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The Ahimsa Principle

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A lesson in Life

One of the central tenets that guides my life is the Ahimsa Principle. The Ahimsa Principle comes from the Dharmic religions arising from India, namely Jainism, Buddhism and Hinduism. Ahimsa is mentioned in some of the earliest texts know to man. Ahimsa means ‘without harm’. In Sanskrit the ‘a’ at the beginning of a word is a negation, and ‘himsa’ means harm or violence. This is similar to the Hebrew word ‘Hamas’ in the Bible, which also means violence (Genesis 6:11). The simplest understanding of the Ahimsa Principle means a life free of violence. In Dharmic philosophy, ahimsa is not only a moral principle but a central theological concept of the functioning of the material and spiritual worlds, and the purpose of life. In this essay, I will trace the origins of the Ahimsa Principle from first mentions in Vedic texts to widespread applications today in the modern world. I will also examine some of the larger philosophical implications of the Ahimsa Principle related to karma, the self-improvement process and an outlook for understanding the meaning of life.

The earliest Vedic texts such as the Rig Veda, Manu Smriti, Dharma Shastras and more include Ahimsa as a central tenet and moral precept to live by. The Manu Smriti includes Ahimsa as the first of five restraints (yama) for personal behavior, among truthfulness (satyam), non-stealing / coveting (asteyam), purity of mind and body (shoucham) and control of senses (indriyanigraha) (Manu Smriti 10.63). Ahimsa is singled out as a precept applicable to all people, regardless of caste. Almost all of the Dharmic texts names Ahimsa as one of the most important principles, as in the famous statement in the Mahabharata (13.117.37) ‘Ahimsa Paramo Dharma’, Ahimsa is the highest moral virtue. The Bhagavad Gita mentions Ahimsa four times, (10.4-5, 13.8-12, 16.1-3 & 17.14) in lists of essential character traits. In Buddhism, Ahimsa is the first of the Five Precepts all Buddhists are expected to live by. On a basic level, Ahimsa is understood as the reason for vegetarianism, as the Ahimsa Principle applies to all of creation, fellow humans, animals and the environment, prohibiting killing animals for meat due to unnecessary harm. Ahimsa also serves as a general guideline for all decisions in life, with a general standard of minimization of harm to be factored into all actions. The concept of Ahimsa is most central and detailed in the Jain religion, not only being the main moral precept to live by, but a fundamental principle of creation.

Before turning to Jainism, lets look at the role of the Ahimsa principle in Krishna Consciousness. In Krishna Consciousness, bhakti, love or devotion, is the main principle, but Ahimsa is still an important principle, clearly mentioned four times in the Bhagavad Gita in lists of main tenets. The Srimad Bhagavatam (4.22.24) states:
“A candidate for spiritual advancement must be non-violent [ahimsa], must follow in the footsteps of the great acaryas [sages], must always remember the past times of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, must follow the regulative principles without material desire, and while following the regulative principles, should not blaspheme others. A devotee should lead a very simple life and not be disturbed by the duality of opposing elements. He should learn to tolerate them.”
Srila Prabhupada in his commentary on this verse Srimad Bhagavatam writes:
“The devotees are actually saintly persons, or sadhus. The first qualification of a sadhu, or devotee, is ahimsa, or nonviolence. Persons interested in the path of devotional service, or in going back home, back to Godhead, must first practice ahimsa, or nonviolence. A devotee should be tolerant and should be very much compassionate toward others. For example, if he suffers personal injury, he should tolerate it, but if someone else suffers injury, the devotee need not tolerate it. The whole world is full of violence, and a devotee’s first business is to stop the violence, including the unnecessary slaughter of animals. A devotee is the friend not only of human society but of all living entities, for he sees all living entities as sons of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. He does not claim himself to be the only son of God and allow all others to be killed, thinking that they have no soul. This kind of philosophy is never advocated by a pure devotee of the Lord. Suhrdah sarva-dehinām: a true devotee is the friend of all living entities... this is called ahimsa. Such nonviolence can be practiced only when we follow in the footsteps of the great acaryas.”
We will examine soon the role of violence in Srila Prabhupada’s dispute with Gandhi over pacifism and the true meaning of ahimsa, but clearly ahimsa is of primal importance in Krishna consciousness. Devotees of Krishna focus on bhakti, love of God, seeing ahimsa as a derivative principle to bhakti. “The path of speculative knowledge and renunciation is not essential for devotional service. Indeed, good qualities such as nonviolence and control of the mind and senses automatically accompany a devotee of Lord Krishna” (Sri Chaitanya Charitamrita Madhya-Lila 22.145). But the concept of ahimsa is clear as a primary directive, and meaning behind Suhrdah sarva- dehinām, meaning a devotee is the friend to all living entities (SB 3.25.21). However, in Krishna consciousness, ahimsa is to be achieved through bhakti, love and devotion, not austerities as in Jainism, although the theological connection between karma and ahimsa is largely the same, only different in focus and method.

The Ahimsa Principle is most fully developed in the teachings of Jainism, being the fundamental principle of the Jain religion. People might be familiar with Jain monks sweeping the path before them to make sure not to kill any insects, but within Jainism, the Ahimsa Principle is not merely a fundamental moral precept to live by, but a theological concept that helps explain the purpose of creation, origins and destination of the soul, and the innerworkings of the spiritual and material realms. As in most Dharmic traditions, Jains believe in karma (action / reaction, result of all past and present activities), samsara (cycle of birth and death), moksha (release from samsara) and varnashrama (duties and stages of life). Deeper understandings of the soul and karma center on the ahimsa principle. The jiva is the formless eternal soul and ajiva the temporary living material form, and karma is the dust that covers and weighs down the jiva into samsara preventing moksha. Violation of the Ahimsa Principle causes the accumulation of bad karma; following the Ahimsa Principle is the main method of not accumulating bad karma.

In the classic Jain text, Expositions of Explanations, there are eight types of karma, four harming and four non-harming. The four harming types of karma are delusory (attachment to incorrect views), knowledge obscuring (interfering with both intellect and senses), perception obscuring (blocking mental and intellectual capacity for perception and sense organs), and obstacles (blockage of energy force inherent in the jiva). The main practices of Jainism are vows of austerity all centering around the Ahimsa Principle, and a voluntary renunciation of activities with the goal of limiting harmful activities. The goal of the vows of austerity is to shed accumulated bad karma though sacrifice, and the cessation of acquiring new karma, leading to enlightenment and eventual moksha. These austerities include not just action, but in speech and thought, purifying not only the body, but the heart, speech and mind. Although certainly ceasing harmful actions is a first step, enlightenment comes from eventual purity of mind. Another important Jain concept is anekantavada (an – without, eka – one, anta – side), many-sidedness, a Jain doctrine about metaphysical truths, that is an ancient precursor to my Multiple Truth Hypothesis, and related to ahimsa. In future essays I will return to a deeper analysis of Jain theology, but Ahimsa is not only the central doctrine of the Jain religion, but the fundamental concept to understand the origins and destination of the soul, and purpose of creation, and the Ahimsa Principle is the central tenet from which other tenets derive.

All Dharmic societies are based on the Ahimsa Principle, including the foundation of the modern state of India. One of Mahatma Gandhi’s main slogans was ‘Ahimsa Paramo Dharma’ (Mahabharata 13.117.37), meaning ahimsa is the highest moral virtue. Gandhi’s main philosophy of Satyagraha (satya – truth, graha – holding firmly to) is based on the two principles of Truth and Ahimsa. Regarding the Ahimsa Principle, Gandhi referred to ahimsa as the bedrock of satyagraha, the ‘irreducible minimum’ to which satyagraha adheres and the final measure of its value. Besides as a moral virtue to live by, Gandhi held ahimsa to be a scientific principle to which law and governance of society could be derived. However, many Hindus disagree with Gandhi’s position on ahimsa, as an absolute value leading to pacifism, but a relative principle where violence is in many cases needed. The main idea is that the totality of violence be reduced for the Ahimsa Principle to be upheld. As in the Mahabharata and the battle of Kurukshetra, where Arjun is advised by Krishna to go to war, Krishna returns to restore Dharma (BG 4.7), even using violence in order to restore society back to the proper Dharma, while minimizing violence in totality. Many interpret the Ramayana in terms of just war theory, and the ahimsa principle, where violence is the last resort, but justice must be restored and vanquishing the wicked ultimately reduces suffering. But even in cases where violence is required to reduce the overall level of violence, the ahimsa principle is always a main guiding principle that dictates action, especially on the battlefield, as using violence even to ultimately reduce violence should be the option of last resort.

Although the Ahimsa principle derives from Dharmic religions, it is applicable to all peoples. Many Western movements are greatly influenced by the Ahimsa Principle. Utilitarianism has many parallels to the Ahimsa principle, but usually formulated in the opposite terminology of maximization of benefits for the majority as opposed to the minimization of suffering. The Non-Aggression Principle in modern Libertarianism also parallels to the Ahimsa Principle, more related to limited government and personal freedoms, but formulated on the logic of minimization of harm. Dr. Martin Luther King based much of his civil rights activism on the principle of non-violence, crediting Gandhi and Dharmic traditions. Dr. Martin Luther King himself made pilgrimage to India in 1959 and credited Gandhi’s satyagraha as a large influence. Without directly tracing the origins of Western movements to Vedic origins, they can still be interpreted as applications and derivatives of the Ahimsa Principle.

The word ahimsa has only entered the Western lexicon to a limited extent, but the concept has become increasing popular in response to constant war, and damage to the environment. Often the Biblical traditions put man as the center of creation, and tend towards interpretations of a fight of good verse evil that normalize constant struggle and damage to the environment. Vegetarianism is spreading rapidly in response to increased awareness of unnecessary suffering caused to animals, negative health effects, and damage to the environment. The movement of Universal Humanism is also spreading in response to constant warfare, group struggles, and awareness of the unnecessary suffering of fellow humans. Many connect increased vegetarianism and universal humanism with Dharmic religions, but even seen as independent movements, can still be understood as derivatives of the Ahimsa Principle. The more the Ahimsa Principle spreads we can hope to decrease suffering and negative aspects of society, and people can openly factor the minimization of harm into governance of society.

The Ahimsa Principle is a not simply a principle that governs action, but our hearts, speech and mind, but is important for internal purification and character refinement. Although many people may not be familiar with the long history and deep theology of ahimsa, the elimination of unnecessary pain and suffering is obvious as an altruistic and worthy goal. We have a tendency for selfishness to amplify our own suffering and diminish the suffering of others, hence the need for a larger principle to understand the role of suffering and noble goal of reducing suffering.

In future essays I will return to Dharmic principles, but due to the importance and primacy of ahimsa started with ahimsa. All of our actions, thought and speech can and should be guided by the Ahimsa Principle, gauging whether it is harmful or not. The realm of action is the most important to start, as we can cause extreme harm to ourselves and others through action, but ahimsa should be equally applied to speech which can also cause great harm to ourselves and others, and eventually applied to thought, purifying the nature of our own minds. The Dharmic traditions not only provide great guidance for governance of our actions and society, but the purifications of our own minds and hearts, and the possibility of liberation.

Reconnecting