Ahimsa, or non-harming, the first of Patañjali’s yamas, implies an attitude of authentic non-violence towards all beings.
Yoga Sutra2.35 ahimsāpratiṣṭhāyām tatsannidhau vairatyāgah
According to Nischala Joy Devi’s translation and commentary, The Secret Power of Yoga, the yamas are, “reflections of our true nature”.
They are honorable qualities to be embellished.
In Yoga Sutra 2.35, it is said that the practitioner who is free of violent thought and action will not be met with violence through other people or circumstance. The more one embodies non-violence (ahimsa), the more ones’ presence inspires friendliness in others.
Ahimsa fulfills a cyclical vision of compassion. It doesn’t just mean being outwardly nice or charitable. Ahimsa is an authentic offering of compassion for all beings. This expression doesn’t need to take one specific form, but it does come from the inside out, from a genuine desire to be of service for the benefit of all beings everywhere.
And that’s where the magic happens, according to Patañjali. When we truly offer compassion to all beings, we are free from violence meeting us in our lives. When we boldly stop the cycle of aggression, our actions take on a new freshness. Instead of perpetuating the old, we initiate a new cycle of compassion.
I recently attended a lecture where I was told that in Patanjali’s view of ahimsa, eating animals is not violent. However, the lecturer pointed out, it is violent to try to convince others of your own personal beliefs.
I completely agree with the last bit. No one wants to sign up to be converted. Though the exact date of the first recording of the Yoga Sutras is debatable, the social context is generally considered to be of a time when Brāhminical scholars (practitioners, lineage holders) weighed heavily on the vegetarian side.
There are unmistakable similarities between the five precepts of Jain monks, who are also notorious vegetarians, and the Sutra’s five yamas (they are the same!), and it has been implied that the Yoga Sutras have a certain Jainist flavor (and Buddhist, too, amidst a soup of other traditions). It’s really not a huge stretch to see that Patanjali could have been talking about vegetarianism.
He also could be speaking about the internalization, externalization, or circularization of violence. Or, he could have been commenting on any number of related topics and sub topics. The Yoga Sutras are notoriously rich, and deserve to be returned to and contemplated regularly.
Generally, it is worth contemplating the stuff we don’t like to think about, even if it comes to seeing our own shadow. Especially if it comes to seeing our own shadow. We face our views on this particular issue every day, often without really paying attention. The really extraordinary opportunity in this, though, is that we can pay attention. We have the chance to make decisions, to vote with our dollar—to act out how we feel—every single time we sit down for a meal.
There is so much overwhelming evidence of the environmental price we pay for meat. In addition to this load of bricks, if you choose to take on the intricate contemplations of the karmic cycle of cause and effect, you are very brave, indeed. Karma is yet another vastly rich subject matter, also highly worthy of continued contemplation.
I’m convinced that best I can really do as an activist, and can encourage others to do, too, is to think about it all again, and again, and again. Strangely, it can be fun to contemplate the obvious modern implications of these types of ancient, yet formative, texts (for example, brahmacharya as “celibacy”).
When we halt the inquiry, when we stop considering the effects of our actions, when we stop the dialogue because it’s just too uncomfortable, we immediately stunt the growth of ourselves and of our community.
We get stuck in the old, and stop growing into new ideas. We get off the train of togetherness, and forget about the interconnectedness of all life everywhere.
Staying on this train unites the giving and receiving, and brings us full circle in the cycle of compassion.
This is a huge topic and I welcome your comments. How do you embody ahimsa and why is it important to you? I’d really like to hear your thoughts and am open to the ongoing dialogue.
Ina Sahaja is a local Boulder Yoga teacher, known for her dynamic Prana Flow classes and inspirational kirtans. She loves finding herself swimming, hiking, biking, translating Sanskrit poetry, singing Indian devotional music, and exploring obscure mountain trails with her dog. Join her online conversation at www.yogawithina.com or www.facebook.com/ina.sahaja.
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Editor: Seychelles Pitton