Dr Joan V Bondurant, an American political scientist, in her book entitled Conquest of Violence: The Gandhian Philosophy of Conflict has pointed out, ahimsa is valorized strongly in the Hindu tradition. The author claims that the aphorism found in the Mahabharata: ahimsa param dharma (i.e., ahimsa is the highest religion) is ‘known in every village in India’. It  is one of the cardinal virtues and an important tenet of three major religions ~ Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.

It is invoked in the Mahabharata to condemn cruel practices, the futile destructiveness of worldly existence and also to proclaim the sanctity and dignity of life. In Buddhism it is considered as an essential requirement for every monk. Nothing in Buddhist scripture gives any support to use of violence (himsa) as a way to resolve conflict. In Jainism, ahimsa means to be without harm, to be utterly harmless, not only to oneself and others, but to all forms of life, from the largest mammals to the smallest bacteria.

Ahimsa, like truth, is as old as the hills and bears both a minimal and maximal meaning as mentioned above. It is obvious that it will not suffice to merely define non-violence as the opposite of violence. Equally, the term ‘non-violence’ is not an exact equivalent for the Sanskrit word ahimsa. While writing in the Indian languages, and sometimes even in English, Mahatma Gandhi used the Sanskrit word rather than its English equivalent. He said that he had an innate and natural attraction for truth from his early years, but ahimsa was not an innate trait for him.

It was in the pursuit of truth that he discovered ahimsa. He based his concept of ahimsa on the Gita and linked it to the idea of non-attachment and freedom from hatred, pride and anger. However, his early hesitancies about ahimsa were overcome by reading Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God Is Within You and he became a firm believer of ahimsa. We cannot provide a quick and ready definition of ahimsa. Gandhi said: “Ahimsa in theory no one knows. It is as undefinable as God.”

Though he himself was unable to formulate a clear definition of ahimsa, his ideas about it could be ascertained from his work and writings.   Gandhi extended the meaning of ahimsa beyond mere nonkilling or even non-injury. As early as 1916, Gandhi distinguished between the negative and the positive meanings of ahimsa: “In its negative form it means not injuring any living being whether by body or mind…It requires deliberate selfsuffering, not a deliberate injuring of the supposed wrongdoer…In its positive form, ahimsa means the largest love, the greatest charity…  This active ahimsa necessarily includes truth and fearlessness.”

In From Yervada Mandir Gandhi held: “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.” It entails continuous suffering and the cultivating of endless patience. At times Gandhi equated ahimsa with reason and defended it in terms similar to the Golden Rule.

“The basic principle on which the practice of non-violence (ahimsa) rests is that what holds good in respect of oneself equally applies to the whole universe. All mankind in essence is alike. What is, therefore, possible for one is possible for everybody.” It is also true that Gandhi sometimes inflated the term ahimsa to include all the moral virtues; he equated it with humility, forgiveness, love, charity, selfishness, fearlessness, strength, non-attachment, meekness and innocence.

Gandhi regarded the killing of a living being for its own sake under certain circumstances as not only consistent with but also necessary for ahimsa. There are several cases which would enable us to understand what exactly he meant to say. Once a calf was maimed and lay in agony in Gandhi’s ashram. The veterinary surgeon declared the case to be past help and past hope. On Gandhi’s request, the doctor administered poison to the calf and thus killed it in a couple of minutes in his presence.

This was not only a case of simple killing, but a sacrilege from the viewpoint of orthodox Hindus, who regard the cow as a sacred animal, but Gandhi stoutly defended his position against all attacks from co-religionists. As a matter of fact, Gandhi introduces a new value of ahimsa. Gandhi regarded the use of violence (Himsa) in self-defense differently from its exercise in aggression, though he insisted that ahimsa becomes meaning less if violence is automatically permitted for self-defense.

“People must learn to defend themselves against misbehaving individual, no matter who they ar…e No doubt the non-violence (ahimsa) is always the best, but where that does not come naturally the violent way is both necessary and honorable.” There are three ways of defense, said Gandhi. The best is defense that is based on ahimsa. The second best is violent defense.  The worst form of defense is submission or running away out of fear.

Therefore, ahimsa in Gandhian thought is positive in content and must not be confused with all types of ahimsa. Gandhi said: “Ahimsa is an attribute of the brave. Cowardice and ahimsa don’t go together any more than water and fire…” In his words: “I could show my way of successfully delivering the message of ahimsa to those who know how to die, not to those who are afraid of death.” Ahimsa is not a resignation from all real fighting against wickedness, but a more active fight against wickedness than retaliation which, by its nature, increases wickedness.

In the words of Gandhi: “I seek entirely to blunt the edge of the tyrant’s sword, not by putting up against it a sharper-edged weapon but by disappointing his expectations that I would be offering physical resistance.” Gandhi mentioned various positive attributes of ahimsa. Love is the very basis of ahimsa. The adversary must be treated with goodwill, respect and sympathy. The suffering must be borne entirely by the believer in ahimsa without the slightest feeling of anger or hatred towards the oppressor.

He also observed: “Ahimsa does not mean helping the evil-doer to continue the wrong or tolerating it by passive acquiescence. On the contrary, love, the state of ahimsa, requires you to resist the wrong doer…” “No man could be actively non-violent”, Gandhi said “and not rise against social injustice no matter where it occurred.” Truthfulness is, according to Gandhi, an inseparable ingredient of Ahimsa. He maintained that “if non-violence (Ahimsa) of thought is to be evolved in individuals or societies or nations, truth has to be told, however harsh or unpopular it may appear to be for the moment.”

In his autobiography Gandhi argued that the search for truth is in vain unless it is founded on ahimsa. Gandhi’s firm conviction was that the bravery of ahimsa could be brought within the reach of the people by means of Satyagraha. Gene Sharp, who called satyagraha as the weapon of moral power, said: “It is important to see this method of fighting evil in the perspective of Gandhi’s whole philosophy, for this weapon is an expression of a way of looking at life and a way of living. Gandhi’s philosophy of life and this method of opposing evil are both called Satyagraha.”

To Gandhi ahimsa was not only the means but also the end. It was not only during the struggle for freedom that he wanted ahimsa to be practiced. He wanted a non-violent society. He kept writing and talking about a future socialistic order of society or a Sarvodaya society. Every word and his action and desire for the creation of a non-violent society was transparent. Although ahimsa has been commended by several religious and social thinkers, Gandhi alone has clearly and continuously distinguished between ahimsa as a creed and as a policy, or between the ahimsa of the strong and the ahimsa of the weak.

Gandhi’s own dilemma lay in the fact that he wished to propagate ahimsa as a creed; yet as a politician, he also tried to justify it as a policy. To him ahimsa was definitely a creed, ‘the breath of my life’, but he sometimes spoke of it as a policy to be adopted on prudential grounds, and he called himself “an essentially practical man dealing with political questions.” However, he sadly confessed in 1947 that the Congress had embraced the policy of ahimsa because they were unable, though not unwilling, to offer armed resistance, whereas with him ahimsa had always been a creed. He laid down five simple axioms of this creed.

The creed is applicable under all circumstances and can admit of no exceptions. Ahimsa is not a quality to be displayed  to order, but an inward growth depending for sustenance upon individual effort, and it can be effectively taught only by living it. The conclusion in Joan Bondurant’s book mentioned above is deeply perspective: “Man grows increasingly concerned over the dangers which freight his ventures into violence. But it is not enough that he should take unreasoned flight from violence. The Gandhian experiments suggest that if man is to free himself from fear and threat alike, he must pause in its flight from violence to set himself the task of its conquest.”

(The writer is a retired IAS officer)