Ahimsa Paramo Dharma

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By Krishna Maheshwari

"Ahimsa Paramo Dharma" is a Sanskrit phrase that was popularized by Mahatma Gandhi and is often repeated by many leaders today to demonstrate the universality of Ahimsa.

Loosely translated, Ahimsa means Non-violence, paramo means topmost, ultimate, or supreme, and dharma means duty. Thus, the entire phrase means that non-violence is the topmost duty to the extent that it supersedes all other duties. For someone who holds this true, it means that there is no selective application of ahimsa...it must be applied in every case and in all matters. This universal sense leads to an unconditional and unilateral abandonment of violent resistance, under any and all circumstances (as in the philosophy of Buddhists and Jains).

Sanatana Dharma does not impose total non-violence on its followers except in the case of ascetics. Ahimsa is a general dharma that is superseded with himsa (violence) in order to protect dharma.[1].

Ahimsa is only loosely translated as non-violence. Unlike the English word 'non-violence' (which is absolute in its meaning), ahimsa means non-violence in a relative sense. There are times when violence can also be considered ahimsa if that violence is used to stop greater violence. For example, a king should always raise his rod of chastisement to keep peace and order in his country. He will fail in the discharge of his duty if he does not punish the wicked, and his country will be in a state of utter chaos. To hang a murderer is Ahimsa for a king. To kill a man who is taking away the lives of many is Ahimsa. A real Sannyasin, however, should not defend himself even when his life is in danger. A Sannyasin is one who doesn't associate with his body, instead identifying himself with the Atman. [2].

The statement, taken in full context and meaning within Sanatana Dharma as is applicable to most people is

अहिंसा परमो धर्मः
धर्म हिंसा तथीव च
Ahimsa Paramo Dharma
Dharma himsa tathaiva cha[3]
Non-violence is the ultimate dharma. So too is violence in service of Dharma.

Mahabharata

The phrase "Ahimsa Paramo Dharma" is mentioned several times in the Mahabharata. These instances are explained below:

Adi Parva

The following extract is narrated by Sauti Muni talking about Rishi Sahasrapat telling Rishi Ruru about the characteristics of a brahamana.

अहिंसा परमॊ धर्मः सर्वप्राणभृतां समृतः
तस्मात पराणभृतः सर्वान न हिंस्याथ बराह्मणः कव चित
ahimsā paramo dharmah sarvaprāmabhrth smrtah
tasmāt prānabhrtah sarvān na himsyād brāhmanah
kva cit
बराह्मणः सौम्य एवेह जायतेति परा शरुतिः
वेथवेथाङ्गवित तात सर्वभूताभय परथः
brāhmanah saumya eveha jāyateti parā śrutih
vedavedāngavit tāta sarvabhūtābhaya pradah
अहिंसा सत्यवचनं कषमा चेति विनिश्चितम
बराह्मणस्य परॊ धर्मॊ वेथानां धरणाथ अपि
ahimsā satyavacanam ksamā ceti viniścitam
brāhmanasya paro dharmo vedānām dharanād api
कषत्रियस्य तु यॊ धर्मः स नेहेष्यति वै तव
थण्डधारणम उग्रत्वं परजानां परिपालनम
ksatriyasya tu yo dharmah sa nehesyati vai tava
dandadhāranam ugratvam prajānām paripālanam
तथ इथं कषत्रियस्यासीत कर्म tad idam ksatriyasyāsīt karma[4]
Verily the highest virtue of man is sparing the life of others. Therefore a Brahmana should never take the life of any creature.
A Brahmana should be versed in the Vedas and Vedangas, and should inspire all creatures with belief in God.
He should be benevolent to all creatures, truthful, and forgiving, even as it is his paramount duty to retain the Vedas in his memory.
The duties of the Kshatriya are not thine. To be stern, to wield the sceptre and to rule the subjects properly are the duties of the Kshatriya.[5]

In summary, he states that a brahmana should never take the life of any creature[6] however, a kshatriya may do so as it may be required to ensure proper rule of law and order.

Vana Parva

In the Vana Parva, Markandya Muni is narrating the discussion between a brahamana named Kausika and a poultry-monger[7] named Dharmavyadha who lived in Mithila. The Kausika asks the fowler 'How shall I know what is virtuous conduct.' In answering, Dharmavyadha[8] states that

काललॊभ गरहाकीर्णां पञ्चेन्थ्रिय जलां नथीम
नावं धृतिमयीं कृत्वा जन्म थुर्गाणि संतर
करमेण संचितॊ धर्मॊ बुथ्धियॊगमयॊ महान
शिष्टाचारे भवेत साधू रागः शुक्लेव वाससि
kālalobha grahākīrṇāṃ pañcendriya jalāṃ nadīm
nāvaṃ dhṛtimayīṃ kṛtvā janma durgāṇi saṃtara
krameṇa saṃcito dharmo buddhiyogamayo mahān
śiṣṭācāre bhavet sādhū rāgaḥ śukleva vāsasi[9]
Among holy men, virtue is differentiated in three ways--that great virtue which is inculcated in the Vedas, the other which is inculcated in the dharma shastra, and virtuous conduct And virtuous conduct is indicated by acquisition of knowledge, pilgrimage to sacred places, truthfulness, forbearance, purity and straight-forwardness[10]

He continues:

अहिंसा सत्यवचनं सर्वभूतहितं परम
अहिंसा परमॊ धर्मः स च सत्ये परतिष्ठितः
सत्ये कृत्वा परतिष्ठां तु परवर्तन्ते परवृत्तयः
ahimsā satyavacanam sarvabhūtahitam param
ahimsā paramo dharmah sa ca satye pratisthitah
satye krtvā pratisthām tu pravartante pravrttayah[11]
Virtuous men are always kind to all creatures, and well-disposed towards regenerate men. They abstain from doing injury to any creature, and are never rude in speech. Those good men who know well the consequences of the fruition of their good and evil deeds, are commended by virtuous men[12].

This particular quotation uses ahimsa in the sense of not doing injury to any creature and states that it is applied to 'holy men' who are typically defined to be ascetics and sometimes as brahamanas.

Anusasana Parva

In the Anusasana Parva, Yudhisthira is asked by Lord Krishna to ask Bhishma any questions he may have as this will be his last opportunity to do so. Yudhisthira states that Bhishma has told him that 'ahimsa paramo dharma' and is asking about it in the context of conducting sraddha in which meat is offered.

अहिंसा परमॊ धर्म इत्य उक्तं बहुशस तवया
शराथ्धेषु च भवान आह पितॄन आमिष काङ्क्षिणः
ahimsā paramo dharma ity uktam bahuśas tvayā
śrāddhesu ca bhavān āha pitrn āmisa kānksinah[13]
Thou hast told it many times that abstention from injury is the highest religion. In Sraddhas, however, that are performed in honour of the Pitris, persons for their own good should make offerings of diverse kinds of meat.[14]

Yudhisthira asks how can killing be avoided if meat is to be offered in offering sraddha in honor of ancestors?

Bhishma answers by stating that absention from eating meat is a great sacrifice and provides many benefits. He goes on to state that

परजानां हितकामेन तव अगस्त्येन महात्मना
आरण्याः सर्वथैवत्याः परॊक्षितास तपसा मृगाः
करिया हय एवं न हीयन्ते पितृथैवतसंश्रिताः
परीयन्ते पितरश चैव नयायतॊ मांसतर्पिताः
prajānāṃ hitakāmena tv agastyena mahātmanā
āraṇyāḥ sarvadaivatyāḥ prokṣitās tapasā mṛgāḥ
kriyā hy evaṃ na hīyante pitṛdaivatasaṃśritāḥ
prīyante pitaraś caiva nyāyato māṃsatarpitāḥ[15]
Desirous of benefiting all men, the high-souled Agastya, by the aid of his penances, dedicated, once for all, all wild animals of the deer species to the deities. Hence, there is no longer any necessity of sanctifying those animals for offering them to the deities and the Pitris[16].

After hearing his answer in full, Yudhisthira repeats his question "...O grandsire, what is flesh, of what substances it is, the merits that attach to abstention from it, and what the demerits are that attach to the eating of flesh."

Bhishma again answers and concludes with "Hence, a person of cleansed soul should be compassionate to all living creatures..."

अहिंसा परमॊ धर्मस तदाहिंसा परॊ थमः
अहिंसा परमं थानम अहिंसा परमस तपः
अहिंसा परमॊ यज्ञस तदाहिस्मा परं बलम
अहिंसा परमं मित्रम अहिंसा परमं सुखम
अहिंसा परमं सत्यम अहिंसा परमं शरुतम
सर्वयज्ञेषु वा थानं सर्वतीर्देषु चाप्लुतम
सर्वथानफलं वापि नैतत तुल्यम अहिंसया
अहिंस्रस्य तपॊ ऽकषय्यम अहिंस्रॊ यजते सथा
अहिंस्रः सर्वभूतानां यदा माता यदा पिता
एतत फलम अहिंसाया भूयश च कुरुपुंगव
न हि शक्या गुणा वक्तुम इह वर्षशतैर अपि
ahimsā paramo dharmas tathāhimsā paro damah
ahimsā paramam dānam ahimsā paramas tapah
ahimsā paramo yajñas tathāhismā param balam
ahimsā paramam mitram ahimsā paramam sukham
ahimsā paramam satyam ahimsā paramam śrutam
sarvayajñesu vā dānam sarvatīrthesu cāplutam
sarvadānaphalam vāpi naitat tulyam ahimsayā
ahimsrasya tapo 'ksayyam ahimsro yajate sadā
ahimsrah sarvabhūtānām yathā mātā yathā pitā
etat phalam ahimsāyā bhūyaś ca kurupumgava
na hi śakyā gunā vaktum iha varsaśatair api[17]
Abstention from cruelty is the highest Religion. Abstention from cruelty is the highest self-control. Abstention from cruelty is the highest gift. Abstention from cruelty is the highest penance. Abstention from cruelty is the highest sacrifice. Abstention from cruelty is the highest puissance. Abstention from cruelty is the highest friend. Abstention from cruelty is the highest happiness. Abstention from cruelty is the highest truth. Abstention from cruelty is the highest Sruti. Gifts made in all sacrifices, ablutions performed in all sacred waters, and the merit that one acquires from making all kinds of gifts mentioned in the scriptures,--all these do not come up to abstention from cruelty (in point of the merit that attaches to it). The penances of a man that abstains from cruelty are inexhaustible. The man that abstains from cruelty is regarded as always performing sacrifices. The man that abstains from cruelty is the father and mother of all creatures. Even these, O chief of Kuru's race, are some of the merits of abstention from cruelty. Altogether, the merits that attach to it are so many that they are incapable of being exhausted even if one were to speak for a hundred years."[18]

Here ahimsa is translated as abstention from cruelty in relation to killing for the sake of eating the flesh of the killed animal for personal pleasure. In essence, Bhishma is stating that it is very beneficial to be vegetarian because thereby there is no cruelty to animals.

In today's age, it also implies that organic dairy products should be consumed instead of 'regular' dairy products : when the standards for animal care are low, the resulting food may be non-organic. For example, drinking milk from cows that are injected with growth hormones would be in violation of ahimsa, because it interferes with nature.

Bhagavad Gita

"Ahimsa paramo dharma" is not mentioned in the Bhagavad Gita as is frequently cited. The word Ahimsa is mentioned four times in the Gita[19].

The Gita begins with Arjuna telling Krishna that he is despondent and unwilling to fight the war. In this discussion, Lord Krishna repeatedly tells Arjuna to get up and fight. One such statement is:

अथ चेत्त्वमिमं धर्म्यं संग्रामं न करिष्यसि
ततः स्वधर्मं कीर्तिं च हित्वा पापमवाप्स्यसि [20]
atha cet tvam imaṃ dhārmyaṃ saṅgrāmaṃ na kariṣyasi
tataḥ svadharmaṃ kīrtiṃ ca hitvā pāpam avāpsyasi[21]
If, however, you do not fight this religious war, then you will certainly incur sins for neglecting your duties and thus lose your reputation as a fighter. [22]

Had the Lord said 'Ahimsa paramo dharma' than the war would have ended before it began because he would have effectively been stating that there is no need to fight because the greater dharma is non-violence.

Conclusion

"Ahimsa Paramo Dharma" can only be practiced by Sannyasins who tread the path of Nivritti Marga. It cannot be strictly practiced by householders[23]. If someone enters the house and molests a lady, a householder cannot keep quiet. Similarly, in a war, a soldier cannot put down his weapons. In either case, practicing ahimsa would be adharma, not dharma. Similarly, a king must protect his subjects even if it requires violence to punish criminals or going to war with neighboring kingdoms if they attack[24].

Lord Krishna states:

परित्राणाय साधूनां विनाशाय च दुष्कृताम्
धर्मसंस्थापनार्थाय सम्भवामि युगे युगे[25]
paritrāṇāya sādhūnāḿ
vināśāya ca duṣkṛtām
dharma-saḿsthāpanārthāya
sambhavāmi yuge yuge[26]
To deliver the pious and to annihilate the miscreants, as well as to reestablish the principles of religion, I Myself appear, millennium after millennium.[27]

The Lord clearly states that ahimsa, while highly regarded, is not the highest dharma for everyone and certainly not for Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra.

References

  1. Pujyasri Chandrasekharendra Saraswati Swamiji of Kanchi, "Hindu Dharma", page 796
  2. Sri Swami Sivananda, "Practice of Karma Yoga", Divine Life Society, chapter 3
  3. Swami Chinmayananda, "Dharma Himsa tathaiva ca"
  4. Mahabharata 1.11.12-16
  5. Mahabharata 1.11.12-16 translation
  6. Rishi Sahasrapat equates ahimsa with killing in this quotation
  7. poultry-monger is one who sells meat from domestic birds (primarily) and wild birds (in limited season).
  8. Dharmavyadha, while a fowler in this birth, had a soul under complete control and fully acquainted with the mysteries of virtue and morality (see Mahabharata 3.206 translation page 426)
  9. Mahabharata 198.67-8
  10. Mahabharata 3.198.67-8 translation page 430
  11. Mahabharata 3.198.69
  12. Mahabharata 3.198.69 translation
  13. Mahabharata 13.116.1
  14. Mahabharata 13.116.1 translation
  15. Mahabharata 13.116.56-7
  16. Mahabharata 13.115 page 241
  17. Mahabharata 13.117.37-41
  18. Mahabharata 13.117 translation page 245
  19. Ahimsa is mentioned in verses 10.5, 13.8, 16.2, and 17.14 of the Bhagavad Gita.
  20. Bhagavad Gita Chapter 2
  21. Bhagavad Gita 2.33
  22. Bhagavad Gita 2.33 translation
  23. Sri Swami Sivananda, "Practice of Karma Yoga", Divine Life Society, chapter 3
  24. Bhishma to Yudhisthira, Mahabharata, 12.58
  25. Bhagavad Gita 4.22
  26. Bhagavad Gita 4.22
  27. Bhagavad Gita 4.22 translation