The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, January 23, 2000
Your Option

Understanding non-violence
By Taru Bahl

NEWSPAPERs are full of horrifying incidents of youth anger, domestic abuse, criminal activity and sexual violence. Even toddlers are showing behavioural disorders with increased aggression, impatience and intolerance as they thrive on the interactive killings, maiming and hexing via toys and computer games. Discord, unhappiness, frustration and hatred find a release in acts of violence perpetrated on strangers, societies, countries, families and on the individual himself. Whether it is war, hijacking, bombing, looting, arson or murder, violence is resorted to assert authority and establish supremacy as gains and victories become overriding obsessions.

Violence is not a modern phenomenon. The means may have become more lethal and sophisticated but the emotions leading up to the specific acts of violence have prevailed since time immemorial. From the Biblical world to modern accounts of genocide, from the medieval torture chambers to Hindu-Muslim rioting, from expansion of colonial empires to long drawn out freedom struggles, from big wars like the Mahabharata to remote controlled nuclear warfare, violence has been justified as a means to an end. An end which is quick and effective, offering a conclusive result. If that indeed be so, why aren’t violent people, those who swear by the doctrine of the sword, happy and thriving? Why is it that the epic Mahabharata shows among other things the victor’s empty glory, where only seven victors were left alive out of the millions engaged in a fight which involved countless atrocities and treacheries?

  There is a school of thought which strongly feels that non-violence is relevant, irrespective of culture, time or need. It is the natural response of any civilised human being. According to them, it is violence which is unnatural. It is acquired and cultivated behaviour/act. If violence was natural to the human psyche why would we set up martial arts institutes and military academies teaching war strategies? Shouldn’t we have been born with the natural instinct and ability to kill? The question that we need to ask therefore is not whether non-violence is relevant or not but whether we are willing to move away from greed, selfishness and all the other negative attributes which govern our lives to the more positive emotions of love, compassion, understanding and respect. The choice undoubtedly is ours to make.

There are those who go as far as saying that wars can be avoided if differences are sorted out, hostilities curtailed and diplomacy followed. They feel that if each individual had the ability to end his own aggression there would be no need to wage a war. A single calm and peaceful person has the ability to be a harbinger of peace and harmony. Free of internal agitation, he can initiate a dialogue which would ultimately lead to an amicable solution. Therefore, agitation which comes from emotions like attachment, greed and desire have to be curbed.

Some very practical wisdom comes from the Dalai Lama. He says, "Once violence is done, it cannot be undone. It is irreversible." He feels that non-violence is simple realism.

Whatever violence builds up, it destroys. Nothing that it achieves is stable. And yet people are getting more and more violent for the flimsiest of excuses. The recent Jessica Lal murder being a case in point where a drunk youngster shot dead a female bartender just because he was denied a drink. Here again one of Gandhi’s quotes comes to mind, "I am prepared to die but there is no cause for which I am prepared to kill."

Literally translated non-violence is the "refusal to be violent". This refusal in no way suggests weakness or passivity. It is not something which denotes absolute pacifism or non-resistance. Mahatma Gandhi, the apostle of non- violence, once remarked, "I would prefer to see India defend her honour than see her stand like a coward, watching her defeat without making any attempt at defending herself." Dr Martin Luther King, Jr added weight to this line of reasoning by saying, "It’s not the violence of a few that scares me, it is the silence of many". That said, non-violence, according to Gandhi, was still superior to violence. And it certainly isn’t an easy option resorted to by those who are weak and fragile. A gun- toting He Man may be a child’s favourite toy and a violent film hero may be the audiences only screen saviour in the battle of the have’s and the have not’s but in real life, violent people are more often than not ‘cowards pretending to be bold’.

Far from redressing injustice, violence only aggravates it. Even when it doesn’t kill and maim it shows a basic disrespect for the life, dignity and freedom of the individual. It is a force which escapes the control of reason. Put positively, non-violence is the affirmation of an alternative view of force. It is a clear-sighted power using means that are proportionate to the goals it sets for itself. To quote Gandhi, "Non-violence is the law of the human race and is infinitely greater and superior to brute force. It affords the fullest protection to one’s self respect and sense of honour. It is a power which can be yielded equally be all, provided they have a living faith in the God of Love and Mankind."

The beauty is that non-violence can and should be accepted as a way of life and not just applied to isolated sporadic acts. Gandhi added a new dimension by saying that ahimsa (the Sanskrit word for non-violence in thought, word and deed) emphasises that it is in no sense a static concept. It is capable of unlimited development, like a science. In his hands, ahimsa, the sword of self-suffering, became a mighty instrument of large scale social and political change.

Pope John Paul II said, "Non violence is an active commitment to achieving justice." At a very basic level, it is a refusal to cooperate with all that is evil and unfair. A non-violent reaction to an act of violence is actually reaching out in goodwill towards the perpetrators of violence together with a willingness to suffer themselves rather than make others the victims of violence in retaliation.

Non- violence is nothing but a series of acts where the individual chooses life and peace in place of injury, death and discord. It brings the power of love into play in the arena of conflict. To the extent that non-violent action succeeds in any given instance, it changes the situation itself from one of dominance and submission to one of mutual respect for human rights and an active concern for the genuine need of all the parties. This is what made Gandhi remark, "Non- violent action seeks to overcome the enemy and make the enemy a friend."

Non-violence and inner peace nourishes one’s soul and the souls of others. It multiplies by interacting with the elements. The essence of Gandhian philosophy of non- violence or the pursuit of truth is that we must be guided by love, compassion, understanding and respect. A truly non-violent person radiates peace, compassion and kindness to other human beings. His very existence in a social group is a source of inspiration for positive social action.

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