Ahimsa (Devanagari: (अहिंसा); (ahiṃsā) is a Sanskrit term meaning non-violence (literally: the avoidance of violence - himsa) It is an important tenet of the religions that originated in ancient India (Hinduism, Buddhism and especially Jainism). Ahimsa is a rule of conduct that bars the killing or injuring of living beings. It is closely connected with the notion that all kinds of violence entail negative karmic consequences. The extent to which the principle of non-violence can or should be applied to different life forms is controversial between various authorities movements and currents within the three religions and has been a matter of debate for thousands of years.

Whether you hurt somebody, or somebody hurts you, the same red blood will be shed. In contrast, Blood donation hardly seems like a path, as blood flows through a very thin and narrow tube, but it makes it's way through the prejudice that makes people fear for each other and blood feuds, so very easily. --One Piece (Anime)


Hindus do not substantially differentiate the soul within a human body with that of an animal.[1] Hence ahimsa as a binding code of conduct implies a ban on hunting, butchery, meat eating, and the use of animal products provided by violent means. The question of moral duties towards animals and of negative Karma incurred from violence against them is discussed in detail in some Hindu scriptures and religious lawbooks.

Some source texts discuss meat eating as a fact without referring to the ethical side of the issue. The Dharmasutra law books written around the 5th or 4th century BCE contain regulations for meat eating and lists of eatable animals.[2] Medical treatises of the Ayurveda discuss and recommend meat from a purely health-related viewpoint without even mentioning the aspect of ahimsa.[3] Examples are the Sushruta Samhita written in the 3rd or 4th century CE, which recommends beef for certain patients and for pregnant women,[4] and the Charaka Samhita which describes meat as superior to all other kinds of food for convalescents.[5]

Several highly authoritative scriptures bar violence against domestic animals except in the case of ritual sacrifice. This view is clearly expressed in the Mahabharata[6], the Bhagavata Purana (11.5.13-14), and the Chandogya Upanishad (8.15.1). It is also reflected in the Manu Smriti (5.27-44), a particularly renowned traditional Hindu lawbook (Dharmaśāstra). These texts strongly condemn the slaughter of animals and meat eating unless it happens in the context of the appropriate sacrifice ritual administered by priests. The Mahabharata permits hunting by warriors (Kshatriyas),[7] but opposes it in the case of hermits who must be strictly non-violent.[8]

Nevertheless the sources show that this compromise between supporters of ahimsa and meat eaters was shaky and hotly disputed. Even the loopholes – ritual slaughter and hunting – were challenged by advocates of ahimsa.[9] The Mahabharata[10] and the Manu Smriti (5.27-55) contain lengthy discussions about the legitimacy of ritual slaughter. In the Mahabharata both sides present various arguments to substantiate their viewpoints. Moreover, a hunter defends his profession in a long discourse.[11]

Most of the arguments proposed in favour of non-violence to animals refer to rewards it entails before or after death and to horrible karmic consequences of violence.[12] In particular, it is pointed out that he who deliberately kills an animal will on his part be eaten by an animal in a future existence due to karmic retribution.[13] Ahimsa is described as a prerequisite for acquiring supernatural faculties, highest bliss and ultimate salvation;[14] moreover it is said to protect against all kinds of dangers.[15]

Under these circumstances the defenders of hunting and ritual slaughter had to deny the violent nature of these activities. They asserted that lawful violence is in fact non-violence; according to them sacrificial killing is not killing, but is meant for the welfare of the whole world.[16] They also suggested that such killing is in fact a benevolent act, because the slaughtered animal will attain a high rebirth in the cycle of reincarnation.[17] Moreover they argued that some species have been created for the purpose of being sacrificed and eaten by humans,[18] that it is normal for animals to kill and eat other animals,[19] that agriculture, too, inevitably leads to the death of many animals,[20] that plants are living beings as well and must still be destroyed,[21] that we unintentionally and unknowingly destroy life forms all the time,[22] and that a hunted animal has a fair chance to survive by killing the hunter.[23]

The Manu Smriti (10.63), Kautilya’s Arthashastra (1.3.13) and the Vasishtha Dharmasutra (4.4) point out that ahimsa is a duty for all the four classes (Varnas) of society.

Though the texts declare that ahimsa should be extended to all forms of life, they give little attention to the protection of plants. The Manu Smriti, however, prohibits wanton destruction of both wild and cultivated plants (11.145). Hermits (Sannyasins) had to live on a fruitarian diet so as to avoid the destruction of plants.[24]

Self-defense, criminal law, and warEdit

Hindu scriptures and law books support the use of violence in self-defence against an armed attacker.[25] They make it clear that criminals are not protected by the rule of ahimsa.[26] They have no misgivings about the death penalty; their position is that evil-doers who deserve death should be killed, and that a king in particular is obliged to punish criminals and should not hesitate to kill them, even if they happen to be his own brothers and sons.[27]

The concept of ahimsa as expounded in the scriptures and law books is not meant to imply pacifism; war is seen as a normal part of life and the natural duty of the warriors.[28] In the second chapter of the Bhagavad Gita Krishna refutes the pacifist ideas of Arjuna and uses various arguments to convince him that he must fight and kill in the impending battle. According to the scriptures face-to-face combat is highly meritorious and fighters who die in battle go to heaven.[29]

Modern timesEdit

In modern Hinduism slaughter according to the rituals permitted in the Vedic scriptures has virtually disappeared. In the 19th and 20th centuries prominent figures of Indian spirituality such as Swami Vivekananda[30], Ramana Maharishi[31], Swami Sivananda[32] and A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami[33] emphasized the importance of ahimsa.

Mahatma Gandhi promoted the principle of ahimsa very successfully by applying it to all spheres of life, particularly to politics.[34] His non-violent resistance movement satyagraha had an immense impact on India, impressed public opinion in Western countries and influenced the leaders of various civil rights movements such as Martin Luther King Jr. In Gandhi’s thought ahimsa precludes not only the act of inflicting a physical injury, but also mental states like evil thoughts and hatred, unkind behavior such as harsh words, and dishonesty and lying, all of which he saw as manifestations of violence incompatible with ahimsa.[35]

Sri Aurobindo criticized the Gandhian concept of ahimsa as unrealistic and not universally applicable; he adopted a pragmatic non-pacifist position, saying that the justification of violence depends on the specific circumstances of the given situation.[36]

A thorough historical and philosophical study of ahimsa was instrumental in the shaping of Albert Schweitzer’s principle of "reverence for life". Schweitzer criticized Indian philosophical and religious traditions for having conceived ahimsa as the negative principle of avoiding violence instead of emphasizing the importance of positive action (helping injured beings).[37]


Ahimsa is imperative for practitioners of Patañjali’s "classical" Yoga (Raja Yoga). It is one of the five Yamas[38] (restraints) which make up the code of conduct, the first of the eight limbs of which this path consists. In the schools of Bhakti Yoga the devotees who worship Vishnu or Krishna are particularly keen on ahimsa.[39] Another Bhakti Yoga school, Radha Soami Satsang Beasobserves vegetarianism and moral living as aspects of "ahimsa." Ahimsa is also an obligation in Hatha Yoga according to the classic manual Hatha Yoga Pradipika (1.1.17).


File:Jain hand.svg

In Jainism the understanding and implementation of ahimsa is more radical, scrupulous, and comprehensive than in any other religion.[40] Non-violence is seen as the most essential religious duty for everyone (ahiṃsā paramo dharmaḥ, a statement often inscribed on Jain temples).[41] Like in Hinduism, the aim is to prevent the accumulation of harmful Karma.[42] When Mahavira revived and reorganized the Jain movement in the 6th or 5th century BCE[43], ahimsa was already an established, strictly observed rule.[44] Parshva, the earliest Jain leader (Tirthankar) whom modern Western historians consider to be a historical figure,[45] lived in about the 8th century BCE.[46] He founded the community to which Mahavira’s parents belonged.[47] Ahimsa was already part of the "Fourfold Restraint" (Caujjama), the vows taken by Parshva’s followers.[48] In the times of Mahavira and in the following centuries Jains were at odds with both Buddhists and followers of the Vedic religion or Hindus, whom they accused of negligence and inconsistency in the implementation of ahimsa.[49] There is some evidence, however, that ancient Jain ascetics accepted meat as alms if the animal had not been specifically killed for them.[50] Modern Jains deny this vehemently, especially with regard to Mahavira himself.[51] According to the Jain tradition either lacto-vegetarianism or veganism is mandatory.[52]

The Jain concept of ahimsa is characterized by these aspects:

  • it does not make any exception for ritual sacrificers and professional warrior-hunters. Killing of animals for food is absolutely ruled out.[53]
  • Jains also make considerable efforts not to injure plants in everyday life as far as possible. Though they admit that plants must be destroyed for the sake of food, they accept such violence only inasmuch as it is indispensable for human survival, and there are special instructions for preventing unnecessary violence against plants.[54]
  • Jains go out of their way so as not to hurt even small insects and other minuscule animals.[55] In their view injury caused by carelessness is like injury caused by deliberate action.[56] Eating honey is strictly outlawed, as it would amount to violence against the bees.[57] Some Jains abstain from farming because it inevitably entails unintentional killing or injuring of many small animals, such as worms and insects,[58] but agriculture is not forbidden in general and there are Jain farmers.[59]

On the other hand, Jains agree with Hindus that violence in self-defence can be justified[60] and that a soldier who kills enemies in combat is performing a legitimate duty.[61] Jain communities accepted the use of military power for their defence, and there were Jain monarchs, military commanders, and soldiers.[62]

Though theoretically all life forms are said to deserve full protection from all kinds of injury, Jains admit that this ideal cannot be completely implemented in practice. Hence they recognise a hierarchy of life. Mobile beings are given higher protection than immobile ones. For the mobile beings they distinguish between one-sensed, two-sensed, three-sensed, four-sensed and five-sensed ones; a one-sensed animal has touch as its only sensory modality. The more senses a being has, the more they care about its protection. Among the five-sensed beings, the rational ones (humans) are most strongly protected by Jain ahimsa.[63]

In the practice of ahimsa the requirements are less strict for the lay persons who have undertaken anuvrata (Lesser Vows) than for the monks and nuns who are bound by mahavrata (Great Vows).[64]


The traditional Buddhist understanding of non-violence is not as rigid as the Jain one. Its main peculiarities are:

  • Like the Jains, Buddhists have always condemned the killing of animals in ritual sacrifice.[65]
  • In most Buddhist traditions vegetarianism is not mandatory. Monks and lay persons may eat meat and fish on condition that the animal was not killed specifically for them.[66]
  • Since the beginnings of the Buddhist community, monks and nuns have had to commit themselves to the Ten Precepts of moral conduct.[67] In ancient Buddhism lay persons were encouraged, but not obliged, to commit themselves to observe the Five Precepts of morality (Pañcasīla).[68] In both codes the first rule is to abstain from taking the life of a sentient being (Pānātipātā).[69]
  • Unlike the Vedic religion, ancient Buddhism had strong misgivings about violent ways of punishing criminals and about war. Both were not explicitly condemned,[70] but peaceful ways of conflict resolution and punishment with the least amount of injury were encouraged.[71]

Unlike in Hindu and Jain sources, in ancient Buddhist texts ahimsa is not used as a technical term.[72]

See alsoEdit

External linksEdit


  1. Bhagavad Gita 5.18 "The humble sages, by virtue of true knowledge, see with equal vision a learned and gentle brahmana, a cow, an elephant, a dog and a dog-eater [outcaste]."
  2. Baudhayana Dharmasutra 2.4.7; 2.6.2; 2.11.15; 2.12.8; 3.1.13; 3.3.6; Apastamba Dharmasutra 1.17.15; 1.17.19; 2.17.26-2.18.3; Vasistha Dharmasutra 14.12.
  3. Alsdorf p. 617-619.
  4. Sutrasthana 46.89; Sharirasthana 3.25.
  5. Sutrasthana 27.87.
  6. Mahabharata 3.199.11-12 (3.199 is 3.207 according to another count); 13.115; 13.116.26; 13.148.17.
  7. Mahabharata 13.115.59-60; 13.116.15-18.
  8. Alsdorf p. 592-593.
  9. Alsdorf p. 572-577 (for the Manu Smriti) and p. 585-597 (for the Mahabharata); Tähtinen p. 34-36.
  10. Mahabharata 12.260 (12.260 is 12.268 according to another count); 13.115-116; 14.28.
  11. Mahabharata 3.199 (3.199 is 3.207 according to another count).
  12. Tähtinen p. 39-43.
  13. Schmidt p. 629, 643-645.
  14. Alsdorf p. 589; Schmidt p. 634-635, 640-643; Tähtinen p. 41-42.
  15. Alsdorf p. 590.
  16. Manu Smriti 5.39 and 5.44; Mahabharata 3.199 (3.207).
  17. Manu Smriti 5.32; 5.39-40; 5.42; 5.44; Mahabharata 3.199 (3.207); 14.28.
  18. Manu Smriti 5.30, Mahabharata 3.199.5 (3.207.5).
  19. Mahabharata 3.199.23-24 (3.207.23-24).
  20. Mahabharata 3.199.19 (3.207.19).
  21. Mahabharata 3.199.23-24 (3.207.23-24).
  22. Mahabharata 3.199.28-29 (3.207.28-29).
  23. Mahabharata 13.116.15-18.
  24. Schmidt p. 637-639.
  25. Mahabharata 12.15.55; Manu Smriti 8.349-350; Matsya Purana 226.116.
  26. Tähtinen p. 96, 98-101.
  27. Tähtinen p. 96, 98-99.
  28. Tähtinen p. 91-93.
  29. Tähtinen p. 93.
  30. Religious Vegetarianism, ed. Kerry S. Walters and Lisa Portmess, Albany 2001, p. 50-52.
  31. Ramana Maharishi: Be as you are
  32. Swami Sivananda: Bliss Divine, p. 3-8.
  33. Religious Vegetarianism p. 56-60.
  34. Tähtinen p. 116-124.
  35. Walli p. XXII-XLVII; Borman, William: Gandhi and Non-Violence, Albany 1986, p. 11-12.
  36. Tähtinen p. 115-116.
  37. Schweitzer, Albert: Indian Thought and its Development, London 1956, p. 80-84, 100-104, 110-112, 198-200, 223-225, 229-230.
  38. Patañjali: Yoga Sutras, Sadhana Pada 30.
  39. Tähtinen p. 87.
  40. Laidlaw, James: Riches and Renunciation. Religion, economy, and society among the Jains, Oxford 1995, p. 154-160; Jindal, K.B.: An epitome of Jainism, New Delhi 1988, p. 74-90; Tähtinen p. 110.
  41. Dundas, Paul: The Jains, second edition, London 2002, p. 160; Wiley, Kristi L.: Ahimsa and Compassion in Jainism, in: Studies in Jaina History and Culture, ed. Peter Flügel, London 2006, p. 438; Laidlaw p. 153-154.
  42. Laidlaw p. 26-30, 191-195.
  43. Dundas p. 24 suggests the 5th century; the traditional dating of Mahavira’s death is 527 BCE.
  44. Goyal, S.R.: A History of Indian Buddhism, Meerut 1987, p. 83-85.
  45. Dundas p. 19, 30; Tähtinen p. 132.
  46. Dundas p. 30 suggests the 8th or 7th century; the traditional chronology places him in the late 9th or early 8th century.
  47. Acaranga Sutra 2.15.
  48. Sthananga Sutra 266; Tähtinen p. 132; Goyal p. 83-84, 103.
  49. Dundas p. 160, 234, 241; Wiley p. 448; Granoff, Phyllis: The Violence of Non-Violence: A Study of Some Jain Responses to Non-Jain Religious Practices, in: Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 15 (1992) p. 1-43; Tähtinen p. 8-9.
  50. Alsdorf p. 564-570; Dundas p. 177.
  51. Alsdorf p. 568-569.
  52. Laidlaw p. 169.
  53. Laidlaw p. 166-167; Tähtinen p. 37.
  54. Lodha, R.M.: Conservation of Vegetation and Jain Philosophy, in: Medieval Jainism: Culture and Environment, New Delhi 1990, p. 137-141; Tähtinen p. 105.
  55. Jindal p. 89; Laidlaw p. 54, 154-155, 180.
  56. Sutrakrtangasutram 1.8.3; Uttaradhyayanasutra 10; Tattvarthasutra 7.8; Dundas p. 161-162.
  57. Hemacandra: Yogashastra 3.37; Laidlaw p. 166-167.
  58. Laidlaw p. 180.
  59. Sangave, Vilas Adinath: Jaina Community. A Social Survey, second edition, Bombay 1980, p. 259; Dundas p. 191.
  60. Nisithabhasya (in Nisithasutra) 289; Jinadatta Suri: Upadesharasayana 26; Dundas p. 162-163; Tähtinen p. 31.
  61. Jindal p. 89-90; Laidlaw p. 154-155; Jaini, Padmanabh S.: Ahimsa and "Just War" in Jainism, in: Ahimsa, Anekanta and Jainism, ed. Tara Sethia, New Delhi 2004, p. 52-60; Tähtinen p. 31.
  62. Harisena, Brhatkathakosa 124 (10th century); Jindal p. 90-91; Sangave p. 259.
  63. Jindal p. 89, 125-133 (detailed exposition of the classification system); Tähtinen p. 17, 113.
  64. Dundas p. 158-159, 189-192; Laidlaw p. 173-175, 179; Religious Vegetarianism, ed. Kerry S. Walters and Lisa Portmess, Albany 2001, p. 43-46 (translation of the First Great Vow).
  65. Sarao, K.T.S.: The Origin and Nature of Ancient Indian Buddhism, Delhi 1989, p. 49; Goyal p. 143; Tähtinen p. 37.
  66. Sarao p. 51-52; Alsdorf p. 561-564.
  67. Lamotte, Etienne: History of Indian Buddhism from the Origins to the Śaka Era, Louvain-la-Neuve 1988, p. 54-55.
  68. Lamotte p. 69-70.
  69. Lamotte p. 70.
  70. Sarao p. 53; Tähtinen p. 95, 102.
  71. Tähtinen p. 95, 102-103.
  72. Tähtinen p. 10.
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