Ahimsa (अहिंसा, Ahiṃsā), loosely translated, means abstinence from violence either by thought, word, or deed. Non-injury requires a harmless mind, mouth, and hand. In a positive sense, it implies compassion and cosmic love. It is the development of a mental attitude in which hatred is replaced by love. The scriptures define ahimsa as the true sacrifice, forgiveness, power, and strength. At its core, ahimsa is based on the intentions of a person whose focus is to not harm anyone. Ahimsa was also the name of the wife of Dharma as mentioned in the Vişņu Purāņa.
Ahimsa is a Sanskrit word derived from the root hims, meaning to strike. Himsa means injury or harm. Literally translated, a-himsa means the opposite of himsa or non-injury or non-violence.
The scriptures extol the virtues of Ahimsa and consider it an essential tenet of and guide for personal behavior. However, violence for the purpose of defending Dharma is equally essential and this violence is also considered to be ahimsa.
Subtle forms of Violence
Ahimsa is ordinarily equated to its gross meaning which means 'not to hurt any living being physically'. At a more subtle level, ahimsa is violated when contempt is shown towards another being, by entertaining unreasonable dislike for or prejudice towards anybody, by frowning or hating or abusing another, by speaking ill of others, by backbiting or vilifying, by harbouring thoughts of hatred, by uttering lies, or by ruining another man in any way whatsoever.
All harsh and rude speech is violence. Using harsh words to beggars, servants or inferiors is himsa. Wounding the feelings of others by gesture, expression, tone of voice and unkind words is also himsa. Slighting or showing deliberate discourtesy to a person before others is wanton himsa. To approve of another's harsh actions is indirect violence. To fail to relieve another's pain, or even to neglect to go to the person in distress is a sort of violence. Violence by exclusion would also be himsa since you would be hurting some one's feelings by neglecting them or to deliberately exclude them from your interaction.
Ahimsa comes from a Position of Strength
Ahimsa is the acme of bravery. Ahimsa is not possible without fearlessness. Ahimsa cannot be practiced by someone who is afraid of death and has no power of resistance and endurance. It is a shield, not of the effeminate, but of the potent. Ahimsa is a quality of the strong. It is a weapon of the strong. When a weak man is beaten with a stick by a stronger man, he cannot physically fight back. He may claim that he is non-violent, but harbors thoughts of revenge. This is not ahimsa. When a strong man is beaten by a stick, but does not harbor feelings of revenge, than his claim of ahimsa is true. The true follower of ahimsa does not entertain any thought of retaliation or any unkind feeling towards the tormentor. Ahimsa is the perfection of forgiveness.
Jayadeva, the author of Gita-Govinda, gave large and rich presents to his enemies after they cut off his hands, and obtained Mukti for them through his sincere prayers. He said, "O my lord! Thou hast given Mukti to Thy enemies, Ravana and Kamsa. Why canst Thou not give Mukti to my enemies now?"
Pavahari Baba carried the bag of vessels and followed a thief saying: "O Thief Narayana! I never knew that You visited my cottage. Pray accept these things."
Limitations to the Practice of Non-violence
Absolute non-violence is impossible to implement in practice. One is expected to practice non-violence to the best of their ability and knowledge according to their varna and ashram and to strive to increase both over time.
|सूक्ष्मयॊनीनि भूतानि तर्क गम्यानि कानि चित
पक्ष्मणॊ ऽपि निपातेन येषां सयात सकन्धपर्ययः
|sūkṣmayonīni bhūtāni tarka gamyāni kāni cit
pakṣmaṇo 'pi nipātena yeṣāṃ syāt skandhaparyayaḥ
|You cannot find a single non-injurer in the world. You have to destroy life in order to live. It is physically impossible for you to obey the law of non-destruction of life, because the phagocytes of your blood also are destroying millions of dangerous intrusive spirilla, bacteria and germs.
Violence as Ahimsa
Ahimsa is not strictly non-violence--it also includes violence when required to defend dharma or in accordance with one's dharma. In the Bhagawad Gita, Lord Krishna tells Arjuna to pick up his bow and fight multiple times because it is his duty to do so. All the Gods are pictured in scripture as well as temples, etc, as having weapons and some are shown as inflicting punishment or killing (ie. Durga killing a demon).
Violence is generally considered to be ignorance, but when used to protect the lives of the weak and defenseless, it is considered to be Ahimsa. In addition, Brahmins, Kshatriyas, and Vaishyas are also allowed to use violence against those that obstruct their duty. For example, using violence to arrest a criminal would be considered ahimsa for a policeman; similarly punishing a criminal for a crime is considered ahimsa for a judge. In general, violence when used in accordance to dharma without any personal motivation is considered to be ahimsa..
A Universal Vow
Ahimsa is a universal vow that is required for self-realization. It is something that is applicable to everyone for themselves regardless of their varna or ashrama. It is a necessity for anyone who aims to control their mind.
By nature, people are non-violent, but when harmed, it is easy for them to get angry and want retribution. However, ahimsa requires the elimination of reaction in anger. Rather, it requires the victim to change his perspective and no-longer see himself as a victim.
For example, supposing children set fire to your house--the first action is not to punish the child--but to keep both yourself and the child safe and out of harms way. The second action is to extinguish the fire.
Aggressors should be treated like the child in the example--lovingly prevent the aggressor from causing harm. No action should be motiviated by ill-will or anger.
The practice of ahimsa contributes greatly to the yoga of mind control. The mind is like a demon. But see what wonders the demon, Vetala, accomplished for Vikramaditya after he had been brought under control. The mind will do us unlimited good if it is made subservient to us. Hanuman acquired his immense strength and was able to perform so many great and good deeds only because he had conquered his mind. The mind's power is immeasurable. All the cosmos is the work of the Supreme Goddess and in this creation of hers even the mind of a tiny ant pervades the entire universe.
|अहिंसाप्रतिष्ठायां तत्सन्निधौ वैरत्यागः
|ahiṁsāṣṭhāyām tatsannidau vairatyāgaḥ
|As a Yogi becomes firmly grounded in ahimsa, other people who comes in contact with him will naturally lose any feelings of hostility. 
It is easy to claim oral allegiance to the principle of non-injury but difficult to practice. Quarrels and disputes are inevitable and actions must be taken to resolve them. The motivation of the action determines whether the action conforms to the ideals enshrined in ahimsa. Violence born out of the necessity of the greater good without greed or personal benefit is not a violation of ahimsa.
"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, it means Ahimsa is the ultimate/supreme duty. It is only recommended for sannyasins who tread the path of Nivritti Marga. The statement, taken in full context and meaning as is applicable to most people is
|अहिंसा परमो धर्मः
धर्म हिंसा तथीव च
|Ahimsa Paramo Dharma
Dharma himsa tathaiva cha
|Non-violence is the ultimate dharma. So too is violence in service of Dharma.
Ahimsa is mentioned many times in different scriptures ranging from the Sruti such as the Rig Veda to Smriti such as the Patanjali Yoga Sutra to itihaas such as the Mahabharata. Despite the fact that it is considered to be a fundamental concept, however, there is no single place where it is exhaustively dealt with. Rather, it is mentioned across the breadth of scriptures, each time, in relationship with other topics that are under discussion.
Scriptures Ahimsa is mentioned in:
Ahimsa and Food
Ahimsa requires that practitioners be vegetarian since eating meat generally requires killing or harming a creature. Even vegetarians can be accused of himsa considering plants have life. If a vegetarian tailors his food based on scripture, even that can be avoided.
For example, it has been proved that in the case of plants, their lifeline runs in the trunk in some cases, roots in others and seeds in yet others. It is for this reason that sastra has prohibited cutting the plants at their respective lifelines. Thus cutting and eating parts through which the lifeline does not run is similar to cutting the hair of an animals or the human finger nails.
Definition of Ahimsa is Role & Situation Dependent
The definition of ahimsa is dependent on whom it is being applied. It depends on varna, ashrama, role in society. Similarly, the definition of ahimsa changes when applied to a single person versus a group, town, or country. The definition of ahimsa is always aligned with the dharma of the subject/person under consideration. This definition also changes depending on the circumstances in which it is being applied.
Key to following ahimsa is a person's motivation behind action. The same act down with two different motivations may result in one being classified as ahimsa while the other as himsa. For example, if a country is invaded--the defending soldier must kill the aggressors. The first soldier fights to defend his country and thus follows the principles of ahisma. The second soldier fights for revenge because his country has been attacked--and thus does not follow the principles of ahimsa.
The intention must be based on righteousness and dharma and be devoid of selfish motivation.
Notes & References
- Swami Sivananda, "Bliss Divine", chapter entitled "Ahimsa"
- Arjun is consoling a grieving Yudhisthira after the war is won
- Mahabharata 12.15.26
- Gita Rahasya, by Lokmanya B.G.Tilak, 10 th Ed, Kesari Prakashan, Pune, pp. 28-29, 1973
- Manu Smriti, 8.348-351
- Sri Sri Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswathi Swami, "Hindu Dharma", part 22, chapter 2
- Patanjali Yoga Sutra 2.35
- Swami Jnaneshvara Bharati, "Yoga Sutras of Patanjali – Interpretive Translation," p.28 (Verse Patanjali Yoga Sutra 2.35)
- Swami Chinmayananda, "Dharma Himsa tathaiva ca"