You are here:
ONLINE BOOKS > ASHRAM OBSERVANCES IN ACTION > Ahimsa or Love

03. Ahimsa or Love
The greatest difficulties perhaps were encountered as regards the observance of ahimsa. There are problems of Truth, but it is not very hard to understand what Truth is. But in understanding ahimsa we every now and then find ourselves out of our depth. Ahimsa was discussed in the Ashram at greater length than any other subject. Even now the question often arises whether a particular act is violent or non-violent. And even if we know the distinction between violence and non-violence, we are often unable to satisfy the demand of non-violence on account of weakness which cannot easily be overcome.
Ahimsa means not to hurt any living creature by thought, word or deed, even for the supposed benefit of that creature. To observe this principle fully is impossible for men, who kill a number of living beings large and small as they breathe or blink or till the land. We catch and hurt snakes or scorpions for fear of being bitten and leave them in some out-of-the-way place if we do not kill them. Hurting them in this way may be unavoidable, but is clearly himsa as defined above.
If I save the food I eat or the clothes I wear or the space I occupy, it is obvious that these can be utilized by someone else whose need is greater than mine. As my selfishness prevents him from using these things, my physical enjoyment involves violence to my poorer neighbour. When I eat cereals and vegetables in order to support life, that means violence done to vegetable life.
Surrounded thus as I am by violence on all sides, how am I to observe non-violence ? Fresh difficulties are bound to rise at every step as I try to do so.
The violence described above is easily recognised as such. But what about our being angry with one another? A teacher inflicting corporal punishment on his pupils, a mother taking her children to task, a man losing his temper in his intercourse with equals, all these are guilty of violence, and violence of a bad type, which is not easy to tackle. Violence is there where there is attachment on the one hand and dislike on the other. How are we to get rid of it?
The first lesson therefore that we in the Ashram must learn is that although to sever some person's head from his body for the sake of the country or the family or oneself is indeed a violent act, the subtle violence involved in injuring the feelings of other people day in and day out is possibly very much worse than that. Murders committed in the world will seem to be numerous when considered by themselves and not so numerous when compared with the number of deaths due to other causes; but the subtle violence involved in daily loss of temper and the like defies all attempts at calculation.
We are constantly striving in the Ashram to deal with all these kinds of violence. All of us realize our own weakness. All of us including myself are afraid of snakes for instance. We therefore as a rule catch them and put them out of harm's way. But if someone kills a snake out of fear, he is not taken to task. There was once a snake in the cowshed, and it was impossible to catch it where it was. It was a risky thing to keep the cattle there; the men also were afraid of working thereabouts. Maganlal Gandhi felt helpless and permitted them to kill that snake. I approved of his action when he told me about it. I believe that even if I had been there on the spot, I could not have done anything other than what he did. My intellect tells me that I must treat even a snake as my kinsman and at the risk of losing my life I must hold the snake in my hands and take it away from those who are afraid of it. But in my heart I do not harbour the necessary love, fearlessness and readiness to die of snake­bite. I am trying to cultivate all these qualities but have not still succeeded in the attempt. It is possible that if I am attacked by a snake, I may neither resist nor kill it. But I am not willing to place anyone else's life in danger.
Once in the Ashram the monkeys made a terrible nuisance of themselves and did extensive damage to the crops. The watchman tried to frighten them by making a show of hurling stones from a sling but in vain. He then actually threw stones and injured and crippled one of the monkeys. I thought this even worse than killing it. I therefore held discussions with co-workers in the Ashram, and finally we took the decision that if we could not get rid of the monkeys by gentle means short of wounding them, we must kill one or two of them and end the nuisance. Before this decision was taken there was a public discussion in the columns of Navajivan1 which may be consulted by the curious.
No one outside India thinks that one should not kill even a violent animal. Some individuals like St. Francis observed this rule, but the common people did not, so far as I am aware. The Ashram believes in the principle, but it is a pity that we have not succeeded in putting it into practice. We have not still acquired the art of doing this. It is possible that many men will have to lay down their lives before this art is mastered. For the present it is only a consummation devoutly to be wished for. The principle has long been accepted in India but the practice is very imperfect on account of our laziness and self-deception.
Mad dogs are killed in the Ashram, the idea being that they die after much suffering and never recover. Our people torture mad dogs instead of killing them and deceive themselves into thinking that they observe non-violence. As a matter of fact they only indulge in greater violence.
Non-violence sometimes call's upon us to put an end to the life of a living being. For instance a calf in the Ashram dairy was lame and had developed terrible sores; it could not eat and breathed with difficulty. After three days' argument with myself and my co-workers I had poison injected into its body and thus put an end to its life. That action was non­violent, because it was wholly unselfish inasmuch as the sole purpose was to achieve the calf's relief from pain. It was a surgical operation, and I should do exactly the same thing with my child, if he were in the same predicament.
Many Hindus were shocked at this, but their reaction to the incident only betrays their ignorance of the nature of ahimsa, which has for us long ceased to be a living faith, and has been degraded into formalities complied with when not very inconvenient.
Here we must take leave of the Ashram experiments with ahimsa as regards subhuman species.
Ahimsa as regards sub-human life is from the Ashram point of view an important aspect but still only one aspect of this comprehensive principle. Our dealings with our fellowmen are still more important than that. The commonest form of human intercourse is either violent or non-violent. Fortunately for humanity non-violence pervades human life and is observed by men without special effort. If we had not borne with one another, mankind would have been destroyed long ago. Ahimsa would thus appear to be the law of life, but we are not thus far entitled to any credit for observing it.
Whenever there is a clash of ephemeral interests, men tend to resort to violence. But with a deliberate observance of non-violence a person experiences a second birth or 'conversion'. We in the Ashram are out to observe ahimsa intelligently. In so doing we meet with numerous obstacles, disappointments and trials of faith. We may not be satisfied with observing ahimsa in deed only. Not to think badly of anyone, not to wish ill to him though we have suffered at his hands, not to hurt him even in thought, — this is an uphill task, but therein lies the acid test of our ahimsa.
Thieves have visited the Ashram from outside, and there have been thieves in the Ashram itself. But we do not believe in inflicting punishment on them. We do not inform the police; we put up with the losses as best we may. This rule has been infringed at times. A thief was once caught red-handed by day. The Ashramite who caught him bound him with a rope and treated him contemptuously. I was in the Ashram at the time. I went to the thief, rebuked him and set him free. But as a matter of fact ahimsa demands from us something more than this. We must find out and apply methods which would put a stop to thieving altogether. For one thing we must diminish the number of our 'possessions' so as not to tempt others. Secondly we must bring about a reformation in the surrounding villages. And thirdly the Ashram ministry should be extended in scope so that the bad as well as the good would learn to look upon the settlement as their own.
We thus find that it is impossible for a man with 'possessions' to observe ahimsa even in the gross meaning of that term. A man of property must adopt measures for its security involving the punishment of whoever tries to steal it. Only he can observe ahimsa who holds nothing as his own and works away in a spirit of total detachment. If there are many such individuals and organizations in society, violence will not be much in evidence. As gunpowder has a large place in a society based on violence and a soldier who can handle it with skill becomes entitled to honour and rewards, even so in a non-violent society self-suffering and self-control are its 'munitions of warand persons endowed with these qualities are its natural protectors. The world at large has not still accepted ahimsa in this sense. India has accepted it more or less but not in a comprehensive manner. The Ashram holds that ahimsa should be universal in scope, and that society can be built up on the foundations of ahimsa. It conducts experiments with this end in view, but these have not been very successful. I have been unable to cite in this chapter much that would hearten the votary of ahimsa. This does not apply of course to ahimsa as applied to politics, to which I propose to devote a separate2 chapter.

[1] Since reprinted in Ahimsa, p. 123 ff. V. G. D.
[2] This chapter was never written. V. G. D.