The Lokashakti Encyclopedia of Nonviolence, Peace, & Social Justice

'Ahimsa' in the symbol of Jainism

A Sanskrit word brought to global prominence by Mohandas K. Gandhi through his political philosophy and nonviolent campaigns. Ahimsa is usually translated in English to mean "nonviolence," and its root, himsa, is usually translated as "violence." Neither translation quite reveals the essence of the Sanskrit word, however. Ahimsa actually conveys a comprehensive meaning of nonviolence in word, deed, thought - in all aspects of human life.

Ahimsa is an ethical precept found in the Jain, Buddhist, and Hindu religions. In Jainism, ahimsa is the first and most important of five vows, the central tenet of its ethical system. For followers of Jainism, ahimsa means absolute nonharm, particularly, nonkilling of any form of life. It includes not only renunciation of the physical act of killing but also renunciation of the will to kill or do harm. Jains embrace nonviolence in their quest for purity, self-perfection, and self-realization. For Buddhists, ahimsa is only slightly less important than it is for Jains.  It is part of “right conduct,” the fourth principle of the Noble Eightfold Path. In Buddhism, ahimsa means nonharm but also involves an attitude of compassion toward the suffering of all beings. Ahimsa is also an important concept in Hinduism. Indeed, Gandhi considered it the "core of Hinduism."

For Gandhi, ahimsa was more than a negative concept of doing no harm. It was a positive, dynamic, active concept that he identified with love. Love, he said, was the "active state of ahimsa." He sometimes called ahimsa the "law of love." In this sense, for Gandhi, ahimsa was similar to the concept of Christian charity and the Greek word for love, agape. From this perspective, Gandhi argued that killing, in certain circumstances, such as putting a dying animal out of its misery, could be considered ahimsa, because ending the animal's suffering was the most loving thing to do.

For example, at one time at the ashram in Ahmedabad there was an incurably ill calf. Although the calf's agony was severe, there was nothing that could be done to save the animal or ease its pain. A sharp debate arose among members of the ashram, in which one argued against killing the calf on the grounds that the right to take life is vested only in the one who gives life.  Gandhi argued that in this case taking the calf's life was not motivated by self-interest, and that the agony of the creature could not be ignored. Ultimately he decided to end the calf's misery and asked the doctor to do it as quickly and painlessly as possible.

When asked whether he would use the same argument for human beings, for someone he loves, or for himself, Gandhi argued categorically that he would apply it to himself and to those whom he loved without exception. If a person is in a position to decide for himself whether to live or die, he must make that decision. If not, Gandhi believed, those who are closest to the person must make the decision for him. Gandhi recognized the difficulty of making such choices but nevertheless argued against a narrow and absolutist interpretation of ahimsa as simply avoiding direct physical harm.

Gandhi insisted that nonviolence can be understood only through understanding the depth, scope, and expanse of violence committed by human beings. The gruesome realities of physical violence tend to overshadow the subtleties of what Gandhi called "passive violence" (that is, harsh words, harsh judgments, ill will, anger, spite, lust, cruelty). It was, in his view, more urgent to deal with passive violence because it fuels physical violence. If the absence of war does not mean peace, by the same token, the absence of street violence does not mean the community lives in harmony. In ahimsa Gandhi sought to enlarge the understanding of passive violence and suggest ways in which individuals and societies could overcome all forms of violence. Similarly, ahimsa could not be separated from the idea of satyagraha as the process of struggle to transform individuals and society.

Arun Gandhi, reprinted with permission, from Protest, Power, and Change: An Encyclopedia of Nonviolent Action from ACT-UP to Women's Suffrage.  Roger Powers, William Vogele, Christoper Kreugler, and Ronald McCarthy, eds. New York: Garland Publishing, 1997.

Selected material about Ahimsa
  • Gandhi, Mohandas K. "The Fiery Ordeal." Young India, 1928.

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