A masterclass in nuance
some use of violence is unavoidable? Then, Gandhi repeatedly said, a violent counter response is better than cowardice. For instance, Gandhi helped to enlist men for service in World War I.
Why did he do this when nothing was more important to him than Ahimsa? Though he himself was against the institution of war, Gandhi said, he was leading men who believed in war. For such men to refrain from enlisting out of cowardice or because of anger against the British Government would be wrong.
What about infamous cases of one-sided violence? Jesus versus the Roman Pilate may be the quintessence of one-sided violence— but it was Jesus who came out the victor. Jesus’ act of non-resistance and forgiveness released forces of good in society. This happened, Gandhi argued, because of the ‘ancient law of self-sacrifice. Satyagraha was nothing but a new name for this ancient law and, wrote Gandhi, “the rishis, who discovered the law of non-violence in the midst of violence, were greater geniuses than Newton.” This is why he saw non-violence as the root of Hinduism.
Above all, it was this claim about Hinduism that bred hatred for Gandhi among Hindu nationalists—who accused him of encouraging weakness and meekness. On the contrary, Gandhi offered an impeccable logic for his espousal of ‘the ancient law. Firstly, non-violence is not a cover for cowardice. On the contrary, it is the “supreme virtue of the brave” because it presupposes the ability to strike. Secondly, non-violence is “a conscious, deliberate restraint put upon one’s desire for vengeance”. It is the urge for vengeance, which arises from fear of harm, be it real or imaginary, that is a form of weakness.
Therefore, forgiveness is higher because it is the source of true strength and valour.
“A man who fears no one on earth would consider it too troublesome even to summon up anger against one who is vainly trying to injure him” wrote Gandhi in Young India in 1926. “The sun does not wreak vengeance upon little children who throw dust at him. They only harm themselves in the act.”
Superimposed on this reasoning was Gandhi’s sharp awareness that life is governed by a multitude of forces. This meant engaging with the reality of violence—not looking the other way in order to feel good. So, even though he was a confirmed war resister and refused to take training in destructive weapons, Gandhi explained why he had participated in the Boer War by creating an ambulance corps:
“…so long as I lived under a system of government based on force and voluntarily partook of the many facilities and privileges it created for me, I was bound to help that government to the extent of my ability when it was engaged in a war, unless I non-cooperated with that government and renounced to the utmost of my capacity the privileges it offered me.”
Perhaps, it was this rigorous commitment to duty, which Gandhi always put above rights, that gave him the confidence to claim that good is self-existent while evil is not. Evil, he argued, was like a parasite that thrives only as long as its host gives it sustenance. So, the answer to the question we started with—the search for core principles that would enable each one of us to bring more nuance and non-violence to public discourse—is that first and foremost we are called upon to have a wider sense of moral agency. When hatred and violence are proliferating around us, there are moments when you can feel overwhelmed. That comes from a feeling of helplessness, which in turn is a con- sequence of the debilitating doubt that perhaps evil is stronger, more tenacious, more effective than good. It is this which shrinks our sense of moral agency—that is, undermines our confidence not only that good is self-existent, but that every individual who consciously lives this truth is immensely powerful.
One way to overcome this condition is to cultivate the art of thinking things through with those who appear to us as the ‘other. The pre-requisite for this is deep listening—the willingness to listen for the hurt, the concern, behind the other’s complaint or even vitriol. This, often painfully difficult endeavour has neither a clear path nor landing lights. But Gandhi’s experiments, including his failed efforts, with truth and nuance are at the very least a light house.
“He himself was sometimes surprised at the things he said. His thinking was fluid. Most persons like to be proved right. So did Gandhi. But frequently he snatched a victory out of an error by admitting it.’— Louis Fischer.
Rajni Bakshi is the author of the books Bapu Kuti: Journeys in Rediscovery of Gandhi and Bazaars, Conversations and Freedom: For A Market Culture Beyond Greed and Fear
Gandhi would think aloud, revealing each step in his thinking, so you could follow him to the conclusion