This essay will look at the concept of ahiṃsā within early Jainism and Brahmanism. It will reflect on the etymology, history and references to ahiṃsā within ancient texts including the Ṛgveda, Upaniṣads, Mahābārata, Bhagavadgītā, Pātañjalayogaśāstra and the Ācārāṅga Sutra. It will consider the nature of hiṃsā in contrast to ahiṃsā looking at moral and social values and viewpoints surrounding the principles of violent and non-violent action and how practicing ahiṃsā is a rudimentary requirement within early Indian religious life.
The essay will reflect on the theories, ethics and narratives that encompass vegetarianism and cow veneration and consider ahiṃsā in relation to ascetism and self- harm within Jain and Brahmin tradition. It will study the connections of ahiṃsā to the doctrines of dharma, karma soteriology and liberation.
Ahiṃsā has an extensive, and multifaceted history, the word itself is derived from the Sanskrit root hiṃs, meaning to strike. Hiṃsā means to harm or injure (Monier Williams p125). Hiṃsā is a derivative of the original verb hiṁasti (or the Jain hinasti). In the Ṛgveda the God Indra is invoked so that chanting by devotees would not cause him harm (hiṃs) (Ṛv 10.22.13), and so that devotees would not incur any harm themselves for any wrong doings they might have committed. The God of fire Agni is also referenced here as being unharmed (ahiṃsāymāna) (Ṛv 10.15.6).
Unto Tähtinen (1976, p1-2), suggests that many references in relation to hiṃsā within the Ṛgveda are connected with some form of physical injury, but not necessarily death or killing. He also conveys other meanings of Hiṃsā, including beating, stealing, tying up, destruction of livelihood and intimidation (Tähtinen, 1976, p 3-4).
Bodewitz (1999, p18) Suggests that ahiṃsā in pre- upaniṣadic texts relates to security and safeness. He also expounds that ahiṃsā should not be taken as the literal ‘non-killing’ but rather non-violence or even non- injury which is in effect closer to its’ more modern roots that are associated with Mahatma Gandhi (1999 p5). Bodewitz argues that it was the early Jain texts that replaced the root ‘han’ (to kill) with ‘hiṃ,’ which takes in to consideration mental, verbal and physical injury rather than specifically killing.
The later ‘Law code of Manu’ (Olivelle, Manu 8.293.297) gives detailed instruction on the penalties for harming and breaking the regulations against non-harming (ahiṃsā) with reference to ‘cutting down medical trees’ which is a minor crime, destroying someone else’s property and injuring harmless beings for the sake of one’s own pleasure. Manu states ‘If someone strikes humans or animals in order to inflict pain, the king should impose a punishment proportionate to the severity of the pain’ (Olivelle, Manu 8.286)
Ahimsa in Brahmanism
Although connotations differ the principle of ahiṃsā was a significant aspect of Indo-religious tradition within both early Jainism and Brahmanism. This could seem contrary juxtaposed with the tradition of sacrifice that was prevalent within early vedic history. Animal sacrifices with a purpose of appeasing the gods, acquiring boons, and maintaining cosmic order (Ṛta) were common place, and practiced widely.
Oblations were made for the purpose of inviting the gods (primarily Indra) to partake in the sacrifices offered. Such engagements by Brahmin priests allowed for the sharing of power between gods and men. This was the expected duty of Brahmins as part of the customary dictums of varna and ashrama dharma (duties of one’s caste and stage of life) (Olivelle,1993).
Ritual sacrifice was central to vedic thought and practice of rites with sacrificial origin remain central to vedic devotional philosophies thriving today (although animal sacrifice is not so prevalent). Arthur Keith (1974, p976) however, suggests that early European scholars were more concerned with the grammatical study and comparative philology of the vedas rather than profound study of vedic sacrifice. The sanskrit word for worship and to sacrifice is Yajða which is derived from the root ‘yaj.’ Which has connotations of worshiping in the form of offering gifts, prayers or a sacrifice to the gods. Along with tapah (austerity) and dāna (charity) this was the accepted way to appease the vedic Gods (S Kapoor…date?)
In this early vedic society ahiṃsā was not particularly evident in relation to not doing harm to oneself or others and hiṃsā as a construct was more apparent. Tähtinen (1976, p23) states that the vedic conception of hiṃsā in most scenarios refers to violence towards other living beings. It is not until the advent of the Bṛhadāraṇyaka and Chāndogya Upaniṣad and the Yajur Veda, where notions of ahiṃsā become more apparent. ‘The moral conduct in which a small ethical code has been formulated in five words: tapas (penance), dānam (giving of alms), ārjavam (honesty) ahiṃsā (non- violence) and satyavacanam (truthfulness)’. Deussen 2010, p115 Chāndogya Upaniṣad 3.17.4)
The Bṛhadāraṇyaka demonstrates the early links that ahiṃsā has with the notion of karma and how the two constructs work in tandem with each other. ‘One becomes good by (doing) good works and base or sordid by (doing) base or sordid works.’ (Deussen 2010, p 452 Bṛhadāraṇyaka 126.96.36.199)
Christopher Chapple (1993, P3) argues that the concepts of karma and ahiṃsā support each other and have been closely linked since the Ṛg Veda, where karma means ritual action and it is through action and deeds that merit is to be found. This is also a dominant principle within Jain ethics, where diligent observance of ethical principles is rooted in ahiṃsā.
Bodewitz (1999) expounds that in post-vedic literature the Goddess Ahiṃsā is personified as the wife of Dharma, emphasising that both non-harming and duty were significantly linked aspects of the code ethics for the people of post Vedic times.. Ahimsa and dharma are interconnected and Chapple (1993 p17) states that the Mahabarata considers ahiṃsā as the supreme dharma. He quotes several passages acknowledging the importance and significance of non- harming within Brahmanical society. ‘Ahiṃsā is the highest dharma. Ahiṃsā is the best austerity (tapas). Ahiṃsā is the greatest gift.
Ahiṃsā is the highest self- control. Ahiṃsā is the highest sacrifice. Ahiṃsā is the highest power. Ahiṃsā is the highest friend. Ahiṃsā is the highest truth. Ahiṃsā is the highest teaching’ (Chapple 1993 p17 Mahābhārata x111;116;37-41).
Alsdorf (2010), states that within both the Mahābārata and Bhagavadgītā killing as a part of war was the dharma of the kṣatriya varna and was seen as fulfilling karmic law and duty. It is within the Bhagavadgītā during the famous narrative between the warrior Arjuna and Krishna that there is an evident juxtaposition between the tenets of duty and non-harming. Arjuna was suffering mental anguish as he was confronted with the conflicting prospect of having to kill in battle members of his family, friends and teachers who were set to fight with the opposing Kaurava clan.
Krishna explains to Arjuna that as a warrior it is his dharma to fight, Arjuna should kill those who are against law, order and morality and that righteous killing in Gods’ name is acceptable and is expected of him. The battlefield of Kurukshetra is commonly considered as the field of human conflict and Arjunas moral stance of ahiṃsā, does not win over the moral stance of dharma or karma. ‘I see evil omens, Krishna; nothing good can come from slaughtering one’s own family in battle- I foresee it’ (BG,1.31) ‘They are our Kinsmen and having killed our own people, how could we be happy Madhava?’ (BG,1.37)
During this brahmanical period, killing in war was acceptable if it was for the higher moral cause, just as animal sacrifice was accepted if it was to appease the Gods.
Asldorf (2010) states that; ‘For the orthodox Brahmin there was the rule that killing in sacrifice is not killing “
Statements such as this have caused much debate as vedic ritual sacrificial killing of animals as dharma seem so far removed from ahiṃsā. Over time Brahmanical sacrificial traditions began to change and evolve (partly due to buddhist and Jain non- violent influence), becoming a largely non-violent sacrificial practice in the form of image worship and the offering of fruits, flowers and grains. Animal sacrifices to certain gods and goddesses were still practiced (within a few traditions) and in some contemporary Hindu sectors is still practiced today. Vegetarianism slowly began to take on a more significant role within brahmanical society (although some brahmins remained meat eaters).
As with Buddhists and Jains, ethical treatment of animals became more widely accepted within Brahmanism. Chapple (1993, p22) gives testimony to both the Jains and Buddhists abundant references to animals within their religious narratives. Including the first buddhist precept of not doing harm or injury to any living thing. He also expounds that animals were deemed receptive to Buddhas teachings and would on occasion sacrifice themselves for the sake of humans. He suggests great care was taken not to harm animals for fear of retribution from other members of the same species. With the doctrine of karma and rebirth humans could be reborn as animals by committing immoral deeds and animals who proved worthy could take on human form within the next life, consequently practicing ahiṃsā was necessary for satisfactory transmigration.
Asldorf (2010) considers that ahiṃsā in relation to vegetarianism and ahimsa in relation to the sacrosanctity of the cow should be considered separately Wendy Donaghue (. ) recounts the story within the Mahabarata of a great famine where King Prithu takes up his bow and arrow and forces the earth to yield sustenance for his people. In response the earth took on the form of a cow and begged the king not to kill her, instead allowing him to give her milk to nourish the people of the earth, saving many lives. The myth appears to prophesise the paradigmatic creature that produces food without being killed.
India being a country of drought and famine protecting the cow as a vital source of sustenance was clearly a logical step. Cow veneration is expounded in great detail within ‘The law Book of Manu’ loss of caste is one punishment for killing a cow (p194 4.60). riding on the back of cattle is considered reprehensible (4.72) When someone urinates towards a cow his wisdom perishes (4.52) ultimately stating that man must never cause harm to cows (4.162).
The cow came to embody altruistic generosity and within the Gupta era it was a capital offence to kill a cow. Legislation against harming cows endured in to the 20thC. Even today it is deemed inappropriate to harm a cow. Jains have a different approach and now have sanctuaries to look after sick or injured cows, however due to their rigorous belief of ahimsā will not put an animal out of its misery and many die in agony, as this is seen to be an accepted form of karmic suffering.
The significance of Ahiṃsā within Jainism
Unlike Brahmanism where ahiṃsā appeared as a gradual progression within religious doctrine and practice. Jainism was founded on the principles of Non -violence in body, speech and mind, including adherence to a strict vegetarian diet. Dietary restrictions were very detailed, with specific rules to prevent harming even the smallest living creatures. This included prohibiting consumption of certain vegetables which were considered to contain life forms or even large numbers of seeds. (Dundas p 177)
There was however as with brahmins an understanding of the importance of sacrifice as a cultural precept, although animal sacrifice was always considered as unethical. This said, Dundas (p76) states there is evidence that Jains in ancient times did occasionally consume meat as long as the animal had not been specifically killed for the purpose. There is also some contradicting evidence and Dundas (p 15) recounts the tale of Yaśodhara who went to hell due to his sacrificial offering of a cockerel made from dough, Yaśodhara was thought to have an aggressive mental temperament and even using an inanimate object in animal form was considered a form of hiṃsā and was regarded deeply inappropriate as an offering.
The tenet of ahiṃsā is a principle teaching of the Ācārāṅga sutra the oldest narrative of Jain teachings, and its application is necessary for Jains to reach liberation. The Ācārāṅga makes clear its central creed by stating; ‘All breathing, existing, living, sentient creatures should not be slain, nor treated with violence, nor abused, nor tormented, nor driven away. This is the pure, unchangeable, eternal law which the clever ones who understand the world have proclaimed.’ (Jacobi, ĀS 1.41.1-2)
Like the Brahmins and Buddhists, the Jains considered karma and rebirth as part of the human experience. Jainism held beliefs that all actions had consequences and suffering would eliminate past karma. karma in Jainism is twofold it is considered as in Brahmanism, to be actions or deeds, but also as a subtle form of matter contaminating the soul and delaying liberation (Bronkhorst, 2011, p xx and Webster’s, 2019).
Bronkhorst elucidates that within Jainism, asceticism culminated in total immobilisation of body and mind, generating suffering and hindering the practitioner from accruing both good and bad karma and destroying existing karma ultimately causing cessation of transmigration (Bronkhorst, 2011, p11). The practice of asceticism was the way in which the Jain monastic community could still have the concept of sacrifice, but without it harming anyone other than the practitioner themselves.
The Ācārāṅga sutra details the importance of developing a karma free progression through life by the ascetic practitioner. ‘One should mortify (one’s flesh) in a low, high, and highest degree, quitting one’s former connections, and entering tranquillity. A hero is careful, a person of pith, guarded, endowed (with knowledge, &c.), and always restrained. Difficult to go is the road of the heroes, who go whence there is no return (final liberation [moksha]). Subdue blood and flesh’ (AS Jacobi 2008, p 59).
The above statement is undoubtedly paradoxical as Jain ascetics past and present do not in any way condone violent acts, śvetāmbaras even wearing mouth shields to prevent breathing in and killing micro-organisms and using a brush whilst walking to sweep away insects from their paths to prevent accidently crushing them underfoot.
The violence (as asceticism) of the Jains turned inward as self-mortification, spiritual tapas was highly regarded and Dundas (p17) suggests that it became a form of ‘spiritual heroism.’ Mahāvīra like the aforementioned Arjuna from the Bhagavadgītā was from the kṣatriya varna This gave rise to an element of approval from ancient Indian society as warriors were held in high regard. Consequently, the ascetic struggles of Mahāvīra and Jain monks in his wake were widely esteemed.
Early Jainism gave rise to rituals and practices to help the aspirant follow the path of ahiṃsā, however It is difficult to argue the case for ahiṃsā with the Jain practices of self -mortification so deeply woven in to their religiosity. Dundas (p165) expounds that Jain ascetic practice is underpinned by spiritual and doctrinal rationale, suggesting ascetics were supposedly not bothered by pain and discomfort as the mind was under complete control and fixed on a pure goal. There are six classic internal and six external austerities practiced by Jains. The external austerities being fasting, reduction of food, deliberately making the process of seeking alms difficult, giving up any sustenance that might have a pleasing flavour, entering a period of solitude and performing bodily mortification. Internal austerity involves atonement for wrong doings, respect for superiors and Jain teachings. Service to fellow ascetics, study and reflection, giving up any personal attachments and practicing meditation.
The ultimate ascetism of sallekhanā appears incongruous with ahiṃsā, this can be a difficult practice to comprehend for those outside the Jain religion. A soteriological death by deliberately withdrawing food and then water in what might be arguably be a painful and distressing process. For westerners this is perhaps a step too far and difficult to rationalize, especially from a community with a genuine regard for nonviolence to all sentient beings. The juxtaposition is that sallekhanā is in no way regarded as religious suicide. (Dundas p 179) Suicide is one of the most condemned actions by the Jain tradition and there is a high karmic price to pay for ending one’s life, even the thought of suicide reaps negative karma. Tähtinen (p26) expounds that Sallekhana is not considered suicide as it is not based on passionate mentality. ‘in the practice of Sallekhana all passions which cause hiṃsā are subdued, wherefore it leads to ahiṃsā’. (p26)
Dundas ()states that the ideal form of death is a controlled wasting away through gradual but severe fasting and immobility asceticism, to the eventual point of zero consumption and action where upon in the final moments of one’s life, the mind can fully and uncompromisingly focus on matters of liberation. When this final stage in Jain asceticism is properly executed, the ascetic is said to have burned off all their previous karma, ceased all future karma, attained omniscience, and broken free from karmic bondage. The ascetic is then fully liberated and will join the liberated jivas who dwell blissfully in the abode for liberated souls.
Ahiṃsā within the yoga sutra
The term ahiṃsā has been brought in to contemporary usage with the huge growth and development of transnational yoga. It is a term that is used as a precept of yoga practitioners worldwide.
Pātañjali on compilation of the yoga sutra, codified earlier concepts of ahiṃsā. Like Jainism, the sutras first of five ethical principle s(yama) is non-harming. The other 4 initial vows of Mahāvīra’s Jainism are the same as the remaining four yama. Satyā, asteya, bramacharyā and aparigraha. The yoga sutra has deep seated buddhist and brahmanical influence which can be evidenced within its eight -step approach to attaining liberation. Pātañjali states that the yogi should practice ahiṃsā unrestricted by caste, place, time or circumstance (chapel p19) complementing rather than contradicting any religious doctrine.
In Conclusion it is evident that the principle of ahimsā is significant in early Jainism and Brahmanism. The commencement of nonviolence was a gradual process within Brahmanism, but its foundations strengthened with the influence of Jain and Buddhist teachings. Bodewitz (p23), expounds that early notions of ahiṃsā in both religions were associated with ascetism, rules of conduct and karmic doctrine. He also concours with other scholars such as Alsdorf (p21) who states; ‘Ahiṃsā was a common Indian movement in which Brahmanism, Buddhism and Jainism equally shared’
This common thread of ahiṃsā continues within Indian religiosity today. Radharkrishna and Mahatma Gandhi (both great teachers and advocates of contemporary ahiṃsā) understood (somewhat akin to Krishna in the Bhagavadgītā) that nonviolence was not always possible. ‘Where non-violence is not possible, violence is permitted’ (BOD p20)
The concept of nonviolent action in both early and contemporary Indian society presumes that all sentient beings are equal, this equality presents a starting point for the principle of ahimsa. With the Indian quest for liberation, nonviolence affords an important step towards understanding and supporting the sacredness of all forms of life.