness is of itself the defining trait of Karma Yoga. The Bhagavad Gita touts Karma Yoga—the Hindu path of service to others—as the fast lane to spiritual fulfillment. So comprehensive are its benefits that one of India’s most widely respected gurus, Neem Karoli Baba, gave just one instruction to his devotees: “Love everyone, serve everyone, remember God.” Six words that encompass the whole tradition.

“Everything he said to us was focused on loving and serving,” says Mirabai Bush, one of his best-known American followers. “He said if you want to meditate or do asanas, fine, but he never really taught us those things.”

Let’s get to the heart of the matter, or the “center of the shrubbery maze,” shall we?

In a sense, military members are merely hired guns. Yep, trained to kill. It isn’t really an argument. Despite this, the person who enlists with the intent of doing just that is few and far between. Another equally compelling fact is that war happens. War is ugly. It is inhumane.

However, I dare say that no soldier literally prays for war.

Soldiers who are not directly involved in a conflict are supporting those who are directly involved, and training for conflict. Consider the military chaplain: his duty is to support troops. Traditionally, he is not called upon to take up arms however he does support the fighting force. Yet a bullet, a missile or a bomb-strike does not care who it harms.

With that said, in my opinion, it boils down to why a person serves. I can only speak for myself on this issue. I serve and have served out of a sense of duty to my home country and it’s people. I see it as my dharma (as described in the Bhagavad Gita). I continue to serve to provide leadership to up-and-coming Soldiers who seek direction. Additionally, as a trained leader I see it as my task to train these young men and women to the best of my ability.

I fully understand that the manner in which I train them could possibly save their lives and the lives of others. I know many who have the same motivation. Conversely, I know of others who serve for the benefits of belonging (college money, job training, etc.).

“I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its stupidity.”

~ Dwight D. Eisenhower, Jan. 10, 1946

In the second chapter of the Bhagavad Ghita, Krishna refutes the pacifist ideas of Arjuna using a variety of arguments to convince him that he must fight and kill in the impending battle. Generally, he speaks of killing or destroying the Evil people. “Death means the attainment of heaven; victory means the enjoyment of the earth. Therefore rise up, Arjuna, resolved to fight!” (E. Eswaran, 2007)

There are those who believe in strict non-violence (pacifists). That is a choice for them. Not all people make the same choice. Much like some choose to be vegan, while others choose vegetarianism while still others choose neither. Not everyone has the same dharma.

Now, it’s very easy to take many things out of context. I get that. However, it’s actually pretty clear what the Bhagavad Gita’s stance on war is. That is predicated upon the notion that evil is being fought against. Evil is another matter in its entirety.

I would argue that wars fought on the basis of “perceived evil” is much the same as actual evil. For instance, a soldier goes to war willingly to fight for his beliefs, only to later learn that he was mislead; it only matters why.

“There never was a good war, or a bad peace.”

~ Benjamin Franklin

An elderly friend of mine (a Vietnam veteran) when speaking of his Vietnam experience once said that it’s all about context. When he first went to Vietnam he believed he was fighting for his country; later he was fighting for his fellow Marines.

In other words, he saw his fellow Marines engaged in a no-win situation. Rather than throw down his weapon and refuse to fight, he determined to make sure that as many of his friends (read: brothers) as he could help made it home.

I think that just about sums it up.

All things considered, my response is: “No, I don’t believe there is conflict between military service and being a practicing yogi.”


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Edited by: Ben Neal


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