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Ahimsa (Non-violence)

In a previous post I introduced the concept of the eight limbs of yoga (ashtanga yoga) as given in Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. With this post today, I will start discussion of the individual components of the eight limbs. We’ll start by talking about the first of the five Yamas – ahimsa (non-violence).

Defining Ahimsa

The word Ahimsa is a composite of "himsa" with the prefix "a". In Sanskrit, the prefix "a" usually signifies the absence or negation of the term that follows the prefix. The word "himsa" means violence or causing injury or harm. So, "ahimsa" means non-violence or non-injury. It is interesting to note that Patanjali does not provide a definition for any of the terms that are used for the yamas and the niyamas. I believe he must have felt that the students, due to their long training with the teacher, must already be familiar with the basic definition of these terms. What he has provided in the sutras is what one can expect to achieve when fully committed to a yama or a niyama. The sutra (chapter 2, sutra 35) related to ahimsa is:

अहिंसाप्रतिष्ठायां तत्सन्निधौ वैरत्यागः॥३५॥

ahiMsaapratiShThaayaaM tatsannidhou vairatyaagaH (sutra 2.35)

"In the presence of one firmly established in non-violence, all hostilities cease".

What this sutra is telling us that if we can develop a deep sense of non-violence, then even those with a violent nature will  desist from harming us.

Here is a story from the Indian lore that is commonly retold to illustrate this point . In the late 18th century, Lord Swaminarayana, then known with his original name of Neelakantha, was roaming from place to place in search of spiritual fulfillment. He was not only fully established in the value of non-violence but was also fearless. One evening, as an 11-year old boy, when he reached a village, the villagers asked him to go inside a house for the night as a man-eating lion was known to visit the village each evening in search of human flesh. The boy refused to go inside as he always stayed outside under a tree to spend the night. He then sat under a tree in meditation for the night. At night the lion visited the place as usual but instead of harming Neelakantha, he sat next to his feet until the boy opened his eyes in the morning. The villagers were totally taken aback when they found out that the lion had behaved like a domesticated dog at the feet of the young saint. Realizing that they were in the company of a true saint, they prostrated at his feet in reverence. Neelakantha later became known as Swaminarayana, the founder of the trust by the same name which now has a huge following in India and  in many other countries.

Understanding Ahimsa

Vyasa, in his commentary on this sutra writes that "Ahimsa is the absence of any tendency to hurt or injure any living being, in any manner, at all times". Vyasa adds that all the other yamas and niyamas are rooted in this single yama of ahimsa. We continue to refine all the other yamas and niyamas in order to finally get totally established in the value of ahimsa.

We can injure others through our physical actions, speech or even thought. All violent actions have their origin in the lower mind which is dominated by the ego. Violence caused through speech is the most damaging and long-lasting. Most people can summon feelings of hurt caused to them in their past as they continue to carry the scars of verbal injury for a very long time. It is the ego which gives rise to negative tendencies like anger, hatred, jealousy, selfishness etc. A person who has these negative emotions is most likely to cause injury to others. In personal relationships, one can cause injury through emotional violence – harsh or abusive language, angry outbursts, emotional judgment, sarcasm, skillful manipulations – to name a few of the hurtful actions.

In sutra 2.34, Patanjali states that injury can be caused not just through direct action, but also can be done through another agent (hiring someone to kill for you!) or by simply giving your approval for a violent action.

The value of ahimsa needs to be applied not only to others but also to oneself. We know that we can cause injury to ourselves in many different ways. For example we hurt ourselves all the time through over-eating or eating the wrong kind of food. Another example related to the practice of yoga is when we allow our ego to dictate the performance of an asana and injuring ourselves in the process. We also can hurt ourselves through self destructive behavior caused by feelings of guilt or fear etc.

Another common form of violence that is mentioned in yogic texts is the killing of animals to obtain human food. Because ahimsa is a strong value mentioned in many texts, including the yoga sutras and the Bhagavad Gita, most people believe "vegetarianism" to be an automatic corollary of the yama of ahimsa.  Of course, if you live in a climate where it is not possible to grow any vegetation (North Pole, for example) you may be left with no alternative except to eat the meat of an animal. Similarly if you live in a coastal area, then catching and selling fish may be the only means of earning a livelihood. I have also come across people whose health rapidly deteriorates if they go fully vegetarian and they need to eat meat for medical reasons. The injunction of ahimsa is not strictly applicable in these situations.

Ahimsa is not only a common theme in many of the yoga related texts but is a strong component of the Buddhist, Jain and many other faiths and philosophies. Despite its being such an influential value in various cultures, most spiritual authors believe that there may be situations in life when violence in some form or another becomes inevitable. The war of Mahabharata which was fought between Pandavas and Kauravas and in which scores of people were killed, is cited as an example of such a situation. Bhagavad Gita, which is one of the chapters in Mahabharata, is a dialog between Lord Krishna and Arjuna of the Pandavas wherein Krishna provides a convincing argument to Arjuna as to why he should fight the Kauravas in order to uproot evil from the society. In order to determine whether a situation demands such a drastic action one needs a pure and crystal-clear intellect which can make decisions without any influence from the ego.

In our day-to-day life, sometimes it becomes a challenge to determine whether or not a certain action of ours will hurt the other person or not. According to the yoga sutras, a regular practice of yoga can help sharpen the intellect to a point where it becomes easier to identify situations where some form of violence may become necessary and also to determine whether we are inadvertently hurting someone through our action or speech etc. Practicing ahimsa also leads one to develop universal compassion for all living creatures.

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