Gandhi and Ahimsa as a Way of Life by Bhikhu Parekh

Although Hindu practice has fallen far short of the ideal, ahimsa has long been a greatly admired value in the Hindu tradition. Gandhi made it the central organising principle of his life and thought, and both drew upon and modified the Hindu tradition.  For him too it involved non-injury, not causing harm to a living being. But he went further and defined it as active love.  Ahimsa for him involved not only refraining from harming other beings but also actively promoting their well-being.  As Gandhi once said, the word ‘non-violence’ is not its correct English translation. The better word is ‘compassion’ or ‘love’. Killing an animal in excruciating and terminal pain with no hope of relief was an act of love, and did not constitute himsa.

There are also several other respects in which Gandhi stretched the Hindu tradition.  For him ahimsa is based on a prior commitment to satya or truth. The latter was the ultimate goal, ahimsa was both an expression and a condition of it. Furthermore for Gandhi ahimsa did not refer only to human conduct but also to thought, feeling and judgement.  One can think, feel or judge others violently or non-violently. Thoughts, for example, were the building blocks of character, and an individual tended to become what he thought.  If he got into the habit of “living with” certain types of thought, over time they tended to appear natural and self-evident to him, blunted his sensibilities and both disposed him to act in a relevant manner and legitimised his actions in his eyes.  Thoughts of violence paved the way for acts of violence, and were just as bad.  Like most Indian thinkers, Gandhi refused to draw a qualitative distinction between thought and action.  Thought was potential action or rather action in its early and embryonic stage, and action was operative or active thought.  The two were integral parts of the same process and constituted a continuum.  A thought was never a ‘mere’ thought.

In the Indian traditions harm is defined widely to include not only physical but also psychological, moral and other forms of pidā or klesa (pain).  Gandhi not only accepted this broad definition but stretched it further. In his view, physical harm or destruction was the most familiar form of violence and could be caused in different ways.  One might harm or kill a man by shooting him or denying him the basic necessities of life.  Whether one killed him ‘at a stroke’ or ‘by inches’, the result was the same, and the individual involved was guilty of violence. Insulting, demeaning or humiliating others, diminishing their self-respect, speaking harsh words, passing harsh judgements, anger and mental cruelty were also forms of harm.  They might, and generally did, result in physical harm, but it was not necessary that they should in order to be considered acts of violence.  A lack of punctuality was also an act of harm as it caused anxiety to those involved and deprived them of their time. Not answering letters was also a form of mental cruelty and even torture, and thus an act of violence.

For Gandhi, service of one’s fellow human was the best form of nonviolent life. It was not a separate and independent activity, but was expressed in and informed all one did.  Every man was a husband, a father, a son, a friend, a neighbour, a colleague, an employer or an employee.  These were not so many discreet roles, each governed by its own distinct norms and values, but different way of realising his humanity and relating to his fellow-men.  He should define, reconcile and integrate them into a coherent pattern of life governed by the general principle of social service. As a neighbour, for example, he should not only refrain from making a nuisance of himself but also help those in need, take an active interest in their well-being and the quality of their surroundings, help create a vibrant local community and join them in their fights against injustice.  A similar spirit of service and humanity should infuse his manner of earning his livelihood, which he should look on as yajna, as his form of participation in the preservation and development of mankind and of which the monetary reward was an incidental though necessary consequence. Gandhi thought that by bringing to his every activity the ‘sweet smell of humanity’, every man could in his own small way help transform the quality of human relationships and contribute to the creation of a world based on love and goodwill.  Such a ‘quiet, unostentatious service’, as wiping the tear of a widow, educating a neighbour’s child, nursing a sick relation and helping a poor man or an untouchable family live in peace and dignity, and thus ‘picking up one clod of earth’ from the entire mass of human unhappiness, was just as important as the more glamourous forms of social service and sometimes had even more lasting and beneficial results.

Every age and every country, Gandhi went on, had its own distinctive forms and sources of suffering, and hence the nature and content of social service varied,  In earlier ages when India was a happy and just society, its sages were perhaps justified in retiring to the forest. Today the situation was very different.  Modern India was deeply scarred by acute poverty, vast social and economic inequalities, foreign rule and extensive moral degeneration, and the active service of its people consisted in fighting against these evils.

For Gandhi every Indian had a duty in the modern age to become politically involved.  Political involvement took a number of forms and occurred at a variety of levels.  Although participation in the struggle for independence was obviously important, it was not the most important.  Since independence was merely formal and had no meaning without national regeneration, ‘true politics’ in Gandhi’s view consisted in revitalising Indian society, culture and character by working in the villages, fighting against local injustices, helping people acquire courage and self-respect, building up their organised strength and in general devoting oneself to any of the eighteen items of the Constructive Programme. Every activity that contributed to India’s regeneration and made it just and cohesive was political in nature. Politics was not necessarily connected with, let alone exhausted in, the state.

For Gandhi a person committed to ahimsa was acutely sensitive to the prevailing injustices and systems of oppression, and fought against them. His fight was open, inspired by love, and aimed at winning over his opponent to his way of thinking about the relevant controversial issue. This ‘delicate surgery of the soul’ as Gandhi called it involved accepting a great deal of suffering, even dying. A satyagrahi should be willing to lay down his life for a just cause. As violence involved killing, and was successful depending on how many people one killed, nonviolence involved the ‘art of dying’. For Gandhi the ‘art of dying’ was a best response to the ‘science of killing’. We all must die one day, and an inordinate attachment to life neither postponed death nor made it easier. Like a man of violence, the man of nonviolence thought little of his own life and welcomed a noble and dignified death. He accepted death with courage and hoped that it will continue to speak to people long after he was gone, inspiring them to carry the candle further as the death of Socrates and Christ has done. For Gandhi a coward can never be nonviolent, nor of course can a bully. Nonviolence required a long training and a life of discipline almost like that of a soldier. At the deepest level Gandhi’s nonviolence had a strangely similar structure to violence. This was a unique idea, original to Gandhi and representing his great contribution to moral and political thought and practice.

Professor Parekh is the President of the Gandhi Foundation and a life peer.  He is the author of many books on political philosophy including Gandhi’s. This talk was delivered at the opening of The Gandhi Peace Centre at Sandwell & Dudley in 2018.

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