Ahimsa and Himsa cannot be understood without the essential context of Dharma. Nor their worth can be defined by individuals who misrepresent Hindutva as violent because Dharma is simultaneously personal and yet universal
When armed force are considered justified in Hinduism? How do Hindu legitimisations of warfare compared with those of other religions? The whole debate around the idea of violence (himsa), non-violence (ahimsa) and Dharma is a triangular dwelling in which everydayness of our society resides since time immemorial. The justness of Dharma is central to the legitimacy for the two binaries of himsa and ahimsa.
Apart from monumental wars, that we are told, were fought in Lanka and Kurukshetra, the contestation of himsa and ahimsa also works out in everyday living over various chores. It has not been only political, but social as well as idiosyncratic too.
Recently, historian Upinder Singh has argued in Political Violence in Ancient India (2017) that ‘Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru helped to create the myth of nonviolent ancient India while building a modern independence movement on the principle of nonviolence (ahimsa). It has been added that this myth obscures a troubled and complex heritage: a long struggle to reconcile the ethics of nonviolence with the need to use violence to rule.’
However, there are two problems with the historian’s observation. Nonviolent ancient India was not to be created because its ethos was circulating in the modern India as well. In civilisational states like India, philosophies, social value and thought processes hardly become redundant. They always live, and are resurrected as and when required. Secondly, Gandhi and Nehru were significant thought leaders of the modern India, but certainly not the lone ones. Ideas about history, civilisational attributes, and characterisation of past was done by more personalities, like Sri Aurobindo, Balgangadhar Tilak, and Veer Savarkar, who also introduced us with other side of the Hindu ethos; violence for safeguarding and establishing Dharma.
We contemplate here on the reconciliation of ahimsa and himsa by adjudging them through the Dharmik perspective. Peace loving Hindus have also resorted to violence when safeguarding the Dharma has been essential. From Ramayana, Mahabharata, and other Puranas, we have learnt that any violent option has been the last one. But when violence has become inevitable, it has been dealt with and done.
For example, scholars like Raj Balkaran and A Walter Dorn (2012) have demonstrated the presence in the Valmiki Ramayana of all seven modern Just War criteria—namely (1) Just Cause, (2) Right Intent, (3) Net Benefit, (4) Legitimate Authority, (5) Last Resort, (6) Proportionality of Means, and (7) Right Conduct. Hence, even when war has been warranted, it has been characterised as a just war or Dharmayudh.
Ahimsa and Dharma:
Why it is Significant
The Sanskrit term dharma is complex, often translated as moral law or force of cosmic order. It has both a general and particular meaning. Generally, to live dharmically means to align oneself with the supreme Truth of the divine force that sustains the cosmos. On a particular level, it means to live according to the righteous and sacred duties appropriate to one”s station in life. We know that the concept appears in (among other texts) the Bhagavad Gita, the sixth book of the epic Mahabharata.
While, etymologically ahimsa connotes an absence of a desire to injure any one in thought, word, or deed. In form it is negative, and is often interpreted in a specific narrow sense; but really it is wider and a very ancient conception. It can in fact be traced back to the Rgvedic conception of the Rta or the eternal cosmic Law or Order which governs all the facts and happenings in Nature.
Ahimsa in Ancient India was conceived as a duty and a privilege that regulated the relations not between man and man alone, but between man and the whole Nature. Thus man is enjoined to remember in his daily religious offerings the shares of all his fellow-creatures. As objects of religious veneration he chooses caves, causeways or confluences which seem to have been sanctified by Nature itself. Betty Heimann (1932) has argued that ‘It is this doctrine of Ahimsa taken in its widest philosophical sense that has made the Ancient Indian Ethics a cosmic ethics and not a personal ethics.’
In the domain of Dharmashastras or Civil and religious laws the doctrine of Ahimsa has made itself felt in the recognition of the sanctity of possession, the appointed time for appropriation being purposely
postponed as long as possible. Similarly the head of the family was not allowed to make a will cutting the property – especially landed and house-property – into pieces. Thus, we see that Ahimsa as a doctrine of life has always been placed in conjunction to Dharma.
Himsa and Dharma:
In Gita, the dialogue between Krishna and Arjun initially seems like a solution that condones political violence for the sake of maintaining rightful authority through a dharmayuddha (a just war), but turns eventually into a series of revelations about the nature of the human self, the illusory quality of the material world, the necessity of
performing one’s dharma without attachment to the fruits of action, and the eventual transcendence of the human soul to the divine.
Here acting upon one’s Dharma is interspersed through violence. However, it must be also noted that the notion of dharma is infinitely fluid across varying interpretations of different texts, and rarely tied to any singular conception of moral order or set of principles. To act dharmically is most often accepted as the goal of Hindu life, yet the question of what precisely constitutes dharmic action is rarely straight.
We have already mentioned that how in almost every act of violence the question of Dharma is attached with. The killing of all the Asuras, or largely what were categorised as
a-Dharmik attributes had to be taken up by those whose were expected to not only restore rightful political authority, but also perform his dharma without regard for consequences.
A text like Bhagvat Gita, which seems to legitimise the use of violence for not only safeguarding Dharma but also for indulging in the same because it could be the Dharmik act in certain situations, has varied modern implications. We will focus here on mainly two, namely Mahatma Gandhi and Sri Aurobindo.
Jimmy Casas Klausen suggests that, ‘despite Sri Aurobindo’s association in South Asia’s nationalist pantheon with the early Extremist camp, which was open to using violent means to gain India self-rule, and Gandhi’s well known advocacy of non-violence in the nationalist struggle, thematic similarities between their political theories are striking: For each Bhagvat Gita is formative; both draw on biological motifs to describe the impact of human action on life; and each develops his anti-colonial theory by balancing the value of life, the place of violence, and the necessity of action in British-India relation.’
Most remarkably, both thinkers allow that violence is an inevitable feature of life, because life lives of life: Jivo Jivasya Jivanam. Each accepts that an irreducible play across himsa and ahimsa serves as the field of spiritual-cum-political struggle.
The two men, although they share same inspiration by the Bhagvadagita, vary in their resolutions of its central dilemma between the duty to enact ahimsa yet the inevitability that action generates himsa. Gandhi resolves the dilemma by arguing that the Gita taught the gradual conversion of action from brute force to soul-force, whereas Sri Aurobindo avers that it transcended body and soul and integrated both himsa and ahimsa into right action. The dilemma of choosing one over the other, i.e. ahimsa over himsa can be resolved for individuals but cannot be resolved for the Hindu society at large because of the subjectivity of Dharma. Dharma is personalised, and yet universalised. Therefore, one Gandhi or an Aurobindo can make a decision for them, but if that decision would go a long way for all other Hindus, we can never be sure.
Unfortunate mob lynching over cow slaughter, communal rioting, and arming of certain Hindus has always been accentuated by those who misrepresent Hindu Dharma as an Abrahmic faith and thus, paint it in dark colours. Small number of violent ridden events is microscoped to suggest that Hindutva is misrepresenting Hinduism. However, we need to understand the essential Dharmic coupling with the processes of Ahimsa or Himsa which provides a context for these actions to be interpreted. Hindus have historically been peace loving, self-addressing and non-violent people. It also led to their subjugation and subversion. However, history is also filled up with the examples of heroics of leaders like Maharana Pratap and Chhatrapati Shivaji who resorted to violent wars when they had to safeguard their Dharma.
We must remember that in Ramayana, with respect to his
ultimate indifference to the dictates of dharma, Ravana is the antithesis of the self-composed and Dharmik Rama, who effortlessly surrenders his own throne for fourteen years for the sake of dharma. Ravana, on the other hand, would not even sacrifice the ill-begotten wife of some for the sake of protecting his entire kingdom and his multitude of
raksasa subjects. n