Patanjali’s eight-fold path describes stages of development that lead naturally to spiritual unfoldment, and to more perfected expressions of each stage. The first stage is called “yama,” which means “control.” The “yamas,” are the “don’ts” on the spiritual path and the attitudes we automatically achieve as we refine our natures spiritually. The first of the yamas is “ahimsa” or non-injury.
Ahimsa is a term that was popularized in our times by Mahatma Gandhi. By non-violent resistance he led India to political emancipation from Britain. But alas, he was not able to teach the Indian people the deeper implications of this teaching. Ahimsa is seen by most people even today as the last hope of the underdog.
Yet ahimsa, rightly understood, is the “ultimate weapon” of a strong man; it turns one’s enemy into a friend, thereby banishing the possibility of further conflict. With the perfection of ahimsa, even hardened criminals and ferocious animals become tame and harmless in our presence. Many were the instances in the life of my own Guru, Paramhansa Yogananda, when this principle was demonstrated.
Non-injury doesn’t only mean non-killing. You can injure others in many ways: by discouraging a person who is full of enthusiasm for a good thing, by treating people contemptuously, without respect, or even by being cold to them.
Everything is an expression of God
How do we practice non-injury, and why is it such an important principle for our spiritual growth? We need to understand that everything in its deepest reality is our own self—that the life flowing in our veins is the same life which flows in the veins of all creatures. All of us are expressions of God, in the same way (to use a favorite illustration of my Guru’s) that the individual jets on a gas burner, though appearing separate from one another, are only manifestations of the unifying gas underneath.
If we’re trying to develop the realization that our deepest reality is expressed in everything, then we must live in such a way as constantly to affirm our oneness –– by kindness towards all beings, by compassion, by universal love. We cannot pretend that certain things are less a part of that oneness than others. We must wish well toward everything. To injure anything is to go against that principle.
The principles of the yamas are stated in negative terms. Patanjali speaks of non-injury to others rather than of blessing them. The wish to bless people springs up automatically once you reach that level of realization where you see that all is one, that you are not separate from the world around you. When you see that everything is part of your inner essence, the thought then naturally arises of what you can do to be of help to others, without any desire to change or dominate them.
Can we practice ahimsa literally?
It’s very difficult to practice ahimsa literally. There are situations, the Bhagavad Gita declares, in which a lesser harm must be inflicted to forestall a greater harm. Thus more highly evolved species should be protected from less evolved species, even if the protection involves killing. At times it is necessary to fight –– for example, in a defensive war –– to protect the innocent from destruction by an aggressor.
Living in this world of relativity forces us, even if inadvertently, to perform some injurious acts. With every inhalation, hosts of germs are killed. Every outing in the car inadvertently causes the death of numerous insects. We walk out of doors and can hardly avoid stepping on a few ants.
The Jains in India put a huge emphasis on trying not to kill anything. They hold this view to such a degree that they wear masks over their mouths and boil their water so that they won’t kill the germs when they drink it. Of course, they’re killing the germs when they boil the water, so what’s the difference? It’s just not possible to live without causing some injury. If you don’t eat meat, then you’re killing vegetables, for they obviously have life, too.
The importance of intent
The important thing is the intent. What makes an act wrong is the wish to injure. The American Indians who depended upon hunting for their survival would mentally contact a herd of deer and say, “We need to eat. Would you offer one of your tribe?” Then one deer would separate itself from the herd as the offering, and they would kill that particular animal.
In the fascinating book, The Secret Life of Plants, the authors discuss research that scientists have done to see whether or not plants have emotional responses. They attached polygraphs (lie detectors) to plants and found that they do in fact have emotional responses. If a person has a wish to bless them, the plants are very happy. If somebody wishes to harm them, they become trembling or weak.
They experimented by having one person in the laboratory behave as the “heavy.” Every time he came into the room, the graph started showing agitation. When the person who had been caring for the plants telephoned, even from a great distance, the plants somehow picked up that vibration and started showing very harmonious wave patterns.
But the most interesting thing they found was that the plants responded not only to pain being inflicted on them, but also to the intention to inflict pain. If, for example, you burned a plant with a cigarette without conscious intent to harm, the plant wasn’t bothered very much. But if you had an intention to cause pain by touching a cigarette to a plant, the plant showed great agitation even before you touched it.
Ahimsa essentially applies to intention because in this relativistic world it’s not possible to live without doing some harm. But if you can overcome the wish to injure, if you can recognize that God is in everything, then you are embracing the true principle of ahimsa.
Send waves of blessing to all
Non-injury is necessary to achieve deeper states of consciousness in meditation. As long as there is any thought of separation between you and the rest of life, there will be tension. That’s why Jesus said that if you have anything against your brother, make peace with him before you go into the temple. He was speaking of the inner temple of communion with God.
When you meditate, begin by sending out waves of blessings to all. If there is anyone with whom you have had a difference, send him your love. Until you develop this attitude, you will never be able meditate deeply. Subconscious antagonism will keep you tensed physically, as well as egotistically aloof from the great stream of life into which meditation should help you merge.
With deeper levels of relaxation, you are able to release all attachments to the body, to the mind, and to the world. Ultimately you relax into samadhi, or cosmic consciousness, which Patanjali says is the final stage on the journey to superconscious union with the Divine.