The first of the yamas is also the most difficult to attain to in many ways. (For an introduction to the yamas and niyamas, please see our previous blog post.) Ahimsa means to abstain from causing harm, and besides being difficult to live up to, is also difficult to fully comprehend. How we understand harm and how we determine fault when harm inevitably arises are both cultural and deeply personal processes.
In order to better understand the concept, let’s look at it in its historical roots. The concept itself appears in the Rig Veda, the oldest religious text still in use today. In the Rig Veda, the concept is mentioned in reference to Indra, the god of thunder and warfare, being ‘innocent’ or peaceful towards his worshippers.
Despite being in a context entirely foreign to our modern lives, this idea of innocence is actually very revealing of the character and quality of ahimsa. From a yogic perspective, ahimsa is not merely an ethical must, but, as with all the yamas and niyamas, a practice in itself designed to catapult the spiritual seeker further along the path. The innocence of ahimsa is fundamental to its use as a practice, and as a metric for determining what is and is not ahimsa.
In the modern world we currently navigate, innocence is a hard ask. The systems around us require savvy and the streets cannot abide a fool for long. Nevertheless, the yogi intent upon self-realisation must maintain a sense of purity and connection with all beings, even should it put them at risk. To the mind, this may seem insane. We are taught from a young age to distrust strangers, maintain solid boundaries, read the fine print, and so on.
For the person who is not practicing ahimsa, these are all very important, but for the truly pure yogi (a rare thing indeed), it is understood to be unnecessary. In the yogic worldview, we are all one being, with the separation between us being the effect of Maya, the illusion caused by the filtering of ultimate reality through the mechanisms of mind. Being all one, the distinction between the internal and external is quite fuzzy. It is sometimes said that a yogi who practices ahimsa perfectly will have no violence done to them, even by a hungry tiger.