Gandhi, Ahimsa and Christianity

  • Mahatma’s non-violence in fact may be the result of his exposure to western influences. Every inch an Indian except his stance on Ahimsa?

In his article, “His faith, our faith” (January 31), Ramachandra Guha provided some interesting insights on Gandhi’s religious beliefs not to forget his aversion to conversions. This article seeks to analyse whether some Gandhi’s practices like Ahimsa are Indic in origin notably Hindu. Next it gives the meaning of Ahimsa in Patanjali’s Yoga and the Holy Gita.

At the outset I must confess to be an admirer of Gandhi for his ability to involve the aam aadmi in our freedom movement, criticism of the British for killing India’s indigenous education system, understanding of rural India, which continues to inspire millions worldwide. Also, while it is useful to evaluate actions of our national heroes, they should be seen in the context of their times and the Empire he fought.

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

This comes as no surprise because, as Guha wrote, “For most of his adult life Gandhi’s best friend was a practicing Christian priest Charles Andrews”. It is quite natural to be influenced by your best friend.

Similar thoughts were echoed in 1923 by Mahommad Ali, a close associate of Gandhi in the Khilafat Movement 1921. He said, “Many have compared Gandhi’s teachings and lately his personal sufferings to those of Jesus. When Jesus contemplated the world at the outset of his ministry he was called upon to make his choice of the weapons of reform. The idea of being all-powerful by suffering and resignation, and of triumphing over force by purity of heart, is as old as the days of Abel & Cain, the first progeny of man. The political conditions of India just before the advent of the Mahatma resembled those of Judea on the eve of the advent of Jesus, and the prescription that he offered to those in search of a remedy for the ills of India was the same that Jesus had dispended before in Judea.” Thoughts on Pakistan’ by Dr B R Ambedkar 1941.
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)

If the concept of Ahimsa as enunciated above is as fundamental to Indian thought as we believe why did Chandragupta Maurya, Guru Gobind Singh and Shivaji become warriors is a question that might haunt most Indians!

What do other schools of Indian thought say on Ahimsa?  

Ahimsa 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).  

Ahimsa is considered the bedrock of other practices because to develop ahimsa one has to free oneself from the effects of the ego. Spiritual practices can be undertaken, i.e. dhyana or meditation, only when the mind is not occupied with the ego. These practices are required to still the fluctuations of the mind caused by Gunas of the physical world.

The significance of ahimsa is that it is considered before the spiritual, physical, or mental practices. It is the first amongst the other yamas i.e. satya (truth), asteya (not stealing), aparigraha (non possessiveness) and brahmacharya (celibacy). Ahimsa literally means non-injury or non-violence. One normally understands non-violence as merely restraining from physical act of violence, but in Yoga scriptures nonviolence is to be practiced through thought, speech and action.  

Jaina Darsana - Non-violence is a spiritual power. To oppose violence and run away out of fear is not Ahima. A true practitioner of Ahimsa is one who has the courage and strength to fight but controls himself and does not take to violence. It is the kshatriyas who have taught non-violence and those who follow their teachings are men of heroic character, ones who attain spiritual wealth. That is probably why all Jain Tirthankaras belonged to the Kshatriya varna. These thoughts are best reflected in Sardar Patel words while describing the Army’s role in dealing with Nizam’s rebellion of 1948, “It is not the action of the Army which maintains law and order. It is the prestige of the government backed by potential armed action, which keeps the people in order”.

Holy Gita - Arjuna asks how it can be his Dharma to kill his own brothers. Lord Krishna replied, “Further, looking at thine own duty thou oughtest not to waver, for there is nothing higher for a Kshatriya than a righteous war”. 

‘Arjuna’s personal call-of-character (Swadharma) is that of a leader of his generation (Kshatriya) and as such, it his duty not to waver but to fight and defend his sacred national culture. To the leaders of people, there can be nothing nobler than to get a glorious chance to fight for a righteous cause. Commentary on the Gita by Swami Chinmaynandji Chapter 2, slokha 31. Simply put it means that violence is justified when undertaken to protect Dharma.

Instead of understanding Ahimsa in the context of the Gita, successive Indian governments were influenced by Gandhi and neglected defence spending. Speaking on the Defence Budget in the Lok Sabha noted Gandhian Acharya Kriplani said in 1957, “The mounting expenses on the Army must be cut down. The followers of Gandhi and adherents of universal peace should not increase military expenditure”. The effects of the 1962 defeat continue to haunt Indo-Chinese relations even today.

Lastly Guha wrote about Gandhi’s efforts to bridge the Hindu Muslim divide. Gandhi believed that support to the Khilafat Movement, an agitation by the Indian Muslims for the restoration of the Caliphate in Turkey, would make Muslims accept him as their leader and promote unity. Nothing like that happened. Instead the number of Hindu Muslim riots went up drastically. Between 1920-40 there were sixteen riots the key ones being Moplah Rebellion 1921, Calcutta 1925-26, Hindus expelled from Khyber Pass in 1927-28, Cawanpore 1931-32, Lahore 1934-35, Panipat 1937 etc.

Hence, the questions a historian like Guha must answer is: Was Gandhi’s Ahimsa the right weapon for India?

An abreviated article with this title was first published in Hindustan Times Mumbai on March 21 2008. 

Also read

1 Impact of Ahimsa on thinking of independent India

2 India's Rebirth by Sr Aurobindo

3 Did Ahimsa get India indepenence?  

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