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.
In my time living at the Sivananda Yoga Farm, an ashram in California where I studied yoga and was eventually trained as a teacher, one of the favorite stories of Swami Sivananda is about his great ahimsa. It is said that one day, during one of Swamiji’s famous satsangs, a man rushed out of the audience with a weapon intending to kill him. Swami Sivananda, unphased, sat watching, and the man tripped on his way up the dais and missed. The swami’s acolytes restrained the man, and the next day Swami Sivananda came to see him and talk with him. We are told that the Swami ordered him released, and that the man was so struck by the Swami’s innocence and purity that he became a disciple himself.
The purity of ahimsa is three-fold. It asks of us to express no harm in either thought, word, or deed. The last of these is the simplest. Who among us hasn’t managed to restrain themselves from violence when provoked? Speech is harder. The modern lexicon has come to include a specific phrase to describe the many tiny ways that we infuse our speech with violence, often very subtle violence, microaggressions. When we are caught up in our ego, in the delusion of our special self which must be protected from others, we often fall back on ways of speaking to others which belittle or diminish them in order to provide ourselves with a sense of largeness. We may do this even when, at our best, we don’t honestly believe such things.
The hardest, however, by far, is the purity of thought. Ahimsa challenges us to hold no ill will towards any being in creation, to see all beings as the self, as inviolate. For those of us to whom this practice is not second nature, it is hard to imagine such a state. It is not uncommon for the mind to automatically translate frustration and anger into violent and aggressive thoughts, often towards the perceived cause of these emotions. Ahimsa asks us to witness and honour those emotions without externalising them and without creating thoughts of harming others as a result.
It is important to note that ahimsa precludes self-harm, and as such, repressing emotions like anger and frustration, pretending that we are okay when we are not is not ahimsa. So, if expressing anger as violence and repressing anger are both harmful, how do handle our anger? Sublimation. With sublimation we take the energy of anger, transformed by compassion, and turn it towards the task of resolving the situation which is producing the emotion.
Imagine that you have a neighbour whose behaviour is challenging and provocative. Interactions with them have a tendency to leave you with the energy of anger coursing through your body. Now, depending on personality, the impulse to either engage with the neighbour with your anger, or to hide the anger and smile between gritted teeth may be present. Compassion, however, innately recognises that our neighbour’s behaviour comes from their own suffering. The anger, however, does not necessarily evaporate. Instead, we take the energy of that anger and use it to resolve the situation to the best of our ability. That may mean trying to have a conversation with our neighbour, or looking into bringing in outside moderation, or possibility even looking for a new place to live.
Ahimsa in the Modern World
Of all the yamas and niyamas, ahimsa is perhaps the most difficult to practically embody in this world. If you live in a city, you are almost certainly dependent upon a variety of services that themselves are productive of harm. For me to even communicate this to you, I’m using a computer that is made of components that have been extracted from the earth with no small amount of human suffering involved. Regardless of your diet, the fact remains that modern agriculture displaces ecosystems, depletes the soil, and requires transportation into city centres.
Engaging with the economic system as it stands is also generally productive of harm. The current economic model is rigged so that those at the top are able to perpetually extract value from those at the bottom. By being complicit in that system, we are all effectively perpetuating the extreme poverty of those at the bottom.
Long story short, there is almost no way to be a modern human, to live a ‘normal’ modern life and not be causing harm. Short of abandoning the world and going off to live as a sadhaka, what can we do?
Well, the first steps are simple. In order to live the yamas and niyamas, ahimsa being only one, we must lay down our ignorance. It is, in many ways, easier to navigate the modern world in a haze, not giving attention to the long-term effects of our actions, or looking at the real (not economic) costs of our behaviours and attachments. Yoga asks us to put this tendency aside and look clearly at who we are and what we do. From that position, we can look at our desires and our attachments, the products we consume and the amount that we consume and ask ourselves whether the benefit to us outweighs the harm to others.
For my own sake, as we approach Bonfire Night in the UK, this comes clearly into focus. Is the shared transitory experience of watching fireworks worth the persistent waste and pollution? Is it worth the harm that it causes animals, people with PTSD, and babies? I don’t believe so, and yet, others do, and even more don’t ask the question at all. Our calendar is littered with holidays that we celebrate by eschewing the holiness as much as possible, revelling in our ignorance as we routinely perform harmful rituals which promote waste, pollution, and the impoverishment of others.
Ahimsa and Diet
I’ve been saving this for last since I’m sure it will be the most controversial. Ahimsa and diet is a very nuanced conversation. For many yoga teachers and practitioners, it is simple. It is the absolute imperative to go vegetarian or vegan. Some people may be able to live optimally on such a diet, however, it is important to recognise that not all bodies can thrive on a pure-plant diet. This is a controversial statement, but it is not difficult to find first-hand accounts of long-term vegans who reversed seemingly intractable chronic illnesses simply by reverting back to a diet that included animal products.
In a very real sense, death is not of issue in ahimsa. Death is not harmful. Death merely is an inescapable aspect of life. What is of concern is suffering, and as such, ahimsa asks us to look at the production of all our food and its wider effects. It seems fairly clear that the industrial meat industry is very productive of harm both to animals and ecologically. However, eating locally sourced, grass-fed, organic beef can be in some ways productive of less harm than eating Quinoa imported from Bolivia. We cannot, after all, divorce the harm done by the production of the food from the harm done by its transport, and the harm done in securing the necessary resources for shipment of food. Nor can we ignore the effect on local Bolivians who are no longer able to afford their staple food, because the global price of Quinoa has gone up.
There are many solid arguments for vegetarianism, and as someone who has been a vegetarian, I highly recommend that anyone consider trying such a lifestyle, just not at the cost of personal health, since doing that would also be harming. And, should you try it, be very aware of changes in the body and mindful of the type of thinking that sometimes results from adopting a new belief. Also, be cognisant of the fact that the supply lines supporting a vegetarian diet can be just as steeped in ecological and animal suffering as those supporting the meat industry. Being appreciative of how we source our food, especially in an increasingly global society, is challenging but important in the practice of ahimsa. At the same time, trying to perfect an ethical calculus to remove suffering is an impossible task, and at a certain point, we must accept that our existence is productive of harm and come to terms with it.
For those of us unable or unwilling to become sannyasin, to take vows and live as monks, ahimsa is a hard ask, requiring us to make a lot of hard choices, and to take a more nuanced approach to our lives. Ceasing harm in one aspect of our lives can very easily be productive of harm in another. Quitting our job because it is for a harmful corporation is wonderful, unless it leaves you unable to provide food for your children. So, for those of us in the world, ahimsa becomes a balancing act. Rather than ‘do no harm’, ahimsa asks us to be vigilant and not to ignore the suffering we create, and to put our best effort into doing the least harm we can. It is not an easy ask.