Ahimsa has been an important moral principle in South Asia for thousands of years and plays a significant role in the traditions of Jainism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and, some would say, Sikhism. Although each of these traditions frames the importance of ahimsa and its application in rather different ways, all extend ahimsa beyond humans alone. The basic idea is that himsa, commonly translated as violence, should be avoided whenever possible. Violence is simply the act of harming, whether intentionally and directly (say, through killing another being), intentionally and indirectly (say, through directing someone else to kill another being), or unintentionally (say, by acting or failing to act in a way that kills another being).
As a Gandhi scholar Veena Howard notes, “[u]nlike any other religion, ahimsa defines Jainism.” In the Jain tradition, all beings are thought to have souls that, in their embodied forms, can experience harm. According to the Jain Sutras:
All living beings desire happiness, and have revulsion from pain and suffering. They are fond of life, they love to live, long to live…Hence no living being should be hurt, injured, or killed…All things breathing, all things existing, all things living, all things whatsoever, should not be slain, or treated with violence, or insulted, or tortured, or driven away…[Anyone] who hurts living beings…, or gets them hurt by others, or approves of hurt caused by others, augments the world’s hostility towards [themselves].
For Jains, all beings are categorized based on the number of senses they possess. Humans and other animals possess the most, with five senses, while plants only possess one. The more senses a being has, the more ways in which they are vulnerable to harm and the greater the injury that can be done to them through violence.
Jains recognize four types of himsa: defensive violence, violence brought about through one’s profession, violence brought about through one’s activities of daily living, and intentional violence. They recognize that complete ahimsa is impossible but, nonetheless, strive to achieve it. Jain monks and nuns avoid all forms of violence, so they will, for instance gently sweep the path ahead of them, so as to avoid stepping on any insects. In the face of violence, they refrain from violent self-defence and many will not prepare their own food or have food prepared for them but only accept food as a gift. For Jain laypeople, however, ahimsa isn’t as strict and includes conduct such as adopting vegetarian or vegan diets and avoiding occupations and conflicts that may involve violence.
It is important to note that ahimsa does not mean passivity. It is not just the negation of violence but can involve acting in creative ways that are free of violence and that promote a future free from violence. Some contemporary peace advocates argue that nonviolence can offer a comprehensive normative framework of ethics as a guide to personal and political action. Indeed, a number of leaders in social justice movements have been inspired by ahimsa, such as Mohandas Gandhi, in the struggle for Indian self-rule, and Martin Luther King Jr., who was a key leader in the US civil rights movement of the 1960s.
As you can see, while ahimsa draws attention to each of the four lenses considered above, it does not focus on any one lens more than another. Clearly, ahimsa is consequentialist as it begins from the notion that causing harm is ethically wrong. Anything that you might do that would result in another being’s injury should be avoided. However, ahimsa is also deontological. The motivations behind our actions must align with nonviolence. It is not enough to have nonviolent deeds; nonviolent words and thoughts are also required. We should intend peace, compassion, and nonviolence because, in a way, these actions are good in and of themselves.
Importantly, ahimsa does not just refer to ethical codes of conduct, but also the virtues that allow one to be harmonious with oneself and society. Ahimsa and the related habits of mind and emotions, like compassion, must be cultivated. Gandhi believed that ahimsa was intimately tied to the virtue of self-control—absolute nonviolence to all living creatures requires one to conquer the seductions of the ego and exercise self-control and limitation. Lastly, ahimsa is relational. A commitment to ahimsa draws attention to the ways in which beings are interconnected with each other and vulnerable to harm from each other. Because of these interconnections and the negative effects that violence has on one’s own character, any violence towards a living being results in violence towards oneself.
- Veena R. Howard, “Nonviolence in the 3 Dharma Traditions: Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism,” in Routledge Handbook of Pacifism, ed. Andrew Fiala, (New York: Routledge, 2018), 81. ↵
- Howard, 81. ↵
- Andrew Fiala, "Pacifism", in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta (Fall 2021 Edition), https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2021/entries/pacifism. ↵
- "Nonviolence,” in Martin Luther King, Jr. Encyclopedia, https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/nonviolence. ↵
- Howard, “Nonviolence,” 89-90. ↵