When Gandhi said Ahimsa cannot be taught to a man unable to kill

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Photograph of Mahatma Gandhi taken in London at the request of Lord Irwin 1931 | Wikimedia Commons

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In July 1918, Gandhi admits to facing difficulties. Serious thinking affected him both physically and emotionally. He feels listless and has little motivation to read, write, speak or meet people. In view of this condition, he failed to respond to letters received from CF Andrews. But despite his apathy, he greatly cherished Andrews’ communication, as well as their friendship, and decided to dictate a letter on July 6, 1918.

Andrews’ letter was a response to an earlier note from Gandhi in June 1918. In it, Gandhi made an unusual claim. Ahimsa cannot be taught to a man incapable of killing, he wrote. While one cannot make a mute person appreciate the beauty and excellence of silence, efforts must be made to restore his or her ability to speak. Likewise, violent men must exhaust their capacity for violence in order to value the value of non-violence.

Andrews dismissed this analogy, observing that Gandhi’s logic comes dangerously close to suggesting that those who forgot about bloodlust should be reset to violence so that they learn the virtues of ahimsa and repudiate himsa.

Gandhi’s July 6 letter is a unique and unusually direct response to Andrews on the subject of violence and non-violence. He begins by questioning Andrews’ belief that Indians as a race had rejected violence, especially the desire to kill others, in the past and had consciously chosen “to stand on the side of humanity. “. Starting from his relentless reiteration of non-violence as a fundamental tenet of Hinduism, he questions the historical validity of Andrews’ conclusion. Although regularly uncharitable towards history and historical argumentation, he now sees an absence of non-violence in the Mahabharata, the Ramayana and even in Tulsidas’ version of the Ramayana, which he considered superior to the original. of Valmiki in its spiritual content. Here he relies on his method of reading a scriptural text, which, when applied, always prioritizes the central spiritual message over context shifts. Also, anything in a text that contradicts certain timeless and identifiable fundamental principles is to be regarded as an interpolation and, therefore, ruthlessly rejected. But by responding to Andrews’ conviction of nonviolence in India, Gandhi resuscitates the very thing that he might have otherwise dismissed as an interpolation. “Is this historically true? He asks, posing the question in opposition to his judgment that non-violence is a fundamental principle of Hinduism but also that all religions essentially preach peace. The story and the tween converge, or even merge seamlessly, in this case.

Claiming that he did not view these texts in any spiritual sense, Gandhi describes their pages as being full of tales of bloodthirsty, vengeful, and ruthless incarnations to their enemies. These incarnations have not hesitated in deception and cunning to subdue their opponents. The battles are described in these texts with as much enthusiasm as in contemporary times; warriors possess and use incredibly deadly weapons. Even Tulsidas’ beautiful poem in praise of Lord Rama gives undisputed primacy to Rama’s ability to kill his enemies. More recently, Hindus were as eager to fight as Muslims, even though they were disorganized, physically weak, and torn by mutual discord. Refuting Andrews’ attempt to attribute tolerance and non-violence to Buddhism, Gandhi states that the Buddha’s doctrine of universal tolerance is a demonstrable failure. If legend is to be believed, Shankaracharya succeeded in banishing Buddhism from India using ineffable cruelty. Likewise, Gandhi rejects the idea that Manu stipulates a rejection of violence in his law book, Manava Dharmaśāstra. Even the Jains, Gandhi argues, had failed to propagate nonviolence. While they had a “superstitious horror of spilled blood,” they rejoiced like everyone else when an enemy was defeated. Only the period of English rule had imposed a mandatory abandonment of violence, but not necessarily the desire to kill.


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Severe and unequivocal are therefore the words in which Gandhi answers the question he himself asked about the origin of non-violence in India.

All that can be said of India is that individuals have made serious efforts, with more success than elsewhere, to popularize the doctrine. [of non-violence]. But there is no reason to believe that he is deeply rooted among the people.

He bristles at Andrews’ suggestion that nonviolence might have become an unconscious instinct in Indians, a quality that could be rekindled at will, as Gandhi himself had shown. He considers the proposition that people have taken of passive resistance as a weapon of the weak to be laughable and slanderous. For some of his colleagues and for himself, passive resistance in the form of satyagraha is no longer strong. But for the vast majority of people, it was simple passive resistance born of weakness in the face of the inability to resort to violence. Giving the examples of the satyagraha of Kheda and Champaran, Gandhi reports that a substantial number of people participating in these satyagraha felt that the violence was more manly than the satyagraha. These people simply did not have the spirit to refuse to obey an unjust order or an unjust law. They also lacked the intrepid courage to face the hangman’s noose or stand firm against the bullets that had fallen on them. This spirit of boldness and principled determination was unlikely to surface until they had received the proper training to defend themselves.

What did such training involve? For Gandhi, a full and adequate development of physical strength is an absolute condition for appreciating and absorbing the merits of non-violence. Ahimsa can only be instilled in a person who is physically strong and able to face an opponent. Gandhi admits Andrews’ assertion that India’s moral force can resist and repel the most powerful armies in the world, but maintains that India must be physically strong to begin to understand even the first principles of this force. moral. To illustrate his point, he mentions a prayer that millions of people recite every day without understanding its meaning. If only they could appreciate its significance, they would be able to repel even the most formidable armies. But this capacity does not exist and it is unlikely that it will exist until freedom and fearlessness prevail in the land. It would take independence and freedom from fear to allow a large number of people to protect themselves from all kinds of violence. However, Gandhi, so far, does not reveal what constitutes the moral force that can face and repel the most formidable armies in the world.

Unsurprisingly, Gandhi reveals that the great moral and strength idea for him is moksha. But moksha cannot be manipulated by a child – the child must be allowed to become a man before being introduced to it. We must allow attachment to the body and explore the global implications of such a bond. Once the child understands the body well and learns the endless possibilities of a robust physique, the transient nature of the body and the world will be disclosed to him. At that time, he will learn that the body should not be wasted on gratifying itself but should be used as a vehicle for liberation. Once India, disguised as a child in Gandhi’s eyes, understands moksha, she will also assimilate the doctrine of ahimsa, which is nothing but the creed of perfect love. Beyond instilling moksha and ahimsa in the mind, Gandhi now wishes to reflect on the practical application of these ideas.


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Translating the feeling of having a strong body to the Indian context, Gandhi questions whether each individual should possess the power to use violence and to what extent they should acquire the capacity to strike hard. Alternatively, they could derive enough personal courage from the prevailing spirit of freedom to make the need for violence unnecessary. Taking this last opinion to be correct, Gandhi offers an example. After all, he had supported the British during World War I and even encouraged the Indians to join the army. But he had done so by asking them to join the war effort, not to shed blood but to overcome their fear of death, not to kill Germans but to die for India and the Empire. . He imagines having raised an army of intrepid men who would lay down their arms because their hearts were overflowing with love for the enemy. They even asked the Germans to shoot them down. Certainly, he concluded, this act of love and the will to die would melt even the German heart.

Moksha and ahimsa may be the culmination of the ultimate human quest, but in order to achieve this desirable state, one has to go through the process of knowing the body and attaining physical maturity. In this sense, Gandhi postulates, war and the body are not dissimilar. War, like the body, is a necessary evil, which is resorted to in exceptional circumstances if the motive for war is just. In such cases, war can benefit mankind, and a follower of Ahimsa should not be an indifferent bystander when such a just war is waged. He must either cooperate actively or resist vigorously.

Gandhi’s frank response to Andrews reveals two distinct but interconnected lines of inquiry. The recognition and reality of violence is the first. The second is the insertion and legitimation of non-violence as a fundamental principle of Hinduism. Between these two parallel lines of investigation lie questions of fearlessness, courage, virility, cowardice, weakness, evil, strength, body, meaning, suffering, forgiveness, patience, punishment and death. But it is also essential to examine the historical and conceptual status of concepts such as himsa and ahimsa apart from their use by Gandhi. A logical step in this direction is to start with violence and its role in defining Gandhi’s Ahimsa religion.

This excerpt from “Elusive Non-Violence: The Making and Unmaking of Gandhi’s Religion of Ahimsa” by Jyotirmaya Sharma was published with permission from Context, October 2021.

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