Ahimsa means “non-killing.” This is a concept that seems to emerge in late Vedic times (c. 800 B.C.E.) and is primarily associated with the Jain (see JAINISM) and Buddhist traditions at that time. It gradually is taken into the Brahminical tradition and becomes central to it up to the present day. The notion of ahimsa is applied toward animal life primarily but in Jain tradition is recognized in the case of plants also.
   Ahimsa understands that all animals (and for the Jains certain plants) have souls and that the killing of any animal (or certain plants) whether for eating or not accumulates karmic (see KARMA) demerit to the one who does it. The Jains were the most radical in this regard, and their monks were enjoined to sweep their path clear with whisks to prevent stepping on insects and sometimes wore (and wear) masks over their mouths to prevent the breathing in and killing of small invisible beings and insects. Jains would never eat meat and would not countenance the eating of meat or the killing of any animal for any reason in their tradition.
   Because Jains believe that there were small invisible beings everywhere, monks were required to walk and move extremely circumspectly and slowly. Agriculture was traditionally forbidden to all Jains because it involved violence to beings, invisible and visible, who live in the ground. Buddhists in India adhered to a strict notion of ahimsa, but Buddhist monks would accept meat if given it, while Jain monks would never do so. The notion of ahimsa is the primary motive for Indian vegetarianism and orthodox BRAHMINS too avoid all meat, animal products, and eggs (which are seen to be living embryos).
   Because of ahimsa there are certain orthodox Hindu ascetics who will not wear leather shoes or sandals, but will wear only wooden shoes. Mohandas Karamchand GANDHI expanded the notion of ahimsa to the interpersonal realm and developed it into a philosophy of personal action. Gandhi took the word to mean “nonviolence” in all its aspects, and, while he was very strictly veg-etarian as part of his vow of ahimsa, he believed that it should become a general principle of human conduct, in all relations between people. Particularly he trained people in the notion of “nonviolent” response to all violence and provo-cation as a moral as well as a political matter. His political use of ahimsa was adopted by many great political leaders of the 20th century, including Martin Luther King Jr.
   Further reading: Christopher Key Chapple, Nonviolence to Animals, Earth and Self in Asian Traditions (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993); Erik H. Erik-son, Gandhi’s Truth on the Origins of Militant Nonviolence (New York: Norton, 1969); Vilas Sangave, The Jain Path of Ahimsa (Solapur: Bhagawan Mahavir Research Cen-tre, 1991); Tara Sethia, ed. Ahimsa, Anekanta and Jain-ism (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2004); Unto Tahtinen, Ahimsa: Non-Violence in Indian Tradition (London: Rider, 1976); Koshelya Walli, The Conception of Ahimsa in India Thought, According to Sanskrit Sources (Vara-nasi: Bharata Manisha, 1974).

Encyclopedia of Hinduism. . 2007.

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