Jyotirmaya Sharma examines how Gandhi’s conception of ahimsa became the guiding principle of his policy to resist colonial power in a vast and deeply divided society
The idea of non-violence or ahimsa was central to Mahatma Gandhi’s beliefs. From the railway platform in Pietermaritzburg to the indigo plantations of Champaran, to the response to Chauri Chaura and the salt march to Dandi, it underpinned his unwavering resistance to injustice and guided him every step of the way. of his leadership of the struggle for freedom.
If Gandhi’s ahimsa was central to his ethical vision, this vision lay deep within his religious beliefs and drew metaphysical strength from them. “My politics are subordinate to my religion,” he said. At the end of his autobiographyMy experiences with the truth, he reiterates his commitment to finding the truth through ahimsa: “There is no other God but Truth. And if every page of these chapters does not proclaim to the reader that the only means for the realization of Truth is Ahimsa, I will consider all my labor in writing these chapters to have been in vain.
Path to personal fulfillment
The autobiography ends in 1921. The ahimsa instrument became the founding principle of Gandhi’s project of resistance to British colonial rule in India. Even as he led the political movement, Gandhi reinterpreted Hindu religious texts to form his understanding of religion as a means of personal fulfillment. InElusive Nonviolence: The Making and Breaking of Gandhi’s AhimsaJyotirmaya Sharma takes us through the evolution of Gandhi’s ahimsa through the prism of his religion.
Sharma begins by acknowledging the myths that have built up over decades around the man; eventually, “Gandhi became his admirers.” Likewise, studying Gandhi’s ethical principles independently of his religious beliefs, observes Sharma, can give the impression of paradoxes or inconsistencies in his thinking.
However, in tracing the evolution of Gandhi’s ahimsa as a fundamentally religious ideal situated in his beliefs about Hinduism, Sharma discovers a profound coherence. It discusses Gandhi’s response and efforts to maintain peace after the murder of Swami Shraddhanand. “Gandhi’s main concern from the time he heard the news of the murder was to avoid an endless chain of retaliatory killings.”
If Gandhi’s politics were shaped by religious belief, his religion was expressed in his actions. As an interpreter and reformer of Hinduism for his time, his religion had less to do with theology and more with the heart. At the heart of his religion was peace. Which put non-violence at the center, because the human heart itself was a battlefield: “There are times when Gandhi calls the human heart Kurukshetra, the eponymous battlefield, which is also the dharmakshetra, or the arena of righteousness. How can it be both? It becomes a dharmakshetra when God is invited to reside there and given charge. If sin is allowed to flourish in the heart, it becomes Kuru’s theater.
Sharma describes Gandhi’s ahimsa in terms of musical raga: “In the ascending sense of ahimsa, the emphasis falls on nonviolent action and violent and nonviolent actors. The descending range withdraws from the world of people, giving ahimsa an inner quality. In no case is the overall integrity of the idea lost. It lies in Gandhi’s faithfulness to moksha, to desireless action, to the futility of the body and to the centrality of death.
Gandhi constantly reflected on his beliefs from time to time. His conceptualization of ahimsa as a political instrument has evolved over the years. Writing to CF Andrews in 1918, he expressed concern about India’s tradition of non-violence: “All that can be said then…is that individuals have made earnest attempts, with more success than elsewhere, to popularize the doctrine. (of non-violence). But there is no guarantee to believe that he took deep roots among the people. How, then, did he bring his unequivocal conception of ahimsa to serve as the guiding principle of political action to resist colonial power in a vast and deeply divided society?
Part of the answer lies in the long and sustained debates Gandhi had with others who questioned his approach. His conceptualization of ahimsa was not without challenges. These included questions from Lala Lajpat Rai and BR Ambedkar. These debates, which often played out in correspondence — Gandhi was a meticulous letter writer, always ready to continue to engage in both intellectual and everyday conversations — as well as in the pages of freedom movement publications, are fascinating in their which they reveal. on the evolution of his political, ethical and religious ideas as he launched his mass movement based on satyagraha and non-cooperation.
bad or good
One of the most acute challenges to approaching Gandhi came from outside India, in an open letter by Jewish philosopher Martin Buber in 1939. “I was very slow in writing this letter to you, Mahatma,” writes Buber. “I can’t help resisting evil when I see it is about to destroy good. I am obligated to resist the evil in the world as well as the evil within me. Buber tells Gandhi that religion introduced into politics will disappear in the heat of political expediency. “Man, instead of walking on the path taken by this step of God through history, will travel it blindly.”
In this 75th year of India’s independence, it is a testament to the power and scope of Gandhi’s ideas that we continue to explore and reinterpret his ideals of truth and non-violence.
The Elusive Nonviolence: The Making and Destruction of Gandhi’s Religion of Ahimsa; Jyotirmaya Sharma, Background/Westland, ₹699.
The examiner is in the IAS. Views are personal.