Chapter 1.33 in the Yoga Sutras teaches that compassion, known as Karuna in sanskrit, is a natural remedy to thoughts or feelings of hatred or harm. It is one way to purify the mind and increase serenity in the face of suffering.
The definition of compassion, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is the “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.”
The Latin root for the word compassion is pati, which means to suffer, and the prefix com- means with. Compassion, originating from compati, literally means to suffer with.
The component of action is what separates compassion from empathy, sympathy, pity, concern, condolence, sensitivity, tenderness, commiseration or any other compassion synonym.
Compassion gets involved. When others keep their distance from those who are suffering, compassion prompts us to act on their behalf.
Author Fredrick Buechner describes what it means to have compassion in this way:
“Compassion is sometimes the fatal capacity for feeling what it is like to live inside somebody else’s skin. It is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.”
To have compassion means to empathize with someone who is suffering and to feel compelled to reduce the suffering. It’s a fuller, truer definition than feelings alone.
This standard definition is consistent with the Yoga Sutras where compassion means “shared feeling,” a level of sympathy so deep that it inspires action to alleviate another’s pain or sorrow. Forgiveness, according to some, is the ultimate expression of compassion. But the true test of compassion may be whether or not you can extend it to yourself as self-compassion.
In chapter 2.30 Ahimsa is defined as doing no harm in thoughts, words or actions towards ourselves or towards others, and the world around us. It is the first principle of Yoga.
For biblical comparison here are two passages.
“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.” — Proverbs 31:8-9, NIV
“This is what the Lord Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.'” — Zechariah 7:9-10, NIV