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Ahimsa (Devanagari: IAST ahiṃsā) is a Sanskrit term meaning non-violence (literally: the avoidance of violence - himsa). It is an important part of Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism, first appearing within the Hindu scriptures called the Upanishads, the oldest of which date to about 800 BCE. The concept is further detailed in the Bhagavad Gita, Puranas and later Buddhist texts.
In its Eastern form the principle of ahimsa was significantly promoted in the West by Mahatma Gandhi. Arguably, Gandhi's non-violence movement influenced various civil rights movements, led by such people as Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela.
Ahimsa is one of the central tenets of Hinduism, within which it is applied to all living beings, who are believed to be of the same essential quality (atman). The main schools of Hinduism do not differentiate between the soul within a human body, or within that of an animal. Vegetarian diet is often promoted within Hinduism based on this belief.
"This is the sum of duty; do naught onto others what you would not have them do unto you." (Mahabharata 5, 15, 17)
"One should not behave towards others in a way which is disagreeable to oneself. This is the essence of morality. All other activities are due to selfish desire." (Mahabharata, Anusasana Parva, 113.8)
"What is religion? Compassion for all things, which have life." (Hitopadesa, Sanskrit fables)
"When one is established in non-injury, beings give up their mutual animosity in his presence." (Yoga Sutras)
"To be free of violence is the duty of every man. No thought of revenge, hatred or ill will should arise in our minds. Injuring others gives rise to hatred." (Swami Sivananda)
Mahatma Gandhi drew many of his concepts of truth, nobility and ethics from the Bhagavad Gita and his personal love of Lord Rama, an avatara of Vishnu in the Hindu faith. Gandhi's concept of life and ahimsa, which led to his concept of satyagraha, or peaceful protest, primarily stem from his association with Hindu and Jain philosophy.
Quotations from Gandhi on the subject:
- Nonviolence is the greatest force at the disposal of mankind. It is mightier than the mightiest weapon of destruction devised by the ingenuity of man.
Literally speaking, ahimsa means non-violence towards life but it has much higher meaning. It means that you may not offend anybody; you may not harbor uncharitable thought, even in connection with those whom you consider your enemies. To one who follows this doctrine, there are no enemies. A man who believes in the efficacy of this doctrine finds in the ultimate stage, when he is about to reach the goal, the whole world at his feet. If you express your love—ahimsa—in such a manner that it impresses itself indelibly upon your so-called enemy, he must return that love.
- This doctrine tells us that we may guard the honor of those under our charge by delivering our own lives into the hands of the man who would commit the sacrilege. And that requires far greater courage than delivering of blows.
Ahimsa or non-injury, of course, implies non-killing. But, non-injury is not merely non-killing. In its comprehensive meaning, ahimsa or non-injury means entire abstinence from causing any pain or harm to another living being, either by thought, word, or deed. Non-injury requires a harmless mind, mouth, and hand.
Compassion for all life, human and non-human, is central to Jainism. Human life is valued as a unique, rare opportunity to reach enlightenment; to kill any person, no matter what crime he may have committed, is considered unimaginably abhorrent. It is a religion that requires monks and laity, from all its sects and traditions, to be vegetarian. Some Indian regions, such as Gujarat, have been strongly influenced by Jains and often the majority of the local non-Jain population has also become vegetarian.
According to Jain tenets, violence depends mainly on intention or design. Violence is not merely killing. Intention or thought of violence is also violence. 
AHIMSA is also the acronym for the Association of Humanitarian Information and Mobilisation for the Survival of Animals, or in French, "Association Humanitaire d'Information et de Mobilisation pour la Survie des Animaux". Based in Quebec, Canada, AHIMSA is a not-profit organization that has been in existence since 1987. The Association aims to defend, promote and support the interests, the needs and the rights of animals. AHIMSA informs and encourages peaceful behavior toward animals and nature. Here, AHIMSA, in name and purpose meshes well with the word's native definition.
- 'Hinduism and Vegetarianism' by Paul Turner, Mar. 2000.
- Bhagavad Gita 5.18 "The humble sages, by virtue of true knowledge, see with equal vision a learned and gentle brahmana, a cow, an elephant, a dog and a dog-eater [outcaste]"
- Gandhi's Religious Thought: by Margaret Chatterjee, (Macmillan,1983) The book brings out the deep and pervading impact of Jainism and ahimsa in the making of the Mahatma.
- Titze, Kurt, Jainism : A Pictorial Guide to the Religion of Non-Violence, Mohtilal Banarsidass, 1998
- Indian Philosophy: by Debi Prasad Chattopadhyaya, 1964. A philosophical Essay on Jainism.
- AHIMSA (in french) : http://www.ass-ahimsa.net/
- Ahimsa quotations from Puranic scripture (vedabase.net)
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