Ahimsā the life force of Jainism or is it really; you decide!

January, 2022 by Dr. Sulekh Jain

A very inspiring poem

First, let me start this article with a beautiful and touching short poem by a 10-year-old Ms. Rutvi Shah (a Jain) from San Diego, California.

“I want to be Jain; I want to feed the hungry; I want to wipe the tears of the sad.

I want to give to the needy, I want to be Jain

I want to push all the anger out of my heart; I want to make room for forgiveness instead

I want to ask for forgiveness for bad things I may have done, I want to be Jain…

I want animals to live and be free; I want people to understand animals are like us

I don’t want to use them for my needs I want to be Jain…

I don’t want to lie or cheat, I don’t want to take advantage of others

I want to be honest and truthful; I want to be Jain…

I don’t want to insist that I am correct, there are more than one right answer to a question

If I don’t insist, I am right, there will be no fights, I want to be a Jain…

Bhagwan Mahavir, let me walk on your path

The path that took you to liberation, let it take me there too

Let me spread love, peace, and joy

Oh, how I want to be Jain…oh how I want to be Jain!!!”

Wow, what a message from such a young girl!  I hope there are thousands of such Rutvi’s in the Jain community.

Ahimsā; the most beautiful word

Mr. Philip Wollen (of Melbourne Australia), a world-renowned animal rights activist, a vegan, a passionate philanthropist, and a life devoted 24×7 to Ahimsā starts all his speeches with:

“The most beautiful word ever written anywhere in any language in any culture at any time in the entire history of the human race is Ahimsā”.

Several years ago, in a video series on India, Michael Woods of BBC said “Ahimsā is the biggest gift to humankind by Jain Dharma”

In Jainism, unconditional Ahimsā is called Parmo-dharma or supreme religion. Ahimsā is the jewel, the shining ornament, the Life Force, the heart, the Ātmā, the centerpiece, the central pole, and the foundation of Jainism. Jainism stands on the pillar of Ahimsā. In reality, Ahimsā and Jainism are inseparable, and they are the two sides of the same coin. Jainism is the dharma of Ahimsā and Ahimsā is  Jainism.

Although other spiritual traditions incorporate Ahimsā, some more prominently than others, Ahimsā is the central focus of Jainism.  Everything else in Jainism may be regarded as a footnote to that central principle. Professor Padmanabhan Jaini calls Ahimsā the “central concept of Jaina ethics.  While all Indian philosophical schools attach great importance to this concept, none has carried it to the extreme of the Jainas. For them it is not simply the first among virtues but the virtue; all other restraints are simply elaborations of this central one.”

The wisdom traditions of the world offer pathways for humans to live with each other and with the natural world in a more peaceful and harmonious way. Among the religions, none has made the striving for peace more central, and none has called its followers to higher standards of Ahimsā, than Jainism.

According to Prof. Gary Francione of  Rutgers University in USA, “Ahimsā as a spiritual concept concerns the state of the soul, or Ātmā, and says that we achieve Ahimsā only when the Ātmā is in a state of complete tranquility, or a state of being a Vitarāga, or free of attachment or aversion. If the Atmā is vibrating in any way, it is attracting karma, and whether that karma is good (punya) or bad (pāp), there is not—and cannot be—a state of Ahimsā. So, if we have not achieved liberation or moksha, we are necessarily participating in some form of Himsā. The teachings of Ahimsā refer not only to wars and visible physical acts of violence but also to the violence in the hearts and minds of human beings, their lack of concern and compassion for their fellow human beings and for the natural world. Ancient Jain texts explain that violence is not defined by actual harm only, for this may be unintentional. It is the intention to harm, the absence of compassion, that makes action violent. Without violent thought, there could be no violent actions. When violence enters our thoughts, we should remember, “You are that which you intend to hurt, injure, insult, torment, persecute, torture, enslave or kill. I consider the principle of Ahimsā to be the principle of democracy of existence of all life forms”.

The spiritual traditions of the world offer at their core a common call to compassion. Among them all, but Jainism in particular, offers wise councel to men and women in a world addicted to violence. The ancient Jain tradition, more clearly than any other tradition in humanity’s history, has placed the practice of doing no harm, Ahimsā, at the very center of attention. Through the ages monks and nuns, but also ordinary Jain men and women, have learned to recognize the roots of violence in their thought and action and, becoming enlightened, to take steps toward self-transformation. Jain teachings offer time-tested techniques for developing inner Ahimsā, until it fills one’s whole being and flows outward for the sake of all living beings.

An elephant saves the life of a rabbit

In Jain cosmology, animals also possess a moral and spiritual dimension. A favorite Jain tale relates to an elephant, the leader of a large herd, caught in a raging forest fire. Seeking shelter, all animals crowded around a lake, leaving no room for him to maneuver. After a while, the elephant raised one leg to scratch himself, and a small hare/rabbit swiftly occupied this tiny vacancy. Feeling deep compassion for the small animal, the elephant kept his leg raised for more than three days until the fire died out and the hare/rabbit

A rare example of Ahimsā, elephant, and lion walking and caring for each other

departed. By then, his leg had gone numb; he toppled over, unable to set his foot down and walk again. Maintaining the purity of mind until he died, the elephant severed all ties with his animal destinies. He was later reborn as Prince Megha, son of King Srenika of Magadha, and became an eminent Jain monk under Lord Mahavira.

Ahimsā in Jain Ramayana

Ramayana is the famous Indian epic (all Indians are familiar with this), there are more than 300 different versions of Ramayana in India. In all of those versions (except in Jain Ramayana version only), Ravana was killed by Lord Rama but not in Jain Ramayana. In Jain Ramayana, it was Lakshman (Bhagwan Rama’s younger brother) who killed Ravana. If Rama would have killed Ravana, thus committing a great act of Himsā, Bhagwan Rama could not have attained omniscience and thus not have  gone to moksha.  One cannot attain moksha by way of Himsā. Here too Jains never compromised with Ahimsā.

This is the essence of Ahimsā in Jaina philosophy – it is compassion, empathy, profound wisdom that a common Ātman pulsates in all beings, making each equally worthy of life, and denying the human-made hierarchy that sets a human or more-powerful mammal above a creature that it has the power to kill. Ahimsā is not a passive or mechanical act of merely refraining from an act of violence; it is a proactive affirmation of divinity in all creation.

Ahimsā is the Identity of a Jain

What is the distinguishing mark or identity of a Jain? If one must point to the single most notable attribute of a Jain, it would surely be Ahimsā and nothing else (not wealth, status, power, history, looks, and position,, etc.) is the identity of a Jain. Ahimsā is not in talk, not in a slogan, not in worship, but Ahimsā and its continuous practice, inside and outside the temple and places of worship, and as a way of life and all the time. For Jains, their identity and trademark are Ahimsā and that is what differentiates them from non-Jains. For hundreds of years, we Jains have defined ourselves by our ethnic heritage, our language, and our unique culture within the diversity that is India. The life that does no harm is the life of Ahimsā”.

Ahimsā should be the nature (Svabhāva), conduct and character of a Jain. Only when one is practicing Ahimsā, can one be called a Jain. Ahimāa is the core, the identity, the religion, and the ornament of a Jain. Being a Jain is more than a title relating to religious identity. It signifies that the person believes in Ahimsā and practices Ahimsā in his/her journey of life and how lucky and fortunate we are that we belong to this noble tradition!

Since  Ahimsā is the heart of Jainism, then all Ahimsaks /nonviolent people across the globe are Jains at heart.

Religions that place non-violence at the center are brothers and sisters: the “peace traditions” within Christianity, such as the Mennonites; Quakers, with their strong commitment to non-violence; most serious Buddhist practitioners; and many, many others, whatever their race or creed.

Ahimsā is way beyond Food Plate /Thali

Ahimsā is much beyond food and adornments. The true practitioner strives to practice Ahimsā in everything, consistently, both inside and outside the temple or place of worship.

I believe that every human being can become an Ahimsak (truly nonviolent person). I do not mean that everyone becomes a Jain but that universal values of nonviolence in thought, word, and deed become practiced in everyday life.

At the deepest spiritual level, Jainism is nothing more—but also nothing less—than the way humans must live when we realize that all living things form a single interdependent web of life. What was revealed by Lord Mahavira and practiced by innumerable Jain sadhus through the centuries, we now recognize, is the goal and ideal toward which all humans must strive.

To recognize the Himsā in one’s own heart and gently, step by step, to eradicate it from thought and action, as the Jain sages have taught—this is the very center of the spiritual quest. These days when humans are rapidly destroying Mother Earth and her ecosystems, it is also the only course of action that will save the planet. No science, no laws, no doctrines will replace the transformation to non-violence at the core of one’s own being.

When seeking to define Ahimsā, Tulsi, a Jain Acharya and 20th-century social reformer, described three conditions that must be met. Acharya Tulsi exhorts;

First, do not kill or hurt any living being, mentally, verbally or by actions, even to the extent of not inspiring others who commit Himsā.

Second, extend equanimity towards all living beings. Positive values such as respect, love, kindness, and compassion towards all are included in this.

Third, be vigilant.”

The first two occur when another being is involved. The third is internal. Whatever the time of the day, whether living in solitude or in a group, whether asleep or awake, there must be self-awareness. Whatever we do, we should do knowingly, said Acharya Tulsi. All our actions, our words, and our emotions should be positive; this is Ahimsā.

The first condition is a “do not.” The other two conditions are “do” commands. A combination of all three is a complete definition of Ahimsā, or nonviolence. Being an Ahimsak (non-violent) is symbolized by inner harmony and is an accomplishment in itself. All other triumphs will naturally follow.

The definition and necessity of Ahimsā are absolute, universal, unconditional, and eternal. There are no loopholes. The definition of Ahimsā is not subject to different interpretations to suit the convenience and circumstances of a practitioner.

A Jain is the one who is a true symbol of nonviolence, love, compassion, peace, harmony, and oneness with all. Ahimsā is likened to compassion, the ability to feel for another’s suffering. A Jain is one who feels the pain of others and actively and proactively does his/her very best to reduce or alleviate that pain.

Human Beings are the Center of Himsa/violence

In this samsara, human beings cause the greatest Himsā because they choose to cause Himsā. They are not required or forced to commit Himsā through either habit or natural predisposition. The reason human beings cause Himsā for food is that they choose to kill other Jivas. Humans also have the choice to refrain from killing and thus to live a healthy life by consuming only plant-based foods.  Generally, only humans hoard, enslave others, engage in wars, destroy the environment, kill, and rape for pleasure, commit assaults, terrorize others, or participate in the trafficking of other beings. No other species does such things and thus causes such massive amounts of Himsā, all by choice.

Ahimsā has many connotations. When we say “Ahimsā,” we generally think of not killing or not hurting others through words or actions. But this is perhaps only ten percent of the fullness of Ahimsā. Like a glacier, most of its meaning is initially hidden.

Similarly, compassion (karuna) is defined as “developing fellow feelings or distress at the suffering of other living beings.” In other words, to consider another’s suffering as your own is compassion.

 Ahimsā is in Crisis /the house of Ahimsā in danger of crumbling

Ahimsā is the Mūla (root) mantra and foundation of Jainism, but for some Jains both in India and in the diaspora, the shortcuts and compromises with Ahimsā should be a matter of deep concern. Recently Ahimsā is becoming merely a slogan.

In my book “An Ahimsā Crisis: You Decide” (one can download free at www.isjs.in ) I have mentioned at length (with hundreds of actual daily life examples) how this very foundation of Ahimsā has started cracking, and thus the stability and survival of the whole building are endangered.

Some may not believe it, but even at this stage, Ahimsā is truly in crisis. Practice by its followers is slowly slipping away and based on individuals’ personal wishes, desires, and conveniences, daily compromises are made. If this trend continues (and my feeling is that it may even accelerate), Jain philosophy will be found only in scriptures and books, and the Jain community will no longer be identified as followers and practitioners of Ahimsā—we will have lost the recognition and reputation which we Jains have enjoyed for many thousands of years.

I consider the decline of the practice of Ahimsā to be like growing cancer.

We see many Jains engaging in businesses full of violence. Here in North America, we often see Jains owning fast food franchises selling meat that disregards our fundamental identity. Our Jain centers even depend on their financial contributions for their temples. This needs to be discussed openly in our community.

Today, some Jains have started becoming non vegetarian. Those who are ahiṃsak, their Ahimsā is generally limited to Thālī/food plate and meals only (micro or one sensed and not beyond). Sometimes I even sense that Jainism is simply becoming about eating or not eating potatoes. I feel day is not far off when we happen to meet a Jain, we will ask him/her “are you a vegetarian Jain or a non-vegetarian Jain”? What a pity and shame!

Ahimsā is life-changing and truly transformational; read a very inspiring story

I share here a true story. Dr. Christopher Patrick Miller is the Professor of Bhagwan Mallinath Endowed Professorship in Jain studies at Loyola Marymount University in LA. He teaches and practices Ahimsā and Jainism. He breathes, tastes, smells, thinks, touches, and contemplates Ahimsā all the time. He is also a strict vegan. Earlier this year, Christopher even changed his middle name from Patrick to Jain and he now is Christopher Jain Miller.

He was born and raised in a meat-eating family in the USA. When an undergraduate student, one of his teachers delivered a lecture on Ahimsā and as an assignment asked his class to write a paper on Ahimsā. He sat down and started writing his reflection on his computer. As he was engrossed, he noticed a spider moving around on the same wall he was sitting against. Seeing the spider, as a very normal reaction, Christopher stood up, took a newspaper to kill the spider but as he was just about ready to kill the spider, thoughts came to his mind “what are you doing Chris, you are reflecting on Ahimsā but your actions right now are of Himsā?” and right then his hand stopped. That was the turning point in his life; from Himsā to Ahimsā.

To continue this story further, on the day of the Thanksgiving celebration here (a national holiday in USA), at least 50 million turkey birds are killed for the customary Thanksgiving dinner. To atone for this mass killing, for the past several years Dr. Miller has been observing full-a day fast on that day. This year, under his Chairmanship of JAINA’s Ahimsā Thanksgiving Celebrations Committee, Jains throughout USA funded, provided, and distributed 147,000 Jain vegan meals free to homeless and poor people who otherwise would have eaten a turkey meal. In addition, on the same day about 1,000 Jains observed a full or partial fast too, this is Ahimsā in action and its power.

I want to close this paper with a clarion reminder from an American musician John Denver, who wrote,

“Yes, there still is time to turn around

And make all hatred cease

Let’s give another name to living

And we can call it peace.”

About Author

Dr. Sulekh Jain


Dr. Sulekh Jain has a Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering and has done an MBA and has been an international consultant in technology. He is the founder and co-founder of many organizations and institutions in North America. He has travelled extensively to spread Jainism and has been at the forefront of many religious and social activities. He has to his credit several awards and honors.

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