Ahimsa Yama: Dharma that can’t be violated

By Bal Ram Singh

The lord of death, Yama, says to Nachiketa, “The imperishable cannot be attained by the perishable, moreover no amount of observance of rituals or ceremonies can earn the imperishable and eternal. This imperishable or Self (Atman) also cannot be attained by the study of Scriptures or intellectual pursuit, nor by frequent listening.”

This conveys two stark points that perishable and imperishable are twins, just like light and dark.

One cannot do away with one retaining the other, as the contrast is law of nature for the sensory perception. Similarly, Yama of yoga has a meaning of ‘giving up’ or ‘not doing,’ that refers to giving up or not doing it – something to keep or doing something else.

It has a negative connotation, but negative of something bad – something is bad but do something not or negative of that implies do good/positive, is good.

There are five Yamas:

  • Ahinsa: No violation or give up violence

  • Satya: No lies

  • Asteya: No stealing

  • Brahmacharya: Give up lust, incorporate creative conduct

  • Aparigraha: Give up covetousness, extreme desire to possess or acquire worldly things

In Yama (यम), the two letters, ya (य) means expansion, and ma (म) means prevent.

Thus, it means preventing certain tendencies of the mind, or cessation of certain activities and thoughts.

To do or understand yoga, one must understand, decide, follow, and practice Yama i.e. will not follow and practice violence, lies, stealing, lust and covetousness, because these are distractive and disturbing to mind, that prevents the mind to become still, allowing it to be focused for observations of the reality.

Yama needs to be practiced with all of the following three faculties, Manasa (with mind), Vachana (with speech), and Karmanaa (with action).

The first of the Yama is Ahinsa, which is usually translated as non-violence, as was advocated by Mahatma Gandhi, who is many times criticized by modern intellectuals and activists. The actual meaning even for Gandhi was not non-violence. He said, “My nonviolence does admit of people, who cannot or will not be nonviolent, holding and making effective use of arms. Let me repeat for the thousandth time that nonviolence is of the strongest, not of the weak.”

He went on to say, “I do believe that, where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence… I would rather have India resort to arms in order to defend her honor than that she should, in a cowardly manner, become or remain a helpless witness to her own dishonor.”

How to reconcile this seemingly contradictory messages. There must be a way to examine the meaning of Yama that will make rational sense of the meaning of Ahinsa. Ahinsa is extensively dealt with in Mahabharata, including proclaiming Ahinsa even defines Dharma.

अहिंसा परमो धर्मस्तथाहिंसा परो दमः।

अहिंसा परमं दानमहिंसा परमं तपः॥

Ahimsā paramo dharmas tathāhimsā paro damah

Ahimsā paramam dānam ahimsā paramas tapah

(28, महाभारत, अनुशासन पर्व, अध्याय 116, दानधर्मपर्व)

The meaning of this shloka refers to the Ahimsa being the greatest dharma or virtue, it is the ultimate restraint, is greatest the charity, and greatest austerity. Therefore, Ahinsa is supposed to the greatest path to follow.

However, it is to be remembered that this discussion between Yudhisthir and Pitamah Bhisma is meaningless as those two together killed many in the war. Assuming these great personalities were not in a regret mode, or were not deluded with the human cost of the war, one has to explore other possible meaning of the statements.

The way out is to use a modern framework of things when are influencing each other, also are the elements of definition of each other. In Chemistry, there is a concept of reversibility of any reaction. For example, if C + O2 ßàCO2, meaning Carbon (C) and Oxygen (O2) can form or define CO2, then CO2 also can form or define C and O2. Similarly, an equation can be written for Ahinsa and Dharma that sets them up to define each other.

Ahinsa ßàDharma, which would suggest Ahinsa leads to Dharma, or Dharma leads to Ahinsa.


Since Dharma is defined to be Sanatana or eternal that cannot be violated, Ahinsa would have to mean non-violation, not the non-violence. In this way, Yama of Yoga, and the pedagogical aspect of the Agam gyan (inductive knowledge) expects and exhalts people to pursue the eternal or imperishable (Dharma through Ahinsa) by giving up the perishable (hinsa) rather than Ahinsa (the imperishable Dharma).

Balram Singh is a Professor and the President of the Institute of Advanced Sciences, Dartmouth, Massachusetts, researching on Ayurveda, Yoga, Vedic education, and Vedic social and political traditions. He is also adjunct faculty at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi.

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