At the age of 19, I lived alone in the backwoods of Tennessee, earned a few dollars catching and selling catfish, and took pleasure in stocking my little larder with the meat of squirrels and deer shot in the surrounding forest. What I was doing was perfectly in tune with the local culture, and led to close friendships with nearby hunters and fishermen. My consciousness had been much influenced by Ernest Hemingway’s world of man alone courageously facing the dangers of life in the wild, the very world view that, reduced to its simplest terms, makes a manly virtue of shooting wild animals.
A small step towards non-violence
The change came one chilly autumn day. It was my practice to shoot a squirrel each morning for my breakfast. The nearby hickory grove seemed to have an endless supply. This particular day my shot did not kill. The wounded squirrel tore up a hill close by, with me in hot pursuit. As I gained on the little fellow, I suddenly had a moment of horrifyingly clear vision. I could see, and feel as my own, the squirrel’s terror. I saw myself as I appeared to him, a monster bent on his destruction.
I held him in my hands while he died, then buried him by the birch tree where I had shot him. The little squirrel’s death at my hands shocked me into an abashed awareness of the consequence of the youthful, presumptive egoism that allowed me to take a life simply because doing so served my purpose of the moment. I put my rifle away, and never took it up again. It was a first small step toward what I was later to know as ahimsa—an attitude of harmlessness, non-violence, of loving respect for all life.
In the mid-1960s, I lived in rural North Carolina, tended a large garden, ate a vegetarian diet, attended graduate school, drove a VW bus, and attempted to live in peace and harmony with the natural world and with my neighbors, black and white, on nearby farms. My landlady, Panzy Freeland, had lived her married life on the farm I rented, and so knew everything about everybody in the area. Knowing my enthusiasm for gardening (and gardener’s enthusiasm for manure), she directed me to a neighboring hog farmer, a simple-hearted elderly black man named John Smith – generally considered, Panzy informed me, a little crazy but harmless.
John was more than happy to supply my garden with hog manure—“glad to get shut of it.” And I was happy for this new friendship. John and his wife, Annie, were enormously kind — they seemed timeless, somehow untouched by the racial and political tensions of the sixties, the emotional cauldron in which so many seemed to be cooking themselves. John’s “babies,” as he called his herd of half-wild pigs, were the sort of indeterminate species that the old country folk there liked to tell horror stories about—“and that’s how old George lost his right arm — feeding them hogs!” John’s idea of a fun afternoon was to go out and play rough and tumble with his “babies,” rolling around and whooping joyfully. Annie would stand on the rickety back porch watching, hands on hips, then would shake her head with resigned affection: “That old man sure do love them hogs.” And then, sadly, “they his chilren. We never had none of our own.”
Two unfortunate traits
My own animal family had recently come to include a large, shaggy white, silent dog, a cross between a Russian wolfhound and German Shepherd, bequeathed to me by a friend who was leaving for a city apartment, a home which he felt would be torture for a free-ranging creature so close in spirit to his wolf ancestors. Sascha was one of those frighteningly loyal dogs who regard any stranger as a threat to the master, and who are utterly fearless in going to his defense.
Sascha had arrived also with two other unfortunate character traits. The first of these I discovered when I first brought him home to my little peaceable kingdom. As I let him out of the VW bus, my friendliest cat hurried up to welcome what he saw as a new friend by rubbing against his legs. With one quick movement, Sascha killed the cat, then looked at me in calm expectation of approval.
Not long after, standing outside the farmhouse with Sascha nearby, I saw coming down the long driveway a truck from the local power company. Sascha’s neck hair was at full lift. A low growl rumbled in his chest. As the truck door opened, Sascha lunged. Barely in time I caught his collar, was pulled off my feet and dragged some yards before he agreed to stop. The meter-reader, a black man, now safely back in his truck, quietly commented, “you better shut that dog up inside till I’m done here. He don’t like my people — I can always tell.”
Here I was, trying to be a peace-loving, sixties-style hippie, but my reception committee was a canine cat killer and a racist. I put the word out about Sascha. John in particular I warned, asking him please to let me know whenever he was coming over, to give me a chance to lock up my misguided sentinel. John’s comment, chuckling and placid: “I know about dogs that don’t like my people. Yours don’t worry me none. I been around worse and no harm done.”
Keeping a close watch
Fall came, then winter. Sascha, after much stumbling diplomatic effort on my part, had entered into a relationship of détente with the remaining cats. With human visitors that he knew, he contented himself with keeping a close watch; if the visitors were new to him, I made sure he kept his close watch through the window of a locked room.
One full moon night, I sat on the front porch looking out over the surrounding cornfields, now snow covered with with corn stubble poking through. In the distance I could make out a figure slowly working its way toward the farmhouse — to my dismay, I recognized the figure as John Smith, inspired to pay me a late night visit. Sascha gave a low growl and was gone before I could react. I ran after him, shouting frantically and with growing dread at what seemed unstoppable disaster. Time slowed, as it does in times of intense emotion. “Please God, don’t let John be hurt.”
My body seemed to be barely moving through a viscous medium; Sascha was hurtling toward the old man. Time seemed to stop. The whole scene took on a dreamlike clarity. Sascha suddenly stopped, just a few feet from John. John was bending toward him, his hand outstretched. Sascha came closer, his tail now wagging, leaned against John’s legs, then rolled playfully onto his back. I watched them walking together toward me, Sascha frisking around John’s legs like an exuberant puppy.
Sascha was changed after that, and certainly I was too. The cats were completely safe now. They could even rub against Sascha’s legs if they felt to — Sascha meanwhile maintaining an attitude of dignified tolerance. The neighbors, black and white, could come and go unmolested, occasionally even favored by Sascha’s tongue warm in the palm of a hand.
The practice of ahimsa
Years later, when I had come onto the spiritual path, I came to know the practice of ahimsa by the saints of all religions. When I read the story of St. Francis of Assisi befriending the Wolf of Gubbio, I remembered John Smith and wondered what depths of ahimsa this gentle man had experienced in his simple life. A black man in the race-obsessed rural South of the sixties, a culture full of threat to any person of color, John lived his life with serene benevolence. It simply never occurred to him that every person and every creature was not his friend.
“Ahimsa,” writes Swami Kriyananda, “is the ultimate weapon of a strong man; it turns one’s enemy into a friend, thereby banishing the possibility of further conflict….The goal of yoga is to realize the oneness of all life….to live also in such a way as constantly to affirm this oneness — by kindness towards all beings, by compassion, by universal love.” Patanjali, the great avatar of yoga, explains that in the perfection of ahimsa, “even wild animals and ferocious criminals will become tame and harmless in our presence.”
Paramhansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi includes a fellow disciple’s account of Sri Yukteswar’s encounter with a cobra, a snake greatly feared for its deadly venom and for its lightning attack on anything moving. One’s best hope is to remain absolutely motionless:
Sri Yukteswar, seeing a cobra, its hood angrily expanded, racing toward him, gives “a welcoming chuckle, as though to a child. I was beside myself with consternation to see Master engage in a rhythmical clapping of hands. He was entertaining the dread visitor! I remained absolutely quiet, inwardly ejaculating what fervent prayers I could muster. The serpent, now very close to my guru, was now motionless, seemingly magnetized by his caressing attitude, the frightful hood contracted. The snake slithered between Master’s feet and disappeared into the bushes.
Uproot any feeling of ill will
Kriyananda concludes his commentary on ahimsa with this counsel for all of us who would grow in this essential spiritual attitude: “Examine your heart for any feeling of ill will towards others. Carefully uproot any such feeling, and plant in its stead fragrant flowers of forgiveness. Only when your heart has been softened by universal benevolence may you hope to become receptive to the gentle vibrations of divine love.”
Nayaswami Prakash is a long-time member of Ananda. He currently serves at Ananda Village doing forestry and landscaping work. Before moving to Ananda Village in 1974, he taught English and Literature at North Carolina Central University in Durham, North Carolina.