Ideals and Values/Ahiṅsā (Not Hurting others)
27.1 What is Ahiṅsā
Ahiṅsā means not thinking evil of others, not saying anything hurting to others, and not hurting or harming others physically. Ahiṅsā also means that we treat everyone with love, compassion, sympathy and understanding. In many ways, Ahiṅsā is the core principle of Dharma, according to Hindu scriptures-
Of the moral restraints, Ahiṅsā means not causing pain to any living creature in any way at any time. All other moral restraints originate from Ahiṅsā and merely follow it. All other moral restraints are meant to achieve Ahiṅsā. Their teaching in the scriptures is meant merely to shed light on the nature of Ahiṅsā and make it's nature clearer.
Ahiṅsā and other moral restraints should not be constrained by considerations of life-form, place and circumstance. Sage Kaushika said "The established rule is that a deed which involves no violence is indeed Dharma". Great sages have expounded the details of excellent Dharma for preventing violence against other living beings.
27.2 Why should we practice Ahiṅsā
The Mahābhārata gives the following reasons - Bheeshma said "There is nothing more precious in this world than one's own life. Therefore, just as we expect others to be kind towards us, so also we too should be kind towards everyone else."</ref>Mahābhārata 13.116.8</ref> Sage Bṛhaspati said, "He who gets joy in beating non-violent animals with a stick will never get happiness in the next world." In short, we should practice this virtue because we also do not want others to hurt us and because hurting others will eventually recoil on us and cause us unhappiness.
The third reason for practicing Ahiṅsā is that Bhagavān resides within every creature. Therefore, when we love someone, we automatically love Bhagavān and when we hate and hurt others, we do the same to Him. As stated above, Hindus believe Ahiṅsā to be the source of all other ideals. Therefore, no one can claim to be virtuous, charitable, truthful etc., if he or she does not practice Ahiṅsā.
Story: How Ganesha hurt His Mother Parvati
It was a bright sunny day on Kailash mountain. Ganesha went out to play. He enjoyed looking at the butterflies and listened to the singing of birds. Suddenly, a cat walked to him. Ganeshā was very pleased. He thought, "Let me become the cat's teacher today." So he held the two front paws of the cat and started dancing with it. After some time, Ganesha said, "Now I will release your paws. I want you to continue standing on your two legs and dance with me." But as soon as he released the cat's paws, it would sit down on all its four legs".
Ganesha tried to make the cat dance on its two legs on its own many times. But the cat just could not do it. Now Ganesha became upset and said, "You are not being a good student. You will get some punishment for this." In anger, he scratched the face of the cat. The cat got scared and ran away immediately. It was lunch time. Ganesha went back to his home and asked his mother Parvati, "ĀMa, is lunch ready? I am hungry." Pārvati replied, "Yes, food is ready, but let me put some bandage on my wounds first." Ganesha grew worried. He rushed in and said, "Who is it that scratched you so badly on your face" Pārvati replied, "It was you of course." Ganesha said that "You must be joking Ma! How is that possible? I was playing out all the time. Someone else must have come in my place and pretended to be me. That person must have scratched your face."
Parvati replied, "My son Ganesha, try to remember if you scratched anyone today." Ganesha became a little shy and said, "Yes, but it was a cat. What does the cat have to do with your scratches." Pārvati said, "My son, I am the Mother of the whole Universe. I live in every creature, whether it is a plant, an animal or a human being. Therefore, whenever you hurt anyone else, you actually hurt me."
Ganesha learned his lesson. He realized that if we love others, we love Bhagavān. And if we hurt others, we are hurting Bhagavān. So, he promised his Mother, "I promise that from today onwards, I will never hurt others. I will never think bad about others. And I will never say bad things to others. I will always practice Ahiṅsā." Parvati smiled and said, "You are right my son. The best way to make Bhagavān happy is to practice Ahiṅsa towards all the creatures, because Bhagavān lives inside everyone's heart." This story gives the third reason for practicing Ahiṅsā. It is the best way by which we can express our own love towards Bhagavān.
27.3 Towards whom should we practice Ahiṅsā
Hindu Dharma says that we should love not just our family, friends, neighbors and other we that we know but extend our love to complete strangers, because the whole world is one big family. There is a prayer in Ṛgveda that: "If, Lord Varuṇa we have sinned against the man who loves us, or against a friend, or against a comrade ever or a brother or against a neighbor who is always with us or against a stranger, then from that sin may You release us."
These are mine own, these are not my people. Such are the thoughts of lowly people. For them who have a generous and a large heart, the entire world is one great family. In fact, Hindu Dharma is unique in stating that Ahiṅsā should be practiced towards not just humans, but towards all the living creatures which includes animals and plants. Sage Bṛhaspati said, "He who gets joy in beating non-violent animals with a stick will never get happiness in the next world.
27.4 Are there any Circumstances where Violence is Permissible?
Although Ahiṅsā is a universal principle, there are cases where violence becomes necessary. See the section on Shānti to read more on this topic.
27.5 The Harms of Excessive Practice of Ahiṅsā
Although Ahiṅsā is a universal principle, we cannot afford to be inactive when others completely run over us, as in the case of being bullied in the school. This story of Swami Ramakrishna Paramahaṅsa shows how we should practice this virtue wisely, so that our practice of Ahiṅsā does not make us a victim of the violence committed against us by them.
Story: The Snake that Stopped Biting
Below a shady tree in a village lived a venomous cobra in a hole in the ground. Every villager was scared to approach that tree, because the cobra would attack suddenly and bite whoever came close to him. Any person who had been bitten by the cobra would invariably die of the snakes venom. One day, a Sadhu came to the village. Looking at the tree, he commented, Aha, that is a nice and a shady tree. It is a good place for me to meditate. The villagers immediately warned him saying, "Swamiji, please do not approach that tree. Otherwise, the snake that lives in its roots will bite you to death."
The Sadhu said, Do not worry. I know a Mantra which will pacify the snake. Then, I will teach him the virtue of Ahiṅsā. Saying this, as the Sadhu approached the tree, the snake immediately slithered out of its hole to attack him. The Sadhu chanted the mantra, which caused the snake to become calm immediately. The snake now lay in the feet of the Sadhu quietly, looking at him with a loving eye. The Sadhu said to the snake, "Look here my son. Biting and killing others is against the virtue of Ahiṅsā. Why do you want to keep killing others out of anger? I will teach you a prayer, and you should chant it every day. This way, your mind will become peaceful and you will start practicing Ahiṅsā. Then, you would not want to bite and kill anyone. You can then feed your stomach by eating fallen fruit and leaves." Saying this, he taught the prayer to the snake. Then, he took leave of the snake saying, I will leave this village now because Sadhus should not stay at any single place for more than 3 days. I will however return in a year and check if you have made any progress on the path of Ahiṅsā.
The Sadhu now went back to the village and told the villagers that the snake will not bite anyone henceforth. No one believed him till a curious child approached the snake to verify the Sadhu's claim. He was surprised to see that the snake indeed did not bite him! The snake started chanting the Sadhu's mantra every day and his mind became more and more inclined towards Ahiṅsā. He changed his diet and allowed children to play underneath a tree. One day, a mischievous child threw a stone at the snake saying, "A snake can never be trusted. Look, I am going to injure it." The snake bled but he did not strike back. His injuries healed, but this attack on him by stones became a periodic affair. One day, a villager came to the snake and picked it by its tail. He started boasting, Look, I will start swinging the snake round and round and it will not have the guts to bite me. He swung the snake fast till the snake fainted. The adult then thrashed the snake on the ground, till its bones broke.
It took several months for the snake's injuries to heal and it had grown very weak. A year had passed in the meantime and the Sadhu returned to check how diligent the snake had been in the practice of Ahiṅsā. He was shocked to find the snake lying in a badly hurt and bruised condition. When the Sadhu learned from the snake what had happened, he asked, "What if you had merely hissed and had not bitten the kids and adults when they approached you?" The snake replied, "They would have got scared and they would have run away without hurting me or without I hurting them."
The Sadhu said, "Look my son, I had only asked you to refrain from biting and killing people. I did not ask you to stop hissing. Ahiṅsā does not mean that you do not defend yourself when others attack you. It also does not mean that you will not take steps to prevent attacks happening on you. Ahiṅsā means that you will not be the first party to hurt and injure others, unless the other person is ready to attack you. It is the right of all living creatures to protect themselves and Ahiṅsā cannot be practiced blindly. The snake followed the Sadhus advice and lived a happy and a fearless life thereafter.
27.6 Vegetarianism and the Principle of Ahiṅsā in Hindu Dharma
Hinduism adopts the middle-path on the question of killing animals for meat. Vegetarianism is not required of all Hindus, although some sects of Hindus consider it as a core virtue. In general however, vegetarianism is strongly recommended. As a result, more than 20% Hindus do not eat meat, sea-food and poultry and others try to curtail their meat consumption to reasonable amounts. The 80% Hindus who eat meat consume just around 7.5 kg per year compared to 100 kg per year in western countries. Meat is not permitted inside most of the Hindu shrines. The Hindu advocacy of vegetarianism stems from a variety of reasons such as environmental concerns, health and most of all from the doctrine of Ahiṅsā which means not hurting others and being compassionate towards all creatures.
Benefits of Vegetarianism/ Harms of Meat Eating
- More Spiritual: Meat induces passion and excitement in the mind. Therefore, it is easier for a vegetarian to practice meditation and other spiritual disciplines. For this reason, many Yoga teachers insist that their students become vegetarians as a pre-requisite to practicing Yoga.
- More Healthy: Ayurvedic and Buddhist texts declare what modern science has found that a vegetarian diet is more healthy. Meat eaters are more prone to heart disease and certain types of cancers etc.
- Environmental Reasons: Pound for pound, production of meat requires much more energy, water, soil etc. For e.g., it takes 20 lbs of grains to produce 1 lb of beef. With the rising global population, it is more efficient to produce food via cultivation of crops than via rearing animals for their meat.
- More Consistent with Human Anatomy: The digestive tract in human beings seems to be more suited to a vegetarian diet than a meat diet.
- More Ethical: Vegetarian food is more consistent with the religious value of Ahiṅsā or Love and not harming or hurting others. It is a bad Karma to eat meat. Some verses advocating vegetarianism may be cited below:
He who kills harmless and non-violent creatures for his own pleasure will never get true happiness, whether in this life or after he dies. He who does not seek to kill, cause pain or tie up living creatures and desires the good of all attains everlasting joy. Whatever such a man who does not injure any creature thinks of, whatever he strives for and whatever he focuses on he obtains all that without any effort. Some Hindu scriptures say that the stomach of a meat eater is like the graveyard of animal carcasses.
Drawbacks of Vegetarian Diet and Solutions:
- In certain parts of the world for e.g., Polar regions, meat is the only form of food available locally easily and cheaply. However, it is not a sin to eat meat if we live in these regions.
- A meat based diet is rich in proteins and conversely a vegetarian diet can be protein deficient. While meat has all the required essential amino acids for the human body, plants rarely have all of them individually. However, this deficiency can be overcome by incorporating protein rich plant origin foodstuffs like soy, legumes etc., and by mixing and matching foods.
- A meat based diet is rich in certain minerals, vitamins and other nutrients e.g., B-12, Omega-3, that are difficult to obtain from plant sources. This deficiency can be overcome by combining dairy products with a vegan diet. Supplements are also available to overcome these deficiencies.
- In certain medical conditions, the patient might be forced to consume animal products so that his body gets adequate protein for its functioning.
QUIZ: Which of the following foods have egg, sea-food or animal flesh and bone products
- Yo-Plait Yoghurt
- Kraft Cheese
- McDonald French Fries
- Caesar Salad
Orthodox Hindus look for ingredients like Rennet, Gelatin when they buy food and avoid them. Gelatin is derived from animal bones and hooves. Rennet is curdled milk obtained from the stomach of a calf that is slaughtered while it is still feeding on the milk of its mother cow.
27.8 Hunting, Fishing and the Ideal of Ahiṅsā
Fishing and Hunting are the sources of livelihood and food for many people. While some hunt and fish for mere sport. From the point of view of Ahiṅsā, the first is not as bad as the other. It is a fact of life that many people have no food other than meat and fish available for them to eat. For this reason, Hindu Dharma does not absolutely require everyone to be a vegetarian, even though it is a desirable option.
27.9 Mahatma Gandhi on Ahiṅsā and Hindu Dharma
Non-violence is common to all the religions but it has found the highest expression and application in Hinduism. I do not regard Jainism or Buddhism as separate from Hinduism. Hinduism believes in the oneness not of merely all human life, but in the oneness of all that lives. It's worship of the cow is, its unique contribution to the evolution of humanitarianism. It is a practical application of the belief in the oneness and therefore sacredness of all life. The great belief in transmigration is a direct consequence of that belief.
- If your friend asks you to accompany him on hunting or a fishing trip, how will you respond to him?
- In the year 1947, India was wracked by severe violence between the Hindus and Muslims. Millions of Hindus were ethnically cleansed out of Pakistan and packed off to India and millions of Muslims similarly fled from India to Pakistan. When a group of Hindu refugees came to see Gandhi and described how their wives and children had been kidnapped and slaughtered, Mahatma Gandhi advised them, No Hindu in Pakistan should resist his attackers. It is better to die in your homeland without any resistance by practicing Ahiṅsā, rather than flee to India to save your lives. What is your opinion on Mahatma Gandhi's advice.
Notes & References
- These restraints are Truth, Non-Stealing etc.
- Yoga Bhāsya 2.30
- For e.g., I will kill only fish.
- For e.g. I will not kill in holy places.
- For e.g. I will kill only for the sake of Devas and not for anything else.
- Yoga Bhāsya 2.31
- Mahābhārata Karṇa Parva 69.57
- Non - violent refers to docile here.
- Mahābhārata 13.113.5
- Varuṇa means the Holy One.
- Ṛgveda 5.85.7
- Mahopaniṣad, chapter 3
- Non-violent means docile.
- Mahābhārata 13.113.5
- It is human, animals and plants.
- Manu Smṛti 5.45
- Viṣṇu Dharmasutra 51.68
- Manu Smṛti 5.46
- Dharmasutra 51.69
- Manu Smṛti 5.47
- Viṣṇu Dharmasutra 51.70
- For e.g., grains with pulses.
- Mahatma Gandhi in Harijan, dt.27 April 1927