What Does Ahimsa Really Mean?

What Does Ahimsa Really Mean?

by Shruti Bakshi

One can scarcely speak of Mahatma Gandhi without mentioning the word ‘ahimsa‘, generally understood as non-violence or not harming others physically. However, that is a simplistic understanding that prompts critics to claim that ahimsa has no place in extreme situations of conflict.

Ahimsa is mentioned as one of the five ‘yamas’ by Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras; the yamas are restraints to observe as one sets out on the spiritual path (the other four yamas are Satya (truthfulness), Asteya (noncovetousness), Brahmacharya (overcoming sexual desire) and Aparigraha (non-possessiveness)). But these are not so much rules to follow as qualities to develop within oneself so that the subtler or finer understanding comes to light.

So with ahimsa, at a basic level, one may understand it as refraining from physical violence. A slightly finer understanding may be that one must also be harmless in one’s words. Still finer understanding means not harming others in one’s thoughts. Finer yet – not harming oneself in one’s own thoughts (avoiding attitudes of guilt, shame, victimisation, discontentment, despondency, etc). An even subtler understanding would be not harming the Divine plan that is unfolding by enforcing one’s own ideas and plans upon it.

Many critics of Gandhi’s practice of ahimsa claim that even Lord Krishna did not ask Arjuna to shrink form violent action in the Mahabharata war. But such thinking misses the essence of ahimsa and does not recognise that choosing not to act is also an action. 

Viewed from the lens of Dharma, action is not something that can be based on prescribed playbooks. There is no ‘one’ action that works best to achieve an identified objective because action depends on the situation and context.

Read also: What is the Right Basis for Action – Enhance or Dissolve?

A better explanation of ahimsa would probably be, action that protects universal peace rather than necessarily actions of peace. Mahatma Gandhi, realising that going to war with the British would leave millions massacred with no real hope for victory for the under-equipped Indian side, decided in his wisdom, that means other than physical war would be more effective.

Gandhi’s ahimsa seems to be as misunderstood as Lord Krishna’s encouragement to Arjuna to fight on the battlefield of Kurukshetra.

The fact is that prior to the Mahabharata war, Lord Krishna tried his best to broker peace between the two warring clans but failed. When war became inevitable, he invoked Kshatriya Dharma and explained to Arjuna that once one is on the battlefield, one cannot turn around and run. What is important is to carry out one’s action with detachment.

When we work from the ego/mind, we cannot help but be attached to our actions and their outcomes. It’s only as we recognise our larger identity with the unity of life, that we can carry out even the most violent action if required of us, without a feeling of malice or intention of causing suffering to others. Acting from the right consciousness (in the highest, seeing oneself in others) therefore is the key to understanding what ahimsa really means. 

As is mostly the case in the realm of spirituality, an action that seems like it leads to spiritual progress or a higher consciousness actually is seen, from a more mature understanding, to be arising out of that higher consciousness itself! Things seem to almost invert. While it feels like it takes much practice of noble qualities to be closer to our sage-nature, all noble qualities actually emanate spontaneously from a sage, without practice.

Hopefully as people begin to have the right understanding of Dharma, we will have more clarity around the actions of an Arjuna or a Gandhi.


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