Ahimsa: Do No Harm

Ahimsa is the Vedic concept of do not kill, or do no harm, that is regarded as a virtue in Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism, comprising the largest group of vegetarians world-wide. It can lead to some bizarre excesses in practice, such as Jains sweeping the floor before every step they take in order not to crush insects, but ignoring the fact that with every breath you take, you kill millions of micro-organisms. In the West, vegetarianism also has biblical roots, and a certain Dr. Scott Stoll has written the manifesto for that in his book Alive!.

Veganism tends to be more non-sectarian and secular in nature, citing “ethical” concerns, be they animal welfare, or climate change and the health of the planet. Hippocrates’ principle of “Do no harm,” is never far away either. In other words, its origins are really not too dissimilar from vegetarianism. What I find personally puzzling is why often times vegan people do not take the trouble of studying plant-based nutrition to any degree, resulting in many would be vegans getting frustrated because they don’t get good nutrition. By contrast, the Whole Foods, Plant-Based diet is also vegan in nature, but it is focused entirely on nutrition and health. If you will, it is “healthy vegan.”

In the Hippocratic tradition, there is the concept of “do no harm,” as an admonition to those in the healing arts and in the Abrahamic traditions there is always the “Thou shalt not kill.”

To Kill or not to kill…

That was the question Arjuna raised to Krishna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, when he realized that two sides of his own familiy were fighting each other and Krishna in essence told him not to worry his pretty head, his dharma was to be the best soldier he could be, and that’s what he should focus on. The soul (Atma) lives forever, the body is only temporary, so that choosing life in a body invokes the certainty of death. General Patton, a lifelong student of the Bhagavad Gita had an experience on the battlefield of St. Mihiel in Belgium in Word War I, which reflected this same insight. And here is a reflection on these issues of life and death and respect for life on a current site that deals with spirituality. It is titled Murder. The key lines from the Bhagavad Gita may be the following:

Because, death is certain for the one who is born, and birth is certain for the one who dies. Therefore, you should not lament over the inevitable.
All beings, O Arjuna, are unmanifest before birth and after death. They are manifest between the birth and the death only. What is there to grieve about?
Some look upon this Atma as a wonder, another describes it as wonderful, and others hear of it as a wonder. Even after hearing about it no one actually knows it.
O Arjuna, the Atma that dwells in the body of all (beings) is eternally indestructible. Therefore, you should not mourn for any body.

Bhagavad Gita 2:27-30

As food for thought, imagine you were a police sniper, called in to disable a school shooter. You shoot to kill, preventing greater harm, and stopping the person’s ability to harm others. If you understand your duty correctly, there is no guilt, no blame for killing that shooter.

When watching the movie A Prayer for Compassion, which is really a vegan documentary with the commonly accepted justification that you should go vegan to prevent animal cruelty. One of the images in there shows Jains sweeping the pavement before them, so they won’t inadvertently crush any bugs. At this point you begin to realize that you will never get there. Even eating a carrot, for we now know plants have feelings too, just ask Monica Gagliano, a researcher and professor who speaks with plants. So does my barber, who also happens to be of Italian descent. He grows the best tomatoes.

Monica Gagliano on Plant Intelligence

The upshot is that respect for life is something else than preserving life forms. For everything there is a season, etc. We see the drama of this mistake in medicine when people are being kept alive sometimes against their will even, when they are in a terminal illness. In short, the view that Krishna teaches to Arjuna going into battle is healthier. The sadistic abuse of animals in the factory farming system is not. But there are plenty of examples in indigenous peoples from various parts of the world where the hunter would thank the spirit of the animal he killed. That is an entirely different story, there are climates where people must depend on animal nutrition. Fortunately most of us live in climates where plant-based food is plentiful, and animal-based food is a highly inefficient and unhealthy option we can avoid.

What Krishna teaches Arjuna is similar to what Jesus taught his disciples: Your Kingdom is not of this world, your life is not this body, your life is the spirit, that is what you are. The body lives and dies, but the spirit is your eternal Self. This is not license to go ahead and kill everyone you meet. It does not legitimize wanton murder, but it shifts the focus away from the life of the body to the life of the spirit. As Shakespeare put it: “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” As with everything, our spiritual growth process is exactly about how we deal with all the situations where we have to find our own answers to the challenges and seeming contradictions “on the battlefield,” when our best advice is probably to turn to Jesus, or Krishna, or Quan Yin, depending on which one of those you are closest to, and to follow your best guidance. It is never going to be disrespect, cruelty, or out and out murder.

Hippoctratic Oaths and Other Hypocrisy

It pays to read up on the history of the Hippocratic oath, the link here is to the Wikipedia article, which is excellent. Then, you might read some of the modern versions, updated for our day and age. At the end of the day, some of the moral and ethical issues will always be hard to solve and it is part of our individual journeys to address them the best we can. Many people have said that modern medical practice has often violated the “do no harm” principle. Perhaps, but a lot of it is in the eye of the beholder, and the most difficult situation will always be when people try to impose their own ethics on others. The world would be a better place if some doctors would offer abortions, while others might not, but we would stop judging each other over our personal choices. It is absurd that women should not be allowed to make their own decisions, as long as we consider them as full ciitizens, and nobody is about to turn back the clock and start treating women and children as mere chattel.

Many medications and procedures really will evoke the debate over the limits and meaning of the “do no harm,” principle and again, it is an area where we are better of having fewer rather than more attempts to legislate morality within reason. Full disclosure should be the name of the game. What matters in the legitimate pursuit of healing is that doctor and patient see eye to eye, the soundness of their relationship is the foundation of healing. Whenever we focus on form over content, form over meaning, we end up with hypocrisy and this is where the laws invariably are more often a complication than a solution. How to legislate in this area is immensely difficult. We are seeing this issue play out internationally for example in the fact that assisted suicide for terminal patient is viewed very differently in different countries.


Speaking strictly for myself, I like the principles offered in the article about Murder, to which I provided a link above, here they are:

So this brings us back to the real questions.
I.    Why to kill?
II.    How to kill?

Why Kill?
I.    Kill for food
II.    Kill for self-preservation/protection
III.    Kill to protect life
IV.    Kill to protect virtue and/or quality of life

How to kill?
I.    Kill to eat 
II.    Kill as few as necessary
III.    Kill as painlessly as necessary

“Murder” on Logical Spiritualism

On a more pedestrian level, we are now also entering the age of lab-grown meat, which is yet another cruelty-free alternative for those who feel they cannot do without meat. However, for me personally, the choice is simpler than that, for I find that I have never eaten better in my life than since I switched to a Whole Foods, Plant-Based diet, and once your palate adjusts you never want to go back for the old food tastes dull. It is the optimal human nutrition without any doubt and it makes economic and environmental sense, for it reduces resource utilization by an order of magnitude in water, land and air pollution, so what’s not to like? Lastly, never mind what I learn about the life of plants, which is truly fascinating, still I have an easier time killing a carrot than a cow. Call me silly, but I know the emotional issue of cannibalization goes much deeper, really to an existential level, but that is not to say I don’t feel better with my Whole Foods, Plant-Based diet – and it saves on healthcare costs too. Lastly, Ahimsa, do no harm, must also include tolerance for other points of view. Some people think hamburgers are a civil rights issue. So with Frederick the Great, I think: Jeder soll nach seiner Fasson selig werden (everyone should become happy in their own way).

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