“Ahimsa” is one of the five core vows and principles of Jainism, and means “non-violence.” The word is derived from Sanskrit, and sometimes spelled “ahinsa” or “avihinsa.” Ahimsa is the first vow learned and perhaps the most fundamental in the entire culture of the religion. It goes far beyond the more common religious doctrine of “don’t kill,” in part because it expands this belief to encompass all life on earth, no matter how small or unintelligent.
True understanding of ahimsa means you don’t have to ask whether or not Jains work as farmers or eat meat — they don’t. These jobs make it too easy to kill microscopic life or insects, and farmers are expected to raise livestock (which will eventually be butchered for food even if the Jain does not do the killing himself). Even Jain Vegetarians must be careful what types of foods they eat for fear of doing more damage to tiny organisms than necessary.
Ahimsa is somewhat different from other vows we’ve discussed in past articles. For example, the principle of non-stealing is not governed by a person’s “intent” to steal. Even thinking about stealing is a transgression. Ahimsa is different, because intention does matter.
Acharya Jinabhadra wrote in the 7th century AD: “It is intention that ultimately matters. From the real point of view, a man does not become a killer only because he has killed or because the world is crowded with souls, or remain innocent only because he has not killed physically. Even if a person does not actually kill, he becomes a killer if he has the intention to kill.”
This belief still allows doctors to cause pain because the intention is not to cause pain, but to heal. The act itself does not mean the vow has been broken.
The five transgressions of ahimsa include, binding animals too tightly, beat animals, cutting animals, overloading animals, and neglecting to feed animals. Although all Jains must remain pacifist, a Jain king would not transgress by fighting to defend his people.