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Non-violence Relative Economics And A New Social Order: Non-violence in the Vedas

Published: 29.05.2015
Updated: 13.07.2015

*Originally printed in Prabuddha Bharat, Vol. 91, 1986

Ahimsa or non-violence is a concept or an ideological tool today. In ancient India, especially in the Vedic age, it was not a mere concept but a natural feature of human behavior which required a person to abstain from all acts injurious to any form of life. To many of us it may be astonishing to hear that the concept of Ahimsa is as old as our civilization itself. The Vedic hymns contain numerous references to this thought. No doubt, the concept and definition of Ahimsa underwent various changes during different periods of Indian history. It was during the sixth century or so that the idea of non-violence gained currency in a way which had never before existed.

In the Vedas Ahimsa means reverence for life. The most dominant thought of Vedic hymns is the desire for a long, happy and prosperous life. Vedas propound that life is the most valuable thing to be preserved and as such most of the Vedic hymns are devoted to invoking the favour of gods who are regarded as being capable of bestowing happiness and prosperity on the virtuous and of warding off wickedness and malevolence. The Vedas do not sanction any consideration for the wicked. Even hostility is there consideration heinous and those who put hindrance on the path of happiness of human beings are condemned in no uncertain terms. However, the expression of such adverse feelings towards evil doers does not imply the infliction of injury or harm upon the wrong doer. Rather, it only reflects the keep ethical sensibilities of the Vedic intelligentsia and their desire to infuse moral feelings in each and every heart.

Our Vedic seers dreamt of a society which would be entirely free from pain and suffering. The Vedas declare that such an ideal state of society can only be achieved if people followed religiously the path of righteousness throughout their life. Dharma as propounded by the Vedas, is nothing but Ahimsa in practice. In the simplest sense Dharma means to enjoy the world without encroaching upon the interests of others. It furnishes the value of self-control in human life and fosters the feeling of universal goodness and love amongst living beings. It is said in the Mahabharata that a person without Dharma is no better than animals.[1] This view is shared by the Satapatha Brahmana which describes the process of handing over a child to his teacher as pasu yajna because it is only after getting proper training in moral precepts that an individual becomes worthy to be called a human being. Righteousness was thus held to be the supreme law of life and the world. The Aryan outlook did not stand for an acquisitive society but for a dharmic samaj which allowed men to make wealth without contravening the principle of Dharma. The Vedic ideal for mankind was restated by the Gita as concern /or the welfare of all'.[2] Vedas proclaim that service to man, gods, sages, animals and ancestors which constitute the pancamahayajnas or Five Great.Sacrifies are the means to attain unending happiness in life here and hereafter. These social codes of conduct enable mankind to work for the common good.

The Vedic concept of karmaphala further strengthens the value of goodness in human life. A man of good morals who never bears malice towards fellow beings earns high merit. On the other hand, injurious thoughts and actions bring woe to the doerjlence the law of karmaphala certainly aims at discouraging people from doing evil actions thereby making the society pure and clean.

The concept of rita, as nurtured in the Vedic samhitas, advocates eternal truth and uprightness..The Yajur-veda states: 'Prajapati established clear distinction between truth (justice) and untruth (injustice) and therewith ordained people to stick to the right way of living.[3] Thus, rita, as a representation of moral order, works for the maintenance of unity on earth. It is opposed to evil and thus a synonym to satya. Satya or truth in personal conduct is to live in harmony with this cosmic order; to live out of harmony with it is falsehood (anrita) and evil. The various gods like Varuna and Adityas were regarded as guardians of the moral law of rita and prayers for forgiveness for guilt were offered to them.

The virtue of Ahimsa occupied a pivotal place in the Vedic concept of cosmic moral order. The desire for universal happiness and peace is invoked at many places. For instance, the Rigveda states: 'May the sky and earth, invoked early, give us blessedness; may the atmosphere be a blessing to us. May herbs and forest trees be a blessing to us. May the victorious Lord of heaven bring us blessedness.'[4] The Yajur-veda has delivered the same message in more clear words: 'May peace reign supreme in heaven, in the whole of intervening space and earth; may the waters, herbs, trees, all the gods, Brahma, and the entire universe, be in peace and harmony. And may that peace be mine.[5]

The above hymns clearly indicate the desire of the Vedic people to secure peace and non-violence in the universe around them.

Moreover, the Vedas exhort us to have harmony in our hearts, unanimity in our minds and freedom from hatred in our behavior. The Rigveda ends with this famous exhortation: 'Common be your prayers, common be your goal, common be your mind and deliberation; common be your conversation, common be your worship. Let your resolve be common, may you be of one heart, may you have the same mind and may you all happily agree.[6] The Atharva-veda (19.9.4-6) draws our attention to the regulation of speech, mind and senses as the best of measures to attain this universal harmony and amity. ■

The last mandala of Rigveda glorifies the spirit of liberality and friendliness to a very high degree. An individual should not live for himself alone. One should share one's food and drink with others also. To help others in distress, and to give alms to the poor and needy was thought to be extremely auspicious. Amity towards all the members of the family, neighbours and even towards unknown people is deemed essential. We should exert ourselves for the welfare of all living beings - human as well as non-human. Thus our Vedic seers exhort us to develop a society in which there would be no jealousy, no hostility and no injury. The Yajur-veda expresses this sublime outlook as follows: 'May I look upon all beings with the eye of a friend. May we look upon one another through friendly eyes.[7] This represents the highest form of non-violence attained by any society in the world.

The Vedas do not allow any kind of injury to living beings for personal gain. Killing of animals in sacrifices is nowhere prescribed in the Vedic samhitas. It was certainly a non-Vedic exercise. However, some of the commentators like Sayana and Mahidhara and, of course, the Western scholars of modern times misinterpreted the Vedic hymns by distorting the meaning of original words through etymological jugglery or fanciful guess-work. The credit for unfolding the true sense of Vedic hymns goes to Maharshi Dayanands Saraswati who interpreted the hymns on the basis of the Astadhyayi of Panini (the most authoritative work on Sanskrit grammar) and thus opened our eyes to their true meaning and implications.

How ruthlessly the noble teachings of the Vedas have been dealt with by modern scholars can be well understood by comparing the interpretations of Indologists like Roth, Weber, Grassman and Oldenberg with that of Swami Dayanand Saraswati. For instance, a hymn in the Yajur-veda which speaks about the noble duty of gurus and guru-patnis of Vedic times to purify the bodies and souls of their pupils has been taken by some scholars as an illustration of the ritual of killing animals in sacrifices. 'I purify your speech, I purify your vital air, I purify your eye, I purify your ear, I purify your navel, I purify your genitals, I purify your excretory organ, I purify your conduct.'[8] The hymn verily speaks of the high responsibility which ancient teachers were entrusted with. In clear words it states that the teachers and their wives should teach their pupils how they may keep their bodies clean and healthy and become men and women of good conduct. According to Western scholars, these words are addressed to the animal at the time of sacrificing it. This interpretation is not convincing at all. Firstly, how can one help anyone, man or beast, to purify itself after depriving it of life? Secondly, there is no sense in saying to an animal that it would be helped to purify its speech by listening to the chanting of the Vedas. Any effort to uplift the character of a creature of lower species is certainly ridiculous. It is, however, quite possible that the Vedic hymns were later misused by the priestly class in order to convince people about the scriptural validity of the manifold rituals which they associated with the original yajna. A good number of historians have accepted such distorted meanings and have projected the history of ancient India in a wrong perspective.

Likewise, the famous wedding hymn of Rigveda (X. 85.13) has been dealt with as an approval of cow slaughter.

Suryaya vahatuh pragat savita yamavasrjat
Aghasu hanyante gavo arjunyoh pari uhyate//[9]

With reference to agha, Macdonell and Keith, the two well-known indologists, state that cows were slain in the lunar monh of Magha (when the moon is in the constellation Magha). According to them, 'It is impossible to resist the conclusion that the readig of Rigveda was deliberately altered (from Magha to agha) because of the connection of the slaughter of kine with sin (agha) - possibly too, with a further desire to emphasize the contrast with aghnya, a name for cow.' This statement itself shows that killing of cow was undoubtedly taken as sin in the Vedas. Swami Dayananda took gavo as a synonym of surya and as such translated the hymn in a totally different manner.

Yaska in his etymological dictionary called Nirukta interprets adhvarah (usually meaning'sacrifice') as ahimsrah or non-killing.[10] According to Swami Dayananda, in the Rigvedic hymn (5.51.2) in which the word adhvarah is used, all righteous people are exhorted to take care of their country and thus ensure happiness and safety to all[11] This shows the keen concern of Vedic seers for the welfare of all living creatures.

In Atharva-veda (7.1.5) those who perform yajna (usually translated as 'sacrifice') by killing animals are called fools. A hymn in the Sama-veda ordains that no living being is required to be slain for getting the favour of divinities. Gods worshipped by the constant chanting of sacred mantras.[12] Vedic sacrifices were intended to be beneficial to all living beings. It did not require the destruction of life.

Sacrifices were actually meant for the purification of the human soul. By performing the Sautramani sacrifice the sacrificer hoped to absolve himself from all the sins he had committed either in the village or in the forest or in the assembly, such as cutting trees, killing animals, telling lies or physically injuring the gods, Sudras or Arya (Vaisya).[13] This clearly shows that by performing such a sacrifice the defaulter accepted his guilt and made amends for its expiation. In the Yajur-veda it is repeatedly said that milk, curd and ghee should be offered to gods in the sacrifice.[14] We are exhorted to perform yajna for the acquisition of harmlessness to all animate and inanimate creature.[15] A performer of the Sattra sacrifice who donates his soul as a gift in sacrifice, is sure to get heaven. Such a person who identifies himself with others[16] will naturally become a devotee of Ahimsa.

In the Brahmanic period of the Vedic age the cult of sacrifice became dormant in both the social and religious levels of social life. The original purpose of sacrifice was also gradually lost as various kinds of unspiritual rituals (including the killing of animals) were attached to the original yajnas. But the scriptures made tireless efforts to counteract such wrong practices by repeatedly stating that one could get the desired favours even without indulging in any untoward action like killing of beasts and so on. The virtue of kindness and sympathy is well emphasized in a passage in Aitareya Brahmana which states that man, horse, ox, sheep and goat are not fit for offering. Instead, the rice-cake is said to be the proper offering in all kinds of sacrifices including even the pashuyaga (animal sacrifice). Here the rice-cake has been taken as the victim which is killed; the chaff as the hair, the husk, the skin, the polishing the blood, the pounded grains and fragments the flesh, and whatever gives sustenance as the bone. This Brahmana boldly states that one who sacrifices with rice-cake is equivalent to the man who sacrifices with the sap of all animals.[17] Satapatha Brahmana confirms the idea that sacrificial cake is the substitute for animal sacrifice by which the sacrifice redeems himself from his debt to the gods.[18] Gopatha Brahmana uses the word asva for agni which is ordained to be appeased through fearless and non-injurious Samaveda hymns.[19]

In the later Vedic period the Upanisads gave a philosophical turn to the cult of sacrifice. The Brhadaranyaka Upanisad opens with an exposition of Asvamedha sacrifice as the cosmic form or Visvarupa of the Supreme Beings.[20]

The story of Sunahsepa deserves special attention here.[21] We cannot take the episode as an evidence of human sacrifice because the narrative speaks strongly against the callousness of Ajigarta who for the sake of a handful of money agreed to give his own son to become a victim in the sacrifice. Sunahsepa reproaches his father in bold words saying that such a heinous sin is inexpiable and even Sudras do not commit such a brutal act. The Satapatha Brahmana refers to the performers of purusamedha as huntsmen, slayers of men and similar other obnoxious personalities.[22] This evidently shows that Purusamedha was actually meant for the eradication of wickedness and to make the earth free from fear and treachery. Dissuading violent ways of action, the Satapatha Brahmana inculcates: 'As hunger ceases through food, thirst through water, so evil can be checked through goodness only.'[23] All this proves that the emphasis was gradually shifted from the gods to human beings. In the place of high adoration to gods, the cultivation of moral qualities were forcefully stressed. Virtues like truth, non-violence, chastity and forbearance henceforth came to be regarded as essential for the happiness and uplift of the individual and the society.

The practice of pancamahayajnas (the Five Great Sacrifices) bestow further strength to the inference that Vedic sacrifice did not involve the killing of living beings. Such yajnas stood for the ideal of reverence to all kinds of life, human or animal. The Gopatha Brahmana states that a person who devotes himself to acts of benevolence with no conceit procures eternal happiness; it matters little whether he performs material sacrifices or not.

Last but not the least is the spirit of selflessness or renunciation found in Vedic literature which strengthens further the principle of Ahimsa. The Isa Upanisad exhorts us to 'maintain yourself through detachment'.[24] The Vedas do not preach renunciation of the world or action. They allow us to enjoy life but with a spirit of restraint and detachment. In other words, we should not attach ourselves to the wordly objects to such an extent that it may breed ill feeling in our heart. An individual who cultivates such a spirit will not feel remorse or arrogance when he is denied pleasures, and thus he will make himself free from crookedness and violence.

The Brhadaranyaka Upanisad condenses the whole of ethics in the syllable 'da'which stands for self-control (dama), charity (danam) compassion (daya).[25] By the observance of these three virtues people become free from craving, greed and anger. When Buddha asked us to put out of our hearts the monstrous fire of infatuation, greed and resentment, he was emphasizing the three virtues already enjoined by the Upanisads.

From the above discussion, although brief, it is clear that the concept of non-violence that has become a part of India's political creed originated in the Vedas and developed all through the centuries. It has always remained the hallmark of Indian civilization.


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Title: Non-violence Relative Economics And A New Social Order
Publisher: Jain Vishwa Bharati University, Ladnun, India
Editors: Prof. B.R. Dugar, Dr. Samani Satya Prajna, Dr. Samani Ritu Prajna
Edition: First Edition, 2008

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Some texts contain  footnotes  and  glossary  entries. To distinguish between them, the links have different colors.
  1. Ahimsa
  2. Anger
  3. Brahma
  4. Buddha
  5. Conceit
  6. DANAM
  7. Dharma
  8. Fear
  9. Ghee
  10. Gita
  11. Greed
  12. Mahabharata
  13. Non-violence
  14. Sanskrit
  15. Saraswati
  16. Satya
  17. Soul
  18. Space
  19. Swami
  20. Swami Dayanand Saraswati
  21. Vaisya
  22. Veda
  23. Vedas
  24. Vedic
  25. Violence
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