Chapter: 9 <I>Ahimsa</I>

What Can We Learn from Hinduism : Recovering the Mystical
by Marcus Braybrooke

Chapter: 9 <I>Ahimsa</I>


‘Do we have to have vegetarian meals all the time?’ complained some of the tour group which I led to Gujarat early in 2001. As a vegetarian myself, I was delighted, but had not wanted to impose my preference on the rest of the party. But Gujarat is an area of India which is much influenced by the Jain religion. Jains emphasize the importance of ahimsa or non-violence so the restaurants at most of the hotels in the smaller towns are vegetarian and there is also no alcohol available. Indeed, before climbing the Jain holy mountain of Shatrunjaya with its amazingly beautiful temples, we had been warned that we must not wear anything made of leather.

Jains believe that every centimeter of the universe is filled with living beings, some of them minute. All deserve to live and evolve and humans have no special right to supremacy. To kill any living being has adverse karmic effects. It is difficult to avoid doing some violence to other living creatures, but Jains refrain from eating after sunset to avoid unknowingly swallowing insects. Monks and nuns will cover their mouths with cloths to avoid inhaling an insect and some will brush the path in front of where they walk to avoid treading on any living being. As the Akaranga Sutra says, ‘All breathing, existing, living, sentient creatures should not be slain, nor treated with violence, nor abused, nor tormented, nor driven away. This is the pure unchangeable, eternal law.’

Jainism with its teaching of ahimsa had a profound influence on Mahatma Gandhi, although he was himself a Hindu. Gandhi was born in Gujarat, at Porbandar, on the Western coast of India and our tour group visited the house where he was born and grew up. Gandhi applied the practice of ahimsa to the struggle against the British for India’s independence. This and his influence on Martin Luther King, the champion of black civil rights in the USA, had a profound effect on the history of the last century.

I am now a vegetarian and a pacifist and certainly India influenced me, as it has influenced many others, in this evolution. Like Jains, many Hindus are vegetarian -- especially most Brahmins, unless they have adopted a Western style of life. At Madras Christian College, as is common in India, there were separate ‘veg’ and ‘non-veg’ dining rooms. After a time, I changed to the vegetarian option, partly because the food was not so hot and spicy and this suited me better. It was also cheaper, as I was not finding it easy to manage on the scholarship which was set at the rates for Indian students and I needed European luxuries such as sunscreen cream! Even if my motivation was mixed, I felt a certain liberation at not being dependent on the slaughter of other living beings. On my return to England, I reverted to Western norms. It was not until my daughter at the age of sixteen, after seeing a program on factory farming, declared that she would never eat meat again, that I began to become a practicing vegetarian.

I am not a proselytizing vegetarian and recognize that it is a personal choice. A number of Christians, including some Church Fathers and the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, were vegetarian, but the eating of meat is accepted in the Bible as a consequence of the Fall. I recognize that complete non-violence is impossible but I try to be as non-violent as possible. I object to many of the practices of factory farming and the exploitation of animals and recognize that the excessive consumption of meat in the Western world uses up a lot of grain which could be made available for those who are always hungry. I am aware, however, that to some extent vegetarianism is in the West an affluent middle-class option and that if I were a starving beggar I would eat whatever scraps were thrown at me.

I do also recognize a hierarchy of living beings in that I regard human life as more valuable than animal life and would not oppose essential medical experiments on animals, although I am not persuaded that all experiments are essential. But if driving a car I could not avoid hitting either a dog or a child, I would try to avoid hitting the child. Gandhi himself said, ‘I have no feeling in me to save the life of those animals which devour or cause hurt to man’. He was not opposed to killing mosquitoes and other disease carriers.

Christianity has been subject to much recent criticism for its acquiescence -- even encouragement -- of the exploitation of nature, said to be based on the verse in Genesis where God gave man ‘dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle and over all the earth’(Genesis 1, 26 AV.). Yet, the verse begins, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. . .’ Human rule of the animal creation and the natural world should mirror what I believe to be God’s loving care for all life. Much of the nineteenth and twentieth century exploitation of the animal and natural world derives more from the Enlightenment and especially the teaching of the philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650) than from Christian teaching. Descartes regarded animal behavior as mechanical and he dismissed the opinions of Montaigne and others who attributed understanding and thought to animals. Animals, he wrote, ‘act naturally and mechanically, like a clock.’ Christian teaching came to echo these Renaissance views. An early version of the Catholic Dictionary (1884) under the heading ‘Animals, Lower’ has this entry: ‘As the lower animals have no duties . . . so they have no rights’ . . . The brutes are made for man, who has the same right over them which he has over plants or stones. Admittedly the Dictionary says man should not take pleasure ‘directly in the pain given to brutes’, but this is not out of a concern for animal suffering but because such action ‘ brutalizes his own nature.’ Even today, some argue for ecological programs for the sake of humanity’s future rather than from an awareness of the sacredness of the Earth.

In recent years there has been an increasing awareness of the interdependence of all life and a new respect for the animal and natural world. It would be an interesting study to see to what extent this has resulted from the influence upon the West of Asian religions, although in the USA, Native American spirituality has also been influential. Certainly E. F. the author of Small is Beautiful, was much influenced by Buddhist teaching and devotes a section of his book to Buddhist economics.

Although there is much cruelty in the treatment of animals in the Indian subcontinent, as elsewhere in the world, all the Indian religions teach a sense of oneness with nature and a reverence for life. The cow -- which is regarded as sacred and wanders freely in most parts of India -- is a symbol of this. Mahatma Gandhi said ‘"Cow Protection" to me is one of the most wonderful phenomena in all human evolution; for it takes the human being beyond his species . . . Man through the cow is enjoined to realize his identity with all that lives . . . "Cow Protection" is the gift of Hinduism to the world."’ I am sure I am not alone in having been made more sensitive to these issues by the influence of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.


Various influences also have led me become a Christian pacifist, although perhaps Peter Bishop’s term ‘pacificist’, which I will explain below, is more appropriate. When I first met her, Mary, who was to become my wife, was secretary of the Cambridge branch of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, which was founded as a Christian Pacifist Organization early in the twentieth century. So, to spend time with her, I would sometimes accompany her to Fellowship of Reconciliation meetings. This encouraged me to think more about issues of war and peace.

It was, however, studying some of the writings of Mahatma Gandhi and his teaching on ahimsa and satyagraha that helped me to see the practical possibilities of non-violence, which were also used to such good effect by Martin Luther King, who was himself deeply influenced by Gandhi. In turn, this helped me to see the teaching and example of Jesus in a new light and recognize the radical nature of his call to love the enemy.

Gandhi once defined the Hindu creed as the ‘search after truth through non-violent means.’ The word ahimsa that characterizes his teaching is more positive than the usual translation ‘non-violence’ suggests. The Sanskrit word himsa means to injure, or destroy, or kill. Gandhi took himsa to mean not only the harming of living things but also ‘hurt by every evil thought, by undue haste, by lying, hatred, by wishing ill to anybody.’ So ahimsa, in its positive form, he said, ‘means the largest love, the greatest charity. If I am a follower of ahimsa, I must love my enemy or a stranger to me as I would my wrong-doing father and son.’ Gandhi also used the term satyagraha. ‘Truth (satya) implies love,’ he explained, ‘and firmness (agraha) engenders and, therefore, serves as a synonym for force. I thus began to call the Indian movement Satyagraha, that is to say the Force which is born of Truth and Love or non-violence.’ Satyagraha was a non-violent method of opposing wrong.

Peter Bishop stresses that satyagraha is not pacifism. ‘Of course it was influenced by the ahimsa of Jainism and Buddhism and of Gandhi’s native Gujarat; it was influenced by the ideal of the Sermon on the Mount, as Gandhi understood that part of the New Testament; it was influenced by Ruskin and Thoreau and Tolstoy; it was influenced by the idea of disinterested service found in the nishkama karma [doing your duty without fear or favor] of the Gita. But satyagraha was nevertheless Gandhi’s own concept. ‘He adopted the word satyagraha in order to avoid "pacifism", which he regarded as a negative term describing a negative response to oppression.’ Passive resistance seemed like the weapon of the week, whereas satyagraha ‘postulates the conquest of the adversary by suffering in one’s own person.’ The aim was not so much to defeat the opponent but to convert him. Gandhi was convinced that truth and right was on his side and that eventually the opponent would come to recognize this. This would lead to reconciliation rather than conquest. Victory by violence, he believed, only breeds resentment and sows the seed of future violence. As Martin Luther King put it, ‘The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding; it seeks to annihilate rather than to convert. Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible. It leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue. Violence ends by defeating itself. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers’.

If, as Jesus said, you pray for those who persecute you, you do not forget their fellow humanity even while you oppose what they say and do. There is a certain compassion or concern for the enemy as well as for allies. Much civil disobedience today, which may look in part to Gandhi for its inspiration, lacks this concern for the conversion of the opponent and even when it is successful creates the potential for future conflict. Hannah Arendt, in her book On Violence, suggested that the power that ‘springs up whenever people get together and act in concert’ and violence are opposites.

There have been many examples of this ‘people power’ from the mothers of the ‘Disappeared’ who bore witness during the Argentine Junta’s reign of terror, to the throngs of Filipinos marching behind statues of the Virgin Mary up to Marco’s tanks and the mass protests that led to the collapse of Communism in much of Eastern Europe. The influence of Gandhi has been immeasurable. As Martin Luther King said, ‘If humanity is to progress, Gandhi is inescapable’.

Gandhi believed that the power of Love is the same as the power of Truth and that it was as much a law of the universe as the law of gravitation. ‘I have simply tried in my own way’, he said, ‘to apply the eternal truth to our daily life and problems’. He learned the lesson, he said, from the non-violence of his wife. ‘Her determined resistance to my will on the one hand, and her quiet submission to the suffering my stupidity involved on the other hand, ultimately made me ashamed of myself and cured me of my stupidity in thinking I was born to rule over her; and in the end she became my teacher in non-violence.’

Yet for all his advocacy of satyagraha, Gandhi did not rule out violence in all circumstances. This is what Peter Bishop means by a ‘pacificist’ -- someone who puts the emphasis on making peace rather than refusing to use any violence. In 1920 Gandhi wrote, ‘I do believe that, where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence’. Ahimsa was not the non-violence of the weak. His opposition to violence seems to have increased, but he agreed with the need for an armed police force in an independent India, although he hoped for a State where eventually a police force would not be necessary.

The history of the Sikhs is perhaps a warning that non-violence is not possible in every situation. The early Gurus rejected the use of violence. When the fifth Guru was arrested by the Emperor Jehangir he remained calmly meditating on God as he was tortured by heat. But thereafter Sikhs took measures to protect themselves and the sixth Guru built up a Sikh army. The tender-hearted seventh Guru was a pacifist who never used his troops against the Mughals and taught the Sikhs to feed anyone who came to their door. The Ninth Guru was executed by the Emperor Aurangzeb for opposing his attempts forcibly to convert Hindus and Sikhs to Islam. Gobind Singh, the tenth Guru, inaugurated the Khalsa, a band of disciplined warriors who resisted Mughal oppression and defended freedom of religion. Most Sikhs would maintain that self defense and protection of the weak and poor may require the use of force.

A commitment to non-violence seems to me to involve the recognition that it is both an ideal for which we aim while it is also the means to that ideal. There may be situations where we have to choose the least violent option. A United Nations Peace Keeping Force to monitor a cease-fire is better than a civil war, but the members of that U.N. Force may have to shoot in self-defense.

Gandhi had a holistic view of society. He advocated women’s emancipation, he taught the dignity of physical labor and encouraged cottage industries, he attacked abuses of the caste system and called the outcastes ‘Harijans or ‘children of God’. A non-violent society is only possible if there are far reaching changes to the structural violence of its political and economic practices. Indeed the roots of violence go back to childhood and the parenting we received. As Charlene Spretnak points out in her book States of Grace, ‘Studies of the childhoods of Nazi leaders have found that they were often made to feel inherently unlovable and undeserving and were granted only a harsh, extremely conditional acceptance; beatings were common. In contrast, a study of rescuers in Nazi Europe found that, unlike the control group in the study, the rescuers had almost no memories of being punished gratuitously and had rarely been punished physically. There was generally one parent or parental figure, who, in the child’s eyes, embodied very high standards of ethical behavior. The child witnessed and experienced a life lived with the truth of interconnectedness’.

The more non-violent we become in all our behavior and attitudes, the more we contribute to the creation of a non-violent society. This is perhaps why it was right to deal with questions of vegetarianism and of war and peace in one chapter. Ahimsa, which is part of the traditional culture of Gujarat, has through its most famous son, Mahatma Gandhi, offered the world a way to reverse the growing spiral of violence, sadly evident in so many societies.