Ahimsa is the first of the moral principles that form the basis of yoga. It means not to hurt others by thought, word or deed. It sounds simple enough, but through the ages there have been different interpretations of Ahimsa and even today there are a lot of questions about the application of this yogic principle. Lets take a look at a definition of Ahimsa that is suitable for the 21st Century.
We shouldnt hurt others, but what does this mean? Does others refer to other human beings only, or does it also mean other living beings. In the past, followers of an extreme interpretation of Ahimsa did not even want to plow their land, because they didnt want to kill a worm or other small living beings. In the same vein, some people wore face masks so that they would not kill tiny creatures when they took a breath of air. If this version of Ahimsa was widely adopted, then humans would hardly be able to exist.
Later on the idea of not causing pain was restricted to humans only, and the slaughter of animals was considered to be OK. However, no animal voluntarily gives up its life to come onto our dinner table, and they do suffer when they are slaughtered. In todays world, in which the idea that animals do indeed have rights is starting to be recognized, the best approach is to choose our food wisely and to consider whether it is really necessary to take the life of an animal in order to sustain our own lives.
In the 20th Century Ahimsa came to be associated with non-violence and to the total non application force in intra-human relations. But here too, the application of Ahimsa becomes difficult if it is followed rigidly and without discriminating intellect. If someone strikes you, do you have a right to resist and defend yourself? If another country invades your country, does your country have the right to resist the attack? Clearly, a totally non-violent response in these extreme conditions would not be in your best interests or in the best interests of humanity at large. A sensible approach here is not go out of your way to fight with others or inflict pain, but when faced with an attack to defend yourself.
Taking harsh or disciplinary measures against attackers or criminals is not against Ahimsa because the intention is not to harm someone but to defend or protect individuals and society. Thus, it is not forceful action itself that is outside of Ahimsa, but it is forceful action with the deliberate intention to cause pain for no reason at all.
There is an old Indian folk tale that illustrates the proper approach to living in the world and following the principle of non-harming or Ahimsa.
Once there was a village that was being tormented by an extremely unpleasant snake. Whenever anyone went near the snake, the snake would bite that person. One day a yogi came to the village and the leaders of the village requested the yogi to do something about the troublesome snake.
The yogi looked around and found the snake. The yogi was highly developed and could communicate with the snake. He told the snake not to bite any of the villagers from then on. The yogi came back to the villagers and said that they shouldnt worry about the snake any longer.
At first the villagers didnt believe that the yogi had really done anything. But when they approached the snake, he did not rear up and threaten an attack. Gradually the boys of the village became bold and went very close to the snake and were not attacked. Then they grabbed the snake by the tail and swung him around, and the snake did nothing. They hurled the snake against some rocks, and tormented him. Still the snake did nothing.
A few weeks later the yogi returned and wanted to know how things were going in the village. The village chiefs said that all was well and that no one had been bitten by the snake since the last visit of the yogi. The yogi then went to see how the snake was doing, and found the poor creature near death. The yogi asked what had happened and the snake said that he was following instructions and not biting the villagers, but that it had all gone very bad for him as the boys took advantage of his completely passive response.
The yogi looked at the snake and said I told you not bite, but I didnt tell you not to hiss.