Stepping Softly on the Ahimsa Path
When we first scratch the surface of yogic philosophy, we reveal Patanjali's immaculate sutra and its list of yama
and niyama –
restraints and observances. Patanjali's don'ts and do's begin with ahimsa
– non-injury. Many find this concept at the core of the yogic lifestyle. Some say that Patanjali lists it first to highlight it as the guiding beacon for all actions.
himsa paramo dharma
– non-injury is the highest law – has become a popular catch-phrase used by modern Indian politicians and clergy alike, most notably Mahatma Ghandi. Ghandiji helped free India from British colonial rule by holding fast to the policy of non-violence. Millions have been inspired by his successes and ahimsa
has spread around the world.
But as the concept has become more common, we must be cautious not to oversimplify our understanding. Many people think that being vegetarian is enough to claim living ahimsa
. Of course, not eating meat is one way to avoid inflicting suffering, but there are plenty of other ways which we might cause pain on a daily basis.
We can be harmful by not choosing our words carefully, or even by not communicating enough with loved ones and family. We can participate in harmful actions when we choose to support businesses that exploit laborers or disrupt ecosystems. Coffee is certainly vegetarian – but how does its cultivation affect the well-being of local communities and ecology? For that matter, we must accept the fact that with every breath, our bodily existence means killing. Bacteria are constantly dying within our bodies, because of our choices. Every step we take eliminates thousands of microscopic beings from existence!
Though complete ahimsa
was known to be impossible, Patanjali said that all yamas
were to be practiced by everyone, no matter their caste or creed. The ancient scholars studied these subjects deeply and rising up to the challenge of ahimsa
was never to be pursued shallowly.
When we accept ahimsa
as a goal, we are forced to re-evaluate our daily choices and interactions through a new lens. Deep investigation shows just how much harm we casually cause without even noticing.
Thankfully, our raised awareness can lead us to find ways of being less injurious. Everyone will come to see different paths into better alignment with ahimsa
. Some will make sure to call their mothers; some will purchase more organic and fair trade products. Some adherents of the Jain faith sweep the ground before they walk or abstain from root vegetables to avoid killing small bugs.
Patanjali doesn't simply list dietary restrictions or specific rules for our daily life. Instead, the difficult task is left to us: to deeply investigate how we live and constantly improve our interactions with the world.
When we rise up to aim at such lofty goals, we must strive to better both our awareness and our choices. In this way, ahimsa
is an ongoing practice that helps us understand and develop ourselves each day.