Ahimsa is the Sanskrit word meaning ‘nonharming.’ It’s one of the moral precepts (yama) of Yoga. I’ve been thinking a lot about this term as I debate whether or not to stick with vegetarianism.
Georg Feuerstein has this to say about ahimsa:
“…[O]ur life is built on the sacrificial death of others. We are voluntarily murdering creatures with every breath… [W]e constantly annihilate billions of invisible microbes so that we may live. We ourselves are a link in the great food chain of life, destined to die and be food for microbic creatures.
We need not stop breathing or feeding ourselves, or constantly ‘turn the other cheek,’ but we must appreciate how we owe our life to other beings and how they owe their lives to us. When we truly see this vast interconnectedness, it becomes easy for us to cultivate an attitude of reverence for life, which is essentially an attitude of nonharming and of ego-transcending love.” (From his chapter ‘Is Nonharming (Ahimsa) an Old-Fashioned Virtue?’ in The Deeper Dimension of Yoga, 2003.)
I don’t consider myself a pacifist; I like hitting things too much. But nonharming is a virtue and, like all virtues, its consistent application is part of advanced living. I don’t think eating meat makes one less committed to nonharming than being a vegetarian makes a person more committed to the same virtue. It’s a virtue I aspire to – in my relations with others, in the food I eat, in my purchases. If I tried to live without ever harming another person I would be immobilized with inaction, particularly in a world where I do not make my own clothes or even fully understand where and how the many products I use are made. Rather than obsess I choose to start where I am, with the more obvious things that I can control. For my dinner, I can choose happily raised animals from small farms. For my clothes, I can buy many things used, or trade with friends. I can choose the lowest environmentally impacting cleaning supplies. Et cetera.
(Wow, I just revealed my middle class Western upbringing and status, didn’t I? What can I purchase?)
Nonharming is much more than not contributing to slave labor or not eating meat, just as nonviolence is about much more than not hitting. Nonharming is also about what’s going in my head and heart. Am I taking out my frustrations on others? Is what I’m about to say harmful? A pitfall of this sort of thinking can be the extremity of political correctness – acting as if any criticism or negative expression is harmful, which I don’t think is true – or helpful. Nonharming is not about passive-agressive, milqetoast, ‘everybody let’s just get along’ thinking.
Nonharming is also not only about not harming other living creatures, but is equally about not harming myself. At worst, I can ask myself if I am remaining in positions where others are harming me. At best, I can see if I am mentally beating up on myself. Am I sabotaging myself by not eating well or getting enough sleep or engaging in other behaviours that I know are detrimental to my best?
I like this philosophy. It’s not about being nice. Sometimes there are moments when I struggle to be loving toward myself and others. In those moments I may not be able to be loving, but I can focus on not harming. If I can’t love myself right now, I can at least not harm myself.
There are of course many situations that might require harming another being: self-defense, eating, letting a loved one know that their partner is cheating on them, etc. I don’t want to go into all the what-ifs. In the end, ahimsa is a great philosophy, and one shared, more or less, by all the great world religions.