Hindu, Hinduism and Hindustan: Part XLIX


Continued from Part XLVIII

Ahimsa or nonviolence is one of the key and spiritual doctrines and a virtue in Hinduism, which is shared by other Indian religions like Buddhism and Jainism as well. The literal meaning of Ahimsa is 'non-killing' or ‘non-injury’ implying the avoidance of harm of any kind to all living beings by actions, words and thoughts. Since ancient times in Hindu civilization, a lot of emphasis was given to Ahimsa and even in the modern times, the great Indian leader Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was among the strongest proponent of Ahimsa and Satyagraha, successfully using these virtues in the freedom movement. The Sanatana Dharma being the oldest religion of the world, other Indian religions like Jainism and Buddhism were either derived from it or deeply inspired spiritually and philosophically in practicing Ahimsa and other virtuous concepts.

Ahimsa is also pronounced as ‘Ahinsa’, and is derived from the Sanskrit root hims; himsa is injury or harm, while ahimsa is non-harming or nonviolence. While “Ahimsa Paramo Dharma” (non-violence is ultimate righteous duty) remained one of the tenets of Hinduism, Ahimsa has also been adopted as one of the five precepts of Buddhism and the first cardinal virtue of Jainism of its Pancha Mahavrata. The underlying spirit behind Ahimsa has been that all living beings are blessed with the same divine spiritual energy; therefore, any injury or harm to other living beings is akin to causing injury or harm to self. This is the reason why Hindu scriptures including two great epics Mahabaharata and Ramayana accorded high value and priority to Ahimsa justifying any reprisal or war only for the self-defence and establishing Dharma as per the rule of law of the contemporary society.

Ahimsa in Vedic Scriptures

The early scriptures Vedas and Upanishads find ethical references to Ahimsa (non-violence), tolerance, and protection and preservation of all living beings; this is also an obvious reason why a large number of Hindus remain vegetarian, protect and love animals and birds, more particularly domesticated animals like cow and other cattle which have been traditionally useful to mankind in various ways. For example, hymn Rigveda hymn 10.22.25 uses the words Ahimsa and Satya (truthfulness) in a prayer to deity Indra; similarly, the term Ahimsa used in the Taittiriya Shakha of the Yajurveda (, where it refers to non-injury to the sacrificer himself. Also, it is mentioned in the Shatapatha Brahmana in the context of "non-injury". Non-violence towards animals finds reference in Yajurveda at many places endorsing a cordial and compassionate relationship among the living beings in a manner that “all beings look at me with a friendly eye, and I do likewise”.

Though violence and meat eating was not specifically prohibited in scriptures but culturally and religiously Hinduism endorsed and encouraged non-violence and protection of life barring few exceptional situations. Perhaps this is the main reason why even after the large-scale globalization, a considerably large number of Hindus remain vegetarian; and those who opt for non-vegetarian food habits are usually selective and choosy with limited options as against other cultural and religious groups who opt for a wide range of animal life for food. For instance, there is a saying in the context of the Chinese people that they virtually “eat everything that moves”. Over the time, the Hindu scriptures revised ritual practices with greater emphais; thus, the tenet of Ahimsa was refined and valued as one of the highest virtues. Indologist Bowker and Kaneda had pointed the use of the word Ahimsa at several places in Principal Upanishads. Many other scholars too have suggested Ahimsa as one of the important tenets evolved during the time of Vedic age, which increasingly acquired a focal point in Hinduism and other Indian religions such as Jainism and Buddhism with the passage of time.

Among Upanishads, the Chandogya Upanishad, is one of the oldest Upanishads that discusses a whole range of metaphysical aspects of Hinduism such as the glory of Aum, the identity of Self and Brahman, and the famous doctrine “tat tvam asi” (that art thou). It values Ahimsa as a code of conduct and discourages any form of violence against all living beings (sarvabhuta) suggesting that the practitioner of Ahimsa escapes from the cycle of rebirths (CU 8.15.1). In this verse, the glory of the knowledge of scriptures (Vedas) have been dealt with describing that Lord Brahma originally delivered this knowledge to Prajapati, and the latter in turn taught it to Manu, and from Manu it spread to all human beings. Those who acquire this knowledge, keep their senses under control and avoid violence, are entitled to Brahmaloka not to be born again. The same Upanishad also identified (CU 3.17.4) Ahimsa as one of the five essential virtues, the other four being Satya (truth), Danam (charity), Tapo (Penance, meditation) and Arjavam (Sincerity).

Kena Upanishad too underlines the importance of acquiring true knowledge with essential virtues including Ahimsa that eventually guides the path of liberation. Brihadaranyaka Upanishad is yet another great treatise with in depth discussion on the metaphysics, ethics and knowledge, which did not directly deal with Ahimsa but it dealt with the cardinal virtues like self-restraint (Damana), alms giving (Dana) and compassion (Daya), which are very close to non-violence in that a compassionate and self-restraining person would suo moto avoid violence. The Sandilya Upanishad recommended ten essential indulgences for men viz. Ahimsa, Satya, Asteya, Brahmacharya, Daya, Arjava, Kshama, Dhriti, Mitahara and Saucha. Thus, Ahimsa have been adopted as an important spiritual doctrine by the Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism) since Vedic times and was also pursued by other Indian religions, in fact, with a greater vigour in Jainism. Essentially, it carries the message of the total avoidance of harm of any kind to living beings not only by the deeds, but also by the words and thoughts.

Ahimsa in Post Vedic Age

From the civilizational and cultural history of Hindus, it is evident that Ahimsa was a preferred virtue but the Sanatana Dharma did not impose a ban on violence either, which, in the Varnashrama based society, was permitted to certain classes (Kshatriyas) in practicing Dharma and punish the wicked and evil doers. In other words, Ahimsa was a Dharma (righyeous duty), which mandated Himsa (violence) in certain circumstances for good. Although Ahimsa is loosely translated as non-violence but non-violence is an absolute term while Ahimsa is a relative term because violence was also justified in Hinduism to deal with the tyrants and oppressors. For illustration, if a person is responsible for taking away the lives of other people, his killing by the King (Kshatriya) directly or through an authorized warrior was part of Ahimsa but similar action by a sanyasi (ascetic) was considered not tenable.

Hindu Puranas and Epics contain numerous legends and instances dealing with the intricacies of Ahimsa. In Valmiki Ramayana, the concept of Ahimsa has been beautifully depicted as Sita’s dilemma in the Aranya Kanda (The Forest Trek), Sarga (Chapter) 9. In this chapter, at one point, Sita is found concerned about Rama's waging a war against demons at the request of sages. She felt that promise made by Rama to sages for liquidating demons was injurious; could other non-injurious means also be practiced winning over them. While Rama was Kshatriya by birth and trade but during the forest abode they lived as ascetic. This was another cause for Sita’s ponderance if killing the demons was a right thing for him to do. However, the concept of Ahimsa has been specifically dealt with at length in Vedvyasa’s Mahabharata. The phrase "Ahimsa Paramo Dharma" appears at several places in the Mahabharata particularly in Adi Parva, Vana Parva and Anushasana Parva. A few such illustrations are cited here.

In Adi Parva, Sauti Muni while talking to Rishi Ruru explains inter alia the characteristics of a brahmana as under:

Ahimsa paramo dharmah sarvapramabhrth smrtah,
Tasmat pranabhrtah sarvan na himsyad brahmanah kva cit.

(Verily the highest virtue of man is sparing the life of others. Therefore, a Brahmana should never take the life of any creature.) (Mahabharata 1.11.12)

Then in the same sequel, he explains the duty of the Kshatriya in the following verse:

Kshatriyasya tu yo dharmah sa nehesyati vai tava,
Dandadharanam ugratvam prajanam paripalanam.

(The duties of the Kshatriya are not thine. To be stern, to wield the sceptre and to rule the subjects properly are the duties of the Kshatriya.) (Mahabharata 1.11.15)

At the end of his discourse, Sauti Muni summarised that a Brahmana should never resort to violence or take the life of any creature; however, a Kshatriya may do so if it is required in due diligence and discharge of his duty (Dharma) that entails proper rule and enforcement of the law and order.

Yet another place in Vana Parva, the phrase finds a reference where Markandya Muni narrates the dialogue between a Brahmana named Kausika and a poultry-monger named Dharmavyadha of Mithila. In response to Kausika’s query about the virtuous conduct, Dharmavyadha replies as under:

Ahimsa satyavacanam sarvabhutahitam param,
Ahimsa paramo dharmah sa ca satye pratisthitah,
Satye krtva pratistham tu pravartante pravrttayah

(Virtuous men are always kind to all creatures, and well-disposed towards regenerate men. They abstain from doing injury to any creature and are never rude in speech. Those good men who know well the consequences of the fruition of their good and evil deeds, are commended by virtuous men.) (Mahabaharata 3.198.69)

In the aforesaid verse, Ahimsa is explained in the sense of not causing injury to any living being and that it is applied to 'virtuous men', who in scriptures are usually defined as ascetics as also Brahmanas.

After the eighteen days ferocious war of Mahabharata was over, on the advice of Shree Krishna Pandava King Yudhisthira went to Bhishma to take his guidance on a range of social, political and ethical issues. This is a long discourse compiled as Anushasana Parva in this great epic. Here again “Ahimsa Paramo Dharma” is referred to time and again. Bhishma answers all queries and concludes by saying that a person of cleansed soul should be compassionate to all living creatures.

Ahimsa paramo dharmas tathahimsa paro damah,
Ahimsa paramam danam ahimsa paramas tapah.
Ahimsa paramo yajnas tathahisma param balam,
Ahimsa paramam mitram ahimsa paramam sukham,
Ahimsa paramam satyam ahimsa paramam srutam.

(Ahimsa is the highest Dharma, Ahimsa is the highest self-control; Ahimsa is the greatest gift, Ahimsa is the best practice. Ahimsa is the highest sacrifice, Ahimsa is the finest strength; Ahimsa is the greatest friend, Ahimsa is the greatest happiness; Ahimsa is the highest truth, and Ahimsa is the greatest teaching.) (Mahabharata 13.117.37-38)

Srimad Bhagavad Gita on Ahimsa

The Bhagavad Gita categorises good and bad qualities as the divine and demoniac attributes, and Ahimsa is discussed with other divine virtues at length in Chapter 16. The Bhagavad Gita is actually the part of the Bhishma Parva of Mahabharata comprising of the dialogue between Shree Krishna and Pandava Prince Arjuna in the battle field of Kurushetra. In the beginning, Arjuna is overwhelmed by infatuation and he expresses his faint-heartedness, tenderness and grief at the prospect of killing own respected elders, relatives and other distinguished warriors, and thus wants to quit the war. Then reminding him of his duty (Dharma) as Kshatriya, Shree Krishna motivates Arjuna to join war by telling him that it will actually be adharma and sin in not fighting for the righteous cause.


Though the phrase Ahimsa Parmo Dharma is not specifically mentioned in the Bhagavad Gita but Ahimsa finds a mention in at least four verses 10.5, 13.7, 16.2 and 17.14 with emphasis that it should be practiced by thought, word and deed. The essence of all these verses is that the diverse traits, including non-violence and violence for the righteous cause, of all creatures emanate from the same Supreme Authority (Brahman); so the person must do his righteous duty as defined in scriptures without attachment to the deed or cause with equanimous mind.

Deva-dwija-guru-prajna- pujanam shaucham arjavam,
Brahmacharyam ahimsa cha shariram tapa uchyate.

(Worship of the Supreme Lord, the Brahmins, the spiritual master, the wise, and the elders - when this is done with the observance of cleanliness, simplicity, celibacy, and non-violence - is declared as the austerity of the body.) (BG: Chapter 17, Verse 14)

War tantamount to violence thereby causing injury or killing people yet Shree Krishna repeatedly asks Arjuna to get up and join war; one such saying could be observed from the following verse:

Atha cet tvam imam dharmyaam sangramam na karisyasi,
Tatah svadharmam kirtim ca hitva papam avapsyasi.

{If, however, you do not fight this dharmayudh (righteous war), then you will certainly incur sins for neglecting your duties and thus lose your reputation as a fighter.} (BG: Chapter 2, Verse 33)

Thus, in the Bhagavad Gita, on one hand Ahimsa is glorified as one of the divine virtues to be exercised in spiritual pursuit, at the same time Shree Krishna is seen motivating Arjuna to be ready for war in the given circumstances. Here the Pandavas elder brother Yudhisthira was the eligible and lawful choice for the Hastinapur throne in the famous Kuru dynasty but he, along with his brothers, was constantly wronged by the Kauravas brothers led by Duryodhana and his father Dhritrashtra, who constantly conspired to deprive them of their due, even tried to kill them by machination and finally refused to part with even five villages for their peaceful living. On face, it may appear paradoxical to many but in Hinduism Dharma (righteous duty) precedes or even supersedes all other prescribed actions. Non-violence should be practiced as a rule but to deal with the tyranny and oppression of evil doers, where necessary, such violence is permitted for the overall welfare of any society. For the same reason, Shree Krishna was convinced that Pandavas must fight for their rightful place in the kingdom.

Shree Krishna is widely accepted as the manifest of same Brahman, Who is responsible for the creation, sustenance and withdrawal of all forms in this universe. While “Ahimsa Parmo Dharma” finds mention in Mahabharata at many places with qualification, the phrase does not appear even once in the Bhagavad Gita. In fact, Shree Krishna is on record to state that whenever evil forces dominate the world, He has to appear time and again to save the mankind.

Yada yada hi dharmasya glanir bhavati bharata,
Abhyutthanam adharmasya tadatmanam srijamyaham.

Paritranaya sadhunam vinashaya cha dushkritm,
Dharma-sansthapanarthaya sambhavami yuge yuge.

(Whenever there is a decline in righteousness and an increase in unrighteousness, O Arjun, at that time I manifest myself on earth. To protect the righteous, to annihilate the wicked, and to re-establish the principles of dharma I appear on this earth, age after age.) (BG: Chapter 4, Verse 7-8)

Occasions Demanding Abandonment of Ahimsa

While the phrase “Ahimsa Parmo Dharma” finds a mention at many places with qualification in Hindu scriptures and the Bhagavad Gita justifies violence and war in certain eventualities, it is claimed by some modern age saints and scholars that the full phrase is different and the first part of it has been over emphasized and even exploited in the modern times. The full text of the phrase is as under:

Ahimsa Paramo Dharma
Dharma himsa tathaiva cha.

(Non-violence is the ultimate dharma. So too is violence in service of Dharma.)

The origin of the phrase is not exactly known but it is often quoted as part of the Epic Mahabharata. It underlines that the non-violence is the greatest Dharma (righteous duty) but violence for the cause of Dharma is also justified. Even if, it is not the part of Mahabharata or any other Hindu scripture, the spirit of the aforesaid phrase in consonance with what Shree Krishna said in the Bhagavad Gita. Hence even if the phrase may not contain the legacy of any ancient Hindu scripture, its application in letter and spirit is fully justified. Such an eventuality may usually be faced during the war with an external enemy, in self-protection and application of the criminal law in the modern age. Several treaties have been written since ancient age on eventualities referred to above with commensurate responses thereagainst. For instance, Chanakya’s Arthshastra inter alia also deals with the commensurate response and punishment in similar cases.

The tenet of Ahimsa is certainly against a war; be it among individuals, groups or states, all differences and conflicts shall be resolved through a sincere, sustained and truthful dialogue. However, if war becomes imminent, its objective should be to restrict and proportionately punish the aggressor with a goal of restoring peace and harmony. Among the nations, war can only be initiated and terminated by a legitimate authority, say the head of state i.e. President, King or Prime Minister; war equipment and weapons systems used must be proportionate to the adversary’s potential and to meet the objective rather causing indiscriminate destruction and devastation of mankind. Unfair means to take advantage and misery to the adversary men shall be avoided. Wounded and unarmed soldiers should not be attacked or killed; if caught, they must be well treated and given due medical treatment and released at the earliest. Even in the modern age, such ethics and rules of engagement at war times exist internationally, but evil nations and armies often violate it. For instance, while writing these lines the clouds of war are looming large between India and China following the latter’s covetous and vulturine approach of grabbing former’s territories. In such case, if India does not effectively respond, it would be against the ethics of Dharma.

Similarly, in the matters of self-defence, even scriptures favour retaliation against the aggressors and evil doers with qualification. Shastras forbid this in case of ascetics and Brahmana but recommend it to Kshatriyas for doing the needful. Over the years, the typical Varnashrama model of the Sanatana Dharma based on work, and not birth, of people has been diluted and the laws of the land permit every person to retaliate in self-defence. The concept of the self-defence is almost on the pattern of war and certain prescribed rules and norms shall be followed while responding to an attacker, particularly if he or they are armed. It is a well settled concept that some people by design, fear, mistake or even ignorance attack on others or intrude into their space; hence it becomes necessary to neutralise their aggression in self-defence with commensurate response. In the previous paragraph, there is a reference to the Chinese transgression into the Indian territory and consequent risks of war. Only few days back, the Chinese men ambushed an Indian patrol party killing the Commander and his two bodyguards violating every code of conduct. This treachery and concealed action of the Chinese aggressors with surprise element forced the Indian contingent to take commensurate punitive action – a classic example of response in self-defence. Even the Criminal Laws of the country, a predominantly Hindu land, support fair trial and commensurate punishments that include death penalty.

In the modern India, Swami Vivekananda was among some of the pioneers who strongly emphasised the need of Ahimsa. In twentieth century, MK Gandhi was among the prominent Indian leaders who actually practiced and promoted Ahimsa to all spheres of life, including politics in true “Ahimsa Parmo Dharma” spirit. To press his demand of Swaraj (self-rule), he adopted Ahimsa and Satyagraha (passive resistance) as main tools against the British colonial rule. His non-violent passive resistance movement had not only a tremendous impact to mobilise India masses but also was effective in building public opinion in India’s favour in the Western countries. Perhaps the concept of Ahimsa Parmo Dharma received the maximum recognition and accept during the freedom struggle, which, according to Gandhi, forbade not only the act of inflicting a physical harm but also any evil thoughts and deeds such as hatred, harsh words and unkind conduct while dealing with others. Gandhi popularised Ahimsa as a creative energy force to find truth and achieve intended goal. In fact, Gandhi professed that though Ahimsa was a central theme in Hinduism and other Indian religions, the religions like Christianity and Islam too endorsed Ahimsa – a precept not shared or endorsed by many other contemporary leaders and scholars.


Ahimsa Parmo Dharma is indeed a noble concept but it needs to be read in conjunction with “Dharma himsa tathaiva cha” i.e. non-violence is indeed a righteous duty but, where it becomes necessary, violence in service of establishing Dharma shall be resorted to. Ahimsa as the ultimate principle may be perfectly valid for the ascetics, who have consciously renounced the worldly possessions in pursuance of Moksha (liberation) but it may not be suitable to householders in all cases. For instance, if someone forcibly enters their house and violates their person or belongings, a commensurate retaliation and retribution may become necessary. In such cases, one may have no option but to resort to violence in self-defence. A similar situation also exists during the war and application of laws to punish evil doers. Hinduism does not proactively endorse the act of violence but as Shree Krishna rightly observed in the Bhagavad Gita, where violence becomes imminent for the cause of Dharma, the people should not shy away with their responsibility.

Continued to Part L 


More by :  Dr. Jaipal Singh

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