Category Archives: Other Concepts

Avidya (Ignorance)

Avidya is a Sanskrit word most commonly defined as ignorance. This can be misleading if we think of ignorance as a lack of knowledge. Avidya is not simply a lack of knowledge; it is a lack of  what Hindu philosophers sometimes refer to as true knowledge (Singh 394-395). The knowledge we have of the material world around us, our minds, thoughts, bodies, and emotions is worldly knowledge. Avidya is our mistaken belief that these things make up reality, or our true self (Puligandla 218).  Avidya, then, is not simply ignorance, but spiritual ignorance (Lipner 246). It is ignorance of our true selves and of the true nature of reality (Puligandla 244). “It is no accident that light and the reflection of light are common symbols in Hinduism of vidya and the knowing process, respectively. Avidya is spiritual ignorance, symbolized by darkness” (Lipner 247).

Frequently in literature on Hinduism, avidya is said to be synonymous with, ajnana, prakrti, and maya (Nikhilananda 43). There are fine distinctions that need to be made between these words in order to better understand Hindu literature and philosophy. Ajnana is a Sanskrit word that can also be translated to ignorance or without knowledge. More specifically, without true knowledge, or knowledge of one’s true self. Avidya is also a lack of higher knowledge. Both terms allow for lower, or worldly knowledge. Avidya and ajnana can be used synonymously (Chatterjee and Datta 49).

The Sankhya or Samkhya system of Hindu philosophy is based on the dualistic principles of purusa and prakrti (Singh 75). Purusa and prakrti are separate and distinct. Purusa is pure consciousness, spirit, or self. Prakrti is nature or matter. In Sankhya, prakrti is the cause of our minds, bodies, thoughts, and feelings (Puligandla 115). The elements that make up the universe as well as all the physical properties in the universe are prakrti (Chatterjee and Datta 257).  The air we breathe, sunlight, our physical as well as mental composition are all prakrti. Our bodies and minds, and our interaction with the finite, ever-changing world in which we live cause us to have a perception of ourselves and the world that is not true reality. The way we look, feel, and behave is not the true essence of who we are.  In this way, prakrti is the same as avidya, as these are the causes of our false knowledge, or false sense of reality; our ignorance of purusa, the true self. The only way to know purusa is to rid one’s self of avidya (Puligandla 123).

The Advaita Vedanta school of Hinduism can be traced to the Upanisads, which are the last part of the Vedas.  Advaita means oneness or non-dualism. It is here that the concept of avidya is explored and tied to the concepts of maya, Atman, and Brahman (Puligandla 244). Unlike the separate and distinct entities prakrti and purusa in the Sankhya system, Atman and Brahman are identical. In Advaita Vedanta, the non-dualism comes from the belief that Atman (the true self) is Brahman (reality, pure consciousness). They are not separate, but one (Puligandla 244). That is to say, we are always Brahman, but because of the delusion caused by maya, or avidya, we are ignorant. Avidya is our ignorance to the fact that we are Brahman. When avidya is extinguished, we recognize Atman, which is Brahman (Puligandla 244).

Maya is most often translated as illusion. Maya is also sometimes referred to as magic, magical power, and even fraud. Much like prakrti, maya presents us with a material or false reality that keeps us from seeing our true self or Absolute Reality (Atman and Brahman) (Deutsch 28-29). “Maya generally signifies the cosmic illusion on account of which Brahman, or Pure Consciousness, appears as the Creator, Preserver, and Destroyer of the universe. It is under the influence of avidya that Atman, or Pure Consciousness, appears as the jiva, or individual self. Prakrti is the material out of which the universe is evolved. But Vedantic writers do not always strictly maintain these distinctions” (Nikhilananda 43). So prakrti is to purusa as maya is to Brahman, they are both illusions that keep us from seeing our true self.

Dualist or non-dualist, avidya is what keeps one from seeing one’s true self. Avidya is the cause of samsara, the endless cycle of death and rebirth that keeps us trapped in a worldly existence (Chatterjee and Datta 18). In order to be freed from samsara, avidya must be destroyed. Samsara is caused by illusion and once the illusion is destroyed, moksa, or liberation from samsara is achieved (Deutsch 75-76). Once you realize that worldly existence is not reality, there is nothing tying you to it. Avidya is the antithesis of vidya, which is the Sanskrit word for knowledge, or insight.       According to all Indian schools of philosophy, humanity’s state of suffering is due to ignorance (avidya) of his true being and nature (Puligandla 22-23). The Upanisads teach that a person’s true being is Atman (Brahman), which is infinite, eternal, and immortal (Nikhilananda 35). But in ignorance (avidya), one identifies themselves with perishable things such as their mind, body, ego, and thereby develop attachments to them and suffer sorrow when they inevitably lose them (Puligandla 22-23).

Buddhism also recognizes avidya, and it is also defined as ignorance. Buddhists believe that there are four Noble Truths. These are: 1) Sorrow/Suffering: All living, sentient beings experience suffering; 2) Origin/Cause: The major cause of suffering is craving or desire for the illusory; 3) Cessation/Ending: The ending of suffering is the ending of the craving that causes it. This ending of craving, which is an ending of the condition of ignorance at its root, is described as nirvana. 4) Path: The Noble Eightfold Path is prescribed in Buddhism as a means of attaining nirvana (Robinson and Rodrigues 192).  The ignorance referred to in the third Noble Truth is avidya, and its cause is also the illusory. In Buddhism, the ending of the illusion is nirvana, or enlightenment. Just as in Hinduism, liberation from samsara comes through the ending of avidya.

The fact that the end of avidya is the path to liberation (moksa), or enlightenment (nirvana) does not mean that these can only be achieved at the end of one’s life or after death. Ideally, it can be achieved in this lifetime and then one can live without the suffering caused by avidya (Puligandla 23). Siddhartha Gautama achieved nirvana in his lifetime and this is how he came to be known as the Buddha (Enlightened one) (Chatterjee and Datta 115).



Chatterjee, S., & Datta, D. M. (1968) An introduction to Indian philosophy. Calcutta: University of Calcutta.

Deutsch, E. (1969) Advaita Vedanta: A philosophical reconstruction. Honolulu: East-West Center Press.

Indich, William M. (1995) Consciousness in Advaita Vedanta. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Kumar, R., & S. Ram (2007) Hinduism-religion and philosophy. New Delhi: Crescent Publishing Corporation.

Lipner, J. (1994) Hindus: Their religious beliefs and practices. London: Routledge.

Murthy, B. S. (1985) The Bhagavad Gita. Long Beach, CA: Long Beach Publications.

Nikhilananda (1963) The Upanishads: Katha, Isa, Kena, Mundaka, Svetasvatara, Praśna, Mandukya, Aitareya, Brihadaranyaka, Taittiriya, and Chhandogya. New York: Harper & Row.

Puligandla, R. (1975) Fundamentals of Indian philosophy. Nashville: Abingdon Press.

Robinson, T. A., & H. Rodrigues (2006) World religions: A guide to the essentials. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.

Singh, S. P. (2004) Vedic vision of consciousness and reality. New Delhi: Centre for Studies in Civilizations.


Related Topics for Further Investigation

Advaita Vedanta











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Article written by: Robin Wilcox (April 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.

Prakrti: Material Consciousness

The Sankhya Hindu philosophy is one of the six orthodox darsanas (world outlooks). It is considered orthodox because of its adherence to the Vedas and the caste system. In the Sankhya philosophy, prakrti is part of a dualistic philosophy that explains the states of consciousness by listing the components of reality. The Sankhya darsana explains the creation of the world with the intertwining of purusa and prakrti, resembling explanations in the Vedas. The materiality of the world is the workings of prakrti (Larson 167-168). The identification with all material things is what the Sankhya darsana explains as material consciousness. This sense of consciousness cannot be the true self because it is corrupted. Purusa is the true self and can only be achieved when all senses of prakrti are removed. Yoga is applied to the Sankhya darsana to attempt to reach moksa (full liberation) (Burley 36-38).

To list the components of reality that make up the cosmos, Sankhya philosophy begins by dividing pure, real consciousness from the illusion of consciousness that is within all entities of the cosmos. These separate states of consciousness are purusa and prakrti. Purusa is pure consciousness that can only be attained when prakrti returns to it dormant state. To achieve complete consciousness, the Sankhya philosophy promotes the advancement through the different elements of prakrti to realize that the material consciousness is false. Once all false identifications are let go, prakrti is dissolved and purusa is achieved. Reaching the state of purusa is to be free of all false identification (Jacobsen 8).

Prakrti is composed of twenty-three tattvas. Tattvas are elements that can be listed ranging from their coarseness to how subtle they are. As the progression from the coarse tattvas to the subtle ones occurs, the proportions of the three gunas changes (Parrot 60-63). These gunas (qualities) are tamas, rajas, and sattva; each guna is attributed a different set of qualities. The sattva guna is the quality of enlightenment, intelligibility and clarity. The tamas guna is classified as vague and dull, and the rajas guna is passion and activity (Ramakrishna Rao 64-65). Within one’s life, they will experience all three gunas in different proportions. When one is not distracted with the tamas and rajas gunas, the clarity that is the sattva guna is able to dissolve the illusion of consciousness created by prakrti (Jacobsen 8).

The twenty-three tattvas of prakrti can be divided into five categories. The mahabhutas are the coarsest elements; they are; earth, fire, water, air, and space. All materiality of the world is based on these five elements, so the manifestation of prakrti relies on the identification with these elements. The subtle tattvas are what is absorbed through the senses (odor, flavor, texture, sound, shape and color) (Larson 236-237). The tattvas that are necessary for the continuation of material life are the five action tattvas; reproduction, excretion, motion, communication, and accumulation. The five knowledge senses allow one’s ego to identify with the grosser tattvas; these elements of knowledge are the five senses (sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell). These twenty tattvas make up the materiality of the world. Without the identification and connection that one has with these tattvas the manifestation of prakrti would not be able to occur. Because materiality is intertwined with purusa in the creation of the cosmos prakrti is an evitable part of life. The last three tattvas, that compose citta are essential to the separation of material consciousness and the internal liberation that lies hidden amongst the tattvas that are prakrti.

The material consciousness that is made up the twenty tattvas must be combined with of the last three tattvas is called citta. Citta is attributed to the mind and thought; it is the perceived enlightenment of prakrti. Without the mind to identify with the world there is no consciousness, perceived or real. Citta is comprised of three elements manas, anhankara, and buddhi (Larson 236). Manas is the inner agency that persuades one to believe in the material consciousness that is prakrti. Anhankara is one’s ego. The ego identifies with the heavier tattvas making full liberation a difficult concept to believe. Anhankara generates a false sense of self that is based solely on the materiality of the world around (Parrot 70-72).

The buddhi is the subtlest tattva. This part of citta allows one to realize that the manas and anhankara use the grosser tattvas to create material consciousness and that is not its true self. The ability to discriminate between the false sense of self that is prakrti and the ability to gain true consciousness is what makes buddhi the greatest tattva [Buddhi is often referred to mahat, which means the great or highest intelligence]. To achieve purusa, the sattva guna must be in its highest proportion. In this state of clarity one is able to wish to achieve pure consciousness. The awareness that buddhi has of material consciousness allows one to escape from the false identifications made by manas and anhankara. When one stops falsely identifying they are released from prakrti and are able to achieve the pure consciousness that is purusa. Purusa never stopped functioning when prakrti was present; it acted as an observer, waiting for the right moment to be revealed (Sharma 149-153). The Sankhya darsana promotes that advancement through the different elements of prakrti to the so that the identification of the true self is not another false identification. One must experience the material consciousness so that when it is time to identify the true self it will not mistaken it for something else (Ramakrishna Rao 61-63).

When purusa is realized all traces of prakrti disappear. The tattvas engulf into themselves and essentially disappear; this is possible because the Sankhya darsana presents both purusa and prakrti as transcendental, but real entities. When the material consciousness that is prakrti is gone, one is then left with their true self. Liberation is widely known as moksa in Hinduism, but is also referred to as kaivalya in the Sankhya orthodox philosophy. When kaivalya is attained one is fully liberated for all materiality. When one is advancing through the tattvas that make up prakrti it is important that they do not become consumed in them; the ultimate goal is to become liberated from prakrti, not to master living in a world of it. The Sankhya darsana adopts this philosophy while other sects of Hinduism focus on the mastery of the tattvas. Prakrti is escapable if one wishes to find true liberation. Sankhya darsana tells of the difficulty that is prakrti, but encourages and supports that finding one’s true self is much more fulfilling than the materiality of prakrti (Widgery 234-237).



Burley, Mikel (2006) Classical Samkhya and Yoga: An Indian Metaphysics of Experience. Online: Taylor and Francis.

Larson, Gerald James (1998) Classical Samkhya: An Interpretation of Its History and Meaning. London: Motilal Banarsidass.

Parrot, R. J. (1986) “The Problem of the Samkhya Tattvas as Both Cosmic and Psychological Phenomena.” Journal of Indian Philosophy, Vol. 14: 55-78.

Ramakrishna Rao, K.B (1963) “The Gunas of Prakrti According to the Samkhya Philosophy.” Philosophy East and West, Vol. 13, No. 1: 61-71.

Sharma, Chandradhar (1997) A Critical Survey of Indian Philosophy. New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Widgery, Alban (1930) “The principles of Hindu Ethics.” International Journal of Ethics Vol. 40 No. 2: 234-237.


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Sankhya Philosophy









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Article written by: Jillian Koenen (February 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.

Ahimsa (The concept of Non-harming in Hinduism)

Ahimsa, which literally translates as “non-violence” or “non-injury”, refers to non-violence towards both human and non-human beings physically, mentally, and spiritually (Ghosh 13).  The idea of Ahimsa had been educed from two related yet unique sources; among traditional Hindu thinkers, rather than the idea of non-violence, it was the idea of not hurting living beings as all living beings were divine (Parekh 196).  Another source where Ahimsa may have derived is from one of the 10 Buddhist Parami (perfections), namely metta (benevolence).  Both ideas present a similar concept; that all life is sacred and no harm should be done unto each other (Parekh 196).  Ahimsa also has its roots in the belief of samsara (eternal cycle).  Traditional Hindu thinkers believe that the soul of an individual can be reincarnated into an animal, thus the killing of an animal would in actuality be the killing of a person.  This belief is particularly in reference to cattle, whom they claim are sacred animals (Schneider 87).

Although the exact origin of the term is unknown, Ahimsa is found in many Hindu scriptures, and predates Aryan culture.  Its earliest known origin in texts can traced back to the Rgveda conception of rta (that which is properly/excellently joined; order, rule; truth) (Heimann 331).  Rta is closely affiliated with dharma (duty), demanding that every living and non-living being follow the cosmic order of their existence in such a way that it does not avert others from being able to follow their own laws of existence (Heimann 331).  In the Mahabharata, the concept of Ahimsa does have exceptions to the rule of non-violence; ksatriyas (warrior caste) who would fight in battle would have their sins dissipated by their acts of heroism in battle in order to secure the advancement of all beings.  A king may also destroy those who may deserve to be destroyed, in order to protect the people of his kingdom. (Ghosh 47).  The Bhagavadgita, in the Mahabharata, is a significant scripture in the Hindu tradition that regards the concept of Ahimsa.  In the epic, Arjuna’s refusal to fight his former allies and loved ones in battle was from the desire for Ahimsa (Ghosh 52).  Ahimsa has multiple variations of its name and definition in many Hindu scriptures, although not all scriptures mention or contain much insight on the concept itself, they do appear in the Upanisads, Brahmanas, Dharma Sastras, Tripitakas (Buddhist canonical literature), Dhammapada (Buddhist scripture), Yajur Veda, and other Hindu scriptures [For more information concerning the concept of Ahimsa in the Rgveda, Upanisads, Bhagavadgita and Mahabharata, see Klostermaier (1996) and Ghosh (1989)].

Traditionally, Ahimsa in Hinduism was not the highest ideal, as animal sacrifice in some rituals was, and still is, part of Hindu tradition.  The later traditions of Buddhism and Jainism would eventually hold the concept (in particular, the Jains) as one of its most important virtues, with complete abstinence from harm necessary in order to reach their ultimate goal of moksa (liberation) (Klostermaier 228).  Although Ahimsa was not considered the highest ideal in Hindu tradition, it was still encouraged among Hindus because the avoidance of harm to both humans and animals would bring the individual closer to moksa (Framarin 286, 288).  Historically, it was not until Emperor Ashoka (268-233 BCE) popularized the concept of Ahimsa through his conversion to Buddhism and by stressing the sanctity of animal life that the concept truly spread through India and Asia (Sharma 60).  Again, the concept of Ahimsa does not refer only to the act of physical non-violence, but mental and spiritual non-violence as well.  Spiritual non-violence, which is making peace with one’s self, is of the utmost importance in Hindu religious tradition to achieve.  Once spiritual non-violence is attained, the body and mind follow effortlessly (Sharma 58).  Ahimsa is also an important part of Patanjali Yoga, in which Ahimsa is the first of five yamas (moral restraints), along with satya (truthfulness), asteya (non-stealing), brahmacarya (sexual abstinence), and aparigraha (freedom from covetousness).  All five yamas must be practiced in order to achieve a state of inner peace (Klostermaier 232).  Ahimsa is considered an important and universal concept in the Yoga Sutras as well, and asserts that Ahimsa should not only be observed towards certain circumstances in time, but that it be observed universally (Klostermaier 234).  Though Hindu tradition acknowledges the concept and practices of Ahimsa, classical Indian tradition scholars believe that Ahimsa did not mean a total abstinence from harm for them, but rather to encourage alpadroha (minimum violence possible that one is responsible for).  Likewise, in Buddhist and Jain tradition, minimal violence as possible is an accepted reality, and those tolerant of minimal violence typically were also tolerant of war and the justifiable treatment of criminals (Parekh 197).

In Buddhist tradition, Ahimsa is not considered a doctrine, nor is it a theory.  It is not a doctrine, as it is not adopted, discussed or defended in Classical Indian Buddhism literature.  It is not considered a theory, as the act of Ahimsa does not enable a better understanding of the nature and structure of the cosmos.  Although Buddhism does not define Ahimsa as a doctrine or a theory, it is indeed considered a cardinal virtue (Chinchore 103).    A Buddhist will recognize his relationship to living beings as being so essential and symbiotic that any act of violence towards another being will certainly harm themselves.  Additionally, the act of non-violence in a Buddhists life is one virtue that contributes in bringing them closer to their ultimate goal of nirvana (a state of perfect happiness) (Ghosh 58).  Although there are some differences in the concept of Ahimsa among the three traditions, the idea of Ahimsa itself stays relatively the same.  As such, all three traditions believe that in order to achieve Ahimsa, one must begin at the mind, as the determination for doing anything begins at the mental level first (Ghosh 59).  In contrast between the Hindu and Buddhist tradition, a notable difference in the concept of Ahimsa is in regards to animal sacrifices.  According to scripture, Lord Buddha claims animal sacrifices are undesirable and unnecessary in order to perform sacrifices, and rather than doing harm to animals, one can instead offer clothing or food such as rice as offerings (Ghosh 64) [For more information regarding Buddhist practices of Ahimsa, see Ghosh (1989)].

Jainism, founded by Mahavira in 5th century BCE, holds the concept of Ahimsa as its most important concept, and base their traditions around this fundamental principle.  Multiple agamas (Jain canonical literature) emphasize that any act of violence towards any living being will increase their sins in the next life, and to eliminate these sins, one must not commit any acts of violence whatsoever (Sharma 61).  Jainism considers Ahimsa as both a doctrine and an elaborate theory, and consider Ahimsa as a vrata (vow, promise).  In addition to their dedication to the practice of Ahimsa, Jains typically perform tapas (asceticism) in order to achieve moksa (Cort 721).  Because Jainism holds the concept of Ahimsa as a much more important and complex idea than either Hindu or Buddhist tradition, Jain tradition adopts the concept quite literally, and as a result, some of its practices of asceticism are considered more extremist or obsessive in nature in dedication to this concept (Chinchore 105).  Jainism practice also involves strict dietary restriction; the killing or eating of an animal would bind one to karma, which keeps one tied to the cycle of rebirth (samsara).  Certain plants may not be consumed in order to avoid the possibility of killing microscopic organisms that may further bind them to karma, and retract them from moksa [For more detail regarding Jain philosophy and its practices of asceticism, see Cort (2002)] (Cort 723-724).

Outside of the religious traditions of Buddhism and Jainism, Ahimsa holds importance in civil and religious law as an ethical doctrine in Hindu tradition, and re-emerged in popularity during the beginning of the 20th century through Mahatma Gandhi.  The concept of Ahimsa, in essence, “sows the seed of tolerance” among others, promoting a sense of equality (Heimann 333).  Mahatma Gandhi coined and developed the term satyagraha (truth) derived from his principles of Ahimsa, and came to popularize and modernize the concept of Ahimsa in ethical and political terms (Parekh 198).  Through his popularity and political influence, Gandhi gave the concept of Ahimsa multiple definitions under different circumstances; a thief that would attack a man was committing an act of Himsa, but a surgeon using a knife in order to save a human being was not committing an act of Himsa, as the act was attempting to alleviate the pain the individual felt (Parekh 198).  Rather than practicing Ahimsa through the literal translation of what it means, Gandhi emphasized that Ahimsa has both ‘narrow’ (negative) and ‘broad’ (positive) categorical definitions of the term.  In its narrow sense, Ahimsa was the literal practice of non-violence, but in its more broad definition, it meant the promotion of well-being to all living things (Parekh 198).  This difference in definition of the concept was brought forth because rather than being concerned with the direct harming of another being, Gandhi was more focused on the daily suffering that occurs around the world that was a result of social, economic and political exploitation (Ghosh 118).  Gandhi was not without criticism and controversy, however; Indian scholars considered Gandhi’s concept of Ahimsa as a radical redefinition and distant from the traditional Hindu concept of Ahimsa.  For this reason, critics would argue that Gandhi was hypocritical of his concept through his own actions; an injured calf in Gandhi’s possession was euthanized at Gandhi’s request in order to alleviate the calf of suffering.  In turn, this caused Gandhi’s critics to reiterate the Indian doctrine of Ahimsa in which any act of killing was unjustifiable, regardless of how much pain the creature was in, and that Gandhi’s Western influence of the alleviation of pain was a more vital concept to Gandhi rather than the absolute preservation of life that held true to the classical Hindu traditional thinking of the definition (Parekh 203).

The concept and practice of Ahimsa is dynamic in its source, and the religious traditions of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism contribute their own understanding of how non-violence is defined (Sharma 64).  The definition of Ahimsa is truly broad in its context, but there is an important similarity in the concept of Ahimsa among the Hindu, Buddhist and Jain traditions: that the prana (life force) is universally sacred and vital to the cosmos for all living beings (Walker 149).



Amore, Roy C. (1996) “Peace and Non-violence in Buddhism.” In Harvey L. Dyck, ed. The Pacifist Impulse in Historical Perspective.  Toronto: University of Toronto Press.  p. 240 – 259.


Chinchore, Mangala (2005) “Conception of Ahimsa in Buddhism: A Critical Note.”  Annals of  the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute Vol. 85 No. 1: 103-109.


Cort, J. E. (2002) “Singing the Glory of Asceticism: Devotion of Asceticism in Jainism.” Journal of The American Academy Of Religion Vol. 70, No. 4: 719-742.


Framarin, Christopher (2011) “The value of nature in Indian (Hindu) traditions.”  Religious Studies 47 #3 (September): 285-300.


Ghosh, Indu M. (1989) Ahimsa: Buddhist and Gandhian.  Delhi: Balaji Enterprises.


Hay, Stephen (1996) “Gandhi’s Non-violence: Metaphysical, Moral, Political and International Aspects.” In Harvey L. Dyck, ed. The Pacifist Impulse in Historical Perspective.  Toronto: University of Toronto Press.  p. 278 – 295.


Heimann, Betty (1932) “Substance of the Lecture on the philosophical aspect of Ahimsa.” Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute Vol. 13, No. 3: 331-334.


Klostermaier, Klaus K. (1996) “Himsa and Ahimsa Traditions in Hinduism.” In Harvey L. Dyck, ed. The Pacifist Impulse in Historical Perspective.  Toronto: University of Toronto Press. p. 227 – 239.


Parekh, Bhikhu (1988) “Gandhi’s Concept of Ahimsa.”  Alternatives XIII: 195-217.


Ravindra, Ravi (1995) “Ahimsa, transformation, and ecology.” ReVision Vol. 17, No. 3: 23-34.


Schneider, Burch H. (1948) “The Doctrine of Ahimsa and Cattle Breeding in India.” The Scientific Monthly Vol. 67, No. 2: 87-92.


Sharma, Satish (1999) “Peace and nonviolence in the Indian religious tradition.”  Peace Research 31 #1: 58-65.  Winnipeg: Canadian Mennonite University.


Walker, Claire (1994) “What do we mean by non-violence?” Journal of Religion and Psychical Research Vol. 17, No. 3: 146-150.


Related Topics for Further Investigation



Aryan Culture









Dharma Sastras



Yajur Veda




Patanjali Yoga







Mahatma Gandhi




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Article written by: Nicholas Urquhart (March 2015) who is soley responsible for its content.


Bhakti as a Word

The term bhakti describes loving devotion as a means of Hindu worship (Singh D 31). Record of its earliest use is found in the Rg Veda, a collection of hymns composed during early Vedic times. The word originates from the root word bhaj, a term generally known to mean “loving involvements” amongst many things—people, people and their possessions, and people and their gods. There was no initial distinction (Novetzke 258). It was only later that the word bhakti came to mean a devoted love between a worshipper and their gods and as such became associated with the secular word for love (prema) also called the “soul of bhakti”. Prema then evolved into param prema, a “higher love” (Singh R 225). Although found in the Rg Veda, bhakti, used in its evolved form, was first discovered in an early Buddhist text known as the Ther­agatha in the 4th century BCE. It was used in relation to the Buddha (Novetzke 259).

Bhakti as a Concept

The Bhagavad Gita, or Gita, also found in the Vedas, is one of the key texts that help explain bhakti. The main Vedic gods worshipped during those early times were Narayana, Hari, and Visnu. The term bhakti merely meant adoration until the personal worship of these gods came to the forefront. Then “for the first time sanction was given to this system of bhakti as an alternative means of moksha” (Singh D 28). Rituals, which had previously been the only prescribed way and had been performed in conjunction with priests, gave way to a more intimate connection between the gods and humans. These rituals involved temple visits, the chanting of mantras and of a god’s name, and the “surrender of the soul” (Singh D 28). The gods themselves were not remote or removed from the world; they frequently interacted with it. The Rg Veda referred to them as “father, mother, brother, relation, honored guest,” implying a sense of companionship between the worshippers and their gods (Singh R 223).

Meditation during these times became an important means of achieving bhakti. There was movement away from outward actions to inner introspection. While there was no mention of love yet, these self-examinations were meant to draw worshippers closer to their gods. “Self-surrender, self-control, contentment, and non-attachment,” were key goals, flourishing alongside the new idea of incarnation and the effect that one lifetime could potentially have on the ones to come (Singh D 29). It was during the period of Alvar saints, a group of saints who wrote songs and poems of their devotion to the gods, that bhakti became the only way to find moksa (liberation), with prescriptions such as song and dance also becoming prominent. No longer was the mere act of temple sacrifice and interactions with the priesthoods enough. Hindu worshippers all agreed that bhakti had become a matter of love. The Bhagavata Purana, as written by the Alvar saints, contained nine ways to worship, and in association with the Sandihya, another written work, proposed that worship was no longer something a worshipper had to do, but chose to do. It suggested that actions and knowledge could not accomplish bhakti because bhakti was not sraddha (belief); it was faith, which was far more superior (30).

Forms of Worship

Though worship had become an internal practice for Hindu worshippers, old and new rituals were still performed externally. Acts like going to the temple, fasting, practicing yoga, pilgrimages, decorating idols, and eating foods first consecrated by being offered to the gods, persisted. Two forms of yoga—karma yoga and jnana yoga—were prominent. Jnana yoga was “the gaining of cognitive knowledge of one’s separateness from Prakti and being an attribute of God,” where God was the all-encompassing word used to described all the gods in one, the Absolute God (Singh D 30). Other necessary acts included saying the name of the gods over and over again, reading sacred texts, and marking one’s body. Although the objective of worship remained undisputed, the mode of accomplishing it varied. There seemed to be two key movements operating at the same time, one that encouraged strict rituals and practices, and another that was more free-spirited. An example of this involves two popular systems at the time—Vallabha and Chaitanya. While Vallabha insisted on the formalities of praise and worship, Chaitanya encouraged a more unrestricted approach of “fervent singing and ecstatic dancing…swoon[ing] under the intensity of [one’s] emotion”. For Chaitanya, devoted worship between a human and a god bore great similarity to the intimacy in a marriage (Singh D 31). On the other hand a saint named Shankaradeva likened it to a relationship between a sisya (student) and guru (master). So within the broad concept of bhakti, there were several components that did not always agree. Still, the notions of bhakti spread to all areas of Hindu tradition, especially music and literature (Singh R 226).

Bhakti as a Liberator

During the initial introduction of bhakti, it was a form of worship prescribed only to the upper classes. The lower classes could only perform prapatti. The usual dividers based on castes, races, gender, were still in place. However, because it was considered to be an internal form of worship, once bhakti was popular, priests and their rules became less important. The inability to read or lack of access to a formal education did not limit anyone. Women could also participate in a way that they had never been permitted to before. In other words there was a new sense of freedom and a rebellion against the old ways. Devotion to the gods was something that everybody could do (Singh D 28). The Alvars, who were believed to be direct descendants of Visnu and whose words were considered divine, belonged to upper and lower castes themselves (Aleaz 451).

As for the case of spiritual liberation, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism all maintain a similar belief regarding love. According to these sects, love, faith and immortality go hand in hand. Once the first two are achieved, true contentment is found. There can be no fear of death. According to Raj Singh in the article titled Eastern Concepts of Love:

The ultimate urge in love is the urge for immortality, that is an escape from mortality or bland ordinariness of maya (illusory, worldly) existence. The drive in love is one that seeks and obtains an elevation from a lower, matter of course existence toward a higher, more fulfilling state. Moments of love let one abide in immortality. Love is therefore fundamentally of the nature of immortality (Singh R 226).

Many Hindus believe that bhakti is much more important than action and jnana (knowledge), and it is not limited to those who are educated or born into upper castes. The key reason for this is that “love is its own reward. Action and knowledge aim at something other than themselves, but only love aims at itself. Love wants basically (more) love” (Singh R 227). The act of seeking out those things—action and jnana, which together form karma—will often involve goals and motivations that are displeasing to the gods, such as egoism. The practice of bhakti however requires no other action other than the word itself and the will to accomplish it (227).




Aleaz, K. P (2006) “Bhakti Tradition of Vaisnava Alvars and Theology of Religions.” Asia Journal Of Theology. Vol. 20, No 2: 451-454.

Eck, Diana L & Mallison, Francoise (1991) Devotion divine : Bhakti traditions from the regions of India. Paris: Ecole Francaise d’Extreme-Orient.

Lamb, R (2008) “Devotion, Renunciation, and Rebirth in the Ramananda Sampraday.” Cross Currents. Vol. 57, No 4: 578-590.

Novetzke, C (2007) “Bhakti and Its Public.” International Journal Of Hindu Studies. Vol. 11, No 3: 255-272.

Orr, L. C (2002) “The Embodiment of Bhaki (Book).” Journal Of Religion. Vol. 82, No 1: 156.

Pillai, A (1990) “The Bhakti tradition in Hinduism, Bhakti yoga : an overview.” Journal Of Dharma. Vol. 15, No 3: 223-231.

Prentiss, Karen Pechilis (2000) The Embodiment of Bhakti. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sharma, Krishna (1987) Bhakti and the Bhakti movement: a new perspective : a study in the history of ideas. New Delhi : Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers.

Singh, D (1991) “The essentials of Sikh bhakti and Hindu bhakti.” Dialogue & Alliance. Vol. 5, No 3: 21-35.

Singh, R (2005) “Eastern Concepts of Love: A Philosophical Reading of ‘Narada Bhakti Sutra’.” Asian Philosophy. Vol. 15, No 3: 221-229



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Article written by Ruth Dada (March 2013) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Guna Concept and its Relationship to Ayurveda

The Sanskrit word guna is difficult to define and has many meanings, although it may be best described as the modes of matter. There are three main categories of gunas: sattva, rajas and tamas. Everything in prakrti (nature) is constituted of each of these categories, although not in a way that allows for separation. The gunas and prakrti are dependent on each other and thus, one cannot exist without the presence of all other components (Ramakrishna Rao 62).

Sattva is the category of guna that is responsible for creation, goodness and the beneficial characteristics that make up prakrti. Sattva activities allow the mind to be still and move towards a state of balance or equilibrium. Such actions lead to the realization of purusa (the true self) and thus, sattva qualities are said to be responsive to the light of purusa (Vatsyayan 116). In order to gain and maintain sattva, avoidance of rajas and tamas is necessary. Consuming sattvic food is also thought to be a way of enhancing the sattva quality, helping to illuminate the mind (Guha 146). Such foods are those that come in pure or natural forms such as fruits or vegetables.

Rajas is the guna category that refers to passion, preservation and is the cause of all activity. Rajas expresses itself in motion and, because it is present in all matter, it causes all things to be in a continuous state of change (Vatsyayan 116). Rajasic actions are often selfish and driven by a desire to gain power, wealth or fame. Rajas is associated with heat and because of this, spicy, hot or fried foods fall under this category.

Tamas is the third guna which refers to ignorance or delusion and the negative attributions that arise because of it. It is in opposition to sattva and thus resists activity and the light of purusa (Vatsyayan 116) by inhibiting the expansion of the mind. Tamasic actions are often classified as immoral, deceitful, hostile or violent. Foods such as meats, junk food or heavily processed items are included in this category.

The combination of these three gunas is thought to make up the characteristics of all beings. They make up prakrti similar to the way the three primary colors are able to make up the colors of the entire spectrum. Prakrti is in its purest state when all three of these qualities are in equilibrium. This state is labeled by the Sanskrit term samyavastha (Ramakrishna Rao 65). The imbalance of these three qualities is believed to cause disruptions in the normal functioning of the body. This approach to medicine is referred to as Ayurveda and is based around a holistic approach to healing.

Ayurveda, much like the inseparable relationship between the gunas and prakrti, supports the concept that the body is an entity inseparable from its social, cultural and spiritual environments (Verma 7). Believers support the notion that the cosmic laws that govern the universe also apply to our bodies, and that sickness is caused by the imbalance of the gunas which create disharmony to the cosmic order. This belief stems from the idea that there are five basic elements that make up all matter in both the cosmos and our bodies: ether, air, fire, water and earth. These five elements make up the three bodily humours: vata, pitta and kapha (Verma 10). Vata comes from both ether and air and is responsible for movements of the body as well as mind activities such as blood circulation and enthusiasm (Verma 10). Pitta comes from fire and is responsible for things such as heat regulation, hunger and digestion (Verma 10). Kapha comes from water and earth and makes up the structure of the body while also being responsible for things such as strength and heaviness (Verma 10).

The concept of Ayurveda is focused around the idea of equilibrium and balance. When the elements, humoural qualities and gunas that make up prakrti are in balance they are thought to create harmony, longevity and good health, but while they are imbalanced, they are believed to cause negative effects. Ayurvedic healing is suggested when these negative effects develop and cause a decline in health. This form of healing is focused on the promotion of sattva qualities that will help to clear the mind and encourage the restoration of balance to the three gunas.

Because the humoural qualities of prakrti are affected by each element, and the quality of each element is based upon the proportion of each of the three gunas, the elements may be seen as a link through which the gunas determine prakrti’s humoural qualities. This interconnectedness is why, when following the holistic approach of Ayurveda, almost anything can be used as a form medicine assuming it is used in the appropriate way, with correct quantities, and at the correct times. However, this also means that the incorrect use of these materials can lead to an imbalance and negative attributes.

According to Ayurveda, good health is also dependent on daiva and puruskara. Daiva is the karmic seeds we acquire from our previous lives whereas puruskara is the personal effort and actions we perform within our lifetime (Verma 11). These two concepts explain why, according to the Ayurveda concept, illness never occurs by chance. Ayurveda advocates believe that karmic seeds acquired from daiva and puruskara can cause imbalances in the three gunas, which may in turn cause imbalances in the three humours, creating poor health. It is for this reason that Ayurveda uses multiple forms of therapy as a method of treatment for physical symptoms.

There are three forms of therapy used in Ayurveda: rational, psychological and spiritual (Verma 11). Rational therapy administers appropriate quantities of sattvic, rajasic, and tamasic foods, sometimes in combination with medication, in order to reinstate proper balance to the body. There are also forms of non-material rational therapy, such as massage or physical restraint that some view as an alternative option (Engler 423). Contrary to rational therapy, psychological therapy uses only the power of the mind to heal the body (Verma 11). This psychological therapy is understood to be effective because of the interconnectedness between body and mind that exists in the Ayurveda tradition. For example, if the mind is causing the imbalance and therefore the pain, the mind also has the ability to cultivate sattva in order to restore balance and rid the body of pain. Spiritual therapy involves such things as reciting mantras, practicing auspicious acts (Verma 12), gems, fasting, and performing religious rites and sacrifices (Engler 422). These three forms of therapy are prescribed simultaneously to promote a more efficient healing process between the amalgamated body and mind.

Although modern medicine, or allopathy, is the most common form of treatment available, a large focus remains on home remedies in some areas, such as the villages located outside large cities in India (Verma 16). For example, buttermilk can be used to treat head colds and stomach pains, fat from the green pigeon can be used to treat dry eczema, and sea salt may be used to treat intestinal worms, fever, or head lice (Morris 327, 330 & 332). Contrary to the prominent allopathic focus, funding to support holistic forms of medicine has been increasing over recent years (Islam 145) as this Ayurveda approach continues to gain popularity worldwide. [Islam (2009) states that roughly 5% of the money allocated to medical treatment from West Bengal state goes towards holistic medicine.]


Bibliography and Related Readings

Abraham, Leena (2009) “Medicine as Culture: Indigenous Medicine in Cosmopolitan Mumbai.” Economic and Political Weekly 44 #16(April): 68-75.

Engler, Steven (2003) “‘Science’ vs. ‘Religion’ in Classical Ayurveda.” Numen, Vol. 50, No. 4: 416-463.

Guha, Dina Simoes (1985) “Food in the Vedic Tradition.” India International Centre Quarterly 12 #2(June): 141-152.

Islam, Md. Nazrul (2009) “Reviving Ayurveda in Modern India: Prospect and Challenges.” International Review of Modern Sociology, Vol. 35, No. 1: 137-147.

Morris, Miranda (2003) “The Soqotra Archipelago: concepts of good health and everyday remedies for illness.” Proceedings of the Seiminar for Arabian Studies 33 (July): 319-341.

Vatsyayan, Kapila (1995) Prakriti, the Integral Vision. New Delhi: Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts: D.K. Printworld.

Verma, Vinod (1991) “Holistic Medicine in India and the West.” India International Center Quarterly, Vol. 18, No. 2/3: 7-20.

Ramakrishna Rao, K. B. (1963) “The Gunas of Prakrti According to the Samkhya Philosophy.” Philosophy East and West, Vol. 13, No.1: 61-71.



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Article written by: Caitlin Green (March 2013) who is solely responsible for its content.