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Non-violence Relative Economics And A New Social Order: Hinduism and Ahimsa

Published: 01.06.2015
Updated: 02.07.2015

*Originally printed in Hinduism, No. 93, 1981.

High ideals can never be followed by the multitudes. This has been well-illustrated by Swami Vivekananda. "While preaching non-killing so much in theory, they provide for such an array of punishments as would curdle one's blood to see. Once a thief broke into the house of a man of this non-killing type. The boys of the house caught hold of the thief and were giving him a sound beating. The master, hearing a great row, came out on the upper balcony and, after making inquiries, shouted out, "Cease from beating, my boys Don't beat him. Non-injury is the highest virtue". The fraternity of junior non-killers stopped the beating and asked the master what they were to do with the thief. The master ordered, "Put him in a bag and throw him into the water". The thief much obliged at this humane dispensation, with folded hands said, "Oh! How great is the master's compassions!"[1]

This is not a spiritual attitude, but rather cruelty of the meanest type. It always happens when we follow the letter and not the spirit of the code. This sort of non-violent attitude certainly does more harm to spiritual understanding than does the expression of the natural feelings of the people. Non-violence is to be practised in thought, word, and deed. Ahimsa does not mean merely abstaining from murder, but rather not willfully inflicting any injury, suffering or pain on any living creature by word, thought, or action. The Constitution of the United Nations declares that "war is in the mind, and the purification of mind is important to abolish war. A few people in any faith may be capable of following the principles of ahimsa-nevertheless, for the vast majority it remains an unrealized ideal' Hatred, dishonesty, deception, sensuality, etc., are some of the common, ingrained vices of the human race. Ahimsa really denotes an attitude and mode of behaviour towards all living creatures based on the recognition of the underlying unity of life.

The highest form of spiritual life demands utter unselfishness Without a doubt, this behaviour is the highest level of ethical life, and ordinary people cannot rise easily to that dizzy height. Yet, by persistent effort and systematic practice, each and every individual can eventually reach that supreme goal of life. One must cultivate total unselfishness by attuning oneself to the Supreme Selfwhich enfolds all beings. Then you will know that by hurting others you hurt yourself.

Hindus believe that no lasting peace or freedom is ever possible as long as man is in the relative plane where good and evil go together Hinduism prefers to follow the gradual course suited to the individual It recognizes the force of natural disposition in man and his circumstances and his equipment. The Gita strikes an extraordinarily scientific note by its clear and unmistakable recognition of the influence of man's prakriti - his svadharma[2] The Gita also says how helpless we are under the sway of nature.[3] Hinduism is particular to provide a religion for all, from the lowest up to the highest. Hence it does not enjoin the same disciplines for all. It makes clear divisions according to the capacity and progress of the individual- adhikaribhedavada. But this is not all. Vedanta exhorts the infinite ability of man, and therefore we cannot overlook the possibility of having really spiritual persons hailing from the lower stratum of society. In every faith genuine mystics emerging from obscure backgrounds have commanded our respect by unfolding their inner divinity.

The best art of teaching must be able to cater to the needs capacity, and taste of the student. Hence, different teaching in Hinduism is to be understood in light of its relevance in reaching people having widely divergent mental make-up and calibre. Broadly speaking, human beings dwell on three different planes or principles - tamas, rajas, and sattva. When tamas prevails, a person is found to be very selfish, cowardly, and lazy. His mind is dull and lethargic, his body sluggish and weak. He lives in a state of general delusion. At the next higher stage under the influence of rajas, a person beocmes dynamic, ambitious, and energetic; and, as a result, restless, fearful, and worried.

In the next higher stage, sattva, the mind beocmes calm, quiet, serene and joyous. The sattvic person possesses true knowledge and insight. Only people under sattva can practise ahimsa in the real sense of the term. Hence the necessity of different rules for different types of people who are to rise from lower levels to attain higher levels.

Hinduism emphasizes the relative nature of dharma and does not recognize absolute good or evil. Evil is less good. We cannot say what is absolutely good or evil for all men at all times. Ethical relativity is an accepted fact in Hinduism. An action regarded as moral in one place may not be so in another. The Hindu conception of ethical relativity wants to see duties have reference to degrees of illumination obtained. Hinduism links moral obligation with the stage of spiritual attainment. The comprehensive definition of good and evil may be found in the progress and regress of the person. Whatever helps us towards the realization of divine unity is good, and its reverse is evil. But there is practical difficulty in working out the details. The soldier kills to protect law and justice. A patriot may lay down his life for the same purpose. The very attempt to bring all under one rule or to impose upon all a single idea of good conduct, has been the cause of much injustice to humanity. Shortsighted people always make a mistake by prescribing one set of rules for all. The so-called puritans are extremely narrow, intolerant, priggish and uncharitable. Such an attitude stultifies spiritual progress.

The injunction of non-killing, though ideal, cannot be accepted as universal. The Mahabharata gives the illuminating and inspiring stories of a housewife and an untoubhable butcher who, by adhering to their respective dharmas, experienced the truth. The butcher was a householder meeting his family obligations and yet remaining saintly by being completely unattached. He did really follow the principles of Karma-Yoga and thus imparted spiritual instructions to a monk. "Vyadh-Gita", which is a product of the conversations between the butcher and the monk, is famous as an authoritative scripture.[4]

In additon we find that kings taught spiritual knowledge. "Most of the Upanishads were written by kshatriyas... Most of our great teachers throughout India have been kshatriyas.... Rama, Krishna, Buddha - worshipped as Incarnations of God - were kshatriyas."[5] '

The Gita says that work does not bind us, but rather helps us to grow in spiritual life when done without any selfish motive. Even enjoyment if properly guided can be a source of spiritual experience. Hence the importance of pravritimarga - "turning towards the ego" and nivritti-marga - "turning away from the ego." In this way, through graditions, one has to rise from ego-centredness to God-centredness, from resistance to non-resistance.[6]

In the Gita we find Shri Krishna delivering this message to Arjuna: "Fight establish your own causes, fight!" But to Uddhava in the Bhagavatam, Shri Krishna says, "Whatover ill-treatment you receive from another, you should not return evil for evil, you should return good."[7] This difference of teaching is due to the different mental make-up of the two persons concerned. Arjuna was rajasic and Uddhava was sattvic. Arjuna was a warrior, a hero, whose duty was to protect the virtuous and weak and to subdue the wicked. So for Uddhava, returning good for evil was the right ideal, but for Arjuna it was not. Swami Vivekananda clearly expressed this distinction in his lecture "Each is Great in His Own Place."[8]

George Bernard Shaw in London, a proud vegetarian, was extremely shocked when Sir J.C. Bose revealed how raw carrots, on being pinched and pierced, emitted violent electrical signals corresponding to man's cries for help. At a Royal Institute of a piece of tin by the application of poison, then revived it by rendering medical aid. He ended his lecture with a peroration, "This Unity in life throughout all objects of this Universe was found by the ancient sage of India - who beholds this, the eternal truth - will belong to him only."[9]

Does not modern science say that so-called matter is nothing but consciousness in a gross form? The entire universe is saturated with divine consciousness. It is difficult to abstain from non-killing from our common sense point of view. In this connection it might be said that a vegetarian diet may be unsuitable for soldiers. We may take vegetable food at our holy environment but we may be too weak to protect ourselves from the attack of enemies. We require armed-guards for our physical security. "The taking of life is undoubtedly sinful, but so long as vegetable food is not made suitable to the human system through progress in chemistry, there is no other alternative than meat-eating. So long as man shall have to live a Rajasika (active) life under circumstances like the present, there is no other way except through meat-eating. It is true that the Emperor Ashoka saved the lives of millions of animals by the threat of the sword, but is not the slavery of a thousand years more dreadful than that? Taking the life of a few goats as against the inability to protect the honour of one's own wife and daughter, and to save the morsels for one's children from robbing hands - which of these is more sinful? Rather let those belonging to the upper ten, who do not earn their livelihood by manual labour, not take to earn their bread by labouring day and night, is one of the causes of the loss of our national freedom. Japan is an example of what good and nourishing food can do. May the All-Powerful Vishveshvari inspire your heart!".[10]

It would be better to improve the quality of mind as Acharya Shankara has hinted in his commentary on the Upanishads in regard to food which he labels as anything we take in through the senses. The materials which we receive through our food determine to a great extent our mental constitution; therefore we should be careful what we see, hear, touch or eat [11]

According to Swami Vivekananda: "The test of ahimsa is absence of jealousy. Any man may do a good deed or make a good gift on the spur of the moment or under the pressure of some superstition or priestcraft; but the real lover of mankind is he who is jealous of none. The so-called great men of the world may all be seen to become jealous of each other for a small name, for a little fame, and for a few bits of gold. So long as this jealousy exists in the heart, it is far away from the perfection of Ahimsa. The cow does not eat meat, nor does the sheep. Are they great Yogis, great non-injurers (Ahimsakas)? Any fool may abstain from eating this or that; surely that gives him no more distinction that to herbivorous animals. The man who will mercilessly cheat widows and orphans and do the vilest deeds for money is worse than any brute even if he lives entirely on grass. The man whose heart never cherishes even the thought of injury to any one, who rejoices at the prosperity of even his greatest enemy, that man is the Bhakta, he is the Yogi, he is the guru of all, even though he lives every day of his life on the flesh of swine. Therefore we must always remember that external practices have value only as helps to develop internal purity. It is better to have internal purity alone when minute attention to external observances is not practicable. But woe unto the man and woe unto the nation that forgets the real, internal, spiritual essentials of religion and mechanically clutches with death-like grasp at all externals forms and never lets them go. The forms have value only so far as they are expressions of the life within. If they have ceased to express life, crush them out without mercy.[12]

In another context, Swami Vivekananda explains the Hindu view of ethical relativity which has a tremendous practical relevance in our day-to-day life:

"There was a time in India when Dharma was compatible with Mukti. There were worshippers of Dharma, such as Yudhishthira, Arjuna, Duryodhana, Bhishma, and Kama, side by side with the aspirants of Mukti, such as Vyasa, Shuka, and Janaka. But the time changed and Dharma was entirely neglected, and the path ofMoksha alone became predominant. The central fact is that the fall of our country, of which we hear so much spoken, is due to the utter want of this Dharma. If the whole nation practices and follows the path of Moksha, that is well and good; but is that possible? Without enjoyment, renunciation can never come; first enjoy and then you can renounce. Otherwise, if the whole nation, all desires, but it loses what is had into the bargain - the bird in the hand is fled, nor is that in the bush caught. When thousands of Samyasins lived in every monastery, then it was that the country was just on the verge of its ruin! Education, habits, customs, laws, and rules should be different for different men and nations, in conformity with the difference of temperament. What will it avail, if one tries to make them all uniform by compulsion? It was declared, 'Nothing is more desirable in life than Moksha; whoever you are, come one and all to take it.' I ask, 'Is that ever possible?' 'You are a householder, you must not concern yourself much with things of that sort; you do your Svadharma (natural duty)' thus say the Hindu scriptures. Exactly so! He who cannot leap one foot, is going to jump across the ocean to Lanka in one bound! It is reason? You cannot feed your own family or dole out food to two or your fellow-men, you cannot do even an ordinary piece of work for the common good, in harmony with others - and you are running after Mukti! The Hindu scriptures say, 'No doubt, Moksha is far superior to Dharma; but Dharma should be finished first of all'. People were confounded just there and brought about all sorts of mischief. Non-injury is right; 'Resist not evil' is a great thing- these are indeed grand principles; but the scriptures say, 'Thou art a householder; if anyone smites thee on thy cheek, and thou dost not return him an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, thou wilt verily be a sinner.' Manu says, 'When one has come to kill you, there is no sin in killing him, even though he be a Brahmin.[13] This is very true, and this is a thing which should not be forgotten. Heroes only enjoy the world. Show your heroism; apply according to circumstances, the fourfold political maxims of conciliation, bribery, sowing dissensions, and open war, to win over your adversary and enjoy the world - then you will be Dharmika (rightous). Otherwise, you live a disgraceful life if you pocket your insults when you are kicked and trodden down by anyone who takes it into his head to do so; your life is a veritable hell here, and so is the life hereafter. This is what the Shastras say. Do your Svadharma -this is truth, the truth of truths. This is my advice to you, my beloved co-religionists. Of course, do not do any wrong, do not injure or tyranise over anyone, hut try to do good to others as much as you can. But passively to submit to wrong done by others is a sin-with the house-holder. He must try to pay them back in their own coin then and there. The householder must earn money with great effort and enthusiasm, and by that must support and bring comforts to his own family and to others, and perform good works as far as possible. If you cannot do that, how do you profess to be a man? You are not a house-holder even - what to talk of Moksha for you!!

The realistic attitude of Hinduism towards life has been emphasized by its recognition of four legitimate and basic tests: dharma (righteousness), artha (wealth), kama (sense pleasuere) and moksha (freedom). The fulfilment of the legitimate worldly desires and not their suppression lead to the highest goal - unity. Supression checks the growth and brings more harm to body and mind. By fulfilling legitimate desires according to dharma, the Hindu gradually approaches unselfishness which leads to ahimsa, unity and freedom, the ultimate goal of life.


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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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  1. Acharya
  2. Ahimsa
  3. Artha
  4. Ashoka
  5. Bhakta
  6. Body
  7. Bombay
  8. Brahmin
  9. Buddha
  10. Consciousness
  11. Dharma
  12. Environment
  13. Gita
  14. Guru
  15. Hinduism
  16. Kama
  17. Krishna
  18. Kshatriyas
  19. London
  20. Mahabharata
  21. Manu
  22. Moksha
  23. Mukti
  24. Non-violence
  25. Prakriti
  26. Rajas
  27. Rama
  28. Sattva
  29. Science
  30. Shastras
  31. Swami
  32. Swami Vivekananda
  33. Tamas
  34. Upanishads
  35. Vedanta
  36. Vidya
  37. Vivekananda
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