PD Smith in The Guardian:
In Laurence Sterne’s 1759 novel Tristram Shandy, the hero describes how his good-natured uncle Toby is plagued by a particularly large and annoying fly which “buzzed about his nose, and tormented him cruelly all dinner time”. Eventually he manages to catch the offending insect, but instead of killing it, he releases it out of the window. “Why should I hurt thee?” he says. “This world surely is wide enough to hold both thee and me.” The novel’s hero is a child at the time, but this “lesson of universal good-will” leaves an abiding impression on him, setting, as he put it “my whole frame into one vibration of most pleasurable sensation”. Karen Armstrong cites this act of kindness at the end of a chapter exploring the crucial role played by the ancient concept of ahimsa in Indian spiritual traditions. Meaning “harmlessness”, it prohibits any kind of injury to others and was one of the core principles that aspirants in yoga had to observe.
But ahimsa was taken most seriously by the Jains, whose religious tradition was founded by Vardhamana Jnatiputra in the fifth century BC. He taught that it was not only humans who had a jiva (soul), but also every animal, plant and rock, as well as water, fire and air. It followed that all these things should be treated with the same courtesy and respect that we would wish to receive. This radical empathy meant that Jains avoided killing any insect or plant, and twice a day they asked for forgiveness for any creature they might have inadvertently injured or destroyed: “May all creatures pardon me. May I have friendship with all creatures and enmity toward none.”