Violence : Uday S. Mehta

Gandhi saw the battlefield, the fact of violence, and the importance of being prepared to fight and die as something quotidian that required an exacting, but again, quotidian courage. This is one of the “discoveries” he made in the context of the First World War. As he wrote to one of his nephews and to Charlie Andrews,

I have come to see, what I did not see so clearly before, that there is non-violence in violence. This is the big change, which has come about . . . Violence is a function of the body. Brahmacharya consists in refraining from sexual indulgence, but we do not bring up our children to be impotent. They will have observed brahmacharya only if, though possessed of the highest virility, they can master the physical urge . . . Non-violence was taught by a Kshatriya [a member of the warrior caste] to a Kshatriya.7

It is worth recalling that Gandhi reserved his highest admiration for sacrificial figures like King Harish Chandra, who was prepared to sacrifice his long sought-after only son to fulfill a promise made to the Gods who had facilitated the son’s birth. Even the much-invoked king of Ayodhya, Rama, is celebrated as a quotidian figure, as a son, brother, father, and husband, who was prepared to be banished and see his wife suffer and die in the name of duty. Gandhi seldom mentions the nature of his rule as a king or the privileged location of Ayodhya, the capital of his realm and the alleged place of his birth. But he always singles out the quality of his sacrifice.

For Gandhi, fearlessness and courage were the essence of civility and non-violence. The demand for security or the invocation of strategic considerations on behalf of the nation were thus akin to the demands of a deserter who was not prepared to sacrifice him or herself, and was thus seeking to flee battle. In emphasizing the battlefield as conceptually the most illustrative site of civil and moral action, Gandhi was evacuating every putative social and political context as an alternative basis for such action. Gandhi would not even allow religion or religious traditions to serve as such alibis.

C.F. Andrews, the Christian cleric and much-revered supporter of Indian nationalist aspirations, had written a long letter to Gandhi objecting to his role as a war recruiter and the emphasis that he had placed on India’s participation in the war. Andrews’ objection was that Indian religious traditions, especially the Hindu tradition, had produced a civilization that was deeply at odds with violence and which embodied a broadly-shared cultural aversion to what he called “bloodlust.” Andrews point was that in asking Indian’s to fight, Gandhi was showing a disregard for the very religious traditions that he claimed to value. Gandhi’s reply was scathing. Not only had all the Hindu epics shown a decided preference for battle, they were also “bloodthirsty, revengeful and merciless to the enemy.” Even the Jains with their scrupulous concern for not taking life, had, as Gandhi put it, just “a superstitious horror of blood.” When the Hindus had abstained from fighting they had done so out of weakness and a lack of courage. Gandhi’s point was that the Hindu tradition both doctrinally and as a set of lived practices gave “no warrant for the belief that” the doctrine of Ahimsa had “taken deep root among the people” because the evidence of their fear and weakness was overwhelming.8 Religion and religious traditions were therefore no substitute for the “experience” of battle that Gandhi was advocating.

The battlefield was the exemplary ground on which courage and fearlessness were manifest. It was only under those conditions that non-violence and self-rule could be vindicated. That is why it did not matter that in the context of the First World War, Indians would be fighting to defend the Empire. Gandhi went to the extravagant extent of claiming that he was “absolutely right” in “calling upon every Indian to join the army, always telling him at the same time that he is doing so not for the lust of blood, but for the sake of learning not to fear death.”9 Gandhi’s language is carefully crafted: it balances on a razor’s edge that marks out the distinction between being prepared and willing to fight, and yet not wanting to kill; between learning not to fear death in a context of battle, and yet not lusting for blood or being motivated by the image of an enemy. These distinctions may be perilously thin in some practical sense, or on the battlefield. But in terms of the conceptions of the self and the visions of life that they refer to, they are sharply contrasting and belong to different universes of meaning.

The project of life from which Gandhi’s conception of self-sacrifice and suffering emerges, and by reference to which it must be made sense of, should not be confused with a starkly different project, with which (in a practical sense) it shares a common space and even a common mode of behavior. Indeed, the fact that an ethic of non-violence was pried from the site of utter violence is not merely an example of opposites meeting, but for Gandhi is evidence of a broader ontological and cosmological conviction that non-violence names a particular transcendent response to a world. And despite being a response, it remains unsparingly violent. One might say, that for Gandhi, moral action did not change the world; at any rate, that was not its primary motive. Change, if it occurred, happened through a secondary implication—which in any case was more important to Gandhi—changing one’s relationship to the world.

“Learning not to fear death”—the remark bears repeating because it is at the core of Gandhi’s most radical reflections on violence and non-violence and on an alternative narrative of modernity. After all it was precisely the fearing of death (in part, because on his view this fear did not need to be learned) that served as the keystone of the account of modern politics that Thomas Hobbes had offered at the dawn of European modernity. That account, by emphasizing the fear of death and the corresponding importance of security as fundamental and natural human attributes, served many purposes. The decisive feature of the natural condition was not natural death along with the anxiety that it might engender; but rather, death that was violent and painful—the product of fierce competition, scarcity, and distorted passions, and thus, wholly tied to a materialist (i.e. non-metaphysical and non-transcendent) context. The subjective analog of the prospect of such a death was a condition of universal and acute fear.

7. Mahatma Gandhi, The Bhagvadgita, 150.

8. Mahatma Gandhi, The Bhagvadgita, 121.

9. Mahatma Gandhi, The Bhagvadgita, 123.

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