Most of us are familiar with the terms Nonviolence and Ahimsa. In the recent past i.e. during India's freedom struggle, Mahatma Gandhi had forged Non-violence into a political weapon to peacefully push out British imperialism. While, how far this attitude was effective in throwing off the colonial yoke would remain a matter of debate, it can indisputably be said that the technique of non-violent political agitation did obtain a mass base for India's freedom struggle without attracting extreme penalties from the British administration.
Non-violent agitation also enabled nationalist Indian leaders to keep alive the. struggle for independence in the absence of an armed insurrection. The roots of our attitude of non-violence go deep into our history. It has been integrated with almost all religions originating in ancient times in the Indian sub-continent viz. Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism.
But contrary to popular belief it has not been part of Indian culture since time immemorial. Our Vedic literature is silent on this concept. The Rigveda talks of wars, struggles, victories, etc., even animal sacrifices and meat eating was allowed.
The concept of ahimsa could have first developed in Jainism, which as we know split from the mainstream of Vedic beliefs very early in Indian history. Jainism disapproves Vedic rituals of animal sacrifice.
The concept of Jivadaya i.e. equal respect for all life forms seems to have been first enunciated ih Jainism. But ahimsa is more popularly associated with Buddhism perhaps because this religion was more widespread. This concept was also absorbed into Hinduism where it took the form of worship of the cow and bull, ban on animal sacrifices and vegetarianism.
In ancient times, the values of non-violence and vegetarianism were transmitted outside India via Buddhism. This was so because unlike Hinduism, Buddhism had a tradition of diffusion of its beliefs though persistent missionary activity. Along with this, Buddhism received the unstinted support of powerful Indian kings like Samrat Ashoka, Kanishka and Harsha. These kings presided over large empires and apart from encourag ing the spread of Buddhism all over their empires, they also encouraged missionaries to visit other countries to spread the message of the Buddha. Buddhism which itself is a significant contribution of India to world culture also acted as a vehicle for promoting the philosophy of non-violence.
This religion was at one time, spread over vast areas from the Volga to Japan. Buddhism continues to be the religion of a majority of the peoples of the far east. And though Buddhism has acquired a local character in different countries for instance, Zen Buddhism and Shintoism (which is an amalgam of Buddhism with local beliefs) in Japan, Lamaism in Tibet, etc., it has retained the principal features like non-violence, meditation and renunciation which were a part of the parent religion.
The people of central Asia also professed Buddhism before the advent of Islam, the official support given to Buddhist missionary activity was the reason which enabled the philosophy of non-violence to cross the frontiers of India and exercise a sobering effect over minds of people for a long time. It is worth recounting the episode in the life of emperor-Ashoka Maurya which made him turn to Buddhism and become its first major royal patron.
Emperor Ashoka who ruled from Pataliputra (modern Patna) was the third ascendant to the Maurya throne. He had inherited the vast Maurya empire whose foundations were laid by his illustrious grandfather Chandragupta Maurya who had driven the Greeks out of India and had politically united the country for the first time. Only tiny nitches of the country had remained untouched by Chandragupta’s truculent armies. Among these nitches were the extreme southern tip of the Indian peninsula and the kingdom of Kalinga (modern Orissa) to the east. When emperor Ashoka came to the thorne he wanted to complete the task left unfinished by his grandfather. Towards this end he harnessed all the military resources available in his mighty empire and began to take survey by visiting every province.
All petty kings and chieftains who had been reduced to vassals came and paid tribute to the mighty emperor. Used as he had been to unchallenged submission, Emperor Ashoka was amazed when he saw that Kumara the king of a small but independent province of Kalinga chose to meet the emperor not with tributes but with an army ranged in battle formation. The brave but arrogant king of Kalinga proved no match for the strength of the imperial armies of emperor Ashoka and after a furious battle, the army of Kalinga was reduced to tatters. Kumara the obsti nate king was captured alive and brought before emperor Ashoka. Victory was com plete but the price of victory was the thousands of dead among whom were Ashoka’s famous generals and his kith and kin.
The magnitude of victory was not enough to drown the remorse felt by the emperor. In solitude, Ashoka reflected on the suffering his ambition had brought on the thousands of slain, wounded and orphaned who bore him no evil. To overcome his deep sense of guilt, Ashoka summoned a Buddhist monk to show him the right path. In keeping with Buddhist philosophy, the monk advised Ashoka to conquer himself before setting out to conquer the world.
The conquest of another person was not be had by defeating him but by winning him over.
Piety and charity were the tools for such conquest. Convinced on this point, emperor Ashoka, thenceforth forsook the path of conquest by subjugation and set out to conquer by good will and charity. He proclaimed this mes sage over all parts of his empire by carving rock edicts on pillars which carried his ensign, the triple lions. He sent forth mission aries to all parts of the known world. Even his own son Mahendra, he sent to Sri Lanka to spread the gospel of Buddhism.
And in India he established what can be termed the first welfare state. To guard against the excesses of regal power he pro vided for constitutional checks to be respected by an emperor. Ashoka’s liberalising reforms touched all facets of the nation’s life. Till then there had not been an emperor, who immortalised his name in history with charity, piety and goodwill as his only weapons. Today after nearly 2500 years Ashoka’s memory is still alive. His wheel of righteousness (Dharmachakra) adorns our national flag and his triple lions are out national ensign.
This philosophy of non-violence which also nourished our attitude of religious tolerance was not unique to Buddhism. It pervaded over Jainism and Hinduism. In Jainism where perhaps it was born, it was carried to extreme limits in the concepts of Jivadaya i.e. respect for all living forms whereby a Jaina apart from not indulging in killing or harming any living creature, must observe restrictions such as covering the mouth to prevent himself from swallowing living creatures that exist in the air, for the same reason he should not ignite a fire, etc.
Even amongst the Hindus this attitude of respect for all living beings (Jivadaya or Bhootadaya) is prevalent as also are vegetarianism and worship of bovine creatures (cow and bull). All these traits in our cultures have been nourished by the philosophy of Non-violence which in earlier times we gave to the world along with the Buddhist religion.