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Ancient wisdom behind Gandhi’s style of protest

Gandhi's Autograph

2nd Oct is birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi 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, Gandhi in particular championed a form of resistance against brutality and oppression in a unique way. This subtle style of resistance practiced by Gandhi was based on an ideal that was already an integral part of Indian ethos. While Gandhi’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 Gandhi and later by many Gandhians like Anna Hazare as a philosophy behind their protests against injustice. But Ahimsa is a very ancient Indian spiritual practice. It is in fact one of the cornerstones of Indian culture along with Brahmacharya (moderation) and Satyam (Truth). The practice of ahimsa has pretty clear logic – ‘why kill, why injure or why use violence’ because “violence begets violence” as the great Gautam Buddha once said.

Though this ideal has been taught in India for since Vedic times, yet the Mahabharata war 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 Gita was total violence and annihilation of the Kuru princes.

As they say, we have 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 dharmic religions i.e. Hinduism (Vedic Sanatana dharma), Jainism and Buddhism. However Jainism and Buddhism impose total non-violence while Hinduism 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 Swamigal (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 Gandhi. 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. Sanatana 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 Patanjali 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 Mahabharata, dharma shastras like the Manu smriti, Boudhayana dharmasutra and various other dharmic texts. In the Holy Gita 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 Gandhi 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 Gandhi, 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 Gandhi’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 Gandhi’s ‘Satyagraha’ which some said was nothing but ‘passive resistance’. To which Gandhi 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 Gandhi 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.

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