Ahimsa – Non-Violence

Ahimsa – Non-Violence

Ahimsa is one of the 5 Yamas or observances, the first limb of Yoga. It means non-injury or non-violence.

Other Yamas include non-theft and truthfulness, so they’re sometimes confused with ethics. For example, I was recently asked how I could call myself spiritual if I was not a raw vegan. The arguments they raised were all about the ethical treatment of animals. And while that may be a good reason to become vegan, that’s an ethical choice rather than a spiritual one. They didn’t accept this and apparently felt I was just making excuses.

Ethics are rules of conduct or moral principles. They’re considered a values branch of philosophy. There are very good reasons for carefully choosing ethical and moral guidelines.  Greats such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Gandhi, and programs like Non-Violent Communication have wisely touted non-violence as a practice.

But discrimination and judgement are of the mind rather than spirit. They may well be taken as spiritual principles. But dharma may dictate we be a warrior. What then? An organism like a white blood cell has the job of destroying other organisms. We may disagree ethically, but that purpose remains. We would not survive long without them.

It’s also very useful to understand that with every step we make and every breath we take, we are destroying some life. Everything lives at the expense of something else. Even to be a pure vegan, you are still consuming other life – life is the real value in fresh food. Consuming life is the nature of what it is to be alive. This is not because it’s evil but because we’re all here with a purpose to support each other. We’re in this together.

For humans, the complication is that we have enough consciousness to make choices. This introduces a far greater range of possibility. In higher ages it is natural to act in ones dharma. Then it doesn’t conflict with another’s and laws are largely unnecessary. We naturally are mutually supportive. But in the current age, we’re often confused about both dharma and ethics. We don’t understand why we’re here let alone how our thoughts and actions impact others. We treat life as a commodity rather than what supports us. Many place their own betterment at the expense of others as “survival of the fittest“. Yet even the “fittest” fail without the rest of us. (and that’s not what Darwin proposed)

What then is Ahimsa for a human?

We can’t force our beliefs on another – that is just another form of violence. But in this context, ahimsa is not a precept or concept or belief. Rather Ahmisa is something we live when we know who we are. As consciousness rises, we increasingly recognize the interconnectedness of all things – including ourselves. This brings a respect for life and a gratitude for what life brings to us.

Then spontaneous peace and non-violence arises from deep within. Before that, some guidelines may be useful to follow. But don’t confuse rules with purpose. And don’t assume what’s right for you is right for everyone.

We only have to look at other parts of the Yoga Sutra to confirm this. For example, v2-16 Avert the danger which has not yet come. What follows is the instruction for eliminating any enemy – the removal of identification of the seer with the seen. With no enemy, where is the need for violence? This is the true art of the warrior – the radiating of peace that eliminates all enemies, without raising a hand.

There is a tendency for people to shift towards being vegetarian with spiritual development but this is not universal. Some people have found their physiologies do need some animal protein. This is simply the reality of the physiology they have inherited. This does not mean the person is deficient or lacks ethics or consciousness.

On the other hand, some people adopt a strict vegan approach for ethical reasons, even if it makes them unhealthy. This is actually an ironic form of self-violence. Yes, the way we treat animals could use some work. But standing against anything is a subtle form of violence that makes what we don’t want stronger. This is the art of creating an enemy, the opposite of Ahimsa. Instead, as Mother Teresa noted, ask what are you for ?

Similarly, feeling guilty about what we’re eating is not helpful (nor is feeling guilty about feeling guilty). Being neurotic about food quality or toxins or whatever is also unhealthy in itself. What we put our attention on grows stronger.

Ahimsa is much more subtle than ethical rules. It is a way of being arising from who we are. It is the flow of life itself, recognizing itself, and enjoying all forms of unity with everything we consume – through the mouth and the senses. It is spreading the peace that passeth understanding and removes all enemies.

Life is a blessing. Give it yours.

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  1. Pingback: Yoga Articles - Davidya.ca

  2. Emily

    Awesome article David, thank you so much. This topic is what has been at the back of my mind recently. Becoming more aware of where I stand on ethical issues around what you eat. I was starting to slightly second guess myself (“shall I try to eat vegetarian meals when I go to restaurant” Etc when not a vegetarian) trying to be conscious of my “footprint”.

    I think for me my own ethics are to ensure that what I eat (when I have the choice) confirms to modern standards (such as free range eggs) and avoid known issues (e.g. The recent news about the Slaving boats in the fish meal trade in Thailand – so I would therefore eat “responsibly sourced” prawns/ fish instead from the North Atlantic.

    I know even then their are subtleties that I am missing!

    I also tried being a raw vegan when I was 18 for 3 months and I did feel great physiologically speaking, but I don’t think I would have kept that feeling for long. For my the practicality and the social nature of food was lost and preventing myself from eating was was there or handy could easily have become neurotic.

  3. Hi Emily
    Thanks for sharing – and that’s one of the tricks of ethics alone – you can’t possibly know all of the background history of everything you eat. Even the circumstances occurring at the time of harvest can affect a food energetically. You can find something wrong with everything if you look closely enough. But it’s not helpful to demonize food.

    The real trick in all this is to recognize what we bring to the food so we can clear it before we consume it. It is paying attention to how the body feels. It is feeling good about our bodies. It is eating happily because it supports us.

    Yes, and the social nature of eating is very healthy. So much of it is about balance.

    And yes, I have a veggie juice fast periodically. Its great for the system. But not long term. Mastering what our specific body needs ongoing is an art form thats rather lost in our culture.

    But we don’t have to be perfect. Our bodies are remarkably adaptive and have many safeguards in place. The key really is to learn to listen to what the body needs. Maybe it does need a pickle. 😉

  4. Amaryllis

    Great post, thank you. Yes, it is good to clearly understand that ethics and spirituality are different. The situation of being judged on the issue of veganism seems to be a common one (at least for me).

    Apart from the relevant points you make about veganism not being harm-free in the way it is idealised by many (just think about the woodland creatures, birds & insects who have had themselves and their habitat destroyed in the name of agriculture), it also seems to bring up issues of control in people.

    I can see that from a certain perspective, not eating or using animal products makes a lot of humane sense, but I don’t feel comfortable with the idea that one perspective is ‘correct’ and the others are all ‘wrong’.

    It seems to me that a good way ‘forward’ for we humans is to rely more and more on inner knowing (which would be preceded by lots of inner listening). Balance and harmony cannot be enforced by rules or ideologies. (And, having written that, I am now wondering whether ‘balance’ and ‘harmony’ are ideas that have no basis outside of thought …?)

  5. Hi Amaryllis
    Agreed – mass agriculture is having a profoundly negative impact on the world. It is destroying the rainforests and massively expanding the desertified areas of the world.

    This is not happening due to the growing of food but due to the disrespect we show for the environment, treating our home as a commodity and garbage dump. While not too big a deal when done locally, we’ve increased the scale and intensity of it massively.

    I know a few vegetarians who where told they needed to add a small amount of chicken or fish back into their diet for health. The key I’ve found is not dietary rules but listening to what the body is asking for. I’m certainly not perfect there but broadly, this works well. And it’s much simpler that trying to keep track of nutrients, trying to follow a special diet, etc.

    So yes inner knowing and respecting the bodies intelligence. Its smarter than we are. (laughs) Just imagine all the laws of nature it takes to build and maintain this remarkable thing.

    Balance and harmony are not just ideas. The world is all about balance and harmony. Without that, it would collapse into dust. For us, stepping into the flow is stepping into lifes continual balancing.

    Dharma ultimately means that which sustains. That which sustains balance and harmony. If we feel out of harmony, we know there is something to adjust, something to allow. And then peace and well-being comes.

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