A lot of foreigners, especially those of European descent (in Europe, the Americas and Australia), believe that ‘ahimsa’ (translated as non-violence) happens to be the cornerstone of Indian spirituality (to be more accurate, the spirituality associated with religions founded in South Asia – Jainism, Buddhism, and Hinduism). This belief has been reinforced by innumerable books, television shows, movies and documentaries (made by both Indians and foreigners). I have seen many wildlife documentaries featuring the wildlife and nature reserves of the subcontinent. Made by the likes of the BBC, National Geographic and Discovery. Almost every documentary credits the survival of a rich community of plants and animals in this most densely populated part of the globe to the concept of ‘ahimsa’ prevalent among Hindus (Jains and Buddhists being barely mentioned as they form a minuscule percentage of India’s total population). This association of ‘ahimsa’ with everything Indian has become a global stereotype. Indians are neither as non-violent nor as spiritual as they are made out to be. It might be a byproduct of the legend that has grown around Gandhi (leader of India’s freedom struggle against the British colonial government). Here are two examples of this connection:
Definition of AHIMSA: the Hindu and Buddhist doctrine of refraining from harming any living being
First Known Use: 1875
Did you know? Ahimsa has been part of the English language since at least the late 19th century, but the word didn’t gain the attention of the English-speaking world until the first half of the 20th century, when it was recognized as an important component of the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi. Ahimsa comes from a Sanskrit word meaning “noninjury,” and Gandhi’s policy of nonviolent protest played a crucial role in the political and social changes that eventually led to India’s independence from Britain in 1947.
Ahimsa, ( Sanskrit: “noninjury”) in the Indian religions of Jainism, Hinduism, and Buddhism, the ethical principle of not causing harm to other living things.
In Jainism, ahimsa is the standard by which all actions are judged. For a householder observing the small vows (anuvrata), the practice of ahimsa requires that one not kill any animal life. However, for an ascetic observing the great vows (mahavrata), ahimsa entails the greatest care to prevent the ascetic from knowingly or unknowingly being the cause of injury to any living soul (jiva); thus, ahimsa applies not only to human beings and to large animals but also to insects, plants, and microbes. The interruption of another jiva’s spiritual progress causes one to incur karma—the accumulated effects of past actions, conceived by Jains as a fine particulate substance that accretes upon the jiva—keeping one mired in samsara, the cycle of rebirth into mundane earthly existence. Not only physical violence but also violent or other negative thoughts result in the attraction of karma. Many common Jainist practices, such as not eating or drinking after dark or the wearing of cloth mouth covers (mukhavastrika) by monks, are based on the principle of ahimsa.
Though the Hindus and Buddhists never required so strict an observance of ahimsa as the Jains, vegetarianism and tolerance toward all forms of life became widespread in India. The Buddhist emperor Ashoka, in his inscriptions of the 3rd century bce, stressed the sanctity of animal life. Ahimsa is one of the first disciplines learned by the student of Yoga and is required to be mastered in the preparatory stage (yama), the first of the eight stages that lead to perfect concentration. In the early 20th century Mohandas K. Gandhi extended ahimsa into the political sphere as satyagraha, or nonviolent resistance to a specific evil.
The curious thing about this entire narrative is that violence is not an aberration but an integral part of daily life in India. The country has been rocked by riots since Independence. Everyday, one comes across news of conflict between people of different castes. The tribes of Central and Northeastern India have been attacked by settlers and authorities eager to gain control of the regions’ rich natural resources. The country’s political landscape is awash with tales of bitter rivalry, blood feuds and mass reprisals. Even the famed non-violence of Indians towards animals has more to do with hype and less with reality. Vegetarianism is not as popular in India as it is made out to be. As much as 70% of the population consumes meat. Those who abstain mostly belong to upper caste communities (or faiths like Jainism, with an almost militant emphasis on non-violence). Many self-proclaimed vegetarians actually consume eggs on a regular basis. People who imagine Indians to be filled with reverence towards animal life should watch YouTube clips of the country’s tourists mobbing tigers inside national parks, hounding wildlife that has strayed into human settlements or organizing cock-fights at rural fairs.
One has to remember that most of India’s wildlife survives in regions that have long been inhabited by Adivasis (tribal communities living in the great forest belt stretching over Southern, Central and Northeastern India). Many are classified as Hindus but their way of life is totally different. They worship their own gods and spirits. Happily consume meat and alcohol. Regularly hunt big game and make blood sacrifices. Such practices are frowned upon by upper caste Hindus. But it is in the homelands of the Adivasis that one will find the greatest biodiversity. Clearly, ahimsa has got little to do with the survival of India’s flora and fauna. It has more to do with the topography (extremely remote and unsuitable for large-scale agriculture) and the inhabitants (who developed a hunting-gathering lifestyle in sync with nature). Even among the more respectable type of Hindus, ‘ahimsa’ was the exception that proved the rule. I am sharing a painting of a Hindu king (Maharana Sangram Singh II of Mewar) visiting a saint (Gosain Nilakanthaji) after hunting a tiger. The saint, shown sitting on a tiger’s skin (a common theme in Hindu religious imagery), blesses the ruler.
Image Attribution: The image above, sourced from Wikimedia Commons, is based on a painting of Maharana Sangram II visiting Gosain Nilakanthaji after a tiger hunt. It dates back to 1725 and is currently located at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia. Maharana Sangram II ruled over the kingdom of Mewar from 1710 to 1734, and belonged to a Hindu Rajput clan, the Sisodias. The Sisiodias claimed to be offshoots of an ancient Kshatriya lineage (the Suryavanshis, or Solar Dynasty, descended from the Sun). Gosains were members of a religious order engaged in trade and commerce over Western and Northern India. Despite their close association with Hindu orthodoxy, neither the Sisodia Rajputs nor the Gosains had any great qualms about the killing of wild animals, or the use of animal skins. In fact, both communities boasted of a long martial tradition. The Hindu kings of South Asia loved hunting big game as much as the Mughals and the British. Ahimsa had little to do with their way of life, especially when it came to wildlife.