A Dharma That Calls for Violence Is No Dharma at All

Saffron-clad men and women have made religion ugly because they have used their ‘religiosity’ to demand the blood of innocent fellow citizens. They have defiled our body politic.

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We should have gotten used to random groups or individuals spewing venom whenever they open their mouths. Vile language is not the product of fevered minds. Nor does it emerge from the fringes of Indian politics. It is part of a political language that is used for political effect, for mobilisation, in pursuit of definable purposes, and for personal career advancement. Even so, the revolting language of the so-called sadhus at the ‘Dharma Sansads’ in Haridwar and Raipur shocked Indians. Saffron-clad men and women have made religion ugly because they have used their ‘religiosity’ to demand the blood of innocent fellow citizens. They have defiled our body politic.

Prominent historians of religion have argued that Hinduism is different from Semitic religions since it has no founder, no supreme church and no one sacred text. The social anthropologist T.N. Madan suggests that Hinduism is a religious tradition that resists incorporation into the idea of religion defined by Abrahamic religions.

The implication is that the tradition allows fluidity within the religion. Hinduism gives us sophisticated philosophical systems, but it also enables localised gurus, swamis and cult leaders to flex their muscles. Some of them command the kind of cult following that politicians might envy. They have established centres of power that rival the power of the modern state. This allows them to issue a call to arms and order genocide. The calls issued from the Dharma Sansads challenged the belief that the modern state monopolises power and the instruments of coercion. Its command over the allegiance of citizens has been defied. Its status as the repository of sovereignty has been compromised.

Ironically, when self-appointed custodians of Hindus call for ethnic cleansing in the name of religion and of dharma, they conveniently ignore the basic precepts of the religion. The philosophy of Hinduism is constituted by a deep commitment to satya and ahimsa. A series of stories in the great epic Mahabharata illustrate this commitment.

One tale is of a crow whose caws disturb the meditation of the sage Kaushika. The sage happens to be sitting under a tree. Kaushika opens his eyes and looks at the crow with anger. His gaze burns the benighted bird to cinders. The sage immediately regrets his inability to hold fast to the norm of non-violence. He had violated his own commitment to the basic precepts of his religion. Distressed by his failure to control baser passions, Kaushika begins to wander through forests and habitations. He is obsessed with one question: what is the relationship between dharma and ahimsa? He found the answer in a meat shop. Witness the irony. An upper caste sage receives knowledge on dharma from a (so-called) lower-caste meat seller amidst carcasses of animals. He was taught that at the core of dharma lies ahimsa. We cannot realise dharma if we cause death and destruction.

This was exactly the point made by Gandhi in his book Hind Swaraj. The text, he remarked later, was his answer to the Indian school of violence. I, he said, came in contact with known Indian anarchists in London. “I was convinced that violence was not a remedy for India’s ills. Her civilisation required the use of a different and higher weapon for self-protection.” Gandhi drew upon Hindu and Jain traditions to argue against violence.

Mahatma Gandhi receives a donation in a train compartment. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Unknown author, Public domain

His argument can be summed up in three interconnected propositions. One, violence is a lazy way of doing politics; it eschews the transformation of the body politic. Two, Gandhi’s rejection of violence originates from a powerful argument on the nature of truth. The production and reproduction of violence follow the absolute conviction that we and only we are in possession of the truth, and that others’ truth is necessarily false. They have to be stamped out. But truth, according to Gandhi, is as elusive as the proverbial will-o’-the-wisp. It escapes us the moment we think we have accessed it.

Three, Gandhi’s rejection of violence is grounded in Advaita or non-dualism. In contrast to the Biblical injunction – do unto others as you would have others do unto you – Gandhi suggests that others are a part of ourselves. An act that causes harm to others injures us. “I believe in Advaita [monism or non-dualism]. I believe in the essential unity of man and for that matter all that lives. Therefore, I believe that if one man gains spiritually, the whole world gains with him and, if one man falls, the whole world falls to that extent.”

It is time we reinvent Gandhi as a political philosopher who can show us the way in troubled times of violence. Today, he has been reduced to a pair of spectacles on posters advertising Swachh Bharat. Yet his ahimsa, often defeated at the bar of realpolitik, remains a moral ideal. Gandhi did not invent ahimsa – the value is found in Patanjali’s Yogashastra. The epic Mahabharata is about fratricidal war, but throughout the epic resounds the phrase ahimsa paramo dharma – non-violence is the prime dharma. Gandhi transformed a religious tradition into a political weapon. It is time that the community that these self-styled custodians of Hinduism claim to speak for speak up in favour of ahimsa as a political norm.