Category Archives: 2. Hinduism and Ethics

Ahimsa (The concept of Non-harming in Hinduism)

Ahimsa, which literally translates as “non-violence” or “non-injury”, refers to non-violence towards both human and non-human beings physically, mentally, and spiritually (Ghosh 13).  The idea of Ahimsa had been educed from two related yet unique sources; among traditional Hindu thinkers, rather than the idea of non-violence, it was the idea of not hurting living beings as all living beings were divine (Parekh 196).  Another source where Ahimsa may have derived is from one of the 10 Buddhist Parami (perfections), namely metta (benevolence).  Both ideas present a similar concept; that all life is sacred and no harm should be done unto each other (Parekh 196).  Ahimsa also has its roots in the belief of samsara (eternal cycle).  Traditional Hindu thinkers believe that the soul of an individual can be reincarnated into an animal, thus the killing of an animal would in actuality be the killing of a person.  This belief is particularly in reference to cattle, whom they claim are sacred animals (Schneider 87).

Although the exact origin of the term is unknown, Ahimsa is found in many Hindu scriptures, and predates Aryan culture.  Its earliest known origin in texts can traced back to the Rgveda conception of rta (that which is properly/excellently joined; order, rule; truth) (Heimann 331).  Rta is closely affiliated with dharma (duty), demanding that every living and non-living being follow the cosmic order of their existence in such a way that it does not avert others from being able to follow their own laws of existence (Heimann 331).  In the Mahabharata, the concept of Ahimsa does have exceptions to the rule of non-violence; ksatriyas (warrior caste) who would fight in battle would have their sins dissipated by their acts of heroism in battle in order to secure the advancement of all beings.  A king may also destroy those who may deserve to be destroyed, in order to protect the people of his kingdom. (Ghosh 47).  The Bhagavadgita, in the Mahabharata, is a significant scripture in the Hindu tradition that regards the concept of Ahimsa.  In the epic, Arjuna’s refusal to fight his former allies and loved ones in battle was from the desire for Ahimsa (Ghosh 52).  Ahimsa has multiple variations of its name and definition in many Hindu scriptures, although not all scriptures mention or contain much insight on the concept itself, they do appear in the Upanisads, Brahmanas, Dharma Sastras, Tripitakas (Buddhist canonical literature), Dhammapada (Buddhist scripture), Yajur Veda, and other Hindu scriptures [For more information concerning the concept of Ahimsa in the Rgveda, Upanisads, Bhagavadgita and Mahabharata, see Klostermaier (1996) and Ghosh (1989)].

Traditionally, Ahimsa in Hinduism was not the highest ideal, as animal sacrifice in some rituals was, and still is, part of Hindu tradition.  The later traditions of Buddhism and Jainism would eventually hold the concept (in particular, the Jains) as one of its most important virtues, with complete abstinence from harm necessary in order to reach their ultimate goal of moksa (liberation) (Klostermaier 228).  Although Ahimsa was not considered the highest ideal in Hindu tradition, it was still encouraged among Hindus because the avoidance of harm to both humans and animals would bring the individual closer to moksa (Framarin 286, 288).  Historically, it was not until Emperor Ashoka (268-233 BCE) popularized the concept of Ahimsa through his conversion to Buddhism and by stressing the sanctity of animal life that the concept truly spread through India and Asia (Sharma 60).  Again, the concept of Ahimsa does not refer only to the act of physical non-violence, but mental and spiritual non-violence as well.  Spiritual non-violence, which is making peace with one’s self, is of the utmost importance in Hindu religious tradition to achieve.  Once spiritual non-violence is attained, the body and mind follow effortlessly (Sharma 58).  Ahimsa is also an important part of Patanjali Yoga, in which Ahimsa is the first of five yamas (moral restraints), along with satya (truthfulness), asteya (non-stealing), brahmacarya (sexual abstinence), and aparigraha (freedom from covetousness).  All five yamas must be practiced in order to achieve a state of inner peace (Klostermaier 232).  Ahimsa is considered an important and universal concept in the Yoga Sutras as well, and asserts that Ahimsa should not only be observed towards certain circumstances in time, but that it be observed universally (Klostermaier 234).  Though Hindu tradition acknowledges the concept and practices of Ahimsa, classical Indian tradition scholars believe that Ahimsa did not mean a total abstinence from harm for them, but rather to encourage alpadroha (minimum violence possible that one is responsible for).  Likewise, in Buddhist and Jain tradition, minimal violence as possible is an accepted reality, and those tolerant of minimal violence typically were also tolerant of war and the justifiable treatment of criminals (Parekh 197).

In Buddhist tradition, Ahimsa is not considered a doctrine, nor is it a theory.  It is not a doctrine, as it is not adopted, discussed or defended in Classical Indian Buddhism literature.  It is not considered a theory, as the act of Ahimsa does not enable a better understanding of the nature and structure of the cosmos.  Although Buddhism does not define Ahimsa as a doctrine or a theory, it is indeed considered a cardinal virtue (Chinchore 103).    A Buddhist will recognize his relationship to living beings as being so essential and symbiotic that any act of violence towards another being will certainly harm themselves.  Additionally, the act of non-violence in a Buddhists life is one virtue that contributes in bringing them closer to their ultimate goal of nirvana (a state of perfect happiness) (Ghosh 58).  Although there are some differences in the concept of Ahimsa among the three traditions, the idea of Ahimsa itself stays relatively the same.  As such, all three traditions believe that in order to achieve Ahimsa, one must begin at the mind, as the determination for doing anything begins at the mental level first (Ghosh 59).  In contrast between the Hindu and Buddhist tradition, a notable difference in the concept of Ahimsa is in regards to animal sacrifices.  According to scripture, Lord Buddha claims animal sacrifices are undesirable and unnecessary in order to perform sacrifices, and rather than doing harm to animals, one can instead offer clothing or food such as rice as offerings (Ghosh 64) [For more information regarding Buddhist practices of Ahimsa, see Ghosh (1989)].

Jainism, founded by Mahavira in 5th century BCE, holds the concept of Ahimsa as its most important concept, and base their traditions around this fundamental principle.  Multiple agamas (Jain canonical literature) emphasize that any act of violence towards any living being will increase their sins in the next life, and to eliminate these sins, one must not commit any acts of violence whatsoever (Sharma 61).  Jainism considers Ahimsa as both a doctrine and an elaborate theory, and consider Ahimsa as a vrata (vow, promise).  In addition to their dedication to the practice of Ahimsa, Jains typically perform tapas (asceticism) in order to achieve moksa (Cort 721).  Because Jainism holds the concept of Ahimsa as a much more important and complex idea than either Hindu or Buddhist tradition, Jain tradition adopts the concept quite literally, and as a result, some of its practices of asceticism are considered more extremist or obsessive in nature in dedication to this concept (Chinchore 105).  Jainism practice also involves strict dietary restriction; the killing or eating of an animal would bind one to karma, which keeps one tied to the cycle of rebirth (samsara).  Certain plants may not be consumed in order to avoid the possibility of killing microscopic organisms that may further bind them to karma, and retract them from moksa [For more detail regarding Jain philosophy and its practices of asceticism, see Cort (2002)] (Cort 723-724).

Outside of the religious traditions of Buddhism and Jainism, Ahimsa holds importance in civil and religious law as an ethical doctrine in Hindu tradition, and re-emerged in popularity during the beginning of the 20th century through Mahatma Gandhi.  The concept of Ahimsa, in essence, “sows the seed of tolerance” among others, promoting a sense of equality (Heimann 333).  Mahatma Gandhi coined and developed the term satyagraha (truth) derived from his principles of Ahimsa, and came to popularize and modernize the concept of Ahimsa in ethical and political terms (Parekh 198).  Through his popularity and political influence, Gandhi gave the concept of Ahimsa multiple definitions under different circumstances; a thief that would attack a man was committing an act of Himsa, but a surgeon using a knife in order to save a human being was not committing an act of Himsa, as the act was attempting to alleviate the pain the individual felt (Parekh 198).  Rather than practicing Ahimsa through the literal translation of what it means, Gandhi emphasized that Ahimsa has both ‘narrow’ (negative) and ‘broad’ (positive) categorical definitions of the term.  In its narrow sense, Ahimsa was the literal practice of non-violence, but in its more broad definition, it meant the promotion of well-being to all living things (Parekh 198).  This difference in definition of the concept was brought forth because rather than being concerned with the direct harming of another being, Gandhi was more focused on the daily suffering that occurs around the world that was a result of social, economic and political exploitation (Ghosh 118).  Gandhi was not without criticism and controversy, however; Indian scholars considered Gandhi’s concept of Ahimsa as a radical redefinition and distant from the traditional Hindu concept of Ahimsa.  For this reason, critics would argue that Gandhi was hypocritical of his concept through his own actions; an injured calf in Gandhi’s possession was euthanized at Gandhi’s request in order to alleviate the calf of suffering.  In turn, this caused Gandhi’s critics to reiterate the Indian doctrine of Ahimsa in which any act of killing was unjustifiable, regardless of how much pain the creature was in, and that Gandhi’s Western influence of the alleviation of pain was a more vital concept to Gandhi rather than the absolute preservation of life that held true to the classical Hindu traditional thinking of the definition (Parekh 203).

The concept and practice of Ahimsa is dynamic in its source, and the religious traditions of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism contribute their own understanding of how non-violence is defined (Sharma 64).  The definition of Ahimsa is truly broad in its context, but there is an important similarity in the concept of Ahimsa among the Hindu, Buddhist and Jain traditions: that the prana (life force) is universally sacred and vital to the cosmos for all living beings (Walker 149).



Amore, Roy C. (1996) “Peace and Non-violence in Buddhism.” In Harvey L. Dyck, ed. The Pacifist Impulse in Historical Perspective.  Toronto: University of Toronto Press.  p. 240 – 259.


Chinchore, Mangala (2005) “Conception of Ahimsa in Buddhism: A Critical Note.”  Annals of  the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute Vol. 85 No. 1: 103-109.


Cort, J. E. (2002) “Singing the Glory of Asceticism: Devotion of Asceticism in Jainism.” Journal of The American Academy Of Religion Vol. 70, No. 4: 719-742.


Framarin, Christopher (2011) “The value of nature in Indian (Hindu) traditions.”  Religious Studies 47 #3 (September): 285-300.


Ghosh, Indu M. (1989) Ahimsa: Buddhist and Gandhian.  Delhi: Balaji Enterprises.


Hay, Stephen (1996) “Gandhi’s Non-violence: Metaphysical, Moral, Political and International Aspects.” In Harvey L. Dyck, ed. The Pacifist Impulse in Historical Perspective.  Toronto: University of Toronto Press.  p. 278 – 295.


Heimann, Betty (1932) “Substance of the Lecture on the philosophical aspect of Ahimsa.” Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute Vol. 13, No. 3: 331-334.


Klostermaier, Klaus K. (1996) “Himsa and Ahimsa Traditions in Hinduism.” In Harvey L. Dyck, ed. The Pacifist Impulse in Historical Perspective.  Toronto: University of Toronto Press. p. 227 – 239.


Parekh, Bhikhu (1988) “Gandhi’s Concept of Ahimsa.”  Alternatives XIII: 195-217.


Ravindra, Ravi (1995) “Ahimsa, transformation, and ecology.” ReVision Vol. 17, No. 3: 23-34.


Schneider, Burch H. (1948) “The Doctrine of Ahimsa and Cattle Breeding in India.” The Scientific Monthly Vol. 67, No. 2: 87-92.


Sharma, Satish (1999) “Peace and nonviolence in the Indian religious tradition.”  Peace Research 31 #1: 58-65.  Winnipeg: Canadian Mennonite University.


Walker, Claire (1994) “What do we mean by non-violence?” Journal of Religion and Psychical Research Vol. 17, No. 3: 146-150.


Related Topics for Further Investigation



Aryan Culture









Dharma Sastras



Yajur Veda




Patanjali Yoga







Mahatma Gandhi




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Article written by: Nicholas Urquhart (March 2015) who is soley responsible for its content.

Hinduism and Animal Rights

 Within South Asia, where Hinduism is prevalent, animals are treated with a certain level of respect. Many Hindus, particularly the upper class Brahmins, opt for a vegetarian lifestyle, mainly so that no harm will be inflicted upon any animal. [For more information see Changing the Game: Why the Battle for Animal Liberation Is So Hard and How We Can Win It [Phelps (2013)]. Refraining from eating meat also serves the very important purpose of maintaining ritual purity. Priests and other high-ranking religious figures must absolutely adhere to a vegetarian lifestyle in order to achieve of a high level of purity, which will allow them to fulfill their priestly duties. [For more information see How to Become a Hindu: A Guide for Seekers and Born Hindus, Subramuniyaswami (2002)]. Many Hindus believe that performing priestly duties requires a significant level of spiritual consciousness that cannot be attained with a meat-based diet. This vegetarian lifestyle is not merely a modern movement, rather, Hindus have been following this practice since the Vedas first appeared, thousands of years before the birth of Christ. The Vedas promote vegetarianism primarily because all animals are said to have once been human, or have the potential to become a human again. This is because Hindus believe in reincarnation. Maiming or killing an animal is frowned upon because humans share the same life force as all the animals residing on earth (Puskar-Pasewicz 87). Evidently, it is clear that animals receive a very high status in the Hindu faith. However, it is important to note that there are occasions where violence is permitted. If one wishes to make an offering to the gods, sacrificing an animal is usually permitted, but only if there are significant benefits derived from doing so (Dombrowski 22).

To Hindus who promote vegetarianism, one may ignore the Vedic scriptures and continue to harm animals and eat meat, but this comes at a cost. As mentioned earlier, purity and spiritual consciousness will be greatly inhibited by opting for a meat-based diet. Without an adequate level of spiritual consciousness, one is unable to attain the ultimate Hindu goal of moksa, which is essentially freedom from the painful cyclical rebirth that an individual faces after death. Attaining moksa is achievable only by recognizing that we are all one with the divine; this recognition requires a high level of spiritual awareness (Bhattacharyya 181-182). By saying that we are all one with divine, we must realize that this definition includes all living beings, not just humans. While many other religions believe in immortal souls that are invested with the divine, Hinduism acknowledges the existence of a soul in all living things (Edwards, 136). If one does decide to harm animals, one will risk developing bad karma. Karma can essentially be seen as the collection of one’s actions, whether good or bad, which will influence the person’s subsequent lives. So if one gathers a lot of bad karma, they are basically harming themselves in the future. Likewise, if someone behaves in a proper manner, particularly towards other living beings, good karma will develop. One of the most significant points about karma to know is that it is something that cannot be erased; that is, if you have developed a lot of bad karma, the only way to ensure a better life is by performing acts that promote good karma (Thirumalai 117). Indeed, proper treatment of animals is seen as critical if one wishes to achieve the ultimate goal of moksa, or at the very least, to ensure a better subsequent life.

For centuries, many animals residing in Southeast Asia have benefitted from the Hindu belief system. The Hindu desire to achieve moksa had allowed many animals to roam freely and avoid harm. However, within the past several centuries, the rise of modernity and globalism has led to a change of values within many Hindu countries. Prior values of the upper classes, such as vegetarianism, are at risk of being erased (Phelps 201). The Hindu perspective of the treatment of animals is beginning to radically shift. Animals that were once treated with respect are now being treated as a commodity. Since karma and moksa are significantly impacted by how we treat other living beings, the transition from vegetarianism to eating meat can potentially be seen as the slow destruction of the Hindu faith itself. Seeing this clear threat, an organization has appeared within India called the “Hindu Renaissance Movement.” This movement has the primary goal of encouraging faithful Hindus from all castes to adopt a vegetarian lifestyle in order to conserve the Hindu identity (Phelps 201-202). This movement is very important because, traditionally, only the upper caste of Hindu society would refrain from meat, while the lower castes had frequently consumed meat (Muesse 81). The emphasis for all castes to refrain from meat is an indicator of the changing ideals that are occurring within South Asia today. Although there is a shifting attitude due to the west’s influence, it is important to note that some animals are still privy to a life free from slaughter due to their high status. One well-known example of a high-status animal is the cow, which Hindus believe symbolizes the whole animal kingdom. The cow is symbolic of all mothers, due to its ability to provide us with many forms of sustenance, such a milk, dried dung, and even urine, which is seen as a cleansing agent (Muesse 81).  Even if a Hindu has made the transition from vegetarian to meat-eater, the cow would still not be harmed because of the severe karmic consequences. In ancient Sanskrit texts, cows were seen as symbolic of the Brahmin; therefore, killing a cow is considered to be equally as bad as killing a member from the Brahmin class (Doniger 658). The significance of the cow is important to note when considering one of the most disastrous consequences of modernism: pollution.

Since the rise of modernism, pollution within our world had become rampant. Many modern products are composed of such things as plastic and metal, which do not decompose easily. With waste found in nearly every part of the globe, many animals are at a serious risk of consuming litter and subsequently suffering an excruciating death. One such animal that has been the victim of pollution is the cow. In South Asia, particularly India, it is forbidden for cows to be killed because of their high status, so many cows are instead allowed to roam the streets freely. It is assumed that cattle can freely graze on grass until they die of old age. Unfortunately, investigations have shown that many cattle have an abundance of plastic bags within their stomachs, which not only have no nutritional value, but also are also not digestible (Thumb 235). Although Hindus have a high level of respect for cows, their refusal to slaughter them has indirectly led many cows to suffer slow and painful deaths. Additionally, allowing animals to roam free in India has led to many car accidents, which as result has led to many human and cow deaths (Thumb 235-236).

Large bas-relief depicting a domestic scene with cows, who are revered in the Hindu tradition; Mahabalipuram, India
Large bas-relief depicting a domestic scene with cows, who are revered in the Hindu tradition; Mahabalipuram, India

In relation to animals, Hindus are quite peaceful; however, there are occasions when animals are sacrificed. Throughout the Vedas, sacrifice is seen as something that should occur, going so far as to suggest certain animals that would be ideal for sacrifice. [Animal Sacrifices, see Regan (1987)]. Even though the tradition of sacrificing animals has ancient roots, it has not disappeared. There are still many festivals and events within Hinduism that require animal sacrifice. It is important to note at this point that sacrifice does not necessarily pertain to the killing of an animal, although that still can occur at times. Animal sacrifices are usually symbolic acts. A major component of a sacrifice is the ritual, not the harming of an animal. In the rare instances when an animal is killed, Hindus explain that it is not an ordinary killing because there is no hate directed toward the animal (Regan 202). Essentially, even on occasions when an animal is killed, it is seen as a justifiable act. Perhaps by looking at the relationship that Hindu followers have with their pets, this concept can be solidified. Pets are very popular in Hindu culture. Families that own pets treat them as if they are members of their own family. Many pets are fed and taken care of quite well because it is seen as a religious duty to care for animals, especially if one is responsible for them. By faithfully taking care of one’s pet, Hindu followers will achieve good karma (Regan 201). This interaction between persons and their pets conveys the idea that Hindu followers have good intentions within their relationships with all animals.

In addition to an individual’s relationship with animals, there have also been many Hindu organizations and groups that have arisen to protect animals and vegetation. One well-known group, which has existed for nearly half a millennium, is the Bishnois group from western India. This group was founded on the idea that harming the environment will ultimately harm the individual. [For more information see Dharma and Ecology of Hindu Communities: Sustenance and Sustainability, Jain (2013)]. This notion was so deeply ingrained within this community that many have died in defense of this cause; it was better to sacrifice oneself than to develop bad karma. One well-known historical example of the Bishnois’ devotion to animal conservancy is found in the 1940s, before India’s independence from the British Empire. A group of British soldiers were traveling by train through a Bishnois village. One soldier decided to fire several shots at the nearby animals. As soon as the Bishnois people realized what was occurring, they attacked the train. Even with the arrival of modernity, the Bishnois are still very passionate about animals and the environment; in 1975 the Bishnois established one of the most well-known Hindu animal rights organizations, the Jeev Raksha (Jain 70). This organization is indicative of the idea that Hindus are in staunch opposition to any killing of animals, with the exception of sacrifice. Although this organization is localized, there are many other Hindu organizations that operate on an international level. The Hindu American Foundation (HAF) is unique in the sense that it has its focus on US and international policies. Issues such as the proper treatment of cattle are advocated for on a frequent basis (Flueckiger 223). With the mass consumption of meat in the western world, companies have turned a blind eye to the treatment of animals before and during their slaughter. Although HAF will not likely be able to influence millions of individuals to convert to veganism, they can influence the treatment of the animals.

Finally, although one may only speculate on the future of animal rights within Hinduism, the rise of animal conservancy organizations suggests that proper treatment of animals will likely exist far into the future. However, it is quite likely that maintaining animal rights will require more effort due to western influences and due to the ever-increasing amount of pollution, which continues to indirectly harm all life.



Bhattacharyya, Ashim K. (2006) Hindu Dharma: Introduction to Scriptures and Theology. Indiana: iUniverse, Inc.

Dombrowski, Daniel A. (1988) Hartshorne and the Metaphysics of Animal Rights. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Doniger, Wendy (2009) The Hindus: An Alternative History. Westminster: Penguin Books.

Edwards, Linda (2001) A Brief Guide to Beliefs: Ideas, Theologies, Mysteries, and Movements. Westminster: John Knox Press.

Flueckiger, Joyce (2015) Everyday Hinduism. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Jain, Pankaj (2013) Dharma and Ecology of Hindu Communities: Sustenance and Sustainability. Surrey, UK: Ashgate Publishing.

Muesse, Mark (2011) The Hindu Traditions: A Concise Introduction. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Phelps, Norm (2013) Changing the Game: Why the Battle for Animal Liberation is So Hard and How We Can Win It. Brooklyn: Lantern Books.

Puskar-Pasewicz, Margaret (ed.)(2010) Cultural Encyclopedia of Vegetarianism. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group.

Regan, Tom (1987) Animal Sacrifices. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Subramuniyaswami, Sivaya (2002) How to Become a Hindu: A Guide for Seekers and Born Hindus. Hawaii: Himalayan Academy Pubns.

Thirumalai, Madasamy (2002) Sharing Your Faith With a Hindu. Michigan: Bethany House Publishers.

Thumb, Tom (2009) Hand to Mouth to India. Road Junky Publishing.


Related Topics for Further Investigation




Blood sacrifice


Chambhar caste


Gadhimai Mela







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Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam



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Article written by: Kyle Klassen (March 2015) who is solely responsible for its content.