Yoga and compassion


Author: Janne Kontala, PhD
Teacher of Yoga Teacher Training Course
Janne’s personal blog:

Yoga and compassion

The Bhagavad-gita (12.13) states that compassion for all living beings is the first among the defining qualities of devotees. All living beings – humans, animals and plants – are precious members of the one divine family.

The ascetic strand of yoga philosophy, from the earliest Upanishads onwards, tends to look at emotions as problems. While selfish emotions are problems, they do not cover the whole range of feelings. The emotion-critical ethos of some texts, therefore, requires the footnote where it reads, “selfish emotions are problematic; selfless ones stand for the solution.”

Enter the first chapter of Bhagavad-gita, and Arjuna’s refusal to fight due to the compassion he feels towards his relatives, some of whom stand on the opposite side. With the background of ascetic yoga, it is all too easy to mistake Krishna’s guidance as yet another instance of be-a-yogi-kill-your-feelings. But that is reading Bhagavad-gita anachronistically. Reading the whole text carefully reveals compassion to be desirable. Of course, it is. The question is how to act based on it. Declining to fight, Arjuna would give the green light to a psychopath dictator who knocked down the constitution. It is not the black-and-white scenario, where either one is compassionate and passive, or active without feelings, or active and malicious. Compassion can also be aligned with a sensible course of action.

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