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Ahimsa or non violence in Indian Religious Traditions

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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

In Jainism, Buddhism and Hinduism, 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 and animals.
  • 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 traditions

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 avoid harm.

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 to cruelty.

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. Mahavira, 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.

Ascetic traditions played an important role in the emergence of non violence as a core concept in Hinduism. According to the Yogasutras of Patanjali non violence or abstaining from violence is one of the five yamas or abstentions. The Bhagavadgita declares non violence as one of the virtues of a person born with divine nature and one of the penances of the human body. 1

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 and death.

 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 of offenses.

Torture was the common means to obtain confession from the criminals. The lower castes and slaves were often subjected to inhuman and discriminatory treatment.2 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's distinciton

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 ages past.

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.

Suggested Further Reading

1. the Bhagavadgita Chapter 14, verse 02 and Chapter 14, verse 14.

2. 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.

3, John G. Arapura, The Spirituality of Ahimsa' (non violence): traditional and Gandhian, pp. 392, 409.

4. The Mind of Mahatma, compiled and edited by R. K. Prabhu & U. R. Rao, 1943


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