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AHIS . The Sanskrit term ahisā (literally "non-injury"), often translated as "nonviolence," has been taken into Western languages as a result of the influence of Mohandas Gandhi. Gandhi explicitly associated ahisā with chastity and the absence of possessions as well as with the conviction that one should identify with all beings; he considered ahisā to be based on self-control, necessitating preliminary (self-)purification. He also stressed that ahisā is a condition of truth, which in turn can be equated with God. Hence Gandhi's invitation, in the last sentence of his autobiography: "In bidding farewell to the reader I ask him to join me in praying to the God of Truth that He may grant me the boon of ahisā in mind, word and deed" (Gandhi, 1929).

Considering the traditional Hindu equation of reality with truth (satya ), it is not surprising that Gandhi used ahisā not only as a moral weapon but as a political one as well; in so doing he refused to separate politics and religion. He thus resorted to, and, to a certain extent, reinterpreted an ancient Indian concept.

Similar ideas were current nearly two thousand years ago in some of the oldest Upaniads, developing among Brahmanic sanyāsin s (ascetics, mendicants) as well as among the heterodox Buddhist and Jain communities. Such views, it has been convincingly argued, were the outcome of a kind of ideological revolution that took place in India around 500 bce. At that time, the more contemplative values of the "metaritualist" philosophers superseded earlier magico-ritualistic concepts of religion.

It can be deduced from the more ancient texts that the Vedic Indians believed in an inverted "world beyond," where one must suffer the very fate previously inflicted by him on other beings. Whereas, in order to escape the consequences of one's (cruel) deeds the Vedic brahmans succeeded in inventing elaborate rituals, they still deemed it important, in order to avoid retaliation, to abstain from injuring other beingsthus, to practice ahisā.

With the development of the doctrine of transmigration and retribution of actions (karman ), liberation from rebirth became the ultimate goal of the religious life, and the renouncer's way of life became the ideal behavior. Magicoritualistic attitudes subsided in favor of ethical and mystical values: Thus the Upaniadic sages point to the identity of ātman and brahman and praise the one who "sees the Self in (his) self, sees the Self in everything." In this way, the traditional, magical fear of retaliation was replaced by a sense of fellow feeling towards all that lives; ahisā, endowed with an indubitably positive value, was expanded into such concepts as "compassion" (dayā ), a virtue that is required particularly of those who strive after liberation, regardless of the community to which they belong.

The first major vow taken by Brahmanic ascetics and by Buddhist and Jain religious mendicants alike is that life should not be destroyed, whether in mind, in words, or in deeds. The Jains especially emphasize the unique importance of this pledge (which their lay believers also take), and emphasize that all forms of violence, including the passions, destroy the soul's ability to attain ultimate perfection; in addition, that violence turns against the very person who does not refrain from it.

The observance of ahisā naturally implies many restrictions as far as the mendicant's diet is concerned. The only acceptable food is that which can be prepared without taking another life; meat-eating is thus shunned. In a more extreme view, plants that are cultivated and then cut and destroyed to become food are also forbidden. The ideal diet, then, consists of fruits, which fall naturally from the trees. Because various penances and ascetic practices have always been based on fasting or on living only on fruits or seeds, ahisā came to be closely associated with vegetarianism, of which the Jains soon became and remain uncompromising advocates.

The concept of noninjury, coupled with self-control or self-restraint, was rich in many potential developments. It soon became the central ethical idea in most of the philosophies and religions of India. Indeed, in some communities ahisā was given paramount importance, and in this respect Gandhi does not deny the great influence that the revered Jain layperson Raychandbhai Mehta exerted on him. The emphasis that Gandhi laid on ahisā, however, would have remained of no avail had it not been firmly rooted in an immemorial Indian tradition.

See Also

Gandhi, Mohandas; Nonviolence; Sanyāsa.


The question of ahisā is often addressed in Indian literature as well as by scholars. Useful references will be found in Giuseppe Spera's Notes on Ahisā (Turin, 1982). In Bansidhar Bhatt's Ahimsa in the Early Religious Traditions of India (Rome, 1994, Centre for Indian and Inter-religious Studies), the appendix lI (a) lists the "Published Materials on the Ahimsā" [sic]: 152176. Hanns-Peter Schmidt has done a fundamental study on the origin of ahisā in Mélanges d'indianisme à la mémoire de Louis Renou (Paris, 1968). Also see, by the same author, "Ahisā and Rebirth," in Inside the Texts, beyond the Texts, edited by Michael Witzel, pp. 207234 (Cambridge 1997). Details on the Jain point of view and elaboration of the ahisā concept are included in the chapters of Padmanabh S. Jaini's The Jaina Path of Purification (Berkeley, Calif., 1979). The reader will find many reflections in Gandhi's autobiography: in Gujarati, Mohandas Karamcand Gandhi's Satyanā prayogo athavā ātmakathā, 2 vols. (Ahmedabad, 19271928); in English, An Autobiography, or The Story of My Experiments with Truth, translated by Mahadev Desai and Pyarelal Nair (19271929; 2d ed., Ahmedabad, 1940).

Colette Caillat (1987 and 2005)

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