Ahimsa: An introduction

Ahiṁsā (OED): respect for all living things and avoidance of violence towards others.

Ahiṁsā literally means non-violence, as in English the “a” prefix is a negation, of being without (as an a-theist) and hiṁsā is sanskrit from hims “to strike”, himsa means “injury or harm”. It is a word used in the religious traditions of India – Hindu, Jain and Buddhist – to signify a vow, the adoption of a code of practise, a religious observance.

A short history of the traditions associated with this word is worth reiterating. The source of this summary is from Edwin Bryant’s (2009) translation of “The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali” (particularly Ch II.30).

The practise is generally interpreted as not injuring any living creature, anywhere, at any time. It forms the basis of the moral observances of these practises and religions, in some traditions their ethical foundation. It is recognised that while bathing, cleaning, performing one’s obligations (dharma, a concept we will return to) it is impossible to avoid harming tiny living entities, such as “bacteria” and insects. Eating meat, the flesh of other creatures is taboo, and even harming trees should be avoided. “Needless to say, they must reject any type of military career”. Particularly in Jain practise, one inspects the ground constantly, sweeping it to remove the tiny creatures one might otherwise step on.

Jains can avoid eating root vegetables and farming, and even cooking at night is avoided; insects can be attracted to cooking flames. Since it is impossible to avoid harming creatures merely by being alive, Jain sages may ultimately fast to death, sacrificing their life to save others, those lives they would harm by being alive. This is in large part, the definition of heroism after-all, giving up one’s life for others.

Underlying these observances lies a general recognition that all living beings have a soul; as all souls are equal the actions one may take to protect, to care for others is extended to all beings; acknowledging a common spiritual purpose and source. It is important to understand, particularly in the context of modern Vegan practise, that there is no essential distinction made between animals, “bacteria”, plants; the concept applies to all living beings without distinction.

Yogic practises do not advocate such an extreme interpretation but do apply a more general observance of the ideal, and it forms the basis of vegetarianism; a refusal to eat meat. It is the killing aspect, not the “using” of animals that was strictly avoided by this interpretation. Of course the unethical, violent treatment – causing harm – of animals (such practises as factory farming for milk for example) would not be countenanced.

The observance of ahimsa carries over to behaviour towards others as well, and so the violence of harsh words, of causing fear in others; the observance applies to word, thought and deed. The guiding principle of “treading softly” forms the basis of ahimsa.

With what we know about the world now, how practical is this principle?

The mass of our bodies are comprised of a majority of micro-organisms that are not us. Our digestive tract is populated with vast multitudes of bacteria, as is our skin, our mouth, nose, lungs, all of our body. We are not really “ourselves”, but rather a structure, an eco-system within which many micro-organisms co-exist. It is extraordinarily complex and multi-faceted. Even deep within our cells we have the “mitochondria”; these are an alien micro-organism, inherited from our mothers, that metabolise and produce energy. Genetically, they are not part of “us”, if we define “us” as being the genetic structure, the DNA, that originates from our parents, father and mother.

In the writing paraphrased above, Bryant listed “bacteria” as an organism, alive in its own right. But, these ancient writers had no inkling that such micro-organisms existed, these creatures cannot be seen except with the aid of microscopes. Neither they nor any human thought at the time knew, or even speculated, that disease, that illness, is the result of such organisms and the interaction, the imbalance, that they bring within our bodies.

The germ theory of disease, did not originate until European scientists proposed it in the mid-16th Century, though then, as there was no ability to detect germs, the theory was held in disdain. It wasn’t until the late 19th Century that “germs” could be seen with the invention and improvements of the microscope; bacteria and then viruses could be seen and we started to truly understand how many diseases worked; micro-biology was born.

Our immune system is now known to have a primary function: to identify and kill organisms that it considers harmful to the rest of the body. We must be careful with how we define this, as we cannot say to kill “any” organism for this can be a problem, an immune system that does not function properly attacks and kills parts of our body, the bacteria within it, that we rely upon to live. Allergic responses, auto-immune diseases, are thought to be the result of an improper response from the immune system, identifying chemical compounds, life-forms, that are otherwise harmless. Gradually we have began to understand the presence and effect of these organisms on our health; it is a relatively new idea to talk about our bodies as a micro-ecology. It should also be noted, this is not an uniquely human characteristic, but is a principle that is shared with all life and organisms.

To understand disease, and health, all kinds of proposals and ideas in different cultures had been put forward. In none of these systems do we have any notion of needing to kill organisms in order to live, that the very basis of our continued existence relies up such actions. We have all ideas about energy flows, of humours, of miasmas and so forth, ideas that lasted for centuries as understandings of ourselves.

For the principle of ahimsa as a guiding principle however, this modern understanding is problematic and two examples will serve to highlight a basic paradox.

Firstly, Jain sages would sometimes go to the lengths of fasting to die in the belief that they did so out of an act of contrition, of non-violence towards other living beings. Their belief, that we are ourselves a singular being, would justify such an action; I harm none but myself by dying, and harm many by living.

The multitudes of micro-organisms that inhabit our bodies would be killed as a result of this action. In a sense, their death, their fasting, is a carnage to billions of organisms within their own bodies, caused by their own dying. The inclusion of “bacteria” within the dictates of ahimsa is clearly within these bounds: one cannot see one’s wilful death as an action of non-violence. One could perhaps rightly conclude that living a careful, healthy life would be the most non-violent action one can take.

Strabo was an ancient Greek writer and his Geographica chronicled the world as known to the Greeks and Romans. Alexander the Great had conquered and established Greek colonies all across central Asia, reaching as far as India. Strabo relates a meeting between practising ascetics (yogic practitioners dedicating their lives to a renunciation of worldly goals and search for enlightenment, for the development of spiritual strength) and Alexander’s party. Their account of yogic philosophy rings remarkably true even to our ears today. One of these ascetics travelled with Alexander, and at one point he became sick. “When he fell sick at Pasargadæ, being then attacked with disease for the first time in his life, he put himself to death at the age of seventy-three years, regardless of the entreaties of the king.” (Book XV, Ch1.68).

The ascetic views falling sick as a flaw in the perfection of his practise such that it warrants the ritual act of suicide, according to his ideals he has failed. While we might be tempted to judge this as extreme, or unusual, it is not that dissimilar to the response the Christian Church would have to illness in medieval Europe; communities were punished, sometime to the point of sacrificial killings as illness sweeps through towns as illness in these contexts is seen as a sin, a falling from God’s grace, for why else would one have fallen sick, if one had not “displeased the Lord”?

To understand illness as micro-organisms taking residence in our bodies, their population expanding at exponential rates, our body’s immune systems unable to adjust to the foreign invasion, with sickness and even death sometimes the result, is a new concept, barely with us for a century. This goes past the idea of sickness as being a moral judgement: though we should look at some of the pronouncements made with regard to AIDS and homosexual lifestyles in recent times before we become too sure that this is truly how we regard illness.

Within the context of ahimsa, going back to our 3rd Century (BCE) ascetic, this highlights an interesting quandary; presumably it was the inability of his immune system to kill the invading micro-organisms that resulted in his sickness. For his body to act purely within the principles of ahimsa, of non-violence, is impossible: either his immune system would not respond, and any micro-organism would survive, resulting in the death of countless “healthy” micro-organisms (or himself), or his immune system would respond, and kill the “invader”. Without the necessity of our immune system to respond in the manner in which it does, we would not exist.

The robust health and well-being of our ascetic is due in no small part to the health of his immune system, of its ability to kill potentially harmful organisms, to maintain his body’s overall healthy environment. His consequent sickness, his “failure” is due to his immune system failing to kill organisms that he had previously not come into contact with; he had no immunity; his body had not learnt what and how to kill whatever micro-organism had taken residence.

For ahimsa, which grants the right of all organisms to exist, and exhorts its adherents to respect all life, there must be a boundary, a level at which life no longer exists. That is, at some point (a point we can generally say is beyond our ability to see into that micro world) the world is no longer biological, but chemical. The digestion of food, the cause of illness, and so on, are the not in the domain of living creatures, but are rather purely chemical processes, or even processes controlled or dictated by pure, inorganic, energy.

In that case, the Jain’s act of self-sacrifice can be seen to be valid, he denies his singular life for the harm he would cause through his continued living. In that case too, the ascetic’s sickness can be seen to be a true failure of his health, a chemical, an energy, imbalance, however caused, by some failed practise or missed observance. Taken within the contexts of the thoughts of their time, this is indeed a plausible and consistent, justifiable actions, if somewhat extreme.

The problem for this, for us, is that it is not like this; life is built upon life, and as with any environment, acts of killing of balance within that environment are required for a balanced ecology. To (mis)paraphrase a Stephen Hawking quote; “it is turtles (life) all the way down young man”.

Even today for modern (Western) interpretations of yogic philosophy, ahimsa is the regard, the right, for all life, all organisms, to exist, and to observe the principle of not causing harm. This is impossible, if one lives, one causes harm, or one dies. If we seek a true ethical understanding, how can we use a principle that at its core is inconsistent, is a false hypothesis, a false understanding of nature, of life itself?

We do not need to understand micro-biology to understand the problems associated with a too-pure observance of these principles. These are obviously extreme examples, but their purpose is to highlight the paradoxes that lie within the principle of ahimsa as a pure statement, a proposed, all-encompassing foundation of ethical behaviour.

This has also been understood by the broad and general sweep of Indian philosophy, ethical and yogic, as they have sought to take this deeply profound insight – this ideal of not causing harm – to a pragmatic lifestyle. And with that, we should next examine the life of the Buddha, and the Bhagavad Gita.

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