Updated: Nov 17, 2020
Ahimsa Paramo Dharma
(Ahimsa is the highest duty)
Ahimsa is a Sanskrit noun that is variously translated as nonviolence, non-injury, non-killing, or, more loosely, as dynamic harmlessness and dynamic compassion.1
Because it is an ancient term that has played a key role in different spiritual philosophies originating in India--including Jainism, Advaita Vedanta, Raja Yoga, and Buddhism--it has had varying connotations over three millennia of usage.2 It was also a central principle of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s spiritually inspired political activism for social justice, wherein unity-of-life and unity-of-means-and-ends were ontological and ethical concomitants of ahimsa.3
For me personally and, in my view, for humanity, ahimsa is of the utmost importance for survival, thriving, self-realization, and the fulfillment of our humane potentials. Ahimsa, when embraced as a spiritual value, compels conscientious abstinence from harmful thoughts, words, and deeds, whether maliciously intended or mindlessly unintended, and whether toward self, other beings, or the conditions needed to sustain and nurture life. Ahimsa also calls for proactive engagement in compassionate service, advocacy, and activism within our spheres of influence.
Ahimsa is quintessential for building peace and social justice in personal, interpersonal, institutional, and social realms. Can you imagine what this world would be like if ahimsa were, in practice, not just in theory, a guiding cultural value in child rearing, marriage, family relations, education, medicine, public policy, business, economics, entertainment, politics, international relations, and environmental stewardship?
Ahimsa is important because we thrive in safety when we resolve conflicts nonviolently, care compassionately for the feelings of others, and provide for the needs of all. Without ahimsa, we are collectively destroying the biosphere and wasting our precious, limited resources on waging war and, thereby, increasing the sum total of suffering, hatred, and devastated lives. In situations where ahimsa is lacking,1.5 million people are killed worldwide each year due to direct violence,4 while structural violence causes from 14 to 18 million deaths per year as a result of starvation, lack of sanitary water, inadequate access to medical care, and other consequences of relative poverty.5 Ahimsa needs to be instilled into the heart of our cultures, social structures, and behaviors.
Ahimsa inspired me as a child when I saw a documentary about Gandhi’s leadership of the nonviolent satyagraha movements to oppose apartheid in South Africa and to liberate India from oppressive British colonial rule. Discovering ahimsa was revelatory for me. Already perplexed, shocked, and traumatized by violence at an early age, I was seeking to contribute, in whatever small ways, to a less-violent world. A commitment to peace and ahimsa influenced many vital choices over the years.
In my life here and now, I practice ahimsa, to the best of my ability, in how I think about and treat myself and others, in the work I have done as a counselor for underprivileged children and youth, in my advocacy for peace and nonviolent child-rearing, and in my writing and professional speaking about peace psychology, human rights, and child development. Working, at the time of writing this reflection, for a non-profit, mental health agency in the high-violence inner city of Richmond, California, I provided empathy, compassion, and guidance to underprivileged young people, many of whom had either witnessed violence, been victims, lost loved ones, or perpetrated violence themselves. I tried to help them heal from their traumas and to learn to live nonviolently.
As a Board member of Parents and Teachers against Violence in Education, I advocate for nonviolent child rearing, including the elimination of the physical punishment of children. As a writer and speaker, I promote nonviolence and peace building through stories and integration of the relevant social science research literature.
As a member of Psychologists for Social Responsibility, I contributed blogs inspired by ahimsa to the organization’s website. As a member of the Nonkilling Psychology Research Committee, I have published essays on nonviolence. As a student, practitioner, and teacher of raja yoga, I am committed to exploring the benefits and potentials of raja yoga to empower further my practice of ahimsa. At The Ancient Way, I am affiliating with kindred spirits, among teachers and students alike, who are, in their own distinctive ways, mindfully practicing meditation, breathing, and asanas to benefit themselves and to be able to spread the benefits to others in a spirit of ahimsa.
1. Nathanial Altman, Ahimsa: Dynamic Compassion. (Wheaton, IL: A Quest Book, 1980).