Ahimsa - The Science Of Peace: [01] The Concept

Published: 31.12.2008
Updated: 04.01.2009

Ahimsa is disciplined behaviour towards every living being.

Dashavaikalika Sutra (6/9)

Good is all that serves life; evil is all that serves death. Good is reverence for life, all that enhances life growth, unfolding. Evil is all that stifles, narrows it down, and cuts it into pieces.

Erich Fromm

Absence of violence of any sort towards all beings at all times is Ahimsa.

Yogasutra of Patanjali

By its very nature, hate destroys and tears down; by its very nature, love creates and builds up. Love transforms with redemptive power.

Martin Luther King Jr.

The Concept

So much has been said, by so many, since so long, about Ahimsa in Jain literature and preaching that it has almost become a synonym of Jainism. The excessive emphasis on mere rituals has done more harm than good to the concept. For the common man Ahimsa, instead of being one of the most important concepts, has become the only concept of Jainism.

Today most of the followers of Jainism, leaving aside the students and scholars of the subject, consider their duty and pursuit to have been concluded simply by observing the grosser and formal aspects of Ahimsa. The codes of conduct have lost their basic meaning and have been reduced to mere rituals by this superficial observance.

It is the lopsided preaching and observance that has made the Jain principles of Ahimsa a theory that makes its followers weak and impractical. If we look into what is really meant by Ahimsa, it would, by its almost total absence in practice today, emphasize the need of research into Jain philosophy with the view to formulate healthy reforms in its applied form.

Majority of actions commence at the thought level and are then translated into action. Also, the thinking process is the link between the soul and body. Before committing an act the thought process starts and, as such, the violence of thought or feeling precedes any act of violence. The abstinence from such violence is Ahimsa according to Jain Philosophy.

This appears to be an original concept of the Jains. The word Ahimsa does not appear in the Vedas or Brahmans. In Vedic tradition the word Ahimsa finds its first mention in the Chhandogyopanishad (3. 17. 4). It may be deduced that this mention came as an influence of Shramanic or Jain thoughts on the Vedic religions.

The tradition of Shramans, which branched out into Jainism sometime in pre-history, is probably the most ancient philosophical and cultural tradition. The concept of Ahimsa also appears to have been associated with the Shramanic culture since the remote past.

The acceptance of existence of a religious order that was against animal sacrifice and propagated Ahimsa is found in the earliest Brahmanic literature. The term Shraman is generally used for religious orders other then the Vedic, specially those that practiced extreme austerities. Prominent among these are Jainism and Buddhism. The first Tirthankar of Jains, Rishabhadeva, is mentioned in Vishnu Purana and Bhagavat Purana, two of the oldest books of Vedic tradition.

Shrimadbhagavat has mentioned in details the life and works of Rishabhadeva accepting him as the founder of Jainism. According to Shrimadbhagavat, Rishabh was a yogi and ascetic. Almost all statues of Rishabhadeva as well as other Jain Tirthankars are in meditative postures. The antiquity of Shraman tradition is further confirmed by the inference of scholars of Indus Valley Civilization. They point out that the style of Indus Valley figurines is very much akin to the later Jain statues. Bull, the symbol associated with Rishabhadeva, is quite common in the Mohan-jo-daro artifacts; independently as well as in association with the yogi figurines and tablets.

The experts on Indus Valley Civilization also believe that- Ahimsa appears to have been a way of life with the pre-Aryan culture in India. It was in such high state of development that these people carried on their social, political and religious affairs without the need of involvement into war. The meager quantity and primitive configuration of destructive implements at Mohan-jo-daro and Harappa, in spite of the evidence of highly developed technology, is ample proof that the people of Indus valley had no need or inclination to wage war with anyone.

Whatever be the antiquity of the Jain school of thought, with the advent of Mahavir it was revitalized and brought to prominence once again. The acute vision, open mindedness, sense of analysis, love for details and dauntless discipline are some of the important social contributions of Mahavir. His greatest contributions are the original but candid concepts of relativity of truth and the metaphysics and philosophy of Ahimsa.

Whereas science has only recently stumbled upon the concept that all living things are related and that they trace their descent back to the same origin, Mahavir, who devoted himself to deep study of origin and spread of violence, conceived the idea of equality of all life forms more than two thousand five hundred years ago. He conveyed that all beings are fond of life, like pleasure, hate pain, shun destruction and desire to live. Even an iota of attitude opposed to this is detrimental to the progress of soul and may be termed as violence.

The fourth principle disciple (Ganadhar) of Mahavir, Vyakt, during his discussions about fundamentals in nature, asked, “If according to you earth, air, plants, water, fire etc. are full of living organisms even ascetics would be guilty of violence caused by eating, drinking, breathing etc. As such there would be total lack of Ahimsa.”

Mahavir explained, “You will have-to understand and adjudge violence in its proper perspective. The fact that nature is infested with living organisms does not mean that violence is inevitable. It is not correct to assume that a person commits violence merely by becoming instrumental in destruction of another being. Even this is false that a person is non-violent because he has not caused destruction of another being.

“Also, it is not true that violence increases or decreases according to the number of beings present. Even without actually killing someone a person is violent like a butcher if he has evil thoughts. Similarly, having pure thoughts a person is nonviolent like a doctor even if he has actually been instrumental in physical act of killing. As such, by virtue of pure or evil thoughts and feelings a person is violent or non-violent whether or not he is actually involved in the act of killing.

“In fact, in its absolute definition, violence is the presence of evil thoughts, feelings or attitude. It does not necessarily depend on act of killing. Any involvement in the act of killing by a person whose feelings, thoughts and attitudes are pure does not fall under the category of violence.”

A vivid definition of Ahimsa, but unfortunately we find it missing from the actual conduct preached and practiced today. The mere physical act has been given so much importance that the feeling behind it is almost totally neglected. It has been forgotten that if the feelings, thoughts and attitudes were made non-violent the physical Ahimsa would automatically be achieved.

The importance to the restriction of physical violence appears to have been given basically due to the fact that it is easier to achieve as compared to the restriction of the violence of feelings. Also it appears to be important to the orderly social life. But merely observing the physical Ahimsa and not caring about feelings is self defeating and even harmful. It gives an illusion of achievement, which in turn causes carelessness and apathy towards disciplining the attitudes and feelings.

Due to this over emphasis the fine principles of Jainism have lost their true value in their application to the social conducts. The followers of Jainism today are lost in rituals like taking vow of not eating after sunset, not eating meat and some vegetables, not eating at all on some particular days of the month or the year, doing some chanting at appointed hours of day etc. Even the ascetics encourage these rituals and consider their duties to have been concluded. There is hardly any serious effort towards disciplining the feelings, thoughts and attitudes. Cheating, bribing, smuggling, tax evasion, amassing wealth by fair or foul means are as common with Jains as with others. They forget that once the mind is disciplined, the physical activities would automatically follow.

According to the Jain way this violence of feeling is much more evil than the physical act. The reason is that ultimately every act as well as thought is judged by its effect on none else but the self. The creation of evil thought damages the soul. The physical actions only attract the Karmic particles in a continuous flow. The fusion of these particles with the soul is caused by the force of feelings, attitudes or thoughts, which have been termed as Kashayas or passions. This fusion is termed as Bandh or bondage and is the cause of continued rebirth.

Saving one self from this bondage is the central theme of the path of Ahimsa. All the other rules, vows, methods etc. are corollaries, offshoots or assisting factors.

Truly following Ahimsa conduct means saving one’s soul from damage or tarnishing. Soul is formless and so its activities, conditions, states etc. are not directly visible or conceivable to the common man through his physical senses. It has to be understood by the common man with the help of suitable examples and similes from the physical world. Similarly its activity also can be understood and directed with the help of physical world through intellectual activities. That appears to be the reason that harm to other beings becomes the focal point around which the whole concept of Ahimsa revolves. By not harming others one is, in fact, trying not to harm his own soul.

Once a person transcends to the level of direct perception of soul, the process is reversed. By not allowing any harm to come to his own soul he automatically avoids harming others. The confusion between protecting the self and protecting others starts when the rules applicable for those at the higher level are forced upon those at lower levels.

The Jain thinkers have gone into meticulous details to analyze human psychology and behaviour in order to elaborate the basics to almost all possibilities. The applied form of this detailed study is dependent on many extraneous factors and should be continuously reformed.

It is generally believed that philosophy is something beyond the normal social activities; it is abstract and has to be pursued by academicians or individuals away from the society. The philosophical principles are said to be impractical and useless for success in worldly life. Jainism and other philosophies, which stress more on Ahimsa, have been termed as impractical and to be followed only by those who want to be away from the society for meditation.

This appears to be a twisted way of putting things; an effort towards isolating a group of people from the mainstream just because they are windows to the truth, which is often bitter. Philosophy is an integral part of any form of human society. Any attempt to isolate and term it as a subject for a few is making but a dangerous fallacy. It is an inseparable part of human life and plays pivotal role in the march of humanity towards the destiny it chooses. What we term as practical or worldly is itself derived from the philosophical thoughts. Philosophy is a conception and what we term as practical way of life is but the applied form of philosophy.

Ahimsa, as defined and elaborated by Jains, is a universally applicable concept. It is not something esoteric like higher yogic practices or meditation done in extreme isolation. It can be practiced in every walk of life by simple adaptation.

In order to fully comprehend the Jain concept of Ahimsa we will have to proceed step by step, beginning with the Jain definition of life.

Sources


Prakrit Bharati Academy
Publisher:
D.R. MEHTA, Founder & Chief Patron

First edition: 1987
Second enlarged Edition May: 2004
Third Edition July: 2008

© All rights reserved with the author

Printed at:
Raj Printers & Associates, Jaipur, India

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Page glossary
Some texts contain  footnotes  and  glossary  entries. To distinguish between them, the links have different colors.
  1. Ahimsa
  2. Bandh
  3. Bhagavat
  4. Body
  5. Buddhism
  6. Discipline
  7. Ganadhar
  8. Harappa
  9. Indus Valley Civilization
  10. Jain Philosophy
  11. Jainism
  12. Kashayas
  13. Mahavir
  14. Meditation
  15. Patanjali
  16. Rishabh
  17. Science
  18. Shraman
  19. Soul
  20. Sutra
  21. Tirthankar
  22. Tirthankars
  23. Vedas
  24. Vedic
  25. Violence
  26. Yogasutra
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