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Hindu History

- The Socio-economic Roots of Ahimsa (The Non-Violence Ethic)

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By Sudheer Birodkar

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Table of Contents

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Buddhist monks proceeding to prayer.

Most Supporters of Buddhism and Jainism were from the Merchant Classes

As we saw in the last chapter it is evident from the story of King Ajatashatru that Buddhism received royal patronage right from its inception. Apart from the romanticised tale of King Ajatashatru and the courtesan Amrapali, the reason why kings like Ajatashatru, traders like Anathapindaka, Kosiyagotta and Mendaka, patronised Buddhism was that the new faith advocated principles that suited their way of life. Even Jainism, (which was contemporary of Buddhism) found ardent supporters among the landed nobility and the mercantile community. Many principles are common to Buddhism and Jainism. Both religions deny the authority of Vedas and disown Vedic rituals of animal sacrifice. This earned them the support of the mercantile and agrarian classes. Their concept of ahimsa and non-violence, directly benefited agricultural and pastoral activities both of which require conservation of animal (bovine) life. But with its excessive emphasis on non-violence, Jainism stood in the way of agriculturists whose activities require the killing of insects and pests. Nor did Mahavira's ideas become entirely acceptable to the agrarian community due to its ban on the ownership of property in the form of land. Hence those who accepted Jainism were mostly those who were engaged in mercantile pursuits, traded in commodities and who hence confined themselves to financial transactions without owing any landed property. This is the possible explanation behind the predominance of Jains in ancient times (and even today) in trade and maritime pursuits.

India's western coast had widespread trade contact with foreign countries since ancient times, therefore it is not surprlsing why a significant portion of the population there opted for Jainism. Even today the Jain community is concentrated in Gujarat, Rajasthan and Karnataka and many Jains are till today engaged mainly in trading and mercantile activities.

Buddhism and Jainism Adopted Favourable Attitudes Towards Trade

Both Buddhism and Jainism adopted an attitude favourable to trade and commerce. As contrasted with this, the early Vedic law books prescribe the mercantile and agrarian professions to the Vaishyas who were ranked after the Brahmins and Kshatriyas. Brahmins were allowed to undertake trading activities only during times of distress. A Hindu lawgiver, Baudhayana condemns voyaging by sea as a sinful practice. The Hindu dogmas that a voyage across the seas caused the person to lose his religion (dharma) and his caste were born out of this attitude. As against this, Buddhism encouraged sea voyages. As Buddha's attitude towards trade was favourable he received generous gifts from the trading community for his Sangha (monastic order). It was natural for the trading community to turn to the new faiths as compared to the Vedic religion which looked down upon mercantile activities. It is not surprising that the first two followers of Buddha - Sariputta and Mogallana were two merchants passing through Bodh Gaya.


A Person had to pay off his Debts before joining the Buddhist Sangha

Signifiantly the Buddhist scriptures nowhere condemns the practise of usury (money-lending with interest). On the contrary they advocate the right to livelihood through mercantile activities. There seems to be an intimate relationship between the Buddhist order and the urban based Setthis who perhaps lent money on interest and were looked down upon in the Brahminical scriptures. Buddha himself enjoins that a person pay off his debt before joining the Buddhist Sangha and no debtor is allowed to join. Thus indirectly though by enjoining payment of debts, Buddhism supported usury which is a corollary of mercantile activities.

There seems to be an intimate relationship between the Buddhist order and the urban based Setthis who perhaps lent money on interest and were looked down upon in the Brahminical scriptures. Buddha himself enjoins that a person pay off his debt before joining the Buddhist Sangha and no debtor is allowed to join. (Seen here are coins some of which date back to the Buddha's time.)

Other corollaries of mercantile activities also received support from Buddhism. For instance while the Brahminical law giver Apastamba prohibits the higher castes from taking food cooked at eating houses located on trade routes, the Buddhist texts apparently support this practice. Buddhism also placed emphasis on unlawful practices harmful to trade like robbery, deception and intimidation. At one place Buddha himself equates the food earned by unlawful means with the leavings of a Chandala. Thus Buddhism and Jainism which provided a creed that preached non-violence, forbade burglary and brigandage of property, timely payment of debts served the interests of the trading community.


Thus the emergence of Buddhism and Jainism at a particular Juncture of social development cannot be explained only as a pious humanistic revulsion against violent practices of animal sacrifice. They were a result of the friction between established social Practices and an emerging way of life whose requirements these practices violated. As Indian society passed from the hunting to the pastoral and to the agrarian stage, livestock which formerly was a usual item of diet became an essential means of production, whose preservation became an economic necessity. The propertied trading and agrarian community had much to gain from a creed that preached prohibition of the waste of productive resources through animal sacrifice as most of these animals and other items like graio milk, honey, etc., must have been taken by the priests from these trading and agrarian communities as a social obligation having religious sanction. This was the reason why Buddhism, Jainism and other similar doctrines could take root at one particular juncture of social development with ardent support from the agrarian and trading communities. Although the natural human instinctive revulsion against violence exists wherever violence which ls not essential for human survival is practiced. Nevertheless, with their prescriptions of non-violence, along with universal brotherhood, love, compassion and a general charitable attitude, these religions apart from serving the interests of merchants and traders also had a salutary effect on society in general. The following story of a bandit named Angulimala brings out this aspect.

The Conversion of the Bandit Angulimala

Angulimala was a dreaded dacoit who also lived during Buddha lifetime. He was a terror of traders and merchants travelling from one city to another. Angulimala's activities had given him the notoriety of being a ruthless bandit who would suck his victims clean of all their money, jewellery, valuables and merchandise. Even their horses and bullocks would be taken away and those unfortunate victims who were unwise enough to resist Angulimala and his accomplices would be maimed and even done to death.

Traders formed big Groups of Caravans defended by Armed Troops to Protect Themselves from Angulimala

He had become such a terror that the very mention of his name brought a chill in the spine of many traders whose profession required them to travel from one city to another. Even a waft of rumour that Angulimala was lying in wait on any trade route brought about Ehe cancellation of caravan journeys of merchants. Many kings of the Gangetic valley had made attempts to capture the dacoit, but Angulimala had eluded all of them. As his notoriety spread merchants started getting more cautious and travelled only in big groups accompanied with a strong battalion of armed guards. This brought about a fall in Angulimala's earnings and day by day he grew more desperate.

Angulimala Robs Buddha

One day during such despondency Angulimala and his gang of dacoits spied on a group of monks going though the forest. The monks were unarmed and seemed easy prey for Angulimala. But the only disappointing aspect was that they did not appear to have anything worthwhile to rob. Most of them were barefooted and apart from a single loincloth draped across their bodies, a walking stick and a begging bowl they had nothing else with them.

Angulimala suspected that they were either rich merchants who had come in the guise of monks to deceive him or were troops in disguise sent to apprehend his gang of dacoits. Out of caution Angulimala decided not to set upon them immediately but to watch their activities and then attack them if advisable. He tracked the group of monks throughout the day. Towards nightfall the monks settled down in one clearing in the forest and one of them, who was no other than Gautama Buddha himself started speaking before the group of monks.


The Deer Park where Buddha gave his first sermon. The Buddha used to say that the wealth we accumulate during our lives is not really our wealth, thus we have to leave it behind when we commence our eternal journey. A person's real wealth are his acts of charity and service to others which are cherished by the beneficiaries even after the person is no more. Thus even after a bodily death, such a person remains alive in the memories of others.

Angulimala who was hiding within earshot, heard Buddha saying that the wealth we accumulate during our lives is not really our wealth, thus we have to leave it behind when we commence our eternal journey. A person's real wealth are his acts of charity and service to others which are cherished by the beneficiaries even after the person is no more. Thus even after a bodily death, such a person remains alive in the memories of others. Thus a person who gives his material wealth to others becomes a really rich person and not one who aims at depriving others of wealth by cheating or robbery.

These words struck Angulimala as a block of ice to a roaring fire. For the first time Angulimala pondered introspectively on his acts. He not only decided to leave the monks alone but in the days to come he became increasingly remorseful while indulging in acts of brigandage. One day he decided that he had enough of the wretched robber's life, he left his accomplices and started living the life of a secluded monk. He wanted to join Buddha's Sangha (Monastic order) but wondered if he would be admitted into it due to his past activities One day he decided that he would leave his secluded abode and go to meet Buddha personally.

With this objective he entered the town of Shrtvasti in which Buddha was camping at that time. Angulimala was dressed like a monk and also looked like one, but he still was the same person who till a few days back was a feared bandit. Unfortunately for him, he was recognised by some residents of Shravasti who had been his victims once upon a time. His sudden appearance in the city filled the residents with fear, and looking at him dressed like a monk, made some feel that he had come with some new nefarious intention. Ultimately a group of merchants got together and with the help of some city ruffians caught hold of Angulimala and began mortally beating him up. They left a profusely bleeding Angulimala to die the same gory death which he himself had brought upon many others. Severely wounded, Angulimala managed to make his way to his master, Gautama Buddha, who we are told instantly recognised Angulimala and personally attended to Angulimala's wounds.

But the wounds proved fatal. And although the touch of Buddha cleared Angulimala's conscience; shortly after reaching Buddha's camp Angulimala passed away and attained Nirvana.

This episode illustrated the widespread effect that the teachings of Buddha were having on people from literally all walks of life.


Vegetarianism and Non-Violence - Buddhist Influences on Hinduism

Through its effect on the thinking of the general population, the rise of Buddhism also dealt a severe jolt to the Vedic religion. Many practices which became characteristic of later Hinduism were a result of this jolt. The Hindu insistence on vegetarianism was the most important one.

In the post-vedic period, with agriculture becoming the main occupation, the continuing practice of slaughtering the much needed livestock in the Yagnas put a heavy strain on the agrarian economy. Thus a new ethic was needed to curb this practice. The emergence of Buddhism and Jainism fulfilled this need. (Seen here is the monolithic statue of Bahubali worshipped by the Jains)

As discussed in the chapter on the fire sacrifice of Yagna could have been a ritualisation of the cooking function of the tribal period of early Aryan society in which the yagna fireplace was the central fire (hearth) of the common tribal kitchen. (Refer Chapter on The Rise and fall of the Caste System, section on Brahmins -Those Baptised by Fire). That mostly meat must have been cooked (roasted) on the central fireplace of the Aryan tribe is evident as meat was the main item of food available and essential to conserve energy in those days of collective hunting. The logical corollary of this is that meat eating must have been associated with the original activity which later got ritualized in to the Yagna fire sacrifice in the post Vedic days when hunting was no longer the main occupation and its place was taken by pastoral and agricultural activities. But even after the Yagna had become a ritual in the Post Vedic times, the sacrificing of animals must have been an essential part of the Yagna ritual. even the eating of meat during a Yagna was an established practice in those days. This is borne out by the statement in the Manusmriti according to which "He who performs the Yagna but does not eat the sacrificial meat is condemned to be born as an animal whose meat he refuses to eat for 21 future rebirths." But in the changed circumstances, with agriculture becoming the main occupation, the continuing practice of slaughtering the much needed livestock in the Yagnas put a heavy strain on the agrarian economy. Thus a new ethic was needed to curb this practice. The emergence of Buddhism and Jainism fulfilled this need.

The determined support which these new faiths received from society at large, but especially from the mercantile community which was the rising class of that age, gave these religions a strong social base . The Vedic religion had to change to adapt itself to the new material conditions, if it was to survive. The Mitakashara treatise by the law giver Vidnyaneshwara written after the practice of meat eating had fallen into disgrace, forbids the regular eating of flesh in Kaliyuga (dark age), but simultaneously concedes permission for meat eating during performance of the Yagna. This represents the ambivalent attitude of the later Vedic religion towards meat eating. Gradually came the taboo on meat eating, initially on those animals which were important for the agrarian economy - the cow and the bull, this was later made into a general ban on eating meat as well as fish and eggs. But an exception was made for milk and milk products. This process reached its climax with the deification of the cow (Gomata) and bull (Nandi). But such deification or at least glorification is not peculiar to Indian society alone, it had existed in many agrarian societies. It seems to have existed even in the pre-Aryan Indus culture as is brought out by the appearance of the bull on many Indus seals. But the acceptance in the Dharmashastras of an attitude prohibiting animal sacrifice and meat eating was inevitable for the Vedic religion if it was to stem the tide of the propertied merchant and agricultural classes towards Buddhism and Jainism. If the Vedic religion was to survive in a changing society, the support of the dominant classes had to be retained. And for which those practices which violated the interests of this class had to be dropped.

In place of the actual sacrifice of living creatures during the Yagna, what was now done was the symbolic breaking of a coconut and the offering of small figures of bulls and horses (Pista-Pashu) representing the animals that had formerly been sacrificed during a Yagna. Consumption of beef was replaced by the consumption of the five elements issuing from the cow, viz. the cowdung, cow's urine, milk, curds and clarified butter mixed together in a liquid (slurry) called Pancha-Gavya. The constituents honey and sugar later replaced cowdung and cow's urine! when vegetarianism was further refined, to give us the Panchamrita of today.

The acceptance of the Buddhist and Jaina doctrine of ahimsa by the Vedic religion with the continued the Yagna ritual characterised the later Hindu religion. The Yagna ritual in an altered version was a combination of convenience. This peculiar but convenient combination became characterized of later Hindu theology. So much so that today we have forgotten that the ideals of non-violence and vegetarianism came into being as a reaction against animal sacrifices of the early Hindu religion of the Vedic period.

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Now we move on to examine a much vexed topic, that of Secularism and Religious Tolerance in India.

Sudheer Birodkar

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View the Table of Contents

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