From Early Teachings 1 by Swami Satyananda Saraswati

In the shastras it is said that the code of ahimsa, non-violence, is not applicable during war. The code of ahimsa, satya, truth, brahmacharya, awareness of the higher consciousness, or any ethical or moral law is meant for sannyasins and aspirants, it is not meant for a kshatriya, a military man, fighting in a war. These moral codes which you have studied in raja yoga are the dharma, or way of life, for highly evolved, or you may say, differently evolved, or psychically evolved people or aspirants. Ahimsa is not applicable for a kshatriya. The dharma of a kshatriya is to eat meat three times a day. In the Bhagavad Gita Sir Krishna tells Arjuna that the people he will kill will all be killed anyway, so he should not worry.

Definitions change

Therefore, we say that ahimsa is only applicable for those people who are very sensitive, who try to analyze every action. It is not meant for everyone. You see, in society there are different types of people. Primitive people, for example, are not so worried about ahimsa, they don't know whether killing and non-killing are two different things or not. They see a bird and they kill it. When they see another bird hurt on the ground, they pick it up and nurse it. Their concepts are not so evolved.

If you ask other people who are educated and cultured they will say, "Oh no, you should not kill anything." They are devotees of ahimsa. They don't even want to hurt anyone's feelings, but you will find that they eat meat three times a day. This is because they are not able to analyze, they are not highly evolved, but they are very sensitive souls. It is for these people that my definition of ahimsa also applies. It is a balancing of the extreme definition of ahimsa.

The definition of ahimsa changes according to the evolution of human conception. After a few hundred years it may change. There might come a time when human beings say, "No, don't kill even a single fly," or they may just say that ahimsa is a state of non-hatred, that's all, but I think the eternal viewpoint is that one should have a non-revengeful attitude and one should always protect the significant life. It doesn't mean you should kill the insignificant life unnecessarily, but if the more significant and highly evolved life is endangered, then you should do it.

If you are all sitting here and a tiger comes into your midst what are you going to do? Are you going to shoot it or are you going to open the pages of Sage Patanjali's Yoga Sutras? Even within the social laws so much freedom has been given in an emergency situation. If a thief comes into your home, you can shoot him directly in order to protect your life and property.

The challenge

The practice of absolute ahimsa is only possible for a person who has given up all his responsibilities and duties in life, who has completely retired and prepared himself for ultimate realization. For one who is living in society and who has many commitments in life the practice of absolute ahimsa, as it is understood by the people, is not at all practical, but the concept as pronounced by the Hindu shastras is very practical. You can always protect the poor and punish the tyrant. That is the first dharma and the concept of ahimsa has to be understood in this light.

There cannot be any simple definition of ahimsa. You can say, "Don't kill animals or people, that is ahimsa," but when the question of punishing the tyrant comes, then what are you going to do? This is the final question and this is the challenge of practical life in which the hard reality passes before the path of your ahimsa. It is a challenge.

In the first chapter of the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna did not want to fight. He said, "If I fight, all these people will be killed, their wives will be unprotected and their children will be unprotected. The enemies will take them away. Then those women will bear children and the children will be born with cross impressions. That will be a great loss to our heritage because they will become enemies of our culture."

Again, in the same chapter, Arjuna says, "Oh Lord, my hand is trembling, my skin is burning, my head is reeling. I can't stand to think that all these people should be killed. No, it is not possible. I will not fight. Even if I have to renounce the kingdom, even if I have to renounce pleasure, even if I have to renounce the wealth of the entire state, I am not going to fight. This is my final decision." Having said that, Arjuna threw down his bow and arrows and sat down behind the chariot. That was the first chapter of the Gita.

Immediately, Lord Krishna laughed and said, "Oh Arjuna, you are so brave, so great and so full of valour. Now what has happened to you? You have become so weak in mind that you are unable to decide on the issue according to your dharma. You are a kshatriya, you are not a merchant. You are in the military field. So many preparations have been made. Kings and many people have come from different parts of the country to take part in the war. Now both sides are lined up on the battlefield and you say, ‘No killing – ahimsa'. How do you understand this sublime philosophy, that you should make a retreat in the name of ahimsa? No, it is cowardice. The armies will never understand it and, not only will they, even posterity will criticize your actions however glorious and justified they may be."

Then Krishna asked Arjuna, "If you die and if others die in the war, what harm is there? It has to be. Will anybody say, ‘Oh Arjuna, such a wise man he was. On the battlefield his consciousness developed, he saw everybody was being killed, so he made a spiritual retreat.' Nobody will say it, because if a kshatriya speaks of ahimsa on the battlefield, it is nothing but cowardice, it is his fear complex that is talking."

Absolute ahimsa

I think the practice of absolute ahimsa is only possible when you have given up karma, society and all relations, when you have given up everything, like the great sage Jadabharat, and can sit in meditation, even if a snake comes. That absolute state of ahimsa is not applicable to us. Swami Nityananda of Vajreshwari sat without any protection, always, all his life, and snakes, scorpions, lions, tigers and everything used to be around him.

For him there was no meditation; he was beyond meditation. There was no God; he was beyond God. He did not do conscious meditation because there was no consciousness of the body. He had no cloth. Anybody might bring food to him. He might eat it unconsciously or he might not eat. That state is beyond all. In that state all the shastras are useless, whether Hindu, Christian or Islam. It is a state beyond religion. Then if one practises ahimsa, or if one doesn't, it is all the same.

23 September 1967, Sivanandashram, Munger, India, Satsang given during the first international nine-month Yoga Teacher Training Course