Sponsored By: Infinity Foundation

The Importance of Ahimsa

The Importance of Ahimsa in the Yoga Sutra,
in Gandhi’s Thought, and in the Modern World
by Hope K. Fitz, PhD

Presented at the International Conference on India’s Contributions & Influences in the World
Held July 12-14, 2002 at The University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, Ma.
Sponsored by the World Association of Vedic Studies (WAVES) Inc.

As stated in the abstract for this paper, “Never has there been a time when ahimsa was needed more than it is today.” To show that this is the case, however, it is necessary to trace the meaning of the term and the history and significance of the concept. Thus, I will undertake this examination both with regard to the ancient Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, and with the thought of Mahatma Gandhi. Then I will argue that Gandhi’s notion of ahimsa, modified slightly, so that it could be practiced by all peoples in the global community, is literally the best hope for peace in the world. This is the case because practicing ahimsa in one’s daily life softens what I call the “boundaries of the self,” so that one’s attitude about self in relation to others is not separated by sharp boundaries.

The softening of “boundaries of the self,” is of paramount importance for if the “boundaries of the self” are too tight, one sees the other as separate, different, and apart from oneself. This can lead to conflict and violence. If, however, the boundaries are softened, one sees oneself and others as united in some way, or, as in the case of Gandhi, as one with others. Finally, I will argue that if enough people on this planet practiced ahimsa, it would be possible to curb conflict and, perhaps, to end wars and terrorism.

Having set forth the objectives of this paper, let me take up the meaning of ahimsa, and the significance ahimsa has in the Yoga Sutra.

Ahimsa in the Yoga Sutra

Although the concept of ahimsa, meaning roughly non-injury, nonviolence, and harmlessness, can be found in the Vedas themselves1, a developed philosophical account of the subject is not found until the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, which some scholars date about two-hundred years B.C.2

There are at least four factors which are key for understanding the meaning of ahimsa in the Yoga Sutra, and the fact that as an anga, i.e., limb or practice, ahimsa is logically and temporally prior to the other angas in the text. The four factors are as follows:

  1. The general Hindu belief that according to Karmic Law, the process of karmic development, which can lead to self-realization and thereby moksa, i.e., release from samsara, i.e., rebirth, requires overcoming ego.
  2. The fact that the Yoga school was focused on and engaged in angas or disciplinary practices necessary for the yogins who were at a very advanced state of spiritual development to achieve self-realization
  3. The underlying metaphysics of the Yoga school that differs in a significant way from the Samkhya metaphysics.

    Most scholars agree that when the Yoga school joined the earlier Sankhya school, it adopted the dualisticmetaphysics of Sankhya. According to that metaphysics, there are two ultimate aspects of reality which are distinct.One aspect is called Purusa, which is pure consciousness, that is described as unbound and inactive. The other aspectof reality is the physical or material world. That world is described as unconscious, and the things and beings in it are said to be bound. The physical world is made up of three gunas, i.e., constituents. The way that the gunas are described is:3 sattvas, i.e., that which is light or illumines and also that which is light or buoyant; rajas, i.e., force, energy, or power (Sakti); and tamas, i.e., that which is dark, and heavy, and resists energy.

    Loosely speaking, the physical aspect of reality isreferred to as Prakrti, however, as one scholar noted, Prakrti isactually the state of the gunas when they are in equipoise or balance.4 This is the state of the gunas before evolution, andafter moksa or release from samsara.5

    The cosmology of the Sankhya school is most interesting. However, for the purposes at hand, it is enough to know that both Purusa and Prakrti are real and distinct. Also, all things and beings are comprised of both. This means that the physical world is real, not an appearance of reality that is devalued as it is in theVedanta systems which emphasize the unity of reality.

    Given what has been said about the Sankhya dualistic Metaphysics, it is important to know that in the Yoga school there was a shift away from dualism to the idea that Purusa is to be found within oneself, “unveiled,” as it were, and furthermore, Purusa is more real, and hence, more valued.6 This shift is important for the understanding of the significance of ahimsa, because the material, sensual self is identified with theego which is to be overcome, while Purusa is identified as the True-Self which is to be unveiled.

  4. Patanjali’s great insight concerning the forces of bondage, especially raga and dvesa and their interactions. Raga can be described as an attraction to things and persons that feedthe ego which expresses itself in grasping and attachment. Dvesais the aversion to and dislike of those things and person which areperceived to be threatening to the ego. In the state of dvesa, one has a feeling of opposition, mental disinclination, the propensity tohurt, and anger towards misery or objects producing misery.7

Based on the four factors mentioned above, it should be clear that the objective of the Yoga school was to unveil and thus realize Purusa, as the inner and True Self, via the disciplinary practices necessary to achieve self-realization.

Very briefly, yoga practice, for Patanjali, is broken into five preliminary angas or limbs which need to be developed before “yoga proper” is undertaken. Yoga proper is what we in the West might loosely call “meditative practices.” These practices are necessary to still the fluctuations of the mind. These fluctuations are caused by the gunas of the physical world.

The preliminary practices start with the yamas, i.e., moral abstentions, which begin with and are based on ahimsa. They are followed by niyamas or spiritual observances; physical practices, including asanas or posture as well as pranayama or breath control, and pratyahara or the effort to shut off sensory input from the gunas.

Yoga proper includes: dharana or concentration which involves the binding of citta or mind stuff on a place of fixed attention; dhyana, i.e., meditation which is the state of fixed attention wherein there is a flow of unbroken current toward a particular object; and samadhi, i.e., contemplation wherein only the object of meditation “shines forth in the mind.”8 When dharana, dhyana, and samadhi are combined, the state of samyama or constraint evolves. Via samyama, any incoming fluctuations of the mind are constrained.9 From this state, supranormal insight or intuition arises. Finally, the yogin, who is truly separated from the physical world, gains knowledge, via intuition, of every aspect of reality. However, this too must be sacrificed if the yogin is to gain moksa, for knowledge is tied to the guna world of Prakrti.10

Having adumbrated the angas of the Yoga Sutra and their goal, let us return again to the subject of the meaning and importance of ahimsa in the Yoga Sutra. Based upon what has been said, so far, we can state with some assurance that ahimsa, in the Yoga Sutra, means: non-injury, nonviolence, harmlessness, and renunciation of the will to kill and the intention to hurt. These meanings are reflected in Book II, Verse 33 of the Yoga Sutra, where it is said:

[Unwholesome] notions [such as] harming and son on, whether done, caused to be done, or approved, whether arising from greed, anger, or infatuation, whether modest, middling or excessive [these have their] unending fruition in ignorance (avidya) and suffering (dukka); thus [the yogin should devote himself to] the cultivation of their opposites.11

The significance of ahimsa is that, as part of the moral abstentions, it is considered before the spiritual, physical, or mental angas. Also, it underlies the other moral abstentions, namely; satya, i.e., truth or not lying; asteya, i.e., not stealing, aparigraha, non-grasping or non-possesion, and brahmacarya, i.e., celibacy.

The reason that ahimsa is the “bedrock” of the other angas should be clear, and it makes a good deal of sense. As stated earlier, the factors that affect what is said about ahimsa in the Yoga Sutra are: 1. one is to overcome the ego; 2. the ego is identified with the material/sensual world in the Yoga tradition; 3. the ego is driven by the interaction of raga, i.e., attraction and dvesa, i.e., aversion, which can lead to harm; and 4. one needs to detach oneself from the fetters of raga and dvesa. Given the foregoing beliefs of the Yoga school, it is clear that one needs to develop ahimsa in order to separate himself from the effects of ego. Furthermore, until one has done so, he cannot undertake the spritual angas, because he is too focused on the ego. As to the physical angas which are preparatory to “yoga proper,” one could not undertake the rigorous discipline required if he were absorbed with ego needs. Finally as to “yoga proper,” or meditation in its several stages, it would be impossible to still the mind if one were tethered by ego.

Ahimsa in the Thought of Mahatma Gandhi

My Thoughts About Gandhi:

“One among Many,” who was small in size but huge in stature;
The most fearless, yet the most gentle of men;
A warrior who was dedicated to ahimsa, i.e., non-harm and compassion.
For his followers, he is the model and inspiration of how to work to create
and maintain a peaceful existence for all living creatures.

Concerning Gandhi’s broad views of ahimsa, he took it to be the means to Truth as God; a moral virtue which when combined with courage, was the basis of moral character; and the essence of a satyagrahi, i.e., one who follows the path of satyagraha, i.e., a truth force or soul force against oppression which was employed to win India’s independence.

In an article which I wrote entitled, “Gandhi’s Ethicsl /Relgious Tradition,” I explained in some detail the influences upon Gandhi’s understanding of ahimsa.12 However, given the restrictions of the length of this paper, let me note some of those influences, both non-western and western, and then expand somewhat on those which I take to be key in Gandhi’s thought. The non-western influences were Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism. The western were Christianity, especially Jesus’ great compassion and his act of “turning the other cheek,” and Tolstoy’s writings and letters to Gandhi concerning his views on pacifism. 13

Since Gandhi was a Hindu, one would expect that Hinduism, especially the Yoga Sutra, influenced his thoughts about ahimsa. Indeed it did. In fact, he was determined to follow the yamas or moral abstentions of the Yoga Sutrawhich, as stated earlier, included and were based upon ahimsa.

The Jain view also had a profound effect upon what Gandhi took ahimsa to be. According to the Jain tradition, ahimsa is a great vow of compassion in body, mind and spirit. Negatively, it means refraining from causing any injury, and positively, it stands for the practice of love toward all living beings.14 To show how Gandhi adopted both the negative and positive senses of ahimsa from the Jains, as well as the idea that the positive was compassion, let me quote from a letter he wrote which was published in the Modern Review in 1916:

In its negative form it [ahimsa] means not injuring any living being whether by body or mind. I may not, therefore, hurt the person of any wrong-doer or bear any ill-will to him and so cause him mental suffering. This statement does not cover suffering caused by the wrong-doer by natural acts of mine which do not proceed from ill will . . . Ahimsa requires deliberate self-suffering, not a suffering of the supposed wrong-doer. . . In its positive form, ahimsa means the largest love, the greatest charity. If I am a follower of ahimsa, I must love my enemy or a stranger to me as I would my wrong-doing father or son. This active ahimsa necessarily includes truth and fearlessness.15

Based on what has been said so far, for Gandhi, ahimsa means: non-injury, nonviolence, non-harm, the renunciation of the will to kill and the intention to hurt any living thing, the abstention from hostile thought, word or deed, and compassion for all living creatures.

While the Jains were a direct influence on Gandhi’s belief that ahimsa involved love as compassion, it was Gandhi’s religious belief that “Truth is God, and God is Love,” that made love a part of the goal of life for him. In a wonderful little book entitled, Truth is God which is a compilation of Gandhi’s ideas on the subject, he makes clear that he considers himself to be an advaitin, however he also states that he is influenced by Visistadvaita and Dvaita Vedanta.16

From the Advaita Vedanta school, Gandhi accepted the metaphysical view that although the ultimate state of reality, i.e., Brahman, is beyond the categories of human understanding (neti neti, i.e, neither this nor that), it can be experienced as what in Sanskrit is called saccidananda. In the advaitin tradition, this translates: truth, existence, and being (from the stem sat for satya, i.e., truth); consciousness (from the stem cit of citta, i.e., mind-stuff); and ananda which means bliss. Also, for advaitins, Atman, or the True-Self is the same as Brahman, so when one achieves self-realization, he experiences saccidananda. Gandhi’s notion of saccidananda differed somewhat from the traditional advaitin sense, in that he took it to mean: truth, knowledge, and bliss.17

What is important for the purpose at hand is that Gandhi took Truth to be the goal of life, while ahimsa was the means to that goal. However, Gandhi equated Truth with God, and God was experienced as love.18 Hence, Truth involved love. For Gandhi, Love was an essential part of Atman, i.e., the True Self, which is veiled by the material/sensual ego self.

In addition to the advaitin influence on Gandhi’s thoughts concerning Truth as God, there was the influence of Visistadvaita Vedanta, which was written by Ramanuja. According to this metaphysics, Brahman could be thought of as a personal, creative deity. Also, there was no doubt about the great impact of the Bhagavad Gita on Gandhi’s thought. Of course in this book which Gandhi read daily, there is an emphasis on a personal deity. These two influences upon Gandhi’s thought were such that, for him, “Truth as God” had a personal aspect as well as the impersonal aspect of Advaita Vedanta.19

The significance of Gandhi’s metaphysical/religious beliefs was that the True-Self which is within every human being is experienced as love, and God as a more personal deity has love for humans. So, for Gandhi, Truth and ahimsa form a relation. “Truth as God” is the goal of life, and as Atman, it can be experienced as love. However, the means to the goal is ahimsa which is non-harm and love as compassions. What this means is that by acting with non-harm and love, one can unveil the True Self which is God as love. In other words, by deliberately acting with non-harm and love, one can uncover the True-Self which is love.20

Although I have written about the use of ahimsa in satyagraha, it is the use of ahimsa in our everyday lives which I want to emphasize, because I believe it can curb conflict and violence. I believe it is clear from Gandhi’s writings that one is to develop what can be called the virtues of non-harm and compassion. The non-harm is such that one not only refrains from injuring others by word or deed, but one is not to harbor an ill thought of another.

When writing of satyagrahis, Gandhi clearly holds that they are not to harbor anger let alone hatred.21 If this is what satyagrahis, who are very advanced in their development of ahimsa, have achieved, those who want to live with ahimsa, who are either not satyagrahis or in the early stages of development as satyagrahis, must try to overcome any hatred or anger against anyone.

Gandhi’s practice of ahimsa surpassed what most humans could ever hope to achieve. I believe that this is so because on a spiritual level, that influenced his attitude, there were no “boundaries of the self.” Granted this is the case for advaitins, in general, in that atman is experienced as that all pervasive state of existence, consciousness, and bliss. However, atman is actually an impersonal state of self-realization that is the result of a withdrawal from the physical, sensual world. The withdrawal if accomplished, over many lifetimes, by one following his dharma or duty, and other undertakings, as well as by yoga practices.22

I believe that Gandhi made a break with the belief that self-realization was accomplished when one had withdrawn from the world. He seemed to believe that his self-realization was connected with that of others.23 This was probably the Buddhist influence on Gandhi’s thought.

Finally, it is important to recognize that although Gandhi dedicated his life to living with ahimsa, he was not a pacifist in the strict sense. This is because he regarded the use of violence in self-defense differently from its exercise in aggression.24 He said “People must learn to defend themselves against misbehaving individuals, no matter who they are. . . No doubt the non-violent way is always best, both where that does not come naturally, the violent way is both necessary and honorable.”25

Regarding the defense of one’s country, Gandhi did not want peace at any price. He said, “I do not want the peace that you find in the grave.”26 Gandhi’s statement about the appeasement at Munich, during the WWII, made clear his position about the defense of one’s country or acting for just causes. He said, “Europe has sold her sold for the sake of a seven day’s earthly existence. The peace Europe gained at Munich is a triumph of violence, it is also a defeat. If England and France were sure of victory, they should certainly have fulfilled their duty of saving Czechoslovakia or dying with it. But they quailed before the combined violence of Germany and Italy.” 27

Having given Gandhi’s thoughts about ahimsa, I want to turn now to my own thoughts about ahimsa as the hope for peace in the world.

Ahimsa as the Hope for Peace in the World

I firmly believe that if a large number of human beings around the world adopted ahimsa, which includes both non-harm and compassion, as a virtue needed to form character that is reflected in attitude, we could curb conflict and violence and, perhaps, end war and terrorism. For it is attitude, i.e., one’s state of mind, disposition, or habitual mode regarding life, that can either give rise to conflict and violence or not.

Of course, as is clear in the Yoga Sutra, ego, driven by attraction and aversion, must be overcome if one’s character and attitude do not allow conflict and violence to arise. Also, again I emphasize that it is the practice of ahimsa which softens the”boundaries of the self, and thereby makes possible the overcoming of ego.

It is the case that ahimsa, as any virtue, must be developed and taught to the youth. The problem is, however, that the religious/philosophical traditions in the world are so varied. Thus, it is my belief that we must loosen ahimsa from its “moorings,” so that it will be compatible with other traditions. This is important, for as practicing ahimsa softens the “boundaries of the self,” freeing it of any particular religious or philosophical tradition will soften cultural and/or national boundaries as well.

An example of Gandhi’s view of ahimsa that could be loosened is the emphasis on sacrifice and self-suffering which he believed were necessary and essential for the practice of ahimsa, especially for the Satyagrahi. I think that for westerners, in general, who have been influenced by Aristotle’s notion of happiness (eudaimonia) as well-being, it might be better to emphasize the sense of well-being that can result from the practice of ahimsa. Another appeal could be to the strength of character that results from the development of ahimsa.

In any event, I think that ahimsa can become a way of life for the people on this planet who are willing and able to undertake the disciplinary demands of such a commitment.

Gandhi believed in taking vows when faced with important commitments. Perhaps he was right. We need to take a vow of ahimsa.


1. George Feuerstein, Ph.D., The Yoga Tradition: Its History, Literature, Philosophy and Practice, Arizona, Hahm Press, c. 1998 (ISBN 0-934252-88-2), p. 176.

2. The date of the Yoga Sutra is not known with any degree of certainty. James Haughton Woods, who translated the Yoga System of Patanjali (Delhi, Motilal Banarsidass, last printing 1983) gave evidence to se the date somewhere between four-hundred and five-hundred A.D. M. Hariyanna, in the Outlines of Indian Philosophy (London, George Allen & Urwin Ltd., eighth impression, 1970) noted the fact that the foregoing dates had been given. However, he also made mention of the fact that the traditional identification had been with Patanjali, the grammarian who lived in the second century B.C.

3. Hope K. Fitz, “The Nature and Significance of Intuition in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra and in the Philosophical Writings of Radhakrishnan,” published in the Journal of Religious Studies, Panjabi University, Patiala, India, Vol. xxxi, Spring-Autumn 1995, Nos. 1 & 2, p. 10.

4. Pandit Ramjmani Tigunait, Ph.D., Seven Systems of Indian Philosophy, Honesdale, Pennsylvania, Himalayan Publishers, c. 1983, p. 126.

5. According to the Sankhya and Yoga schools, after moksa or release from samsara, one is said to be in a state of Kaivalya. In that state, there is both Purusa and Prakrti, i.e., the gunas in equipoise or balance, never to be out of balance again.

6. Fitz, “The Nature and Significance of Intuition in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, and in the Philosophical Writings of Radhakrishnan,” pp. 10-11.

7. Swami Hariharananda Aranya, Yoga Philosophy of Patanjali, Book III, Verses 7 and 8, New York, SUNY Press, c. 1983 (ISBN 0-87395-729-6); John Koller, Oriental Philosophies, Second Edition, New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, c. 1985 (ISBN 0-684-18145-2), pp. 62-63.

8. Woods, The Yoga System of Patanjali (Please see #2 above.), Book III., Verses 1, 2, and 3; Swami Hariharananda Arana, Yoga Philosophy of Patanjali, Book III., Verses 1, 2, and 3.

9. Fitz, “The Nature and Significance of Intuition in the Yoga Sutra and in the Philosophical Writings of Radhakrishnan,” p. 13.

10. Ibid, p. 14.

11. The Yoga Sutra, Book II, Verse 33, as quoted in The Yoga Tradition, by Feuerstein, p. 298.

12i. Hope K. Fitz, “Gandhi’s Ethical/Religious Tradition,” published in The Journal of Religious Studies, Panjabi University, Patiala, India, Vol xxvii, Spring-Autumn 1996, Nos. 1 & 2.

13. Ibid.

14. John Grimes, A Concise Dictionary of Indian Philosophy, (Sanskrit to English), Revised Edition, New York, SUNYP, c. 1996 (ISBN 0 7914-3067-7), p. 20.

15. Modern Review, as quoted in The Moral and Political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi, by Raghavan Iyer, New York, Concord Grove Press, First Printing, 1983, (ISBN 0-88695-002-3, pp. 179-180.

16. M. K. Gandhi, compiled by R.K. Prabhu, Truth is God, Ahmedabad, India, Navajivan Publishing House, Fifth Reprinting, 1987, pp. 11-12.

17. Fitz, “Gandhi’s Ethical/Religious Tradition,” pp. 99-100.

18. Ibid, p. 102.

19. Ibid.

20. Ibid.

21. Indu Mala Ghosh, Ahimsa: Buddhist and Gandhian, Delhi, Indian Bibliography Bureau, c. 1989, pp. 136-141.

22. Other undertakings would include the yoga paths of: bhakti, karma and jnana.

23. This is part of what I think Gandhi meant when he said, “If one of us falls, we all fall.”

24. Iyer, The Moral and Political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi, p. 201.

25. D.Y. Tendulkar, Mahatma (in eight volumes), volume 6, 1951-1932, p. 145, as quoted in The Moral and Political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi, by Raghavan Iyer, p. 201.

26. Young India (a weekly newspaper), Navajivan , 1932-1948, as quoted in The Moral and political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi, by Raghavan Iyer, p. 203.

Presented by Dr. Hope K. Fitz, Professor of Philosophy
Eastern Connecticut State University, Willimantic, CT. 06226