Ahimsa is a Sanskrit word meaning “do no harm.” It’s an important virtue in Indian spirituality, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Yoga, and was a strong belief of Mahatma Gandhi. I met this word and the concept during my yoga classes, but shrugged it off: I’m not hurting anyone or anything physically. I’m vegetarian and do not raise my hand with the intent of injuring another being.
Do no harm physically
Exploring the concept of ahimsa reveals a deep meaning to the phrase “do no harm.” Not only should harm done by my hand be avoided, but also asking or encouraging others to commit violence, even assenting to violence. I’m quite sure that I’ve never told anyone to do harm to another person, but I asked for the killing of cheeky flies several times. I was witness to beatings of children during my stay in Liberia and said (or did) nothing. I just hope I’m strong enough to do otherwise next time, although I wish I wouldn’t see violence against children again.
Do no harm verbally
Raising my children showed me the next level of ahimsa: how I can hurt people with words. When I’ve lost control and yelled at them they physically shrank and were wounded. Remembering this experience helps me to stay balanced and keep my temper (most of the time).
I’m very grateful that they attend a school where one of the rules is: do not harm anyone physically or verbally—acknowledging that verbal abuse is just as harmful for a developing person as physical. We quickly adopted this rule at home and are practicing to keep it as a family.
Further reading revealed areas that are still challenging for me. Verbal violence includes speaking ill of someone or using rude words—deeds quite familiar to me. Once I was even told that my tongue is my weapon—can’t take much pride in that feedback.
Prejudice and exclusion of any kind is also regarded as violence since it hurts the feelings of the other. Despite living abroad several times I know I still have prejudices of people radically different from me. I’m disciplined enough not to say anything about them, but I know unkind thoughts form in my head, which brings us to the third level of ahimsa.
Do no harm in thoughts
Beyond deeds and words are thoughts. Can I fill all my thoughts with good intent? Can I stay in the “ahimsa” state of mind during my everyday life, in traffic, in a queue at the supermarket, on busy and exhausted days? No, I’m not this far yet. I can only take note of my violent thoughts and put them on paper, but I cannot prevent them from emerging. But awareness is said to be the first step of changing and learning, so I continue my writing. And I have people in my life whom I regard as role models in this respect: people whose whole life is based on benevolence. I try to bring my thoughts back to them when I discover any unkindness.
Ahimsa stated positively
Violence is to be avoided on all three levels, but what can it be substituted with? What can I practice to stay in the nonviolent state of mind? Virtues that help me create more ahimsa in my life include, bravery to step up against all kinds of violence, compassion for all living beings (myself and flies included) and forgiveness to those who harmed me. You can make your own list of characteristics to be developed to reach ahimsa.
Questions to contemplate
Here are some questions for you to explore nonviolence in your life. You can further raise awareness by writing out your answers.
» What does harm mean for me? all levels… thoughts, verbal, physical.
» Am I physically abusive to anyone (including myself) or anything?
» Do my words hurt? Did anyone let me know I have hurt them with my words? Have I ever noticed I have hurt someone with my words?
» Do I hurt myself with my words? What if someone else calls me the names I call myself, would that hurt?
» Do I have hurtful thoughts? About what or who?
I’d like to think that I’m living a conscious, benevolent life. The notion of ahimsa reminds me that I’m not there yet—though I have come far. There’s a real depth to the concept of ahimsa—exploring its meaning and practicing it can lead to a much more conscious life.