Enigmatic Prophet of Nonviolence

The nonviolent karma yogi cautiously held that the life in this body sustains itself on other lives, and a certain level of ‘himsa’ is inherent in every existence
Enigmatic Prophet of Nonviolence
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The prophet of nonviolence, Mahatma Gandhi, demonstrated nonviolence as an efficient method of fighting political and social evils, in a manner that no world leader before him had done. He, however, demonstrated an unorthodox understanding of ahimsa or nonviolence that baffled the world of traditional practitioners.

On one hand he adhered to nonviolence even in the face of lynching (Durban, January 1896), at the risk of jeopardising his political life (as Lord Reading said when the noncooperation movement was withdrawn following the Chauri Chaura violence) and grave provocation during the Noakhali riots in 1946-47, when he said - "I am being tested through and through….” And on the other hand, sided with the perpetrators of violence not just marginally, but quite proactively.

Be it his recruitment drive for the British army during World War-1 (1914) or his ambulance corps during the Boer War (1901) and Zulu rebellion (1906) in South Africa, invariably his practice of nonviolence remained an enigma to many historians and scholars.

Studies suggest that the enigma about him stems not from his lack of consistency as critics perceived, but the conventional premise in which the doctrine of his nonviolence was verified.

As a researcher, he experimented with nonviolence on hitherto untested realms, ever pushing its boundary beyond the conventional line not to transgress but to transcend the dogma in its application; whereas his antagonists assessed his nonviolence as explicit obeisance. To understand this practitioner of transcendental nonviolence, we need to understand the man Gandhi was and his mind.

In a situation demanding action, Gandhi the activist could not shy away from it even if he had that option. Be it his ordeal on arrival in South Africa where he was thrown out of the train at Pietermaritzburg; persecuted in a horse garage; denied a hotel room because he was an unwelcome ‘coolie’ as Indians were called in South Africa then; or in Champaran, Bihar, where he was served a notice by the district authority to vacate the district or face penal action; he stood his ground to see the injustice addressed.

Even a post card evoked a response from him. On some days he wrote as many as 54 post card replies. It only suggests his irresistible aptitude for action. ‘To act’ was a dharma for Gandhi. This belief stemmed from his conviction ‘Life is the closest manifestation of the Truth which is God’. And Life is sustained by action and not by non-action. ‘To act’ is the norm of life, Gandhi stated, we “cannot afford to pass a single moment in idleness…” Those who idled away even a single minute became to that extent a burden upon their neighbours, he said in “Young India”.

Gandhi in his classic declaration before Justice Broomfield in Ahmedabad in the “Great Trial of 1922”, said he would continue to write sedition “against this savage government”. He was responding to sedition charges. The unstoppable karma yogi chose the path of nonviolence against violence, for “the only thing lawful is non-violence. Violence can never be lawful, i.e., not according to man-made law, but according to the law made by Nature for man”. While the act has to be nonviolent which is infinitely superior to violence, he maintained in Young India in 1920 that ‘violent action is better than non-action or cowardice’. “Where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence I would advice violence.”

One is compelled therefore to act when action is required, nonviolently (which is a superior way) or at least violently, but never remain non-active. Gandhi advised women to use their nails and teeth to safeguard their modesty, and not submit meekly. His hate for non-action was so full that he declared “I would risk violence a thousand times rather than risk the emasculation of a whole race” as recorded in Young India in August, 1920. For, “there can be no partnership between the brave and the effeminate. We are regarded as a cowardly people. If we want to become free from that reproach, we should learn the use of arms”. “Mahatma Gandhi said this in July 1918, while recruiting Indians for the British Army during the First World War”. (Louis Fischer, Mahatma Gandhi: His life and Times). And the nonviolent karma yogi cautiously held that the life in this body sustains itself on other lives, and a certain level of ‘himsa’ is inherent in every existence. ‘So long as this body exists, absolute nonviolence is unachievable’. He wrote in the Young India (July 27, 1927), “The determining factor therefore is—since “all activity involves some measure of violence, all we have to do is to minimise the violence involved in it. This is not possible without a deep-belief in non-violence.”

His meticulous analysis of life and its purpose in the case of calf-euthanasia, or in the case of killing / driving away monkeys that spoiled the crops of his ashram elucidated the violence inbuilt in civilised life. And what emerged from this predicament is now known as pragmatic nonviolence, a dialectic between the ideal and action. He declared himself a ‘Practical Idealist’.

The history of the Indian freedom struggle clearly shows that it started from a loyalist position and moved gradually towards poorna swaraj. Like other Indian leaders of his time -Tilak, Gokhale,etc - initially Gandhi started with pro-British nationalism. On his role in the Boer War, in his autobiography, Gandhi wrote “I felt that, if I demanded rights as a British citizen, it was also my duty, as such, to participate in the defense of the British Empire.”

This loyalty fizzled out when the draconian Roulette (March 1919) Act exposed the lethal intent of imperialism at Jallianwala Bagh (April 1919). Gandhi then for the first time stated that ‘this is not our government, it is uncivilized; this government is against god and humanity’.

His belief in human goodness; his conviction in the difference between evil and evil doer (he was against imperialism and not against the imperialist who ‘are our brothers’ as “All men are brothers”); while the former was to be hated, not so the latter. This brought him to believe that the Empire’s cause was his cause. Ahimsa compelled him to be considerate to an opponent in distress. When the South African Railway employees declared a strike against the Government while the Indian Satyagraha was at its peak, he did withhold it for a period until the railway strike was over. It was evil to take advantage of Britain’s war time predicament he told the masses at Kheda in 1918. This logically led him to construe that if the British were in distress, then “they were the ones to side with in World War’.

World War I was not his fight to determine, it was already on at a colossal level, and nonviolence as a method of struggle was not familiar among the people of the world. He had only two options, either to join or not join. He chose to be a karma yogi rather than a passive practitioner of non-action.

While he was convinced that the ‘law and the law giver are one’, and the means and the end are convertible terms, he at the same time had to recognise the human predicament, the inexorability of violence in the remote corners of life. In the prism of tradition which interprets right and wrong, this Gandhi would be seen as a violator of the creed. However, in his attempt to serve Truth that undulates between the promise of life and the indispensability of violence, Mahatma Gandhi had to strike a balance between life and nonviolence.

(Dr. John Chelladurai is Professor and Head, Dept of Gandhian Studies, Mahatma Gandhi Mission University, Aurangabad) (Syndicate: The Billion Press)

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