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.