Ahimsa: Its theory and practice in Gandhism
- By Dr. Ram Ponnu*
"Nonviolence is an active force of the highest order. It is soul force or the power of Godhead within us. Imperfect man cannot grasp the whole of that essence - he would not be able to bear its full blaze, but even an infinitesimal fraction of it, when it becomes active within us, can work wonders."
- Mahatma Gandhi
Gandhism, an amalgam of Gandhi's views and practices, revolves around ahimsa, the non-violence. Gandhi had no weapon but nonviolence. (XXV-423) He successfully implemented the rule of non-violence in the struggle for independence. All his experiments in ahimsa had taught him that nonviolence in practice means common labour with the body. (T-5-225) To his mind, the most perfect demonstration of nonviolence was in Champaran. (T-5-191)
Concept of Ahimsa
Ahimsa is derived from the Sanskrit verb root san, which means to kill. The form hims means "desirous to kill"; the prefix a- is a negation. So a-himsa means literally "lacking any desire to kill". Literally translated, ahimsa means to be without harm; to be utterly harmless, not only to oneself and others, but to all living beings. But its implications are far wider; it is more than not doing violence, it is more than an attitude, it is a whole way of life. Itis the opposite of himsa, "violence" which is to hurt the vitalities (pranas), through vibration due to the passions, which agitate mind, body, or speech.(Tattvarthadhigama Sutra vii:13) The concept of ahimsa extends to all living beings, and therefore, protection of environment, natural habitats and vegetarianism are its natural derivatives. Buddhism and Jainism impose total non-violence on their followers. In Hinduism, it means the principle of non-injury to living beings. Hindus, particularly in the southern parts of India, often abstain from eating meat in accordance with the belief in not harming animals. To one who reads the spirit of the Gita, it teaches the secret of nonviolence, the secret of realizing self though the physical body.MOG-16
Ahimsa in Jainism
The basic elements of Gandhi’s philosophy were rooted in the Indian religions of Jainism and Buddhism. Both of these religions advocate ahimsa, which is “absence of the desire to kill or harm” (Chapple 10). The Acaranga Sutra, a Jain text, describes the fundamental need for non-violence: “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” (Chapple 11). Mahavira threw new light on the perennial quest of the soul with the truth and discipline of ahimsa. He said: There is nothing so small and subtle as the atom nor any element as vast as space. Among the Jains, one of the greatest virtues was to show compassion and kindness to fellow living beings. The clear rule for Jain monks is that all possible care must be taken not to harm living things while walking, acting, speaking, begging, or performing excretory acts. To the Jains ahimsa is the supreme religion. According to the Jain tradition, ahimsa is a great vow of compassion in body, mind and spirit. Their scriptures state: Don’t injure, abuse, oppress, enslave, insult, torment, torture, or kill any creature or living being. The Jains believe that life (which equals soul) is sacred regardless of faith, caste, race, or even species. Harm done to other beings is considered harm to oneself since it attracts much karma. Any injury to the material or conscious vitalities caused by passionate activity of mind, body, or speech is certainly called violence; certainly the non-appearance of attachment and other passions is ahimsa. (Purusharthasiddhi-upaya iv:43-4 ) The most forceful statement is found in the Jnanarnava: Violence alone is the gateway to the miserable state, it is also the ocean of sin; it is itself a terrible hell and is surely the densest darkness". "If a person is accustomed to committing injury, then all his virtues like selflessness, greatness, desirelessness, penance, liberality, or munificence are worthless. (8.19-20)In this strife torn world of hatred and hostilities, aggression and aggrandisement, and of unscrupulous and unbridled exploitation and consumerism, the Jain perspective finds the evil of violence writ large. Jainism has become synonymous with Ahimsa and Jain religion is considered as the religion of Ahimsa. (Acharya Mahapragya: ‘Non-Violence and its many Facets’)
Ahimsa is the first of five precepts or ten precepts that the Buddha taught - "do not kill.” Jesus was the most active resister known perhaps to history. His was nonviolence par excellence. Ahimsa is certainly not cowardice; it is wisdom. And wisdom is the cumulative knowledge of the existing divine laws of reincarnation, karma, dharma, the all-pervasiveness and sacredness of things, blended together within the psyche or soul of the Hindu. Ramana Maharishi states: You do not like to suffer yourself. How can you inflict suffering on others? Every killing is a suicide. The eternal, blissful and natural state has been smothered by this life of ignorance. In this way the present life is due to the killing of the eternal, pristine Being. Is it not a case of suicide? Tolstoy was the greatest apostle of nonviolence that the present age has produced. (T-2-31)
Ahimsa in Gandhism
Gandhi learnt the lesson of nonviolence from his wife, when he tried to bend her to his will. Her determined resistance to his will, on the one hand, and her quiet submission to the suffering his stupidity involved, on the other, ultimately made him ashamed of himself and cured him of his stupidity in thinking that he was born to rule over her and, in the end, she became his teacher in nonviolence. Generally, ahimsa means non-violence. But to Gandhi, “it has much higher, infinitely higher meaning. It means that you may not offend anybody; you may not harbour uncharitable thought, even in connection with those who consider your enemies. To one who follows this doctrine, there are no enemies. A man who believes in the efficacy of this doctrine finds in the ultimate stage, when he is about to reach the goal, the whole world at his feet. If you express your love- ahimsa-in such a manner that it impresses itself indelibly upon your so called enemy, he must return that love. This doctrine tells us that we may guard the honour of those under our charge by delivering our own lives into the hands of the man who would commit the sacrilege. And that requires far greater courage than delivering of blows”. My nonviolence is made of stern stuff. It is firmer than the firmest metal known to the scientists. (T-5-169) Nonviolence, in its dynamic condition means conscious suffering. (T-2-5) If nonviolence is to be contagious and infectious, I must acquire greater control over my thoughts. (MM-277) A nonviolent action accompanied by nonviolence in thought and word should never produce enduring violent reaction upon the opponent.(T-5-130) A nonviolent warrior knows no leaving the battle. He rushes into the mouth of himsa, never even once harbouring an evil thought. (T-5-116) His nonviolence demands universal love, and we are not a small part of it. (T-5-295) and bids him dedicate himself to the service of minorities.(T-7-385) His nonviolence is not merely kindness to all the living creatures.(T-7-128) His love for nonviolence is superior to every other thing, mundane or super mundane.(MM-1180) His creed of nonviolence does not favour the punishment of thieves and dacoits and even murderers.(T-3-62) His faith in truth and nonviolence is ever growing, and as he is ever trying to follow them in his life.( T-4-154) His life is dedicated to the service of India through the religion of nonviolence which he believe to be the root of Hinduism. His mission is to convert every Indian, even Englishmen, and finally the world to nonviolence for regulating mutual relations, whether political, economic, social or religious.(T-5-221) His nonviolence does not admit of running away from danger and leaving the dear ones unprotected.(T-2-131) He says, nonviolence is a creed. I must act up to it, whether I am alone or have companions.(T-5-287) My creed of nonviolence is an extremely active force. (MM-143) As there is no place to ego and pride in Ahimsa-the non-violence, it is necessary for a person who claims to be non-violent that he follows it in his routines. In this context Mahatma Gandhi himself says: "If one has pride and egoism, he is not non-violent. Non-violence is impossible without humility."
Ahimsa and Truth
The only virtue Gandhi wants to claim is truth and nonviolence. (T-2-84) Truth and nonviolence are as old as the hills. (MM-25) Ahimsa and truth are so intertwined that it is practically impossible to disentangle and separate them. They are like the two sides of a coin, or rather a smooth unstamped metallic disc. Nevertheless ahimsa is the means; truth is the end. Truth is positive, nonviolence is negative.(MOG-14) Truth stands for the fact, nonviolence negatives the fact.(MOG-14) Truth is self-evident, nonviolence is its maturest fruit. It is contained in truth, but isn’t self-evident. (MOG-14) "This ahimsa is the basis of the search for truth. I am realising every day that the search is vain unless it is founded on ahimsa as the basis..."The patriotic spirit demands loyal and strict adherence to nonviolence and truth.(T-2-92) Truth and nonviolence are perhaps the activist forces you have in the world.(T-3-145) For Gandhi, ahimsa was the noblest expression of truth. “With truth combined with ahimsa, “Gandhi writes, “you can bring the world to your feet.” He also said: Truth is my religion and ahimsa is the only way of its realisation. The realization of the truth which is the realization of the oneness with all that is created as an extension of oneself portrays ahimsa. Whereas ahimsa when adopted as means to realize the absolute truth becomes an effective spiritual practice. Truth and nonviolence are no cloistered virtues but are applicable as much in the forum and the legislatures as in the market-place.(T-4-161) To Gandhi truth is God and there is no way to find truth except the way of nonviolence.(T-2-235) He promised: The practice of truth and nonviolence melted the religious differences, and we learnt to see beauty in each religion.(T-5-225) Complete independence will be complete only to the extent of our approach in practice to truth and nonviolence.(T-6-17) Use truth as your anvil, nonviolence as your hammer and anything that does not stand the test when it is brought to the anvil of truth and hammered with ahimsa, reject as non-Hindu.(XXVI-374)
Ahimsa and Satyagraha
Ahimsa is the bedrock of satyagraha, the "irreducible minimum" to which satyagraha adheres and the final measure of its value. Gandhi clearly holds that the satyagrahis are not to harbour anger let alone hatred. They are very advanced in their development of ahimsa. "Nonviolence is the law of our species as violence is the law of the brute. The spirit lies dormant in the brute and he knows no law but that of physical might. The dignity of man requires obedience to a higher law-to the strength of the spirit." Gandhi said, "Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will." Therein he found his own strength, and there he exhorted others to look for theirs. Latent in the depths of human consciousness, this inner strength can be cultivated by the observance of complete ahimsa. Whereas violence checks this energy within, and is ultimately disruptive in its consequences, ahimsa properly understood, is invincible. "Abstinence in root from violence is non-violence." Gandhi connected non-violence with bravery and declares it to be a [continuously] active force. It is a strongest force to be used properly and with high understanding, and not with equal ease. In Gandhi's own words: "Ahimsa cannot be dismissed as lightly as you think. Ahimsa is the strongest force known. But if all can use the strongest force with equal ease, it would lose its importance. We have not been able yet to discover the true measure of the innumerable properties of an article of our daily use like water. Some of its properties fill us with wonder. Let us not, therefore, make light of the strongest force like Ahimsa, and let's try to discover its hidden power with patience and faith." “Nonviolence cannot be preached. It has to be practiced," he insisted. "If we remain nonviolent, hatred will die as everything does, from disuse." “Non-violence is not a garment to be put on and off at will, its seat is in the heart and it must be inseparable part of our very being”. The religion of nonviolence is not meant merely for the rishis and saints. It is meant for the common people as well.
Ahimsa as a Law
Nonviolence is a universal law acting under all circumstances.(T-5-135) Gandhi characterized his practice of ahimsa as a science, and said: "I have been practicing with scientific precision nonviolence and its possibilities for an unbroken period of over 50 years." He was a precise man, meticulous and exacting, fond of quoting a Marathi hymn that goes, "Give me love, give me peace, O Lord, but don't deny me common sense." He valued experience as the test of truth, and the nonviolence he pursued and called "true nonviolence" had to conform to experience in all levels of human affairs. "I have applied it," he declares, "in every walk of life: domestic, institutional, economic, political. And I know of no single case in which it has failed." Daily practice could determine its value, "when it acts in the midst of and in spite of opposition," and he advised critics to observe the results of his experiments rather than dissect his theories. Nonviolence is the law of our species as violence is the law of the brute.(MM-112) "Nonviolence is not a cloistered virtue to be practiced by the individual for his peace and final salvation, but it is a rule of conduct for society. "Total non-violence consists in not hurting some other one's intellect, speech or action by own thought, utterance or deeds and not to deprive some one of his life." Gandhi's adherence to nonviolence grew from his experience that it was the only way to resolve the problem of conflict personally. Violence, he felt, only made the pretense of a solution, and sowed seeds of bitterness and enmity that would ultimately disrupt the situation.
For Gandhi, to profess nonviolence with sincerity or even to write a book about it was, not adequate. "If one does not practice nonviolence in his personal relationships with others, he is vastly mistaken. Nonviolence, like charity, must begin at home." The practice of nonviolence is by no means a simple matter, and Gandhi never intimated that it was. As a discipline, a "code of conduct," true nonviolence demands end, less vigilance over one's entire way of life because it includes words and thought as well as actions." Ahimsa is not the crude thing it has been made to appear. Not to hurt any living thing is no doubt a part of ahimsa. But it is its least expression. The principle of ahimsa is hurt by every evil thought, by undue haste, by lying, by hatred, by wishing ill to anybody. It is also violated by our holding on to what the world needs."
The significance of ahimsa is that, as part of the moral abstentions, it is considered before the spiritual, physical, or mental angas. Also, it underlies the other moral abstentions, namely; satya, i.e., truth or not lying; asteya, i.e., not stealing, aparigraha, non-grasping or non-possesion, and brahmacarya, i.e., celibacy. For Gandhi, ahimsa means: non-injury, nonviolence, non-harm, the renunciation of the will to kill and the intention to hurt any living thing, the abstention from hostile thought, word or deed, and compassion for all living creatures. Nonviolence is the law of the human race and is infinitely greater than and superior to brute force.(MM-113)
Character of Ahimsa
Nonviolence is the law of the human race and is infinitely greater than and superior to brute force. It affords the fullest protection to one's self-respect and sense of honour, but not always to possession of land or movable property, though its habitual practice does prove a better bulwark than the possession of armed men to defend them. Nonviolent life was an act of self-examination and self-purification, whether by the individual, group or a nation.(T-7-321) Nonviolence which is a quality of the heart, cannot come by an appeal to the brain.(T-5-273) It is a quality not of the body but of the soul.(T-4-294) It does not need physical aids for its propagation of effect. (T-4-290) It is an active force of the highest order. It is soul force or the power of the godhead within us.(T-4-290) Nonviolence, in the very nature of things, is of no assistance in the defence of ill-gotten gains and immoral acts. Individuals or nations who would practice nonviolence must be prepared to sacrifice their all except honour. It is, therefore, inconsistent with the possession of other people's countries, i.e., modern imperialism, which is frankly based on force for its defence. It is a power which can be wielded equally by all--children, young men and women or grown-up people, provided they have a living faith in the God of Love and have therefore equal love for all mankind. When nonviolence is accepted as the law of life, it must pervade the whole being and not be applied to isolated acts. It is a profound error to suppose that, whilst the law is good enough for individuals, it is not for masses of mankind. For the way of nonviolence and truth is sharp as the razor's edge. Its practice is more than our daily food. Rightly taken, food sustains the body; rightly practised nonviolence sustains the soul. Self-suppression is often necessary in the interest of truth and nonviolence.(T-4-41) True nonviolence is an impossibility without the possession of unadulterated fearlessness.(T-5-136) Nonviolence requires more than the courage of the soldier of war.(XXV-437) Nonviolence is the virtue of the manly. The coward is innocent of it.(XXV-138) The force of nonviolence is infinitely more wonderful and subtle than the material forces of nature, like electricity.(T-3-11) The power of unarmed nonviolence is any day far superior to that of armed force.(T-4-252) For a nonviolent person, the whole world is one family. He will thus fear none, nor will others fear him.(T-5-304)
Ahimsa and Khadi
Khadi has been conceived as the foundation and the image of ahimsa. Khadi is the warp and weft of ahimsa. The only real and reliable guarantee for khadi would be the honesty, truthfulness and sincerity of khadi workers. (T-7-20)A real khadi-wearer will not utter an untruth. A real khadi-wearer will harbour no violence, no deceit, no impurity. The charkha is an outward symbol of truth and nonviolence.(T-5-265) For Gandhi, the spinning wheel is the symbol of nonviolence.(T-5-290)With their own exploitation, boycott of foreign cloth through picketing may easily be violent; through the use of khadi it is most natural and absolutely nonviolent. (T-4-1) Gandhi said: “Just as there are signs by which you can recognize violence with the naked eye, so is the spinning wheel to me a decisive sign of nonviolence.” (T-5-277) Khadi gained prominence as the fabric of a non-violent independence movement and reasserts itself again as the banner of an eco-revolution.
In his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth, he writes: "To see the universal and all-pervading Spirit of Truth face to face we must be able to love the meanest of creation as oneself. And a man who aspires after that cannot afford to keep out of any field of life. Nonviolence affords the fullest protection to one's self-respect and sense of honour, but not always to possession of land or movable property, though its habitual practice does prove a better bulwark than the possession of armed men to defend them. Nonviolence, in the very nature of things, is of no assistance in the defence of ill-gotten gains and immoral acts. Gandhi himself admits:" My love for nonviolence is superior to every other thing mundane or supramundane. It is equaled only by my love for Truth, which is to me synonymous with nonviolence through which and which alone I can see and reach Truth." There are some important points to be noted here with regard to Gandhian non-violence, especially while inviting youths of the day to be familiar with it. Ahimsa is an attribute of the brave. Cowardice and ahimsa don't go together any more that water and fire. No power on earth can subjugate you when you are armed with the sword of ahimsa. It ennobles both the victor and the vanquished. Nonviolence is the greatest force at the disposal of mankind.(TIG-39)Science of nonviolence can alone lead one to pure democracy.(MM-131) Without real nonviolence, there would be perfect anarchy.(T-5-224) Love is a rare herb that makes a friend even of a sworn enemy and this herb glows out of nonviolence. (XIV-299) Unless discipline is rooted in nonviolence, it might prove a source of infinite mischief.(T-4-25) Gandhian Ahimsa is "not merely a negative state of harmlessness but it is a positive state of love, of doing good even to the evil-doer. But it does not mean helping the evil-doer to continue the wrong or tolerating it by passive acquiescence. The active state of Ahimsa requires you to resist the wrong-doer." Ahimsa is a weapon of matchless potency. It is the summum bonum of life. It is an attribute of the brave, in fact, it is their all. It does not come within the reach of coward. It is no wooden or lifeless dogma, but a living and life giving force. (Young India, Sept 6, 1926.)"The very first step in nonviolence is that we cultivate in our daily life, as between ourselves, truthfulness, humility, tolerance, loving kindness." (T-4-236)The first condition of nonviolence is justice all round in every department of life.(T-5-278)
First of them is humility, a quality of a man free from ego and pride. Gandhi himself says: "If one has pride and egoism, he is not non-violent. Non-violence is impossible without humility." (T-5-12) My own experience is that, whenever I have acted nonviolently, I have been led to it and sustained in it by the higher promptings of an unseen power. Through my own will I should have miserably failed. When I first went to jail, I quailed at the prospect. I had heard terrible things about jail life. But I had faith in God's protection. Our experience was that those who went to jail in a prayerful spirit came out victorious, those who had gone in their own strength failed. There is no room for self-pitying in it either when you say God is giving you the strength. Self-pity comes when you do a thing for which you expect recognition from others. But there is no question of recognition. Nonviolence requires great patience. (T-5-233)
Without self-purification the realization of ahimsa as an active force remains to be a dream only. To quote Mahatma Gandhi himself: "Identification with everything that lives is impossible without self-purification; without self-purification the observance of the law of ahimsa must remain an empty dream; God can never be realized by one who is not pure of heart." He himself states: "But the path of self-purification is hard and steep. To attain to perfect purity one has to become absolutely passion free in thought, speech and action; to rise above the opposing currents of love and hatred, attachment and repulsion.
For Gandhi, the source of ahimsa is God Himself and "ahimsa succeeds only when we have a real living faith in [Him] God." (T-5-14) His religion is based on truth and nonviolence. Truth is his God. Ahimsa is the means to realize Him. (XXV-558) The votary of ahimsa has only one fear, that is, of God. The nonviolent man automatically becomes a servant of God.(T-4-257) "Ahimsa is the attribute of the soul, and therefore, to be practiced by everybody in all affairs of life. If it cannot be practiced in all departments, it has no practical value." The principle of ‘ahimsa’ fashioned by Mahatma Gandhi is still a working model for the removal of oppressive regimes. The people of Egypt have shown that the principles of ahimsa are still alive and working for the positive changes which many on this planet are demanding.(Kaieteur News, Georgetown, Guyana, February 22, 2011)
To sum up, ahimsa knows no limit and it never fails. Gandhi preached and practiced non-violence. He hold the view that without truth and nonviolence there can be nothing but destruction of humanity.(99 T-7-14) Gandhi said: “Ahimsa is the first article of my faith. It is also the last article of my creed.”(MM-23) Ahimsa was introduced to the West by Gandhi. His tactics and principles had influenced many leaders like Martin Luther King, James Lawson, and Nelson Mandela to name some. Gandhi believed, ‘Nonviolence, the power of the powerless, is the power of God, the power of truth and love that goes beyond the physical world into the realm of the spiritual. This power can overcome death, as God revealed through the nonviolence of Jesus, his crucifixion and subsequent resurrection in the resisting community. In the twentieth century, Gandhi sought this power on a public level as no one else in modern times has done.(John Dear, The Experiments of Gandhi: Nonviolence In The Nuclear Age, Gandhi Journal, August, 2009) The removal of untouchability is one of the highest expressions of ahimsa. “What I first stated was itself nothing new. It was as old as the hills. Only I recited no copybook maxim but definitely announced what I believed in every fibre of my being. Sixty years of practice in various walks of life has only enriched the belief which experience of friends has fortified. It is however the central truth by which one can stand alone without flinching. I believe in what Max Muller said years ago, namely that truth needed to be repeated as long as there were men who disbelieved it.” It is his unshakable belief that India’s destiny is to deliver the message of nonviolence to mankind.
* Dr. Ram Ponnu Principal (Retd.), Kamarajar Govts. Arts College, Surandai, Tirunelveli Dist., Tamil Nadu. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org