AHIMSĀ, The term ahimsā is formed by adding the negative prefix a to the word himsā which is derived from the Sanskrit root haṅ, i. e. 'to kill', 'to harm', or 'to injure', and means not-killing, not -harming, not-injuring. The commonly used English equivalent 'non-violence' is inadequate as it seems to give a false impression that Ahimsā is just a negative virtue. ahimsāis not mere abstention from the use of force, not just abstention from killing and injuring; it also implies the positive virtues of compassion and benevolence because not-killing and not-injuring a living being implicitly amounts to protecting and preserving it and treating it with mercy. The commandment not to kill and not to offend any living being arises from a feeling of compassion and from a sense of respect for every sentient being. The injunction that one is defiled and becomes sinful by killing and harming a living being is a kind of warning to those who are heedless of the principle of compassion. It thus strengthens the doctrine of compassion and reinstates the sentiment of respect for life. The injunction that the practice ofahimsāis meritorious is likewise a kind of promise of reward to those who are compassionate and sensitive to all forms of sentient existence. Ahimsā may embrace a variety of motivation---compassion for living beings, earning religious merit, achieving self-purification and dread for the sinful consequences of violence and cruelty. For all these motives there is scriptural authority in India.

        In addition to the word ahimsā, we have at least three others yielding the same sense. In Emperor Ashokā's Rock Edict No. 4 we have avihimsā and anārambha, while in the old Pālī canonical texts we have the phrase pāṇātipāta veramaṇi. The word avihimsā is another form of the word ahimsā, non-killing, not-injuring, inoffensiveness, harmlessness, kindness, compassion, benevolence, and love. The word anarāmbha (or anālambha) means not-slaughtering (living beings in sacrificial rituals). The pharse pāṇātipāta veramaṇi (Skt. prāṇtipāta viratah) means abstaining from destroying a living being.

        It is now generally admitted that the principle of ahimsā originated outside the fold of the Vedic tradition. The non-Vedic ascetic sages, known as munis and śrāmaṇas, were perhaps the first teachers of the doctrines of ahimsā and karuṇā or compassion. However, its clear mention and its exposition as an important element in religious life are found only in the later Vedic age which is also the age of the earliest historical śramaṇas such as Pārśvanātha, Kapilamuni, Kaśyapa Buddha, Vardhamāna Mahāvīra, and Śākyamuni Buddha. Pārśvanātha (circa 750 BC) is known to have taught the fourfold moral restraint(caturyāma) which included the practice of ahimsā.

        On the other hand, however, the ancient Brāhmaṇical literature gave only partial sanction to the practice of ahimsā and continued to respect the custom of slaughtering animals in sacrificial rituals. It shows that originally it was a principle peculiar to the Śramaṇic tradition. The slaughter of animals was, of course, prescribed by the rite, but the practical object of this slaughter was to admit animal flesh for food.

        Sikhism accepts ahimsā as a positive value, and there are numerous hymns in the Gurū Granth Sāhib, the Sikh Scripture, advising man to cultivate the ethical values of dayā (compassion) and prem (love). It, however, does not accept ahimsā as a mere absence of himsā or violence. Love, justice, equality, self-respect and righteousness are some of the overriding social values to guarantee which even himsā would be permissible.

        Sikhs' social and ethical values are all derived from their metaphysical doctrine. Sikhism believes in the unicity of God, who in His manifest form pervades the entire creation. Thus, all the created beings in this phenomenal world are His manifestation and intrinsically one with Him. This idea of inherent unity of being with the Supreme Being debars man from using himsā or violence against another being because that would amount to hurting the Divine. This ontological doctrine of divine unity is in Sikhism the basis of all positive values of ahimsā such as social equality, love, compassion, charity and philanthropy. Gurū Arjan, in one of his hymns, adjures man "not to injure anyone so that thou mayst go to thy true home with honour. " Mercy or compassion towards living beings is said to be equivalent in merit earned by pilgrimage to sixty-eight holy spots. This religious value attached to the practice of mercy affirms the principle of ahimsā. Gurū Tegh Bahādur, Nānak IX, also says that one of the marks of a wise man is that he does not terrorize others nor does he allow himself to be terrorized by others.

        The Sikh tradition is also replete with instances of sacrifices made for the sake of justice, righteousness and human freedom. Gurū Arjan and Gurū Tegh Bahādur laid down their lives to vindicate the right to freedom and religious belief. The creation of the Khālsā Panth by Gurū Gobind Siṅgh, Nānak X, and the use of sword as sanctioned by him were also to vindicate the same values. The positive values of ahimsā like compassion, love, universal brotherhood, freedom and self respect must prevail. However, if these are violated, man must resist. When all peaceful methods for such resistance are exhausted, the use of sword, so says Gurū Gobind Siṅgh, is lawful (Zafarnāmah, verse 22). The use of sword, however, is not for any personal gain or advancement; it has to be for the general good. Thus was the doctrine of ahimsā reinterpreted. The Gurūs affirmed their faith in its positive values, but if himsā became necessary to resist and defeat the forces violating these values, it was not considered antagonistic to ahimsā.


  1. Davids, T. W. Rhys, "Ahimsā" in Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics. Ed. James Hastings. Edinburgh, 1964
  2. Jack, Homer A. , ed. , Religion for Peace. Delhi, 1973
  3. Harbans Singh, Peace Imperatives in Sikhism. Patiala, 1991

L. M. Joshi