1.01 Ahiṁsā/Non-violence: Its Dimensions and Practices

Published: 13.08.2009
Updated: 30.07.2015

Ahiṁsā/Non-violence; its Dimensions and Practices


1.0 Evolution and definition of ahiṁsā in India’s philosophical system

1.1 Evolution of ahiṁsā

  • From the Vedic texts (approx. 1500 BC), we find that yajñas were the primary religious practice in India. Animal sacrifice and non-vegetarian food were popular religious and social customs.[1] The 22nd Jain Tīrthaṁkara, Nemināth, renounced the world and his family on the eve of his marriage to Rājul to show compassion to the animals brought in to be slaughtered and served as food at his wedding.[2] He was the cousin of Lord Krishna.

  • Around 1000 BC we find cow’s sanctity creeping in more for social and material benefits rather than spiritual. Thus passages on love of men and kindness to animals are found.[3] The 23rd Jain Tīrthaṁkara, Parśvanātha shows compassion to a snake couple dying in fire, saves their life and later they became the heavenly beings Dharendra and Padmāvati.

  • Around 800 BC animal sacrifice disappeared. The emphasis turned towards inwardness of morality and the significance of motives in conduct. Self-control, charity and compassion were established as virtues, and meat eating was denounced. The concept Ahiṁsā paramodharma is reflected in the Mahābhārata.[4]

  • Around 550 BC the 24th Jain Tīrthaṁkara, Mahāvīra, established the concepts of soul, karma and assigned responsibility for actions and results to individuals. Under his guidance, Jainism took ahiṁsā to its extreme form whereby the entire Jain religion, its philosophy and ethics are based on ahiṁsā only.

  • Around 500-300 BC, influenced by Mahāvīra and Buddha, Patañjali called ahiṁsā a supreme virtue and de-emphasized yajñas. He said ahiṁsā is unconditional and universally applicable.[5]

The above shows briefly the evolution of non-violence in India. Jainism is credited of being the main propounded of non violence in its subtlest from. We shall therefore discuss non violence here with main focus on its discussion and implementation in Jainism.

1.2 Definition of ahiṁsā

In an unprecedented way Mahāvīra clarified ahiṁsā. The Ācārāṅga Sūtra says: "None of the living beings ought to be killed or deprived of life, ought to be ordered or ruled, ought to be enslaved or possessed, ought to be distressed or afflicted and ought to be put to unrest or disquiet.[6] (savve pāṇā ṇa haṅtavvā, ṇa ajjāvetavva, ṇa ajjāvetavvā, ṇa parighettavvā, ṇa paritāveyavvā, ṇa uddveyavvā). Thus the Āyāro (Ācārāṅga) conclusively pronounces that after understanding the importance of kindness to beings, the enlightened person should preach, disseminate and applaud it at all places in East-West and North-South directions. (dayaṅ logassa jāṇitta pāiṇaṅ padiṇaṅ, dāhinaṅ udiṇaṅ āikkhe vihae kiŧŧe vedavi).[7]

Later on, in the Praśnavyākaraṇa Sūtra, he designates social ahiṁsā as kindness (dayā), security (rakşā), solitariness (kallāṇa), fearlessness (abhaya), non-killing (amādhā), equanimity (samatā), forgiveness (kşamā) etc. by 64 different names.[8]

The coverage of ahiṁsā is so vast that it does not refer only to our external activities (like hurting or killing by physical means only) but it refers more strongly to the internal activities of mind, both physical and psychic. Thus ahiṁsā is defined as:

Knowingly or unknowingly not causing pain or death to any living being by activities of mind, body or speech; and not asking others to do so and not to admire or support those who do so is ahiṁsā’.

To be non-violent, Amrit Candra in the Puruşārtha Siddhi Upāya[9] beautifully discusses and describes the following four elements and shows how they are directed towards the one who is committing violence and indirectly towards the one on whom violence is being committed:

Hiṁsya or the one on whom the violence is to be committed.

Hiṁsaka or the one who commits the act of violence

hiṁsā or the act of committing violence

hiṁsā kā fala or the results of committing violence

1.3 Types of ahiṁsā and results

Ahiṁsā can be of many types depending on the type of living being subjected to hiṁsā called hiṁsya; agent (called hiṁsaka); the act of committing hiṁsā and the result of committing hiṁsā. Similarly from the viewpoint of conduct, it can be complete for ascetics or partial for householders. From the hiṁsya view we can say ahiṁsā is of two types, namely gross (of 2- to 5-sensed living beings) and subtle (of one-sensed living beings). From the hiṁsaka viewpoint we can say ahiṁsā is of 432 types as detailed below:

  • Hiṁsaka or the agent/ doer of hiṁsā (3): kṛta, karita and anumodita “doing oneself, making someone else to do, and appreciating one who does it.”

  • Activities involved in committing hiṁsā (3): samarambha, samārambha and ārambha “intention to commit the act, preparation and actual doing.”

  • Motive behind hiṁsā (4): krodha, māna, māyā and lobha “anger, pride, deceit and greed.”

  • Intensity of motive behind hiṁsā (4): anantānubandhi, apratyākhāna, pratyākhāna and sañjavalana “intense, mild, moderate or gleaming” like a line drawn on rock, mud, sand and water.

  • Medium of committing hiṁsā (3): mana, vācana and kāya, “mind, speech and body.”

The Ācāraṅga Sūtra talks in its first chapter of six types of living beings and suggests that the soul of each type of living being is similar to our own soul. The six types of living beings are air-bodied, water-bodied, fire-bodied, earth-bodied and plant-bodied All these five types are equipped with one sense organ and are stationery (i.e. cannot move from their place on their own) or tras (i.e. the living being can move on their own to achieve their objectives (and they have 2 to 5 sense organs).

When we think of the source or origin of violence, we come to our thought process first. Whatever we do in our life, we first think it over either hastily or in a planned manner, and we think about the activities we are going to undertake along with their consequences. Thus the beginning of any violent activity starts with our thinking or mind. Jains say that thinking of violence is directly related to our feelings of attachment or aversion towards those against whom we wish to be violent. Hence we first use our mind and then implement hiṁsā by means of our body and speech. We thus see that if we think of hiṁsā we have committed it already even if we do not express it physically or vocally due to our inadequacies or other circumstances. Similarly the motive behind our thought and the intensity thereof also contribute to the type of violence we commit.

Talking of the results of hiṁsā, the karma doctrine of Jains reaches that to the one who commits violence suitable pain will be caused either immediately or in future. We observe in our own life that when we think of committing violence we are preoccupied with cruel thoughts, while love, compassion, etc. disappear and our body starts showing ill effects, like hypertension, anxiety, sleeplessness, etc. The hiṁsya naturally is a victim who suffers the results even though not involved in the act. Thus Jains have classified hiṁsā as demerit or sin, pāpa.

2.0 Dimensions of hiṁsā

Historical evidence available from religious parables like the Ādi Purāṇa and other Jain Purāṇas, the Rāmāyana, and the Mahābhārata etc. as well as our own observations of recent times show the deadly and at times devastating results of violence committed as the coverage of violence and mass killing is increasing regularly.

  • Ādi Purāna: Bharat Bahūbali dual;

  • Rāmāyana: Killing of individual/s

  • Mahābhārata: Killing of a family/ies.

  • 1965-75: Community or countries affected

  • 1980s-: The entire world getting affected.

The advent of technology has significantly enhanced the impact and method of committing hiṁsā. We see its impact in that the deaths of Nehru (disease), Sanjay Gandhi (plane crash); Indira Gandhi was murdered in her own protected home and Rajiv Gandhi was murdered by suicide attackers. India (claiming to be a peaceful nation) spends enormous amounts to protect its leaders and suffer losses due to terrorism and violence. In our present world also, we can see that use of force to win a war or eliminate discord or differences in religious-political ideologies results in escalation of violence causing more misery than reducing it (Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, Indo-Pak troubles etc.). Some facts about hiṁsā are given below:

  1. Hiṁsā affects the doer, the hiṁsaka, more than the hiṁsya (the victim). So even for our own selfish gains we must observe non-violence. We can see enhanced cruelty in our thinking, anger and uneasiness all through our body and mind causing stress and associated problems. Once committed, the hiṁsya starts getting ready to take revenge and hence the hiṁsaka has to be involved in amassing more violent tools and devices and becomes more and more engrossed in hiṁsā. Terrorism in various forms is the result of violence committed by the state or the ones who are powerful.

  2. Ecology: Killing the five types of living beings, i.e. those with air, water, fire, earth or plants as their bodies, is called environment pollution. Even killing animals and other living beings cause consequential ecological imbalances.
  3. Social ills: Female child killing in the womb, use of cosmetics and leather products from unborn and newly born animals, foods causing thousands of living beings getting killed for just one meal, the class system dividing the society in low, middle and high castes etc. on the basis of birth, race or color are different ways of committing violence. Growing intolerance, selfishness are some of the social ills cause by enhanced hiṁsā

We thus see that violence affects individuals, societies, countries and the whole of humanity, ultimately resulting in total destruction. Violence has assumed ghastly dimensions with the advent of technology and hence necessitating the adoption of an Ahiṁsaka or non-killing attitude, not only in our society but in the world.

3.0 Practice of ahiṁsā

Jain resources for exploration of potentials for non-killing societies are abundant. At the core are spiritual, philosophical, scientific, social and other aspects of Jain thought and practice that can be and are being creatively adapted to promote non-killing conditions of 21st century life all over the world[10].

3.1 Spiritual practice of ahiṁsā

Ahiṁsā in Jainism is for oneself (internal, which means eliminating or avoiding attachment and aversion) as well as for others (not giving pain to others), i.e. even causing pain to one’s own self is hiṁsā and is to be avoided. Jains say the attachment is the root cause of transmigration from one birth to the next and of all pains associated. As the Jain path of spiritual purification is called the science of detachment, so internal ahiṁsā is equanimity or detachment - the fundamental requirement of eliminating attachment. It can be termed as being aloof and have no attraction even towards the body or to have equal attachment with every living being. Actually internal ahiṁsā is not possible without developing equanimity to all. In Jain terminology, internal ahiṁsā comes from a transcendental viewpoint while the external is from a practical viewpoint. Internal, i.e. total abstinence from hiṁsā is practiced by ascetics as they withdraw themselves completely from worldly indulgences and spend all their time for spiritual beneficiation.

However for householders, the emphasis is on minimization of hiṁsā. Accordingly Jain texts[12] talk of four types of hiṁsā namely:

  • Ārambhī or those associated with earning the livelihood

  • Udyogī or those associated with professional activities, e.g. agriculture

  • Virodhī or Self-defense i.e. to protect oneself from enemies

  • Saṁkalpī or premeditated done due to feelings of attachment and aversion towards others.

The first three types are such that a common man cannot avoid them completely. Violence against two- to five-sensed beings is to be avoided completely except in a few situations. The first two types are basically addressed to living beings having one sense organ only namely with air, fire, water, earth and plants bodies living beings. Therefore the householder is advised to practice carefulness and minimize such violence toward them. The third type is primarily for self-defense and for correcting the violent or wrong tendencies of others and is allowed in a limited manner. The fourth type is completely prohibited even to him/ her as it is simply to satisfy one’s ego or interest and committed due to ignorance or wrong knowledge and attachment/ aversion.

3.2 Philosophical / ethical practice of ahiṁsā[13]

Jain philosophy says that the inherent nature of the soul is to be in its own nature of knowledge and bliss, which means that no body wants to die or have pain. Being happy or blissful is the nature of the soul and everybody wants to attain this state. If this is so then not killing or not giving pain to anybody is GOOD or moral and the reverse is no GOOD and hence is to be avoided. This is the basis of all moral and ethical postulates of Jainism from the practical viewpoint. Convergent validation for this non-killing thesis can be found in the first global survey by the World Health Organization of deaths by suicide, homicide, and war which conclude that “violence is a preventable disease” (WHO, 2005).

Jain ethical practices are based on the six essential duties (āvaśyakas), five vows and several supplementary vows. The essential duties are primarily to indulge in spiritual practices and to review the daily’s activities and seek corrections for flaws committed while the vows are actual practices/conduct to avoid hiṁsā.

For the ascetics the essential duties are (Sāmāyika or state of equanimity of the self, Caturviṁśatistva or reciting the virtues of the 24 Tīrthaṁkaras; Vandānā or veneration of the holy teacher/s; Pratikramaṇa or visiting the mistakes committed during the day and seek forgiveness and punishment; Kāyotsarga or relaxation i.e. developing a feeling of separateness of body and the personal self; Pratyākhāna or determination to not commit the fault again), the five major (or total observance) vows or mahāvratas (ahiṁsā, satya, acaurya, aparigraha and brahmācārya), five attitudes of carefulness (samiti) and three attitudes of restraint (gupti) along with 27 /28 primary attributes and twenty two afflictions to be won (parīşaha jai).

For the householders, the six essential duties are devapūjā (worshipping the omniscient), gurū-upāsati (veneration of the holy teachers), svādhyāya (self study), saṁyama (self restraint), dāna (charity), tapa (austerities), pratyākhāna or vowing not to make mistakes or practice). Five minor vows called aṇuvratas (ahiṁsā, satya, acaurya, aparigraha and brahmācārya, three guṇavratas and four śikşāvratas. Śvetāmbara Jains observe the six essential duties of the ascetics only.

In order to avoid and reduce hiṁsā, we have to keep in mind the three deterring forces to hiṁsā namely:

  • Expression of hiṁsā by body is deterred or punished by the government or legal system.

  • Expression of hiṁsā by speech is deterred by the society. If we utter any unpleasant words, we immediately get a reprimand from the society. The government can hardly do anything.

  • Expression of hiṁsā by mind is deterred only by you i.e. the individual only because it hurts the individual the most. Therefore Jain scriptures lay greatest emphasize mental purity.

In the judicial system, the law awards severe punishment for pre-planned or intentional crimes at times let the accused go free if it is accidental or just circumstantial. Thus the most important method is to develop control on ourselves to be ahiṁsaka.

3.3 Scientific practice of ahiṁsā[14]

Unprecedented self-understanding of not killing human capabilities is becoming possible from bio-neuroscience to every field of knowledge. Scientific knowledge of the causes of killing, the causes of non-killing, the causes of transition between killing and non-killing, and of the characteristics of completely killing-free societies can assist human liberation from lethality and practicing the ethical postulates of ahiṁsā.

Similarly the contribution of science in ecology and its various conservancy policies and practices are a direct corollary to Mahāvīra’s definition of ahiṁsā and living beings (specially his unique emphasis on one sensed living beings). Plants have life by Sir J.C. Basu, global warming, self rejuvenating nature of air /water from certain levels of pollution are all based on the concept of such resources as similar to being organic in nature or as living beings and supporting the practice of ethical postulates of ahiṁsā.

3.4 Social practice of ahiṁsā

As mentioned before, Lord Mahāvīra designated social ahiṁsā by sixty-four synonyms such as kindness (dayā), security (rakşā), solitariness (kallāṇa), fearlessness (abhaya), non-killing (amādhā), equanimity (samatā), forgiveness (kşamā) etc.[11] This is the basis of social ahiṁsā according to the Jains. On closer analysis, we find almost all other religions in the world emphasize these which are mere applications of social ahiṁsā. The live and let live slogan of the Jains is based on the equality of all living beings to live and enjoy the fruits of their actions. Sharing our wealth, helping the destitute in particular and others in general are the applications of ahiṁsā. Jains are known for their philanthropic activities associated with establishing institutions like school, orphanages, homes of destitute, hospitals and other health services. [15]

In recent history, we saw Mahatma Gandhi implementing Satyāgraha based on the application of ahiṁsā to free India from the mighty British Empire. Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela in USA and South Africa respectively are other popular leaders who practiced ahiṁsā as propagated by Mahatma Gandhi to successfully fight for their oppressed communities.

Vegetarian diet can be seen as another example of practicing social ahiṁsā, which takes the benefit not only to us vegetarians only, but to others as well (like the animal kingdom, ecology, economics and in the reduction of cruel activities rampant in the society. In recent times we find that the number of people switching over to a vegetarian diet increases exponentially and this is based on their educated choices. On the other hand the lack of practicing ahiṁsā by a few is causing havoc in the form of terrorism, insecurity, intolerance and attaching no value to the life of others, and this might perhaps lead us all to extinction.

3.5 Other considerations of ahiṁsā

This is taken to be a human community, smallest to largest, local to global, characterized by no killing of humans, at least; no threats to be killed; no weapons designed to kill humans and no justifications for using them; and no social conditions that are dependent upon the threat or the use of mortal force for maintenance or change. We thus see the emergence of special interest groups occupied with non-violent communication, preservation of the ecology, human and animal rights, and setting up departments in universities all over the world to teach and do research on ahiṁsā and even setting up a university on ahiṁsā. The United Nations has declared October 2nd as the World Non-Violence Day to be celebrated all over the world.

I conclude by saying that there are no choices left except by understanding, preaching, practice and put all efforts to make this world a non-killing society; else?


Bibliography (Courtesy Prof. Glenn D. Paige for ISSJS 2008.)

Glenn D. Paige, professor emeritus of political science, University of Hawai‘i, is founder president of the Center for Global Nonviolence in Honolulu, Hawai‘i (1994). In 2008 it was in transition to become a Center for Global Non-killing. He published Non-killing Global Political Science (2002). By 2008 the book had been translated into Arabic, Filipino. French, Galizan, Hindi, Kiswahili, Malayalam, Mongolian, Portuguese, Russian, Sinhala, Spanish, Tamil, Thai, and Urdu.

A number of articles on various aspects of ahiṁsa can be found on www.globalnonviolence.org

Kool, V.K. 2007. Psychology of Non-violence and Aggression. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

MacNair, R. M. 2002. Perpetration-Induced Traumatic Stress: The Psychological Consequences of Killing. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.

Nobel Peace Laureates. 2007. Charter for a World without Violence. Rome: December 13-15, 2007. www.nobelforpeace-summits.org/ENG/PDF/2007/CHARTER_ULTIMATE.pdf.

2005. “Nonkilling Global Society.” In Peace Section edited by Ada Aharoni, Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems (EOLSS). Developed under the auspices of UNESCO, Eolss Publishers, Oxford, U.K. http:www.eolss.net.

Ram, Senthil and Ralph Summy, eds. 2007. Nonviolence: An Alternative for Defeating Global Terror(ism). Hauppage, NY: Nova Science Publishers.

Sheth, Shantilal V. 1998. “Jainism and World Peace.” In Sangarmal Jain and Shriprakash Pandey, eds. Jainism in a Global Perpective. Varanasi: Pārsvanātha Vidyāpītha. pp. 202-217.

World Health Organization (WHO). 2002. World Report on Violence and Health. Geneva: WHO.

Chennai 2009: Non-violence, Compassion and Instrumentality - A Jaina Perspective

Non-violence, Compassion and Instrumentality

A Jaina Perspective

Seminar organized by the Department of Jainology of the University of Madras,

13 and 14 February 2009

Chennai, India



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Dr. Rudi Jansma
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  1. Abhaya
  2. Acaurya
  3. Ahiṁsā
  4. Anger
  5. Aparigraha
  6. Body
  7. Brahmācārya
  8. Buddha
  9. Candra
  10. Chennai
  11. Deceit
  12. Delhi
  13. Dāna
  14. Ecology
  15. Environment
  16. Equanimity
  17. Fearlessness
  18. Gandhi
  19. Glenn D. Paige
  20. Glenn Paige
  21. Greed
  22. Gupti
  23. ISSJS
  24. International School for Jain Studies
  25. JAINA
  26. Jain Philosophy
  27. Jaina
  28. Jainism
  29. Karma
  30. Krishna
  31. Krodha
  32. Kāyotsarga
  33. Ladnun
  34. Lobha
  35. Madras
  36. Mahatma
  37. Mahatma Gandhi
  38. Mahābhārata
  39. Mahāvratas
  40. Mahāvīra
  41. Mana
  42. Manoj Jain
  43. Māna
  44. New Delhi
  45. Non violence
  46. Non-violence
  47. Nonviolence
  48. Omniscient
  49. Parśvanātha
  50. Pratikramaṇa
  51. Pride
  52. Purāṇa
  53. Purāṇas
  54. Pāpa
  55. Ram
  56. Rudi Jansma
  57. Samatā
  58. Samiti
  59. Satya
  60. Science
  61. Siddhi
  62. Soul
  63. Sravakācāra
  64. Svādhyāya
  65. Sāmāyika
  66. Sūtra
  67. Tamil
  68. Tapa
  69. University of Madras
  70. Varanasi
  71. Vedic
  72. Violence
  73. Yoga
  74. Ācāraṅga
  75. Ācārāṅga
  76. Ācārāṅga Sūtra
  77. Āgama
  78. Ārambha
  79. Āvaśyakas
  80. Āyāro
  81. āgama
  82. Śvetāmbara
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