In the Bhagavad Gita, one of yoga’s classic texts, we are repeatedly reminded that a true yogi sees everything and everyone as equal. That on the path of yoga we seek to let go of all the labels we have created that separate us from others, and move towards “equal vision.”
It is what we as yogis, alongside the majority of the population, hope for in the world we experience. A future where everyone has the same opportunities regardless of gender, sexual preference, race, religion, ability, culture, income, or age. While inequalities exist it seems impossible that we would ever have peace and unity. So how do we get there—what do the sages advise?
Accepting Our Differences
As part of this yearning to experience equality in what we see and how we feel, as yogis we often talk about how we are all “one.” In the understandable attempt to “fake it till we make it,” we can claim that we don’t perceive differences, and that, in our eyes, we are all the same. I have certainly said these words and believed them to be true. But the sages say this is not helpful if we truly want to experience the world as being equal. Denying our differences is actually detrimental—not only to our progress along our yogic path, but also to our worldly ambitions of equality.
We are each unique and amazing, and the collective human experience is richer for the difference we bring.
It blew me away the first time I heard this. Isn’t it dangerous to say we are different? Won’t it provide fuel to people who want to divide us, and harm those they perceive to be “lower” than them? Certainly in the present climate we have to choose our words carefully, but the main message from the yogic texts is that in order to move towards equality, we have to change society’s perception of the word “difference.” Because, say the sages, different is good. Different is beautiful. Different is why we are even here.
Difference Is Divine
Paramhansa Yogananda, author of the spiritual classic Autobiography of a Yogi, explains this in his commentary on the Gita. He says the whole point of the human reality, in which we don’t experience oneness, is a divine gift. Our humanity allows us to “appreciate the nature of the many.”
In other words: Our human experience is only made possible because there are differences among us. Difference is divine. Difference is actually our connecting thread to one another’s humanity. So rather than insisting on equality because we are all the same, the sages say we should instead be celebrating our differences. “Look how very different we are! What joy! What a miracle!” This is pride. We are each unique and amazing, and the collective human experience is richer for the difference we bring.
Denying our differences is actually detrimental—not only to our progress along our yogic path, but also to our worldly ambitions of equality.
Imagine if the world operated from a place of understanding that it is our differences that unite us. And imagine our own spiritual path if we could look more honestly at the differences we perceive, rather than denying our human experience.
Letting Go of Judgment
From a practical perspective this mindset can be more useful than maintaining that we are all the same so we should be treated equally. For those who are not treated as equals in our society, denying there are differences among us fails to acknowledge the biases they have faced compared to us, and the struggles they have overcome. This lack of understanding can have the effect of separating us further. Moreover, when we are deaf to differences we fail to hear what others are feeling or needing—that doesn’t help us rally for greater equality on their behalf.
If we want to progress on a path of yoga we also have to aim to see those who oppose equality as no less than us.
Being honest about how and where we see differences can also help us let go of judgments. Here the Bhagavad Gita is very clear: Equal vision means “equal regard for friends, companions, neutral arbiters, hateful people, relatives, saints, and sinners.” While we rightfully demand equality for every person in society, if we want to progress on a path of yoga we also have to aim to see those who oppose equality as no less than us.
Being the Change
This is important in our present time when political views are so polarized. If we truly want to experience our underlying divine oneness, then we can’t just tune out those who we believe to have unkind opinions. For one, anyone with unkind thoughts may be suffering, and we might be able to provide a compassionate ear. And also, if we want a world of equality we have to understand those who don’t—lest we remain in some sort of echo chamber of like-minded people where only our own views are coming back to us. It does us no good to believe we all think the same way, only to wake up too late and discover that wasn’t the case at all. Our journey to equality requires listening with a calm mind.
Ultimately to create and experience equality we have to work on ourselves, say the sages. We have to embrace our differences in human form, and see the oneness that lies beneath. We have to go within. “How do you love your neighbor as your own Self?” asks Sri Swami Satchidananda in The Living Gita.”You have to see your Self in that person. And how can you see your Self in another, if you do not know who you are? The only way to truly come together is with spiritual knowledge.”
Helen Avery is a senior writer for Wanderlust Media. She is also a journalist, writer, yoga teacher, minister, and full-time dog walker of Millie, residing in Brooklyn, New York. You can find out more about her on her website, Life as Love.