The meaning, history and relevance of ahimsa
Discover the history and traditions of ahimsa and the power of embracing its lessons on and off the yoga mat. By Clare Gibson
Ahimsa is derived from the Sanskrit root hiṃs, meaning to strike. Hiṃsā means to harm or injure. Ahiṃsā means non-harming. Dive deeper into yoga, beyond the physical practices and you will soon discover a rich world of philosophical treasure that has been part of thousands of years of history. At the top of that treasure chest is ahimsa.
One of the first mentions of ahimsa you are likely to discover as a yoga practitioner, is within the Eight Limbs of Yoga, as taught in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. This starts with the five moral and ethical codes of life, known as the yamas. The first of these is ahimsa, a word familiar to yogis around the globe. Here it is said ahimsa can help promote a sense of peace and calm and help to bring about a greater sense of awareness of ourselves and others around us. Nonharming and yoga go hand in hand.
Dating back to the late Bronze Age, between 1500 and 1000 BCE is the Rigveda, an ancient collection of Sanskrit hymns through which devotees invoked the God Indra by chanting specific mantra, so they would not incur any harm (hiṃs) for wrongdoings they might have committed. In the Chandogya Upanishad, ahimsa is listed as part of a five-limbed ethical code and is evidenced again in the slightly later ‘Law code of Manu’.
In this 200 BCE text penalties are listed for breaking regulations against non-harming. These regulations encompass ‘cutting down medicinal trees’, which was considered a minor crime, destroying someone else’s property and injuring harmless beings for pleasure.
In the epic Mahabharata, ahimsa is known as the supreme dharma (duty). Several passages acknowledge the importance of non-harming in Brahmanical society including, ‘Ahimsa is the greatest gift. Ahimsa is the highest truth. Ahimsa is the highest teaching.’ (Chapple 1993)
Ahimsa was of primary significance in Indo-religious traditions. Ritual sacrifices were also central to vedic life. However, it was considered that sacrifices made to the Gods were acceptable as a form of worship. Killing in battle was also considered a righteous duty.
This might seem like a conflict: How can non-harming include sacrifices? This is confirmed and explained in the famous narrative of the Bhagavad Gita between the warrior Arjuna and the god Krishna. The story shows a conflict between duty and non-harming. Arjuna is suffering mental anguish, confronted with the prospect of having to kill in battle members of his family, friends and teachers who are set to fight with the opposing Kaurava clan.
Krishna explains to Arjuna that as a warrior it is his dharma to fight and that killing those who oppose law, order and morality is acceptable. The battlefield of Kurukshetra is commonly considered as the field of human conflict, but Arjuna’s moral stance of ahimsa does not win over the moral stance of duty and action.
Teachings of ahimsa continued in the early twentieth century. Gandhi led campaigns on non-violence and promoted the power and simplicity of leading a non-violent life. However, even he understood, like Krishna in the Gita, that non violence was not always possible and he stated: ‘Where non-violence is not possible, violence is permitted.’
Today the concept of ahimsa is relevant on and off the yoga mat. In asana practice we can try and avoid anything that will cause harm. As teachers, it is important to teach appropriate postures and techniques, making certain that any physical adjustments are mindful and always done with consent.
As we practice yoga and go about our daily lives, perhaps we can let go of negative thoughts about our bodies and what we are or are not capable of in yoga and life.
Perhaps we can stop being hard on ourselves, as negative thinking can do so much harm mentally and emotionally and may have far-reaching and long term damaging effects. Not harming our environment can also be an act of ahimsa because decisions made today will have a widespread effect on the future of all humanity.
As Arjuna and Gandhi both discovered, ahimsa especially when it involves others, is not always easy. However, being kind to someone in our yoga classes, perhaps just a few friendly words to the person on the mat next to us, might be all it takes to turn their difficult day into one that is more positive. As the Dalai Lama said: ‘The ultimate way to solve all human problems is through Ahimsa.
Clare Gibson has been teaching yoga and running retreats for over 20 years. She is a BWY diploma course tutor and has been facilitating teacher training courses since 2015. She is vice chair of BWY’s training committee and has recently graduated with an MA in the History and Traditions of Yoga and Meditation from SOAS (University of London).