Belief in the law of karma and accepting the divinity of all beings are the twin pillars of ahimsa—compassionate nonhurtfulness
NONINJURY IS THE FIRST AND FOREMOST ETHICAL PRINCIPLE OF EVERY HINDU. In Sanskrit this virtue is called ahimsa. The Mahabharata extols its importance, saying, “Ahimsa is the highest dharma. It is the highest purification. It is also the highest truth from which all dharma proceeds.” An excellent definition is found in the Shandilya Upanishad: “Ahimsa is not causing pain to any living being at any time through the actions of one’s mind, speech or body.” Note the threefold nature of this nonhurtfulness: It applies not only to our actions, but also to our words and even our thoughts.
Is the principle of nonviolence absolute under all circumstances? My Gurudeva, Sivaya Subramuniyaswami, answered this question by stipulating a few “regrettable exceptions.” The first exception applies to extreme circumstances, such as when faced with imminent danger, in which case individuals may elect to injure or even kill to protect their life or that of another. Another exception applies to those who are members of a police force or armed forces. However, even those individuals should not use violence unless absolutely necessary. The Los Angeles police department, as an example, has a policy called minimum use of force that is in consonance with this Hindu viewpoint. “The police should use physical force to the extent necessary to secure observance of the law or to restore order when the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to be insufficient to achieve police objectives; and police should use only the reasonable amount of physical force which is necessary on any particular occasion for achieving a police objective.”
A common justification for using violence is retaliation for injuries to you, members of your family, your religion or nation. There are many in the world today who believe that in those instances you have a duty to personally retaliate. This is commonly referred to as the “eye for an eye” mentality. However, Hinduism does not support this idea. In fact, our oldest scripture, the Rig Veda, speaks against it: “Return not blow for blow, nor curse for curse, neither meanness for base tricks. Shower blessings instead.”
Rather than retaliation, Hinduism favors using society’s established channels for finding a remedy. Take as an example a common movie plot. Someone shoots and kills your brother during a robbery, and the rest of the film is devoted to your chasing down the robber and shooting him to punish him and get even. What, then, happens in the next life, the sequel? There is definitely a negative karma to be faced for killing in revenge. Perhaps another robbery will take place and you will be killed. Better to let the police take care of the robber. The policeman has taken an oath to uphold the law and therefore creates no negative karma if, in capturing the criminal, he has no choice but to injure him.
When it comes to harming others through words, speaking harshly to individuals or yelling at them is obviously included and should be avoided. In addition, there is the more indirect approach of utilizing joking, teasing, gossiping and backbiting to harm others. How do we know if we are speaking in a way that is harming or that is helping another? An effective fourfold test is to be sure what we are saying is true, kind, helpful and necessary. If it is, then it will certainly be nonhurtful.
You may be wondering how backbiting can hurt someone, as they are not present to hear the criticism. It is the thought force that they feel. The same applies to critical thoughts that we don’t verbalize. Both are the most subtle form of injury. My guru described it in an interesting way: “When you defile others, mentally and verbally, through backbiting gossip about the happenings in their lives, you are hurting them. You are actually making it difficult for them to succeed, to even persist where they are. They sense, they feel the ugliness that you are projecting toward them.”
Looking again at our definition of ahimsa from the Sandilya Upanishad, we note the phrase “not causing pain to any living being.” In other words, ahimsa extends beyond human beings. It includes animals, insects and plants as well. A verse in the Yajur Veda speaks directly to this idea: “You must not use your God-given body for killing God’s creatures, whether they are human, animal or whatever.”
A way that many Hindus honor this injunction is by following a vegetarian diet. The Tirukural, an important scripture on ethics written some two thousand years ago, has an entire chapter on vegetarianism, “Abstaining from Eating Meat.” It states that vegetarianism is the way of insightful souls who have realized that meat is the butchered flesh of another creature and that such restraint is an act of greater value than a thousand ghee offerings consumed in sacrificial fires.
A nonviolent approach is even extended to insects. Instead of thoughtlessly killing household pests, stop their entry. Likewise with garden insects or predators—instead of killing them, keep them away by natural means. A regrettable exception is that when predators, pests, bacteria and disease threaten the heath or safety of human beings or their animals, they may be eradicated.
Regrettable exceptions: While nonviolence is a guiding principle for Hindus, there are instances when violence is permitted. One such exception is the legal enforcement of law and the protection of society and the nation. Here a general directs the army, whose duty may rightly include unavoidable injury.
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There are two philosophical principles which form the basis for ahimsa. The first is the law of karma. The knowledge that if we harm another, we will be harmed in the future is a powerful motivation to refrain from violence. The Tirukural’s chapter entitled “Avoidance of Injuring Others” offers pertinent insight: “If a man visits sorrow on another in the morning, sorrow will visit him unbidden in the afternoon.”
A second basis for ahimsa is the perception of the Divine shining forth within all things, all beings, all peoples. When we see the Divine in someone, we naturally do not want to hurt them. Pious Hindus even see the Divine within people who are acting in evil ways, such as criminals or terrorists, and therefore seek not to harm them. An amazing example of this arose in Bali in 2002 when terrorists bombed a bar, killing over 200 people. The Balinese Hindus held a ceremony that sought forgiveness for the perpetrators.
We should guard against taking on the Western perspective that some people are intrinsically evil, the enemy, and therefore it is all right to treat them inhumanely. The law of karma does not distinguish between hurting an enemy or hurting a friend. The Tirukural affirms: “Harming others, even enemies who harmed you unprovoked, surely brings incessant sorrow.”
Beyond these two philosophical bases, the Tirukural provides two more motivations for nonviolence. The first is that it is simply how high-minded people act: “It is the principle of the pure in heart never to injure others, even when they themselves have been hatefully injured.” And the second is that it is a way of encouraging the injurer to reform his behavior and give up violence. The Tirukural puts it well: “If you return kindness for injuries received and forget both, those who harmed you will be punished by their own shame.”
A lack of compassion will obstruct our practice of ahimsa. When we are overly self-centered and oblivious to the feelings of others, we can hurt someone and not even be aware of it. Here are a few suggestions for deepening our sense of compassion for people. One simple way is to take care of animals. This is particularly helpful in teaching compassion to children. They learn to understand the needs of the animal and how to take care of it without unnecessarily disturbing or hurting it.
Another way to increase compassion is by gardening and growing plants. For the plant to survive, we need to understand its nature and properly take care of it. We can’t put a sun-loving plant in the shade and expect it to do well. We can’t over-water a plant that needs a small amount of water and expect it to thrive. Nurturing plants and animals prepares us to care for our fellow human beings.
A third suggestion relates to computers and computer games. Unfortunately, these days many children grow up spending way too much time alone immersed in a computer, playing often violent video games. This can stunt their normal emotional growth and social development. They can become strangers to compassion, lacking in healthy feelings for others. A more balanced upbringing is needed, a reasonable amount of computer access balanced out by healthy interaction with family members, friends and others.
Here is a concluding quote from my guru which beautifully ties together the ideals of nonviolence and compassion: “Practice compassion, conquering callous, cruel and insensitive feelings toward all beings. See God everywhere. Be kind to people, animals, plants and the Earth itself. Forgive those who apologize and show true remorse. Foster sympathy for others’ needs and suffering. Honor and assist those who are weak, impoverished, aged or in pain. Oppose family abuse and other cruelties.”