My Dalliance with Ahimsa — Answering the Big Question

As one ages one sometimes remembers things long forgotten. Some people go through stages in life where they try out different philosophies or religions to see which one fits for them. These are sometimes called life crises. There’s the midlife crisis everyone is familiar with, but also the crisis one suffers when the knowledge of leaving childhood enters one consciousness. Both ask the ‘Big Question” of “Who am I, What Do I Believe?”

The passage from childhood to adulthood involves the most profound part of the Big Question because there are so many possibilities to choose from. At midlife it’s a bit different because you’ve already established who you are, but now you’re wondering if it was a mistake.

The Big Question might be asked several times in the course of one’s life. It’s just that the attainment of adulthood and reaching midlife seem to be the most pressing.

Later on, as one approaches or attains retirement from one’s occupation, which probably had a lot to do with the answer to the Big Question, it’s time to reflect. It’s a little late to change the answer to the Big Question but one can always do a little fine tuning.

I’m now well ensconced in this last stage of life. Lately I remembered something I had forgotten, or at least no longer thought about: my dalliance with ahimsa.

Ahimsa is one of the tenets of the Hindu religion of Jainism. It stands for non-violence, causing no harm to any other living thing. It is sometimes thought of as an aspect of Asceticism. Jainism is the religious belief that inspired Mahatma Gandhi’s belief in non-violence. Followers of Jainism take five main vows: ahimsa (“non-violence”), satya (“truth”), asteya (“not stealing”), brahmacharya (“celibacy or chastity”), and aparigraha (“non-attachment”). Jains place little importance on material things and they eschew personal and physical pleasures. Their commitment to non-violence is strong enough so they will likely be vegetarians. It goes without saying that any sort of mind altering illicit drug taking would be anathema to them.

Truth telling and leaving other people’s property alone are important, but my dalliance with Jainism focused mainly on the doctrine of ahimsa, or non-violence. I did also and still do share their stance on not taking drugs for mental or physical pleasure. I remember that when I first found things to read on ahimsa (this was before the internet, long before Wikipedia) I was enthusiastic. Even ecstatic, I’d say.

For some reason I had been desperately looking for evidence that non-violence is the one true path to a virtuous existence. I wanted to be able to counter the arguments I was hearing over the table in the Student Union of the college I was attending. These were arguments that non-violence is childish, violence is sometimes justified, even necessary.

Ahimsa gave me the answer to the Big Question, for a while.

Gandhi had fought the British with non-violence. He won with that strategy. India gained its independence. If we could all be like Gandhi, we could win every disagreement and be proud of what good people we are, right?

Sometimes in this life something will happen that is so rational, so obviously true, one is instantly made to abandon a false notion that once seemed inviolate. For me, it was the light bulb going off in my head that the only reason Gandhi’s non-violence was effective against the British, was that the British were decent people. The British were capable of feeling ashamed of themselves.

Gandhi could never have persuaded Hitler and the German Nazis to stop the holocaust. He could have never shamed them into stopping it. They would have thrown him into the ovens with the latest train arrival delivering Jews to the gas chambers.

It took a just war to stop Hitler. Non-violence is still a noble thing, but sometimes violence is justified. Sometimes it is even necessary. The Big Question again, with a different answer this time.

I had forgotten my dalliance with ahimsa. I’m glad I recently remembered it. It helped me to realize that sometimes a belief in something provides the path to a higher truth.

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