The first principle of the yamas, the restrictive codes of ethics, in all classical texts which require them, is ahiṃsā – non-violence and restraint from any type of harm to all living beings. This includes harmful language, intent, or physical harm.
In My Life
I believe I am already fairly peaceful and compassionate, so I’m going to give myself a few to observe myself and be conscious of my actions. Cursing at traffic might try to get the best of me (such actions are more harmful to myself than others). But first, before I take on this challenge, I’d like to investigate and devour the requirements of ahiṃsā as defined by classical texts. You need to know what you’re signing up for, right? The fine print.
First let’s look at the word. Ahiṃsā (AKA Ahinsa, Sanskrit: अहिंसा, IAST: ahinsā, Pāli: avihiṃsā) is derived from the Sanskrit root hiṃs (to strike).1 Hiṃsā means injury or harm, and as an “a” preceding a word in Sanskrit usually negates the rest of a word, a-hiṃsā is the opposite of harm: to cause no injury and do no harm. This principle applies to all living beings, including animals and plants. Ahiṃsā is commonly defined as and connected to nonviolence and is a root source of the nonviolence movement.
It’s clear that requiring that one refrains from a particular (harmful) act usually draws attention to the act that is forbidden. It seems clear to me that it would be better to promote positive behavior (or promote a behavior in which one can obtain a particular behavior via a realization which does not require a person to even have to acknowledge the possibility of negative forces) rather than to forbid negative behavior, but there is really no way to tell the average Joe on the street, whom has been raised in a harmful, materialistic world, that harming others is out of the question without telling them so. Even so, telling someone to be compassionate doesn’t prevent someone from harming another being because it’s very likely that someone can harm or kill out of what they believe is compassion. We live in a world in which action is taken. It’s part of the Maya. Naturally, to refrain from something is to negate an outward expression. Even to acknowledge negative forces can cause inner fear, stress, and harm to the self, which is hiṃsā.
I think that much depends on one’s ability to recognize, acknowledge, and follow satya.
I’m naturally non-violent now, to both plants and animals, but I have to acknowledge the fact that I’m living in this very much chaotic, materialized world in which dualities are hard to ignore for one who does not have an enlightened perspective. Living in this world, regardless of my perspective, I am a natural part of it. I have a role to play in the unfolding of the lives of other living things and harmful acts may be involved. I’m in no position to deny my material responsibilities and am not yet ready for mokṣa. But that doesn’t mean that I want to create a disturbance in the force. I feel that I’m here to help, so as long as my focus is being truthful to and trusting of my purpose (satya and āstikya) I, personally, think I’m doing okay.
I believe harm can and will happen, though, despite how peaceful and non-violent a person can be. Even those who claim to be non-violent (I’m talking about the activists) do, inescapably, hurt others by their conscious resistance to the norm (ṛta). In addition, as humans, those of us who have children are responsible for their survival. We must protect our families, the innocent, young, and those we love who have not done any harm to warrant harm done unto them. It’s very hard to be completely non-harmful. But I think the idea here is to be conscious of our effects on others – and minimize the negative impact. The development of negative karma is just as harmful on the state of our own being (sura) as it is to others (asuras). Baggage prevents one from a clean path to enlightenment.
As this is the first principle of the first limb of the eight limbs of yoga, this is also the first (and hopefully only) opportunity that I’ll have to mention that many of the older, most ancient classical texts were not written with the common person in mind. They were also written under the assumption that the reader was in a particular yuga (which we may or may not still be in). Many of what is asked of a person, especially in the yamas and niyamas, are sometimes only achievable if living the protected, privileged lifestyle of a Brahmin priest, teacher, or warrior. This is one of the reasons that Pātañjali’s sūtras are much more widely accepted today: because you don’t necessarily have to belong to a particular caste. They’re trimmed, simplified, and not complicated. Even if one doesn’t reach it, all beings should at least have the opportunity to strive for mokṣa, right? Literacy is higher now, communications are hyperactive, and most people want to better themselves – so Gurus seem to be replaced in recent years by books, blogs, YouTube videos, and both capable and incapable teachers. Lineage is still, I think, a very important way to verify and associate teachings and now, more than ever, should Guru-student relationships be tracked… but I’ll save that for another day.
Refraining from harming (creating suffering for) any living being, at all times, by thought, word, or deed is said to be ahiṃsā by yogis. Even actions which cause harm to other beings are ahimsā if it is mandated by the Vedas. [Harmful] actions such as rituals done with the intention of harming a foe are hiṃsā, even if [the means for the same are] provided (not mandated) in the Vedas. – Yoga Yājñavalkya 1.50-52
When the yogi is firmly established in non-violence, hostility is abandoned in his presence. – Pātañjalayogaśāstra 2.30 (Translation #1)
Having no ill feeling for any living being, in all manners possible and for all times is called ahimsa, and it should be the desired goal of all seekers. – Pātañjalayogaśāstra 2.30 (Translation #2)
You must not use your God-given body for killing God’s creatures, whether they are human, animal or whatever. – Yajur Veda 12.32
One should be considered dear, even by the animal kingdom. – Atharva Veda 17.1.4
Those noble souls who practice meditation and other yogic ways, who are ever careful about all beings, who protect all animals, are the ones who are actually serious about spiritual practices. – Atharva Veda 19.48.5
By not killing any living being, one becomes eligible for salvation. – Manusmriti 6.60
Ahimsa (nonviolence) is the highest duty. – Padma Purana 1.31.27
According to Yājñavalkya, harm complies with the principle of ahiṃsā so long as it complies with the Vedas. But what harm, exactly, do the Vedas mandate, and are these Vedas Aryan in origin, Tantric, just “Vedic?” Because “rituals done with the intention of harming a foe are hiṃsā,” this implies that even harmful acts performed for the purpose of protection, defense, or survival are forbidden. If such acts, which are the only harmful acts that I can imagine that do not involve the ego, are considered hiṃsā, what violent acts on earth do the Vedas permit? Those performed by Brahmin warriors, like Parashurama? From what cultural origins, earthly or non-earthly, are we recalling? Are they original to true Veda or supplanted by intervention?
Swami Muktibodhananda, in his commentary of the Haṭhayōgapradīpikā, wrote that to practice ahiṃsā means to “remain passive in any situation, without the desire to harm anyone or anything, either physically, emotionally, psychologically or psychically.” Even though this sounds like the kindergarten version of what ahiṃsā truly aims at, it’s effective in communicating the idea to one who knows nothing else but this illusion.
He also adds, “ahiṃsā means not acting with the will to violate anything, even the atmosphere. Harmony and serenity have to be maintained.”
In a world in which it’s so easy to forget our enlightened origins, I regrettably feel that it’s necessary give people a list of “don’ts.” Ahiṃsā is also attached to the idea of stewardship of the planet and environmentalism. Still, today, many of the politicians who have the most profound potential for impact on our environment still do not understand (or at least outwardly acknowledge) the close relationship between the atmosphere and living beings. To harm the environment, even non-living elements of the environment such as the water or the atmosphere, directly affects living things. Irresponsibility that leads to the harm of living things is hiṃsā.
Consumption of Living Things
Without the killing of living beings, meat cannot be made available, and since killing is contrary to the principles of ahimsa, one must give up eating meat. – Manusmriti
Does consumption of a living thing imply harm to that living thing? It can even be found in the Mahabharata that to serve flesh is hiṃsā. So, then, tell me who on this earth can sustain themselves without consuming some other living form of energy, protein, and those vitamins that are only produced by, at least, the byproduct of some other living thing? I can only think of two organic sources of sustenance which do not harm a living thing: those foods made from milk which is not required by the young of the mother or eggs which are not fertilized – things that are produced as a result of a living thing’s natural force of apāna.
He who desires to augment his own flesh by eating the flesh of other creatures lives in misery in whatever species he may take his birth. – Mahabharata, Anu. 115.47
The purchaser of flesh performs hiṃsā (violence) by his wealth; he who eats flesh does so by enjoying its taste; the killer does himsa by actually tying and killing the animal. Thus, there are three forms of killing. He who brings flesh or sends for it, he who cuts off the limbs of an animal, and he who purchases, sells, or cooks flesh and eats it—all of these are considered meat-eaters. – Mahabharata, Anu. 115.40
I don’t want to take sides, but why is the life of a plant any different from the life of an animal? The Jainists won’t even walk on unprepared grass, but they’ll eat parts of plants so long as it doesn’t kill them? Who says that removing part of a plant does not harm that plant? We know, now, that plants have memory, and I know they have a sense of harm, even if they don’t experience it in the same way that animals do.
Some spiritual teachers, like Srila Prabhupada, have expressed that animal flesh should only be consumed in the case that an animal dies of natural causes. If you want to eat animal protein, according to Prabhupada, taking the life of a fellow creature is out of the question.2 This actually sounds plausible, but sadly it makes me realize how over-populated the world has become if we cannot wait around for an animal to die by natural causes before we can eat. If we all ate by these rules, hiṃsā would ensue as a result of our primitive, competitive responses to stay alive and keep the torch of our DNA lit.
In addition, eating meat is necessary according to Ayurvedic Puranic texts in order to restore health to the body. Spirituality is not the goal of Ayurveda, so people, basically, can do so as their own karmas dictate.
Many seem to consider an alternate definition of ahiṃsā to be compassion, but since compassion is completely different to me (dayā), I propose an alternative. For the materially-minded, help others. Help them help themselves to thrive, be happy, survive. Don’t make them do it… just don’t stand in the way of letting them. Be responsible for your actions. If those actions lead to the harm of others, correct those actions. Since hiṃsā is an outwardly active word (offensive), perhaps protection (defensive) is also an appropriate, yet still active, alternative. For those with an even slightly enlightened view on the world, simply realize that we are all one. The world before us is a wonder. Help make it more wondrous.
A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack. – Yoda, The Empire Strikes Back
Some might consider ahiṃsā to be the same principle as the Golden Rule, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,”3 but I think ahiṃsā is more specific – and at the same time more broad. “Do unto others” sounds like an invasive act, even if the intent is what one believes to be good. You don’t want to “help” someone unless the they are ready and willing for help. Just because you might want help doesn’t mean someone else wants help. Some might argue that a person may not know that they need help (i.e., in the case of mental or belief issues), but I think that could be addressed by the “harm” identifier. Are they clearly hurting themselves or others? If not, don’t interfere. And if you do, do it in a way in which no harm is performed. Again, make the world more wondrous, not less.
I’m a firm believer in only becoming woven into a person’s karmic unfolding if it’s clear that I’m supposed to do so, and only if the signs are clear. From a Jyotish perspective, allow for growth via nurturing (Candra) more than preaching (Sūrya-Guru). Being an ahiṃsā “activist” reminds me more of the non-violence movement (Sūrya-Guru). I’m not saying to be reactive, but rather I propose to be integrated, woven, into situations. Activism is not pacifism. Activism can sometimes result in a different form of harm from the specific harm you’re trying to prevent.
Take the path to help make the existence of every other being in whatever collective thrive for the sake of why we’re here in the first place. Facilitate, don’t hinder. Any type of harm, whether mental or physical, via words, actions, or thoughts, don’t go unseen. Even if unseen in the outside, they can still manifest into negativity on the inside. Create a positive impact on the world around you. The idea is simply to not leave any action regrettable or questionable. This reminds me of the niyama, hrī.
I really feel that the Vijñānabhairava sums it up succinctly and completely in verse 125, “because of the conviction that everything is Brahman, the aspirant has the same attitude towards friend and for, remains the same both in honor and dishonor, and thus because of this conviction, he is perpetually happy.” Actually, as Sally Kempton puts it, the Tantrikas don’t have a strict code of ethics… Because you don’t really need them when one is able to realize the world in this way, in its true state.
This is a fundamental, most basic and crucial tenet of living as a good human. Do not cause pain or injury to another. However, ahimsa does not pertain only to our physical actions. It does not simply mean, “Thou shall not kill” or “Thou shall not hit.” Rather it encompasses all forms of violence – violence in thought, violence in speech and violence in deed. We must think pure and loving thoughts. We must speak pure and loving words, and we must practice pure and loving acts. – H.H. Pujya Swami Chidanand Saraswatiji
Ahimsa prathamam pushpam – what pleases Lord Shiva or Lord Vishnu is ahimsa. It is not just the flower, but the very quality of the person who offers the flower. – Swami Sukhabodhananda, Śiva Sūtras, p. 37
Ahimsa prathaman pushpam – ahimsa means non-injury; if you are really a bhakta you do not injure others or yourself. Don’t practice non-injury to a ridiculous extent. For instance, there are some who do not even touch an ant. That is why Sanyasis take a vrata – stand at the time of taking Sanyas. Sarva Bhootepyaha abhayam datwa naiskaryam achare is he vrita we take. To all beings (Sarva Bhootepyaha) I give non-injury (abhaya dhanam); I am not lost in activity (naishkaryam) but we are in action (acharet). Don’t forget the distinction between activity and action. ahimsa prathamam pushpam – the first flower is ahimsa – don’t injure yourself and don’t injure others. – Swami Sukhabodhananda, Śiva Sūtras, p. 110
- Pātañjalayogaśāstra 2.30, 2.35
- Haṭhayōgapradīpikā 1.16.2
- Yoga Yājñavalkya 1.50-52
- Mahabharata 5.1517
Matthew 7:12 NCV; Luke 6:31 ↩