The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, January 30, 2000
Your Option

The relevance of ahimsa
By Taru Bahl

THE fear of a nuclear holocaust and the threat of race extinction have led to non-violence as the one saving principle which could ultimately help in preserving and promoting the progress of human society. All the great religions of the world stressed the need for compassion, love and strength of moral persuasion, though it is another matter that followers of these religions rarely practise what the holy books prescribe.

Gandhi had the creative genius to realise that the force of the state could be successfully challenged by the superior force of the individual human consciousness. One generation after his death in an entirely different political environment, Martin Luther King demonstrated the authority of non-violence. Both represented the reaction of human civilisation to power, authority and, sometimes, unbridled despotism of the modern state.

The question which has for long faced crusaders of human rights is whether these principles have universal appeal. Gandhi believed that there was no alternative to non-violence and passive resistance even in conditions of military occupation by totalitarian regimes. He discussed this in the context of Hitler’s occupation of Czechoslovakia; persecution of the Jews; the possibility of India’s invasion by the Japanese army after South East Asia and Burma had been taken over. He felt that the same method which had brought limited success to the Indians against the British could be the best instrument for fighting the new ‘enemy’. Gandhi felt that the ‘end of non-violent struggle was always an agreement, never a dictation, much less the humiliation of the opponent.’ He truly believed non-violence to be the greatest force at the disposal of mankind.

  Ahimsa, in its positive form, means the largest love and the greatest charity. Gandhi used to say, "If I am a follower of ahimsa, I must love my enemy. Active ahimsa has to include truth and fearlessness. The gift of love is the greatest of all gifts; a man who gives it in reality disarms all hostility. He paves the way for an honourable understanding. He is fearless simply because it is not possible to practice ahimsa and be a coward at the same time. Ahimsa therefore calls forth the greatest courage."

There has been divided opinion and increasing dilemma on the relevance of non-violence in the domestic and international arena more so on the need for people in positions of authority to possess strength and to use force. Society needs constant vigilance to redress grievances, prevent new types of oppression and to respond sensitively to those who do not recognise the rules of this game. No state authority can fully depend on non-violence. Dr Radhakrishnan noted the vital distinction between the two uses of force in society — force for bringing about and protecting justice and force for resisting and fighting injustice. He equated the state’s use of minimum force with ‘danda’, and the greater, nobler form of force represented by ahimsa. This was the absence of violence --- the use of a weapon which scorns the use of weapons.

There are those who believe that war alone can uplift men. For them, a world without war would be flabby, unrewarding and degenerating. They feel that without the use of violent force, evolution can not take place. The greatest revolutionaries believed that to be successful it was important to have a converted majority rather than a militant minority. The socialist movement in the West and Gandhi himself depended upon the effectiveness of strikes, representing the ultimate point in passive disobedience. This is the point at which there is almost a qualitative change from resistance to counter attack.

The fact that international terrorism, revolts and minority uprisings happen in some communities/countries brings home the fact that non- violence is not regarded as the ideal weapon to bring about justice. There have been instances in which force and authority have brought about social change in a positive manner. These include rebellions, wars of independence, guerrilla movements, underground political activity and national liberation struggles.

When asked to comment on the Doctrine of the Sword, Gandhi narrated an anecdote. His eldest son asked him what he should have done had he been present when Gandhi was almost fatally assaulted in 1908. Should he should have run away and allowed his father to be killed or should he should have used physical force in order to defend him. Gandhi told him that it was his duty to defend his father, even if it meant using violence. He said, "Where there is a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence." He, therefore, advocated the training in arms. He would rather have India resort to arms in order to defend her honour than see her as a weak, inept, helpless coward. He often said, "It is any day better to stand erect with a broken and bandaged head than to crawl on one’s belly in order to save one’s head."

That said, Gandhi still believed non-violence to be infinitely superior to violence and forgiveness to be manlier than punishment because ‘an eye for an eye can only make the entire world blind’. According to him, forgiveness adorns a soldier. Abstinence is forgiveness only when there is the power to punish; it is meaningless when it pretends to proceed from a helpless creature. A mouse hardly forgives a cat when it allows itself to be torn to pieces. He even appreciated the sentiments of those who wanted to tear General Dyer to pieces, in the post- Jallianwallah Bagh massacre. Since he felt that India was not utterly helpless he wanted to use her strength for a better purpose.

Strength, according to him, came not from physical capacity but from an indomitable will.

Gandhi is, therefore, called a practical idealist. The religion of non-violence, according to him, was not meant for the rishis and saints alone. It was applicable to commoners, too. He explained by saying that non-violence is the law of the species just as violence is the law of the brute. The spirit lies dormant in the brute and he knows no law but that of physical might. The dignity of man requires obedience to a higher law — to the strength of the spirit. He consciously placed before India the ancient law of self-sacrifice. For satyagraha and its offshoots, non-cooperation and civil resistance, were nothing but new names for the law of suffering. The saints who discovered the law of non-violence in the midst of violence were greater geniuses than Newton. They were themselves greater warriors than Wellington. Having known the use of arms, they realised their uselessness and taught a weary world that its salvation lay not through violence but through non-violence.

Non-violence in its dynamic condition means conscious suffering. It does not imply meek submission to the will of the evil-doer but means putting one’s whole soul against the will of the tyrant.

To quote from Gandhi’s autobiography, "Ahimsa is in no way the way of the timid or the cowardly. It is the way of the brave ready to face death. He who perishes with the sword in hand is no doubt brave but he who faces death without raising his little finger and without flinching is braver. He who surrenders his rice bags for fear of being beaten is a coward and not a votary of ahimsa. He who for fear of being beaten suffers the women of his household to be insulted is not manly but just the reverse. He is not fit to be husband, father or brother. He has no right to even complain."

For Gandhi, non-violence was not a mere philosophical principle. It was the rule and the breath of his life. It was a matter not of the intellect but of the heart. True guidance for him came by constant waiting upon God, by utmost humility, self-abnegation and by being ever ready to sacrifice one’s self.

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