Ahimsa means the non-intention to harm other beings.
Ahimsa does not mean non-violence. The use of force is necessary for stopping criminals and saving others from exploitation. Following ahimsa one must remain compassionate towards criminals and take care when using reasonable force, so that ones mind does not descend into mean mindedness, hatred, developing a superiority complex or any other harmful state of mind towards that entity.
Following ahimsa also necessitates that we observe a duty of care to other beings. For example while driving a car we may not want to harm anyone, but if we drove very fast in a densely populated area then this would indicate negligence of ones duty of care towards those people and the existing social codes. Certainly this is harmful and would violate ahimsa.
Manovákkáyaeh sarvabhútá námapiidá namahiḿsá.
Ahiḿsá means not inflicting pain or hurt on anybody by thought, word or action. This word is wrongly interpreted by many. Some so-called learned persons in fact, define the word ahiḿsá in such a manner that if one adheres to it strictly, it is impossible to live not only in a society but also in forests, hills and caves. In such an interpretation of the term ahiḿsá, not only is killing prohibited, but even to fight a defensive fight is not allowed. By tilling the land one may cause the death of innumerable insects and creatures under the earth’s surface. Therefore, the use of a plough is not permissible. The followers of such an interpretation of ahiḿsá say that those who want to lead a religious life should not use the plough themselves, but employ other low-born people to do the same to save themselves from the sin of destroying life. Sugar must be poured into the abodes of the ants; no matter whether human beings have food or not. The poor must spare their blood from their bodies to save insects, the born enemies of human beings.
This is no definition of ahiḿsá. It merely causes confusion. It is contrary to true dharma; it is against the very laws of existence. Even the process of respiration involves the death of numberless microbes. They are all living beings and to save them one will have to stop breathing. The administration of medicines to the suffering will have to be stopped, because such medicines cause the destruction of disease-causing bacteria. If ahiḿsá is so interpreted, where will such interpreters be able to stand? They will have to give up even filtered water, because the process of filtration of water means destroying the insects that cause impurity. It is also not possible to drink impure water, because then it is likely that such microbes might die in the stomach.
In the post-Vedic age this type of ahiḿsá was practised in India for a long period, and as a result life for ordinary citizens became very miserable. The populace viewed with fear the religion dominated by this so-called ahiḿsá. They were forced to accept an atheistic belief, and they left the path of dharma. Devoid of any code of conduct, and intent on giving first preference to their own selfishness, such atheists became a burden to the society and to the world. Those who wanted to enforce the so-called ahiḿsá-influenced religion, became impractical and impotent by nature. Thus there is a pressing need in the modern age to re-think these historical facts from a new angle of vision.
This age was followed by another wherein another new definition of the word ahiḿsá was propagated. According to this definition, hiḿsá meant to cause pain to living beings, but did not include the slaughter of animals for food. This idea is very much mistaken. If causing pain amounts to hiḿsá, the slaughter of animals for food must also be called hiḿsá, because the animals do not offer their heads willingly at the altar of death for this cause.
Recently one more interpretation for this word has been heard. It somewhat resembles the second definition described earlier, but it even lacks the simplicity or sincerity of that interpretation. According to this interpretation, ahiḿsá means non-violence or non-application of force. Possibly it is this interpretation which has distorted most the meaning of ahiḿsá. In all actions of life, whether small or big, the unit mind progresses by surmounting the opposing forces. Life evolves through the medium of force. If this force is not properly developed, life becomes absolutely dull. No wise person would advocate such a thing, because this would be contrary to the very fundamentals of human nature.
The champions of non-violence (so-called ahiḿsá) have, therefore, to adopt hypocrisy and falsehood whenever they seek to use this so-called ahiḿsá for their purposes. If the people of one country conquer another country by brute force, the people of the defeated nation must use force to regain their freedom. Such a use of force may be crude or subtle and as a result, both the body and mind of the conquerors may be hurt. When there is any application of force, it cannot be called non-violence. Is it not violence if you hurt a person not by your hands but by some other indirect means? Is the boycott movement against a particular nation not violence? Therefore I say that those who interpret non-violence and ahiḿsá to be synonymous have to repeatedly resort to hypocrisy to justify their actions. The army or police are necessary for administration of a country. If these organizations do not use force even in case of necessity, their existence will be of no meaning. The mark of so-called ahiḿsá or non-violence on a bullet does not make the bullet non-violent.
Those who are not adequately equipped to oppose an evil-doer should make every endeavour to gain power and then make the proper use of this power. In the absence of ability to resist evil, and in the absence of even an effort to acquire such ability, declaring oneself to be non-violent in order to hide one’s weaknesses before the opponent may serve a political end, but it will not protect the sanctity of righteousness.
The meaning of the word ahiḿsá in the sphere of Sádhaná has already been explained. According to its correct meaning, one will have to guide one’s conduct carefully to ensure that one’s thought or actions cause pain to nobody and are unjust to none. Any thought or action with the intention of causing harm to someone else amounts to hiḿsá. The existence of life implies destruction of certain lower forms, no matter whether there is intention of doing harm or not. The process of respiration kills thousands of millions of protoplasmic cells. Whether one knows it or not, in every action such living cells are dying and being destroyed. The use of prophylactics means destructions of millions of disease-carrying germs. The crop-eating insects, parasites, mosquitoes, bugs, spiders, etc. are also being killed in innumerable ways. This is necessary to maintain one’s livelihood; it is not with the intention of causing pain to them. Such acts also, therefore, cannot be classed as hiḿsá; they are to be done for self-defense.
As a result of clash and cohesion within the physical structure of every entity and also for the maintenance of structural solidarity at every moment, a process of formation and deformation is always taking place. Rice is obtained from paddy – is there no life in paddy? Paddy can sprout. It is also capable of reproduction. For the preservation of the physical body you prepare rice by killing the paddy. Do you have any intention to harm anybody while preparing rice? It is thus seen that life depends on other forms of life for its very existence. There is no question of hiḿsá or ahiḿsá here. If this is conceived as hiḿsá living beings will have to subsist on bricks, sand and stone. Even breathing will have to be stopped or one will have to commit suicide.
It is, however, very necessary to remember two things in respect of edibles. First, as far as possible, articles of food must be selected from among those items in which development of consciousness is comparatively little; i.e., if vegetables are available, animals should not be slaughtered. Secondly, under all circumstances before killing any animal having developed or under-developed consciousness, it must be considered whether it is possible to live in a healthy body without taking such lives.
The human body is constituted of innumerable living cells. These cells develop and grow with the help of similar living entities. The nature of your living cells will be formed in accordance with the type of food you take. Ultimately all these together will affect your mind to some extent. If the cells of the human body grow on rotten and bad-smelling food, or on the fresh flesh of animals in which mean tendencies predominate, it is but natural that the mind will have a tendency of meanness. The policy of eating, without due consideration, whatever is available cannot be supported in any case, even though there may not be any question of hiḿsá or ahiḿsá. It should not be your policy to do what you wish. You must perform actions after due thought. For continued subsistence a policy will have to be adopted for taking food; otherwise it will be against the code of aparigraha. What aparigraha means will be explained later.
Hiḿsá and the use of force are not identical. Sometimes the use of force may result in hiḿsá, even though there is no thought in the mind to cause pain. When the pressure of circumstances compels the use of force against certain individuals resulting in hiḿsá, such individuals are termed as átatáyii in Saḿskrta.
Kśetradárápahárii ca shastradhárii dhanápaháh
Agnidagaradashcaeva śadete hyátatáyinah
“Anyone who, by the use of brute force, wants to take possession of your property, abducts your wife, comes with a weapon to murder you, wants to snatch away your wealth, sets fire to your house or wants to take life by administering poison, is called an átatáyii.” If any person or a nation wants to occupy all or part of another country, the use of physical force against such invading forces is not against the principle of ahiḿsá. Rather, by a wrong interpretation of the term ahiḿsá or by interpreting hiḿsá and brute force as identical, common people will have to suffer from loss of wealth, happiness, or other hardships.
Sometimes it so happens that people instead of convincing superstitious people, injure their sentiments by their behaviour. A perusal of history shows that the antagonists of idolatry have, on many occasions, destroyed beautiful temples which were unique examples of architecture. They destroyed the beautiful images which represented the expressions of sculptural art. All these acts are extremely violent, because they cause severe pain to the idolaters, and consequently the idol-worshippers adopt an obstinate attitude towards idols even though they are fully convinced that idol-worship is futile. As a result, not only is the spiritual progress of the idol-worshippers hampered, but the progress of the whole human society is retarded. It is worth noting that even if in any country all the people without exception give up idolatry, the spiritual aspirants, who follow the principles of Brahmacarya, will preserve images carefully in museums out of appreciation for sculpture and aesthetic taste. They will not destroy these beautiful works in any circumstances. Destroying a work of art also results in the destruction of the sense of subtle appreciation, and this is in no way proper.
While the mind is still attached to religious or sectarian signs or submits to superstitious rituals, it remains engrossed in crude objects. Any crude method to prevent such sectarian superstitions will cause reactions in the mind and this will hamper Sádhaná. The best course, therefore, is to help these persons to expand their minds by means of Brahma bhávaná – cosmic ideation – and only in that case will they be able to give up superstitions easily.
The principle of ahiḿsá, one of the aspects of Brahma Sádhaná, must have been clearly understood now. Let us now consider whether parents punishing a child amounts to hiḿsá or ahiḿsá. No, it is not hiḿsá because there is no intention of causing harm or pain at all. The purpose of such punishment is not to make the child shed tears, the purpose of such action is only correction. Whether it is a thief or a robber or a gentleman or a friend or anybody else, any action with a true spirit of rectification cannot be termed as hiḿsá, no matter how harsh it may seem.
It must now be clear that in day-to-day life it is not at all difficult to follow the path of true ahiḿsá. Taking meat as food is harmful in hot countries, especially where vegetables are available in abundance. However, under medical advice, as a diet after recovery from illness or as one of the constituents of medicine, eating meat cannot be called either hiḿsá or greed, because the meat is eaten under those circumstances only to maintain life. In extremely cold countries people eat animal flesh, wear animal skins and burn animal fat under the pressure of necessity.
Heroism is revealed in fight against aggressors. Consider the Rámáyańa, the great epic. It describes Shrii Ráma waging a war with all his might against Rávańa, who abducted his wife. Shrii Ráma’s action was in no way against the principle of ahiḿsá, because he did not invade Lanká with any desire to conquer the territory or to cause harm.
Consider the Mahábhárata. Mahápuruśa Shrii Krśńa had insisted to the Pandavas to take up arms against the Kaoravas, because the Kaoravas were aggressors (átatáyii) who had taken possession of the land by force. No one would accuse the very incarnation of love, Shriiman Maháprabhu, one of the great revolutionists in the social and spiritual world, of adopting ways associated with hiḿsá; but he too pounced like a lion on the tyrant Kázii (Judge). If hiḿsá and use of force were synonymous, Maháprabhu, the incarnation of mercy, certainly would not have done so.
The use of force against an aggressor is valour and desisting from such use of force is cowardice. But the weak people must assess their strength before indulging in violent conflict with a powerful aggressor; otherwise, if a fight is started without acquiring proper strength injustice may temporarily triumph. In history such an error has been called “Rajput folly”. The Rajputs always went forward with courage to resist Mughal invasion. No doubt, they fought valiantly, but they faced the enemy without assessing their own strength. They suffered from intrigues and internal dissensions and hence they always lost battles and died a heroic death. It is, therefore necessary to acquire adequate strength before declaring a war against an aggressor. To pardon aggressors before correcting their nature means encouraging injustice. Of course, if you find that the aggressor is bent on destroying you, whether you use force or not, it would be proper to die at least giving a blow to the best of your might without waiting to assemble the adequate forces.” – Sarkar, Prabhat, Ánanda Púrńimá 1957, Jamalpur, A Guide to Human Conduct, Ahiḿsá
Considering the collective interests of all living beings, it is essential that capitalism be eradicated. But, what should be the proper method to achieve this end?
It cannot be denied that violence gives rise to violence. Then again, nothing can ensure that the application of force without violence, with the intention of rectification, will necessarily bring good results. So what should be done under such circumstances?
Nothing would be better, if it were possible, than the eradication of capitalism by friendly persuasion and humanistic appeals. In that case the peace of the greater human family would not be much disturbed. But can it be guaranteed that everyone will respond to this approach? Some people may say that a day will come when, as a result of repeatedly listening to such appeals and gradually imbibing them over a long time, as well as through proper mental and spiritual education, good sense will prevail among the exploiters. This argument is very pleasant to hear. Such attempts are not reprehensible. But is it practicable to wait indefinitely for good sense to prevail among the exploiters? By then the exploited mass will have given up the ghost!
Though the humanistic approach works in some cases, in most instances it does not produce any result; and even where it does work, it takes a very long time. So, wherever necessary, capitalism must be forced to abandon its ferocious hunger by taking strong measures. But it cannot be assumed that even these measures will be completely successful, because those who appear to be under control due to fear of the law will adopt other ways to fulfil their desires. Black marketing, adulteration, etc., cannot be totally eradicated by threats or by arousing fear of the law.
Thus, stronger measures will have to be taken; that is, tremendous circumstantial pressure will have to be created. To create this sort of circumstantial pressure, the application of force is absolutely necessary. Those who believe that the non-application of force alone is ahiḿsá [not to hurt anyone] are bound to fail. No problem in this world can be solved by adopting this kind of ahiḿsá.” – Sarkar, Prabhat, 26 January 1958 RU, Trimohan, Bhagalpur, Prout in a Nutshell Part 3, Problems of the Day
“(i) Ahiḿsá: Not to inflict pain or hurt on anybody by thought, word or action, is Ahiḿsá.” – Srii Srii Anandamurti, Caryácarya Part 2, Sádhaná (Intuitional Practice)
“Ahiḿsá means not causing suffering to any harmless creature through thought, word or deed.” – Srii Srii Anandamurti, 4 June 1959, Prout in a Nutshell Part 3, The Place of Sadvipras in the Samája Cakra
“The youths said, “Punish them! Give them capital punishment!” But the prince said, “No! We have accepted the real meaning of non-violence (Ahimsa). Not to use arms against harmless people but to fight the exploiters or those who torture innocent people – this is true non-violence – the sacred duty which we have performed. Those who are now captive in our hands, those demons, they are also our brethren. We should try to rectify their nature.” So the prince formed a new government and advised that government to build a good number of rectification centres where those demons would get every facility for their mental and spiritual upliftment.” – Srii Srii Anandamurti, 1981, The Golden Lotus of the Blue Sea, 85%
“Then I told Baba I was following ahimsa and said that my boss was attacking me fatally and I was bearing it all silently.
Baba said, “This means that you have not understood the true meaning of ahimsa. Suppose you are going through the jungle on a zigzag path full of shrubs. On both the sides, there are shrubs. Your enemy is sitting somewhere by the side of your path, and will attack you as soon as you reach near. What should you do in such a situation?”
I said, “Baba, either I would return or bear the blow silently.”
Baba replied, “No my instruction regarding ahimsa does not mean this. In such a situation it would be your duty to pick up a long and strong bamboo and beat the bushes on both sides of your path as you proceed along. If due to this action, the hidden aggressor gets his head broken or even dies, you will still remain a follower of ahimsa. Ahimsa does not mean that you will do nothing to protect yourself.”
This interpretation of ahimsa renewed my inner strength. My mind felt deep peace.” – Acarya Nagina, Ananda Katha, The True Meaning of Ahimsa, p18