In today’s India, ahiṃsā (nonviolence) is present in all Dharmic religions. Persisting throughout three millennia, it transformed Indian life—its religions, politics, and culture. This literature review (1) examines historically significant tactics of exerted impact, (2) discusses original instigators, and (3) traces the interaction of traditions to arrive at the premise of expansion of the Jain ideals across major traditions in the context of (a) attitude towards all life and (b) sacrificial ritual.

Multiple facets of ahiṃsā

Comparatively, Jains practise ahiṃsā most radically and consistently, despite a low, though influential, number of leaders and devotees1 (Chapple 1993:21). Any religious activity devoid of this highest religious commitment (ahiṃsā paramo dharmaḥ) brings Jains no value, according to the Sanskrit treatise Yogaśāstra: “If one does not give up violence, (...) all is without result” (2.31). The full observance requires a stoppage of living on an autopilot characterised by living on other beings, including vegetation and elements (Schmidt 2010[1968]:125). To address that, Jain monastics and laity—to varying degrees—endorse the following ethical practises considered in this essay: nonviolent treatment of living beings, conscious choice of labour, ascetic discipline, diet, and philosophy (Long 2010:98,102,175-176). Notwithstanding, Hindus and Buddhists show reverence for ahiṃsā, too—at present and in canonical texts, despite distinct definitions and modes of subscription.

An additional lack of consensus shows in the translation of the word ahiṃsā. Following the interpretation of Jain texts by Schmidt, Wackernagel and Lüders, ahiṃsā derives from hiṃsā, and further – hiṣ, meaning ‘to injure’ (Schmidt 2010[1997]:129). Meanwhile, for Zimmermann, Schreiner, and others, the word derives from hiṃsati, and further – han, meaning ‘to strike’ or ‘to kill’ (Schmidt 2010[1997]:129). Some others maintain that ahiṃsā means ‘not to wish to kill’ or ‘not to wish to hurt’. This essay supports Schmidt et al.’s understanding (Schmidt 2010[1997]:129).

Propagation of ahiṃsā

Ahiṃsā persisted in the culture of India throughout the millennia—despite the invasion of Muslims, the decline of Jainism, the domination of Hinduism, the disappearance of Buddhism, and the repackaging of Yoga (Glasenapp 1999[1925]:3, Jaini 1979:274-275, Carrette & King 2005). First and foremost, Jains applied themselves in manifold ways to exert influence and extinguish multifarious violence. By their virtue, ahiṃsā appeared in political policies again and again throughout Indian history.

The historical records mention great emperors who took the ahiṃsā vow and showed extraordinary compassion by establishing several laws. Aśoka (3th century B.C.) promoted moral and religious life, limited animal sacrifice, reduced hunting, and introduced animal aids enforced by appointed officers (Chapple 1993:24-25, Schmidt 2010[1997]:131). His inscription reads: "various (animals) are declared by me inviolable" and “shall not be killed in the future”. Jains claim the monarch belonged to their religion before converting to Buddhism2 (Glasenapp 1999:42-44). A Jain king, Khāravela (1st-2nd century B.C.), took layman vows, guaranteeing he had “seen, heard, experienced, and done that which is good” (Jaini 1979:278). Ruling a century later, the Digambara Ganga kings built extensive temples, pledging: “If you eat honey or fish (...) Then your race will go to ruin” (Jaini 1979:280). Meanwhile, Vanarāja (8th century C.E.), raised by a Śvetāmbara monk, established a Jain kingdom (Jaini 1979:283). During his rule, many Jains moved into positions of power in ministry and finance, with significant effect. In some states, such kingships lasted for several centuries (Chapple 1993:18). In others, the successors reverted the faith to Hinduism, re-encouraged violent animal sacrifices, and persecuted Jains (Alsdorf 2010[1962]:43, Glasenapp 1999:59).

Nevertheless, leaders’ exclusivity was rare. Religious fluidity prevailed: “Listen to Buddha’s speeches on wisdom, Observe faithfully the laws of Jainas; Regulate your life according to the Vedas (...) Do not harm any one” (Glasenapp 1999:54). Religiously tolerant kings—such as Harṣa, Muñja, Bhoja, Dhārā, the Mūlarāja dynasty, and the last Rāṣṭrakūṭa emperor (10th century C.E.)—despite not belonging to Jainism, not only made no hurdles for the Jain faith, they helped them and ahiṃsā bloom historically (Dundas 2002[1992]:120).

Conversions were another tool revered in the hands of Jains. Hemacandra (12th century C.E.), as Prabandhakoṣa reports, famously won over king Kumārapāla (Glasenapp 1999:57-58). Consequently, the king gave up meat and hunting, and prohibited meat eating and slaughter. Butchers quit their jobs for generous compensations, while Brahmins replaced their sacrificial animals with corn offerings. Extraordinarily, Jain ahiṃsā inspired Akbar (16-17th century C.E.), who led the expansion of Islam. For the monks’ tuition, he rewarded them with governmental policies spreading nonviolence. Prisoners were released, selected animals protected, and killing in holy areas banned. Additionally, Akbar advised to observe ahiṃsā on specific dates and, thus, did a lot to advance its practice—as if he took the Jain faith himself (Glasenapp 1999:75, Chapple 1993:18). A further official order forbidding killing on Jain lands came from Hindu Mahārāṇā Rāj Singh (Glasenapp 1999:77). Nonetheless, many of the great accounts of conversions of clans and castes led by talented ahiṃsā-inspired Śvētāmbaras are suppressed by hagiography (Dundas 2002[1992]:149).

Plausibly, more historically significant were less obvious alliances—with groups of opposite interests: (1) militaries and (2) Hindus. Records reveal extensive patronage and support from militaries of the south (5th-6th & 10th century C.E.), emphasising a Jain role model, general Cāmuṇḍarāya (Dundas 2002[1992]:119-120, Jaini 1979:281). For Jaini (1979:313), the conflict of Jain interests between power and nonviolence resulted in a staggering lack of condemnations. At most, Jains restricted their support for battle skills to defence and upheld the stance that a warrior in war and a Jain ascetic differ by accumulated karma and limited rebirth (Dundas 2002[1992]:119-120). Another skilful act of balancing disparate interests manifested between the Jain and Hindu orthodoxies. The monks conformed to Hindu practices to maintain the spirit of Jainism in non-Jain regions. Jinasena (9th century C.E.), the challenger of societal norms, adopted most of the saṃskāras and, thus, rendered Jains nearly “indistinguishable from Hindus” (Jaini 1979:192-193,287,291). Other notables rewrote Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata epics to spread their religious myths via popular characters, though not as divine as the originals (Jaini 1979:304-306).

The reliance on this multitude of tactics warranted Jains’ survival in the complex Indian multireligiousity. Winning over kings, obtaining positions of power, converting clans, and developing kinships with militaries, Hindus, and laymen, resulted in potent channels of support. Accumulated wealth outweighed the temporary persecutions of kings (Jaini 1979:281-282, Dundas 2002[1992]:163), while significant internal reforms and occasional virodhīhiṃsā further rendered them the lead defenders of ahiṃsā in society. Lastly, Jains outperformed Buddhists—who disappeared from the Indian religious scene—becoming a pan-Indian image of peace, compassion, and morally uplifting presence (Jaini 1979:313).

The origins debate

Despite—or because of—ahiṃsā’s influence on society, there is no consensus on which tradition was the earliest to formulate it. This section of the paper explores the diversity and complexity of key stances.

According to a number of researchers, ahiṃsā evolved in the Vedic-Brahmanic notion (Schmidt 2010[1968], Bhatt 2004:5). Confoundingly, the earliest Vedas use the word ahiṃsā without elaboration, respectively: “For us let these (gifts?) of yours (become) real. They bring no injury” (asme tā ta indra santu satyāhiṃsantīr upaspṛśaḥ (...), Ṛgveda 10.22.13) and “Verily he [the sacrificer] piles the fire with its navel, to avoid injury” (eṣā vā agner nābhiḥ sanābhim evāgniṃ cinute 'him̐sāyai, Yajurveda Only later do the Upaniṣads state the quality of nonviolence, while the Manusmṛti and the Mahābhārata grant it a near-absolute recognition. However, instead of making the literal analysis a focal point, Schmidt, in his early work (2010[1968]:122), conjoins early Vedic animism with Jain attribution of living energy to various aspects of the material universe. Thus, he suggests the renunciatory ahiṃsā originates in the ritual milieu. The fear of committing ritual hiṃsā is another plausibility, as well as Heesterman’s claim that Brahmins fused ahiṃsā with vegetarianism, but Halbfass and Schmidt refute such stances on origins, respectively (Schmidt 2010[1968]:145,158). For the latter, the main counterargument points to the parallelism between the three traditions—qualified permission for meat-eating. As for Jains, the statement is refutable as a mistranslation.3

At variance with the ritual-ahiṃsā theory are the seekers of origins in the śramaṇa, pre-śramaṇa, pre-Vedic and even pre-Aryan cultures. For instance, Bodewitz (Alsdorf 2010[1962]:ix) identifies the original ahiṃsā as a heterodox alternative to sacrificial ritualism. Chapple (1993) argues that śramaṇas collided with and pacified Hinduism and influenced classical Yoga—after they branched out into Jainism and Buddhism. Vedic and classical literature reflects that transition – from the Ṛgveda (where the priest caste consumes meat) to the Manusmṛti (distinguishing the caste by its vegetarianism). A related array of research points to one common source for all the traditions. Alsdorf (2010[1962]:ix,52-56) theoreticises a pan-Indian spiritual movement which promoted nonviolence without or before ​​Jainism and Buddhism. For him, these two traditions were inspired by and predisposed to pursue ahiṃsā further. Thus, the emperor Aśoka, for instance, did not act solely upon the śramaṇa traditions’ ideals when setting in motion his vegetarian propaganda. Upon revisiting his standpoint, Schmidt (2010[1997]:128) closely follows Alsdorf. Moreover, he strengthens the argument for the subcontinent-wide evolution, popularising ahiṃsā and vegetarianism, by ascribing to it an interlinked notion of the transmigration of the soul. This combination of concepts was fully expressed in Hinduism with the Manusmṛti. The text used fear to advance the adoption of the doctrine of non-injury further than an ethical motivation would (Schmidt 2010[1968]:127): “Me he will eat in the next world, whose meat I eat in this world” (Manusmṛti 5.55). However, while Hindu literature was slow to propound the connection between ahiṃsā and karma fully, Jains asserted it in their earliest text: “As it would be unto thee, so it is with him whom thou intendest to kill (...) [and] tyrannise over” (Ācārāṅgasūtra I.5.5).

In opposition, Jains claim priority. Most of their researchers refute the Vedas as the origins of ahiṃsā, tapas, karma, or metempsychosis (Bhatt 2004:1) and dismiss the Manusmṛti as ill-conceived, pseudo-soteriological and evil (hiṃsāśāstra) (Yogaśāstra 2.33-2.40). First and foremost, Jains fought against bloody sacrifices to reform them. Undoubtedly, they influenced Hindus. Brief indications of that are present in the next sections of this paper, drawing from the Upaniṣads, the Manusmṛti and the Mahābhārata. However, further full-fledged research is imperative. Based on scholarly evidence, little can be said about the Hindus’ and Buddhists’ supposed emergence from Jainism (Glasenapp 1999[1925]:497, Dundas 2002[1992]:241). Nevertheless, Tīrthaṅkara Pārśvanātha was a historical figure and propagator of Jainism who lived before the founder of Buddhism. Considering that Buddha undertook his program of ascetic practises, before discarding them (Mahāsaccaka Sutta 30, Bronkhorst 1993:4), Gombrich and Bronkhorst (1993:xiv,16-17,53,102, 1995:2-5) suggest the techniques were initially approved by some of the Buddhists. Therefore, certain external practices or beliefs likely infiltrated Buddhism (Dundas 2002[1992]:240, Bronkhorst 1995:13). The similarities between the two traditions, indeed, puzzled some Brahmanic writers and early European researchers who assumed that Jains emerged from Buddhism, or were Buddhistic schismatics or a sect (Glasenapp 1999[1925]:5-6,500). Importantly for the research on ahiṃsā, having participated in the same or similar nonviolent movement, it is persistently difficult to distinguish the exact pioneers of the exerted influence in India. These śramaṇa traditions blossomed in each others’ proximity and shared terminology, ethics and features. Their philosophies differ (largely on the concept of the soul and degree of asceticism), and hostility is mutual. Buddhists mock and accuse Jains of heresy and theft (Glasenapp 1999[1925]:500), while Jains disprove the Buddha’s knowledge as ‘partial’ and often portray him as a ‘fallen angel’ of their religion.

Beyond all doubt, the classical Yoga system came last. The Pātañjalayogaśāstra is its key partisan text which amalgamated cross-tradition practices (Mallinson & Singleton 2017, xi-xii). In particular, the five yamas strictly follow the Jains’ five great vows. In both traditions, the two sets are introduced as mahāvratas, with ahiṃsā as the foundation for and purpose of all ethical praxis (Jain 2012:11, Chapple 2012:1). The remaining seven aṅgas of Patañjali are familiar to Jains, too; however, their exact source could be in any of the śramaṇa systems.

Interaction of Traditions

The following sections compare the development of selected Jain ideals across the major traditions.

Saving living beings

Precepts comparable to the Jain understanding of and mutual respect for life in every form (Daśavaikālika 4.10, Ācārāṇgasūtra 1.1.3) developed in Buddhism, too. A Śvetāmbara mendicant, Haribhadra, equated Mahāyāna Buddhism’s bodhisattvas with Jains holding a correct belief (Dundas 2002[1992]:242): “both (...) share the same description inasmuch as both are lover of doing good to others” (Yogabindu 272). Noninjury towards animals and plants is correspondingly imperative in each of the two traditions. One explanation is the karma doctrines, propounding the risk of unfortunate rebirths for wrongdoings. Nevertheless, the Mahāvagga of Vinaya Piṭaka reports the occurrence of public protests which prevented Buddhists from travelling during cāturmāsa (Chapple 1993:22): “People were annoyed (...) [monks] crush the green herbs, (...) hurt vegetable life, (...) destroy the life of many small living things” and pressured them to “retire during the rainy season” (Mahāvagga III 1.1). Such public opposition, along with the Buddhists’ response, indicates a wide adoption of ahiṃsā outside of Buddhism which led to the expectation to conform by religious figures. Of the two, ahiṃsā is more carefully observed by Jains. Monks of this tradition place focus on the consequences of actions as primary determinants for morality, notwithstanding the intentions. Considering the multitude of tiny life forms, such a high standard surpasses the Buddhist ‘Middle Way’, which advises moderation. Jains ideologically reject Buddhists’ compromise in either ahiṃsā or asceticism (Long 2010:100,176-177): “Gotama, (...) pleasure is to be gained through pain” (Cūḷadukkhakkhandha Sutta 20).

Hindu books expose greater similarities, influences and compromises. The Pāraskaragṛhyasūtra of Dharmasūtras mentions restraint from hurting plants in the context of collecting firewood: “Without causing injury, he should fetch fuel from the forest” (Pāraskaragṛhyasūtra 2.5.9). A much later text, the Manusmṛti, states familiarly that “[a] Brahmin, or even a Ksatriya (...) should try his best to avoid agriculture, which involves injury to living beings” because “the plow with an iron tip lacerates the ground as well as creatures living in it” (Manusmṛti 10.63). In contrast to Jains, but in line with compromising Buddhists, such livelihood is prescribed “[e]xcept during a time of adversity” (Manusmṛti 4.2). An additional entry in the Baudhāyanasūtras, “he shall plough (...) [w]ith two bulls whose noses have not been pierced, not striking them with the goad, (but) frequently coaxing them” (Baudhāyanasūtras, indicates, according to Schmidt (2010[1968]:103), a presence of a strong societal movement preventing Brahmins from involvement in acts of violence. Meanwhile, the following snippet of the Mahābhārata appears to be an indirect comment mocking Jain radicalism (Alsdorf 2010[1962]:33):

‘Nonviolence!’ But who in the world does not hurt something, good brahmin. (...) Those same ascetics so devoted to non-violence still give hurt, good brahmin, although their efforts do decrease it (...) may still do ghastly acts, and still are not ashamed
(Mahābhārata 3.199.19-35)

In light of the Jain radical ahiṃsā, determination, and reverence of the public, both cases of pronounced pressure and their impact would suggest either a direct or indirect Jain accomplishment; however, the matter requires further scholarship.

The sacrifice ritual

Another context that Jains oppose is Vedic karmakāṇḍa. This section of the paper briefly follows the evolution of Brahmins’ outlook on ritual-ahiṃsā from early cruel acts—implying partial adoption of ahiṃsā—to drawing near to Buddhists and Jains.

Initially, hiṃsā was inseparable from the Vedas and essential (Heesterman 2010[1966]:92). Nonetheless, the descriptions of sacrifices in ritual texts occasionally detested killings. According to Bhṛgu legends, doubts stemmed from Vedic animism. To address them, the Brahmins relied on their confidence in the power of water for the victim’s healing and fire for its rebirth (Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa–2, Schmidt 2010[1968]:117,125-126).

The antiritualistic religions attacking and reforming the custom were two: Jainism and Buddhism. The Uttarajjhāyā 12 and 25 follow an argument between a Jain monk and a Brahmin. The Jain’s instructions on wrongdoings and the means to undo them are similar to those of the Buddhists in the Jātaka 497 (Alsdorf 2010[1962]:50-51). In the former, a true Brahmin is a Jain monk living an ascetic life as his sacrifice. He questions: (1) the Vedic animism (Uttarajjhāyā 25.23), (2) the karmic aims of the sacrifice (Uttarajjhāyā 25.30), and (3) the violation of souls from other classes to achieve “external purity” (Uttarajjhāyā 12.38-41). The text, despite clearly advocating for ahiṃsā, features nearly no non-semantic references to it. The Sāṁkhyakārikā and Pātañjalayogaśāstra reflect further efforts resulting in more personal religious experience (Schmidt 2010 [1968]:102,126). This literary campaign continued throughout the centuries: “Those who, devoid of pity, hurt [other] beings, either under the pretext of making an oblation to a deity, (...) or under the disguise of sacrifice, will go to the most cruel hell” (Yogaśāstra II.39). Jinasena played an important role in another form of opposition against the karmakāṇḍa instructions. The monk ‘Jina-ised’ the societal norms and reduced occurrences of hiṃsā, especially in the sacrifice—by demanding fruit and flower offerings to Jinas to honour their memory (Jaini 1979:295-296).

In due course, the changes to the rituals were extensive, though not always easily identifiable as a result of the non-Vedic reformers’ espousal. For instance, Brahmins modified the decapitation of the sacrificial animal and replaced it with strangulation. It may or may not indicate the gradual reduction of violence. One possible explanation is merely a change in Brahmins’ attitude to blood (Alsdorf 2010[1962]:xi). Brahmins additionally sublimated the horse sacrifice (aśvamedha). In the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad, the custom continued to ensure wealth and serendipity but diverted from using a live animal. Instead, killing and pulling the animal apart became a visualised meditation (Chapple 1993:42-43, Flood 1996:83-85). The further symbolisation of sacrifices (e.g. prāṇāgnihotra) for inward offerings and contemplation rendered Brahmins increasingly free from reliance on living beings (Flood 1996:83-84): “A man who offers sacrifices within himself attains absolute sovereignty” (Manusmṛti 12.91). This renunciation of previously prized classic Vedic sacrifices reaches its peak in the Śāntiparva and Anuśāsanaparva, which debate animal sacrifice and ahiṃsā: “Those acts (...) that involve injury to others, destroy faith, and faith being destroyed, involves the destroyer in ruin” and refer to the “religion (of abstention from injury)” (264 p. 243-245). The Yajñanindā section of the Mahābhārata XII concludes: “The injuring of living creatures, therefore, forms no part of sacrifice” (272 p. 277). Despite a disorderly manner, the books agree with many points in the Manusmṛti.

Although at first, Brahmins rejected the authority of non-orthodox schools, the teachings of these schools made their way into their literature and tradition. Through the joined efforts of Jains and Buddhists, Hinduism prioritises jñānakāṇḍa over opposite karmakāṇḍa. Today, in most Indian states, killing for religious sacrifices is banned.


As demonstrated, the ideal of ahiṃsā was a driving force behind some of the changes in the Indian religious landscape. Despite the lack of consensus on its origin, Vedas appear the least probable, while Jains subscribed to it considerably. Hinduism and Buddhism experienced, and partially opposed, different degrees of radicalising pressure—not ascribable to Jainism in all instances due to limited scholarship. Meanwhile, the outer influence experienced by Jains aimed to reduce their radicalism, and came inadequate. Jains appear successful in their ongoing reformations of India, and their commitment is necessary in global debates.


1) For details of the steady decline, see Glasenapp 1999[1925]:70,73,84.

2) According to Hultzsch (Alsdorf 2010[1962]:54-55), Aśoka’s inscriptions are not even Buddhist but Hindu—if compared with the Arthaśāstra.

3) See Alsdorf 2010[1962]:7.


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