The Ahimsa Way

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My 16-year-old friend’s eyes gleamed with joy. She had just bought a new pair of shoes. Her older sister wanted to try them on. “Don’t touch them, they are mine,” screamed the little sister. The mother stood by helplessly, consoling the older girl by saying, “Don’t be upset, you can have one too.” Between the two girls, they had almost 30 pairs of shoes and although they had the same shoe size, they never shared them. Why do we as adults encourage such ‘himsa’ behaviour?

We live in an age of gross accumulation. Shoes, handbags, cell phones, clothes, cars – it is not enough to have the latest model, we must have varieties of them – and all for ourselves alone. One of the subtle forms of violence today is the tyranny of accumulation. Modern culture, based on productivity, greater profits, and pounding advertisements, keeps giving us false needs. To live well, we must have more and more. And while we have more, we must make sure that those around us don’t have more than we do. Living this way makes life very complicated and makes us himsa people as we spend time and energy guarding the things we accumulate with such violence.

Apart from the many things we insist on owning, the himsa way of life also makes us relate to people as possessions. Just as we cling to our clothes, perfumes and handbags, we also become possessive about our relationships. Once someone has offered us friendship, affection, love or care in some way, we want more and more of the same thing. So we cling to the person who gave it to us, forgetting that they too are human with similar needs. When they share their goodness with others, or are unable to give us more of what we need, we become himsa people – attacking, accusing, abusing and discarding them.

The ahimsa way of life embraces simple living – is a non-accumulative life;when we avoid accumulating things, possessive relationships and try to live in harmony and fairness with everything and every one around us.

Defining simplicity

Today we struggle to define simplicity. To one person, it is living frugally, rarely buying new items, making things last as long as possible, re-using plastic bags etc. To another, it is living in a beautiful house but being minimalist, with a few expensive, classy things; and to yet another, it is wearing khadi, eating vegetarian food and travelling by public transport.

Each of us has to make our own commitment to living the ahimsa way (living simply) — whether it means asking ourselves do we really need another sari or pair of shoes, or giving away what we don’t use or need, or sharing what we have with others.

However, simple living is not just about ; living without fewer material things. It is also about living compassionately, and with love and being sensitive to the millions around us who do not have half the things we do.

20-year-old Ambrose, from an orphanage in Kenya, taught me one of the most important lessons in living simply. He was “dad” to the 30 orphans there. As I followed him around, I noticed the many ways in which he took care of the children there. He would wipe the noses of the little ones. Kick a ball back to one who was standing in a corner, tell a joke and make everyone laugh. All of this was done with a huge smile, a big hug and such love in his face and body language. One day the children were singing on stage. One little girl had a beautiful, new hairband, but she hadworn it the wrong way. Ambrose was sitting beside me when he noticed it. “Oh dear, she will be so upset when she see the photos,” he said. So he unobtrusively went back stage, mingled with the group singing and dancing with them and quietly adjusted the girl’s hair band so that she looked like everyone else. I remember thinking, “What a lovely simple man.”

Ambrose’s own possessions were very few. But just like other youngsters he liked branded clothes and shoes. “What would you like the next time I come from India?” I asked him. “Calvin Klein underwear,” he said very seriously. Each one lives simply in their own ways, I realised; and chooses their own bits of non-simple living! Living simply, perhaps is an attitude. An attitude that embraces the good things of life, without making us dependent, addicted or possessive about them.

As we pursue the simple way of life, according to our own paths, we realise that experiencing the inward reality of simplicity, taught by all our scriptures, liberates us outwardly too. Speech becomes truthful and honest. The need for status and position slowly disappears because we no longer need them. We give up showy extravagance. Our possessions become more available to

Our world is not getting simpler, but more complex everyday, which is why we desperately need the discipline of simplicity. A simple lifestyle where ‘others’ needs are as important as ours demands that we think about those who have no food, education, health care, while we have plenty. This may be hard for many people, because thinking and living this way means giving up a selfish, greedy lifestyle which we have become used to. To change to the idea of simple living after a lifetime of selfish living is very hard to do, yet we must pursue it with all our  hearts.

Changing ourselves

To truly live the ahimsa way, each one of us needs to make lifestyle changes. We need to think about where and in which area of our lives we could begin and make positive changes. We can ask our children to give away a pair of shoes or their clothes when they buy new ones. Or we could buy a sack of rice or dal for our maid or driver when we buy one for our family; or empty our minds of anger, frustration envy and greed when we seem ready to burst with all the negativity. The Ahimsa way also means living contentedly. When the commercial world tells us to want more and more - contentment is not about getting more and more, it is about being happy with what we have. Being content with what we have, gives us the power to say, “Enough.”

Reprinted with permission from the author. This article first appeared in The Hindu, Nov 16, 2008.
Usha Jesudasan is a writer and journalist who has spent much of her life working at the grassroots, bridging the gap between people, cultures and faiths. She has traveled extensively and worked with people and children who have suffered violence.