The True Meaning and Practice of Ahimsa or Nonviolence

Breath control

by Jayaram V

Enmity (vaira) is given up in the presence of the one established in nonviolence. Yogasutras (2.35).

Nonviolence (ahimsa) is the highest virtue. It is prescribed in all the yoga and tantra traditions as one of the chief restraints (yamas). Nonviolence does not mean abstaining from physical violence only. It truly means not violating any divine laws, not disrupting the natural order or working of the world or things, not unsettling the regularity of the world, not causing any disturbance, not feeling disturbed, not losing control over one’s mind and body, and so on. If you create any ripples in your consciousness or the world through your thoughts and actions, it is bound to produce consequences or set in motion a chain of events that may impact and disturb others. Thus, you can see that nonviolence is the most difficult restraint to practice or attain perfection.

It is practically impossible to practice nonviolence in its truest sense since even the most innocuous action, such as breathing, can create ripples in space and unleash some violence or disturbance within oneself or the world. Practically, every organ, every function the organs perform, every action we undertake, and every thought, feeling, emotion, desire, or intention we experience can possibly cause violence and disturb us, others, or the world. Millions of cells in the body are destroyed, repaired, and recreated daily. It is a form of violence only, although we may not even know it happens. Therefore, if anyone tells you that he practices nonviolence or is nonviolent, you have to consider it in a limited sense.

Nonviolence is obligatory for spiritual people who aspire to achieve liberation or overcome the darkness of their lower nature and evil passions. However, it is delusional to think that it is the solution for everyone. Living itself is a turbulent process in which one cannot avoid violent actions for survival and continuity. Hence, a deep symbolic connection exists in Hinduism between food and death. Death is the Lord, and food is the sacrifice. Food is secured through destructive actions.

There is always the element of sin in securing and eating food. Hence, the Vedas prescribe daily sacrifices (nityakarmas) to offset the sin of cooking and eating food for one’s survival or enjoyment. They make it obligatory for humans to offer the food they cook to others before eating it. By that offering, they can protect themselves from the unintended consequences arising from their actions. It also implies that worldly people cannot avoid violence or violent actions even with the best intentions. However, they can offset its impact through obligatory duties, self-restraint, sacrifices to gods, and pious actions. As for the ascetics and renunciants, in ancient times, they were required to take a vow to refrain from cooking food using fire or eating any living thing, including plants and vegetables. They subsisted on tubers, roots, and the edible parts of plants and trees shed by them.

The practice of nonviolence

Although nonviolence is difficult to practice in all situations, we cannot ignore it since it is essential to our spiritual development. At the personal level, it is necessary to practice it for one’s peace and happiness and the welfare of all. Through nonviolence, one can cleanse the impurities of animal nature and purify the mind and body to experience peace and equanimity. Aspirants who want to elevate their consciousness and intelligence through self-purification should focus on overcoming egoism, delusion, desires, and attachments through the four levels of its practice: physical, mental, verbal, and spiritual.

1. At the physical level, nonviolence consists of not hurting or damaging any living being, not eating forbidden food, not performing sacrifices or magical rituals to harm others, not engaging in the wanton destruction of things, not taking up professions that are violent by nature, not causing reckless destruction of plants and trees, and not endangering the lives of other living beings through violent actions due to selfish desires. It also includes protecting all living beings to the extent possible. One may also practice nonviolence through righteous living, selfless service, and karma-sannyasa, which means offering the fruit of one’s actions to the Supreme Lord without desires and attachments and seeking no selfish benefit. The Bhagavadgita recommends karma-sannyasa to escape from samsara, the cycle of births and deaths.

2. At the mental level, nonviolence means practicing the right thoughts, right intentions, right knowledge, right discernment, and right actions, not wishing physical or mental harm to others, not engaging in violent and destructive thoughts, not letting evil passions influence one’s actions, thinking and behavior, having no intention whatsoever to hurt or harm others for any reason. One can also practice it through detachment, indifference, self-control, seeing the Lord in oneself, in others, and as the Self of all, cultivating equanimity and sameness, and remaining undisturbed by the violent actions of others, their negativity, or evil influence. In the Bhagavadgita, Lord Krishna declares that the devotee who is not disturbed and does not disturb others is the best of his devotees. It is possible only when one is truly nonviolent.

3. At the verbal level, nonviolence means speaking gently, speaking the right words, speaking the truth, speaking only when necessary, giving the right advice, not speaking ill of others, not criticizing anyone, not intentionally practicing double talk, and not indulging in any speech which may lead to violence or harm. Our scriptures state that while practicing truthfulness is necessary to cultivate purity and achieve liberation, one should refrain from speaking the truth if it hurts or harms others. Hence, discretion is required while speaking the truth. Since listening is part of verbal communication, one should avoid the company of evil people or remain indifferent to them and their negative words or speech. Our scriptures recommend satsang, the company of pious people, to cultivate mental and verbal purity.

4. At the spiritual level, practicing nonviolence requires a comprehensive approach. To achieve perfection in it, one has to practice all the restraints and observances (yamas and niyamas) since they all lead to nonviolence only. Traditional commentators like Vyasa and Vijnanabhikshu declared nonviolence the root of all other yamas. It should be practiced to the extent possible, even though it is rather difficult to avoid hurting or harming other life forms when one engages in actions such as eating, drinking, or sleeping. At the spiritual level, the practice consists of having no selfish intention, no longing for life, and the willingness to sacrifice one’s life if necessary to avoid violence.

From the above, one can see that it is impossible to practice nonviolence in the truest sense of the world. Violence is inherent to the very process of living and the functions of Nature. No one can survive without causing some degree of harm or hurt to others. When you secure something for yourself, you are denying that to someone else. The scriptures are aware of this limitation. Therefore, they do not recommend the extreme practice of nonviolence. One should engage in the right actions, speak the right words, have the right thoughts and intentions, and avoid hurting and harming others to the extent possible by being selective in the choice of food, words, thoughts, decisions, actions, relationships, methods of worship and spiritual practices.

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