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Ahimsa – Non-Violence In Vedas

A question is often asked as to the stand taken by the Vedas on the subject of ahimsa (non-violence), since they are the first, foremost, and final authority on Hinduism.

There is a whole range of scholars, including some of the great orthodox acharyas, who argue that many Vedic yajnas could not be performed without animal sacrifice. To support this view, several mantras are quoted by them. It is even suggested that bali (sacrificial offering) of animals was an integral part of Vedic yajnas and consequently the term bali has come to mean animal or even human sacrifice in ritual settings.

There is another school of thought which strongly refutes this view. Swami Ramakrishnananda (Shashi Maharaj) says, ‘Sometimes in the past the sacrificial priests and performers of Yajnas fell victims to sense-indulgence. The responsibility of carrying on the Yajnas being in their hands, they invented, in order to surfeit their stomachs and indulge their senses, various violent sacrifices marked by use of wine and flesh and propagated them as sanctioned by the Vedas. (Swami Ramakrishnananda, Life of Sri Ramanuja (Madras: Ramakrishna Math, 1977), 67.)

‘Ma himsyad sarva bhutani; do not injure any being’ is a general dictum associated with the Vedas.

The Mahabharata declares ahimsa as the highest dharma (ahimsa paramo dharma), explicitly forbidding killing or violence, and there are several mantras to that effect. (Mahabharata, ‘Adi Parva’, 11.12, 69.)

In a Vedic funeral hymn, the rishi says: ‘I send to a distance the fire that consumes flesh. Carrying the burden of sin, may it go to the house of Yama (death). But let this other fire Jatavedas carry oblations to the gods, for he is well acquainted with all of them.’ (Rig Veda, 10.16.9.) This may actually underline a more general attitude of ahimsa in the context of yajnas.

As to the various Vedic statements prima facie advocating killing, it has been held that the meanings

of such statements or words have to be understood in the light of their contextual, intended, or even metaphysical purport. The Mimamsa Sutra even explicitly forbids killing in yajnas. (Shabara Bhashya on Mimamsa Sutra, 1.1.2.)

Words like pashu (animal), dhenu (cow), and vatsa (calf ) have no doubt been used in the Vedas in the context of yajnas, but elsewhere, their metaphoric meaning has also been given: ‘The black portion of the rice is meat and the red one is blood’, ‘Paddy is the cow and sesame the calf ’, and so on. (Atharva Veda, 11.3.7, 18.4.32.)

Even the ancient names like adhvara (where there is no dhvara or violence) and yajna (the root yaja refers to collective worship or offering) clearly suggest the absence of violence. When the Isha Upanishad enjoins, ‘ma grdhah kasyasviddhanam’ (do not covet what belongs to others), the implicit emphasis is on desisting from mental violence caused by greed. (Isha Upanishad, 1.)

(Source - Ahimsa and Hinduism By A P N Pankaj – Prabuddha Bharata December 2007 Issue.)