We Are Not Our Bodies: Understanding Race Through Avidya

Julie Pasqual
February 20, 2024
woman thinking with hand on chin

There are times when I look at my face in my little Zoom box, and see something I know was not there five years ago! A line, a sag, I look closer, and shake my head, and say, “Well, good thing I am not this body!” And then sometimes, I sing, because that is how the man who taught me about this concept – Professor Edwin Bryant, head of Hindu studies at Rutgers University says it – the word “Avidya!”

In Sanskrit the ancient language of yoga, Avidya means ignorance, and is said to be the root of all suffering. Even without knowing anything more, one can easily see how the sometimes unbelievable level of foolishness in people, is the cause of oh so much misery! But Avidya means more than the slightly crazy guy who thinks he can jump off a shed into his pool without getting hurt, that you might see on “America’s Funniest Home Videos.”  Avidya is the root cause of all the hatred and dissension we see before us each and every day, for, from a yogic perspective, it is the ignorance of who we really are.

Any ancient system of yoga says point-blank: WE ARE NOT OUR BODIES.  This is yoga philosophy 101 – from the classic texts “The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali” to the moving, and practical “Bhagavad Gita”. We HAVE bodies, we HAVE minds, like we have a shirt, or glasses, or a phone - but we are not those things. We are souls, who are, very temporarily in a body, that has a mind. This basic misunderstanding is like the old joke of someone beginning a math problem by saying 2+2=5. Because everything after that is going to be wrong.  So it is with us, when we begin our interactions with people on the basis that they ARE their bodies and their minds. When we see them as something sooooooooo different from ourselves that we cannot even begin to relate to them at all – then we are in trouble. Then we can hate. Then we can hurt. Then we can kill.


Whenever anyone asks me why are people with black and brown bodies, like myself, pulled over, insulted, shot, and killed – what can I say, but “Avidya!” Yes, there is the outward ignorance, of someone looking at another person and just because their skin tone is a few shades darker decides that they are worthless. But, this grows, like a lethal flower, from the root of Avidya – the complete unawareness that none of us are who we think we are – none of us! The yoga teachings say that we are all sparks of the same divine fire – no matter the color of our skin, our gender, or even our species (yes, rats are sparks, too). Hating another is hating ourselves. Hating another is hating The Divine’s energy, which in a way is hating The Divine itself.

So, does that mean that when I see the news, and hear of ANOTHER shooting, another life lost, another set of hateful things said, that I can easily sing, “Avidya!” No. I cry. I get mad. But, this knowledge does help me make sense of it, a little bit. I can see how I, who studies all of this A LOT, walks around fully thinking I am my body and my mind, and judging others in that same way, most of the time. And when I am working my yogic practices hard enough, I do take a breath, and see my own bubble of Avidya, and try to do the only thing I can do – try not to hate right back.