ahimsã (Sanskrit: अहिंसा, "non-harming") is derived from the root hims, "to strike". Himsã is injury or harm. A-himsã is the opposite of this, non harming. ahimsã means abstaining from causing harm or injury. It is gentleness and non-injury, whether physical, mental or emotional. It is good to know that nonviolence speaks only to the most extreme forms of forceful wrongdoing, while ahimsã goes much deeper to prohibit even the subtle abuse and the simple hurt.
Ahimsã manifests in various ways. Mahatma Gandhi used ahimsa as a powerful weapon against the British to drive them out of India and to achieve independence. Even Martin Luther King junior, after a trip to India, adopted nonviolence as the hallmark of his civil rights movement in America. Ahimsa is the basis for the vegetarianism within Hinduism and many Hindus even though they may not be vegetarian will not enter a temple or perform puja wearing leather.
The Principle of ahimsã
The principle of ahimsa can directly by derived from the concept of the modes of matter (three gunas) It arises from the mode of goodness, (sattva guna). Ahimsa is also tied into the principle to karma. Treat the universe in a less harmful way and the universe will treat you accordingly. Many followers of ahimsa apply the principle of non harming well beyond just being vegetarian or not wearing leather, but also to not even thinking or speaking in a harmful manner. The Jain religion, which is a sister tradition to Hinduism, in particular, has made ahimsa the very cornerstone of its faith. Mahavira is the founder of Jainism and one of the greatest teachers of ahimsa.
Bhagavad Gita and ahimsã
It is interesting to note that in the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna seemingly evokes the principle of ahimsa to avoid fighting a terrible war that he knew would destroy the world as he knew it, and yet, Krishna, as God, wanted Arjuna to rise above what he feels and extolled him to adopt an even higher principle, yoga, and fight the war as a yogi. In the end Arjuna accepted Krishna’s position and fought a devastating war where, according to the Mahabharata, millions of people were killed. Mahatma Gandhi, on the other hand, regularly studied the Gita and held it in highest esteem. The relationship between ahimsa and the Bhagavad Gita is a fascinating study in contradiction and has been a great problem for Hinduism from the earliest of times. Did Arjuna truly evoke the principle of ahimsa?
Swami Vivekananda notes that Gita is a bouquet composed of the beautiful flowers of spiritual truths collected from the Upanishads (core teachings of the Vedanta philosophy). Although the Gita deals with several core philosophies of the Hindu religion, the part on spotlight here is Krishna’s advice to Arjuna that he should act. As a warrior, he has to fight for the righteous cause but Arjuna is grief struck, looking at his own kith and kin on the enemy lines. Krishna advocates Arjuna to fight as that is his dharma.
So if a war is fought for a right reason, is that war justified? Does the Gita then directly contradict the principle of Ahimsa?Ahimsa means abstaining from causing harm or injury. War is one of the worst forms of inflicting harm and Krishna advocates Arjuna to fight. Why? Mahatma Gandhi, a major political and spiritual leader of India and one of the prominent advocates of non-violence - studied and commented on the Gita - “When doubts haunt me, when disappointments stare me in the face, and when I see not one ray of light on the horizon, I turn to the Bhagavad Gita, and find a verse to comfort me; and I immediately begin to smile in the midst of overwhelming sorrow. My life has been full of tragedies and if they have not left any visible and indelible effect on me, I owe it to the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita”.
So if the question raised above was asked to the Mahatma, what would his answer be? The surprising fact is that a question on very similar lines had indeed been asked by someone through correspondence and Mahatma replied to it, the gist of which is below:
When a poet composes his work, he does not have a clear conception of all its possible implications. It is the very beauty of good poem that it is greater than its author. The truth which a poet utters in his moment of inspiration, we do not often see him following in his own life. Hence the lives of many poets are at variance with the teaching of their poems. That the overall teaching of the Gita is not violence but non-violence is evident from the argument which begins in Chapter II and ends in chapter XVIII. The intervening chapters propound the same theme. Violence is simply not possible unless one is driven by anger, by ignorant love and by hatred. The Gita, on the other hand, wants us to be incapable of anger and attain to a state unaffected by the three gunas (Saattvic, Rajas and Tamas). Such a person can never feel anger. I see even now the red eyes of Arjuna every time he aimed an arrow from his bow, drawing the string as far as his ear.
But, then, had Arjuna’s obstinate refusal to fight anything to do with non-violence? In fact, he had fought often enough in the past. On the present occasion, his reason was suddenly clouded by ignorant attachment. He did not wish to kill his kinsmen. He did not say that he would not kill anyone even if he believed that person to be wicked. Shri Krishna is the Lord dwelling in everyone’s heart. He understands the momentary darkening of Arjuna’s reason. He, therefore, tells him:”You have already committed violence. By talking now like a wise man, you will not learn non-violence. Having started on this course, you must finish the job.” If a passenger travelling in a train which is running at a speed of forty miles an hour suddenly feels aversion to travelling and jumps out of the train, he will have but committed suicide. He has not in truth realized the futility of travelling as such or of travelling by train. Arjuna was in a similar condition. Krishna, who believed in non-violence, could not have given Arjuna any advice other than what he did. But to conclude from this that the Gita teaches violence or justifies war is as unwarranted as to argue that, since violence in some form or other is inescapable for maintaining the body in existence, dharma lies only in violence. The man of discriminating intellect, on the other hand, teaches the duty of striving for deliverance from this body which exists through violence, the duty, that is, of striving for moksha.
I do not wish to suggest that violence has no place at all in the teaching of the Gita. The dharma which it teaches does not mean that a person who has not yet awakened to the truth of non-violence may act like a coward. Anyone who fears others, accumulates possessions and indulges in sense-pleasures will certainly fight with violent means, but violence does not, for that reason, become justified as his dharma. There is only one dharma. Non-violence means moksha, and moksha means realizing Satyanarayana (Truth as God; God in the form of Truth). But this dharma does not under any circumstances countenance running away in fear. In this world which baffles our reason, violence there will then always be. The Gita shows the way which will lead us out of it, but it also says that we cannot escape it simply by running away from it like cowards. Anyone who prepares to run away would do better, instead, to kill and be killed.
[From Gujarati] Navajivan, 11-10-1925 —- Only relevant excerpts from the article is posted here.
Mahatma also explains the discipline required to understand the Shastras in this article. The Shastras could be easily misread [which is detrimental towards understanding the real essence] and hence the importance of a Guru to deliver the right meaning with relevant interpretations. One can only begin to comprehend how difficult it would be to walk on the path of non-violence, with a complete understanding of the resilience it demands.
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