By: Ram Govardhan
“No country other than India, and no religion other than Hinduism could have produced a Gandhi.” This assertion, by a London newspaper, echoes the romantic view of the world that India was always a land of ahimsa. Far from it, over the millennia, unlike Jainism, the sort of ahimsa Hinduism practiced was always conditional; every sect, caste, tribe and philosophical persuasion appended expedient riders, rendering it much less puritanical. Yet, even if it could never become the loftiest of ideals in Hinduism, drawing heavily from it, Bapu branded his form of ahimsa into our minds that was at once real-world in breaking the yoke of the Empire, which always preferred expansionist mercantilism to Aristotelian ethics.
Bapu didn’t put his ahimsa before us as a mere truism; he passed it on to us for daily practice. What? Daily practice?
Yes, in our post-truth world, where the word ‘ahimsa’ sucks, where truth is too elastic, where deep-tech cohorts exploit big data to disrupt, where the bizarre, the unprecedented and doublespeak are everyday things, Bapu’s ahimsa demands intense single-mindedness even to comprehend, let alone practicing it daily.
Bapu’s ahimsa was a great draw for the bourgeois and the peasants famed for their rural contentment. Its nuances were far beyond them, so they evolved their own homespun sort since Bapu’s objectives were irresistibly lofty and civic, not ecclesiastical or military.
Ahimsa, he said, cannot be preached, can only be practiced. In the beginning, given our animal spirits, ahimsa seems deeply unsettling not only to practice but even to grasp, yet it’s far less unsettling than Kafkaesque. Of course, it requires undying inner strength, which is being meticulously true to truth. Its ingenuity energizes even a profoundly uninterested, dull-witted soul to seek nobler goals, sowing, among other virtues, the seeds of tolerance.
Characterized by reticence, not one to regale a room, with his iconic circular glasses, his thin frame barely covered in khadi, shorn of flowery jargon or baritone, armed with his self-coined ahimsic activism, satyagraha, Bapu said he wasn’t a Socratic gadfly just to irritate the Empire. Rather, the seemingly brittle weapon in the atomic age, he wrote to the British, to the utter bafflement of Lutyens cabal, was not only an unfailing antidote to colonialism but was also capable of bringing even the demonic Nazidom to its knees. The nonchalant Brits condescendingly pooh-poohed him, yet he never sought to finish them and put a little tombstone, nor thought of leaving them to the tender mercies of fuming mobs.
“I have nothing new to teach the world,” Bapu said, “Ahimsa is as old as the hills.” His mixed or relative ahimsa was distilled from the Vedas, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, Aristotle’s eudaimonia, Buddhism, Jainism, Socratic philosophy, Confucianism, Jesus’ compassion and Tolstoy’s pacifism.
Bapu presented a more affordable framework of ahimsa, far less aspirational, in clear and lucid terms, that was for everyone across the board, while playing hardball. Keeping the syntax intact, he transformed the prodigious complexity of ahimsa to one of great simplicity.
Economical description of ahimsa is tantamount to impoverishing its grandeur. Primarily, ahimsa is the law of human species, just as violence is the law of the brute. It’s a power which can be wielded equally by all—greenhorns, men, women, aged, sky-high IQ guys, thickheads, nerdy academics, the outliers and even the epically lazy. Like charity, it too begins at home and its true majesty is laid bare only when applied in ordinary matters and personal relationships.
“I have applied it,” Bapu said, “In every walk of life: domestic, institutional, economic, political and there was no single case in which it has failed.”
Ahimsa, which distinguishes men from beasts, isn’t physical power but the indomitable will dormant in the depths of one’s consciousness. Soul’s only pursuit is to seek truth or, as he would often say, god. If moderate amount of food sustains the body, rightly practiced, ahimsa sustains the soul. Being the cumulative wisdom of karma, dharma, and universal reality, ahimsa is benevolent disposition that methodically purifies atman. Since ahimsa is a multilayered concept alien to our animal nature, reconfiguration of our pathological ways of dealing with predicaments is essential.
“Truth came naturally to me,” Bapu said, “But I acquired ahimsa after great, prolonged inner struggle.”
Is ahimsa a well-meaning but dangerously naïve concept? No, not at all, Bapu asserted, it’s indeed a force underlying all reality, and the truth underneath the dross and flux of the world. It’s both liberating and emancipatory, inculcating temperamental and intellectual modesty. Therefore, the dreams that ahimsa dreams aren’t the dreams that shatter on the rocks of reality.
Causing harm while pursuing one’s self-interest is not himsa, harming someone in selfishness is—self-interest is reacting for one’s very survival. “There is enough in the world for everyone’s self-interest,” Bapu said, “But not for everyone’s selfishness”. This deliberation about ahimsa and legitimate violence is a metaphorical inner struggle and, in effect, such soul-searching debate between persons or societies never ever descends into whataboutery.
Even the nomenclature ‘Quit India’ had to undergo a sort of ahimsic purification too. Bapu vetoed the words ‘Get Out’, calling them impolite. He also rejected ‘Retreat’, ‘Withdraw’, suggested by Rajaji. After a long while, at last, Bapu approved ‘Quit India’, suggested by the urbane Mayor of Bombay, Yusuf Meherally.
The deadly guises of physical violence, Bapu said, always overshadow the subtleties of passive violence—swearing, harsh judgments, smearing, cursing, innuendos, ill will, badmouthing, malice, envy, brutality. While remaining obscure, passive violence often perilously intensifies into physical one in no time.
At its core, ahimsa seeks to honour the opponent and, in the end, leaves him in high spirits, without a trace of feeling of public disgrace in him. While confronting violence face-to-face, it never yields to trite moralities and, by never surrendering, wages whole weight of its soul against the evil. A true warrior of ahimsa rushes into the mouth of himsa, never harbouring evil thoughts, willing to spill his own blood, not the opponent’s and willing to fight unto his own death, not the opponent’s. Never bartering away honour, ahimsa is greater gallantry, facing death on the line of fire and smiling even on the deathbed.
“I must continue to argue till I convert the opponents or I own defeat,” Bapu said, “For my mission is to convert every Indian, every Englishman and finally the world to ahimsa.”
By saying ahimsa paramo dharma, Manusmriti informs us that ahimsa is the very crux of human nature and by being the very constitution of soul, its indeed universal and cosmic in scope. In every sense, ahimsa is the weapon of the powerless, the power of truth and power of love that goes, beyond the physical, into the spiritual realm. As far as inner health or healing goes, there’s nothing as therapeutic as ahimsa and, when one is hopelessly adrift or uncertain, there’s nothing as reliable a sheet-anchor as ahimsa.
Even in the face of unending provocations, ahimsa is doggedly curbing one’s instinct for any sort of comeuppance and, on the other hand, putting up with status quo or cowardice is not ahimsa. Contrary to the famed declaim see no evil, hear no evil, and do no evil, Bapu said, ignoring injustice is essentially approving it, which is anything but colluding with the nefarious.
“As a coward,” Bapu said, “Which I was for years, I harboured violence. I began to prize ahimsa only when I began to shed cowardice.”
With the sole aim of prevailing upon the evil, ahimsa fights without rancour, for opposing hatred with hatred enrages the opponent and aggravates the issue. By squaring one’s stand with the adversary, ahimsa principally aims to annihilate the dissent, not the dissenter. Aimlessly suffering injustice inflicted by the dissenter is unjust; every instance of self-suffering must accomplish some part of one’s goal.
Ahimsa itself cannot be humanity’s goal; truth must be goal. Unwavering moral courage is critical to practice ahimsa, so as not to succumb to one’s impulses. Moral courage is questioning one’s own good and bad actions in solitude. Even if one has succumbed to impulses, over time, practice of ahimsa makes the effects of greed unhappen.
While clemency is the quintessential nature of ahimsa, the weak practitioners can never forgive. Only the brave can identify and draw attention to evil, yet, to be effective and meaningful, ahimsa in action and ahimsa in thought must join forces; one without the other is an effort in vain.
Bapu was the first and astoundingly rare crusader who broadened ahimsa’s horizon from the individual to social and political dimensions. It was Bapu’s only weapon to reach his four social goals—free India from British occupation, to end untouchability, to improve relations between Hindus and Muslims, and to make India into a self-reliant nation.
Bapu’s first of the four pillars of ahimsa was Sarvodaya: justice for all creatures, the practice of economic, political, and moral justice. The second was Swaraj, self-rule: it demands maximum power and self-rule by people within their families, villages, and bioregions, and minimal intervention by national governments. The third was Swadeshi: at the heart of swadeshi is honoring local economy, with people enjoying a right livelihood. The fourth was Satyagraha, nonviolent revolution, which attracts people of all faiths, genders and abilities.
As the law of love, Bapu said, ahimsa is more about the intent, rather than the action itself. His ahimsa, by unwilling to punish plunderers, burglars and even assassins, transforms such men into friends, thereby precluding further conflict; thus, it’s mightier than the mightiest of martial weapons.
Loving someone who loves us isn’t ahimsa; loving those that hate us is. Unless one wields the weapon of ahimsa, loving the hater is almost impossible, particularly the one unfettered by scruples or ethics, lighting the blue touch paper repeatedly.
Bapu asked, in the least provocative manner, “One is probably not a violent person outwardly, but what about inwardly?” This can’t be a malformed question even today, and it’s quite difficult not to be humbled and humiliated by the question. In the New Economy, by cleverly inventing the convenient truths and alternative facts, while believing in Bapu, we assume that we are with the truth, whereas our conscience tells us that it’s just a habitual hoax we play upon ourselves. When such is the case, how do we keep ourselves from being unkind, rude, critical, or livid at others? Having achieved nothing substantial in life, most of us, despite realising how provisional beings we are, look how easily we harm others by a trivial thought, a single word or even by a mere squint?
Bapu elevated ahimsa to a plateau of ingenious tautness—neither meek submission nor bloody conflict. Never seeking to push his ahimsa envelope, by truncating the impossibilities, Bapu always sought within the box, pragmatic solutions, instead of theoretical ones.
“As I claim to be a practical idealist,” Bapu said, “Ahimsa isn’t meant only for the rishis and saints.” Since it’s also meant for those without robust religious experiences, it’s seldom, perhaps never, possible to practice perfect ahimsa. Consequently, he had to jettison several austere facets that ahimsa in its undiluted reading meant. Of course, the non-violent way is always best, yet, at times, the violent way is essential. We must loosen ahimsa from its ascetic moorings, Bapu said, so that it’s compatible with the other traditions. Effectiveness of social ahimsa depends upon the degree to which the masses embrace it. That’s why he never wanted to make ahimsa a mysterious tenet beyond the grasp of our gloriously simple and naïve hoi polloi.
“When I first began the movement it failed, and it will continue to fail until it’s embraced by the masses. The problem with the Indian masses is that they do not have enough ‘vitality’ to embrace ahimsa.”
What Bapu meant by ‘vitality’ was that the hunger and the need for survival had made it impossible for them to seek higher ideals. Although Indian society presents a picture of impoverished higgledy-piggledy disorder, it is indeed an organised disorder only the poor and the disadvantaged can evolve for themselves. Therefore, even the deprived commoners are not blindsided by touchstones of ahimsa.
“I learnt the lesson of ahimsa from my wife,” Bapu said, “When I tried to bend her to my will, her determined resistance and her quiet suffering ultimately made me ashamed of myself and cured me of my stupidity in thinking that I was born to rule over her and, in the end, she became my teacher in ahimsa.”
While addressing a group of satyagrahis, Bapu refrained them from flattering themselves with the belief that they were demonstrating any heroic principles of ahimsa. All that, he said, we are doing is we are sailing in that direction without a moment’s stop. Ahimsa isn’t a garment to be put on and off at will and, since its seat is in the heart, it’s inseparable part of every being. Thus, it’s a prolonged, relentless pursuit.
Bapu’s ahimsa isn’t a static code of readymade principles. In fact, imperfect men can neither grasp ahimsa’s essence, nor can they bear its glorious blaze. Presence of even a miniscule fraction of it in men can produce miracles. By finding harmony between the inward and the outward, thus awakening the ahimsic spirit within, one is rendered incapable of violence.
Instead of hype and bluster around ahimsa on Gandhi Jayanti Day, since there’s no Instagram of ahimsa, one must commit to daily, incremental improvement, since the practice is an endless continuum. It’s a building-block approach; there’s neither demo-ing ahimsa, neither dabbling in ahimsa, nor could one be suddenly paradropped into it. At a rate better than chance, piecemeal beginning is okay too, but, over time, once the essence is grasped, peace of mind is beyond question.
Remaining consciously charmless, sans linguistic facility or hyperbole, Bapu earnestly asked us not to try to put oneself in the limelight. Having achieved virtually nothing or absolutely nothing, most of us try to convince all those around us of our exaggerated superiority and overstated, nonexistent worth.
“It was only when I had learnt to reduce myself to zero,” Bapu said, “That I was able to evolve the power of satyagraha in South Africa.” Humility is a quality of a man who is free from ego and pride. Ahimsa is not only impossible without humility; it is also the furthermost limit of humility. Bapu tried everything and accomplished everything, yet he remained too humble to believe.
The removal of untouchability is one of the highest expressions of social ahimsa. “I did not talk of removal of untouchability as a copybook aphorism of ahimsa but said what I believed in every fibre of my being. And my practice of ahimsa with scientific precision for an unbroken period of over 60 years in various walks of life has only enriched my belief,” Bapu said.
Ahimsa also means not violating the balance of nature, not violating the air, water, and environment. Ideal ahimsa leaves positive footprint of one’s existence behind, but relative ahimsa leaves only a very small negative footprint.
Thus, ahimsa is a panacea for all evils mundane and extra-mundane, a silver bullet to solve every human misery, because it applies to every action, thought and reaction. Even in the case of statecraft, ahimsa can give us the purest form of democracy because it doesn’t put the right person in power but awakens the right kind of power in people.
While answering Lala Lajpat Rai’s shabby and battered argument that the practice of ahimsa contributed to the downfall of India, Bapu said, “During the past fifteen hundred years, as a nation, we gave ample proof of our physical courage, but we are torn by internal dissensions and have been dominated by love of self instead of love of country. If we are unmanly today, we are so, not because we do not know how to strike, but because we fear to die.”
To demolish the notion that human history is riddled with wars, Bapu said, if history is nothing but a chronicle of wars, humanity would have long perished. The fact that billions are still alive shows that our world thrives on the force of love, not hatred. Facilitating such progress, undoubtedly, every problem in human evolutionary journey must have lent itself to a solution with the help of love.
Bapu felt that Indians never gave ahimsa the trajectory it deserved, yet the marvel is that we have attained so much even with our mixed ahimsa.
When a publisher wanted him to pen a book on the ‘science of ahimsa’, Bapu refused saying that neither is he an accomplished writer nor was it possible for a human being to get a full grasp of truth, and equally it was humanly impossible to get a vision of ahimsa that was complete. Instead of thin-slicing his theories of ahimsa in a book, Bapu urged us to understand the results of his life-long experiments.
While awaiting the 5G windfall, even Startup India’s restless longing for an improved bankruptcy code or the race to weaponize quantum computing cannot relegate ahimsa to archival or ontological realms for, in our civilasational journey, every now and then, ahimsa would invariably nudge us to grasp its infallible effectiveness against social hara-kiri.
“We are still not in the noon of civilisation,” Bapu said, “We are in the very early hours of the morning of human evolution. We have a long way to go and if we adopt ahimsa sincerely, seriously and systematically, we can make this world into a better world.”
Bapu not only belongs to a pantheon of seers who aren’t recognized by their peers but revered by later generations, unquestionably, he is also India’s conscience keeper. Thus, he is our past, our present and, given the endemic despondence of our times, to keep ourselves from becoming an unthinking, unfocussed, gunfighting republic of mercenaries, his ahimsa is the means to our civilasational progress.
Ram Govardhan’s short stories have appeared in Asian Cha, Open Road Review, The Literary Yard, The Bangalore Review, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, Indian Ruminations, The Spark, Muse India, The Bombay Review and other Asian and African literary journals. His novel, Rough with the Smooth, was longlisted for the 2009 Man Asian Literary Prize, The Economist-Crossword 2011 Award and published by Leadstart Publishing, Mumbai. He lives in Chennai.