Ahimsa: The highest obligation of human life


By Nithin Sridhar


Gleanings from Hindu Scriptures- Part 3

Ahimsa” is one of the most important tenets of Hindu religion. Himsa means violence or injury. Therefore, Ahimsa means “Non-injury”. Here, the injury may refer to injuries caused through actions, words, or thoughts. Therefore, a practice of Ahimsa involves non-injury for selfish ends, through actions, words, or thoughts.

In Mahabharata Anushasana parva (117.37-41), Bheeshma explains the glory of ahimsa thus:
ahiMsA paramo dharmastathA.ahiMsA paro damaH |
ahiMsA paramaM dAnamahiMsA paramaM tapaH ||
Translation: Non-injury is the highest duty, non-injury is the highest self-restraint, non-injury is the highest gift, and it is the highest austerity.

Bheeshma is calling non-injury as the highest duty because freedom to life is the fundamental right of every person. Every person takes a birth to fulfill his life’s purposes. But by injuring others for the sake of fulfilling selfish desires, one is denying them their right to live.

No person likes to get tortured. Nobody wants to be beaten or insulted or mentally harassed because it causes them pain and sorrow and prevents them from living their life peacefully.

Therefore, the very basic duty of human life is non-injury. It is the very basic definition of righteousness. Dharma means the essence that upholds life and depending on circumstances, it may mean duty, righteousness, law, etc. Therefore, ahimsa is the very essence of human life.

Injury destabilizes society and causes disharmony, whereas non-injury creates peaceful and harmonious life system, wherein each individual, each animal, or organism can co-exist peacefully.

Next Bheeshma calls ahimsa as highest self-control and austerity. It is so because practicing non-injury is not easy. It’s one of the most difficult things to achieve. It involves complete control over one’s mind and senses. A person should be always vigilant to his thoughts, words, and actions to practice ahimsa.

Hindu scriptures prescribe total non-injury only to the sannyasins (renunciates), because they alone can live such a difficult lifestyle where there is minimal harm. In fact, the very lifestyle of renunciates has been designed accordingly. For example, they beg food because cooking involves himsa. For all others, non-injury is prescribed to be followed to the best of their abilities. Injury must be adopted only in extreme unavoidable conditions like self-defense, punishing criminals, in a war, for food where other alternatives are not available, etc. and never for fulfilling selfish desires and fantasies.

Bheeshma next calls ahimsa as the greatest gift, because by practicing ahimsa, a person is assuring others that there is no harm from him, that they will face no harassment, no obstruction to their life from him. Hence, it is a gift that says, “Do not fear me. I will not harm you”.

Bheeshma, in the same chapter, further says that neither the gifts given in all yajnas (sacrifices) nor the merits accrued from other gifts come anywhere near to the merit attained by the practice of non-injury.

Thus, ahimsa is the highest obligation of human life.

More in this segment:

Gleanings from Hindu Scriptures- Part 1

Gleanings from Hindu Scriptures- Part 2