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Hindu History

- Ahimsa (The Non-Violence Ethic)

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By Sudheer Birodkar

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Table of Contents

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The Non-Violence Ethic - A Noble Humanist Concept

Gautama Buddha propounded the philosophy of non-violence, universal love and peace 2,500 years ago. Emperor Ashoka Maurya from India gave this pacifist philosophy official recognition in the 3rd century B.C.E. and sent buddhist missionaries to the far-east and Central Asia. For this initiative in spreading the message of peace and non-violence, he is remembered not only by Indians but by pacifists all around the globe.

It is becoming increasingly ironical to talk about Non-violence in a world of Inter-Continental Ballastic Missiles, Hydrogen Bombs, Nuclear Submarines and the rest. But amidst all the dust that is kicked up by the aggravating belligerence between the US and Iraq or India and Pakistan for instance, the word Non-Violence brings to mind the name of Mahatma Gandhi in India along with the other pacifist crusaders in different parts of the world.

Buddhism - the Pioneering Spirit of Non-Violence

Whatever one's opinion on how far India owes its independence to Mahatma Gandhi's non-violent crusade against British imperialism, even the Mahatma's worst critics would admit that the non-violent Satyagraha launched by him attracted millions of Indians into India's freedom struggle.

But the philosophy of non-violence (ahimsa) in India is not a 20th century phenomenon, it has existed since the last three thousand years right from the days of Gautama Buddha end Mahavir. India's great emperor Ashoka gave this pacifist philosophy official recognition for which he is remembered not only by Indians but by pacifists all around the globe.

Origins of Non-Violence lie in Buddhism, Jainsim and Ajivikaism

Surprising for us to know, is the fact that the philosophies of Buddha and Mahavir and Ajivika (who was a contemporary of the Buddha and had a limited following which became extinct in ancient times itself) also came about as a reaction to violent practices of animal and human sacrifice that existed in their days. From the various references in Vedic literature, we find that the Aryans during Vedic times practised animal sacrifice.

Buddhism Arose as a Protest against Vedic Sacrifices

The Vedic practice of Yagna itself was originally an act of roasting flesh over fire. This today would naturally sound shocking, but even today during a Yagna small figures of animals, called Pishta-Pashu which are made out of wheat flour have to be broken and offered to the fire as ahuti (oblations) along with other items like milk, honey, clarified butter, etc.

It would also surprise a present day reader to know that these practices originated as a symbolic observance of the extinct practice of actually slaughtering cows and bulls, horses and other animals at a Yagna. Even the practice among some devout Hindus of considering cow's urine (Gomutra) and cowdung as holy objects and of consuming them as such, descends from the defunct practices of consuming beef. This is truely unbelievable, but for the fact that in the Rig Veda the word used to refer to a guest of Aryan noblemen is "Go-Ghna" i.e. eater of cows.

The practice of offering animals like rabbits, goats and fowl to some Hindu deities like Kali and Shiva still survive to this day. Vegetarianism also is not as universal among the Hindus as may appear.

The philosophies of Buddha and Mahavir and Ajivika (who was a contemporary of the Buddha and had a limited following which became extinct in ancient times itself) also came about as a reaction to violent practices of animal and human sacrifice that existed in their days. From the various references in Vedic literature, we find that the Aryans during Vedic times practised animal sacrifice. According to one hypothesis, the Vedic practice of Yagna itself was originally an act of roasting flesh over fire. This today would naturally sound shocking, but even today during a Yagna small figures of animals, called Pishta-Pashu which are made out of wheat flour have to be broken and offered to the fire as ahuti (oblations). It would also surprise a present day reader to know that these practices originated as a symbolic observance of the extinct practice of actually slaughtering cows and bulls, horses and other animals at a Yagna. Even the practice among some devout Hindus of considering cow's urine (Gomutra) and cowdung as holy objects and of consuming them as such, could have descended from the defunct practices of consuming beef. It is interesting to know that even today during a Yagna, we offer five items like milk, curd, honey, sugar, clarified butter, etc. The mixture of these items is called Pancha-Amrita. In earlier days to the Pancha-amrita was also added the cow's urine (Go-mutra) and cow's dung. This was called the Pancha-Gavya (i.e. the five elements issuing from the cow). That this could be a later refinement of the original practice of consuming beef is unbelievable today but for the fact that in the Rig Veda the word used to refer to a guest of Aryan noblemen is "Go-Ghna" i.e. eater of cows.

The non-Brahmin castes in central, western and south India are generally non-vegetarians. Even Brahmins do not adhere to vegetarianism strictly, for instance Brahmins from Bengal, Tripura and Assam regularly consume fish. Even beef is a regular item of consumption for many non-Brahmin Keralite Hindus, today. The idea of an Hindu considering beef as a staple item of diet would appear to be an affront to Hindus in general, but it is nevertheless a fact. As mentioned in a earlier chapter on Caste the Ashvamedha Yagna was also originally an act of killing and roasting a horse, so also was the less known Purushamedha which perhaps involved the killing and eating of persons captured as prisoners during the tribal days of the past. The legend of Chilaya (referred to in an earlier chapter), brings out the fact that cannibalism could have been an accepted practice in the dim past of barbarism and savagery, the memory of which was kept alive by its being incorporated into a legend


Meat-Eating must have been the Norm in Human Society during the Days of Hunting

In any society where hunting is the main occupation it is but natural to assume that the killing of the captured animals and their roasting would be important functions. And functions that are important in day-to-day human life generally tend to be transformed into customs which build around themselves beliefs, that lend support to those customs. As long as the custom is in harmony with the activities of day-to-day life the observance of the custom has a valid reason. But when the nature of day-to-day life changes, as it always happens, most of the customs continue to be observed due to habit, in spite of the fact that those customs are now irrelevant or at times even harmful to the changed nature of day-to-day life. They now become what are called rituals.

A statue of Gautama Buddha in the Sanchi Stupa. Buddha lived in an age when fundamental changes had taken place in the economic basis of Indian society which had transformed the Vedic Yagna ritual which then involved animal sacrifice into a drain on the economic structure of an emerging pastoral and agricultural society. Hence society needed an ethic that would prohibit such animal sacrifices. Buddhism gave just that, and hence it was actively patronised by merchants and traders apart from Kings and the nobility.

In the way of life where hunting was the main occupation, the killing and roasting of animals was a natural corollary of the main occupation of hunting. In due course the act of killing and roasting the animals must have become a custom and when it was continued to be observed when hunting was no more the main occupation of society, it became a ritual. In the course of social development human society has generally moved from hunting to cattle rearing and then to agriculture. Now a ritual that requires the regular killing of cattle is not suitable for a pastoral or an agrarian society which depends on cattle for its existence.

A pastoral society has to increase the number of cattle and agriculture requires bulls and horses for being used as draught animals as also cows and buffaloes as a source of milk. Cattle would also be used as a source of meat by pastoral and agrarian societies, but that would not be the main purpose of rearing cattle in these societies as it would be in a society based on hunting. Whereas meat would be the main item of food in a hunters society, milk and grain would be more important in a pastoral or agrarian society.

Bovine Animals are a Means of Production in a Pastoral Society, but are only Food Items in a Hunter's Society

Thus in a hunter's society, animals would only be items of Consumption but in a pastoral or agrarian society they are the means of production and thus have to be protected and reared. In such circumstances a ritual that demands the regular sacrifice of milk-rendering and draught cattle (used in fields) would become an inconvenient one. And if it has acquired religious overtones then it would have to be grudgingly observed even in a pastoral or agrarian society. If such a practice having religious sanction is to be curtailed and abolished a rival religion would become necessary to combat the established religion. Such a situation existed in the time of Buddha and Mahavir in which Vedic ritualism took a heavy toll of cattle in the Yagnas that had to be performed as an act of faith. But fundamental changes had taken place in the economic basis of Indian society which had transformed the Yagna ritual and animal sacrifice into a drain on the economic structure. The reasons for these changes were deep-seated.


As Animal Sacrifice had been Ritualized by the Ethics of Hunter's Society, its Abolition Needed A Rival Religious Ethic that Prohibited Animal Sacrifice

The basic factor that had transformed life of the people in the Gangetic valley around 700 B.C.E. was the widespread used of iron. With the invention of iron implements agriculture became an established occupation, as this facilitated the clearing up of forests and the ploughing of land. The establishment of settled agriculture as the main occupation of a majority of the population made necessary the establishment of fixed market places (the weekly Mandis and Haats in rural India) where agricultural produce along with draught animals, cattle and agricultural implements could be bought and sold. Around these market places evolved towns which became centres of commerce.

The Buddhist Jatakas mention caravans of around 500 to 1000 carts plying between cities like Shravasti and Saketa. The flowering of mercantile activities brought about the concentration of wealth in the hands of the big landed nobles and the traders. In the Buddhist Jatakas written in Pali the landed nobility is referred to as Gahapati literally meaning householder, the traders due to the vast wealth they owned were called Sethhis (or Sresthins in Sanskrlt) meaning 'Great person.

Buddhism was patronised by rich traders during Buddha's Lifetime. A Gahapati by the name Mendaka is recorded to have given 1250 cowherds for the maintenance of Buddha and is Sangha. A Setthi called Anathapindaka is also said to have made generous gifts to Buddha. There are many other instances mentioned in the Buddhist Jatakas which show the patronage given to Buddha by the landed aristocracts and the rich traders.

A Gahapati by the name Mendaka is recorded to have given 1250 cowherds for the maintenance of Buddha and is Sangha. A Setthi called Anathapindaka is also said to have made generous gifts to Buddha. There are many other instances mentioned in the Buddhist Jatakas which show the patronage given to Buddha by the landed aristocracts and the rich traders. Even kings of his day like Ajatashatru of Maqadha patronised Buddha and got himself converted to Buddhism. there is an interesting anecdote of how Ajatashatru came to embrace Buddhism.


The Story of Ajatashatru - The First Royal Convert to Buddhism

When Ajatashatru ruled Magadha, to the north of his kingdom lay the tribal confederacy of the Lichhavis of Vaishali. This tribal confederacy refused to recognise the suzerainty of Magadha. For the subjugation of the Lichhavis, king Ajatashatru waged many wars but hard as he tried he was always repulsed.

Failure of Repeated Attacks of Magadha on Vaishali

After having failed many times, the determined king decided to see for himself the reason for the tenacity of the Lichhavis. So during one of his innumerable battles against Valshali, he realised that success was going to elude him even in that battle he decided to sneak into the ranks of the Lichhavl army and go to Vaishali to see for himself the Lichhavi military and society.

The typical dress of a warrior from ancient India.

Ajatashatru Disguises himself as a Lichhavi soldier and Slips into Vaishali

He slipped out of the battle zone, shaved off his beard, lay aside his royal crown and put on the garments of a captured Lichhavi soldier. But unfortunately his disguise was so perfect that as he was making his way into the ranks of the Lichhavi army he was hit by a soldier from his own army who mistook him to be an enemy Licahhavi soldier. Ajatashatru fell unconscious, but he was evacuated to Vaishali by the Lichhavi troops alongwith other wounded Lichhavi soldiers

Ajatashatru and Amrapali fall in Love

At Vaishali, as Ajatashatru's family background could not be traced he was housed with one of the courtesans of Vaishali, named Amrapali. There Ajatashatru regained consciousness and momentarily forgot that he was at Vaishali in the guise of a Lichhavi soldier. He demanded from Amrapali as to who had brought him there and ordered her bring him an horse as he wanted to return to his palace. Thinking that he was out of his mind due to the blow he had received at the battle, Amrapali humoured him and sportingly treated him as a king. But by his behaviour he had almost given himself away. After regaining proper consciousness he started going about his task of spying in Vaishali. He visited the court of the Lichhavis with Amrapali and gradually found out the secrets of the Lichhavi army where weapons unknown in Magadha were manufacturedwith the help of which the Lichhavis had succeded in repulsing the otherwise powerful Magadhan army. But while going about his shadowy activities at Vaishali, Ajatashatru also fell in love with Amrapali. In turn, Amrapali also grew fond of Ajatashatru, but he could not disclose his real identity to his sweatheart as Amrapali had inveterate hatred of Magadha and its ruler Ajatashatru.


Ajatashatru Slips Out of Vaishali and Re-attacks

After having obtained all the information he wanted Ajatashatru decided that it was time for him to return to Magadha and lead his army once again against Vaishali. One night, he escaped secretly, not even disclosing his depature to Amrapali, who started wondering where her paramour had vanished. But she did not have to wonder for long. As soon as Ajatashatru reached Maqadha he gave orders for the invasion of Vaishali. This time the Magadhan army was well prepared as it knew about the secret weapons of the Lichhavis and the techniques to overcome them. The ensuing battle was a bloody one and after an appalling carnage of the Lichhavi troops, the Magadhans captured Vaishali.

A typical battlefield scene from ancient India before the beginning of a battle.

Amrapali is Horrified on Discovering Ajatashatru's Identity

Upon the taking of Vaishali, the very first act of Ajatashatru was to order his troops to search for Amrapali. But on coming to know the terrible truth of her lover who had brought death and destruction on her beloved Vaishali, and in doing which he had used her as his unsuspecting accomplice - her love for her lover, who was unknown to her was also the king of Magadha - the man she hated, turned into remorse. She had no desire to live and wandered aimlessly out of the devasteted city of Vaishali . Lost in a whirlwind of conflicting emotions, she wandered deep into the forest outside the city when she heard words preaching kindness, love, compassion. She had stumbled into Gautama Buddha a who was on one of his many sojourns for spreading his message of love and brotherhood. Hurt and heartbroken that she was, Amrapali found solace in Buddha's words; she went closer to the Master and fell at his feet and begged him to allow her to join the order. When Amrapali was with Buddha, Ajatashatru's troops had fanned out of Vaishali in search of the woman whom their king sought. They found Amrapali at Buddha's congregation and reported this to Ajatashatru.

Ajatashatru's Conversion to Buddhism

On hearing this, Ajatashatru, to claim his beloved, rushed to the place where Buddha was preaching.. But instead, when he witnessed how remorseful Amrapali had become and in her heartbroken vacant existence she had found solace in Buddha, Ajatashatru - in his moment of glory and pride was also inclined to listen to what the Buddha had to say. The simple words of Buddha, of love and compassion and the plight of his beloved Amrapali; managed to penetrate Ajatashatru's royal pride that had been bloated by his recent victory, and in a moment of reversion from all that he had advocated and practised till then, this man who lived by the sword, broke his scimitar and became a follower of the apostle of non-violence. Ajatashatru was the first royal convert to Buddhism. It is significant that he embraced Buddhism, in the lifetime of the Great Master (Buddha) himself. Later many other Kings patronised Buddhism. Among them were Samrat Ashoka Maurya, Kanishka, Harsha Vardhana and many others.

Now we move on to examine the Socio-economic basis of Buddhism and the reason for the support it received from the trading and mercantile community.

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Sudheer Birodkar

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