OFFERING RARE, FORGOTTEN AND VALUABLE archival material has been one of the traditions at The Dharma Dispatch since inception. In adherence to this tradition, we present a little-known essay by Lala Lajpat Rai severely castigating Mohandas Gandhi’s theory and practice of Ahimsa or non-violence.
But first, the context.Mohandas Gandhi had just returned from South Africa and had begun to fish in Indian political waters. By 1916, he had attracted the attention of a cross section of the Indian society largely thanks to his fiery advocacy of Ahimsa as a political tool. Some nationalists and freedom fighters took Gandhi’s novel formulation with a pinch of salt and accommodated him given the sincerity of his intent and patriotism.
However, not everyone was fooled.
Lala Lajpat Rai was among the first to openly call out the inherent and long-term dangers of using non-violence as a form of protest against an intrinsically tyrannical foreign power premised on ruthlessness and exploitation. The result was an essay published in a Calcutta-based magazine in July 1916.
The following are some excerpts from that essay titled Ahimsa Paramo Dharma. Minor editorial changes have been made for better readability given the archaic nature of sentence construction.
THERE IS NO RELIGION higher than truth, nor a course of conduct nobler than Ahimsa Paramo Dharma. Rightly understood and rightly applied to life, the latter makes a man a saint and a hero. Misunderstood and misapplied, it makes a man cowardly and craven, base and stupid. There was a time when Indians understood it rightly and made only the proper use of it and they were a race of truthful, noble and brave people.
Then came a time when some good people, thoroughly well-intentioned and otherwise saintly, made a fad of it, placed it not only at the top of all other virtues, but made it the sole test of a good life. They overdid it not only in their own lives but converted it into a supreme national virtue, at the cost of everything else. All other virtues which ennoble men and nations were thrown into the background and subordinated to this, according to them, the supreme test of goodness. Courage, bravery, heroism, all lapsed. Honor and self-respect were thrown into the shade. Patriotism, love of country, love of family, honor of the race were all extinguished.
It was this perverted use or misuse of Ahimsa (non-killing) or its exaggerated importance at the cost of everything else, that brought about the social, political and moral downfall of the Hindus. They forgot that manliness was as good a virtue as Ahimsa. In fact, the former was in no way inconsistent with the latter, if rightly applied. They overlooked the fact that individual as well as national interests made it incumbent that the weak should be protected against the strong, and that the aggressor and the usurper, the thief and the scoundrel, the lustful villain, and the infamous violator of woman’s chastity, the ruffian and the cheat, should be prevented from inflicting, injustice and doing harm. They ignored the fact that humanity required that the fear of righteous indignation and of the consequences that flow therefrom, should deter the soul of the evilly disposed people from harming innocence, violating purity and depriving others of their just rights. They failed to realize the importance and the sublimity of the truth that whosoever allows or tolerates forceful dominance of evil or tyranny and oppression, abets and encourages it, and is partly responsible for the prosperity and strength of the evil-doer.
Ahimsa overdone and misapplied is a gangrene that poisons the system, enervates the faculties and converts men and women into half-lunatic, hysterical, unnerved creatures, good for nothing that requires the energetic pursuit of noble ends and noble virtues. It converts men into monomaniacs and cowards.
The founders of the Jain religion were saintly people, pledged to a life of self-abnegation and self-mortification. Their followers, the Jain Sadhus, are amongst the most saintly people who have achieved the greatest possible success in killing passions and subduing desires both of the senses and the mind.
The Tolstoyian Ahimsa, is a product of a few years only. The Jain Ahinsa has been known and practised in India for three thousand years. There is no country on the face of the globe which contains so many and such profound Ahimsa-ists as India does and which she has been having for centuries. Yet there is no, country on the face of the globe which is so downtrodden, so bereft of manly virtues, as India of today is or as India of the last fifteen hundred years has been.
Some people may say that it was not the practice of Ahimsa that brought about this fall but the desertion of other virtues. I am inclined to insist that the perversion of this truth was at least one of those causes that resulted in India’s forsaking the path of honor, manliness and virtue. The worst is that people who profess an absolute faith in the doctrine, prove by their own practice that a perverted use of such a truth necessarily leads to a life of hypocrisy, unmanliness and cruelty.
I was born in a Jain family. My grandfather had an all-covering faith in Ahinsa. He would rather be bitten by a snake than kill it. He would not harm even a vermin. He spent hours in religious exercises. To all appearances, he was a very virtuous person, who held a high position in his fraternity and commanded great respect. One of his brothers was a Sadhu, a high priest who was an exalted leader of his order. This gentleman was one of the noblest types of ascetics I have ever met with in my life. He lived up to his principles and excelled in the mortification of the flesh, and in keeping down his passions and desires. Yet, according to the best standards of ethics, his life was barren and unnatural.
I loved and respected him, but I could not follow his creed, nor did he ever show any anxiety to make me do it. However, his brother—i.e., my own grandfather — was a different sort of person. He believed in Ahimsa, that perverted Ahimsa which forbids the taking of any life under any circumstances whatsoever, but he considered all kinds of trickeries in his trade and profession as not only valid but good. They were permissible according to the ethics of his business.
I have known many persons of that faith who would deprive the minor and the widow, of their last morsel of food in dealings with them, but who would spend thousands in saving lice or birds or other animals standing in danger of being killed.
I do not mean to say that the Jains of India are in any way more immoral than the rest of the Hindus. Or that Ahimsa leads to immorality of that kind. Far be it from me to make such an unfounded insinuation. In their own way, the Jains are a great community, charitable, hospitable, and intelligent and shrewd men of business. What I mean is that the practice of Ahimsa in its extreme form has in no way made them better than or morally superior to the other communities. In fact, they are the people who preeminently suffer from hooliganism and other manifestations of force because they are more helpless than others on account of their inherited fear and dislike of force. They cannot defend themselves, nor the honor of those dear and near to them.
EUROPE IS THE MODERN incantation of the divine right of force. It was good for Europe to have given birth to a Tolstoy. But the case of India is different. In India, we do not advocate force and violence for purposes of oppression or usurpation or aggression. India, I trust, will never come to that. But we cannot afford to be taught that it is sinful to use legitimate force for purposes of self-defence, or for the protection of our honor and the honor of our wives, sisters, daughters and mothers. Such a teaching is unnatural and pernicious.
We condemn political assassinations. We even condemn illegal or unlawful force in the attainment of a lawful object. But we cannot afford to sit silent when a great and a respected man tells our young men that we can only “guard the honor of those who are under our charge, by delivering ourselves into the hands of the men who would commit the sacrilege” and that this is “far greater physical and mental courage than delivering blows.”
Suppose a ruffian assaults our daughter. Mr. Gandhi says that according to his conception of Ahimsa, the only way to protect the honor of our daughter is to stand between her and her assailant. But what becomes of the daughter if her assailant kills us and then completes his diabolical intention. According to Mr. Gandhi, it requires greater mental and physical courage to stand still and let him do his worst than to try to stop him by matching our force against his. With great respect for Mr. Gandhi, this is meaningless.
I consider it my duty to raise an emphatic protest against the pernicious doctrine he has propounded. Even a Gandhi should not be allowed to poison the minds of Young India on this subject. No one should be at liberty to pollute the fountains of national vitality. Not even Buddha preached that. Honourable life would be impossible under such conditions.
Why did Mr. Gandhi injure the feelings of the white men of South Africa by raising a revolt against their cherished policy of excluding the Indians from that country? To be logical, he should have left the country bag and baggage and advised his countrymen to do the same as soon as the South Africans expressed a wish to exclude them. Under such circumstances, any resistance would be himsa. After all physical himsa is only a development of mental himsa.
If it is a sin to merely contemplate the worsting of a thief or a robber or an enemy, it is a greater sin to resist him by force. The thing is so absurd on the face of it that I feel inclined to doubt the accuracy of the report of Mr. Gandhi’s speech. But the press has been freely commenting on the speech and Mr. Gandhi has issued no disclaimer.
In any case, I feel that I cannot sit silent and let this doctrine go as an unquestioned sublime truth to be followed by Young India. Mr. Gandhi wants to create a world of imaginary perfection. Of course he is free to do it, as he is free to ask others to do it. But in the same way, I consider it my duty to point out his error.
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