By Suma Varughese
The quality of ahimsa is one of the ideals of Indic religions, particularly Jainism, and was crafted into a social and political tool by Mahatma Gandhi. Suma Varughese examines how we can truly become non-violent
Dharamdas was a virtuous man who spent all the money his father left him in aiding the sick and the poor. When his money was over, his beneficiaries deserted him. Dharamdas was contented, though he could no longer help people as he once could. One day, he got a dream in which a holy man told him that he would come to rest under the tall tree of the local temple, and that Dharamdas could take the opportunity to beat him to death with a staff. His body would turn to gold which Dharamdas could then use to dispense to charity.
The next day as predicted, a holy man came at the appointed time and stretched out and went to sleep under the shade of the tall tree, setting aside his staff and a big sack. Here was Dharamdas’s opportunity. No one was around. And besides, the victim had permitted him to murder him. But Dharamdas could not. He watched over the sage sleeping calmly under the tree for several hours until he awoke.
“You missed the chance of a lifetime,” the sage said, shaking his head.
Dharamdas responded that he could not kill him even if he had asked him to do so for all the gold in the world, because an act of violence was an act of violence. He invited the sage to join him at home for a simple meal. The sage declined, smiling, and got up to leave. Dharamdas bent down to touch his feet. When he straightened up the sage was gone, but the sack had been left behind. A sack full of gold coins.
Makes you think, does it not? Someone permits you to kill him so you can become rich. Moreover, the money is not for you but for the betterment of people. Irresistible, save for one thing. Once you kill, you become a killer. And the consequence to that is dire.
For killing violates the concept of oneness, the central truth of existence. If all is one, hurting another is tantamount to hurting oneself.
This may become an experiential truth only when we become enlightened, but even a little movement on the path sensitises us to the suffering of another. For spirituality is a movement from the head to the heart. As we move away from our head, we become more aware of what is going on with the other. And our hearts open up.
Ramakrishna Paramahansa was so sensitive that when a buffalo was beaten in front of him, welts appeared on his back. Another time, he was passing through a village struck by famine along with a rich disciple. The plight of the people moved him so much that he sat down and wept like a child, refusing to move until the rich disciple had promised to feed the masses.
The movement towards absolute happiness includes becoming aware of suffering, both ours and that of the other. After moving on the path, many of us, including myself, can no longer stomach the daily news. The unending parade of rapes, corruption, terrorism, murder and theft, leaves a visceral impact on us.
Once we have matured on the path, that same sensitivity to pain also motivates us towards action. To doing what we can to alleviate the pain. And ourselves committing to refrain from causing pain to others.
It is no wonder that ahimsa is a central tenet in all Indic religions, especially Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.
The Buddha has said, “All beings love life and fear death. Therefore refrain from killing.”
Nonviolence is most identified with Jainism. Mahavira, the great tirthankara, considered that since water also has life, ships that sailed on water and forced it bear their weight, were performing a sin.
Jains wear cloths against their mouths in order to prevent the accidental consumption of a flying insect, and walk barefoot in order to step more gently on creatures of the earth. According to an article we recently carried in Life Positive (A compassionate cuisine, November 2016), Jains do not consume sprouted nuts or pulses, because they believe that it enhances the life force and therefore goes against their creed.
Mahatma Gandhi, my personal hero and role model, took this concept of non-violence and expanded it to unprecedented proportions. He fashioned it into a philosophy of life and a political and social weapon called Satyagraha, which enabled him to win freedom from the British through non-violence. The Satyagrahis clung to their hold on truth and non-violence and refused to meet violence with violence, using instead soul force to enable them to bear the pain and the need for retaliation. In the Bible, Jesus Christ advocated that when struck on one cheek, you should turn the other cheek. And if someone asks you for your cloak, you should also give him your coat. This is what the Satyagrahis demonstrated so nobly, taking the batons and bullets of the British government without a whimper or whine, until the British had to declare themselves defeated.
What a great force ahimsa is. Truly it is said that he who covets not gold nor fears death cannot be conquered. No wonder, for Gandhi, nonviolence is the greatest force at the disposal of mankind. And yet, how difficult it is. What inhuman levels of will and self-control it calls for. And can you imagine that ordinary people, farmers, labourers, clerks, housewives and traders all rose to such high levels during that blessed time! No country has ever succeeded in such a task before save ours!
So ahimsa is very much a part of our culture, our land, our vibes. The air we breathe, the water we drink, the land we walk on, are all submerged in ahimsa. And yet of course there is a lot to be done.
Today we live in transformative times. And transformative times means that the negative will first be flushed out. Therefore we see violence at every level. There is huge unrest in several parts of the world. There is economic violence caused by the exploitation of resources and people. There is social violence through inequities of class, caste, colour and community; and of course, there is individual violence through acts of rapes, murders, terrorism and more.
But at the same time, there is unprecedented awakening everywhere. People are become more aware, making choices, leaving jobs, following their calling, becoming healers, therapists, counsellors, artists, writers, preferring holistic ways to live, to heal and even to eat. The two movements are happening simultaneously but the awakening is less visible to the mainstream media and therefore less written about.
And with this awakening, a significant part of society is consciously healing itself of all violent drives and tendencies. The submissive and passive-aggressive (who are also violent in their own ways, by wishing people ill and fuming against them silently) are learning to establish boundaries and to express their views assertively, the aggressive and the control freaks are getting in touch with the fears and insecurities behind such behaviour and working on freeing the other. A huge wave of healing is rising up and hopefully will submerge society in its wholesome embrace.
One of its many ahimsic expressions is veganism, the renunciation of all animal foods, including milk and honey, and animal products such as leather.
There is a blanket refusal to exploit all animals in any way whatsoever.
Veganism is gaining huge currency not just in India but all over the world, and one can only applaud and appreciate this rising sensitivity and respect for life.
Forms of ahimsa
But ahimsa is much more than just physical abstinence from violence.
According to Mahatma Gandhi, ahimsa implies uttermost selflessness. It means that all life forms will be absolutely safe with such a person.
In other words, what about emotional ahimsa? Mental ahimsa, spiritual ahimsa? Less is talked about these dimensions, which in my opinion, are equally, if not even more, crucial to the pursuit of a truly ahimsic life.
Even those of us who are masters of physical ahimsa will err over and over again in the zone of emotional, mental or spiritual ahimsa, because in this we are ruled by our ego. Our need to possess, to control, to be right, to win, to put another down, as well as numerous other drives has earned us the title of the cruellest animal on Planet Earth.
Each time we criticise or put down someone else, we are committing emotional himsa and are whittling away at the person’s self-esteem and life force. Each time, we oppose another’s free will and seek to impose our own, we are crippling and cramping their sense of self and violating one of God’s primary laws, which is freedom of will.
Each time we tell another what to think and what not to think, who to believe in and who not to believe in, we are committing spiritual himsa.
The father who insists that his children fulfil his dreams or marry the person he has selected for them is committing an act of emotional violence. The spiritual leader who forbids you to question your faith is committing spiritual violence. The boss who steals your work and passes it off as his own is committing mental violence.
But it is not my intention to make you feel bad. That would be himsa too, wouldn’t it? So let us move further into inquiring how we can increase our emotional, mental and spiritual ahimsa quotient. Because that is what the spiritual path is really all about.
Rule No 1: Love yourself
Our fundamental problem is that we do not love ourselves. We are most himsic towards ourselves. Most critical, most dismissive, most vitriolic. We would not dream of speaking to most people as we would to ourselves. And that is the root of all our violence.
The less we love ourselves, the more we look outside ourselves for love, appreciation, endorsement. We also attempt to feel good about ourselves by putting the other down. We do this in various ways: By making fun of others, by making them feel inadequate, by criticising them, by controlling them, by making them do what we want them to do. Most of the dirty tricks run by the ego stem from its endless need to feel good about itself, and to feel secure.
So how do we love ourselves? It won’t happen overnight, but over time we will get there. Begin with becoming aware of how much you run yourself down, how much you write yourself off, your favourite epithets to describe yourself and so on. Work on accepting these parts of yourself. Work on affirming the qualities that are really you.
Our biggest help in the journey towards self-love is to recognise that the person we are tearing down is really not us. Who we are, the sages tell us, is nothing less than God. We are whole, perfect and complete. We are the epitome of all virtues. So let us affirm these virtues endlessly each time we feel not good enough, not pretty enough, not smart enough, not ahimsic enough!
Rule No 2: Forgive yourself
Let us also learn to forgive ourselves. We are here on Planet Earth to learn, to evolve, to attain freedom from the cycle of life and death. We cannot do that without a few stumbles and falls. It is all right to fail in any enterprise. And what is more, we have been given the franchise from God to make mistakes. We have been given freedom of will. We are also freely forgiven for our mistakes. God does not hold it against us. He does not lose faith in us. It is another thing that through the mechanism of karma we must pay for the consequences of our action, but benevolent life is always rooting for us.
All the numerous spiritual tools, techniques and paths such as prayer, meditation, yoga, EFT, healing your inner child, past-life regression and so on, will help us move on this path of self-awareness, self-acceptance and self-love.
In time we will learn to appreciate ourselves, to endorse ourselves, and to be on our side. Even when the whole world is against us, we will learn to be there for us.
The more we fill up from within, the more we naturally learn to love others, to accept them, to forgive them.
Loving the world
Mahatma Gandhi said that ahimsa is love. Once we work on ourselves and heal ourselves, love naturally flows because love is who we are. Compassion is who we are. Service is who we are.
This is my own journey, and of course, I am very much a work in progress. My own technique to help me work towards these higher forms of ahimsa is to prioritise the happiness of others because only through that can we arrive at our own authentic happiness. I remind myself as often as I can a day that my focus is on the other’s happiness and on my growth. That helps me every time to move a little further away from my ego and a little closer to my Divine self.
I also remind myself each time I get exasperated by people or situations that everything is a process and even though I cannot see the final picture as yet, I can trust that all will be fine in the end. For we are all moving individually and collectively towards Higher Consciousness.
I also tell myself that at any given moment everyone is doing the very best they can, given their level of evolution. If they could be any better, they would.
Only when we achieve ahimsa at these other levels, will physical ahimsa become a natural and simple state of being. Veganism is on its way to becoming a major movement and in order to nurture its growth we will need to use all forms of ahimsa, not only the physical.
For instance, we need to beware of making people feel guilty and bad for consuming animal products. Because that is a form of violence. Everyone has their own rate of evolution and we cannot force the pace. Let them come to veganism when they are ready to. Our only job is to create awareness.
The Buddha, for instance, used to tell his bhikhus that it was advisable to eat vegetarian food but if a householder were to drop some meat into their plate, they were not to refuse because they would be putting the householder to a lot of difficulty in accommodating to their needs. It is this larger, more expansive view that will enable us to propagate our point of view without putting up backs.
When we eliminate every harmful tendency within us, then life itself will crown us with the label of ahimsa, for all life forms will cluster around us, unafraid and loving.
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