Published: 28.06.2012

The paper, which was published in Sunrise Magazine (April/May 2005), based on pp.37-43 of the author's Een introductie tot het jainisme, Uitgeverij Ankh-Hermes, Deventer 2005.


Ahimsa paramo dharma:

Nonviolence is the highest religion


Nonviolence, ahimsa, is the central doctrine of Jainism. It also plays an important role in Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and other religions, but none of them has given this principle such a prominent position, especially in the practice of religion. In Jainism, all actions are directed towards avoiding harm to other living beings, whether through physical, verbal, or mental violence -this last the underlying cause of all misery. Nonviolence has enormous consequences for daily life, for society, and for our worldview. Throughout human history it has covered humankind with a protective shield. Everywhere, past and present, there are individuals and groups who carry the principle of nonviolence in their hearts because they feel that this is what the world needs most, and lacks most. The wish not to harm living beings (including, but in the last place, oneself) is an essential characteristic of the deepest inner being of man. This is why religions which preach this doctrine have always found many sympathizers. Many older religions, such as Hinduism and Judaism, originally prescribed ritual animal sacrifices, but thanks to Jainism, Buddhism, and Christianity such things occur only rarely today, in a few Hindu sects and tribal religions and in Islam. Animal sacrifices did (and do) occur over the entire globe. Some cultures even took to large-scale human sacrifice by - so they thought - command of the gods! But how could any true god ever approve of such cruelty? Jain cosmology describes many classes of gods, and far from all are good. These gods, they explain, were humans when incarnate on earth, and may possess any of the evil or noble human qualities. Some may be kind and helpful, some highly spiritual, but others may be cruel or purposely misleading, causing accidents or worse: they may induce ignorant people to do evil things under the pretext of serving real gods or God. For example, the Mayas of Mexico and Guatemala, which in more decadent phases of their culture performed human sacrifices on a very large scale (even today animal sacrifices occur), were themselves aware that they had been misled by "second-rate" gods, and they expressed their regret in songs in the Popol Vuh.

No great effort is needed to understand how much suffering the human as well as the animal kingdom would have been spared if we humans had had the discipline to let the noble aspect of our being prevail. No wars, no slaughterhouses, no battery cages, terrorism, suppression, social injustice, or capital punishment would exist if mankind could understand and then practice nonviolence. It would not mean that humanity had nothing further to learn or would be rid of all desperation, or that tigers would suddenly eat grass. But at present we make things much more difficult for ourselves than is necessary. Instead of regarding each other as territorial and personal competitors, people could understand that all are brother pilgrims moving towards truth and unstained happiness, brothers who realize that the pilgrimage is long and often hard but who everywhere and always are on each others side. With many people this is the case even today. It sounds almost sentimental, but still it is the only thing of real importance in life, the true discipline around which life turns: the practice of the brotherhood of all conscious beings. Rules are not necessary to accomplish this, but listening to one's heart certainly is.


Jain monk with attendants and depiction of Ashtamangala


Religions teach that every consciousness reaps what it has sown. It follows that "unavoidable violence" - such as natural calamities, disease, and damage inflicted by someone else - can be referred back to oneself and the neglect of this deep impulse from the heart. For the Jains our repeated existences on earth are but a small part of our total life cycle. They hold that we spend most of our time outside our physical bodies, in the hereafter or the "herebefore," either as hellish or heavenly beings. The so-called hells or heavens are states of consciousness which result from our thoughts during physical embodiment. Because of its weakness or attachment, the soul is unwilling to make choices and oscillates continuously between high and low, good and bad. In this way a vibration is created that attracts and attaches confusion and ignorance to the soul, making matters still more difficult. If one has the courage to choose the higher - absolute inner nonviolence - the weakness and doubt causing these vibrations disappear. Then God will turn out to be all forgiveness and love, as a Christian might express it. The soul is the only true God according to Jainism. By living in the soul, every human being is a god.

What makes the Jains especially noteworthy is that they not only preach and talk about nonviolence, but also practice it. Jain social morality as well as their doctrine of redemption is interspersed with rules and guidelines derived from the principle of ahimsa. The five main vows which every Jain is supposed to respect are: to abstain from violence, to abstain from lying (one might say, violence against truth), to abstain from stealing, to abstain from sexual misconduct, and to be free from worldly attachment. Vegetarianism is also most strongly emphasized by Jainism as a practical consequence of nonviolence. Every Jain is supposed to think and meditate about friendship with all living beings; the happiness it gives to see others be more successful than oneself (especially in spiritual matters); compassion for all suffering beings; and tolerance or indifference towards those who behave in an uncivil or negative way towards him or her.

Ahimsa is the opposite of himsa, "violence." Violence is clearly defined in scriptures Jains regard as authoritative. To quote just a few:

  • Violence (himsa) is to hurt the vitalities (pranas), through vibration due to the passions, which agitate mind, body, or speech. - Tattvarthadhigama Sutra vii:13;
  • Any injury to the material or conscious vitalities caused by passionate activity of mind, body, or speech is certainly called violence; certainly the non-appearance of attachment and other passions is ahimsa. - Purusharthasiddhi-upaya iv:43-4;
  • Violence is a great impediment to spiritual awakening, and someone who indulges in doing harm to living beings will not become enlightened; harming other beings is always harmful and injurious to oneself - it is the main cause of a person's non-enlightenment. - Acharanga Sutra i.1.2;
  • Knowing that all evils and sorrows arise from injury to living beings, and that it leads to unending enmity and is the root cause of great fear, a wise man who has become awakened should refrain from all sinful activities. - Sutrakritanga Sutra i.10.21;
  • Seeing that everything that happens to somebody affects him personally, one should be friendly towards all beings; being completely free from fear and hatred, one should never injure any living being. - Uttaradhyayana Sutra 6.6;
  • All living creatures desire to live. Nobody wishes to die. And hence it is that the Jain monks avoid the terrible sin of injury to living beings. - Dasavaikalika Sutra.

The most forceful statement is found in the Jnanarnava: "Violence alone is the gateway to the miserable state, it is also the ocean of sin; it is itself a terrible hell and is surely the densest darkness"; and "If a person is accustomed to committing injury, then all his virtues like selflessness, greatness, desirelessness, penance, liberality, or munificence are worthless" (8.19-20).

In human relations, respect and understanding are the foundation of nonviolence. The great Jain teacher, Mahavira (6th century BCE), said that "as long as one holds on to one of the many aspects of a thing while at the same time rejecting or ignoring other aspects, one can never reach the truth." In the Jain doctrine of anekanta ("many aspects"), truth shows itself to the observer as many aspects, and only one who has reached complete insight can see the truth as a whole. No one on earth has this power of insight in its fullness, and it may be that two people with the same measure of intelligence and dedication look at the same truth from different angles, so that their opinions appear incompatible (the concept of syadvada, from syat, "from one point of view"). The ethical consequence of this teaching is that fundamentally one can never blame someone else for having the wrong view while himself claiming to have the right view. Both views may appear correct in the final analysis, though only partly so. Two opinions may seem incompatible, but in reality there is only a paradox: when one has acquired deeper insight, one may see that both are legitimate approaches to the same truth, or that both standpoints represent only limited views of truth.

An example from the Jains, Buddhists, and Sufis is that of the blind men and the elephant. One man touches the trunk, another a tusk, a third an ear or the tail. They start to quarrel about what an elephant really is because their views differ completely. Then a sighted passerby says that all of them are both right and wrong. In comparison to an omniscient and omni-clairvoyant spiritual being all of us are blind.

Thus anekanta is the doctrine about how truth presents itself to us, and syadvada teaches that we can approach the truth from different angles. These are accompanied by a third theory, nayavada, concerning partial knowledge. Even though there may be different views, none of which represents the whole truth, each of them contains a nucleus of truth. Therefore it is always useful to try to understand another, because his or her story too contains a core of truth and thus adds a further approach. To try to fight each other with words (and eventually with weapons) to impose one's views of right is a form of violence and so contrary to this philosophy. These three widespread approaches to truth are the result of the human mind which, in its present stage of evolution, is by nature divisive because unable to grasp the whole. But once we see that such mental activity can never lead us beyond its natural limitations, we will realize that we should seek the higher path of renunciation of all illusions or "partial truths," and direct our meditation exclusively to that which is beyond. This journey may take lifetimes, but once we have made the first step, deaths and rebirths cannot hamper us from reaching our goal. We will never again be satisfied with less.

A major paradox which the world as a whole is struggling with involves this very philosophy of ahimsa and anekanta: if the other party is unwilling to behave nonviolently, what should we do? On the personal level we can offer the "other cheek" to our opponent and forgive his evildoing to ourselves again and again. This is the real practice of ahimsa. But on a community level the question becomes different: Should we fight terrorists? Should we tolerate large-scale industrial destroyers of the environment and respect their point of view? Should we regard them as unavoidable agents of karma, fulfilling the unpleasant duty of destroying the old so that something new can be born and grow?

As to terrorists, as long as they are impersonally serving an ideal other than some private psychological frustration, they probably think they are doing the best they can for their people, religion, ethics, or whatever their conviction may be - however blinded by ignorance they may be concerning the real meaning of religion and service. Jain teachings suggest that we should try to understand the core of their motivation and the cause which aroused their feelings and the feelings of those they represent. When two people or groups such as nations or religious brotherhoods are involved in an unpleasant relationship, both are part of the problem, both suffer from ignorance, especially about the other's real inner intentions - for which they may be willing to sacrifice comforts and possession, their family, and even their lives. Both may think they serve the universal good of a divine plan or justice. Both may even be driven by compassion - though limited by insufficient wisdom. A terrorist for the one may be a hero for the other; a national leader may be a devil for those who suffer on the other side. Talking and serious willingness to listen and understand may turn the worst enemies into the best friends, recognizing each other as brothers serving the same cause of higher human dignity and destiny. So anekanta, if implemented, can avoid tremendous amounts of fear, misunderstanding, and suffering in the human community (and even in animal and other communities - which are usually forgotten during our conflicts).

Still, however many "other cheeks" we may present, however much we talk and try to understand, some will always remain enemies because of their own psychology. In such a case, let the parties battle with words and psychological confrontation on as small a scale as possible - at best, on the personal level - and let as few as possible be actively involved. Karma is the only real judge. Let the karmic debt be as small as possible. When the two sons of the first Indian king came into conflict, with power over the whole world at stake, both had strong armies but decided not to inflict suffering on thousands of their subjects, and so fought personally until one triumphed (after which they became friends).

As to "tolerating" destructive forces instigated by selfishness: if we ourselves and our chosen governments did not have the same selfish attitudes or indifference, humankind would naturally design laws which would make such behavior impossible. Even those who destroy without concern in the end will admit the righteousness of such laws and submit themselves to them, though it may take generations for this outlook to become the norm. Just as criminals feed but on the thoughts we all nurture together, even the most decent man or woman is in degree co-responsible for the performance of the affairs of the world. Not so long ago, in the nineteenth century, protests against slavery were ridiculed; nowadays we regard slavery as something utterly inhuman and contemptible. Won't the same be said about our present behavior towards the environment and our cruelty towards animals a century or two from now? Let us sow the seeds for the centuries to come.

There are as many viewpoints as there are thinkers, and none of them is entirely perfect. Thus the world exhibits a richness of philosophies, all the result of deep human pondering. But because no matter-bound, limited soul can perceive the universe in its entirety, all these thinkers remain within the influence of their personal context. This does not mean, of course, that one viewpoint may not contain more truth than another, or that no opinion is entirely wrong. If we were to lose sight of that, we might adopt an attitude of lazy tolerance and thus approve of any viewpoint - without any point of reference to universal truth or ethics. Jains are no postmodernists. There is a final truth concerning and including all, and it can and will be known. Jains have often been staunch participants in disputes, with the objective of coming closer to real understanding and defending the deepest truth they can grasp. But feelings of respect and tolerance always remain in their heart, because they are aware that they also do not know and see everything - but in the future they will reach unstained omniscience and omni-clairvoyance, as will each person's opponent.


Compiled by PK


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          1. Acharanga
          2. Ahimsa
          3. Ahimsa Paramo Dharma
          4. Anekanta
          5. Ashtamangala
          6. Body
          7. Buddhism
          8. Christianity
          9. Consciousness
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          15. Hinduism
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          29. Sutrakritanga Sutra
          30. Syadvada
          31. Syat
          32. Tattvarthadhigama Sutra
          33. Tolerance
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          35. Uttaradhyayana Sutra
          36. Vegetarianism
          37. Violence
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