Ahimsa - The Science Of Peace: AHIMSA TEACHING

Published: 20.01.2009
Updated: 30.07.2015


Mahavir emphasized on the fact that as pain is disliked by us so it is disliked by all beings. The whole edifice of the ahimsa way of life rests on this basic concept. We should try to understand the importance of this statement. Mahavir is going deeply into the realm of thoughts, feelings and sentiments. It is a clear indication that himsa and ahimsa are essentially connected with feelings. In order to accept and follow ahimsa we should try to tackle himsa at the level of feelings and from there proceed to influence every field of life.

Violence is born when we respond to stimuli gained through sense organs. Other than the autonomic physiological response, this response depends on our psychological built-up. This, in turn, depends on various factors - karma, inheritance, basic programming (till seven years of age), social learning, etc.

To block, oppose, impede, obstruct is himsa in its ideal definition. And to refrain completely from doing so is ahimsa. But practically this is not achievable unless there is absolute isolation, isolation not just physically but mentally as well. It is something like absolute zero in physical terms. It is, but is not achievable. The concepts of Maha-vrat and Anu-vrat in Jainism signify the process of gradual development of purity of thought and conduct. Any transformation, progress or development necessarily has levels of accomplishment and they can be attained through level-specific practice and perseverance. This calls for concerted and continued efforts, and not just ritual indoctrination or acceptance of some sets of vows. The purpose of defining the ideal is to derive practical or approachable rules and codes for different levels without the bias caused by judging them on scales of good and bad, excellent and ordinary, etc.

When talking of abstaining from all violence and killing of life forms there certainly is a gap between the ideal theory and actual practice. What critics generally ignore is that even where ideals are achievable, there is a gap of degree between the accomplished and the beginner. Because their criticism tends to be doctrinaire, they conveniently ignore the reality that the same rules are never applied to a child and an adult.

As far as evaluating the gap is concerned, it should be done from various angles and the best possible and practicable combination should be chosen. In case of ahimsa, the parameters could be - mental violence, physical violence, intensity of passions, number of beings involved, kinds of beings involved, needs, circumstances, etc.

Ahimsa is not just a ritual. When it started turning into a hollow ritual, on the pretext of following the ideal definition, it gradually lost its efficacy. Although ritual is an essential part of training in almost every field of life, it has a tendency to turn into a goal if the real purpose and meaning behind it are not fully understood and strengthened continually. It is like a system that is created to facilitate efficient working, but people tend to become slaves of that system and forget about actual goal-oriented efficiency. They take it for granted that just because they are following the system they ought to be efficient.

There is no doubt that diamond is more glorious and lofty than clay. But if we criticize and disparage clay by comparing it with gold to the extant of rejecting it by branding it worthless, we are committing a grave mistake. In fact, by not trying to appreciate and acquire clay and then gradually progressing towards gold, we end up singing songs in praise of gold instead of owning it. This is the prevailing state of affairs of most of the religious sects and preachers. In the process of institutionalization of their sect, they have twisted the role of religion on the seemingly logical pretext that the spiritual quest is loftier than any mundane accomplishment. According to them, religion is exclusively for the achievement of moksha or liberation. Even when they talk of ihalok-parlok (this life and the next), their emphasis is more on parlok (next life) than ihalok (this life). They have almost alienated religion from normal mundane life, except for the mundane gains of the sectarian organization.

As ahimsa is basically related to attitude, it should emerge from mind, thought, sentiments, and feelings, not just from rules and codes. Rules and codes are designed to help put the feelings into practice at various levels and dimensions. However, whatever is being practiced at present should not be completely refuted and rejected, even if it is an empty ritual. This, at least, provides a basis for further progress. The healthy process is first to educate people in vows and other religious rituals as well as basic principles. Only after this should the practices be commenced. Only when the practice of normal human behaviour, social etiquette and codes is observed satisfactorily should the observance of these vows begin.

In order of importance the five vows are - ahimsa, satya, asteya, brahmacharya, and aparigraha. The same order is seen in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra under the heading Yama. But a little serious and analytical thinking makes it clear that, in the context of practice, this order is reversed - aparigraha, brahmacharya, asteya, satya, and ahimsa. The perfect observance of ahimsa is the culmination of the practice of the preceding vows. Ahimsa envelops all other vows. On perfection, all these vows turn into ahimsa. It appears that, at some point in the past, the actual practice of vows stagnated into mere ritual, losing its true significance and logical order. The consequence of all this is that the efficacy of healthy religious practices including the five vows is lost, and so are the desired fruits. If we really want to make these vows useful for the social as well as spiritual life, we will have to understand and practice the five vows in this specific order.

Like gold, ahimsa is best and loftiest. But aparigraha (non-possession; absence of fondness for possessions) is the starting point like clay. Unless we start practicing aparigrah, we will never be able to practice ahimsa. We will have to be contented and happy by merely singing songs in praise of ahimsa. Frustratingly enough, that is what most of us appear to be doing.

The first step of observing the vows is to understand the definition and importance of each of the five vows. The second step is to observe the vows, if only ritually, in a manner suiting the capacity and ability of the individual. Only after this comes serious practice, and it begins with the vow of aparigraha (limiting desire for possessions).

Parigraha means fondness for possessions that turns into deep desire, which in turn leads to unlimited acquisition and hoarding. Fondness for things and covetousness have a tendency to grow continuously. As they are mutually complementary, they grow very fast. Fondness enhances covetousness and covetousness enhances fondness.

How then to go about practicing the vow of non-possession? The first step is to take the help of rules or codes, resolve, and fear of sin. This is that primary level where the reasoning capacity of the aspirant is not equipped to understand and appreciate the concept, or he has no time to reflect on the matter. He merely has enough faith in the teacher or the teachings of the scriptures to do what he is told.

The second step is to understand the evil attached to covetousness and the tendency to hoard. At social level, the hoarding tendency gives rise to disparity and therefore triggers violence. At personal level, it generates stress leading to a variety of ailments. At the environmental level, it depletes the available natural resources inviting disaster. Opening our eyes to these evils, we should practice limiting our needs and assess the results. We will soon realize that aparigraha at a mass scale reduces violence and stress, and removes the load on the environment, allowing it to rejuvenate itself. Once we take this path and enjoy the benefits of a peaceful life, we are certain to progress towards observance of the other vows, and ultimately transcend to the spiritual level, if and when the time comes.

The Jain system of aparigrah has been used very successfully for more than 2500 years; it has indeed deteriorated, but is still in practice, though mostly in the form of religious charity. The deterioration in any system is inevitable with passage of time. The efficiency of a system is judged by the period taken for its complete corruption. After judging on this scale, steps should be taken to further improve and implement reforms effectively.

Does ordinary education help to prevent dogmatism turning into terrorism? No. The available evidence suggests that it helps make terrorism stronger by sharpening the perverse intellect of the individual terrorist. We tend to confuse the role of deep-rooted sentiments with that of superficial information. The place to attack violence is Samskaars (ingrained attitudes). What is being taught to the children up to seven years of age is where changes are required.

Ahimsa can be promoted with comparative ease in two categories of people - those who are untouched by violence-i.e., simple and innocent-and those who are tired of excessive violence. The methods employed for these two have to be totally different.

In the first category come children and those groups that are still untouched by complexities of life or still devoid of callousness caused by the rampant violence. These people can be taught ahimsa through radical changes in their education system. Even before formal education begins, attitudes conducive to ahimsa will have to be developed. For that, Samskaars of ahimsa will have to be imparted. The first step in this direction is teaching ahimsa to parents.

An expecting mother’s attitude during pregnancy should be positive, pleasant, non-aggressive and pious (pious meaning free of aversion, specific and general, or appreciative of virtues and virtuous people). The father should help create such an atmosphere and make necessary adjustments in his demeanour and deportment. After the birth, the child should be provided things and an atmosphere conducive to ahimsa and peace as well as free of complexities and stresses. As the child grows, his curiosity should be aroused and satisfied. He should be subtly steered to do things and acquire habits that are healthy physically and mentally and not confusing or ambiguous. The parents and other members of the family should enhance their knowledge, especially of the things the child is curious about. They should be equipped to satisfy his curiosity if and when it arises.

This is the time to teach him to appreciate others’ feelings and not to hurt them. Everything that widens his horizons should be made available to him. This all-round development should include an enhancement of his physical, mental, moral and spiritual strength.

For implementing this, the two most effective groups of people are teachers and religious gurus. They have the required power and reach to contribute effectively in this direction, provided they sincerely desire to do so. All other sections of the society can also play a constructive role by formulating methods and means of encouragement.

The second category includes those who are completely malformed by violence, are filled with violent feelings and attitudes, but are weary of violence and want some change, some rest, from tiring violent activities. They can be rehabilitated by drastic changes in their living conditions. For this something akin to rehabilitation centers for alcoholics or drug addicts will have to be devised; may be under the guidance and supervision of psychologists as well as mature religious gurus. We have to recognize openly that continued indulgence in violence is an addiction.

One very important but mostly neglected step towards the popularization of the ahimsa way of life is to change the ritualistic mindset of stringent adherence to a code of conduct and vows, irrespective of the level of the individual. This mindset is prevalent among religious and social leaders who blindly stick to the word and not the meaning of codes of conduct. Instead of giving importance to their role as preachers, teachers and guides, they give more importance to their role as sectarian administrators and monitors. As a consequence, the inbuilt flexibility of gradual progress to higher levels of spiritual attainments evident in Jain scriptures has stagnated into calcified stumps of hypocrisy.

What is required is that every individual should be free to choose the level of practices and the pace of his progress to higher levels. Theoretically, a Jain should necessarily be a follower of the five minor vows (Anuvrats), but it is not practically possible to adhere to these vows all at once or by birth. Even a devout individual gradually learns and moulds himself. The general masses merely take the vows as a ritual, without proper understanding. By doing so, they consider their religious duty to be over and go about their normal activities without any regulatory influence of religious codes. The alienation of normal worldly life from the spiritual or truly religious life is complete.

There are, indeed, difficulties in the practical application of austere religious codes in their ideal definition. The best way to overcome these difficulties is to remove the exacting and sanctimonious sectarian hurdles from the practical, utilitarian and humane path of gradual progress towards the ideal.

Based on the circumstances, an individual (or a group of individuals) should define the path he has the ability to follow. He should then formulate his own rules, based on the ideal, and follow them sincerely. When he comes across some hurdles, he should start thinking about solutions and alternatives. The accomplished but open-minded seniors could provide the needed help and guidance. The only essential in this process is that he should understand that flexibility is for the purpose of facilitating progress and not regress. He should ensure that the adjustment he makes does not lead to regression.

With regard to the ahimsa way of life, the first step is defining ahimsa in the context of mundane activities. Let us, for example, divide basic ahimsa into four levels in the context of destruction of life forms:

  • One should not kill, cause harm or pain or discomfort to another human being like oneself.
  • One should not kill, cause harm or pain or discomfort to animals in the visible world.
  • One should not kill, cause harm or pain or discomfort to beings in the micro-world.
  • One should refrain from destroying things and processes conducive to life and spreading things and processes that destroy life.

These are gross definitions and will have to be expanded and elaborated as follows:

  • One should be truthful, avoid stealing (of all types), remain free from vices, control one’s temper, be responsible towards family and society, and follow non-possession (i.e., discipline desires and limit needs), and not exploit labour or employees.
  • One should avoid eating meat, limit the use of leather goods, avoid cruelty towards animals, and refrain from trades that employ violence or harming of beings.
  • One should gather knowledge about microorganisms, specially with reference to the activities whereby these are destroyed. After this, one should decide which activities are essential and which are merely for enjoyment, comforts, or other extraneous purposes. One should reduce these avoidable activities.
  • This mainly includes the discipline related to environment.

Every member of society should have awareness of these points and freedom to decide where to start and how to proceed. The accomplished should set examples for others to follow and be available to provide guidance. Platforms for the exchange of ideas and experiences should be created. For the ahimsa way of life to be effective as an instrument of peace, we should understand that an Ahimsa attitude has to be inculcated and nurtured to the extant that it becomes second nature (Samskaars).

The heaps of taxonomical details worked out by Jain scholars of the past are evidence of the fact that all Jain practices were split into levels of competence. There is a place even for the ignorant at the lowest level. Such a person could start his practices depending on his capability and progress at any desired pace. As the laity is an intrinsic part of the religious organization of Jains, the practices begin at social level and smoothly merge with the ascetic level. It appears that, with the passage of time, the rigid system of austerities designed for ascetics cast a shadow over the flexible system designed for the laity and made it difficult to follow.

It is not that the ahimsak way of life has to be forced. The act of forcing is against ahimsa. It has to be presented in a way that is acceptable and attractive. There should be incentives for those who are reluctant. Mind you, these incentives cannot be effective for a long period if they are alien to ahimsa. They have to come from within. If the ahimsa way of life is so good, and if it has been propagated by an omniscient being, it has to have real benefits that will become strong incentives. It is our own weakness that we are not able to comprehend ahimsa fully and interpret it to suit the present day requirements. Everyone who claims to be the follower of the ahimsa way of life should start working on the lines described here to find out how, and to what extant, ahimsa can become beneficial to the modern man.

Surprisingly enough, a group of London-based Jain youth has worked in this direction. They have realized the importance of Jain principles and their useful application in social life. They have developed a method for the application of the Jain system of religious practices to their normal social life. It is a practical approach and should be emulated by all Jains. (Some portions from their booklet - Experiments with Jainism by Atul K. Shah are included here as appendix.)


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

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

© All rights reserved with the author

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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. Anuvrats
  3. Aparigraha
  4. Asteya
  5. Atul K. Shah
  6. Brahmacharya
  7. Discipline
  8. Environment
  9. Fear
  10. Himsa
  11. Jainism
  12. Karma
  13. Mahavir
  14. Microorganisms
  15. Moksha
  16. Omniscient
  17. Parigraha
  18. Patanjali
  19. Satya
  20. Sutra
  21. Violence
  22. Yoga
  23. Yoga Sutra
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