Ahimsa is an important teaching within the Indian tradition. It has also been a term eagerly embraced by many new-age and metaphysical systems throughout the world. Resulting in almost a placatory mentality toward certain types of action, which is also fueled by misinterpretations of Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance to the British occupation of India.
While ahimsa is an important teaching, it is important to understand the deeper ramifications of ahimsa; requiring that each student of spirituality asks themselves several important questions: what are the deeper teachings of ahimsa? Is ahimsa opposed to action? What is an act of violence, himsa? What was the Vedic view of ahimsa? What was the original meaning of the word ahimsa?
Ahimsa comes from the word himsa meaning violence; with the prefix of a, it literally means nonviolence. Some of the oldest references to Ahimsa occur in the Taittiriya Samhita of the Yajur Vedas, 188.8.131.52, which refers to ahimsa as not harming the performer of the yajna, while performing the yajna. The term also appears in the Shatapatha Brahmana as non-injury, but does not have the moral connotations often associated with it today. Most Vedic references regarding nonviolence are focused on nonviolence towards animals.
Later texts and later additions to older texts extended the idea of nonviolence to include plants, eventually extending this to include all forms of life, though certainly such important works such as the Bhu Suktam would include a view of nonviolence towards the earth.
What is the Vedic view of ahimsa? Most western views of ahimsa are based around a concept of “Harm no one in thought, word, or deed.” This is an appealing ideology that strongly stimulates a pacifist ideology and has become quite popular in our current age, especially amongst the new age movement. While it is easy to appreciate the concept and idea behind this statement, is this view supported by the Vedas? Most likely not. In my opinion, the Vedas does not support the modern view of ahimsa. Let’s examine a few points of interest:
- The oldest system of martial arts developed in the Vedic system. Dhanur Veda is an upaveda or secondary Veda (an important work), which taught the Vedic science of archery and war. The Vedic systems recognized the need for a strong military system to protect the teachings and kingdom from those opposed to dharma.
- The Vedic culture had a Kshatriya (warrior) caste. Recognizing the need for a strong military system to provide the protection for teachings and kingdom from those opposed to dharma.
- The Kshatriya protected not only the kingdom but Dharma or more correctly Sanatana Dharma. In some of these cases, armies were used to restore the greater good in the region.
- The conflicts between the Brighus and Angirasas were over preserving the purity of Dharma.
- Vedic rishis had conflicts. There were conflicts between the two great Vedic rishi’s—Vashishta and Vishvamitra. But each continued to serve Dharma. Vashishta cursed an individual for stealing a cow.
- Naga’s within the Hindu tradition consider themselves defenders of Dharma.
What did other periods have to say about ahimsa:
- In later times, Krishna did not advise Arjuna to run away from war, but reminded him of the performance of his duty.
- Gandhi stated, “It is open to a war resister to judge between the combatants and wish success to the one who has justice on his side. By so judging, he is more likely to bring peace between the two than by remaining a mere spectator.”[i]
- Pandit Vamadeva Shastri, has stated that ahimsa is the performance of action without violent intention. (We will examine this in greater detail later.)
Our modern understanding of ahimsa in the west is largely influenced by a limited understanding of Buddhism and Jainism, as well as a lack of depth in understanding of the traditional Hindu view. But the Mahabharata, Manu Smriti, Matsya Purana support the concept of self defense.
Even sects of Jainism recognized the need for self defense, but it is in Jainism that we see the most extreme appearance of ahimsa. In some Jain sects, eating honey is considered violence against bees.[ii] Some Jains do not go out at night when they are more likely to harm insects. Some sects view harming bacteria as violence, but again this is not a realistic view for a householder or average person functioning in the world.
Yet we see that Buddhists monks, in China, developed schools of self defense through a variety of martial arts programs; while following a path of ahimsa, we see again the Vedic concept of not wishing harm to an opponent while using martial arts, while maintaining the defense of one’s self and dharma.
The western world often views Gandhi as the primary representative of ahimsa. From a western view, what he achieved was monumental. In India, there is some division over the activities of Gandhi. Some credit him with his nonviolent resistance as causing the British to leave India. Critics charge that the British had taken what they wanted and left for other reasons.
Some Indians blame Gandhi for the formation of Pakistan, which has resulted in many military battles and frequent conflicts between Hindu’s and Muslims. It is a difficult situation, as Gandhi was facing a variety of difficult situations, especially the threat of a civil war.
Sri Aurobindo criticized Gandhi over his concept of ahimsa; Aurobindo felt that Gandhi’s view of ahimsa was not realistic and not universally applicable. Aurobindo’s view was that justification of violence should be dealt with on a case by case basis.
From a personal standpoint, I had the opportunity to meditate next to some of the ashes of Gandhi. I must say it was a very peaceful experience. I even disturbed an ant mound while selecting a place to sit, and then sat right next to the mound. I noticed that the ants did not become agitated or attempt to bite/sting me. I found this rather remarkable. As far as the other complexities regarding Gandhi, I leave that for scholars and historians to decide, as it is clear that Gandhi has a polarizing effect on some student’s of spirituality.
Ahimsa in relation to the emotions
Ahimsa plays an important role on the emotional level and is an important consideration in personal and spiritual growth. Examples of this would be himsa atmakarah which is a state of always being envious. Himsa Viharah is someone that takes pleasure in violence. Himsa, the word, can also mean suffering or harm. From this standpoint, our personal suffering could be viewed as personal or self harm.
This could manifest as harmful thought towards oneself, lack of self esteem, activities in which one would harm themselves, manifesting in the gross or physical field as personal harming of our body, occurring through food, thought, or physical action such as suicide. On these levels, one can see that himsa is also of a deep personal nature. Practicing ahmisa towards others and not practicing towards our self is just as much a problem as either of two other possibilities alone (Himsa against others, or Himsa against oneself only). So, envy for example, as an emotional state harms those that we are envious about (ethereally) and harms ourselves.
Often when we expect a teacher or leader to agree with our point of view regarding ahimsa and that view is not upheld, this will result in mental or emotional himsa when ones expectation is not met. As an example, if someone was told the real meaning of ahimsa, which was something different from what they expected, and they became angry with the person that told them; in reality, the angry person is practicing himsa via their anger.
If you remain calm, emotionally unattached and can debate the issue without the emotion or ill-will toward the other person, then one is practicing ahimsa. I believe it was Gandhi that said, “Ahimsa can only be practiced from a position of strength, otherwise one is just a coward…” A Vedic example would be, if going to war a soldier performed their duty without any anger, hatred, or ill will toward the other army, he/she would be practicing ahimsa, as they are only performing their duty without any emotional disturbance against the other party. This illustrates the difficulty in practicing ahimsa, as a great deal of mental control is required.
From the above examples, one can see that intent has a great deal to do with ahimsa. Intent and emotionalism is probably one of the most important keys to ahimsa. This requires an advanced awareness of one’s feelings, motivation and attachments.
While ahimsa can mean nonviolence in word, thought or deed. It is a more complex issue, involving nonviolence against ourselves via sensory input, foods, drugs, self thoughts etc. initially. While it is an important teaching, it involves a great deal of complexity; likewise, it does not mean becoming a literal “punching bag” for the world, as this allows violence against the self.
The optimum understanding is that the desire to harm should be absence in all activities, even if they are perceived as harm by another party. Understanding that the perception of harm is relative to view of the recipient, makes ahimsa a much more complex issue then is commonly explored by the average student. Ahimsa should be guided by truth, realization and dharma.
The practical application of ahimsa begins with the self. Learning to move beyond envy, anger, emotionalism and similar emotions is the most important step towards ahimsa, recognizing the affect of thoughts on the physical and mental self. Working to reduce our self inflicted harm is a critical first step in practicing ahimsa. Once this has been successfully accomplished, then applying discrimination with word and deeds is an important next step. It does not mean that one cannot have an opinion or stand for an issue.
It means that one is coming from a neutral place, recognizing that there are many different views, paths and karmas that must be worked through on the journey towards realization. It is important to work towards peace, but also to remember the purpose of this particular dimension that we all live in, as well as the nature of this world. It is easier to practice ahimsa within a cave than while functioning within the world.
There are numerous benefits from practicing ahimsa, but true ahimsa requires a highly developed mind, an expansive consciousness and a certain withdrawal from the activities of the world. There can be numerous benefits for the average person practicing ahimsa, but one must begin with their own self first. If any portion of this article angered the reader, then it is a rare opportunity to explore the lack of application of ahimsa within their life.
By Yogi Baba Prem (Tom Beal,) Yogacharya, Veda Visharada
[ii] Hemacandra: Yogashastra 3.37; Laidlaw p. 166-167.