Article: Non-violence

Contributed by Jasmine Kelly

One of the fundamental Jain values is ahiṃsā – 'non-violence' or 'non-harm'. It underlies religious practices for both mendicants and lay people and is found throughout Jain doctrine. This explains why for many contemporary Jains their religion can be expressed in a simple maxim, namely:

Ahiṃsā paramo dharmaḥ

Non-violence is the highest religious duty.

Although the English phrase 'non-violence' can be understood as an absence of violence, in Jain belief ahiṃsā has a much more active dimension. Among contemporary Jains, ahiṃsā has been interpreted to include activism in matters such as peace, the environment, animal welfare and alleviation of poverty.

Ahiṃsā is closely associated with key religious concepts such as the soul, karma, the cycle of birth and cosmology. Attachment to the world and the activities that arise from it, even everyday living, create karmas that bind the soul in the cycle of births. All living beings have a souljīva – which is reborn in different bodies and conditions according to the karma it generates. Violence – hiṃsā – especially deliberate, extreme violence such as murder, creates powerful negative karma that result in the soul's rebirth as a plant, two-sensed being or even an infernal being. Non-violence thus reduces the production of negative karmas, thereby helping the soul progress towards liberation, which is the ultimate aim of Jainism.

As one of the principal Jain teachings, ahiṃsā is stressed throughout Jain literature. Tales of the lives of the Jinas, leaders of the Jain faith, often include episodes of ahiṃsā to inspire Jains to practise non-violence.

Violence may be intentional or committed through error or carelessness. Jains believe that unintentional violence is an inevitable part of everyday life, as merely eating, drinking and washing harm the tiny ekendriyas that are found in water, fire and all parts of the universe. However, followers of the Jinas can go some way to limiting the violence they commit.

The best way to reduce violence, both accidental and deliberate, is to become a mendicant. As part of their initiation, monks and nuns take the five māha-vratas, the 'fundamental vows' that express the key moral principles of the faith. The first of these is ahiṃsā. Throughout their lives, Jain mendicants strive to reduce the violence that living entails by following rules designed to improve self-awareness, self-control and carefulness. Observing these rules minimises inadvertent violence.

Lay people cannot perform non-violence to the same degree as mendicants because daily living involves unintentional injury to other souls. However, they can practise self-control and carefulness, taking care to avoid violence and prevent it where possible.

All Jains are vegetarian, as this diet lessens harm to other living beings. There are numerous rules on what foods are suitable, which differ in the various sects. Mendicants are subject to stricter rules than lay people, who may not observe all the traditional regulations nowadays.

A common public demonstration of ahiṃsā in practice is the institution of the animal hospital. Jains frequently set up sanctuaries for sick and injured animals as an expression of ahiṃsā in the wider sense of caring for living beings.

This piece is a summary of the article "Non-violence". The full article will be available soon.


The Sanskrit term ahiṃsā is normally translated into English as 'non-violence', and is frequently thought of as 'not being deliberately violent' or 'peaceful'. The Jain concept is more accurately understood as meaning:

  • 'doing no harm, whether deliberate or accidental'
  • trying to actively protect living beings by restraining one's behaviour.

In more recent times, it has been interpreted more widely to include friendship and goodwill towards all living beings.

Effects of violence

This colourful manuscript painting depicts some of the torments endured by infernal creatures in hell. Beings are born in one of the seven hells because of the negative karmas – pāpa-prakṛtis – their souls have produced in previous lives by bad behaviour.

Tormented souls
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

Violence – hiṃsā – can be performed in thought, word and deed and can be deliberate or accidental. The effects of violence on others can be very damaging, such as pain, injury or death. Jains believe that acting, speaking or thinking violently is also very detrimental to the soul. Ahiṃsā is therefore closely associated with fundamental Jain beliefs regarding the soul, karma and the cycle of birth.

The liberation of the soul or self – jīva – is the objective of the Jain faith. The soul is born into a physical body, lives and dies, and is then reborn into another body in a perpetual cycle of birthsaṃsāra. The soul is trapped within saṃsāra by the karmas attached to it and can only break out when it is free of all karmas. The type of bodygati – into which the soul is embodied depends on certain karmas it has gathered during its previous lifetimes.

All the various types of karmas are generated by activities, which can broadly be divided into good or bad, with good actions following Jain principles while bad actions go against them. Good conduct generates positive karmas – puṇya-prakṛtis – while bad behaviour produces negative karmas – pāpa-prakṛtis. Positive karmas cause the soul to be born into a desirable condition, such as human being, deity or intelligent animal. Negative karmas result in births of low spirituality, such as insects, worms, plants or beings in hell. These conditions of birth often have little or no capacity for reason, which makes it very hard to progress spiritually towards liberation. The worst kind of karma, with the severest result, comes from committing extreme violence that is deliberately intended – hiṃsā. Even accidental violence creates negative karmas, which corrupt the soul and trap it within the cycle of births.

Therefore Jains must not be violent because:

  • all living things have souls, which must be cherished and protected
  • violence harms the soul of whoever commits it.

The Jain attitude of non-harm and protection extends to all forms of life because Jains recognise the value of the soul within each living creature, no matter how simple and lowly. The life and wellbeing of the soul of a tiny ant are as precious as that of a human being or a god. In Jain belief all life is intimately connected, with all souls striving to gain liberation.


The centrality of non-violence – ahiṃsā – is emphasised throughout Jain holy writings.

For example, the earliest treatise on mendicant behaviour in the Śvetāmbara canon states:

'all breathing, existing, living, sentient creatures should not be slain, nor treated with violence, nor abused, nor tormented, nor driven away. This is the pure, unchangeable, eternal law which the clever ones, who understand the world, have proclaimed.


translation by Jacobi

The fundamental religious text of all sects, the Tattvārtha-sūtra, stresses that careless actions can kill or harm life.

EXT:contentbrowse Processing Watermark

Related Manuscripts

Related Manuscript Images

  • Cosmic man

    Cosmic man

    With commentary by Dharmameru. British Library. Or. 13456. Śrīcandra. 1812

  • Mount Meru

    Mount Meru

    With commentary by Pārśva-candra. British Library. Add. 26374. Ratnaśekhara. 1769 - All text is © JAINpedia / Institute of Jainology 2021 under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 licence The Jain universe online at

Unless images are explicitly stated as either public domain or licensed under a Creative Commons licence, all images are copyrighted. See individual images for details of copyright.