A. NON-KILLING OF ANIMALS
Ahimsa is a comprehensive principle. We are helpless mortals caught in the conflagration
of Himsa. The saying that life lives on life has a deep meaning in it. Man
cannot for a moment live without consciously or unconsciously committing outward
Himsa. The very fact of his living— eating, drinking, and moving
about—necessarily involves some Himsa, destruction of life, be it ever so
minute. A votary of Ahimsa therefore remains true to his faith if the spring of
all his actions is compassion, if he shuns to the best of his ability the
destruction of the tiniest creature, tries to save it, and thus incessantly
strives to be free from the deadly coil of Himsa. He will be constantly growing
in self-restraint and compassion, but he can never become entirely free from
Then again because underlying Ahimsa is the unity of all life, the error of one cannot but affect all, and hence man cannot be wholly free from Himsa. So long as he continues to be a social being, he cannot but participate in the Himsa that the very existence of society involves.
1948, pp. 427-29
Taking life may be a duty. Let us consider this position.
We do destroy as much life as we think is necessary for sustaining the body. Thus for food we take life, vegetable and other, and for health we destroy mosquitoes and the like by the use of disinfectants, etc. and we do not think that we are guilty of irreligion in doing so.
This is as regards one's own self. But for the sake of others, i.e., for the benefit of the species we kill carnivorous beasts. When lions and tigers pester their villages, the villagers regard it as a duty to kill them or have them killed.
Even manslaughter may be necessary in certain cases. Suppose a man runs amuck and goes furiously about sword in hand, and killing any one that comes his way, and no one dares to capture him alive. Anyone who dispatches this lunatic will earn the gratitude of the community and be regarded a benevolent man.
From the point of view of Ahimsa it is the plain duty of every one to kill such a man. There is indeed one exception if it can be so called. The yogi who can subdue the fury of this dangerous man may not kill him. But we are not here dealing with beings who have almost reached perfection; we are considering the duty of a society of ordinary erring human beings.
There may be a difference of opinion as regards the appositeness of my illustrations. But if they are inadequate, others can be easily imagined. What they are meant to show is that refraining from taking life can in no circumstances be an absolute duty.
The fact is that Ahimsa does not simply mean non-killing. Himsa means causing pain to or killing any life out of anger, or from a selfish purpose, or with the intention of injuring it. Refraining from so doing is Ahimsa.
The physician who prescribes bitter medicine causes you pain but does no Himsa. If he fails to prescribe bitter medicine when it is necessary to do so, he fails in his duty of Ahimsa. The surgeon who, from fear of causing pain to his patient, hesitates to amputate a rotten limb is guilty of Himsa. He who refrains from killing a murderer who is about to kill his ward (when he cannot prevent him otherwise) earns no merit, but commits a sin, he practises no Ahimsa, but Himsa out of a fatuous sense of Ahimsa.
Let us now examine the root of Ahimsa. It is uttermost selflessness. Selflessness means complete freedom from a regard for one's body. When some sage observed man killing numberless creatures, big and small, out of a regard for his own body, he was shocked at his ignorance. He pitied him for thus forgetting the deathless soul, encased within the perishable body, and for thinking of the ephemeral physical pleasure in preference to the eternal bliss of the spirit. He there from deduced the duty of complete self-effacement. He saw that if man desires to realize himself, i.e. Truth, he could do so only by being completely detached from the body, i.e. by making all other beings feel safe from him. That is the way of Ahimsa.
A realization of this truth shows that the sin of Himsa consists not in merely taking life, but in taking life for the sake of one's perishable body. All destruction therefore involved in the process of eating, drinking, etc. is selfish and therefore Himsa. But man regards it to be unavoidable and puts up with it. But the destruction of bodies of tortured creatures being for their own peace cannot be regarded as Himsa, or the unavoidable destruction caused for the purpose of protecting one's wards cannot be regarded as Himsa.
This line of reasoning is liable to be most mischievously used. But that is not because the reasoning is faulty, but because of the inherent frailty of man to catch at whatever pretexts he can get to deceive himself to satisfy his selfishness or egoism. But that danger may not excuse one from defining the true nature of Ahimsa. Thus we arrive at the following result from foregoing:
4-11-'26, pp. 384-85
To cause pain or wish ill to or to take the life of any living being out of anger or a selfish intent is Himsa. On the other hand, after a calm and clear judgment to kill or cause pain to a living being with a view to its spiritual or physical benefit from a pure, selfless intent may be the purest form of Ahimsa. Each such case must be judged individually and on its own merits. The final test as to its violence or non-violence is after all the intent underlying the act.
4-10-'28, p. 331
Whilst it is true that mental attitude is the crucial test of Ahimsa, it is not the sole test. To kill any living being or things save for his or its own interest is Himsa, however noble the motive may otherwise be. And a man who harbours ill-will towards another is no less guilty of Himsa because for fear of society or want [of opportunity he is unable to translate his ill-will into action. A reference to both intent and deed is thus necessary in order finally to decide whether a particular act or abstention can be classed as Ahimsa.
18-10-'28 p. 352
I am painfully aware of the fact that my desire to continue life in the body involves me in constant Himsa, that is why I am becoming growingly indifferent to this physical body of mine. For instance, I know that in the act of respiration I destroy innumerable invisible germs floating in the air. But I do not stop breathing. The consumption of vegetables involves Himsa, but I find that I cannot give them up. Again, there is Himsa in the use of antiseptics, yet I cannot bring myself to discard the use of disinfectants like kerosene, etc. to rid myself of the mosquito pest and the like. I suffer snakes to be killed in the Ashram when it is impossible to catch and put them out of harm's way. I even tolerate the use of the stick to drive the bullock in the Ashram. Thus there is no end of Himsa which I directly and indirectly commit. And now I find myself confronted with this monkey problem. Let me assure the reader that I am in no hurry to take the extreme step of killing them. In fact, I am not sure that I would at all be able finally to make up my mind to kill them. As it is, friends are helping me with useful suggestions and the adoption of some of them may solve the difficulty at least temporarily without our having to kill them. But I cannot today promise that I shall never kill the monkeys even though they may destroy all the crops in the Ashram. If as a result of this humble confession of mine, friends choose to give me up as lost, I would be sorry, but nothing will induce me to try to conceal my imperfections in the practice of Ahimsa, All I claim for myself is that I am ceaselessly trying to understand the implications of great ideals like Ahimsa and to practise them in thought, word and deed, and that not without a certain measure of success as I think. But I know that I have a long distance yet to cover in this direction.
1-11-’28, p. 361
The rule of not killing venomous reptiles has been practised for the most part at Phoenix1, Tolstoy Farm1 and Sabarmati.2 At each of these places we had to settle on waste lands, we have had, however, no loss of life occasioned by snakebite. I see, with the eye of faith, in this circumstance the hand of the God of Mercy. Let no one cavil at this, saying that God can never be partial, and that He has no time to meddle with the humdrum affairs of men. I have no other language to express the fact of the matter, to describe this uniform experience of mine. Human language can but imperfectly describe God's ways. I am sensible of the fact that they are indescribable and inscrutable. But if mortal man will dare to describe them, he has no better medium than his own inarticulate speech. Even if it be a superstition to believe that complete immunity from harm for twenty-five years in spite of a fairly regular practice of non-killing is not a fortuitous accident but a grace of God, I should still hug that superstition.
1948, pp. 524-25
My Ahimsa is my own. I am not able to accept in its entirety the doctrine of non-killing
of animals. I have no feeling in me to save the life of those animals who devour
or cause hurt to man. I consider it wrong to help in the increase of their
progeny. Therefore, I will not feed ants, monkeys, or dogs. I will never
sacrifice a man's life in order to save theirs.
Thinking along these lines I have come to the conclusion that to do away with monkeys where they have become a menace to the well-being of man is pardonable. Such killing becomes a duty. The question may arise as to why this rule should not also apply to human beings. It cannot because, however bad, they are as we are. Unlike the animal, God has given man the faculty of reason.
5-5-'46, p. 123
To my mind the life of a lamb is no less precious than that of a human being. I should be unwilling to take the life of lamb for the sake of the human body. I hold that the more helpless a creature, the more entitled it is to protection by man from the cruelty of man.
1948, p. 290
Rightly or wrongly it is a part of my religious conviction that man may not eat meat, eggs, and the like. There should be a limit even to the means of keeping ourselves alive. Even for life itself we may not do certain things.
1948, pp. 302-03
I do not regard flesh-food as necessary for us at any stage and under any clime in which
it is possible for human beings ordinarily to live. I hold flesh-food to be
unsuited to our species. We err in copying the lower animal world if we are
superior to it. Experience teaches that animal food is unsuited to those who
would curb their passions.
But it is wrong to overestimate the importance of food in the formation of character or in subjugating the flesh. Diet is a powerful factor not to be neglected. But to sum up all religion in terms of diet, as is often done in India, is as wrong as it is to disregard all restraint in regard to diet and to give full reins to one's appetite. Vegetarianism is one of the priceless gifts of Hinduism. It may not be lightly given up. It is necessary therefore to correct the error that vegetarianism has made us weak in mind or body, or passive or inert in action. The greatest Hindu reformers have been the activest in their generation and they have invariably been vegetarians. Who could show greater activity than say Shankara or Dayananda in their times ?
The choice of one's diet is not a thing to be based on faith. It is a matter for everyone to reason out for himself. There has grown up especially in the West an amount of literature on vegetarianism which any seeker after truth may study with profit. Many eminent medical men have contributed to this literature. Here, in India, we have not needed any encouragement for vegetarianism. For it has been hitherto accepted as the most desirable and the most respectable thing.
7-10-'26, p. 347
It should be remembered that mere Jivadaya (kindness to animals) does not enable us to overcome the 'six deadly enemies' within us, namely lust, anger, greed, infatuation, pride and falsehood. Give me the man who has completely conquered self and is full of goodwill and love towards all and is ruled by the law of love in all his actions, and I for one will offer him my respectful homage, even though he be a meat-eater. On the other hand, the Jivadqya of a person who is steeped in anger and lust but daily feeds the ants and insects and refrains from killing has hardly anything in it to recommend itself. It is a mechanical performance without any spiritual value. It may even be worse—a hypocritical screen for hiding the corruption within.
15-9-'40, p. 285
'I cannot rebuild your body unless you take milk. If in addition you would take iron and
arsenic injections, I would guarantee fully to renovate your constitution.'
'You can give me the injections', I replied, 'but milk is a different question; I have a vow against it.'
'What exactly is the nature of your vow ?' the doctor inquired.
I told him the whole history and the reasons behind my vow, how, since I had come to know that the cow and the buffalo were subjected to the process of phooka, I had conceived a strong disgust for milk. Moreover, I had always held that milk is not the natural diet of man. I had therefore abjured its use altogether. Kasturba was standing near my bed listening all the time to this conversation.
'But surely you cannot have any objection to goat's milk then,' she interposed.
The doctor too took up the strain 'If you will take goat's milk, it will be enough for me,' he said.
I succumbed. My intense eagerness to take up the Satyagraha fight had created in me a strong desire to live, and so I contented myself with adhering to the letter of my vow only, and sacrificed its spirit. For although I had only the milk of the cow and the she-buffalo in mind when I took the vow, by natural implication it covered the milk of all animals. Nor could it be right for me to use milk at all, so long as I held that milk is not the natural diet of man. Yet knowing all this I agreed to take goat's milk. The will to live proved stronger than the devotion to truth, and for once the votary of truth compromised his sacred ideal by his eagerness to take up the Satyagraha fight. The memory of this action even now rankles in my breast and fills me with remorse, and I am constantly thinking how to give up goat's milk. But I cannot yet free myself from that subtlest of temptations, the desire to serve, which still holds me.
My experiments in dietetics are dear to me as a part of my researches in Ahimsa. They give me recreation and joy. But my use of goat's milk today troubles me not from the view-point of dietetic Ahimsa so much as from that of truth, being no less than a breach of pledge. It seems to me that I understand the ideal of truth better than that of Ahimsa, and my experience tells me that, if I let go my hold of truth, I shall never be able to solve the riddle of Ahimsa. The ideal of truth requires that vows taken should be fulfilled in the spirit as well as in the letter. In the present case I killed the spirit—the soul of my vow— by adhering to its outer form only, and that is what galls me. But in spite of this clear knowledge I cannot see my way straight before me. In other words, perhaps, I have not the courage to follow the straight course. Both at bottom mean one and the same thing, for doubt is invariably the result of want or weakness of faith. 'Lord, give me faith' is, therefore, my prayer day and night.
1948, pp. 556-58
I abhor vivisection with my whole soul. I detest the unpardonable slaughter of innocent life in the name of science and humanity so-called, and all the scientific discoveries stained with innocent blood I count as of no consequence. If the circulation of blood theory could not have been discovered without vivisection, the human kind could well have done without it. And I see the day clearly dawning when the honest scientist of the West will put limitations upon the present methods of pursuing knowledge. Future measurements will take note not merely of the human family but of all that lives, and even as we are slowly but surely discovering that it is an error to suppose that Hindus can thrive upon the degradation of a fifth of themselves or that peoples of the West can rise or live upon the exploitation and degradation of the Eastern and African nations, so shall we realize in the fullness of time that our domination over the lower order of creation is not for their slaughter, but for their benefit equally with ours. For I am as certain that they are endowed with a soul as that I am.
17-12-'25, p. 440
Bowing to the Earth we learn or ought to learn to be humble even as the Earth is humble. She supports the beings that tread upon her. She is therefore rightly the consort of Vishnu. This conception, in my opinion, does no violence to truth. On the contrary, it is beautiful and is wholly consistent with the idea that God is everywhere. There is nothing inanimate for Him. We are of the Earth earthy. If Earth is not, we are not. I feel nearer God by feeling Him through the Earth. In bowing to the Earth, I at once realize my indebtedness to Him and if I am a worthy child of that Mother, I shall at once reduce myself to dust and rejoice in establishing kinship with not only the lowliest of human beings, but also with the lowest forms of creation whose fate—reduction to dust—I have to share with them. The lowest form of creation is just as imperishable as my soul is.
Bapu's Letters to Mira,
1949, pp. 147-48