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India and 'Ahimsa'

The Sanskrit word, ahimsa, is usually interpreted as meaning 'non-violence.'

Ahimsa is an important doctrine in the religions of Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism. Among Buddhists there are sanctions against killing animals. Religious Hindus, particularly in the southern parts of India, often abstain from eating meat in accordance with the belief in not harming animals.

The most noteworthy example of ahimsa, though, is found among the Jains, among whom the religious even avoid stepping on insects.

Exactly when and how the belief in ahimsa came into being is a hotly-debated question. Many modern devout Hindus, particularly those who worship the god Vishnu, claim that ahimsa was practiced in the earliest times as portrayed in the scriptures known as the Vedas.

However, scholars and other Hindus note that the Vedas have many references, some of them very detailed, mentioning animal sacrifice, and giving instructions on the performance of such rites.

Indeed, among the many Hindu sects existing today, probably most still practice some form of sacrifice. Certain groups among the worshippers of the goddesses Kali and Durga, and of the god Shiva, perform animal sacrifice using mostly buffalo and goats.

The value of sacrifice really starts to get questioned by ancient Indian philosophers around the time of the writing of the Upanishads, and of the rise of Jainism and Buddhism.

The idea seemed to crop up in the area that today comprises the Indian state of Bihar and the Terai of Nepal. In ancient times, this region was known as Kosala.

Among the peoples in Kosala, as in other parts of South Asia, it was very common to have totem animals that were revered and inviolable. Some experts believe that the amalgamation of many such peoples may have lead to a general idea of non-violence toward all living beings.

But ahimsa came to mean not only non-violence. Among the Jains, for example, one of the greatest virtues was to show compassion and kindness to fellow living beings.

Many Jain temples ran hospitals known as pinjrapole to care for sick and even elderly animals. When animals in their care died, they were accorded funeral rites similar to humans.

The doctrine of ahimsa was the first widely popular practice of its kind that we know of. Today's vegetarians, animal rights activists, pacifists, peaceniks and other such folk likely owe a lot to the the ancient practice of ahimsa.

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