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Meaning of Ahimsa

- a-hiṃsā - अहिंसा

Ahimsa means non-harmfulness (harmlessness), to not wish harm to any living creature — not even to lifeless object. Sometimes this can be inevitable, such as when someone accidentally steps on bugs. Ahimsa is about the intent, rather than the action itself. It is an attitude of universal benevolence. The Hindu mystic Patanjali wrote a scripture called the Yoga Sutras, where he outlines yamas (restraints, or what one should not do) and niyamas (observances, or what one should do). Ahimsa is the first of the yamas. Patanjali says that once ahimsa is mastered, even wild animals and ferocious criminals will become tame and harmless in our presence.

Traditionally ahimsa is taken to mean that a person should not kill. This is why vegetarianism is so widespread in India. Some Hindus believe that one should not kill or harm anything even to save one’s own life. The term was popularized in modern times by Mahatma Gandhi by his non-violent resistance to the British rule.

Ahimsa, rightly understood, is the ultimate weapon; it turns one’s enemy into a friend, thereby banishing the possibility of further conflict. In the practice of yoga, it is important to understand that the same life flows in the veins of all creatures.

What Patanjali referred to, essentially, was the attitude of the mind, rather than the literal acts of the body. It is one’s attitude that can either lead him toward liberation, or hold him in greater bondage. An attitude of harmlessness (and its corollary, a feeling of universal benevolence) is what is meant by ahimsa. The principle of ahimsa must be understood in subtle ways. Disrespect by being contemptuous or malicious is against the practice of ahimsa.

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