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Mahavira, The Torch-bearer of Ahinsa

Ahimsa (Sanskrit: अहिंसा; IAST: ahisā, Pāli: avihinsā) is a term meaning to do no harm (literally: the avoidance of violence – hinsa). The word is derived from the Sanskrit root hims – to strike; hinsa is injury or harm, a-hinsa is the opposite of this, i.e. non harming or nonviolence.

It is an important tenet of some Indian religions (Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism). Ahimsa means Kindness and non-violence towards all living things including Animals; it respects living beings as a unity, the belief that all living things are connected. Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi strongly believed in this principle. Avoidance of verbal and physical violence is also a part of this principle, although ahimsa recognizes self-defense when necessary, as a sign of a strong spirit. It is closely connected with the notion that all kinds of violence entail negative karmic consequences.


The hand with a wheel on the palm symbolizes the Jain Vow of Ahimsa. The word in the middle is "ahimsa". The wheel represents the dharmacakra which stands for the resolve to halt the cycle of reincarnation through relentless pursuit of truth and non-violence.

In Jainism, the understanding and implementation of ahimsa is more radical, scrupulous, and comprehensive than in any other Religion. Non-violence is seen as the most essential religious duty for everyone (ahiṃsā paramo Dharmaḥ, a statement often inscribed on Jain temples). Like in Hinduism, the aim is to prevent the accumulation of harmful Karma. When Mahavira revived and reorganized the Jain movement in the 6th or 5th century BCE, ahimsa was already an established, strictly observed rule. Parshva, the earliest Jain Tirthankara, whom modern Western historians consider to be a historical figure, lived in about the 8th century BCE. He founded the community to which Mahavira’s parents belonged. Ahimsa was already part of the "Fourfold Restraint" (Caujjama), the vows taken by Parshva’s followers. In the times of Mahavira and in the following centuries, Jains were at odds with both Buddhists and followers of the Vedic Religion or Hindus, whom they accused of negligence and inconsistency in the implementation of ahimsa. There is some evidence, however, that ancient Jain ascetics accepted meat as alms if the animal had not been specifically killed for them. Modern Jains deny this vehemently, especially with regard to Mahavira himself. According to the Jain tradition either lacto Vegetarianism or veganism is mandatory.

The Jain concept of ahimsa is characterized by several aspects. It does not make any exception for ritual sacrificers and professional warrior-hunters. Killing of Animals for Food is absolutely ruled out. Jains also make considerable efforts not to injure plants in everyday Life as far as possible. Though they admit that plants must be destroyed for the sake of Food, they accept such violence only inasmuch as it is indispensable for human survival, and there are special instructions for preventing unnecessary violence against plants. Jains go out of their way so as not to hurt even small insects and other minuscule Animals. For example, Jains often do not go out at night, when they are more likely to step upon an insect. In their view, injury caused by carelessness is like injury caused by deliberate action. Eating Honey is strictly outlawed, as it would amount to violence against the bees. Some Jains abstain from farming because it inevitably entails unintentional killing or injuring of many small Animals, such as worms and insects, but agriculture is not forbidden in general and there are Jain farmers. Additionally, because they consider harsh words to be a Form of violence, they often keep a cloth to ritually cover their mouth, as a reminder not to allow violence in their speech.

In contrast, Jains agree with Hindus that violence in self-defense can be justified, and they agree that a soldier who kills enemies in combat is performing a legitimate duty. Jain communities accepted the use of military Power for their defense, and there were Jain monarchs, military commanders, and soldiers.

Though, theoretically, all Life forms are said to deserve full protection from all kinds of injury, Jains admit that this ideal cannot be completely implemented in practice. Hence, they recognize a hierarchy of Life. Mobile beings are given higher protection than immobile ones. For the mobile beings, they distinguish between one-sensed, two-sensed, three-sensed, four-sensed and five-sensed ones; a one-sensed animal has touch as its only sensory modality. The more senses a being has, the more they care about its protection. Among the five-sensed beings, the rational ones (humans) are most strongly protected by Jain ahimsa. In the practice of ahimsa, the requirements are less strict for the lay persons who have undertaken anuvrata (Lesser Vows) than for the monastics who are bound by the Mahavrata "Great Vows".


Unlike in Hindu and Jain sources, in ancient Buddhist texts ahimsa (or its Pāli cognate avihiṃsā) is not used as a technical term. The traditional Buddhist understanding of non-violence is not as rigid as the Jain one, but like the Jains, Buddhists have always condemned the killing of all living beings. In some Buddhist traditions Vegetarianism is not mandatory. In these traditions, Monks and lay persons may eat meat and fish on condition that the animal was not killed specifically for them. Some Monks, specifically Monks of some Mahayana traditions, the eating of meat is strictly forbidden by the Monks precepts. Laypeople are also encouraged to eat vegetarian.

Since the beginnings of the Buddhist community, Monks and nuns have had to commit themselves to Five Precepts of Moral conduct. In ancient Buddhism, lay persons were encouraged, but not obliged, to commit themselves to observe The Five Precepts of Morality (Pañcasīla). In both codes the first rule is to abstain from taking the Life of a sentient being (Pānātipātā). Buddhist Monks should avoid cutting or burning trees, because some Sentient beings rely on them.


Unlike the Vedic Religion, ancient Buddhism had strong misgivings about violent ways of punishing criminals and about War. Both were not explicitly condemned, but peaceful ways of conflict resolution and punishment with the least amount of injury were encouraged. The early texts condemn rather the Mental states that lead to violent behavior.

Non-violence is an over-riding concern of the Pali Canon. While the early texts condemn killing in the strongest terms, and portray the ideal king as a pacifist, such a king is nonetheless flanked by an army. It seems that The Buddha's teaching on non-violence was not interpreted or put into practice in an uncompromisingly pacifist or anti-military-service way by early Buddhists. The early texts assume War to be a fact of Life, and well-skilled warriors are viewed as a necessity for defensive warfare. In Pali texts, injunctions to abstain from violence and involvement with military affairs are directed at members of The Sangha; later Mahayana texts, which often generalize monastic norms to laity, require this of lay people as well.

The early texts do not contain just-War ideology as such. Some argue that a Sutta in the Gamani Samyuttam rules out all military service. In this passage, a soldier asks The Buddha if it is true that, as he has been told, soldiers slain in battle are reborn in a heavenly realm. The Buddha reluctantly replies that if he is killed in battle while his Mind is seized with the intention to kill, he will undergo an unpleasant Rebirth. In the early texts, a person's Mental state at the time of Death is generally viewed as having an inordinate impact on the next birth.

Some Buddhists point to other early texts as justifying defensive War. One example is the Kosala Samyutta, in which King Pasenadi, a righteous king favored by The Buddha, learns of an impending attack on his kingdom. He arms himself in defense, and leads his army into battle to protect his kingdom from attack. He lost a battle but won the War. King Pasenadi defeated King Ajatasattu and captured him alive. He Thought that although this King of Magadha has transgressed against his kingdom, he had not transgressed against him personally, and Ajatasattu is still his nephew. He released Ajatasattu and did not harm him. Upon his return, The Buddha says, among other things, that Pasenadi is "a friend of Virtue, acquainted with Virtue, intimate with Virtue", while the opposite is said of the aggressor, King Ajatasattu.

According to Theravada commentaries, there are five requisite factors that must all be fulfilled for an act to be both an act of killing and to be karmically negative. These are: (1) the presence of a living being, human or animal; (2) the Knowledge that the being is a living being; (3) the intent to kill; (4) the act of killing by some means; and (5) the resulting Death. Some Buddhists have argued on this basis that the act of killing is complicated, and its ethicization is predicated upon intent. Some have argued that in defensive postures, for example, the primary intention of a soldier is not to kill, but to save, and the act of killing in that situation would have minimal negative karmic repercussions.

According to Dr.Babasaheb Ambedkar, the Doctrine of ahimsa does not say "Kill not" it says, "Love all". Buddha said "Love all, so that you may not wish to kill any" This is a positive way of stating the principle of ahimsa. The Buddhas' ahimsa is quite in keeping with his middle path. To put it differently, The Buddha made a distinction between Principle and Rule. He did not make ahimsa a matter of Rule. He enunciated it as a matter of Principle or way of Life. A principle leaves you freedom to act. A rule does not. Rule either breaks you, or you break the rule.


Ashoka the Great tried to stop killing but was not successful. The emperors of Sui dynasty, Tang dynasty and early Song dynasty banned killing in Lunar Calendar 1st, 5th, and 9th month. Empress Wu Tse-Tien banned killing for more than half a year in 692. Some also banned fishing for some time each year.

The King Bayinnaung of Burma, after conquering the Bago in 1559, the Buddhist King prohibited the practice of halal, specifically, killing Food Animals in the name of God. He also disallowed the Eid al-Adha religious sacrifice of cattle. Halal Food was also forbidden by king Alaungpaya in the 18th century.

There were bans after Death of emperors, Buddhist and Taoist prayers, Health concerns and natural disasters such as after a drought in 1926 summer Shanghai and a 8 days ban from August 12, 1959 after the August 7 flood (八七水災), the last big flood before the 88 Taiwan Flood. There was a 3 day ban after the Death of Chiang Kai-shek.

People avoid killing during some festivals, like Taoist Ghost Festival, Nine Emperor Gods Festival, Vegetarian Festival and many others or some seasons.


Ancient Vedic Texts

While the term ahimsa is not officially mentioned, one passage in the Rig Veda reads, "Do not harm anything."

The term ahimsa appears in the text Taittiriya Shakha of the Yajurveda (TS, where it refers to non-injury to the sacrificer himself. It occurs several times in the Shatapatha Brahmana in the sense of "non-injury" without a Moral connotation. The ahimsa Doctrine is a late development in Brahmanical culture. The earliest reference to the idea of non-violence to Animals (pashu-ahimsa"), apparently in a Moral sense, is in the Kapisthala Katha Samhita of the Yajurveda (KapS 31.11), which may have been written in about the 8th century BCE. The word scarcely appears in the principal Upanishads. The Chāndogya Upaniṣad, dated to the 8th or 7th century BCE, one of the oldest Upanishads, has the earliest evidence for the use of the word ahimsa in the sense familiar in Hinduism (a code of conduct). It bars violence against "all creatures" (sarvabhuta) and the practitioner of ahimsa is said to escape from the cycle of metempsychosis (CU 8.15.1). It also names ahimsa as one of five essential virtues (CU 3.17.4). A few scholars are of the opinion that this passage was a concession to growing influence of shramanic culture on the Brahmanical Religion. Bal Gangadhar Tilak, a leader of the Indian freedom movement, mentions thus:

In ancient times, innumerable Animals were butchered in sacrifices. Evidence in support of this is found in various poetic compositions such as the Meghaduta. But the credit for the disappearance of this terrible massacre from the brahminical Religion goes to Jainism.

Non-human Life

Hindus do not substantially differentiate the soul within a human Body from that of an animal. Hence ahimsa as a binding code of conduct implies a ban on Hunting, butchery, meat eating, and the use of animal products provided by violent means. The question of Moral duties towards Animals and of negative Karma incurred from violence against them is discussed in detail in some Hindu scriptures and religious lawbooks.

Some source texts discuss meat eating as a fact without referring to the ethical side of the issue. the Dharma śāstra law Books written around the 5th or 4th century BCE contain regulations for meat eating and lists of edible Animals. Medical treatises of the Ayurveda discuss and recommend meat from a purely health-related viewpoint without even mentioning the aspect of ahimsa. Examples are the Sushruta Samhita written in the 3rd or 4th century CE, which recommends meat for certain patients and for pregnant women, and the Charaka Samhita which describes meat as superior to all other kinds of Food for convalescents.

Several highly authoritative scriptures bar violence against domestic Animals except in the case of ritual sacrifice. This view is clearly expressed in the Mahabharata, the Bhagavata purana (11.5.13–14), and the Chandogya Upanishad (8.15.1). It is also reflected in the Manusmṛti (5.27–44), a particularly renowned traditional Hindu lawbook (Dharma śāstra). These texts strongly condemn the slaughter of Animals and meat eating. The Mahabharata permits Hunting by warriors (Kshatriyas), but opposes it in the case of hermits who must be strictly non-violent. This view has, for the most part, been changed, and many Hindu temples ban meat from temple premises.

Nevertheless the sources show that this compromise between supporters of ahimsa and meat eaters was shaky and hotly disputed. Even the loopholes – ritual slaughter and Hunting – were challenged by advocates of ahimsa. The Mahabharata and the Manusmṛti (5.27–55) contain lengthy discussions about the legitimacy of ritual slaughter. In the Mahabharata both sides present various arguments to substantiate their viewpoints. Moreover, a hunter defends his profession in a long discourse.

Most of the arguments proposed in favor of non-violence to Animals refer to rewards it entails before or after Death and to horrible karmic consequences of violence. In particular, it is pointed out that he who deliberately kills an animal will on his part be eaten by an animal in a future existence due to karmic retribution. Ahimsa is described as a prerequisite for acquiring supernatural faculties, highest bliss and ultimate salvation; moreover it is said to protect against all kinds of dangers. The Manu Smriti (10.63), Chanakya’s Arthashastra (1.3.13) and the Vasishtha Dharmasutra (4.4) point out that ahimsa is a duty for all the four classes (Varnas) of society. The texts declare that ahimsa should be extended to all forms of Life. They also give attention to the protection of plants. The Manu Smriti prohibits wanton destruction of both wild and cultivated plants (11.145). Hermits (sannyasins) had to live on a fruitarian diet so as to avoid the destruction of plants.

Hindu texts asserted that lawful violence is in fact non-violence; according to them sacrificial killing is not killing, but is meant for the welfare of the whole World. They also suggested that such killing is in fact a normal animal act, because the slaughtered animal will attain a high Rebirth in the cycle of Reincarnation. Moreover they argued that some species have been created for the purpose of being sacrificed and eaten by humans, that it is normal for Animals to kill and eat other Animals, that agriculture, too, inevitably leads to the Death of many Animals, that plants are living beings as well and must still be destroyed, that we unintentionally and unknowingly destroy Life forms all the time, and that a hunted animal has a fair chance to survive by killing the hunter.

Quotes from Manusmṛti

Those who permit slaying of Animals; those who bring Animals for slaughter; those who slaughter; those who sell meat; those who purchase meat; those who prepare dish out of it; those who serve that meat and those who eat are all murderers. -Manusmṛti 5.51
Alcohol-drinking, Fish, Meat eating, aasava consumption – these are not present in Vedas. These have been propagated by fraud people. They have fraudulently added these uncontrolled, reckless, atheist descriptions in our texts. -Mahabharata, Shantiparva 265.9.4

Further, the Mahabharata states, "How can you expect Compassion from a meat-eater?"

Quotes from Ramayana:

Saint Valmiki was going to the river Ganga for his daily ablutions. A Disciple by the name Bharadwaja was carrying his Clothes. On the way, they came across the Tamasa Stream. Looking at the stream, Valmiki said to his Disciple, "Look, how clear is this water, like the Mind of a good man! I will bathe here today." When he was looking for a suitable place to step into the stream, he heard the sweet chirping of birds. Looking up, he saw two birds flying together. Valmiki felt very pleased on seeing the happy bird couple. Suddenly, one of the birds fell down, hit by an arrow; it was the male bird. Seeing the wounded one, its mate screamed in agony. Valmiki's Heart melted at this pitiful sight. He looked around to find out who had shot the bird. He saw a hunter with a bow and arrows, nearby. Valmiki became very angry. His lips opened and he uttered the following words:
/*ॐ माँ निषाद प्रतिष्ठा त्वमगमः शास्वती समः यत् क्रोच मिथुनादेवकमवधी काममोहितं*/
"You will find no rest for the long years of Eternity,
For you killed a bird in Love and unsuspecting."

Self-defense, criminal law, and War

Hindu scriptures and law Books support the use of violence in self-defense against an armed attacker. They make it clear that criminals are not protected by the rule of ahimsa. They have no misgivings about the Death penalty; their position is that Evil-doers who deserve Death should be killed, and that a king in particular is obliged to punish criminals and should not hesitate to kill them, even if they happen to be his own brothers and sons.

According to some interpretations, the concept of ahimsa as expounded in the scriptures and law Books is not meant to imply pacifism; War is seen as a normal part of Life and the natural duty of the warriors. In the second chapter of the Bhagavad Gita Krishna refutes the pacifist ideas of Arjuna and uses various arguments to convince him that he must fight and kill in the impending battle. The whole of Bhagavad Gita is used to guide Arjuna about the duty of a Kshatriya i.e. destroy the Evil people. According to this interpretation of the scriptures, face-to-face combat is highly meritorious and fighters who die in battle go to Heaven. The apparent conflict between pacifistic interpretations of ahimsa and the just War prescribed by the Gita has been resolved by some individuals by resorting to allegorical readings, and were notably represented by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, who said in his own commentary on the Gita that it was "a representation in which the battlefield is the soul and Arjuna, man's higher impulses struggling against Evil." Though this is not the general view accepted by most Hindus.

Modern times

Gandhi promoted the principle of ahimsa very successfully by applying it to all spheres of life, particularly to politics.

In modern Hinduism slaughter according to the rituals permitted in the Vedic scriptures has become less common, though, the World's largest Animal sacrifice occurs at Gadhimai, a Hindu festival which takes place every 5 years. In the 19th and 20th centuries, prominent figures of Indian spirituality such as Swami Vivekananda, Ramana Maharshi, Swami Sivananda and A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami emphasized the importance of ahimsa.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi promoted the principle of ahimsa very successfully by applying it to all spheres of Life, particularly to politics (Swaraj). His non-violent resistance movement satyagraha had an immense impact on India, impressed public opinion in Western countries and influenced the leaders of various civil and political rights movements such as Martin Luther King, Jr. In Gandhi’s Thought, ahimsa precludes not only the act of inflicting a physical injury, but also Mental states like Evil thoughts and hatred, unkind behavior such as harsh words, dishonesty and lying, all of which he saw as manifestations of violence incompatible with ahimsa. Gandhi believed ahimsa to be a creative energy force, encompassing all interactions leading one's self to find satya, "Divine Truth". Sri Aurobindo criticized the Gandhian concept of ahimsa as unrealistic and not universally applicable; he adopted a pragmatic non-pacifist position, saying that the justification of violence depends on the specific circumstances of the given situation.

A thorough historical and philosophical study of ahimsa was instrumental in the shaping of Albert Schweitzer's principle of "reverence for Life". Schweitzer criticized Indian philosophical and religious traditions for having conceived ahimsa as the negative principle of avoiding violence instead of emphasizing the importance of positive action (helping injured beings).


Ahimsa is imperative for practitioners of Patañjali’s "classical" Yoga (Raja Yoga). It is one of the five Yamas (restraints) which make up the code of conduct, the first of the eight limbs of which this path consists. In the schools of Bhakti Yoga, the devotees who worship Vishnu or Krishna are particularly keen on ahimsa. Another Bhakti Yoga school, Radha Soami Satsang Beas observes Vegetarianism and Moral living as aspects of "ahimsa." Ahimsa is also an obligation in Hatha Yoga according to the classic manual Hatha Yoga Pradipika (1.1.17). But it is important to note that Ahmisa as used here is distinct from that in Jainism. Yagnas and mantras are prescribed for attaining glory in Vedas.