Concept of Nonviolence in Jainism: A System for Inner Peace and Happiness

by Dr. Saroj Kotharijain hand

Jain symbol; word ahimsa
within wheel of life; hand symbolizes vow;


Violence and nonviolence
Today, all individuals, groups and nations are facing problems in one form or the other. Some of these problems are: psychological tension arising from economic inequity and the consumer culture; social problems and disintegration of society originating from conflicts of ideologies and faiths; political problems such as arms race, war and terrorism; and problems of human survival linked to production and ecological balance. The world is torn by tension, strife, crime and regional conflicts. Everybody is suffering from uncertainty about the future and lack of peace of mind. Many individuals, including social and political leaders, are trying to find solutions to their problems. They feel that scientific research and technological advances, nuclear weapons and improved war technology, consolidation of power and acquisition of material possessions, and concentrating on their own religious and ethnic groups will provide solutions to their problems. Religion emphasizes that peace of mind comes from tolerance and contentment. Morals and spiritual values including virtues such as nonviolence and truth can lead to genuine peace. However, to a large extent, these virtues are ignored on account of the glitter of materialism fueled by greed and the desire to get ahead of others. No doubt, scientific and technological advances have made human life, especially for those with material means, quite pleasant. Nevertheless, most people on earth have no peace of mind. In spiritual terms, one can say that we are living for the satisfaction of our animal instincts only. We do talk of higher moral, social and spiritual values but we fail to realize that material progress alone cannot lead to a resolution of conflicts arising from our selfish nature.

Jainism realizes that various trials and tribulations are part of life and that we humans are prone to all kinds of weaknesses. In view of these facts, Jainism provides a unique system to attain inner peace and happiness.(1) Bhagwaan Mahaveer propounded five virtues: nonviolence (Ahimsa), truth (Satya), non-stealing (Achaurya), chastity (Brahmacharya), and non-possessiveness (Aparigrah). Nonviolence implies consciousness free from attachment (love) and aversion (hatred). Peoples’ feelings are hurt by discrimination based on religion, race or social status. Thus it is violence. Untruth (falsehood), stealing, intemperance (unchastity) and possessiveness (greed) involve mental and sometimes physical violence of self and others. Thus the virtues of truth, non-stealing, chastity and non-possessiveness are integral parts of nonviolence. In his famous work, Purushaarth Siddhyupaaya, Acharya Amrit Chandra Suri states that all moral practices are included in nonviolence.(2)

Nonviolence in some other religious systems
The concept of nonviolence and the regard for life is accepted by all religions of the world.

The great epic Mahabharat states:

“Consider all creatures of the world as your friend. See all beings as your own self.”(3)

“As the footprints of all smaller animals are encompassed in the footprint of an elephant, all virtues are included in nonviolence.”(4)

“There is nothing higher than the virtue of nonviolence because it comprehends all virtues.”(5)

Thou shalt not kill is one of the ten commandment in the Bible. Islam establishes a universal brotherhood of man. It teaches that, “No man is a true believer unless he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself. God will not be affectionate to that man who is not affectionate to God’s creatures. He is the most favored of God from whom the greatest good comes to His creatures.”(6)

Sikhism has the following edicts:(7)
Do not wish evil for anyone. This is nonviolence of thought.
Do not speak harshly of anyone. This is nonviolence of speech.
Do not obstruct anyone’s work. This is nonviolence of action.
If a man speaks ill of you, forgive him.
Practice physical, mental and spiritual endurance.
Help the suffering even at the cost of your life.

Buddhism emphasizes the following virtues:(8)
Right resolve consists of the resolve to renounce the world and to do no hurt or harm.
Right speech is to abstain from lies and slander, from reviling, and from tattle.
Right acts include abstaining from taking life, from stealing, and from lechery.
Right livelihood entails supporting oneself, to the exclusion of wrong modes of livelihood.

Although the ideal of nonviolence is universal, Indian religions, in general, and Jainism, in particular, consider it to be the foundation of the entire code of ethics. Hinduism as well as Jainism have the edict: Ahimsa Paramo Dharmah – nonviolence is the supreme virtue (Dharm).

Nonviolence in Jainism
In Jainism, nonviolence is not limited to refraining from mental, verbal and physical injury to human beings. It encompasses abstaining from injury to all living beings – all animals and plants. The ancient Jain scripture, Achaarang Sutra (about 4th century B.C.) presents a highly sophisticated discussion on nonviolence. It states that one should not cause injury to any living being, including the tiniest creatures and plants. All life depends on nature for survival. Thus disturbing the ecological balance by wasting natural resources and polluting water and air also constitutes violence.

Acharya Umaswati, in his celebrated work, Tattvaarth Sutra, defines violence as the obstruction of life processes through activities of body, speech and mind tainted with negligence.(9) Violence is of two kinds: Physical violence and mental violence. Obstruction of or injury to physical life processes is physical violence and bringing about untoward thoughts and feelings constitutes mental violence. Jainism propounds that injury to others invariably involves injury to the life processes of self. When we intend to hurt or harm others, we have passions such as anger, pride, deception and greed. Thus we always commit violence of the self in the process.

Jain thinkers understood that it is not possible to avoid violence completely. No matter how conscientious we are, we commit some violence in our daily activities.

In Jain religious books, violence has been classified as follows:

  1. Intentional violence (Sankalpi Himsa), which is intentional killing or hurting of self and of others.
  2. Subsistence-related violence (Aarambhi Himsa), which is the violence involved in cooking, cleaning, etc.
  3. Occupation-related violence (Udyogi Himsa), which is the violence involved in pursuing agriculture, industry, business or profession.
  4. Adversary-related violence (Virodhi Himsa), which is involved in dealing with undesirable elements of society. It is the violence for one’s protection from one’s opponents.

We must avoid willful, intentional (Sankalpi) violence and minimize other kinds of violence as much as possible.

Happiness and peace of mind
Followers of all religions, including Jainism, rightfully contend that their respective religions promote peace. Everybody says that all men are created equal. All teach universal love, friendship, brotherhood and forgiveness. All religions preach charity and service to the sick and poor. Indeed, peace among mankind will prevail if everyone practices the teachings of their own religion. However, in reality all religious leaders are competing to establish the supremacy of their respective religions and protect and expand their sphere of influence. Such endeavors are the root cause of conflicts. People talk of bringing world peace through tolerance and accommodation but no constructive actions are taken. So peace and happiness for all remain just a mirage. Obviously, talking of peace in such terms is unreal. The Jain thinkers realized this truth and so Jain scriptures present a rather different view of attaining genuine happiness and peace. Acharya Kundkund has written: There are different individuals having different activities and karma. They have different levels of understanding and capacities. So one should not engage in heated discussions with persons belonging to other sects or those belonging to one’s own sect.(10)

The above observation implies that instead of trying to change others, we should look inward and imbibe the virtues of nonviolence, truth, non-stealing, chastity and non-possessiveness in one’s daily activities. One should minimize one’s passions and desires. One should give up egoism, greed and selfishness, have contentment and practice equanimity. This is Bhagwaan Mahaveer’s message of nonviolence and peace. By practicing the teachings of Bhagwaan Mahaveer, we will certainly achieve true happiness in our lives. To quote from Uttaraadhyayan Sutra (Chapter 20, verse 60):

A person who is free from delusion (who understands things as they are),
who has good qualities, who has good thoughts, speech and deeds,
and who avoids violence of body, speech and mind,
enjoys freedom like a bird, while living on this earth.

(1)    Although the code of ethics propounded by all religions is similar, Jainism, like Hinduism, teaches to adopt these virtues out of one’s own free will for the betterment of the individual self. It does not teach us to claim its superiority or efficacy for solving all the problems of humanity at large. It is a sorry state of affairs that we Jains make a considerable effort to establish the superiority of our religion through slogans, celebrations and conferences rather than practicing the virtues preached by Bhagwaan Mahaveer in our daily lives. Practice of virtues leads to spiritual uplift of the individual. It has a beneficial impact on society as well. – D. C. J.
(2)    For details, see ‘Scriptural View of Nonviolence’, Studies In Jainism: Reader 2, New York: Jain Study Circle, 1997, pp. 26-28.
(3)    Mahabharat, Anushasab Parva, 115/19.
(4)    Mahabharat, Shanti Parva, 259/19.
(5)    Mahabharat, Ado Parva, 11/13.
(6)    Glimpses of World Religions. Bombay (Mumbai): Jaico Publishing House, 1983; pp. 187-188.
(7)    RADHAKRISHNAN, Sarvepalli. Religion And Culture. New Delhi: Orient Paperback, 1983; p. 147.
(8)    RADHAKRISHNAN, Sarvepalli. and Charles A. MOORE (eds). A Source Book In Indian Philosophy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957; pp. 277-278.
(9)    Pramattayogaat Praanavyaparopanam Himsa; Tattwaarth  Sutra: 7-13.
(10)   Niyamasaar, couplet 155, Lucknow: The Central Jaina Publishing House, 1931.
For details see: by JAIN, Dr. Sagar Mal. “The Philosophical Foundation of Religious Tolerance in Jainism”, Studies In Jainism: Reader 2. New York: Jain Study Circle, 1997; pages 157-164.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Jain philosophy of nonviolence (ahimsa) dates to c. the 6th century BC, and is often cited as a main influence on Gandhi. The Jains were a prevalent sect in the Indian state of Gujarat where Gandhi was born and raised, and he numbered among his close friends the Jain philosopher, Shrimad Rajchandra. The literature on the Jains is extensive and the intention of this article is only to introduce the topic of Jain nonviolence. There has been much recent interest in Jain philosophy, not least of all from the point of view of contemporary environmental studies, as in the work of Dr. Christopher Key Chapple, Dr. John M. Koller and others. See, for example, CHAPPLE, Christopher Key. Jainism and Ecology: Nonviolence in the Web of Life. Cambridge (MA): Harvard University Press, 2002. Dr. Saroj Kothari is Assistant Professor of Psychology, Government Arts and Commerce College, Indore, India.

“When planted in the garden, the mustard seed, smallest of all the seeds, became a large tree, and birds came and made their home there.” Luke 13:19

“For me whatever is in the atoms and molecules is in the universe. I believe in the saying that what is in the microcosm of one’s self is reflected in the macrocosm.” M. Gandhi