By M. Sophia Newman in Religious Dispatches
"Twenty years after the murder of Mia Zapata inspired a self-defense movement in Seattle, Indians are responding to a widely-reported gang-rape case in Delhi by joining similar violence prevention courses. Only they’re doing so over the advice of religious opponents, who echo a famous Indian guru: the Buddha.
On July 7, 1993, Mia Zapata, lead singer for up-and-coming Seattle band The Gits, left a bar to walk home alone at 2 A.M. She never arrived. At 3:20, a prostitute found her body in an alley, raped, beaten, and strangled to death.
Two decades later on December 16, 2012, after boarding a minibus in Delhi, India, Jyoti Singh Pandey didn’t make it home either. On the bus, thugs gang-raped and beat her, then dumped her on the roadside. Pandey died thirteen days later.
Both murders were watershed events in national debates on violence against women. Zapata’s friends and fellow musicians collaborated to open Home Alive, a non-profit that taught people how to resist violent attacks, while the Pandey case has not only prompted massive protests across India, but a strong interest in violence prevention as well.
In the Pandey case, however, one leader spoke against self-defense. Amid calls for stiffer penalties for rape, religious teacher Asaram Bapu proposed a different deterrent: “The girl should have taken God's name and could have held the hand of one of the men and said, 'I consider you my brother'…Then the misconduct wouldn't have happened.” Bapu later flatly blamed Pandey for her own rape, a sentiment with which some government officials agreed.
Twenty-five centuries earlier, in a scripture called the Kakacupama Sutta, the Buddha had also advised passivity: “Even if bandits were to carve you up savagely, limb by limb, with a two-handled saw, he among you who let his heart get angered, even at that, would not be doing my bidding.” Centuries later, the renowned Tibetan master Shantideva advised gratitude towards abusers, saying karma obligates Buddhists to take responsibility for their behavior:
Those who hurt me are impelled by my actions…. It is I alone who harm them, and they are my benefactors. Oh wicked mind, why do you misconstrue this and become angry?
Both verses echo the concept of “non-self,” the Buddhist teaching that interconnection is so deep that there is no unchanging identity to any living being. The term alone appears to contradict self-defense; Buddhists commonly say the idea compels a conflict-averse attitude.
Indeed, the teachings appear to advocate a willful lowering of defenses at the moment of attack. Interconnection with all beings could seem to frown upon punching specific beings in the face. Yet Bapu’s comments invited outrage. Would contemporary observers have treated an ancient version of his words any differently?
Religious scholar Erin Epperson thinks not. She was studying Tibetan Buddhism in India in December 2012, and recalls large protests even in McLeod Ganj, a tiny hill-station in the Himalayas. She later assisted self-defense courses in Delhi, using curricula from a martial arts academy she attends in Chicago. Demand for classes jumped dramatically after the Pandey murder, a situation which Nancy Lanoue, the Chicago school’s founder, compared to America in 1993: “When the Mia Zapata murder occurred… self-defense was getting attention from many folks who usually ignored it.”
Lanoue (who, like Epperson, is versed in Buddhist philosophy), sees a distinction between self-defense and violence. She refers to an “ethic of least harm,” which means “using the least force possible to preserve my physical, mental and emotional safety.” Epperson says pacifism can amount to complicity: “Letting someone do violence to you is also not a non-violent approach...” Read it all