Ahimsa is a primary moral duty that widely prevailed in ancient India. All Indian religions prescribe nonviolence as the primary virtue. Hence, there is vast literature available on Ahimsa. We hardly find a spiritual text that does not mention Ahimsa. It is the highest morality of mankind.
Though the Sanskrit word has been a part of the English Language since the late 19th Century, it became popular only when Mahatma Gandhiji made a nonviolent protest against the then British Government of India. This eventually led to independence in the year 1947.
An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.Mahatma Gandhiji
This article answers the following questions.
- What is Ahimsa?
- How do you define the term Ahimsa?
- What is the role of Ahimsa in Yoga and Spirituality?
- What are the benefits of practicing Ahimsa?
Ahimsa Meaning and Definition
The Sanskrit word अहिंसा (ahiṃsā) is the antonym of Himsa which means harmfulness and causing pain and grief to other beings. Hence Ahimsa means harmlessness or nonviolence. In other words, it is the absence of violence.
But the indicated meaning goes beyond nonviolence. It includes relieving the sufferings of other beings: feeding the poor, and treating the pains and sufferings of the diseases. Showing love and kindness is the real meaning of Ahimsa. Besides, love and kindness should be ingrained in thoughts, speech, and deeds.
We may define Ahimsa as the practice of the yogic virtue that restricts a practitioner from harming other beings by his thoughts, speech, and deeds either directly or indirectly.
Ahimsa is the yogic virtue
The primary virtue for the attainment of yoga is nonviolence. This is why it has become the foremost of the Yamas of Yoga Sutra of Patanjali and most of the Yoga Upanishads.
Interestingly, Yoga Tattva Upanishad classifies Nonviolence under Niyama and calls it the foremost Niyama: Ahimsa Niyamesvega Mukhya.
Ahimsa in Yoga Sutra
Benefits of Nonviolence
According to Yoga Sutra, If a yogi has established himself in Nonviolence, all beings lose their animosity in his presence.
Why it has become the primary yogic virtue? Is it because of the moral values that it has? Of course, it has moral values. But the reason is more than that.
Most of us already know Yoga is the stoppage of the mind. The obstructions to this goal are the modifications of the mind like thoughts, speech, and bodily activities. As a result, these modifications harm others out of anger, desire, jealousy, ego, and the like.
Most often, all these modifications, in some way or other, result in injury to other living creatures either by thought or by speech, or deed. Understandably, the injured one reacts back by thought, speech, or deed. Now the yogi is subject to a chain of modifications. As a result, the yogi fails in his path. To overcome this obstacle, he should ground himself in Non-Violence.
Vidarka badhana pratipaksha bhavanam
Patanjali provides a solution.
When the modifications like anger, desire, etc., arise, the yogi should cultivate opposite modifications. For example, in place of anger, he should show love. The sage says “Vidarka badhana pratipaksha bhavanam“.
It means “cultivate contrary thoughts when disturbed by the deviating thoughts”. He provides this tip for all those thoughts that deviate from all Yamas and Niyamas.
In place of deviating thoughts of violence, cultivate love. No wonder, cultivating love and nonviolence, the yogi goes to the next level in the yogic path.
Now, recall the words of Patanjali about the benefits of Nonviolence. He says “all living creatures lose their hostility in the presence of a yogi who has well cultivated in Nonviolence”.
The yogi is exhibiting only positive thoughts and hence there is no question of hostility in others.
Moreover, if at all they have any, the positive thoughts of the yogi will annihilate those animosities. As a result, his yoga is not disturbed.
For any Yogi, it is the primary virtue. This is not merely because it has moral values, but because of the reason that his progress is stalled without it.
Furthermore, the concept of Ahimsa does not end by merely applying nonviolence in deeds but also by applying it in thoughts and Speech.
Ahimsa Parmo Dharma
In Hinduism, it is also a moral virtue or one of the moral codes of conduct. Ahimsa Parmo Dharma, says Mahabharata repeatedly. It means non injuring is the supreme dharma or the foremost duty.
Chandogyga Upanishad 3.17.4 enumerates the five essential virtues: nonviolence, truth in speech, morality, austerity, and charity.
Bhagavad Gita 17.14 defines the Penance of the body as worshiping God, Brahmins, Gurus, and worshippable persons and cultivating cleanliness, morality, celibacy, and Nonviolence.
Yajnavalkya Smriti 1.8 says ‘Of all the activities of moral virtues like altruism, control of mind, nonhurting, charity, and or study of the Self, the Supreme Virtue is the realization of Self by Yoga.”
Ahimsa and meat-eating
The principles of nonviolence apply also to animals and other beings. Killing animals for food is Violence and it should be avoided. In Hinduism, one should not eat meat, because it hurts animals. But initially, meat-eating was not uncommon in Hinduism.
Meat-eating in Manu Smriti
Manu Smriti 2.177 declares that a Brahmachari should abstain from honey, meat, perfumes, garlands, flavoring substances, women, and substances causing acidity. He should abstain from making injury to other beings.
Eating honey is also making injury to other beings: taking away the food of honey bees.
Verse 3.152 says that meat sellers should be avoided in sacrifices offered to Gods.
According to verse 5.7, a Brahmin is prohibited from eating rice boiled with sesamum, wheat mixed with butter, milk with sugar, milk with rice, flour cakes not prepared for sacrifice, meat not sprinkled with water while sacred texts were recited, and food offered to Gods.
Verse 5.11 says that he should avoid carnivorous birds and animals which are not permitted to be eaten.
Whereas Verse 5.27 allows a Brahmin to eat meat sprinkled with water and recitation of the mantras. He can eat meat when he desires to eat or when he is engaged in a rite allowed in law or when his life is in danger.
It is evident that the slaughtering of animals for sacrifices and meat-eating was common in those days.
However, verses 5.48 to 5.56 glorify non eater of meat.
Meat-eating in Yajnavalkya Smriti
Yajnavalkya Smriti says that a householder should not eat meat before consecration. Also, he should avoid the meat of carnivorous animals and birds.
However, a man who is on the path of celibacy should not eat meat. For the sin of taking meat, one should perform a specific rite. The selling of meat is one of the minor sins.
It is learned that in the days of Manu Smriti and Yajnavalkya Smriti, meat-eating was common and acceptable for a householder, even for a Brahmin. But for a Brahmachari, he should abstain. This prohibition was later imposed on householders also.
Meat-eating in Thirukkural
In Thirukkural, Thiruvalluvar talks about the noneating of meat in ten verses.
How the divine grace is with him who eats the body of other beings to build his own body? (Verse 251).
A man of wealth loses his grandeur when he fails to safeguard the wealth. Similarly, a man of divine grace loses his grandeur when he eats meat. (Verse 252).
Like the mind of a man who bears the weapons of killing, the mind of the meat-eater does not go for any good. (Verse 253).
The divine grace is nothing but nonkilling. Killing is other than that. Eating the body after that killing is nonvirtuous. (Verse 254).
The life force takes abode in nonkilling. But the hell would catch hold of the meat-eater and won’t allow him to escape forever. (Verse 255).
When people stop killing for the sake of eating, then no one will sell dead bodies for money. (Verse 256).
One should abstain from eating meat. This is because of the fact that meat is the wound of other beings. (Verse 257).
One who has no trace of impurity always abstains from eating the dead body of other beings. (Verse 258).
Noneating the dead is far better than thousands of oblations with ghee to appease God. (Verse 259).
All living beings salute him who abstains from killing and eating meat. (Verse 260).
Ahimsa and War
Nonviolence was initially one of the codes of conduct for Brahmacharya and later on imposed on householders too. It became a general Dharma. War involves violent activities like killings and injuries to others.
In Hinduism, War is the duty of the king (Kshatriya Dharma). According to Manu, if there is a clash between special duty and General duty, the special duty prevails. Non Violence is the general duty and war is a special duty. Hence war is not against Ahimsa. In Mahabharata, we learn that.
Ahimsa in Buddhism
Buddhism prescribes the five precepts (Pancha Seela). It is the code of ethics undertaken by the followers of Buddhism. These are the moral virtues or duties to be cultivated. It is similar to the five-fold Yama of Yogic Philosophy.
Nonviolence is the first precept of Pancha Seela. According to Buddhism, Nonviolence is the abstinence from the onslaught of any being that breathes.
In other words, the abstention from killing other sentient beings is the precept of Nonviolence.
Taking the lives of animals, even small creatures like insects is against this precept. The killing of animals of larger size is more serious than the killing of animals of smaller size.
Similarly, taking human life is more serious than other beings. Killing a spiritually accomplished person is even more serious. Hence it depends a lot on the size, intelligence, benefits, and spirituality of the living being.
Suicide, Capital punishment, and Abortion are also against the precept. The precept prohibits one to be the cause of another making such killings. The precept prohibits all the activities of war.
Visit this link for more details on nonviolence in Buddhism.
Ahimsa in Jainism
Just like Yama is fivefold in the philosophy of Yoga, Maha Viratas or great vows are fivefold in the philosophy of Jainism. They are Non Violence, Sathya, Asteya, Brahmacharya, and Aparigraha. The names are pretty much the same, but their connotations vary a little.
In Jainism too, Nonviolence is the foremost vow. It is the absence of desire to harm living beings in any form. Here the concept of Nonviolence extends not only to humans, but also to animals, plants, and microorganisms.
The very tendency of harming others harms one’s own Self. One who takes the vow of nonviolence should not cause even fear to other life forms.
Furthermore, a householder is forbidden to kill others. Yet he is permitted to kill plants for cereals, vegetables, and herbs. But an ascetic is prohibited to destroy even vegetables and herbs.
According to the philosophy of Jainism, Ahimsa is of two types: Bhava Ahimsa and Karma Ahimsa.
Bhava Ahimsa is thinking to injure others in thoughts and intentions; whereas Karma Ahimsa is doing harm by deeds and words. Both activities of harming others are detrimental to the pure nature of the soul.
The above classifications are for the purpose of understanding only.
A Jain monk should always cultivate carefulness in the activities of walking, talking, eating, handling things, and evacuation and disposal of excreted matters in such a way as not to harm any life form.
Transgressions of Non Violence in Jainism
The following activities are transgressions of Ahimsa.
- Tightly tying up the animals
- Beating the animals
- Cutting the limbs of the animals
- Overloading animals in transport.
- Improper feeding
War and Capital Punishment in Jainism
The war activities of a king are not against the vow since the intention of war activities is to safeguard the people. Similarly, the intentions behind the activities of a judge are to maintain law and order and hence they don’t go against the vow.
Practical Applicability of Ahimsa In Jainism
Jains are the strict adherents of vegetarianism. No other religion ever prescribes such vigorous adherence.
Mahatma Gandhiji rightly calls it:
No other religion in the world has ever explained the concept of Ahimsa so deeply and systematically as is discussed with its practical applicability in Jainism.Mahatma Gandhi
According to Purusardhasiddhiyupaya, those who wish to renounce Violence should first give up the consumption of wine, flesh, honey, and the fruits of five fig trees.
In Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, non-violence is the primary vow to be cultivated.
The philosophy of Yoga has gone a step further. Here, the reason for the cultivation of nonviolence is to get mastery over the modifications of the mind. The very progress of yoga rests on the cultivation of nonviolence in thoughts, speech, and deeds.
Om Tat Sat!