Ahimsa is the first and foremost of the yamas and the basis of compassion. Fearlessness, courage and love are all founded on ahimsa.
Ahimsa or non-violence, is perhaps one of the most powerful, widely-known, yet grossly misunderstood terms in the world. For many, the path of ahimsa is paved with the obstacles of hardship, sacrifice, patience, and extreme perseverance; a path that only a remarkable few can traverse.
Although ahimsa is the path of the highly evolved, it’s not just for those who have renounced everything. How does one practice Ahimsa and what are its benefits? Where does Ahimsa end and Himsa or violence begin? What are the misconceptions about Ahimsa?
The practice of Ahimsa is an eye-opening and life-changing journey.
What is Ahimsa?
The many problems the currently plague society and the environment can be blamed –to a large extent– on certain human attributes, such as self-delusion, egocentrism, pride, and greed.
We fail to see that wearing neat attire, conversing in non-native languages, owning sophisticated gadgets, etc. are not the mark of an evolved consciousness.
We have seen in the past, we see it in the present, and we will certainly be seeing it in the future. Some people will easily distinguish from others just by the way they live, think, act, and deal with the living and non-living beings surrounding them. Personalities such as Buddha, Mahavira, Thiruvalluvar, Adi Shankara, Swami Vivekananda, Ramana Maharshi, and Sivananda Saraswati are fine examples of truly evolved beings who applied the principle of Ahimsa in their lives and every one of their actions with distinction. They were true yogis and to attain such a stage one has to master the body and discipline the mind.
It is practically impossible to tame the senses and channel the wayward mind without the aid of yogic techniques. The self-discipline codes of Raja Yoga known as the Yamas, are an especially important practice for all people. The Yamas are more than just rules, they are stages of consciousness that every person must aim to attain.
There are five main yamas in Raja Yoga. Of the five, Ahimsa is the first and foremost of the ethical codes.
The literal meaning of ahimsa is ‘not killing or non-injury’ but its true meaning exceeds far beyond. To practice ahimsa is to restrain oneself from causing harm, pain, and injury, both physically and mentally, to any living being. The practice of ahimsa isn’t easy because one needs to refrain from thoughts, words, and deeds of ill-will towards others.
By no means is ahimsa a passive concept. Ahimsa is a byword for love. It’s not just the absence of hate, but love towards others that grows from a combination of inner strength, power, forgiveness, and self-sacrifice.
Where does Ahimsa end and Himsa begin?
The mere thought of causing pain or ill-will towards others is construed as himsa; violent action.
As Swami Vivekananda put it in his commentary on Karma Yoga, “absolute non-resistance is considered as the highest ideal of an individual. Hence, anything that deviates from this principle is considered himsa.”
Use of rude language against others, especially to subordinates and all those you consider are inferior to you in any way is considered Himsa. Even the thought that others are inferior to you in any way constitutes a form of himsa.
Words, expressions, gestures, and actions that intend to hurt the feelings of people are considered himsa. Talking ill of a person behind their back and talking discourteously in the presence of others also creates himsa.
Remaining inactive or taking no action when injustice is committed is passive himsa. Similarly, turning the other way seeing a person in pain or difficulty, failing to relieve, mitigate, or ease the pain or sufferings of others is nothing less than himsa.
To practice Ahimsa we must speak only good things about others and avoid all forms of negative, harsh, and painful words. We must create pure thoughts; jealousy, resentment, and spite have no place in an evolved mind. Your actions – direct and indirect– should only benefit others. These are the attributes of Ahimsa.
What are the misconceptions about Ahimsa?
If non-violence against all living things is ahimsa, then those consuming meat are followers of himsa; an argument many proponents of vegetarianism have been making for centuries. The counter-argument questions the use of plants as a food source, as plants too are living organisms.
It’s an indisputable fact that we can’t go through life without killing other living beings. Our every action, big or small, constitutes some form of himsa towards a living being. We kill thousands or millions of microorganisms just by breathing. We are dependent on plants and/or animals for energy. This is unavoidable since our body is a chemical factory and not a machine that runs on an external battery.
An example from the Mahabharata should help drive the point home. Krishna, the hero of Bhagavad Gita, was the puppeteer of the great epic. Through his actions, he tilted the scale in favor of the Pandavas. He reminded the hero Arjuna of his moral duty to fight on the battlefield, and ensured dharma or righteousness won in the end. Even though Lord Krishna used every dirty trick in the book to defeat the Kauravas, he is widely considered the personification of Ahimsa. This is quite true because his actions were free of hatred, and were driven by a deep love for mankind and nature. He worked for the greater good of humanity and to protect the lives of the innocent and pure.
Thus, the term ‘non-violence’ takes a more practical meaning : no hatred towards others. The true meaning of ahimsa is to live life without envy, greed, jealousy, and hatred. We should wish only good things for even our enemies, and our expressions, gestures, words, and deeds must reflect this pure thought.
What are the benefits of Ahimsa?
Looking at our actions, those of the people around us and of the world at large, it might become clear that we are in the habit of performing himsa on a grand scale. Understanding the true meaning of ahimsa and striving to abide by its principles can help us deviate from the path of self-destruction.
Ahimsa is considered the greatest of the ideals, and by its practice you will master all other virtues and yogic codes. Hate pales into nothingness before ahimsa.
According to the ancient yogis, there is no greater force than Ahimsa in this world. A true practitioner of ahimsa can become a repository of unimaginable powers. It is believed that one can become absolutely fearless, end all forms of enmity, extend the sphere of influence over other beings and change the course of world events by mastering ahimsa.
How to practice Ahimsa?
Ahimsa teaches us to love everyone and deem all beings divine and equal. Under such principles, by injuring others, you in turn injure the divine within you.
Only the courageous can practice ahimsa, as the power of non-violence is wasted in a coward. This concept is well explained in the Mahabharata epic. Just before the start of the Kurukshetra War, when Arjuna refused to fight using ahimsa as a defense to justify his inaction, Lord Krishna called him a coward. This is because practitioners of ahimsa are courageous and strong at heart, whereas Arjuna dropped his bow because he feared fighting his very own kith and kin.
Ahimsa is to be practiced every second, minute, hour, and day of your life. One must refrain from causing the slightest harm to others in thoughts, words and actions.
Ahimsa is the ultimate form of love; love towards the inanimate and the living including plants, animals, and all human beings, particularly enemies. Start by protecting nature and curtail actions that can harm the environment. Learn to respect others for who they are. Never let envy, vengeance, greed, and anger control your thoughts and actions.
During the journey to master ahimsa, you’ll be severely tested; you’ll face difficulty after difficulty, but never give up. In time, you will learn to love and respect family members, friends, relatives, the community and every person and being in the world.