2nd Oct is birth anniversary of Mahātma Gāndhi who will always be remembered for his practice of rejecting violent means to achieve justice. While all freedom fighters were at war with the Angrez, Gāndhi in particular championed a form of resistance against brutality and oppression in a unique way. This subtle style of resistance practiced by Gāndhi was based on an ideal that was already an integral part of Indian ethos. While Gāndhi’s birthday has now been adopted by the United Nations as the International Day of Non-Violence, here is a look through the rear-view mirror at one of the key principles behind his ideology.
Non-injury, Non-Violence or Ahimsa was adopted by Gāndhi and later by many Gāndhians like Annā Hazare as a philosophy behind their protests against injustice. But Ahimsa is a very ancient Indian spiritual practice. It is the first of the five Yamas (restraints) amongst the eight limbs of Patanjali’s Yoga, the others being Niyamas (five observances), Asana (posture), Pranayama (breath control), Pratyahara (withdrawal of senses), Dharana (concentration), Dhyana (meditation) and Samadhi (spiritual absorption).
It is also one of the cornerstones of Indian culture along with Brahmacharya (moderation) and Satyam (Truth). By the way, what does Gandhi’s “Ahimsa” mean? “When a person claims to be non-violent, he is expected not to be angry with one who has injured him. He will not wish him harm; he will not cause him physical hurt. Complete non-violence is complete absence of ill-will against all that lives”. (History and Culture of Indian People Vol 11).
Though this ideal has been taught in India for since Vedic times, yet the Mahābhārata happened. Despite this ideal, the wicked kings and asuras got killed one by one. The Holy Gita also happened right on the “battlefield”. Also, what ensued after the Holy Gitā was total violence and annihilation of the Kuru princes.
As they say, we had some 5000 wars in the last 3000 years. Does that make ahimsa completely irrelevant or have we missed the point about ahimsa? If so, where do we go to understand ahimsa?
The ideal and practice of ahimsa comes from Sanatan Dharam, Jain Dharam, Baudh Dharam (note that the brave Chandragupta Maurya was a Jain). However, the last two impose total non-violence while the first suggests it as a virtue of the ascetic. Ahimsa is interpreted as a state of mind, a virtue, a practice, a tenet, a way, a rule, and a parameter to judge actions or even a philosophy.
In Hinduism, the definition of ahimsa is quite neutral giving it a meaning of non-injury in thought, word and deed. This has been confirmed by many Vedanta teachers.
One etymological interpretation says that ahimsa comes from the root word ‘hims” meaning ‘to strike’. So a-himsa means not-to-strike. According to Shri Chandrasekharendra Saraswathi Swāmigal (the previous pontiff of Kanchi matt), “In the Vedic dharma the definition of ahimsa is the absence of ill-feeling in all action.”
The oft quoted "Ahimsa Paramo Dharma" (meaning non-violence is the highest duty) was popularized by Gāndhi. But what is not quoted is the latter part of the Sanskrit stanza “Dharma himsa tathaiva cha” meaning "So too is all ‘righteous’ violence." So the verse goes this way “Ahimsa Paramo Dharma, Dharma himsa tathaiva cha” meaning “Non-violence is the ultimate dharma. So too is violence in the service of Dharma.” This is no sanction for violence. It is also not a sanction to protecting dharma without being dharmic. Sanātana dharma is simply not in the “infidel” business which wants to protect religion by getting rid of adharmic infidel non-believers. Hinduism is about infinity rather than infidelity.
That makes it imperative to correctly understand the word ‘dharma’ before we even talk about non-violence or violence. Without fully understanding and imbibing dharma there simply is no justification for any harm.
The Pātānjali Yogasutra (2-35) says “Ahimsa pratisthayam tatsannidhau vairatyagah” meaning “In the presence of one firmly established in ahimsa, all hostilities cease”. Ahimsa is mentioned many times in different scriptures ranging from the Vedas (Upanishads), Itihaasas like the Mahābhārata, dharma shāstras like the Manu smriti, Boudhayana dharmasutra and various other dharmic texts. In the Holy Gitā it occurs in the list of rules prescribed for all human beings.
The Jain granth ‘Acaranga Sutra’ supports non-violence by saying: “All beings are fond of life; they like pleasure and hate pain, shun destruction and like to live, they long to live. To all, life is dear”.
So what Gāndhi did successfully was to incorporate ahimsa in his philosophy called ‘satyagraha’ which was the way of non-retaliation, civil disobedience, non payment of inhuman taxes, non-cooperation, fasts etc. According to Gāndhi, the objective of this philosophy was to convert, not to coerce the wrong-doer. His idea was to convince his opponents of their injustice and demonstrate the brutality of oppression. Thus Gandhjii promoted the principle of ahimsa particularly to politics, as never seen before in modern times. But Gandhi’s version of ahimsa also has its critics who blame him for taking it too far. Like in Jainism Gandhi believed that ahimsa is the standard by which all actions are judged.
In Gāndhi's own words: “Ahimsa is the highest ideal. It is meant for the brave, never for the cowardly. Ahimsa is the eradication of the desire to injure or to kill. Ahimsa is an attribute of the brave. Cowardice and ahimsa don't go together any more than water and fire. True ahimsa should mean a complete freedom from ill-will and anger and hate and an overflowing love for all.” His ahimsa naturally extended to his strictly vegetarian food habits. His practice of Ahimsa convinced many that it is possible to implement this lofty ideal if one has the resolve and conviction for it.
Gandhi advocated a minimum violence model when he said “Strictly speaking, no activity and no industry is possible without a certain amount of violence, no matter how little. Even the very process of living is impossible without a certain amount of violence. What we have to do is to minimize it to the greatest extent possible.”
Ahimsa is confused with the Gāndhi’s ‘Satyagraha’ which some said was nothing but ‘passive resistance’. To which Gāndhi clarifies “Satyagraha is as far away from passive resistance as the North Pole is from the South Pole. Passive resistance is the weapon of the weak and, therefore, the application of physical pressure or violence are not ruled out in the efforts to reach its aims. In contrast, Satyagraha is the weapon of the strongest. The use of force of any kind is ruled out....This law of love is nothing other than the love of truth. Without truth there is no love”.
Though Gāndhi was not the inventor of ‘Ahimsa’, this was the very principle behind his style of struggle against injustice. Ultimately ahimsa is based on right cause, righteousness and dharma - devoid of any selfish motivation.
The author is from Mumbai, India and has made New Zealand his home for more than a decade. He is a keen Indology enthusiast and has specific interest in the wisdom traditions and perennial philosophy of India.
Editor – Please read links to articles below. Sri Aurobindo had a different thought on Ahimsa as practiced by Gandhi. ‘The fundamental question is: Was Gandhi’s ahimsa similar to Christ’s philosophy of turning the other cheek? Well, he certainly was Christ-like, said Maharishi Aurobindo. Thus, in response to a devotee’s question in 1926, Sri Aurobindo said, “Some prominent national workers in India seem to me to be incarnations of some European force here. They may not be incarnations, but they may be strongly influenced by European thought. For instance Gandhi is a European-truly, a Russian Christian in an Indian body. And there are some Indians in European bodies!
Yes. When the Europeans say that he is more Christian than many Christians (some even say that he is “Christ of the modern times”) they are perfectly right. All his preaching is derived from Christianity, and though the garb is Indian the essential spirit is Christian. He may not be Christ, but at any rate he comes in continuation of the same impulsion. He is largely influenced by Tolstoy, the Bible, and has a strong Jain tinge in his teachings; at any rate more than by the Indian scriptures-the Upanishads or the Gita, which he interprets in the light of his own ideas.” India’s Rebirth
•Why was Gandhi killed?
• Gandhi, Ahimsa, Christianity
•War and non-violence in the Bhagavad Gita
•What is Dharma
•Did Gandhi get India freedom
•Impact of Gandhi’s actions on Hindu Muslim relations 1920-1940