The Spinning wheel of Non-Violence

Paulo J.S. Bittencourt

[Read this article by Professor Bittencourt to see the depth of his understanding of the concept of ahmisa, and its relevance for Europe torn by war today.]

The classic autobiography of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948) was published for the first time in 1927. At the time, Gandhi was already popularly known as “Mahatma”, an honorific given to him in South Africa in 1914. Of Sanskrit origin, the term can be translated as “high-souled” or “venerable”.

The work’s title is subtly expressive of the author’s uncompromising consistency with his highest ideals. “My life and my experiences with the truth” would reflect that well-known maxim that is attributed to Gandhi, namely, that we must be, ourselves, the change that we want to see spread in the world. In other words, there could not be the slightest gap between what happens on the stage of the soul’s interiority and what is morally expected to build in the amphitheater of the world.

From the supreme ideals of the Mahatma, there are undoubtedly two notions, those of “ahimsa” and “satyagraha”. In this article, I want to address the first of them.

The Sanskrit prefix “a” expresses negation. “Himsa” can be translated as “damage” or “injury”. The concept became popular in the West with the meaning of “non-violence” against all living beings, a behavior to be assumed by any of the spheres of human action, whether physical, verbal or mental. It is, therefore, a principle of an ethical-religious nature radically adopted by Indian Jainism since ancient times, but also present with emphasis in the Hindu and Buddhist systems. [In addition to being a Hindu and a great admirer of Buddhism, Gandhi was born in Gujarat, an Indian state with a strong Jain presence, a religion with whose devotees he would also have lived.]

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A high relief that can be seen in the Jain temple of Ahinsa Sthal, in Meurali, in Delhi is particularly suggestive of the spirit of “non-violence”. In the artwork in question, a lioness and a cow peacefully share the same food contained in what appears to be a basin or crater. Both are on opposite sides of the large container, but are looking at each other face to face. Furthermore, it is possible to notice that the cow’s cub is suckled by the lioness, while the cow feeds the lioness’s cub in the same way. [At this sight, I could not help but immediately remember the biblical reference contained in the Book of the Prophet Isaiah (65: 65) according to which the wolf and the lamb will graze on the same grass, even though the serpent mentioned does not seem to deserve the same treatment , for their food will be dust only. In any case, the verse is concluded in such a way as to recall, at least in isolation and in contrast to the atmosphere that emanates from the totality of biblical texts, the spirit of “ahimsa”: “’They shall not harm or harm in all my Holy Name’, says the Lord”. I leave, however, the challenge of trying to clarify the nature of this similarity for another occasion.]

The “ahimsa” perspective also seems to be very well denoted by Gandhi in one of his emblematic references to the Buddha, especially if we see it in parallel with Christianity. “See the compassion of Buddha (…). (…) It was not restricted to humanity, it extended to all living beings. Does not one’s heart overflow with love at the thought of a lamb happily sitting on one’s shoulders? You don’t see this love for all living creatures in Jesus’ message.” But let this divergence not deceive us. Referring to a passage from the Gospels, Gandhi highlights an essential similarity of Jesus’ message with the paradoxical fidelity to the principle of non-violence: “(…) I had a very different impression of the New Testament, especially the Sermon on the Mount, which spoke straight to my heart. I draw a parallel with the Gita. I loved the verses: ‘And so I say to you, do not give in to evil: if they slap you, turn the other cheek, and if they take your tunic, give them your cloak too’.”

However, it was from the point of view of subjectivity and inner consciousness that Gandhi forged the understanding and organic and non-negotiable experience of “ahimsa”. The cultivation of an unstoppable fidelity, for example, to vegetarianism, which would develop towards an ever more comprehensive extension, when it would include abstaining from eggs and milk, was strengthened, among other reasons, when it was faced with “the cruel procedure which the gopals of Calcutta adopted to extract the last drop of milk from their cows and buffaloes”. Still in this sense, Gandhi would lament: “We are not ashamed to sacrifice a multitude of other lives to feed our perishable body and try to prolong its existence for a few more moments and, in consequence, we kill ourselves in body and soul.”

The Gandhian formulation of “ahimsa” would still comprise a foundation very similar to the African ethics of the collectivity of “ubuntu”, that is, that “I am only because we are”. Indeed, the good of the individual is contained in the good of the whole. But it is here that the most striking complexities of Gandhi’s notions of “ahimsa” emerge.

Gandhi seems to admit an anthropologically essentialist conception, which reminds me in part of the Rousseauian perspective, that is, that people are not violent by nature, but peaceful. There would be, here, an essential distinction between the person and his acts. In terms of the Mahatma, the practitioner of an evil deed will always deserve respect and pity, as the case may be, since one should hate the ‘sin’, not the ‘sinner’. [It in no way follows from this that Gandhi was attacking the legal and penal system. Quite the contrary. He was an excellent lawyer.] It is precisely in this basic maladjustment – that is, an exhortation easily understood, but hardly put into practice – that the poison of hatred that spreads throughout the world resides. Gandhi insists, therefore, that if it is proper to resist and attack an oppressive system – as British colonialism became for him – then “to attack its author is equivalent to resisting and attacking oneself. (…) we are all flour from the same bag, children of the same Creator and therefore the divine powers in us are infinite. To belittle a single being is to belittle those powers and thereby harm not only that being but the entire world.” In other words, “since what sustains ‘ahimsa’ is the unity of all things, the error of one cannot fail to affect all.” It is precisely from this premise that stems from the understanding that human beings cannot be totally free from “himsa” – that is, damage, violence.

Gandhi recognizes that “ahimsa” is a broad principle, and that, deep down, “we are helpless mortals caught in the conflagration of ‘himsa’.” Here, for him, lay a profound significance. If life lives on life, the human being cannot live a moment without committing “himsa”, consciously or unconsciously. Now, “the very fact of being alive – eating, drinking, moving around – necessarily involves some ‘himsa’, destruction of life, however tiny”. We will never be able to get rid of the external “himsa” entirely. It is, therefore, the intention of effort whose essence is an “always-in-motion” towards the regulating principle of the most perfect “ahimsa”. Thus, fidelity to the vow of “ahimsa” is consolidated to the same extent that the propelling spring of all actions is compassion, that is, when “one avoids as much as one can the destruction of the smallest of creatures, one tries to save it , and thus incessantly seeks to be freed from the deadly agitation of the ‘himsa’.”

Only in the vacuum of the inevitability of “himsa” – as, for example, in the military confrontation between two nations – and the impossibility of the people involved living up to the vow of “ahimsa” – for not being able to offer resistance to war – that Gandhi seems to admit, even if grudgingly, the alternative of confrontation by force, but, even taking part in the struggle, one can “try from the heart to free himself, his nation and the world from strife.” Here, I see Gandhi as a reader of the Gita, a seminal work of classical Hindu literature, on which contemporary scholars have focused on issues such as the principles of “ahimsa” in situations of war or self-defense – the India is seen as the birthplace of martial arts – in order to determine contexts of a “just war”. The Bhagavad-Gita certainly contains a Hindu ethic of warrior and war. Are we, therefore, facing a possible gap, even a small one, in the dialogue between Gandhi and the problem of the paradox of the “peaceful warrior” in the martial arts of Far East Asia?

I metaphorically use the same instruments promoted by Gandhi during the “non-cooperation” campaign against British rule, between 1920 and 1922, through the boycott of industrialized fabrics that the colonial metropolis commercialized: the “ahimsa” is the loom whose The rock on which he operates carries with it the threads of Truth.

[I still intend to discuss the notion of Truth, according to Gandhi, in a next opportunity.]


Professor Paulo Bittencourt is a brilliant professor of Ancient and Medieval History at the Universidade Federal da Fronteira Sul UFFS [Erechim Campus], Brazil. He contributes articles regularly, and is a columnist in periodicals too. He has several books to his credit. He is an ardent student of Vedanta.