Introduction to Ahimsa

by eatpulses

There can be no life without death. While death is unequivocal, suffering varies in kind, amount, and degree, but likewise seems to be inescapable. People like to think of themselves as being kind and compassionate, or least as not being cruel and hardhearted. But how do we respond the all the suffering and death in the world and in our lives, especially considering that suffering and death are intrinsic to the natural world? Life springs from death, but unless our suffering is extreme and death offers the only way out, we want to live, and it’s reasonable to assume that others, man or beast, also want to live. As far as nonhuman animals are concerned, the question of suffering is particularly relevant today, because the vast, vast majority of us in America are far removed from live animals in agriculture, our first contact with them coming in the form of animal products. (As I’ll discuss in future posts, the response of some people to the horrors of factory farming is to buy locally produced animal products, or to buy those labeled as humane (free range, cage free, etc.), but generally, the practices used by these sources fall short.) (This post and this blog will center on practices in the U.S., as that’s where I live, and where I’m best able to make a difference.)

What is our place in the natural world and what should be our role as consumers of agricultural products? An answer the opposite of mine comes from those who would perhaps see ahimsa as denying human nature. They view humans as apex predators, and thus they may engage in killing animals themselves, instead of paying others to do it, and they hold this kind of killing as an important personal and cultural value. While I stand in firm opposition to that view, I do give credit to people who acknowledge and take responsibility for their place in the web of life. Few Americans give serious thought to where their food comes from. A major turning point in our social evolution came when we domesticated animals for food. A far greater one would come from loosening those bonds. Ahimsa doesn’t deny human nature—it improves it. (I’ll address hunting and fishing at length in a future post.)

The best answer I have found for the vexing problem of how to live in a modern, industrialized society while minimizing my impact on my fellow creatures lies in the ancient practice of ahimsa. I need to define the term, so I started with this: Himsa (or hinsa), a Sanskrit word, means injury or the desire to kill, and the “a” prefix negates that, so ahimsa (ahinsa) means nonviolence, non-injury, non-harming, and non-killing; one could add lacking even the desire to kill. But there is disagreement about the etymology of the word, which leads to disagreement about its meaning. One source argues that viewing ahimsa as merely the opposite of himsa doesn’t capture its meaning fully or accurately, and expands the definition: “Ahimsa should actually be translated something like ‘the force unleashed when desire to harm is eradicated.’” That definition derives from the belief that the word is a “desiderative” form of the root. Another source says just the opposite: it’s not a desiderative, and the narrower meaning, which is to say, a more literal negation of himsa, is correct. I’m not equipped to analyze Sanskrit linguistics. In any case, knowing the etymology of a word isn’t necessarily very helpful in understanding its present meaning, as the meanings of words change over time. And ahimsa is an abstraction. We can say for sure what iron is, and we know we’re on the same page if we talk about gravity or fire, but values like fairness or responsibility, and life matters, like questions about our place in the universe, are better discussed than defined, and this whole blog is a discussion of ahimsa.

As for the geo-religious origins of ahimsa, suffice it to say that, although the precise origin of the words himsa and ahimsa is lost in the mists of antiquity, these concepts came from somewhere on the Indian subcontinent, the birthplace of Jainism, Hinduism and Buddhism, probably dating back to at least the ninth century B.C.E. in Jainism. (If you want to study ahimsa in a formal, academic way, there’s an Ahimsa Center at Cal Poly Pomona.)

While ahimsa is an element of both Hinduism and Buddhism, it is at the very core of Jainism. According to an email reply from Vinod at (in 2006, when I was writing the book that has now become this blog instead), there may be as many as 5 million Jains in the world, mainly in India, and there are about 200,000 in the U.S. (The 2001 Indian census counted 4,225,053 Jains, or .4% of the population. Figures on religion from the 2011 census have not been released, apparently for political reasons.) You may be surprised at how many American Jain temples and centers (some shared with Hindus) are listed here. That site also provides an excellent overview of Jainism. Jains are vegetarian, and about 20% are vegan, Vinod said. Perhaps that number is higher now.

Jainism has classified living beings according to how many senses they were thought to possess. Given its age, the system is admirable, but my view of ahimsa is modern, scientific, and secular, so I disregard the Jain taxonomy in applying the philosophy, and will introduce my own criteria for making ethical decisions about animal use or nonuse—and I will welcome your participation in the discussion.

I’m exploring ahimsa in this blog because, like ancient and modern Jains, I want to find the best ways to live for those who care that others suffer and die, and who want to minimize their role as causative agents of himsa. For those who don’t think about or are unaware of the reality that others suffer excessively and die needlessly because of their unconsidered habits, I hope to persuade them to take on the task of assessing their impact and reducing it. This is no more than I ask of myself: To me, ahimsa is about becoming aware of my role in causing suffering and death, and doing what I reasonably can to conduct my life in a way that causes least harm. To state that in a positive way, I recognize that others, especially nonhuman animals, share with me an innate desire to live their lives as freely and happily as they can, for as long as they can. (I don’t see not having been born as necessarily a bad thing. Nonexistence is preferable to being raised on a factory farm.)

Some people help animals by working with them; I’m interested in working for them. The best I can do for animals is expressed as a negative: I minimize the harm I cause them as a consumer. For me, the positive part of ahimsa manifests itself in my interactions with people. The two sides of this coin were described by Jay Dinshah in Out of the Jungle by putting ahimsa in its relatively recent historical context:

Ahimsa is a Sanskrit term that literally means “non-killing” or “without harming.” But until the 20th century it was considered mainly (if not entirely) in its negative, or “thou shalt not” aspect. Mahatma Gandhi stressed the positive aspect of constructive loving action. So today we consider it in its fullest positive aspects as well as negative, and explain it as “Dynamic Harmlessness.” It means to go through life doing the least amount of harm, hurting, killing as possible; and it means to do the most amount of helping, assisting, and benefiting of others, as possible. So you see that Ahimsa has two sides to it, one negative and one positive, to be understood and practiced together, in balance. This can help us determine what we should not do and what we should.

In his out-of-print 1980 book, Ahimsa (Dynamic Compassion), Nathaniel Altman says, “Respect, loyalty, forgiveness, thoughtfulness, and understanding are all basic components of Ahimsa in relationship.” Sometimes, people can get so focused on a cause, such as animal advocacy, that in their single-mindedness they forget about the people part. I’ve done that. Once, I accused a fellow activist of being an animal exploiter because she was eating eggs from her rescued hens.

Ahimsa is worthy of consideration for high placement on your list of values for reasons beyond the context of how we relate to animals, but the animal part is critical, as this gentler way of life serves to counterbalance the extreme disregard for nonhuman life and nonhuman suffering that has become institutionalized in our society. In future posts, I’ll be exploring the question, “What is my obligation to animals?” But whether it’s an obligation or not, we can embrace ahimsa; to do so, we must begin by acknowledging our role or potential role in causing suffering and death, and then seeking to minimize both. Ask not, “What must I do?” Ask, “What can I do?”

Ahimsa denies the passivity of the idea that we have little or no choice in whether we cause animals harm. We need not be like flotsam carried along in a river current. Our actions begin with the precept that we refuse to cause harm to the extent that it is within our power to affirm life instead of taking it, to act with mindfull compassion instead of causing himsa, directly or indirectly. I find in ahimsa an understanding that we will always fall short in our actions, coupled with an acceptance that, with good intent and reasonable effort, our successes, however small, will be of benefit in reducing himsa, and that this effort adds meaning to our lives. Ahimsa, because it is not merely a philosophy, but a way of life, is a compassionate self-discipline, a crucible in which we strive to forge self-restraint, purpose, and character. That this is not an easy path is itself a reason to follow it.

We humans have great power over animals, and in the case of animals raised for food, absolute power. By holding ahimsa as a core value, you will be able to live with more kindness and compassion in an increasingly violent world. Ahimsa affirms life. It actively brings into focus our full humanity. It changes our lives in a fundamental way, allowing us to realize what I would like to believe is our true nature as compassionate, responsible people who choose not to exercise our power in a harmful way over the weaker passengers on this voyage.

Ahimsa is more than and different from kindness. When there is a choice to be kind instead of causing harm, ahimsa is identified by the level of commitment one brings to one’s actions, and how they fit into the philosophical context. We act with kindness in an instance, but the goal of the practice of ahimsa is to be kind consistently over a lifetime. Compare the familiar idea of practicing “random acts of kindness” with ahimsa’s way of making compassion and kindness not random, but core values. Kindness alone, besides being random, is optional in each instance (although one ought not to be unkind). The practice of ahimsa, in my limited understanding, requires one to ask oneself, “What is the kindest thing I can do (or say or think) right now?” This effort is one toward unwavering, coherent kindness. When the thread of ahimsa has woven scraps of kindness into a blanket, one has a philosophy guiding one’s every action; break the thread, and individual acts of kindness remain, but the blanket unravels. One is left with rags—still useful, but much inferior to the stitched-together whole.

Ahimsa can be taken as a personal vow, a way of life in which one seeks always and everywhere to cause as little harm as one reasonably can, given the nature of the physical world and our justifiable need and desire to maintain our bodies. It’s virtually impossible to merely decide to live a life rooted in ahimsa and from that moment on to be a Mother Teresa or a Gandhi. It takes time and effort to incorporate this philosophy into your thoughts, words, and actions. I used to have a more superficial understanding of ahimsa, relating it much more to animals than to people. If I could turn back the clock, I’d live differently. I’m working on maintaining awareness when I’m tempted to cause harm on any level. I will inevitably err again, as I’m only human, and it’s a lifelong endeavor.

Modern life makes it very easy to express ourselves in an unfriendly or nasty way. When people lived in villages, or lived out their lives in the small towns where they were born, I imagine they were civil to one another, at least in direct communications. Now that mobility and technology allow us to be independent and invisible, the veil of anonymity allows us to have little or no regard for what others might feel. This is most apparent in the snarky comments one sees online. If I make an online comment, I try to say what I’d say if the person I’m addressing were in the room with me. We can disagree with others while not attacking them personally—and that will be the standard for comments on this blog. Stick with the ideas. If you want to say something about another poster, you can say something nice, or something neutral. I will moderate all comments.

That said, the typical kinds of himsa we inflict on one another pale in comparison to the kinds himsa we routinely pay others, through the food distribution chain, to inflict on animals. One of the most troubling areas of modern life in America, one that requires the attention of caring people, is the way we treat chickens, whether for meat or egg production. I’ll discuss the welfare issues in poultry agribusiness in a future post, but for now I want to note this: In the U.S., we killed 9.1 billion land animals, excluding rabbits and other species not counted, in 2013. Of those (same source), about 8.65 billion were chickens. For chickens, the long arm of the law has been amputated, as the federal law proscribing inhumane methods for raising, transporting, and slaughtering animals excludes poultry from such protections. Here’s a bit of irony: HMSA, the abbreviation for the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, is an I away from himsa. When you pay for slaughter performed under the weak HMSA (or in the case of poultry, excluded from it), you add the I to make it himsa. If you decide to minimize the suffering and death you contribute to as a food consumer, one early and significant step to take would to not be that I. If you’re unfamiliar with the issues and ready to learn about them before I get a chance to post my discussion, you can start here and here–perhaps right now.