You may have heard Ahimsa spoken of in yoga classes, but not known what was meant by this ancient Sanskrit word. Ahimsa is a Sanskrit word which means “non-harming” or “non-violence.” Some also refer to it as “compassion.” However, when a yoga teacher talks about Ahimsa, they do not merely mean “non-harming” in its simplest sense of not physically hurting something. Instead, the concept of Ahimsa is much more complex and far-reaching.
Ahimsa is the highest duty. Even if we cannot practice it in full, we must try to understand its spirit and refrain as far as is humanly possible from violence. Mahatma Gandhi
It encompasses non-violence toward all creatures and things, including ourselves. It expands to the way we think, behave, and even eat. In some ways, Ahimsa is much more about intent than the resulting action. Ahimsa is a central concept in yogic philosophy. It is essential to understand Ahimsa if you are to take your practice off the mat and into the wider world.
The word Ahimsa is Sanskrit (अहिंसा), and is derived from the word himsa. In Sanksrit, himsa means “violence” or “injury.” By adding the prefix “A-“, Ahimsa becomes the antithesis of violence or injury. Ahimsa is a well-known word and concept in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. However, in each spiritual tradition the word Ahimsa has a similar meaning: that of kindness, compassion, and non-harming.
History of Ahimsa
Ahimsa is a complex concept that has changed and evolved significantly over the years. In fact, it is still evolving today.
The earliest written mention of Ahimsa is found in the Vedas, around 1500-500 B.C.E., however the knowledge in the Vedas was passed down orally for many years before that. These are ancient and sacred Indian texts. Ahimsa is introduced in these texts alongside the concept of Karma. Karma proposes that all energy in the universe is balance. Or, in modern words, for every action, there is an equal and opposite energetic reaction. So, for example, if you were to harm someone else, eventually that same level of harm would come back to you. By practicing Ahimsa, or non-violence, this can be avoided.
For many hundreds of years, Ahimsa was largely associated with not killing other beings. This is actually a main reason that much of India is vegetarian. Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism espoused the notion of Ahimsa by promoting vegetarianism, or the non-killing of animals. Jainism took this even further by proposing that the disruption of being from insects to germs could be considered violence.
In the 1900s Ahimsa was brought into a political movement by Mahatma Gandhi. Many are familiar with Gandhi’s pacifist movement that brought India out of British rule via peaceful protests. At the core of Gandhi’s philosophy was Ahimsa, or non-violence.
An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind. Mahatma Gandhi
This quote is known the world over, but takes on new depths when you understand the philosophy of Ahimsa behind it. Through the peaceful protests lead by Gandhi, the power of Ahimsa not just individually, but politically as well, is evident.
Ahimsa in the Vedas: Sadhu and Snake story
As mentioned, Ahimsa is first mentioned in the Vedas. There is one excerpt in particular that discusses Ahimsa through an allegory of a sadhu and a snake. A sadhu is a nomadic monk. The sadhu walks through a village where he finds a snake terrorizing the villagers. He teaches the snake about Ahimsa, and the snake vows to practice Ahimsa and stop terrorizing the villagers.
A year later, the sadhu walks through the village again, only to find the snake thin, frightened, and dying. The snake informs the sadhu that whilst he has been non-violent toward the villagers, the villagers saw his weakness and began to throw stones at the snake and taunt him, preventing him from hunting for food. The sadhu then tells the snake that whilst Ahimsa means non-violence, it doesn’t mean you cannot “hiss,” or stand up for and protect yourself, with compassion and love. Ahimsa is normally thought of in relation to other people and animals, but in this story the importance of practicing Ahimsa toward the Self is emphasized.
Ahimsa in the Yoga Sutras
Whilst Ahimsa has a long and evolving history, it is most well known as being the first of the five Yamas. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali is an important text in yoga, which outlines eight limbs of yoga. These limbs are integral to yoga practices, especially Raja yoga or Ashtanga yoga. The eight limbs of yoga are much more expansive than just the physical (asana) practice that is so often emphasized in the West. The Yamas, in particular, are the first of the eight limbs. Therefore, Ahimsa, being the first Yama, is the first thing that must be practiced in yoga.
The Yamas are ethical principles for how the yogi should interact with and live in the world. The other Yamas include Satya (truthfulness), Asteya (non-stealing), Brahmacharya (purity), and Aparigraha (non-attachment). When Ahimsa is practiced alongside these principles, as well as the other eight limbs of yoga, then the yogi will find peace and be closer to reaching enlightenment.
Ways to Practice Ahimsa
There are many ways to practice Ahimsa. The various movements of Ahimsa throughout history have highlighted different aspects of Ahimsa, such as its contribution to vegetarianism or political initiatives. In essence, practicing Ahimsa means living, thinking, and behaving with non-violence, to yourself and everything and everyone around you.
True ahimsa should mean a complete freedom from ill-will and anger and hate and an overflowing love for all. Mahatma Gandhi
Through practicing Ahimsa, love fills the spirit and extends to everything you interact with. However, practicing Ahimsa can seem like a big task at the beginning. There are some specific ways to understand and practice Ahimsa within you deeds, words, thoughts, and more.
Ahimsa in Deeds
Deeds, or visible behavior, are the most obvious way of practicing Ahimsa. Think of everything you do throughout a normal day. From getting out of bed, your morning routine, eating meals, interacting with others at work, taking care of pets, chatting with friends, driving down the street, walking through the grocery store, there are myriad opportunities to practice or not practice Ahimsa. Ahimsa doesn’t need to involve a dramatic scenario with the potential of “violence,” such as the often associated beating and killing. Instead, think of more subtle behaviors. For example, do you get annoyed by a slow car and underpass it, yelling out your window? Or do you calmly drive behind it until you have an opportunity to pass? Do you choose the grass-fed, pasture-raised meat at the grocery store? Or do you choose the mass produced, caged option? Do you smile at the cashier or not? With every deed throughout the day, there is the choice whether to practice Ahimsa or not.
Ahimsa in Words
As with deeds, Ahimsa can also be practiced in your words. With everything you say throughout the day, there is the choice whether to say it with Ahimsa. Many people know not to say cruel or mean things to others. However, the same cannot be said of the words we say to ourselves. Many people look in the mirror and pick out the things they don’t like about themselves, tell themselves they don’t look good in certain clothes, criticize themselves on their personality, and more. These are words that most people would never say to a friend, yet say every day to themselves. This is one good example of how you can practice Ahimsa in your everyday life. Next time you unfairly critique yourself, try to practice Ahimsa instead.
Ahimsa in Thoughts
It is not just enough to act compassionate; you must be compassionate as well. To truly practice Ahimsa, there must be harmony between your internal and external states. In this way, Ahimsa is much more about your thoughts and intentions than it is about your actions. Practice being mindful of your thoughts about yourself, about others, and about the world around you. For example, if someone annoys you, don’t let you first thought be frustration or something negative about them. Instead think of something compassionate toward them, or another positive in your life. Foster loving kindness and release any thoughts of envy, guilt, anger, and more. Anyone who has felt jealous or angry knows how these thoughts and emotions fester and impact your wellbeing and that of those around you. Choose Ahimsa instead.
Ahimsa and Non-Humans
Ahimsa is not meant just for people. Yoga teaches that the Self is one with the Divine, and the Divine is in everything. Yoga means “yoking” or “union” and this unity extends to all living beings. In practicing Ahimsa, respect must be extended to all animals. For many this means never abusing an animal and being kind to all animals. For others, this means abstaining from meat and all animal products. Ahimsa is one reason that vegetarianism has been so popular in India throughout history.
Ahimsa can also be extended to not just living beings, but also the environment. Currently, the world is faced with a crisis of climate change, due to unsustainable decisions made by humans and mass corporations. Throughout a person’s life, they are faced with many decisions that can affect the environment in a negative manner. Practicing Ahimsa with the environment might look like limiting waste, using non-toxic products, not using straws or microbeads, carpooling, and more.
Ahimsa in Wars and Self Defense
It is clear that Ahimsa is a complicated concept that extends far beyond the simple definition of “non-violence.” There is an important debate with Ahimsa regarding wards and self defense. Different scholars argue whether self defense is appropriate within Ahimsa.
The power of unarmed nonviolence is any day far superior to that of armed force. Mahatma Gandhi
In the story of the sadhu and the snake, it seems as if the sadhu is promoting self defense when he tells the snake that just because he cannot bite doesn’t mean he cannot hiss. Furthermore, sacred texts such as the Vedas and Mahabharata that mention Ahimsa also happen to be gruesome war epics and seem to be supporting the ideal of Ahimsa alongside violence.
Modern readers argue that the famous story of Arjuna rushing into battle in the Bhagavad Gita is an example of a person not acting in Ahimsa. Arjuna’s decision making is clouded by his ego during the battle. If he was to practice Ahimsa, he would know that killing others in battle is the same as killing himself, as the Divine is present in all beings. This critique is paired with the pacifist movement inspired by Gandhi, in which non-violence is taken to such a level that it is considered better and braver to die than to hurt another person in defending oneself.
Ultimately, the topic of self defense within Ahimsa is one that is flexible to a person’s own ideals and is still being debated in modern times.
How to Know You Have a Problem with Ahimsa
It is very difficult to live a life in Ahimsa, but this is an ideal that yogis aspire to. You may not go every single day making every single deed, word, and thought with Ahimsa. Still, you must not chastise yourself too much when you fail, but instead (in keeping with Ahimsa) be compassionate with yourself when you are finding it difficult to practice non-violence. With practice, Ahimsa will come more naturally.
If you are finding it difficult to practice Ahimsa every day, you may need to identify the stressors in your life and disassociate from them. You may also be facing an imbalance with your ego. Is it difficult to practice Ahimsa because you are stressed with the pressures of social and work obligations? Remember that these obligations are external to you; they do not define who you are. You are not your ego, but rather a Divine manifestation that is one with the universe. When your Self and values are put in perspective, it is easier to practice Ahimsa.
Gaining an understanding of Ahimsa and learning to practice it in everyday life is the first step on the eightfold path of yoga. Practicing Ahimsa opens up a journey through yoga and life that is full of compassion, clarity, and peace. It is a challenging journey, as each person is faced with millions of decisions every day. With each decision, they must actively choose Ahimsa, and doing so actively choose the path to enlightenment.