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Fresh Perspectives On Gandhi

A Gandhian Response To A Question Posed In The Milinda―Pańho (The Questions Of King Milinda)

By Dr. Arvind Sharma* 

The Milinda―Pańha is a well known text of the Theravăda Buddhism which enjoys a semi-canonical status within it.  This text, usually placed around the Christian era, essentially consists of a series of dialogues between the Greek King Menander (whose name occurs in its Indianised form as Milinda) and the Buddhist Elder, Năgasena.  In the course of these exchanges King Menander poses sharp questions to the Elder Năgasena on the finer points of the Buddhist doctrine which the Elder Năgasena then tries to answer―often to the satisfaction of the king. 

There is one particular exchange which in the text seems to be answered to the king’s satisfaction but which leaves many puzzled until a Gandhian resolution of it is presented.  I present below the relevant section of the text:1

The king said: “Whose, Năgasena, is the greater demerit―his who sins consciously, or his who sins inadvertently?”

“He who sins inadvertently, O king, has the greater demerit.”

“In that case, reverend Sir, we shall punish doubly any of our family or our court who do wrong unintentionally.”

“But what do you think, O king?  If one man were to seize hold intentionally of a fiery mass of metal glowing with heat, and another were to seize hold of it unintentionally, which would be more burnt?”

“Well, it is just the same with the man who does wrong.”

“Very good, Năgasena!”1 

If this ball of fire is compared to the inevitable violence which must ensue in a conflictual situation, then the resolution proposed by Elder Năgasena makes a lot of sense.  It could be argued that what often Mahatma Gandhi means by nonviolence is not the absence of physical violence (as distinguished from the mental) for this might inevitable ensue in a situation in which both parties are convinced of the rightness of their cause, but rather its minimization―then it is clear that the advocate of nonviolence is the one who is handling this “ball of fire” consciously, as compared to the opponent whose reaction may be more instinctive.  In this way, violence, though a bad deed in itself, even when allowed to occur by the Satyagrahi voluntarily, is superior to violence not so regulated. 

There remains the question, however, of whether such nonviolent violence, that is, violence which one knowingly brings upon oneself and voluntarily suffers, can be called a “demerit.”  The answer is provided by Patańjali who defined violence as consisting of violence perpetrated either on another or oneself.  Although the Satyăgrahî no doubt brings the violence on himself for a noble cause, he does make himself the object of it in this technical sense as explained by Patańjali. 

Notes and References 

1.  T.W. Rhys Davids, tr., The Questions of King Milinda (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1965

     [1890], Part I, P. 129.     

*Dr. Arvind Sharma is Professor of Religious Studies at McGill University, Montreal, Canada.

Source: Gandhi Marg Vol. 26, No. 3, October-December 2004

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