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> The Doctrine of Ahimsa

The Doctrine of Ahimsa

As soon as I mentioned ahimsa in the essay In Other Contexts, I remembered that it had made an appearance in Lord of Light; in fact I remembered exactly where in the story it was, and flipped right to it. I don't know how accurate the explanation of ahimsa is, but the story is fun, and has some nice sophistry.

As he spoke, the beggar brushed from the table before him a red, crawling beetle, the size of a thumbnail, and he moved his sandal as if to crush it.

“Pray, brother, do not harm it,” said the monk.

“But they are all over the place, and the Masters of Karma have stated that a man cannot be made to return as an insect, and the killing of an insect is a karmically inoperative act.”

“Nevertheless,” said the monk, “all life being one, in this monastery all do practice the doctrine of ahimsa and refrain from taking life of any sort.”

“Yet,” said Aram, “Patanjali does state that it is the intention rather than the act which governs. Therefore, if I killed with love rather than malice, it would be as if I had not killed. I confess that this was not the case and that malice was present—therefore, even if I did not kill I do bear the burden of the guilt because of the presence of that intention. So I could step upon it now and be none the worse for it, according to the principle of ahimsa. Since I am a guest, however, I of course respect the practice and do not do this thing.” With this, he moved his sandal away from the insect, which stood immobile, reddish antennae pricked upward.

“Indeed, he is a scholar,” said one of the Order of Ratri.

Actually, I decided to be thorough for once, and looked up ahimsa in Light on Yoga. The comment about insects makes sense within the story, but as far as I can tell, it's not valid. For example,

The yogi believes that every creature has as much right to live as he has.

However, the point about intention is valid, at least in one direction.

But merely because a man is a vegetarian, it does not necessarily follow that he is non-violent by temperament or that he is a yogi, though a vegetarian diet is a necessity for the practice of yoga. Blood-thirsty tyrants may be vegetarians, but violence is a state of mind, not of diet. It resides in a man's mind and not in the instrument he holds in his hand. One can use a knife to pare fruit or to stab an enemy. The fault is not in the instrument, but in the user.

That has to remind you that “guns don't kill people, people kill people”.


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  In Other Contexts

@ September (2004)