by Jayaram V
Definition of ahimsa, non violence
Ahimsa (a + himsa) means without violence. Himsa means
inflicting pain and injury upon others. Ahimsa, therefore literally
means not inflicting pain or injury upon others. It is usually understood
and interpreted as non violence. However, non violence is just one
aspect of ahimsa or non injury.
The practice of non violence in ancient India
ahimsa or non injury has a much wider spiritual connotation and
forms an integral aspect of their principles, philosophies and practices.
For over three thousand years, non violence was considered the
highest virtue or the virtue of virtues in the ascetic traditions
of ancient India. Even in the practice of classical yoga, Ahimsa
or non violence comes before all yamas because it is believed that
the practice of all virtues eventually lead to the state of non
violence only. The idea was so ingrined in the minds of the people
who practiced spirituality that they accepted their suffering the
oppression of others as part of their spiritual discipline.
Ahimsa in Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism
For the people in ancient India who made liberation their primary
aim or for the enlightened minds who focused upon spiritual practices,
the practice of non violence was not a mere theory. The Buddha practiced
it and actively applied it to resolve differences among the rulers
of his times and prevent wars. He advised people to pracctice right
living on the Eightfold path and avoid hurting or harming others.
He preached against cruelty.
The Jains practiced extreme forms of non violence as they did
not want to injure even the smallest organisms. They made it part
of their vows.
While for centuries, Hindus, Jains and Buddhists practiced non
violence for their spiritual advancement, Mahatma Gandhi added a
new dimension to it in modern times when he transformed its principles
it into a viable and effective instrument of political will against
the oppressive rule of the British in India. His theory of non violence
as however political in nature and very different from the kind
practice in the ascetic and spiritual world. Gandhi advocated passive
resistance to the rule of British and submission to their aggression,
whereas the non violence practiced in the ascetic traditions advocated
sameness and equanimity under all conditions without any wilful
reaction whatsoever to all external phenomena.
Who is a truly non violent person?
The principle of non-vilence practiced in Buddhism, Jainism and
Hinduism is very complex in nature and not confined to mere physical
aspect of it.
A truly non-violent person avoids all forms of disturbance.
He does not cause any ripples in the world he lives by his wilful
actions, nor he suffers from any mental modifications within himself
because of the pairs of opposites or the actions of others.
He lives and acts as if he does not exist.
He bears pain and suffering with equanimity, shows extreme compassion
in his dealings with others.
He offers no resistance whatsoever to the suffering inflicted
upon him by nature, cicumstances or others.
He embraces life without conditions and makes no effort to gain
things for himself.
The various forms of non violence
Thus, in Hindu, Jain and Buddhist traditions non violence is
the epitome of detachment and renunciation and practiced in various
ways and forms such as the following.
- non injury to all living beings
- not causing pain and suffering to others including plants
- compassion towards all living creatures
- abstaining from animal and human sacrifices
- the practice of forgiveness, love and friendliness
- Indifference or sameness to violent thoughts, words and
actions of others
- peace and equanimity towards oneself and others
- abstaining from eating meat and animal products
- abstaining from hunting animals or using animals for entertainment
and animal fights
- avoiding actions of all kinds in which animals are
subjected to unncessary cruelty and suffering.
Theological Justification of non violence in various religious
According to Hindu, Buddhist and Jain traditions, all living
beings are the same. They all contain souls and are subject to the
same laws of karma. In existence, each living being has its own
duty and destiny to fulfill and is subject to the
laws of karma
and cycle of births and deaths. Human beings do not enjoy any exalted
status in the scheme of things. In fact, as intelligent beings,
karmically they have greater responsibility to practice peace and
These traditions clearly and unequivocally declare that killing
a living being is a mortal sin with frightful consequences. It not
only interferes with ones destiny and spiritual progression, but
also leads to immense sufferng and karmic retribution.
Unless otherwise sanctioned by
scriptures in specific instances (such as saving one's own life),
the act of killing is a bad karma with unhappy consequences for
those who indulge in it.
Although beings contain eternal souls, or according to Buddhism
temporary souls, which transmigrate from one body to another during
rebirth and are not subject to pain or suffering or death, they
still experience pain and suffering when they are harmed or subjected
Even an act of unintentional killing will lead to unhappy consequences. Hence
one should avoid causing pain and suffering to others by all means
and live peacefully.
These traditions preach non violence in their own individual
ways, but their ultimate message and essential purpose is more or
less the same.
In Buddhism, non violence is one of the five percepts of Dhamma,
which forms part of the
right Action, right views and right thinking on Eigthfold Path.
The monastic code of Buddhism however permits eating certain types
of meat just as the law books of Hinduism permit eating meat of
certain animals and birds.
In Jainism the practice of non violence reaches its culmination.
non violence constitute one of the five anuvratas or littlie vows
to be taken by every Jain including the lay Jains before beginning
their spiritual journey leading to full monk-hood.
According to Jainism all life is sacred. Each each and
every object, both living and nonliving contains soul. Intentional
or unintentional violence against any life form results in negative
karma. The only way one can save one's soul is by protecting other
souls from destruction.
declared that stones, wind and water had souls and suffered from
pain just as the humans, plants and animals. So no injury should
be caused to them. The Jain monks advise people to practice verbal,
mental and physical non violence.
Jains eat during day time only and cover their mouths with
a muslin cloth so that they would not accidentally or unintentionally
swallow or harm any insects or germs while eating food or breathing
air. Even water need to be taken with care so that the soul residing
in it is not subjected to unnecessary pain and suffering.
The concept of non violence also puts restrictions on the professions
Jains may pursue. For example those who want to observe the
vow of non violence strictly cannot practice any profession that
involves killing and destruction such as farming and carpentry which
involve destruction, from the Jain perspective, in the form of ploughing
of the land and cutting of the wood.
traditions played an important role in the emergence of non
violence as a core concept in Hinduism. According to the
of Patanjali non violence or abstaining from violence is one
of the five yamas or abstentions.
declares non violence as one of the virtues of a person born with
divine nature and one of the penances of the human body.
The Practice of non violence in worldly life
While non violence was recognized as a religious and spiritual
virtue by Jainism, Buddhism and Hinduism, it was practiced mostly
by the followers of Jainism and Buddhism and by only certain sections
of Hindu society.
The priestly community, which originally sanctioned meat eating
on certain occasions during vedic period, abstained from meat eating
and killing animals for sacrificial purposes from the post vedic
period onwards. This was the result of the growing importance of
ascetic traditions within Hinduism.
But meat eating was common among other castes. The royal families
engaged in frequent hunting expeditions for pleasure and for meat.
The kings performed animal and human sacrifices to appease certain
gods. Animal sacrifices were common among the rural people.
Animal fights constituted a popular form of entertainment. For
serious crimes, criminals were punished with physical torture, hunger
The Arthashastra recommends just punishment that should
be neither excessive nor mild and prescribes branding of the face,
banishment and life long servitude in the mines for certain types
Torture was the common means to obtain confession from the criminals.
The lower castes and slaves were often subjected to inhuman and
Self-immolation was popular among certain ascetic
traditions. In Jainism it was considered a virtue. According to
Greek sources, women indulged in self-immolation or practice of
sati on the demise of their husbands.
non violence as a Political Strategy
non violence was practiced mostly in asectic traditins of these
religions. In worldy life, however, violence was the way of life.
Except during the British rule, in the 4000 years of Indian history,
in the affairs of the state, neither the Buddhists, nor the Hindus
nor the Jains met violence with non violence.
The kings and emperors fought wars, maintained huge armies and
inflicted severe punishment upon their enemies. Wherever the armies
went they left behind a trail of destruction. Punishments meted
out to criminals and offenders were extremely cruel, such throwing
them down from the ramparts of a fort or crushing their bodies by
elephants or impaling them alive.
Asoka was one notable exception. He was probably the only emperor
in the history of the world, who made non injury or non violence
a important part of his personal philosophy and ruling doctrine.
Although he led many violent campaigns in the early part of his
reign, after the Kalinga war in which a lot of blood was shed and
seeing the amount of destruction he had caused, he realized the
importance of non violence and decided to practice it in his administration.
He sent messngers of peace to various parts of the world spreading
the message and through his edicts and laws of piety advocated
non injury to all living beings. After he converted to Buddhism,
he preached the law of piety, known as Asoka's Dhamma, which had
elements of Buddha's teaching and ideas of his own. non violence
was one of its foremost principles.
Asoka was but an exception among the Indian rulers. The
rest fought wars for monetary, political or religious reasons and
treated the vanquished as they pleased, either with kindness, or
with ruthlessness or with political expediency. In his lifetime
the Buddha tried to prevent wars between warring clans, but his
influence did not last for long.
Violence as a way of life
Wars were waged relentlessly in the Indian subcontinent. Armed
robberies and dacoities were common. People sacrificed animals and
even humans to the deities seeking personal favors.
Violence was even justified by many in the name of duty and self-defense.
According to the scriptures, it was the obligatory duty of every
warrior (kshatriya) to do his duty in serving the king who was the
upholder of the sacred dharma and accept the fate meted out to him
during the wars and the campaigns he led.
While it is true that India was invaded by many foreign rulers
and free booters in search of wealth, India was also the land where
some of the bloodiest battles in the history of the world were fought.
If the native rulers suffered defeat in such wars it was not because
they lacked courage, tenacity or fighting abilities but because
they were often betrayed by their own people or their neighbouring
enemies. No foreign ruler who invaded India and established an empire
or a kingdom in the Indian subcontinent ever lived in peace. Violence
was their way of life and violence determined their destinies.
The non violence of Mahatma Gandhi
Due credit should go to Mahatma Gandhi for making non violence
a political creed and an important strategy in India's struggle
for independence from the British rule. Gandhi's non violence was
the non violence of the brave and courageous, implemented not out
of weakness or fear but out of courage and moral superiority. He
encouraged people to respond to the violent measures of the British
rulers with non violence, however difficult it might be, because
he believed that the British sense of justice would ultimately prevail
and they would yield to the perseverant but nonviolent demands of
millions of Indians for freedom. Gandhi's non violence was part
of his satyagraha or fight for truth and he wanted to extend the
concept to other areas in life and society. John G. Arapura in his
book the Spirituality of Ahimsa' (non violence): traditional and
Gandhian, writes about Gandhian approach to non violence in the
following words. 3
This Sanskrit word, universally translated to mean
"non violence," has a great depth of meaning that is not expressed
by the English equivalent. Like many Sanskrit words of philosophical
and ethical usage, it is poly-dimensional in its importance. Ahimsa'
has been mentioned in many ancient Hindu words, including the Bhagavadgita'.
The practice of ahimsa' is perhaps best known by
the works of Mahatma Gandhi. He, in the quest of how humans may
become like God, resorted to the idea of various incarnations, that
is, evolutionary, spiritual and philosophical "stages" towards perfection.
However, Gandhi took the ideal of divine perfection
in human form away from the mythological past and placed it in the
undetermined future pf every person's possibility, that is, not
as an object of hard-to-reach worship but as an ideal goal for everyone.
Gandhi insisted on the practical aspects of self-realization,
wherein "practical" referred not to that which is possible on a
theoretical level, but that which should be rendered into actual
observance regardless of its difficulty. The realm in which all
this takes place starts with one's neighbors and extending to all
the outer limits of reality.
Mahatma Gandhi on Non Violence
The following are excerpts on non violence from the
writings of Mahatma Gandhi.4
If one does not practice non violence in one's personal
relations with others, and hopes to use it in bigger affairs, one
is vastly mistaken. non violence like charity must begin at home.
But if it is necessary for the individual to be trained
in non violence, it is even more necessary for the nation to be
trained likewise. One cannot be non-violent in one's own circle
and violent outside it. Or else, one is not truly non-violent even
in one's own circle; often the non violence is only in appearance.
It is only when you meet with resistance, as for instance, when
a thief or a murderer appears, that your non violence is put on
its trail. You either try or should try to oppose the thief with
his own weapons, or you try to disarm him by love. Living among
decent people, your conduct may not be described as a non-violent.
class="vli">Mutual forbearance is non violence. Immediately,
therefore, you get the conviction that non violence is the law of
life, you have to practice it towards those who act violently towards
you, and the law must apply to nations as individuals. Training
no doubt is necessary. And beginnings are always small. But if the
conviction is there, the rest will follow.
I am an irrepressible optimist. My optimism rests
on my belief in the infinite possibilities of the individual to
develop non violence. The more you develop it in your own being,
the more infectious it becomes till it over-whelms your surroundings
and by and by might over sweep the world.
I have known from early youth that non violence is
not a cloistered virtue to be practiced by the individual for his
peace and final salvation, but it is a rule of conduct for society
if it is to live consistently with human dignity and make progress
towards the attainment of peace for which it has been yearning for
To practice non violence in mundane matters is to
know its true value. It is to bring heaven upon earth. There is
no such thing as the other world. All works are one. There is no
'here' and no 'there'. As Jeans has demonstrated, the whole universe
including the most distant stars, invisible even through the most
powerful telescope in the world, is compressed in an atom.
I I hold it, therefore, to be wrong to limit the
use of non violence to cave-dwellers and for acquiring merit for
a favoured position in the other world. All virtue ceases to have
use if it serves no purpose in every walk of life.
Gandhi's ideas about non-violence can be found in the following
article also, which was published in the Modern Review, October
There seems to be no historical warrant for the belief that an
exaggerated practice of Ahimsa synchronises with our becoming bereft
of manly virtues. During the past 1,500 years we have, as a nation,
given ample proof of physical courage, but we have been torn by
internal dissensions and have been dominated by love of self instead
of love of country. We have, that is to say, been swayed by the
spirit of irreligion rather than of religion.
I do not know how far the charge of unmanliness can be made good
against the Jains. I hold no brief for them. By birth I am a Vaishnavite,
and was taught Ahimsa in my childhood. I have derived much religious
benefit from Jain religious works as I have from scriptures of the
other great faiths of the world. I owe much to the living company
of the deceased philosopher, Rajachand Kavi, who was a Jain by birth.
Thus, though my views on Ahimsa are a result of my study of most
of the faiths of the world, they are now no longer dependent upon
the authority of these works. They are a part of my life, and, if
I suddenly discovered that the religious books read by me bore a
different interpretation from the one I had learnt to give them,
I should still hold to the view of Ahimsa as I am about to set forth
Our Shastras seem to teach that a man who really practises Ahimsa
in its fulness has the world at his feet; he so affects his surroundings
that even the snakes and other venomous reptiles do him no harm.
This is said to have been the experience of St. Francis of Assisi.
In its negative form it means not injuring any[Pg 20] living
being whether by body or mind. It may not, therefore, hurt the person
of any wrong-doer, or bear any ill-will to him and so cause him
mental suffering. This statement does not cover suffering caused
to the wrong-doer by natural acts of mine which do not proceed from
ill-will. It, therefore, does not prevent me from withdrawing from
his presence a child whom he, we shall imagine, is about to strike.
Indeed, the proper practice of Ahimsa requires me to withdraw the
intended victim from the wrong-doer, if I am, in any way whatsoever,
the guardian of such a child. It was, therefore, most proper for
the passive resisters of South Africa to have resisted the evil
that the Union Government sought to do to them. They bore no ill-will
to it. They showed this by helping the Government whenever it needed
their help. Their resistance consisted of disobedience of the orders
of the Government, even to the extent of suffering death at their
hands. Ahimsa requires deliberate self-suffering, not a deliberate
injuring of the supposed wrong-doer.
In its positive form, Ahimsa means the largest love, the greatest
charity. If I am a follower of Ahimsa, I must love my enemy. I must
apply the same rules to the wrong-doer who is my enemy or a stranger
to me, as I would to my wrong-doing father or son. This active Ahimsa
necessarily includes truth and fearlessness. As man cannot deceive
the loved one, he does not fear or frighten him or her. Gift of
life is the greatest of all gifts; a man who gives it in reality,
disarms all hostility. He has paved the way for an honourable understanding.
And none who is himself subject to fear can bestow that gift. He
must, therefore, be himself fearless. A man cannot then practice
Ahimsa and be a coward at the same time. The practice of Ahimsa
calls forth the greatest courage. It is the most soldierly of a
soldier's virtues. General Gordon has been represented in a famous
statue as bearing only a stick. This takes us far on the road to
Ahimsa. But a soldier, who needs the protection of even a stick,
is[Pg 21] to that extent so much the less a soldier. He is the true
soldier who knows how to die and stand his ground in the midst of
a hail of bullets. Such a one was Ambarisha, who stood his ground
without lifting a finger though Duryasa did his worst. The Moors
who were being pounded by the French gunners and who rushed to the
guns' mouths with 'Allah' on their lips, showed much the same type
of courage. Only theirs was the courage of desperation. Ambarisha's
was due to love. Yet the Moorish valour, readiness to die, conquered
the gunners. They frantically waved their hats, ceased firing, and
greeted their erstwhile enemies as comrades. And so the South African
passive resisters in their thousands were ready to die rather than
sell their honour for a little personal ease. This was Ahimsa in
its active form. It never barters away honour. A helpless girl in
the hands of a follower of Ahimsa finds better and surer protection
than in the hands of one who is prepared to defend her only to the
point to which his weapons would carry him. The tyrant, in the first
instance, will have to walk to his victim over the dead body of
her defender; in the second, he has but to overpower the defender;
for it is assumed that the cannon of propriety in the second instance
will be satisfied when the defender has fought to the extent of
his physical valour. In the first instance, as the defender has
matched his very soul against the mere body of the tyrant, the odds
are that the soul in the latter will be awakened, and the girl would
stand an infinitely greater chance of her honour being protected
than in any other conceivable circumstance, barring of course, that
of her own personal courage.
If we are unmanly today, we are so, not because we do not know
how to strike, but because we fear to die. He is no follower of
Mahavira, the apostle of Jainism, or of Buddha or of the Vedas,
who being afraid to die, takes flight before any danger, real or
imaginary, all the while wishing that somebody else would remove
the danger by destroying the[Pg 22] person causing it. He is no
follower of Ahimsa who does not care a straw if he kills a man by
inches by deceiving him in trade, or who would protect by force
of arms a few cows and make away with the butcher or who, in order
to do a supposed good to his country, does not mind killing off
a few officials. All these are actuated by hatred, cowardice and
fear. Here the love of the cow or the country is a vague thing intended
to satisfy one's vanity, or soothe a stinging conscience.
Ahimsa truly understood is in my humble opinion a panacea for
all evils mundane and extra-mundane. We can never overdo it. Just
at present we are not doing it at all. Ahimsa does not displace
the practice of other virtues, but renders their practice imperatively
necessary before it can be practised even in its rudiments. Mahavira
and Buddha were soldiers, and so was Tolstoy. Only they saw deeper
and truer into their profession, and found the secret of a true,
happy, honourable and godly life. Let us be joint sharers with these
teachers, and this land of ours will once more be the abode of gods.
Suggested Further Reading
the Bhagavadgita Chapter 14, verse 02 and Chapter
14, verse 14.
In the Matanga Jataka (of pre Mauryan period)
it is stated that two chandala brothers were beaten to death by
a mob because they came in the way of two maidens who were coming
to a temple carrying food for distribution.
John G. Arapura, The Spirituality of Ahimsa'
(non violence): traditional and Gandhian, pp. 392, 409.
The Mind of Mahatma, compiled and edited
by R. K. Prabhu & U. R. Rao, 1943