The Gita and Gandhi’s Decision Against Violence

Gandhi’s act of taking vows is one of withdrawal. Not from politics, but from the politics of decisions.

Perhaps Gandhi acquired a philosophical basis for his idea of fear (and fearlessness) from his reading of the Gita. In his commentary on the text, Gandhi conceded, “I do not wish to suggest that violence has no place at all in the teaching of the Gita.” He acknowledged the ambivalence that “it is difficult to reconcile a few of the verses with the idea that the Gita advocates non-violence” but “still more difficult to reconcile the teaching of the work as a whole with the advocacy of violence.” Gandhi blamed this ambivalence on the author of the Gita.

He considered Arjuna’s question at the brink of the Kurukshetra war when he ordered Krishna to place the chariot between the two armies. Why should a reluctant Arjuna, suddenly feeling the moral weight of facing his own people, fight this battle, commit violence?

Gandhi put Arjuna’s reluctance to fight (which is seemingly ethical) in perspective: “The question which Arjuna asks Shri Krishna is not whether it is right for him to kill. His question is whether it is right to kill his kinsmen.” So Arjuna’s dilemma, Gandhi concluded, is “not concerning violence and nonviolence.”

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Arjuna errs, in Gandhi’s view, by reducing a universal ethic (to be against violence) into a particular one, only concerning one’s own kin. To Gandhi “the Gita permits no distinction between one’s relation and others. If one must kill one should kill one’s own people first [emphasis added]”.

Gandhi seems to argue that even though others matter equally as one’s kin, given a choice, the latter deserves to be eliminated first. Gandhian ethics privileges the other over one’s own people.

Gandhi however, categorically said, “The Gita does not decide for us.” He acknowledged that the Gita isn’t situated outside a discourse of violence, but does not go into that problem of how for a Kshatriya, his dharma is violence. He disassociates dharma and violence, and without realising it, breaks the caste-law of violence which is part of the Gita (apart from its larger metaphysics of violence). By not addressing the question, Gandhi allows the caste-law to remain in its place and yet without disturbing it, dissociates dharma and non-violence, from caste.

A departure from political violence based on the ‘decision’

Gandhi’s politics is a departure from political violence, based on the “decision”. Decisions are central to politics, or we can simply say, politics is about decisions. As Carl Schmitt put it in Political Theology, the validity of a sovereign decision (or the decision of the sovereign) is based not upon the substance of the decision but on the fact that a decision has been taken.

The sovereign proclaims the law by taking a decision. It includes for Schmitt, among other things, the (political) decision to name the enemy. The naming of the enemy is at the heart of political decision. There is a statement by Søren Kierkegaard, invoked many times by Jacques Derrida in his lectures on Michel Foucault: “the instant of decision is madness.”

Political decisions are, in the Schmittian sense, impossible without this founding moment of madness that names, or invents, the enemy. It is the madness of instituting a permanent violence in politics.

If for Schmitt, politics is impossible without (naming) an enemy, for Gandhi, the political opponent is a potential friend. Delivering a speech at the YMCA auditorium in Madras, Gandhi said:

For one who follows the doctrine of Ahimsa, there is no room for the enemy. Under this rule, there is no room for organised assassination, and there is no room for murders…

Like Arjuna, Gandhi also postponed the decisionism of politics (and political violence) by using his method of Satyagraha to withdraw and engage with the decision of “not” to use violence.

Gandhi undertook something that may resemble decisions, but they were of a quasi-religious order, in the form of vows. Gandhi declared eleven vows when he established Kochrab Ashram near Ahmedabad, in 1915. They included, as he explained in his Madras address: Satya/truth, Ahimsa, Brahmacharya/celibacy, Sarvatra Bhayavarjana/ Fearlessness, Sparshbhavna / regarding untouchability, among others. These vows were a constitutive part of Gandhi’s politics of fasting.

Kochrab Gandhi Ashram. Credit: Public domain image

A withdrawal from politics of decisions

Gandhi’s politics, his act of taking vows, is not akin to the idea of decision in politics. A decision is a statement of action towards something. Gandhi’s vow is an act of withdrawal. Not a withdrawal from politics, but from the politics of decisions. Not to be misunderstood as indecision, but a decision against violence.

Fasting is a politics of postponement, of creating moral pressure on the opponent, with the intention of reconciliation. This postponement alone questions the moment of decision, as violence is pure decision. It is quite unfair that Gandhi does not credit Arjuna for raising the question. Or perhaps he does. To Gandhi’s credit however, he manages a reading of the Gita that exceeds the text’s ethical limitations.

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What makes it possible is Gandhi’s making fearlessness central to the question of dharma. Departing from the Gita’s caste-law of dharma, Gandhi pronounces: “There is only one dharma”. This dharma, translatable as non-violence, moksha and realising ‘Satyanarayana’ “does not under any circumstances countenance running away in fear.”

The enemy is born of fear. Distrust and fear breeds cowardice. This knowledge is as old as history, but history disallows it to end. In Young India (2-9-1926), Gandhi wrote, “cowards can never be moral. Where there is fear there is no religion.”

Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee is the author of Looking For the Nation: Towards Another Idea of India.