What does AHIMSA mean

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The word ‘ahimsa’ is a commonly used Sanskrit word. It is used by people, who do not even know Sanskrit, as it is present in almost every Indian language. The widely used meaning of the word ‘ahimsa’ is non-violence. However, it is necessary to see the other meanings and the origins of this Sanskrit word. Sanskrit is a classical language like Greek, Latin, and Persian. And in Sanskrit, as in most classical languages, most words are derived from a stem or root.  

The word ‘ahimsa’ is derived by adding the a prefix and ah suffix to the root verb himsa, which means injury, mischief, hurt, harm, slaughter, killing, slaying, robbery, wrong, destruction, plunder, magic used to effect the ruin or injury of an enemy, wife of Adharma, daughter of Lobha and Nishkriti, and the plant Kokilaksha or Gokulakanta or hygrophilia auriculata. The word ‘ahimsa’ means non-injury, no mischief, no hurt, no harm, no slaughter, no killing, no slaying, no robbery, not committing any wrong, not destroying, and not plundering.

Ahimsa or non-violence is not just abstaining from physical violence but not harbouring any ill against anyone. This comes when one understands that every living being is just an extension of oneself, that every living being is an expression of the one divinity. With this knowledge of oneness, a person automatically becomes non-violent.

Many religious traditions including Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, and Sikhism emphasise the importance of practising ahimsa. Mahatma Gandhi and many social reformers have applied the principles of ahimsa to the field of politics to protest or show general non-cooperation in a peaceful manner that led to Gandhi’s famous movement called Satyagraha, a movement of passive political resistance. Ahimsa is considered to be one of the requisite qualities for a spiritual aspirant.

The Jain symbol of a hand with a wheel on the palm having the word ‘ahimsa’ written in the centre symbolises the Jain vow of ahimsa. The word ‘ahimsa’ is found in the oldest extant scripture, the Rig Veda. However, ahimsa does not mean that one has to silently suffer violence. A person following ahimsa can and should protect oneself from violence. Also, in many religious traditions, the killing of animals has been condoned for food and the performance of scriptural injunctions.

In the context of non-violence or ahimsa, the intent is important with the physical act itself. The intent of doing violence is the cause of all evil and has to be avoided and ahimsa is one of the five methods of yama, self-restraint according to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra. Ahimsa is also presented as the ultimate dharma: ‘Ahimsa paramo dharmah.’ Many religious traditions advocate the non-killing of animals, even for food. In some traditions, non-killing of animals is observed on special occasions or during festive periods. The practice of non-violence does not mean that a person should be physically or psychologically weak.

A holistic approach to Nature and religion make Indian religious traditions more accepting of all the forms of living beings. The principle of non-violence, ahimsa, has also evolved around the idea of the universal divinity and that is why no living being is considered violent according to Sanatana Dharma.

Author is Editor Prabuddha Bharata. The Balabodha series as written is a glossary of words and not an article.

To read all articles by the Author

This article was first published in the September 2019 issue of Prabuddha Bharata, monthly journal of The Ramakrishna Order started by Swami Vivekananda in 1896. This article is courtesy and copyright Prabuddha Bharata. I have been reading the Prabuddha Bharata for years and found it enlightening. Cost is Rs 180/ for one year, Rs 475/ for three years, Rs 2100/ for twenty years. To subscribe https://shop.advaitaashrama.org/subscribe/

Also read

1 What do the Holy Gita and Jaina Darsana say on Ahimsa?

2 Impact of Ahimsa on post independent India

3 Did Ahimsa get India independence?

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