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Non violence (ahimsa) and dharma

In these short essays, I have been focusing in particular on the concept of dharma, and attempting to delineate exactly what is meant when we talk about the Sanatana Dharma. Further insights on this topic are provided by the following statement from the Mahabharata, which is spoken by Sri Krishna to Arjuna following the cessation of hostilities on the battlefield at Kurukshetra:

ahimsa lakshano dharmo himsa chadharma-lakshana

‘Ahimsa is the characteristic mark of dharma; Himsa is the characteristic mark of adharma.’ (Mahabharata, 14.43.19)

The point Krishna is making here is a simple one. If we wish to understand whether an action, speech, or thought is in accordance with dharma, then we must consider whether or not it causes harm to any other living being. Harming or not harming others is the defining factor that reveals the path of dharma. Furthermore, it is interesting to note that Jain teachings define morality on this same basis, insisting that a righteous act is one that supports the principle of ahimsa.

But what does ahimsa actually mean? Taken literally a-himsa is the negative of the word himsa, which in turn is derived from the verb hims, which means to injure, harm, wound, or destroy. So the literal meaning of ahimsa would be not harming, or perhaps non-violence. When we return to the quotation from the Mahabharata, we can then see that Krishna is defining dharma in strict relation to the question of whether harm is caused to other living entities. Hence non-violence and non-harming are shown here to be the essence of dharma, but does that mean that Sanatana Dharma teaches a doctrine of absolute pacifism? This is an interesting question and one that many would answer in the affirmative, but I think if we consider the teachings of the Bhagavad-gita and certain other passages of the Mahabharata we will see that this is not always the case, and that in some circumstances the use of violent means does not contravene the dharmic precept of ahimsa. The point is that ahimsa is not just about the way in which we act, but about a consciousness of not harming that we must seek to develop. So, for example, police officers may at times have to use physical restraint to prevent crimes from being committed and to protect innocent victims. This might be regarded as an act of violence, but it does not represent any breach of the precept of ahimsa because the consciousness remains one of seeking the welfare of all. This is the real essence of ahimsa, as Arjuna has to learn throughout the course of the Bhagavad-gita.

Moreover, although the word ahimsa has a negative form it should not be understood in a purely negative sense. One might feel that by refraining from words or actions that do not hurt or damage others one is fulfilling the requirements of adhering to the principle of ahimsa. This is not the case however. If, for example, I am walking down a street and see a lost child crying and in despair should I just walk on by? I am not the cause of the child’s distress, so if I choose to ignore the suffering then surely I have not gone against the principle of ahimsa? Self-evidently this is not the case, and from this very simple example we can perceive that the ideal of ahimsa does not only mean that our own actions and words do not harm others, but also must include speech and action that brings relief for those who suffer. There is no other possible conclusion; ahimsa therefore includes an injunction that we must involve ourselves in acts of charity, compassion, kindness, and care. This is why Sri Krishna defines dharma strictly in relation to ahimsa; it is because ahimsa encapsulates and includes all the virtues we so admire in this world. Essentially, it means that we cause no harm and that we do as much as we possibly can to deliver others from harm.

Photo credit: Vinoth Chandar via Flickr

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