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Ahiṁsā Paramo Dharma

Non-violence is the highest religion


Non-violence, ahiṁsā, is the central doctrine of Jainism. Jainism is therefore sometimes called the non-violence religion or culture. Also in Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and other religions non-violence plays an important role. However with none of them this principle has been given such a central position as in Jainism, especially if it comes to the practice of religion. All actions Jains do are directed towards avoiding harm to other living beings. This includes physical violence, but also verbal violence, and – most important of all because that is where the cause of all misery is born – mental violence. This has enormous consequences for daily life, for society and for our world view. Through the millennia Jains have put emphasis on this principle and with this they have influenced the whole world. And they are still doing that. Throughout human history this first principle has covered humankind with a protective shield. Everywhere in the world there were and are individuals and groups who carry the non-violence principle in their hearts, because they feel that this is what the world needs most and lacks most. Also vegetarianism is something that is supported by a number of individuals in every country. The original Hinduism of the Vedas prescribed ritual animal sacrifices, but thanks to Jainism, Buddhism and Christianity such things occur only rarely today, except in Islam and some tribal religions. Animal sacrifices did and do occur over the entire globe. Some cultures even took to large scale human sacrifice. And – so they thought – by commission of the gods! But this is compassion turned into cruelty – how could any real god ever approve of such action? In Jain cosmology many classes of gods are described, and far from all “gods” are good. They have been humans when incarnate on earth, and may have all evil or noble qualities of humans. Some of them may be kind and helpful, some highly spiritual, but others may be cruel or purposely misguiding people, causing accidents or worse things: they induce ignorant people to do evil things while being convinced they are serving the real gods or God. Peoples like the Mayas of Mexico and Guatemala, which in later more decadent phases of their culture performed human sacrifices on an ever larger scale (and even today animal sacrifices sometimes occur) were themselves aware that they had been misled by “second-rate” gods, and they expressed their regret in songs.

The wish not to harm living beings (including, but in the last place oneself) is an essential characteristic of the deepest inner being of man. This is the reason why religions who preached this doctrine ever found many sympathizers. No great mental effort is needed to understand how much suffering the human as well as the animal kingdom would have been spared if humans would have had the discipline to let this noble aspect of their being prevail at each and every opportunity. No wars, no slaughterhouses, no battery cages, terrorism, suppression, social injustice or capital punishment would exist any longer as soon as humankind would be able to understand and then practice non-violence. It would not mean that humanity would have nothing to learn anymore or would be disposed of all desperation, or that tigers would at once eat grass. But at the present moment we make things much more difficult for ourselves than would be necessary. People would, in stead of regarding each other as territorial and personal competitors, understand that they are brother pilgrims towards truth and unstained happiness, who know of each other that the pilgrimage is long and often not easy, but who everywhere and always are on each others side. With many this is already the case even in our times. It sounds almost sentimental – “unpractical” – and still this is the only thing of real importance in life, the only true discipline around which life turns: the practice of brotherhood. The brotherhood of all beings which have consciousness. Rules are not conditional to accomplish this, but listening to one’s heart certainly is.

Religions teach that every consciousness reaps what it has sown. From this it follows that “violence one cannot avoid” such as natural calamities, disease and damage inflicted by someone else, can be referred back to oneself – the negligence of this deep impulse from the heart. Then we should be aware that our repeated existences on earth are but a small part or our total life cycle. Most of our time we spend outside our physical bodies, in the hereafter or the “herebefore” either as a hellish or as a heavenly being, say the Jains. The so-called hells or heavens are mental states of consciousness which are the result of our thinking during our stay in physical bodies. As a result of its weakness or attachment the soul is not willing to make choices, and vibrates continuously hither and thither between high and low, good and bad. In this way a vibration is created through which confusion and ignorance are attracted and attached to the soul, thus making matters only more difficult. If one has the courage to choose for the higher – for absolute inner non-violence – the weakness and doubt which cause the vibrations will disappear. And then God will turn out to be all forgiveness and love, as a Christian would express it. The soul is the only true God according to Jainism. By living in the soul, every human is a god.

What makes the Jains special is that they do not only preach and talk about non-violence, but also practice it. I happened to come across a small statistic diagram from 1891 – that is, from before the influence of modern times – giving the percentage of prisoners in Indiaas related to religion. The Jains were by far the best: 1 on 6165 citizens. On the other side of the scale Jews and Christians arrived at 1 on 481 and 477 respectively. The attitude of the Jains is neither extreme nor extravagant. In fact they are the ones who behave “normal.” The social morality of the Jains as well as their doctrine on redemption is interspersed with rules and guidelines which all are derived from the same principle. The five main vows which every Jain is supposed to respect are: to abstain from violence, to abstain from lying (one could as well say: violence against truth), to abstain from stealing, to abstain from sexual misconduct, and to be free from worldly attachment. Besides, every Jain is supposed to think and meditate about friendship with all living beings, the happiness it may give when seeing that others have more success (especially in spiritual matters) than oneself, compassion for all suffering beings, and tolerance or indifference for those who behave in an uncivilized way or badly towards him or her.

Ahimsā is the opposite of himsā, violence. What is meant by violence is clearly defined in scriptures which by the Jains are regarded as authoritative. To quote just a few:

From the Tattvārthadhigama Sūtra

Violence or himsā is to hurt the prāṇas or vitalities, through vibration due to the passions, which agitate mind, body or speech (vii:13).

From the Purushārthasiddhi-upāya:

Any injury to the material or conscious vitalities caused by passionate activity of mind, body or speech is certainly called violence (iv:43); certainly the non-appearance of attachment and other passions is ahimsā (iv:44).

From the Āchāranga Sūtra:

Violence is a great impediment to spiritual awakening, and someone who indulges in doing harm to living beings will not get enlightenment; harming other beings is always harmful and injurious to oneself – it is the main cause of someone’s non-enlightenment (i.1.2).

From the Sūtrakritānga Sūtra:

Knowing that all evils and sorrows arise from injury to living beings, and that it leads to unending enmity and is the root cause of great fear, a wise man who has become awakened, should refrain from all sinful activities (i.10.21).

From the Uttarādhyayana Sūtra

Seeing that everything that happens to somebody affects him personally, one should be friendly towards all beings; being completely free from fear and hatred, one should never injure any living being (6.6).

From the Daśavaikālika Sūtra:

All living creatures desire to live. Nobody wishes to die. And hence it is that the Jain monks avoid the terrible sin of injury to living beings.

The most forceful statement is found in the Jñānārnava:

Violence alone is the gateway to the miserable state, it is also the ocean of sin; it is itself a terrible hell and is surely the densest darkness (8.19); and:

If a person is accustomed to commit injury, than all his virtues like selflessness, greatness, desirelessness, penance, liberality or munificence are worthless (viii:20).

Respect and understanding

Mahāvīra said that “as long as one holds on to one of the many aspects of a thing while at the same time rejecting or ignoring other aspects, one can never reach the truth.” Therefore it is essential to fully understand the doctrine anekānta as characterized by the concept of syāt. The word anekānta can be translated as “many aspects.” Truth shows itself to the observer in many aspects. Only the one who has reached complete insight can see the truth as a whole. Nobody on earth has this power of insight in its fullness, and it may be that two people with the same measure of intelligence and dedication look at the same truth from a different angle, so that two opinions appear incompatible. The ethical consequence of the teaching is that one can fundamentally never blame someone of having the wrong view, whereas one claims the right view for himself. Both views may appear to be correct in the final analysis, though only partly. Two opinions may seem incompatible, but in reality there is only a paradox: when one has acquired a deeper insight one may see that both are legitimate approaches of the same truth, or that both standpoints represent only limited views on the truth.

An example from modern science is that light and other electromagnetic radiation can be regarded as consisting of particles as well as waves: of both views the truth can be proven on basis of the theoretical behavior which either particles or waves are expected to show according to our experiences on the macrophysical level. Solving such problems may finally lead to a deeper view – and paradoxes on a next level. A simple example which one can find with the Jains as well as Buddhists and Sufis is that of the blind men and the elephant. One of the men touches the trunk, the other a tusk, the third one an ear, or the elephants tail. They start to quarrel about what an elephant really is because their views differ completely. Then a non-blind person happens to pass by. He says that all of them are right, and that all of them are wrong. In comparison to an omniscient and omni-clairvoyant Jina all of us are blind.

The word syāt means “from one point of view,” Thus anekānta is the doctrine about how truth presents itself to us, and syādvāda (a t becomes d before a v) is the doctrine which teaches that we can approach the truth from different angles. These two doctrines are accompanied by a third, called nayavāda, the theory concerning partial knowledge. Even though there may be different views, none of which represents the whole truth, each of them contains a nucleus of truth. Therefore it is always useful to try to understand the other, because his or her story too contains a core of truth, and thus adds one aspect of approach. To try to fight each other with words (and eventually with weapons) to get one’s right is a form of violence which is contrary to this philosophy.

All these different approaches used by common men are the result of the workings of their minds. The human mind in its present stage of evolution is by nature divisive because it is unable to grasp the whole. But at the moment we see that this mental activity can never lead us beyond its natural limitations we will understand that we should seek the higher path: the path of renunciation of all illusions or “partial truths,” and direct one’s meditation exclusively on that which is beyond. This may take lifetimes, but once we have made the first step, no deaths and rebirths can hamper us from reaching our goal. We will never again be satisfied with less than that.

A major paradox with which the world as a whole is struggling involves this very philosophy of ahimsā and anekānta: if the other party is unwilling to behave non-violently, what should we do? On the personal level we can offer “the other cheek” to our opponent, and forgive him again and again his evildoing to ourselves. This is the real practice of ahimsā. But on a communal level the question becomes different: should we talk of fight with terrorists? Should we tolerate the large-scale industrial destructors of the environment and respect their point of view? Should we regard them as unavoidable agents of karma, fulfilling the unpleasant duty of destroying the old so that something new can be born and grow? As to a terrorists, as long as he or she has any ideal which they are impersonally serving other than rendering service to some private psychological frustration, this man or woman too is thinking that he or she is doing the best he or she can do for his or her people, religion, ethics, or whatever conviction it may be (though blinded as they may be by ignorance concerning the real meaning of religion and service), and we should try to understand the core of their motivation, and the cause which aroused their feelings and the feelings of those they represent. When two people or groups of people such as nations or religious brotherhoods are connected in an unpleasant relation, both are part of the problem, both have their ignorance (especially about the others real inner intentions – for which they are often willing to sacrifice all comforts and possession, their family and even their lives) and both think they serve the universal goods of divine intention or justice. Both may even be driven by compassion – though probably not enough wisdom. A terrorist for the one may be a hero for the other; a chosen president may be a devil for those who suffer on the other side. Talking and serious willingness to listen and understand may turn the worst enemies into the best friends, recognizing each other as brothers serving the same cause of higher human dignity and destiny. So the anekānta doctrine, if implemented, can avoid tremendous amounts of fear, misunderstanding, and social, material and physical suffering among the human community (and even the animal community – which is usually forgotten during conflicts) of the world.

Though, however many “other cheeks” we may present, however much we talk and try to understand, some will always remain enemies, because their psychology is such. Then, let the parties fight together, with words and psychological confrontation, on as small a scale as possible – at best on the personal level – and let as few as possible be actively involved. The real judge is karma only. Let their karmic debit be as small as possible.  The two sons of the first king Ṛṣabha, named Bharata and Bahūbali, had a conflict with the power over the whole world at stake. Both had strong armies. But they decided that they didn’t want to inflict suffering on the thousands of their subjects, and fought together until victory (and then became friends).

As to “tolerating” destructive forces instigated by selfishness: if not we ourselves and our chosen governments would have the same selfish attitude or indifference, humankind would naturally design laws which would make such behavior impossible, and even those who destroy without concern will in the end admit the righteousness of such laws, and submit themselves to it, even though it may take generations. Even criminals feed but on the thoughts we all together nurtured, and therefore even the most decent man or woman is co-responsible for the performance of the affairs of the world. Not so long ago, in the nineteenth century, protests against slavery were ridiculed. Nowadays we regard slavery as something utterly inhuman and contemptible. Will not the same be said about our present behavior towards the environment and our cruelty towards animals in a century or two from now? Let us sow the seeds for the centuries to come.

There are as many viewpoints as there are thinkers, but none of them is entirely perfect. Thus the world exhibits a richness of philosophies, all of which are the result of deep human mental pondering. But because no matter-bound, limited soul can perceive the universe in its entirety all these thinkers remain under the influence of their personal context. All this does not mean, of course, that one viewpoint may contain more truth than another viewpoint, or that no opinion could be entirely wrong. If we would lose sight of that, we would possibly adopt an attitude of lazy tolerance, and thus approval of any viewpoint – without any point of reference to universal truth or ethic. Jains are no postmodernists. There is a final truth concerning and including all, and it can and will be known. Jains have often been staunch fighters in dispute, but with the only objective to come closer to real understanding and to defend the deepest truth they can grasp. But feelings of respect and tolerance always remain present in their heart, aware that they also do not know and see everything – but once in future they will reach unstained omniscience and omni-clairvoyance, and so will each one’s opponent.


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