Ahimsa (ah-him-sah) is the Sanskrit word for non-injury/non-violence. ‘Hims’ is the root word meaning “to strike,” and ‘Himsa’ means “injury, harm.” When the A is put in front of a Sanskrit root word, it means the opposite.
Ahimsa, or non-injury, is the ancient law and moral code of being compassionate by not causing harm by word, thought, or action. There are two sets of codes of conduct in Hinduism’s philosophical ethics known as Yamas and Niyamas, restraints and observances. Ahimsa is by far one of the most popular ethics throughout many civilizations, and it is one of the tenets of Hinduism’s branch of Yamas.
SEE ALSO: How To Cultivate Self-Compassion
The Yamas and Niyamas
Here are the ten Yamas:
- Ahimsa: Non-injury
- Satya: Truthfulness
- Asteya: Non-stealing
- Brahmacharya: Divine conduct
- Kshama: Patience
- Dhriti: Steadfastness
- Daya: Compassion
- Arjava: Honesty
- Mitahara: Moderate appetite
- Saucha: Purity
The other set codes of conduct are Niyamas, or observances, and they are aspects of faith that Hindu’s can incorporate into their life in order to bridge the gap of having faith and practicing it.
- Hri: Remorse
- Santosha: Contentment
- Dana: Giving
- Astikya: Faith
- Ishvarapujana: Worship
- Siddhanta Sravana: Scriptural listening
- Mati: Cognition
- Vrata: Sacred vows
- Japa: Recitation
- Tapas: Austerity
The twenty “do’s” and “dont’s” are a common-sense code recorded in the final section of Hindu scripture called the Vedas, in a section titled the Upanishads. They are also found in other classical works such as the Hatha Yoga Pradipika by Gorakshanatha, the Tirumantiram of Tirumular and in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.
The Yamas and Niyamas have been preserved through the centuries as the foundation, the first and second stage, of the eight-staged practice of yoga known as Ashtanga Yoga. Yet, they are fundamental to all beings, expected aims of everyone in society, and assumed to be fully intact for anyone seeking life’s highest aim in the pursuit of yoga. Sage Patanjali (ca 200 BCE), raja yoga’s foremost teacher, wrote, “These Yamas are not limited by class, country, time or situation. Hence they are called the universal great vows.”
Now you know what the word means and where it comes from, so how can we use it in daily life and why?
Applying Ahimsa in life
Non-injury, Ahimsa, is designed by a presupposition that all of life is sacred and divine. These codes of conduct are the means of controlling our mind, especially the cruel or agitated states that overcome us. After enough frustration, we will succumb to anxiety, and after enough anxiety, we are brought into the lower-consciousness of anger. From a simple matter of agitation to frustration, into anxiety and then anger — that’s the path for anyone paying close enough attention to what goes on around us, and acting like it is or has something to do with us directly.
The challenge with life is that most people latch onto whatever is going on as a personal attack against themselves. The ego, or sense of “I”, gets offended, and invariably defends itself. Traffic, other people, bad timing, mistakes from oneself or others—all of life’s small situational anomalies will stick to your psyche if you let it, and they will eventually control your mind.
The proposal from these ancient teachings is that we actually detach a little bit. We take a part of us and remove our focus from the actions going on around us and turn around, look at ourselves, look within, and make a decision to not act as though we need to respond. Sometimes that means just watching, saying nothing, observing, and waiting, instead of responding with confusion, frustration, or hatred. Resentment will lead to retaliation in order for us to feel justified with the ebb and flow of the world. As long as the other person feels our pain, then we are accepted into the role of victim and being hurt is okay so long as it’s public, other people know—our martyrdom can then be appreciated, and then respected.
In the above scenario, you are making a fool of yourself. Victim mentality shows mental weakness, and that you will be quick to blame instead of taking the initiative to change your surroundings. Love, compassion, and non-injury in thought-word-action is the ultimate maturity that says to take on the responsibility of life and reap the benefits of better karma through leadership.
Ahimsa is maturity; maturity is growth
One can see the inherent good in non-injury by understanding its nature of trust. The flow goes like this:
- Faith (trust)— We trust the world is good and is born of divine origins.
- Practice (right action)— We act as though everything is karmically tied, what is good reaps good and what is bad reaps bad. We seek to treat others with respectful distance when they do bad because they are still learning, we love them for their core nature. We lean towards good because we aspire to goodness.
- Outcome (karma)— We go through the ups and downs, the ebb and flow, of life. While attempting to do good with practice, our faith is a backup for karmic anomaly. Our outcome is what we make it, and it is a good outcome if we understand that anomaly—chaos—is sometimes carried over from life to life…meaning we can’t see the bad from past lives and must endure through trials so that this and future lives are as good as possible.
Revenge and retaliation don’t lead to closing hurtful situations, they often lead to more hatred and resentment. Grudges are the poison that slowly bring illness via psychic toxicity.
Ahimsa says there can be love, trust, and hope in a prosperous future due to karma, reincarnation, and an innate divine presence in all that exists. We don’t want little inconveniences like bad drivers or heavy traffic to bring us down because it’s a waste of energy, vital energy that can be used to benefit us as opposed to hurt us. Larger and more devastating anomaly — that which makes us question the existence of divinity — is also a learning, a lesson, for our growth in life. Your sister or brother’s murderer is also made up of divinity, and they will eventually go through the same process of maturity that you did. We rely on faith superimposed over practicing right action and live through the outcome based on the karmic action/reaction cycle of life.
To fight back, resist, and wish for otherwise is going against the natural moment happening right now. It isn’t another way, and to wish it was is fantasy. We need to be realistic and endure, understand there is a bigger picture, and suffer through hardship in order to be strong for others who need us.
Ahimsa means peace and protection
If we must defend ourselves in order to keep family or persons safe, then, by all means, use the lion in the village philosophy. If the lion comes in to harm the community, then it may become your duty to defend and protect where the lion shouldn’t be. There is always an extreme example to bring into question: What if someone tries to attack me? Or does it attack me? Or goes after my wife and kids? Or breaks into my house? How is the code of non-injury helpful there? Given that your safety is in question, and acting with force in an aggressive and potentially harmful way may save others, non-injury then stands for protection against injury for loves ones.
Defending safety, using combat, in those extreme scenarios means Ahimsa as well, as the shift in subject becomes the focus of compassion. To avoid and shirk responsibility, remaining silent when speech is necessary, and to hide instead of display courage, are all examples of not understanding the ahimsa/himsa flow of life, karma, and justice.
For most of us all the time, if someone has hurt your feelings with their words, cut you off in traffic, acted childishly, and has somehow caused you to get irritated, frustrated, anxious, and resentful — I would advise you as one of my senior monks advised me long ago: grow up.