Ahimsa: Kindness and Non-Violence Avoided a Planet of Apes

Did humans survive two million years ago because of kindness?

Posted Oct 19, 2020

In the practice of Ashtanga Yoga, there are guidelines given for how to live a moral, ethical, meaningful life. As many of us sit, perched anxiously on the edge of our seats, waiting to see what apocalyptic, plague-like occurrence appears on our Bingo card today, the yogi practice of Ahimsa feels particularly important to explore.

Ahimsa instructs us to practice non-violence in action, in thoughts, and in words.

At face value, Ahimsa translates similarly to our Western philosophy of “The Golden Rule”: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. This sweet sentiment that we teach our children either through the kind and proper words of the modern-day mother, or the frightening fairy tales of yore, is a Jungian archetype of sorts: a pattern or belief system that repeats across time and culture.

If you study Ahimsa a bit more closely, you will note that included in the importance of being non-violent is being non-violent to yourself. This applies to self-inflicted injury to your physical self, punishing yourself through extremes such as gluttony, restrictive or extreme eating behavior, consuming harmful substances, etc.

But, Ahimsa also applies to being non-violent to your mental state, or as we are so fond of prescribing: the importance of practicing self-care.

This yogi mandate is not the succinct, biblical “Thou shalt not kill,” for Ahimsa takes the idea farther, and acknowledges that our thoughts about ourselves and others have the ability to cause harm, even if not instantly visible to the human eye. Ahimsa is about being kind to ourselves and to others, and it is acknowledged that this kindness could be to our benefit.

Guess what? Archeologists have proven that this is true.

Joshua J. Cotten/Unsplash
Did our humanity save us from being casualties of the primates?
Source: Joshua J. Cotten/Unsplash

Two million years ago in Africa, early humans lived as hunter-gatherers, which we often reference in terms of cavemen dividing tasks by gender: the big strong man would go kill some dinner, while the women remained home at the hearth, caring for the children, harvesting the crops, and having dinner on the table when the big, smelly man came home from a rough day of killing things.

(If you have seen the movie Croods, you have a general idea of the DreamWorks movie version of this era. And if you have not seen the movie Croods, you may want to seriously reconsider your life choices. It’s fantastic.)

The problem with our conception of this sexist-gender-biased-why-can’t-women-hunt-and-men-raise-kids and how-mad-would-RBG-have-been-if-she-had-been-alive-knitting-collars-out-of-palm-fronds-and-boar-tusks outrage is that the assumption is false.

How do we know this?

Within the last 20 years, anthropologists began to take another look at the hunter-gatherer society, in large part to figure out why and how we humans, for whom the odds were so very much against, ended up not only surviving but thriving to the point of becoming the current reigning species.

Our bodies are nearly hairless, making us an easy target for sunburn and sun poisoning for one half of the year, and an even easier target for freezing to death the other half of the year. Our canine teeth technically identify us as predators, rather than prey, but prey animals are more likely to have large eyes spaced out in a way that allows them to better scan their environment for dangers.

Nope, not us!

Prey animals often have the ability to run very fast or fly in order to make a quick getaway, or the ability to camouflage themselves in order to blend into the environment or release a poison or venom should a predator attempt to make them a snack. 

Once again, I, personally, am capable of none of these things.

So, how is it possible that our current civilization is not (technically) run by a bunch of primates?

Ahimsa.

Hunter-gatherers were nomads, constantly changing locations to take advantage of seasonal migration of animals and fluctuations in weather.

When was the last time you moved? Most of us try to lighten our load by getting rid of what we don’t need. Nomadic, primitive men (and women) acted similarly.

I may have captured 500 yummy lizards thanks to my clever tracking and trapping – yeah, they ate lizards that the women caught – but how in the heck am I going to be able to carry 500 lizards with me when we move?

I’ll share some lizards with my neighbor. Her kids just eat them up like candy. And I did notice that her fruit crop was looking pretty good this season…

It has been a long-standing rule that money leads to power. But two million years ago, man, as prey, focused on survival, and a more collectivist society increased their odds.

The truth is, no one wants to have to carry 500 lizards or onions or berries or anything on their own while embarking on a really long hike without any semblance of a map.

And so, Ahimsa. Kindness. Non-violence in the absence of competition or jealousy or a hierarchy based on the haves and have nots. The hunter-gatherers worked together for the safety of the herd.

And as for our primate predators? How did we manage to escape them, both in the moment all those years ago, and today, as we are not living in a Planet of The Apes-esque scenario (yet)?

Our animal ancestors were highly competitive within their own community, constantly trying to establish or overthrow the alpha male, a ruler who had all the control and power.

And so, while our numbers were growing because of our kindness and non-violence, theirs were dwindling.

Hence, the beauty of Ahimsa.