Social Significance of Ahimsa

As a practical religion Jainism has laid great stress on the observance of five main and seven supplementary vows by its followers in all stages of life. Among these twelve vows, the most fundamental position has been given to the Ahimsa-Vrata, i.e., the vow of Ahimsa and it has been convincingly shown that the remaining four main vows, viz., Satya, i.e., the abstention from falsehood, Asteya, i.e., the abstention from stealing, Brahmacharya, i.e., the abstention from unchastity; and Aparigraha, i.e., the abstention from worldly attachments! are nothing but the details of the vow of Ahimsa and that the seven Sila-vratas, i.e., supplementary vows consisting of three Guna-vratas, i.e., multiplicative vows, and four Siksha-vratas. i.e., disciplinary vows, are mere manifestations of the vows of Ahimsa in one form or another. Further, with a view to giving strength to the practice of the vow of Ahimsa, the followers are recommended (i) to cultivate the ten kinds of Dharma, i.e., noble virtues, (ii) to contemplate on the twelve kinds of Anupreksha, i.e., meditations, (iii) to attempt at conquering twenty two kinds of Parishahas, i.e., sufferings, and (iv) to observe the six kinds of Bahya Tapa, i.e., external austerities and the six kinds of Abhyantara Tapa, i.e., internal austerities. Further-more, along with making the vow of Ahimsa very comprehensive and all inclusive in character and scope, extreme carefulness in the actual practice of Ahimsa has also been strongly advocated and with this end in view the Jaina scriptures have particularly laid down the five kinds of aticharas, i.e., transgressions, of each of the twelve vows and have specifically enjoined upon the householders to avoid these aticharas so as to make the practice of Ahimsa as faultless as possible. Moreover, even though the theoretical dimensions of the vow of Ahimsa in all the aspects were made very wide and the extreme carefulness was insisted on the actual observance of the vow of Ahimsa, still every precaution was taken to see that the vow of Ahimsa can be definitely put into practice in the daily life by the followers of Jainism belonging to both the householders and the ascetic stages in life and for ensuring the practicability of vow of Ahimsa many prescriptions were laid down in regard to the actual observance of Ahimsa in accordance with the respective capacities of householders and ascetics. In addition, the doctrine of Ahimsa was not confined to its negative aspect i.e., avoidance of injury, only but at the same time great stress was laid to emphasize the positive aspect, i.e., increasing the welfare of others, which is inherent in the doctrine of Ahimsa and accordingly the Jaina scriptures gave encouragement to the grant of charities, extended support to the organization of welfare activities for the benefit of all living beings and strongly advocated the spirit of tolerance with reference to the other religionists. As a result in Jainism the doctrine of Ahimsa was given the form of `universal love’.

In this way the most distinctive contribution of Jainism consists in its great emphasis on the observance of Ahimsa, i.e., non-injury to living beings, by all persons to the maximum extent possible. In fact, the philosophy and rules of conduct laid down in Jaina religion have been based on the solid foundation of Ahimsa, which has, throughout and consistently, been followed to its logical conclusion. That is why Jainism has become synonymous with Ahimsa and Jaina religion is considered as the religion of Ahimsa. The social significance of this principle of Ahimsa could be evident from the important facts and changes which took place in the cultural history of India from the time of Lord Mahavira to the present day.

Effective Reduction in Violence

During the Vedic period utmost importance was attached to the performance of sacrifices with a view to secure the favors of God and to avert His anger. The sacrifices were elaborate, complicated and hedged with various restrictions. The sacrifices became a regular feature of the religious life of the people. The peculiar characteristic of these sacrifices was that they were usually accompanied by the slaughter of animals. As the sacrifices were mainly animal sacrifices, they involved the practice of Himsa, i.e., violence, to a considerable extent.

Along with this practice, the flesh-eating or non-vegetarian diet was extremely popular among the different sections of the people. The Rig-vedic people, in general, were fond of meat-eating and practically all the important ceremonies were attended with the slaughter of animals. Offerings of flesh were frequently made to the Gods, and worshippers, as a practice, ate the offerings. The meat of animals does not seem to have been excluded. It was a custom to entertain a distinguished guest with the meat of certain animals. At the wedding ceremonies animals were slain, evidently for the feeding of the invited guests. In fact, the sacrifice of animals was not only optional as in the case of the arrival of a guest and marriage but even compulsory on certain occasions and ceremonies. At Sraddhas, i.e., periodical oblation to the manes, the sacrifice of animals was recommended, as substances like rice, barley, sesamum, fruits, etc., keep the manes satisfied for a month, while flesh satisfied them for a year. Again, meat was almost allowed at Annaprasana, i.e., the first feeding with solid food, ceremony of a child and from them till death and cremation, sacrificing of animals was necessary on most of the ceremonial occasions of life.

Against this wide-spread and established practice of meat eating and the performance of rites consisting of animal sacrifices Lord Mahavira and his learned disciples launched a vigorous attack by propagating the principle of Ahimsa, i.e., non-injury to living beings. In fact in all their preachings, Lord Mahavira and later his leading Acharyas invariably laid great stress on the observance of Ahimsa because the principle of Ahimsa is the logical outcome of the basic Jaina metaphysical theory that all souls are potentially equal. It was, therefore, asserted that as no one likes pain, one should not do unto others what one does not want others to do unto one. Since all living beings possessed soul, the principle of Ahimsa i.e., non-injury, was obviously extended to cover all living beings.

All these preachings of Jaina scriptures and Acharyas regarding the strict observance of the principle of Ahimsa to the maximum extent possible by every individual in society produced far-reaching effects in social field. The practice of performing sacrificial rites and especially the slaughter of animals at the time of sacrifices considerably fell into disuse. Similarly, killing of animals for hunting, sports and decoration purposes was greatly reduced. Further, the slaughter of animals and birds with a view to use their flesh as a form of diet slowly became unpopular.

In this way injury to living beings was greatly reduced and the practice of vegetarian diet was adopted by large sections of population in different regions of the country. In this connection Dr. N. K. Dutta (in his book “Origin and Growth of Caste in India”) observed that “Animal sacrifice had been of so long standing among the Aryans and such was the respect for the authority of the Vedas which made it obligatory to sacrifice with flesh offerings, that the abolition of sacrifices, became a very slow process, effecting only a very small minority, intellectual section of the people, and might not have succeeded at all if Jainism and Buddhism had not overwhelmed the country and the mass of people with the teachings of Ahimsa and inefficacy of sacrificial rites.”

Acceptance of Dignity of Living Beings

Through the preachings of Ahimsa the Jaina scriptures and Acharyas emphasized the basic fact that every living being has a sanctity and a dignity of its own and therefore one must respect it as one expects one’s own dignity to be respected by others. The Jaina sacred works also firmly emphasized that life is sacred irrespective of species, caste, color, creed or nationality. On this basis they advocated the principle of “Live and let live” and it was slowly accepted by the people. In this way the Jaina teachings convinced the people that the practice of Ahimsa is both an individual and a collective virtue and showed that Ahimsa has a positive force and a collective appeal.

Improvement in Moral Behavior

Jainism has laid great stress on the observance by the householders of Right Conduct consisting of twelve vows, viz., five main vows known as Anuvratas, and seven supplementary vows known as Silavratas. Among these twelve vows primacy has been assigned to the first vow of Ahimsa and the remaining vows are also manifestations of Ahimsa in one form or another. It is enjoined upon the householders to practice these vows in their daily life with utmost care so that even the aticharas, i.e., the transgressions of these vows can be avoided to a great extent. It means that the observance of these vows has to be made as faultless as possible.

Obviously these vows are of a great social value as they accord a religious sanction to some of the most important public and private interests and rights which are, in modern times, safeguarded by the laws of the State. It could be seen that these vows merely reproduce the unwritten moral code of the best societies of men, though they make transgressions, a little more difficult. They also cover the entire range of modern societies penal restrictions, so that one has merely to adopt them to avoid transgressing all criminal laws of all countries whatsoever. For example, all offenses against persons are banned under the vow of Ahimsa, even injuring an animal is covered by the inhibition. Similarly, offenses against property are covered by the vow of Asteya, i.e., non-stealing, when understood in its true spirit, that is, in its fullest scope. Again, perjury, forgery, counterfeiting coins and all other allied offenses fall within the purview of the vow of Satya, i.e., truthfulness; and social misbehaviors are avoided under the fourth vow of Brahmacharya, i.e., chastity. Finally, the last vow of Aparigraha, i.e., abstention from worldly attachments, engenders a contented spirit, which is the real guarantor of peacefulness and a thing which acts as a powerful check on crime, by crushing out the tendency towards law-breaking at its very inception.

So far as conditions in India are concerned it is stressed that a due observance of these five main vows would save a man from the application to him of almost any of the sections of the Indian Penal Code. In this connection Shri. A. B. Latthe, a well-known author and social leader, has, in his book entitled “An Introduction to Jainism” (published in 1905 A. D.), shown in a tabular form, as given below, that the observance of the five main vows without committing any of the faults or transgressions pertaining to them, is practically tantamount to complete conformity with the principles of morality enforced by the Indian Penal Code.

The vows and the panel law



Substance of the Sections

The equivalent vows




Command to take the Sastra as an authority




The definitions of sins and the vows







General Exceptions

There is no sin unless an action is actuated by passion




The five vows and their faults.



Offences against the State

Fault of the third vow,viz., Viruddha-rajyati-krama.



Offences against the Army and Navy

Fault of the third vow,viz., Viruddha-rajyati-krama.



Offences against public tranquility

The vow of Ahimsa and its faults.



Offences committed by public servants

The vows of Satyaand Asteya with their faults.



Contempt of Court, etc.

Fault of `Viruddha-rajya tikrama’; of the third vow.



False statements etc.

Faults of `Mithyopadesa’ and `Vruddha-rajyatikrama’ of the second and third vow respectively.



False coinage etc.

Pratirupaka-vyavahara and `Vruddha-rajyatikrama, faults of the third vow



Offences regarding Weights, etc.

Hinadhika-manomana’ fault of third third vow.



Offences against health, safety, etc

Faults of the first two vows.



Offences against religion, etc.

Faults of the first two vows.



Offences against person

The vow of `Ahimsa’ and its faults.



Offences against property

The complete vow of `Asteya’



Regarding false documents etc.,

Faults of `Kutalekhakriya’ and `Pratirupaka-vyavahara’ of the 2nd & 3rd vow respectively.



Regarding failure to perform services

The vow of Satya.



Offences against marriages

Vow of `Brahmacharya’




Vow of `Satya’




Vow of `Satya’



Attempt to commit offences

The five vows.

Thus it is asserted that if a man but observes the five main vows with the avoidance of their respective faults, he has no fear from the Indian Penal Code.

It is, therefore, contended that the moral behavior of persons would definitely improve by the regular observance of these twelve vows with the avoidance of faults attached to them. In this regard it is pointed out by Shri. A. B. Latthe that the proportion of Jail-going population is a good index to the moral condition of a community and has given the following table from the Jail Administration Report for the year 1891 A. D. for the Bombay Presidency:


Population in 1891

Total prisoners in 1891

Proportion of persons to prisoners

























From these figures Shri. A. B. Latthe (in his book, “An Introduction to Jainism” published in 1905 A. D.) has given his conclusion that, “The last column shows that the Jains stand highest in morality. The figures from a later Report, i.e., for the year 1901 show an improvement even over this. That is, out of 7,355 Jains, only one man was in prison in that year.” Such figures based on subsequent decenial Census Reports are not available. But in general it can be said that the rate of criminality among the Jainas is much less and that this comparatively low frequency of incidence of crime among Jainas can be attributed to the rules of Right Conduct based on the principle of Ahimsa as laid down by Jaina religion.

Thus it is a quite evident from the cultural history of India that the fundamental doctrine of Ahimsa and the actual observance of Ahimsa in all its aspects have been extremely useful, from social and other points of view, in bringing about many desirable changes like reduction of violence practiced in different fields of activities, acceptance of the sanctity and dignity of all living beings, and improvement in moral behavior of the people. That is why maximum value has been attached to the doctrine of Ahimsa by Acharya Subhachandra in his famous work Jnanamava in following terms:

that is, “in all kinds of scriptures Ahimsa is considered as the distinctive mark of religion and its contrary as sin and Ahimsa is regarded as the mother of all good things like austerities, learning, religious duty, knowledge, meditation, charity, and vows of truth, good conduct etc.”

In this way the highest position has been accorded to the doctrine of Ahimsa in Jaina religion and it is pertinent to note that this principle of Ahimsa has been actually put into practice by the Jainas during the last so many centuries. As the principle of Ahimsa permeates the life of the Jainas, the Jaina culture is referred to as the Ahimsa culture. If the Jainas are known for anything it is for the evolution of Ahimsa culture since they practiced and propagated that culture from ancient times in India. The antiquity and continuity of Ahimsa culture is mainly due to the incessant efforts of the Jaina Acharyas, i.e., saints. Naturally wherever the Jainas were in great numbers and wielded some influence they tried to spread Ahimsa culture among the masses. That is why we find that the States of Gujarat and Karnatak, which were the strongholds of Jainas from the beginning, are largely vegetarian. In fact it is admitted that as a result of the activities of the Jainas for the last so many centuries Ahimsa still forms the substratum of Indian character as a whole.