Ohimsa (Ahimsa) an ethical doctrine of non-violence that has its origin in ancient India is especially associated with jainism and predominantly practiced in buddhism. The concept of non-violence or non-injury to all living beings constitutes the nucleus of both the Jain and Buddhist ethics. The Jain and Buddhist ethical stand showing sympathy for and abstaining from harming all living things is unique as it emerged as a protest against the ancient Vedic rituals of animal sacrifice. In modern times Mahatma Gandhi had been universally known as an exponent of ahimsa.
The Jain principle of ahimsa seems to be the logical outcome of the Jain cosmology or metaphysics. The main contention of the Jain view of metaphysics is that souls inhabit in each and everything, living (jiva) and non-living (ajiva), animate and non-animate. The world is composed of different kinds of things or substances. There are then as many souls as there are things in the world. A contemporary of Gautama Buddha, Mahavira, the founder of Jainism, interprets the concept of ahimsa as renunciation of violence that applies not only to humans and animals, but also earth, stones, water, fire and wind, which are, in his view, living beings and suffer pain just as the human beings, plants and animals.
Jainism, like other religious and philosophical traditions in India, aims at attainment of liberation (moksa) by the suffering individual from bondage. An individual or jiva, in the Jain view, can hope to accomplish this supreme goal of life only when he succeeds in removing the obstacles constituted by matter (pudgala) or the material body that one assumes through the process of birth and rebirth. The road to liberation is not the same in Indian religious and philosophical systems. Buddhism, for instance, lays down eight steps known as eight-fold- path (astabgika-marga). For Jainism the path to liberation lies in the joint effect of the three indispensable conditions, namely, right faith, right knowledge and right conduct.
Right conduct consists in the practice of the five vows (mahavratas) as laid down thus: 1) non-violence (ahimsa), 2) abstinence from falsehood (satyam), 3) abstinence from stealing (asteyam), 4) celibacy (brahmacarya), and 5) abstinence from all attachment (aparigraha). The first vow is as follows: I renounce all killing of living beings, whether subtle or gross, whether movable or immovable. Nor shall I myself kill living beings (nor cause others to do it, nor consent to it). As long as I live, I confess, and blame, repent and exempt myself of these sins in the thrice threefold way (i.e., acting, commanding, consenting, either in the past or in the present or in the future) in mind, body and speech. The Jains including the lay ones adhering to monkshood are required to undertake the vows and put them into practice strictly and rigorously. As regards the first vow, ahimsa, some Jains, lest any life be destroyed, sweep the ground as they walk, cover their mouth with muslin cloth to avoid swallowing or harming any insects or germs while breathing air. They even refuse taking honey and strain water to be sure that the soul inhabiting in it is not harmed.
The concept of ahimsa seems to have been thoroughly developed in Buddhism than in Jainism, and is very often associated with the former as the latter has not spread in the world as widely as the former. Historical evidence shows that while Jainism did not gain popularity in ancient and medieval India, Buddhism, on the other hand, was elevated to the status of a sort of state religion during the reigns of the Emperor Ashoka, Kanishka and the Palas. Non-violence came to be accepted as one of the state policies by these Buddhist rulers as when, for instance, slaughtering of animals was prohibited in the whole of the Ashokan Empire. While Jainism did not flourish outside India, the country of its origin, Buddhism, on the other hand, spread to the north of India to Tibet and its neighbours, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan, China, Japan, Korea, Mongolia, and to the south to Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam and other parts of Malayan Peninsula. Since Jainism remains unknown in these countries, ahimsa is obviously taken to be the principle of Buddhism.
Considered from another point of view, the Buddhist concept of ahimsa seems to be an improvement on that of Jainism. To undertake vows to abstain from harming living beings is a negative process which appears to be incomplete without simultaneous cultivation of positive moral actions, such as love, compassion for all living things. Not that the Jain principle of ahimsa does not imply respect and sympathy for living beings, but the fact is that this positive aspect of morality is not developed in Jainism. In Buddhism, on the other hand, both negative and positive aspects of morality are fully developed. Buddhism’s emphasis on universal love gives an improved meaning to ahimsa to include not only abstentions from harming, but also loving all living creatures.
In Buddhism ahimsa is one of the five precepts known as pavcasila that in turn constitute right action of the eight-fold-path to Nirvana. The first precept is a vow, like the first Jain mahavrata, to undertake the rule of training to refrain from harming all living things. The precept is meant to imply more than killing in the ordinary sense of the term. For instance, there are several ways of taking life: 1) by the person himself with a sword or lance, 2) by giving the order to another, 3) by using such weapons as spear, an arrow or a stone, 4) by such treacherous techniques as digging of pits, setting springs or poisoning ponds, 5) by magical rites and 6) by the instrumentality of demons. To quote from the Dhammapada: ‘Every one trembles at physical violence and every one fears death. Life is dear to every one. Therefore comparing others with oneself, one should cause neither injury nor death to others. It is important to note that for Buddhism non-violence is not mere abstinence from killing or harming living beings. To desire or have a motive to harm is as sinful as the taking of life.
In Buddhism one is advised not only to refrain from violence and other unwholesome states, one is asked also to inculcate the habit of doing the wholesome states. Buddhist literature gives a list of the wholesome actions to be done simultaneously with refraining from doing the unwholesome ones. One of the most prominent of such things to be done is known as Dana meaning literally ‘giving’ to others. One may practice the Buddhist virtue of Dana by helping others whenever and whichever way possible. The virtue of Dana is not to be understood, however, merely in the materialistic sense of giving. It is the will to give or help which is to be counted more than mere giving of things in whatever greater proportion it might be. The underlying meaning of Dana, therefore, lies in one’s concern for the welfare of others. Dana as a virtue is, however, only one expression of the most important Buddhist concept known as metta meaning ‘loving-kindness’ to all living beings. Ahimsa is another expression of metta. Metta very often finds expression as a sincere and selfless wish for the genuine welfare of all beings as is epitomized in the following: May all beings be happy (sabbe satta sukhita hontu).
Ahimsa constitutes also an important part of yoga as stated in the Yoga sutra of Patavjali. The Yoga system mentions eight steps to the practice of yoga. One of these eight steps is called Yama which means restraint. As per Jain and Buddhist morality a yogi is required to practice abstain from five yamas, one of which is non-violence.
Although ahimsa is to be practiced primarily for spiritual advancement, in modern times Mahatma Gandhi added an impetus to ahimsa when he transformed it into a viable and effective political force in his freedom struggle against the British rule. While resorting to violence and mad use of arms in a freedom movement is commonplace, Mahatma Gandhi created history making non-violence the political creed and an important strategy to peacefully push the British rulers out of the Indian soil. Gandhi’s non-violence was a strategic weapon of the brave and courageous, implemented not out of weakness or fear, but out of solid determination, mental strength and moral superiority. Gandhi’s men were trained and morally strengthened to respond to the violent measures of the British rulers with no-violence, whatever difficult that might be. It was Gandhi’s credit that his philosophy of non-violence was aptly rewarded as the British eventually had to yield to the perseverant but non-violent demands of the millions of Indians for freedom. It was with Gandhi and not with those who resorted to violence that the British government negotiated for the freedom of India.
Gandhi made ahimsa an integral part of his continuing search for truth called Satyagraha. He launched his Satyagraha movement first in South Africa in 1907 to counter a law that all Indians, without exception, were required to register. To Gandhi truth is religion and there is no other way to find the truth except the way of non-violence. Satyagraha is, therefore, known as the doctrine of non-violent activism. In Gandhi’s view, in a truthful action one is prepared to get hurt but not to hurt- an action governed by the doctrine of non-violence. [Niru Kumar Chakma]