An Ahimsa Crisis: You Decide ► An Overview Of Ahimsa ► The Connection Between Ahimsa And Jainism

Posted: 19.07.2016

Nearly 2,600 years ago, Lord Mahavira laid down a very specific and detailed code of conduct for Jain laity in regard to the practice of ahimsa in their daily lives. He also, through his own self-practice, preaching and practical demonstrations, strongly objected and revolted against the prevalent practices of himsa (violence) in many customs and traditions of the day. These included animal sacrifices in religious rituals; slavery; societal discrimination on the basis of caste, gender, and economic status; and pollution and destruction of the environment. Lord Mahavira made ahimsa the centerpiece of his sermons and of his fourfold Sangh (community).

This concept of unconditional ahimsa towards all life forms is the most profound contribution of Jains to India and to the world. In India, the ahimsa of the Jains has played a significant role in shaping many customs and traditions, one of them being vegetarianism.

As Dr. Atul Shah, chief editor of the London-based Jain Spirit said, “For Jains, Ahimsa is an everyday word. However, for many people, violence is an everyday experience. They would not think twice about arguing with someone or even having a fight. Many do not care how or where their food comes from - they seem to be angry all the time. A non-vegetarian diet is the norm and vegetables the exception. The message of Ahimsa is quite remote from their day–to-day life. Many of these people have not experienced genuine love - ever. To them, it is normal to argue. And the modern world of greed and materialism exacerbates this violence.” (Reference Add)

As the centerpiece of Jainism, ahimsa is the aatmaa (soul) - it is the only vehicle (means) to cross this ocean of Samsara (worldly existence). (Reference Add)

In reality, ahimsa and Jainism are two sides of the same coin. Jainism stands on the pillar of ahimsa. Prof. Gary Francione of Rutgers University defines ahimsa as “staying in equanimity” (samyaktva bhaav) and notes that any step away from equanimity is himsa or can be understood as walking towards himsa. Himsa (violence) refers to any action accompanied by the giving of pain or rise of passions, whereas ahimsa is about not inflicting harm and pain to one’s self or others in thoughts, words, or actions.

In Jain cosmology, animals also possess a moral and spiritual dimension. A favorite Jain tale relates to an elephant, the leader of a large herd, caught in a raging forest fire. Seeking shelter, all animals crowded around a lake, leaving no room for him to maneuver. After a while, the elephant raised one leg to scratch himself, and a small hare/rabbit swiftly occupied this tiny vacancy. Feeling deep compassion for the small animal, the elephant kept his leg raised for more than three days until the fire died out and the hare/rabbit departed. By then, his leg had gone numb; he toppled over, unable to set his foot down and walk again. Maintaining purity of mind until he died, the elephant severed all ties with his animal destinies. He was later reborn as Prince Megha, son of King Srenika of Magadha, and became an eminent Jain monk under Lord Mahavira.

This is the essence of ahimsa in Jaina philosophy - it is compassion, empathy, a profound wisdom that a common Atman pulsates in all beings, making each equally worthy of life, and denying the human-made hierarchy that sets a human or more-powerful mammal above a creature that it has the power to kill. Ahimsa is not a passive or mechanical act of merely refraining from an act of violence; it is a proactive affirmation of divinity in all creation.

According to Jainism, true religion is that which sustains all species of life and helps to maintain harmonious relationship among them. The entirety of Jain ethics tends towards translating the principle of ahimsa into practice.

For Jains, their identity and trademark is ahimsa and that is what differentiates them from non-Jains.

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