Ahimsa – non-harming – is the first guiding principle of classical yoga. Traditional yogis are typically vegetarian in support of this concept. But is being vegetarian appropriate or is it enough?
There are people who go to extraordinary lengths to avoid harming animals. The Jain monks were known for sweeping their paths with a broom before taking each step so as to avoid accidentally stepping on an ant. Does Ahmisa require all of us to sweep our paths before each step? Should we avoid swatting that mosquito?
Mosquitos are parasites. In the battle for their own survival they hurt other animals. In response to the pain they cause, they are swatted. This is the natural way. But if we think in terms of Ahimsa, we should first avoid being in a position where harm occurs. We can close doors to prevent mosquitos from entering our house and use mosquito coils or insect repellent to keep them away when outside.
Should we carry brooms to sweep our paths with each step we take? Millions of people living in cities all trying to sweep their paths with each step they take might make for a good comedy, but it wouldn’t be enough to prevent us from killing some form of life. There are many creatures, too small to be seen, living everywhere we walk, sit or sleep. Every move we make has some form of impact, somewhere, on some tiny little critters. Sweeping our paths is not enough to prevent harm.
Plants are living creatures too. As we need to eat something, it is impossible to survive without causing harm somewhere. It is nature’s way that all living creatures are constantly engaged in a battle for survival. Even plants compete with one another to live and grow, competing for sunlight, water and nutrients; some even engaging in chemical warfare with one another.
We might also consider the sheep or cow’s position. In exchange for giving us meat, wool and leather, they receive food and water along with protection from being eaten alive by predators. If we look after them properly and use humane ways for ending their lives, could this be considered preferable to the brutal life and death struggle faced by wild animals?
We might choose to accept that meat is a natural part of our diet, but not the amount consumed in an average Australian diet. If we reduce the amount of meat we eat, we not only reduce harm to other animals, we also have a healthier diet that is more in tune with our body’s needs. And if we take a step further and choose foods that have been grown organically and harvested ethically, we further reduce harm and improve our health.
Every day our very survival involves doing some harm. This is the way of nature. To do no harm anywhere is an impossibility but we can, with awareness, make choices that reduce harm. We can be thoughtful in our actions without the need to go to extremes. We can bring more awareness; more presence to actions that have become habit. We might still step on an occasional ant, but ultimately we reduce the possibility of causing accidental harm.
Instead of thinking of Ahimsa as “no-harm”, we might think in more positive terms as an active choice to apply love and compassion in all we do. And if we see a caterpillar that has accidentally wandered inside our home, we might choose to carry it safely outside. That is Ahimsa. To quote Irene (Aradhana) Petryszak:
In its pure form, ahimsa is the spontaneous expression of the highest form of love—an unconditional positive regard for everyone and everything.
Irene (Aradhana) Petryszak (2013) Do No Harm: The Art of Ahimsa https://yogainternational.com/article/view/do-no-harm-the-art-of-ahimsa