Over a century ago, Mahatma Gandhi inspired the world with a new mass means of liberation of the oppressed. His primary motivation arose from the virtue of nonviolence; ahiṃsā in Sanskrit. It served him to humanely liberate India from British rule. However, this ethical virtue stirred the country long before neo-Hinduism. It was a significant meditative practice and prerequisite for religious life back in ancient times. This research is the last one in the series. It briefly presents evidence from different periods produced by a host of systems exchanging the ideas—on nonviolence.
Hinduism, as we know it today, is a fusion (or synthesis) of various regional cultures and traditions that prevailed over centuries. Its most prominent constituents are Brahmanism (based on the earlier Vedic religion), the renouncer traditions of northeast India (such as Buddhism and Jainism), and the Indus Valley Civilisation. The first two were contemporaneous rivalry traditions. The wide success of one created pressure on the other to adopt the sought-after influences. It could be argued that with the help of safeguarding Brahmins, the Buddhists and Jains broadened the scope of dominating doctrines in ancient India. In the context of ahiṃsā, these ranged from permissible violence to strict nonviolence. In between, all three traditions valued self-control, the awareness of the self, interdependence, and implications of one’s actions, along with the sacredness of life and sensitivity towards other beings (Chapple 1993:19). But the degree and mode of their practices differed.
The origins of nonviolence
As a concept, ahiṃsā appeared already in the Vedic texts, mentioned indirectly. Gradually emphasised—from a sense of noninjury to the highest virtue—it influenced the Brahmanical culture of the late Vedic period:
May all beings look at me with a friendly eye, may I do likewise, and may we look at each other with the eyes of a friend.
(Yajurveda in Chapple 1993:15)
Listen! I will speak of the unsurpassed, the most excellent thing for a human: the refuge of nonviolence (...). The one who, desiring the pleasure of the self, abstains from killing (...) who indeed sees beings as like his own self, who has cast aside the stick and whose anger is conquered, prospers happily in the life to come. (...) Ahiṃsā is the best of austerity (tapas). Ahiṃsā is the greatest gift. Ahiṃsā is the highest self control. Ahiṃsā is the highest sacrifice.
(Mahābhārata XIII in Chapple 1993:79-80, 16-17)
Such and similar prominent tributes to ahiṃsā (अहिंसा परमॊ धर्मः) in the late Vedic period suggest that the doctrine originated in Vedism and evolved further in Brahmanism. However, some of the later books of the Mahābhārata, such as the Bhagavadgītā, actively sought to affirm Brahmanism, while remaining silent on non-Brahmanical traditions, such as Buddhism. It could be argued that the entire epic constructed boundaries between the traditions – the assimilationist hegemon and śramaṇas uniquely concerned with karma. Notwithstanding the complex debate on the early influences, it is certain that Jainism extraordinarily advanced the Indic concept of ahiṃsā, sharing a handful of similarities with Buddhism.
Dedication of Buddhists and Jains
Jains and Buddhists divided the universe into hierarchical realms. They put forward the structure inhabited by hell beings, animals, humans, and gods. In addition, the Jaina system distinguished a plant realm. In both traditions, beings achieved lower or higher rebirths, depending on impressions from their previous lives (Gethin 1998:118, Chapple 1993:11). This view intertwined all lives and all beings. Its most prominent application was vegetarianism – among Jains and later East Asian Buddhists, respectively:
All beings are fond of life. (...) To all, life is dear.
(Ācārāṅga Sūtra in Chapple 1993:11)
[Meat-eating] is forbidden by me everywhere and all the time for those who are abiding in compassion; [he who eats meat] will be born in the same place as the lion, tiger, wolf, etc.
(Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra in Chapple 1993:28)
Brahmins, on the other hand, homogeneously upheld animal rituals acquired from the Vedas. This signified only partial adoption of the doctrine of ahiṃsā. They internalised the horse ritual early (Flood 1996:84; Chapple 1993:42). However, the ban for all animal sacrifice sprang from the activism of antiritualistic Buddhists and Jains. These non-Vedic reformers continued to condemn the violent oblations, as evidenced in early texts through to medieval literature:
[A] goat was led to a temple and was about to be sacrificed by the presiding Brahman. Suddenly the goat let out a laugh and then uttered a moaning cry (...): “500 births ago I was a Brahman, leading a goat to the sacrifice. After killing the goat, I was condemned to 500 births as a goat. If you kill me, you will suffer the same fate.”
(Jātaka Tale 18 in Chapple 1993:24)
Those terrible ones who kill animals under the guise of making an offering to the gods, or the guise of sacrifice, are bereft of compassion and go to a bad fate.
(Yogaśāstra in Chapple 1993:11)
In response, concerned with maintaining their position, Brahmins codified ahiṃsā as a duty for all:
Manu has said that non-violence, truth, not stealing, purification, and the suppression of the sensory powers is the duty of the four classes, in a nutshell.
(The Laws of Manu in Doniger and Smith 1991:10.63)
Following the Jains and Buddhists, they ordered vegetarianism for the members of their caste:
Me he will eat in the next world, whose meat I eat in this world.
(The Laws of Manu in Olivelle 2005:5.55)
In contrast to mainstream thought, Jains and Buddhists placed nonviolence in the innovative framework of rebirth. However, their interpretations differed. Ahiṃsā, as a vow to adhere to by Jains, linked violent activities with painful future retributions. This group advised rigorous nonviolence, with exceptions for laity (Chapple 1993:10). Buddhists, on the other hand, regulated their thoughts and behaviour on the basis of compassion as a primary virtue and impermanence of the self. Despite the principal differences, the construction and refinement of the two increasingly welcomed frameworks led to the reaction of the ruling caste. Assimilationist Brahmins reflected their reforms in the texts and the way of life of many. Thus, they shaped the trajectory of Indian society and global spirituality on the whole in the course of time.
Chapple, Christopher K. 1993. Nonviolence to Animals, Earth, and Self in Asian Traditions. Albany: State University of New York.
Doniger, Wendy and Smith, Brian 1991. The Laws of Manu. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.
Flood, Gavin D. 1996. An Introduction to Hinduism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Gethin, Rupert 1998. The Foundations of Buddhism. Oxford and New York: University Press.
Olivelle, Patrick 2005. The Law Code of Manu. Oxford University Press.
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