Ahimsa is a Sanskrit term meaning "nonviolence" or "non-injury" (literally: the avoidance of himsa: violence). The principle of ahimsa is central to the religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, being a key precept in their ethical codes; however, the exact scope and extent of non-violence within these religions has been debated for thousands of years. Philosophically, the concept of ahimsa suggests that violence towards others (or animals) entails negative karmic consequences to one's own being.
The ancient principle of ahimsa has had a profound impact on Indian thought and civilization over the millennia, and it continues to influence the world today. The most famous proponent of ahimsa in modern times was Mahatma Gandhi, who made non-violence a central pillar of his life. Gandhi, in turn, influenced other peace activists in the twentieth century including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the 14th Dalai Lama.
The historical origins of ahimsa are unknown. Some scholars assume that it may have been a tenet of some of the pre-Aryan peoples in the North of the Indian subcontinent in the third and early second millennium B.C.E. and that it was reluctantly accepted later on by the Aryans. It must be noted, however, that there is archaeological evidence for hunting and for slaughter of different species of domestic animals at many sites of the pre-Aryan Indus Valley Civilization, including the cities of Harappa and Mohenjo-daro.
During the Vedic period of early Hinduism (ca. 1500 B.C.E. - ca. 500 B.C.E.), ritual animal sacrifice and the subsequent eating of the meat was a predominant custom, and the principle of nonviolence was little known nor respected. The Sanskrit term goghna (cow killer) was used as a synonym for "guest," because the arrival of a guest obliged the host to slaughter a bovine so as to serve beef. This custom is attested to in several sources. At the courts there was the special office of the govikarta (beef cutter). Thus it can be concluded that cattle must have been slaughtered regularly. The Shatapatha Brahmana states: "Now, when he performs the animal offering, he thereby redeems himself … And this, indeed, to wit, flesh, is the best kind of food: he thus becomes an eater of the best kind of food. Let not a year pass by for him without his offering."  However, the sources only refer to the customs of the upper class; the food habits of the masses are unknown.
The term ahimsa appears for the first time in the Taittiriya Samhita (T.S.) of the Black Yajurveda (T.S. 184.108.40.206), where it refers to non-injury to the sacrificer himself. It occurs several times in the Shatapatha Brahmana in the sense of "non-injury" without a moral connotation. The earliest reference to the idea of nonviolence to animals (pashu-ahimsa), apparently in a moral sense, is in the Kapisthala Katha Samhita of the Black Yajurveda (KapS 31.11), which may have been written in about the 8th century B.C.E. The Chandogya Upanishad (C.U.), dated to the eighth or seventh century B.C.E., one of the oldest Upanishads, has the earliest evidence for the use of the word ahimsa in the sense familiar in Hinduism (a code of conduct). It bars violence against "all creatures" (sarva-bhuta) except at the "holy places" (tirtha) where ritual sacrifice was performed, and the practitioner of ahimsa is said to escape from the cycle of reincarnation (C.U. 8.15.1). It also names ahimsa as one of five essential virtues (C.U. 3.17.4).
The Hindu scriptures contain mixed messages on the necessity and scope of ahimsa in human affairs. Some texts insist that ahimsa is the highest duty while other texts make exceptions in the cases of war, hunting, ruling, law enforcement, and capital punishment.
Some source texts discuss meat eating as a fact without referring to the ethical side of the issue. The Dharmasutra law books (written around the fifth or fourth century B.C.E.) contain regulations for meat eating and lists of eatable animals. Medical treatises of the Ayurveda discuss and recommend meat from a purely health-related viewpoint without even mentioning the aspect of ahimsa. Examples are the Sushruta Samhita written in the third or fourth century C.E., which recommends beef for certain patients and for pregnant women, and the Charaka Samhita which describes meat as superior to all other kinds of food for convalescents.
Several highly authoritative scriptures bar violence against domestic animals except in the case of ritual sacrifice. This view is clearly expressed in the Mahabharata, the Bhagavata Purana (11.5.13-14), and the Chandogya Upanishad (8.15.1). It is also reflected in the Manu Smriti (5.27-44), a particularly renowned traditional Hindu lawbook (Dharmaśāstra). These texts strongly condemn the slaughter of animals and meat eating unless it happens in the context of the appropriate sacrifice ritual administered by priests. The Mahabharata permits hunting by warriors (Kshatriyas), but opposes it in the case of hermits who must be strictly nonviolent.
Nevertheless, the sources show that this compromise between supporters of ahimsa and meat eaters was shaky and hotly disputed. Even the loopholes—ritual slaughter and hunting—were challenged by advocates of ahimsa. The Mahabharata and the Manu Smriti (5.27-55) contain lengthy discussions about the legitimacy of ritual slaughter. In the Mahabharata both sides present various arguments to substantiate their viewpoints. Moreover, a hunter defends his profession in a long discourse.
However, most of the arguments proposed in favor of nonviolence to animals refer to rewards it entails before or after death and to horrible karmic consequences of violence. In particular, it is pointed out that he who deliberately kills an animal will on his part be eaten by an animal in a future existence due to karmic retribution. Ahimsa is described as a prerequisite for acquiring supernatural faculties, highest bliss and ultimate salvation; moreover it is said to protect against all kinds of dangers.
Under these circumstances the defenders of hunting and ritual slaughter had to deny the violent nature of these activities. They asserted that lawful violence is in fact nonviolence; according to them sacrificial killing is not killing, but is meant for the welfare of the whole world. They also suggested that such killing is in fact a benevolent act, because the slaughtered animal will attain a high rebirth in the cycle of reincarnation. Moreover they argued that some species have been created for the purpose of being sacrificed and eaten by humans, that it is normal for animals to kill and eat other animals, that agriculture, too, inevitably leads to the death of many animals, that plants are living beings as well and must still be destroyed, that we unintentionally and unknowingly destroy life forms all the time, and that a hunted animal has a fair chance to survive by killing the hunter.
The Manu Smriti (10.63), Kautilya’s Arthashastra (1.3.13) and the Vasishtha Dharmasutra (4.4) point out that ahimsa is a duty for all the four classes (Varnas) of society.
Though the texts declare that ahimsa should be extended to all forms of life, they give little attention to the protection of plants. The Manu Smriti, however, prohibits wanton destruction of both wild and cultivated plants (11.145). Hermits (Sannyasins) had to live on a fruitarian diet so as to avoid the destruction of plants.
Hindu scriptures and law books support the use of violence in self-defense against an armed attacker. They make it clear that criminals are not protected by the rule of ahimsa. They have no misgivings about the death penalty; their position is that evil-doers who deserve death should be killed, and that a king in particular is obliged to punish criminals and should not hesitate to kill them, even if they happen to be his own brothers and sons.
The concept of ahimsa as expounded in the scriptures and law books is not meant to imply pacifism; war is seen as a normal part of life and the natural duty of the warriors. In the second chapter of the Bhagavad Gita Krishna refutes the pacifist ideas of Arjuna and uses various arguments to convince him that he must fight and kill in the impending battle. According to the scriptures face-to-face combat is highly meritorious and fighters who die in battle go to heaven.
In modern Hinduism, slaughter according to the rituals permitted in the Vedic scriptures has virtually disappeared. In the 19th and 20th centuries, prominent figures of Indian spirituality such as Swami Vivekananda, Ramana Maharishi, Swami Sivananda and A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami emphasized the importance of ahimsa.
Mahatma Gandhi revived the principle of ahimsa and promoted it very successfully by applying it to all spheres of life, particularly to politics. His non-violent resistance movement, known as satyagraha ("truth-force"), had an immense impact on India, impressed public opinion in Western countries and influenced the leaders of various civil rights movements such as Martin Luther King, Jr. In Gandhi’s thought, ahimsa precludes not only the act of inflicting a physical injury, but also mental states like evil thoughts and hatred, unkind behavior such as harsh words, and dishonesty and lying, all of which he saw as manifestations of violence incompatible with ahimsa.
Sri Aurobindo criticized the Gandhian concept of ahimsa as unrealistic and not universally applicable; he adopted a pragmatic non-pacifist position, saying that the justification of violence depends on the specific circumstances of the given situation.
A thorough historical and philosophical study of ahimsa was instrumental in the shaping of Albert Schweitzer’s principle of "reverence for life." Schweitzer criticized Indian philosophical and religious traditions for having conceived ahimsa as the negative principle of avoiding violence instead of emphasizing the importance of positive action (helping injured beings).
Ahimsa is imperative for practitioners of Patañjali’s "classical" Yoga (Raja Yoga). It is one of the five Yamas (restraints) which make up the code of conduct, the first of the eight limbs of which this path consists. In the schools of Bhakti Yoga, the devotees who worship Vishnu or Krishna are particularly keen on ahimsa. Ahimsa is also an obligation in Hatha Yoga according to the classic manual Hatha Yoga Pradipika (1.1.17).
In Jainism, the understanding and implementation of ahimsa is more radical, scrupulous, and comprehensive than in any other religion. Nonviolence is seen as the most essential religious duty for everyone (ahiṃsā paramo dharmaḥ, a statement often inscribed on Jain temples). Like in Hinduism, the aim is to prevent the accumulation of harmful Karma. When Mahavira revived and reorganized the Jain movement in the sixth or fifth century B.C.E., ahimsa was already an established, strictly observed rule. Parshva, the earliest Jain leader (Tirthankar) whom modern Western historians consider to be a historical figure, lived in about the eighth century B.C.E. He founded the community to which Mahavira’s parents belonged. Ahimsa was already part of the "Fourfold Restraint" (Caujjama), the vows taken by Parshva’s followers. In the times of Mahavira and in the following centuries, Jains were at odds with both Buddhists and followers of the Vedic religion (or Hindus), whom they accused of negligence and inconsistency in the implementation of ahimsa. There is some evidence, however, that ancient Jain ascetics accepted meat as alms if the animal had not been specifically killed for them. Modern Jains deny this vehemently, especially with regard to Mahavira himself. According to the Jain tradition, either lacto-vegetarianism (where dairy products are allowed) or veganism (where all animal products are forbidden, including dairy, eggs, honey, etc.) is mandatory.
The Jain concept of ahimsa is characterized by these aspects:
On the other hand, Jains agree with Hindus that violence in self-defense can be justified and that a soldier who kills enemies in combat is performing a legitimate duty. Jain communities accepted the use of military power for their defense, and there were Jain monarchs, military commanders, and soldiers.
Though theoretically all life forms are said to deserve full protection from all kinds of injury, Jains admit that this ideal cannot be completely implemented in practice. Hence they recognize a hierarchy of life. Mobile beings are given higher protection than immobile ones. For the mobile beings they distinguish between one-sensed, two-sensed, three-sensed, four-sensed and five-sensed ones; a one-sensed animal has touch as its only sensory modality. The more senses a being has, the more they care about its protection. Among the five-sensed beings, the rational ones (humans) are most strongly protected by Jain ahimsa.
In the practice of ahimsa the requirements are less strict for the lay persons who have undertaken anuvrata (Lesser Vows) than for the monks and nuns who are bound by mahavrata (Great Vows).
The traditional Buddhist understanding of nonviolence is not as rigid as the Jain one. Like the Jains, Buddhists have always condemned the killing of animals in ritual sacrifice. Since the beginnings of the Buddhist community, monks and nuns have had to commit themselves to the Ten Precepts of moral conduct and to observe the Five Precepts of morality (Pañcasīla). The first rule is to abstain from taking the life of a sentient being (Pānātipātā).
In most Buddhist traditions, vegetarianism is not mandatory. Monks and lay persons may eat meat and fish on condition that the animal was not killed specifically for them. Additionally, unlike the Vedic religion, ancient Buddhism had strong misgivings about violent ways of punishing criminals and about war. Both were not explicitly condemned, but peaceful ways of conflict resolution and punishment with the least amount of injury were encouraged.
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