A-himsa is the practice of non violence towards all living creatures.
The first step is of course not to kill, or do physical harm. In law as in religion, the killing of other human beings is always seen as one of the worst offences any human being can commit.
But A-himsa goes further than that. Ahimsa not only propagates non violence against human beings, but against all living beings, and does not stop at refraining from physical hurt.
Swami Sivananda adequately describes A-himsa as “a harmless mind, mouth, and hand”.
Jainism dictates one of the most strict and active forms of ahimsa. Ahimsa, as practised by Jains includes vegetarianism, but also prohibits the cultivation of crops which may harm insects and worms, such as onions and garlic. Honey is not eaten as it may harm the bees. In India, Jains can be seen walking the streets with a broom to sweep any insects out of the way to avoid stepping on them. They often cover the mouth with a cloth as a reminder not to speak harsh language.
A-himsa was the guiding principle of Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy, applying the concept successfully to politics.
The Swiss Doctor Albert Schweitzer, who received the 1952 Nobel price for peace, describes this as Reverence for life (“Ethics is nothing other than Reverence for Life. Reverence for Life affords me my fundamental principle of morality, namely, that good consists in maintaining, assisting and enhancing life, and to destroy, to harm or to hinder life is evil.”)
And all the religions I’ve come across condemn actions which may harm human beings, while many religions also extend this principle towards other forms of life.
Interestingly, all laws and religions make an exception for violence in self defence and acts as a result of war.
“The only thing we are really sure of is that we live and want to go on living. This is something that we share with everything else that lives, from elephants to blades of grass – and, of course, every human being. So we are brothers and sisters to all living things, and owe to all of them the same care and respect, that we wish for ourselves.” (James Brabazon)
Ahimsa is not the opposite of violence. It is a form of all encompassing love, a way of living in which hatred is replaced by love. It is mental generosity, cultivated by acceptance, forgivingness, and the restraint of harmfull words and actions.
Life by itself is violent. Creatures eat other living beings to survive. We kill bacteria and viruses less they harm us. Ahimsa recognizes this need to survive. What makes an action evil, is the intention that informs it.
The keeper of a beloved pet may choose to end it’s life to guard it from unnecessary suffering, a choice which is informed by his love for the animal. Choosing to kill the animal because it sheds hair on the sofa, and it is too bothersome to find someone who may accept the animal as it is, is obviously informed by different motivation.
Ahimsa does not only concern itself with acts of life and death, but it entails the responsibility of improving the quality of life of others.
Everyday there are plenty of opportunities to incorporate Ahimsa into our lives.
We all know how to use kind words, friendly gestures, positive expressions and a pleasant tone of voice. Ahimsa involves extending them to people in all walks of life, not just our friends and those who hold an important social position. Discourtesy, especially in front of others can be very hurtful, so may be the deliberate excluding of others from pleasant activities. Ignoring other people’s pain, ignoring a genuine request for help, or refusal to provide it, all can cause deep hurt and pain. Not speaking out or encouraging others when they inflict unnecessary pain is another form of harm.
An important aspect of Ahimsa is avoiding the need to retaliate on the perceived intention of others, but to take time to reflect on them, and where necessary to let go, rather than hitting back.
And on the mat ?
Ahimsa starts with non violence towards yourself, so avoid pushing yourself to the point of injury or exhaustion. Comparison creates unhealthy competition and interferes with awareness of the effects of the practice. Respect others by avoiding disturbances such as talking in class, and try to remember your handphone has an OFF button. Some people are really disturbed if others walk on their personal Yoga mat as they consider it their private space and energy field., so please be aware of this. A warm smile can make a new person feel welcome, especially if all the students are familiar with one another.