Kobe Bryant’s basketball exploits are the stuff of NBA legend. He was one of the NBA stars to follow in my teenage years (and beyond). And the shooting guard to follow after Michael Jordan. I had never been to LA when I first saw him, but before long, I was not just an LA Lakers fan, but also a fan of all things LA, including Hollywood, even though it never seemed to show us Orientals in a positive light.
It also made me a fan of the US when he represented his country, even though it had killed hundreds of thousands in the Third World and was still engaged in the bombing business (and still is). I was pumped to see him play a pivotal role in the US’s winning the men’s basketball gold, at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. And even a few days before he died, I liked him even more for his wise comment that only education and understanding could help tackle racism.
So, when I got news of his – and his promising daughter’s – death, I was left, both, in shock and disbelief. As infected as online spaces are these days with trolls, bots and malware, I had to, almost compulsively, turn to the internet for some perspective, and might I say solace.
Far from solace, though, thanks to the internet, memories of all the drama surrounding past rape allegations against Bryant returned to me. Back then, I was just like any other socially awkward, cis-gendered, heterosexual 16-year-old sports nerd, who believed, that the allegations against him were false: a) he was married and seemed faithful, and b) someone you liked so much couldn’t possibly have violated and degraded another human being.
However, there was always a lingering doubt. And then, he admitted he had a “consensual” encounter with the accuser, a concierge. I was a confused 16-year-old. Did he really do it? Was he being victimised because of his race? I chose to forget the confusion of the drama and focused on the ball instead. Which 16-year-old remembers an alleged rape victim he hasn’t even seen or heard? It took me a few more years to understand how the odds are typically stacked against such victims. A few more, to understand that one could appreciate a sportsperson, for their sporting ability, without having to defend their felonies, and indiscretions, outside of the sporting arena.
In a piece entitled ‘Why Must We Choose Between Kobe Bryant And The Woman He Assaulted?’, writer Elle Beau provides some eloquent insight into human nature and hero-worship, which I quote here:
“We like to believe that those we admire could never do anything untoward and that only bad men do bad things, even though every human being is a mix of admirable and less admirable qualities. It’s just simpler to slap either a White Hat or a Black Hat on everyone, particularly in death. And because a dominance hierarchy like the one that we live in is a zero-sum construct, many of us are incredibly uncomfortable with nuance and gray areas. We like to put our heroes on a pedestal and make them two dimensional, denying them their actual humanity.”
So, when I was asked to attempt to answer the question, “Is India truly the land of Ahimsa?”, I started to wonder. Are we asking ourselves this question because we had hitherto been engaging in some kind of unthinking abstract hero worship? Is it even a relevant question? What is Ahimsa in any practical sense? In what context was the concept of Ahimsa born, and in what context was it needed to be revived? Is Ahimsa a dogma? Is it a sense of smug superiority assumed by some from a position of privilege?
Ahimsa, or nonviolence, is characterised as an ethic, in which there is an absence of violence towards other beings in action and intent. M.K. Gandhi is often credited with embedding this ethic, within the concept of a modern Indian nation, through his philosophy and practice.
But where did the idea of Ahimsa originate? Chapple, Doshi and Doshi, in their book Nonviolence To Animals, Earth, And Self In Asian Traditions, have highlighted the essentially religious origins of Ahimsa in India. In it, they write that, while Ahimsa is typically seen as having originated in Hindu philosophy, linked to the concept of karma, the earliest available Hindu texts do not emphasise ethics in action.
Not until late Dharmashastra compositions, dating back to the 2nd century BCE, does the idea of rebirth based on the merit of actions in present life appear in Hindu philosophy. By contrast, in the earliest text in Jainism, Acharanga Sutra, “we see a fully developed and distinct doctrine of karma that entails strict observance of ethical precepts rooted in Ahimsa.”
Some scholars have even traced the origins of Jain Ahimsa back to the Indus Valley Civilization, although direct written evidence from these protohistoric times is difficult to glean.
This prominent influence of religion in the concept of Ahimsa shows up in Gandhi’s advocacy for nonviolence as well. To quote him:
“Nonviolence is an active force of the highest order. It is soul force or the power of Godhead within us. Imperfect man cannot grasp the whole of that essence – he would not be able to bear its full blaze, but even an infinitesimal fraction of it, when it becomes active within us, can work wonders.”
This presents a nebulous, metaphysical picture of the virtue of nonviolence. What is essentially an attitude, learned and practised, becomes in this rendering an imagined cosmic force, that can only be actualized by undefined demigods. A supposed “infinitesimal fraction” of Ahimsa, still undefined, is supposed to work unspecified “wonders”. This kind of obscurantism is unnecessary, and unhelpful, in convincing the common woman of the virtue of Ahimsa.
Ahimsa is not supposed to be passive. Implicit in the concept of Ahimsa is activity. Ahimsa in resistance is emphasised in the mental labour needed to not act in retaliation to an oppressor’s provocations. Thus, not acting here is not passivity, but a choice. A straightforward fact is that in times of crisis, practice of nonviolence in the face of deliberate and continued violence, takes nothing but raw courage, to face up to the oppressor; manifestations of which we see aplenty today, among enlightened students, defending the embattled universities of India. This is something Gandhi has said as well, only more eloquently:
“Ahimsa is an attribute of the brave. Cowardice and ahimsa don’t go together any more than water and fire. No power on earth can subjugate you when you are armed with the sword of ahimsa. It ennobles both the victor and the vanquished.”
The final sentence is where Gandhi’s wisdom shines through. It is inspirational since it emphasises dignity, and the idea that the essence of one’s humanity lies more in one’s mind than one’s body. Commitment to nonviolence always means that even in physical degradation, one’s dignity is maintained, and their humanity augmented.
The oppressor – invariably uncouth, amoral and hypocritical – always tries to provoke the oppressed into a violent reaction, so he can justify his oppression to himself, more than anyone else. Each time the oppressor lands a body blow on the victim and the latter resists descending to the oppressor’s levels, it lands a blow on the former’s conscience, if it’s not dead already.
The ethical clarity and moral high ground attained by the one taking blows is liberating and may inspire other oppressed ones to similarly liberate themselves. It is important to remember that the oppressor is still human, no matter how inhuman their violence is. Being human, they can choose to react in two ways – either attempt the cowardly and criminal act of erasing all evidence of their act of oppression. Or they might act in a context where they have achieved some success in normalising whatever violent and anti-social ideology they espouse, through obscurantist appeals, made to the basest of instincts of people, often cloaked in the idiom of religion.
Gandhi makes his appeal to religion, specifically the Brahminical religion, clearer when he says:
“Use truth as your anvil, nonviolence as your hammer and anything that does not stand the test when it is brought to the anvil of truth and hammered with ahimsa, reject as non-Hindu.”
It could be argued that he was trying to appeal to the majority Hindu population, but such a formulation could be seen by many as revealing a Hindu exceptionalist mindset and as the peddling of Ahimsa as necessarily a Hindu virtue. Given that Gandhi was a staunch defender of the brutal and violent Brahminical caste system, only selectively opposing the extreme violence of untouchability, it could be argued that Gandhi, in a way, failed his own test.
An interview he gave in 1932, in London, reveals to what extent he truly believed in his formulation of Ahimsa. When asked why he didn’t defend Chandra Singh Garhwali, a soldier in the British India army who had refused to follow orders to fire on an unarmed crowd, he replied
“A soldier who disobeys an order to fire breaks the oath which he has taken and renders himself guilty of criminal disobedience. I cannot ask officials and soldiers to disobey, for when I am in power I shall in all likelihood make use of those same officials and those same soldiers. If I taught them to disobey I should be afraid that they might do the same when I am in power (sic.) But if they cannot conscientiously carry out the orders which are given to them they can always hand in their resignation.”
Gandhi understood the spirit of Ahimsa and turned nonviolent resistance into an art form. He was also a shrewd and crafty politician and lawyer who knew how to appeal to the masses as well as the elite. The extent to which he went to try and achieve communal harmony was admirable, albeit, in my opinion, it was based on misplaced understanding of an outsider of the hierarchies within the Indian Muslim society.
His advocacy for the truth, as a guide for behaviour and thought, is also to be commended. But by essentially being a champion of the Brahminical order and also by being either confused or hypocritical about Ahimsa, he failed to become the kind of spiritual guide he obviously craved to be for millions of Indians. This is probably why draconian and anti-democratic laws from the colonial era have been left mostly undisturbed on India’s statute books.
Be that as it may, there is still merit in holding on to the spirit of Ahimsa that Gandhi espoused, no matter how he himself fared in its practice. The essence of Gandhi’s Ahimsa seems to have departed with his tragic assassination by a violent Hindutva thug 72 years ago.
It seems apt to reiterate that Gandhi, like all of us, was a human being, with his own desires, motivations, biases and prejudices. Mysticising Gandhi denies him his humanity, and makes Gandhi, who is seen as an embodiment of Ahimsa, unattainable, reflecting Gandhi’s own view of the same.
What Elle Beau wrote in her article on Kobe Bryant and hero-worship may be recalled here. In looking for an unblemished hero, an ideal for the kind of democracy we aspire to be, we disregard nuances and grey areas and complexities of a human life that was Gandhi’s.
Even if Gandhi were a perfect and unstinting practitioner of Ahimsa, would India, by virtue of that alone, become the land of Ahimsa? Witnessing India’s seemingly inexorable descent into violent fascism, it is easy to succumb to the lament that India was better in the past, though that would be ahistorical and disingenuous. Through much of India’s history, despite the intellectual exertions of a privileged elite, society was fundamentally hierarchical, and deeply and violently unequal. The inequalities would be utter and complete – social, economic and political.
The more organised society became, the more heritable the inequalities became. Colonisation amplified those inequalities in certain ways. Besides, as Chappelle, Doshi and Doshi have highlighted in their aforementioned book, the preaching of Ahimsa coexisted with animal sacrifice as a consecrating ritual in ancient India.
Ashoka, the great Maurya emperor, who preached Buddhist Ahimsa for the householder, forbade everyone from slaughtering animals for food but himself (“only” peacocks and deer). It would appear that the complexity of hierarchies in Indian society has fostered a culture of hypocrisy, which has put paid to any real efforts to realise the spirit and the idealism of Ahimsa on a societal level.
Those in power have never believed in Ahimsa, although they have pretended to practise it in very selective ways. They have always assumed they ought to be the ones to set the terms for such noble virtues. While they have to be given credit for developing the intellectual premise of Ahimsa, they can’t be credited with pioneering the practice of it. In fact, the spirit of Ahimsa leads naturally to an ideal state where there is no inequality. Since that has almost never been true in history, it can safely be said that India has never truly been a land of Ahimsa.
If we have to look for the true spirit of Ahimsa in India, it is to be found in the patient resistance by the perennially marginalised and oppressed to the violence of the powerful and the privileged. The Dalits, the Adivasis, the women. And how they have risen above all the hardships violently imposed upon them by a Brahminical, patriarchal state.
When I say Brahminical here, I don’t mean merely the Vedic times, or when patrons of Brahminical religion were in the ascendancy. I mean the spirit of Brahminism, that of discrimination and violence based on strict hierarchisation. That ugly institution of social discrimination and violence that led to the apostasies of Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism. That ugly institution infecting almost all non-Brahminical religions in India with the virus of caste.
Modern Hindutva is a potent legatee of Brahminism. And its crassness and vulgarity are most nakedly obvious in the assertion of the ruffian, who fired his gun, near the peaceful protesters at Shaheen Bagh, that only Hindus should be listened to in this country. And also, in the brazen attack by thugs (and ‘thugette’) on unsuspecting and unprotected students of JNU, who spend much of their time questioning and protesting the iniquities of Indian society, perhaps with an intent to kill.
True, Ahimsa has always been practised by the victims of that kind of comprehensively cruel Brahminism. Dalit scholar Suraj Yengde has floated the concept of “Dalit love” in his book ‘Caste Matters’, which he characterises as universal and as something that is founded on the principles of respect for all of humanity, and thereby devoid of any hatred towards the oppressor.
It is evocatively described as the source of inspiration and strength for the long-suffering Dalits in India, something that allows Dalits to commit to each other and thrives to the best possible extent, despite the one-sided hatred and violence of the oppressor.
Dalit love isn’t just something that gives the oppressed a moral high ground, it also gives them a perspective that enriches them culturally – a culture that the Brahminical machinery in this country has done its best to repress. Even though mass media is beginning to respond to the need to air Dalit voices, it is still light years from understanding the spirit of Dalit love.
The critically acclaimed movie Article 15, released last year, attempts to empathise with Dalits from the point of view of a Brahmin saviour, something that centres the experience of the Brahmin in question. Dalit love, Yengde asserts, is democratic. It’s a communitarian experience. It centres everyone and no one. Perhaps Dalit love is where the essence of true Ahimsa lies. Perhaps the day Dalits – and basically all the oppressed people in our society – become ‘azaad’ from Brahminism, when Dalit love has won the day, will be the day, when India will have the right to be called the land of Ahimsa.
Looking at it that way, the continued nonviolent resistance, the oppressed in this country are putting up, is the only real source of hope, and the rest of us need to learn from them the spirit of Dalit love and give it back to them.