The emancipation of India, as a modern nation, brought with it a unique instance when an ancient Indian concept had won a battle so skewed against it, that it was truly a tryst with destiny that could have made it happen! One of the most potent tools for the same was moored in the ancient Indian concept of Ahimsa, crudely translated as ‘non-violence’, wielded so effectively by the Mahatma (Gandhi) himself.
There were various other strands of the national struggle that also contributed together, in harmony, towards obtaining this. This included the contributions of Lal-Bal-Pal, Netaji and Bhagat Singh among others. Gandhi, for his part, drew his inspiration from the Leo Tolstoy, from John Ruskin, and various others. But what he drew most from was from the ancient Indian scriptures. It is amazing that people are taken aback when I say that many of Gandhi’s ideas are founded on spiritual Hindu elements, such as the idea of ‘Satya’ and the usage of fasting. However, one thing which never was developed to the level it could have been, I feel, is that of Ahimsa.
We all have heard the famous words, “अहिंसा परमो धर्म”, which translate to ‘non-violence is the ultimate dharma‘. What is often looked over is the next verse: “धर्म हिंसा तथीव च”, which means ‘violence in service of Dharma is also the ultimate Dharma’. You may ask: what does ‘violence in the service of Dharma‘ mean? Isn’t this much like the new-age idea of the ‘just war’ or ‘war on terror’. Isn’t Dharma, which is loosely defined as behaviours that are considered to be in accord with Ṛta, the order that makes life and universe possible, and that includes duties, rights, laws and a “right way of living”, subjective?
Yes and no!
There are some universal values that transcend the bounds of identities. There are other behaviours that are more contextual and person- or community- centred. This could include the individual tendencies, capabilities and orientations that define the Swadharma (‘personal Dharma’) of a person. This could also include the fundamental orientations of an age, in what can be defined as the Yugdharma – the Dharma of the age. One of the oldest systems of philosophy in the Indic civilisations that dealt with Ahimsa and Himsa was that of Yoga, as expounded by Patanjali. Ahimsa is a fundamental Yama – ethical, moral and spiritual guidelines for a person aspiring to reach balance and well-being leading to spiritual development. The Chāndogya Upaniṣad names Ahimsa, along with Satyavacanam (truthfulness), Danam (charity), Arjavam (sincerity) and Tapo (penance) as one of the five essential virtues. The Sandilya Upanishad lists ten forbearances:
Ahimsa, Satya, Asteya, Brahmacharya, Daya, Arjava, Kshama, Dhriti, Mitahara and Saucha. The key question that most seers and philosophers have dealt with, when it comes to Ahimsa is: “What does one do when one is faced with conflict and war?”
Proportionate response and punishment, besides the conception of ‘just wars’, are deliberated on, in seminal texts like Arthashastra. The precepts of Ahimsa under Dharma require that war must be avoided as much as possible, with honest and sincere dialogue. Force should be the very last resort, and even if war becomes necessary, its cause must be just and its purpose must be virtuous, besides having its aim to be the establishment of peace and its method lawful and proper.
In the times of yore, warriors were asked to use judgment in the battlefield and cruelty to the opponent was forbidden. The unarmed or wounded opponent was to be left, even brought to one’s realm and given medical treatment. Innocent non-participants, such as children, women and civilians, were to not to be injured, and while a war was in progress, sincere dialogue for peace had to continue. Even in self-defence, the motive always was neutralisation of an aggressor’s motives and actions rather than outright harm to the aggressor. Also when it came to punishments for crime, the scriptures suggested that the sentences for any crime had to be fair, proportional and not cruel. The Dharmic precept of ’cause no injury’ also applies to animals and other life forms.
Now, if we were to consider the fundamental underlying principle behind what brings together these disparate strands with the apparently contrasting idea of Ahimsa, only one thing comes to the fore: आनृशंस्य – Ānṛśaṃsya. If Ahimsa or non-violence and non-injury is the highest form of conduct that one should strive for, how can one possibly inflict damage and violence, even if proportionate and just? That is where this elusive concept of Ānṛśaṃsya comes to the fore. Ānṛśaṃsya is often spoken of as the principle of ‘non-cruelty’ along with kindness and compassion.
It is the one defining characterisation of Yudhishthir, the eldest of the Pandavas in the epic Mahabharata. The conception of Ānṛśaṃsya comes from the understanding that though Ahimsa is the highest dharma, which is founded upon Satya, the truth; reality brings with it polarities and dualities that create conflict, create binaries and ‘violence’. In society, no one is and can truly always be completely non-violent, even in the face of, say, annihilation. Therefore, the best way to resolve this apparent paradox and existential dissonance between ideals and actions is to temper the demands of Ahimsa by emphasising the aspect of ‘non-cruelty’ and, for all practical purposes, replacing the commandment on ‘Ahimsa is the highest Dharma’ with, आनृशंस्य परमो धर्म or ‘Ānṛśaṃsya is the highest Dharma’.
Alf Hiltebeitel, in his book, Rethinking the Mahabharata published in 2001, prepared a tally sheet for the phrase “Paramo dharmo“ (the supreme Dharma); he found that out of the 54 times that it occurs in the classical text, it is conjoined with the word Ahimsa only four times, while it is conjoined with Ānṛśaṃsya eight times. Ānṛśaṃsya goes on to not only signify good-will and a fellow feeling but a much more profound understanding and sense of Brahman, the underlying unity-essence of all there is in nature and the Universe. In that context, it almost qualifies as self-injury to harm or injure another, and it is from this realisation and enlightenment that Ānṛśaṃsya becomes a natural development. It is in the humanness, the inherent compassion, the universalism and balance (samattva) that comes with this understanding that creates the essence of the concept.
It is in the balance, or in the more human context, of equanimity that Ānṛśaṃsya lies. Dharmic scriptures talk of the ultimate reality, the Satya – truth, being devoid of binaries, dualities and multiplicities. That is because Satya was there before there was anything else in the universe. Therefore, much like Schrodinger’s Cat, that is both dead and alive, Brahman is both existence and non-existence.
In keeping with this spirit, the conception of the highest virtue of Ānṛśaṃsya is beyond the binary of violence and non-violence. It maintains a critical distance from both the components of the himsā-ahimsā or ‘violence-non-violence’ binary without dissolving either of the two. And in doing so, it opens up a discursive space within which unqualified non-violence remains unfeasible while excessive violence is condemned, and gestures towards the almost-oxymoronic precept of ‘violence without violation’, as and when required and justified. Therefore, given the reality of our universe and the nature of beings, the Dharmic way is that of Ānṛśaṃsya, which is possibly the closest possible approximation of Ahimsa. A way of pro-active pacifism that does not wind down into passivism, and I like to believe that Gandhi too propagated the same, albeit with the understanding that even violence without violation, against the colonial overseers of the time, would only be counterproductive due to the imbalance of power and resources.
Sri Krishna’s was the path of Anrsamsya in the Bhagavad Gita, with its characteristic equanimity and sense of detachment, where the violence in the epic war is not against the people particular but against Adharma and for certain values, and that too after all the possible paths to avoid the war had been exhausted and the Kauravas – the primary antagonists were seen to be afflicting masses of people in scales and ways that were not reconcilable with the idea of Dharma. Ānṛśaṃsya is the concept I feel an alignment with, and I see it as the natural evolution of Gandhi’s Ahimsa and a re-discovery of an ancient powerful concept of Dharma.