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‘Elusive Non-Violence: The Making and Unmaking of Gandhi’s Religion of Ahimsa’ review: The ideal of non-violence

Literary Review
Uma Mahadevan-DasguptaJanuary 29, 2022 16:02 IST
Updated: January 28, 2022 14:09 IST

Jyotirmaya Sharma examines how Gandhi’s conception of ahimsa became the guiding principle of his politics 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, the response to Chauri Chaura, and the salt march at Dandi, it underpinned his steadfast resistance to injustice and guided him on every step of his leadership of the freedom struggle.

If Gandhi’s ahimsa was central to his ethical vision, this vision was situated deep within his religious beliefs, and derived metaphysical force from them. “My politics are subservient to my religion,” he famously stated. At the end of his autobiography My Experiments with Truth , he reiterates his commitment to finding truth through ahimsa: “There is no other God than Truth. And if every page of these chapters does not proclaim to the reader that the only means for the realisation of Truth is Ahimsa, I shall deem all my labour in writing these chapters to have been in vain.”

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The autobiography ends in 1921. The instrument of ahimsa became the foundational principle of Gandhi’s project of resistance to British colonial rule in India. Even as he led the political movement, Gandhi was re-interpreting the Hindu religious texts to form his understanding of religion as a way to self-fulfilment. In Elusive Non-Violence: The Making and Unmaking of Gandhi’s Ahimsa , Jyotirmaya Sharma takes us through the evolution of Gandhi’s ahimsa through the prism of his religion.

Sharma begins by acknowledging the myths that have been built over the decades around the man; eventually, “Gandhi became his admirers.” Similarly, studying Gandhi’s ethical principles in isolation from his religious beliefs, observes Sharma, can give the impression of paradoxes or inconsistencies in his thought.

However, in tracing the evolution of Gandhi’s ahimsa as a fundamentally religious ideal situated within his beliefs about Hinduism, Sharma discovers a profound consistency. He discusses Gandhi’s response and efforts to maintain peace after the murder of Swami Shraddhanand. “Gandhi’s primary concern from the moment he heard the news of the murder was to avert 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 times, his religion had less to do with theology and more to do with the heart. At the core of his religion was peace. Which made non-violence central, 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 in it and given its charge. If sin is allowed to flourish in the heart, it becomes the theatre of Kuru.”

Sharma describes Gandhi’s ahimsa in terms of a musical raga: “In the ascending sense of ahimsa, the stress falls on non-violent action and violent and non-violent actors. The descending range withdraws from the world of people, giving ahimsa an inward quality. In neither is the overall integrity of the idea lost. It lies in Gandhi’s fidelity to moksha, desireless action, the futility of the body and the centrality of death.”

Gandhi constantly reflected upon his beliefs from time to time. His conceptualisation of ahimsa as a political instrument evolved over the years. Writing to C.F. Andrews in 1918, he had expressed his concerns about the tradition of non-violence in India: “All then that can be said... is that individuals have made serious attempts, with greater success than elsewhere, to popularise the doctrine (of non-violence). But there is no warrant for the belief that it has taken deep roots among the people.” How, then, did he bring his unequivocal conception of ahimsa to serve as the directional principle of political action to resist colonial power in a vast and deeply divided society?

A part of the answer lies in the long and sustained debates that Gandhi had with others who interrogated his approach. His conceptualisation of ahimsa did not go without challenges. These included questions from Lala Lajpat Rai and B.R. Ambedkar. These debates, which often played out in correspondence — Gandhi was a meticulous letter-writer, always ready to continue engaging in both intellectual and everyday conversations — as well as in the pages of the publications of the freedom movement, are fascinating for what they reveal about the evolution of his political, ethical, and religious ideas as he launched his mass movement based on satyagraha and non-cooperation.

Evil or good

One of the sharpest challenges to Gandhi’s approach came from outside India, in an open letter from the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber in 1939. “I have been very slow in writing this letter to you, Mahatma,” writes Buber. “I cannot help withstanding evil when I see that it is about to destroy the good. I am forced to withstand evil in the world just as the evil within myself.” Buber tells Gandhi that religion brought into politics will vanish into the fire of political expediency. “Man, instead of treading in the path taken by that step of God through history, will run blindly over it.”

In this 75th year of Indian independence, it is testimony to the power and reach of Gandhi’s ideas that we are still exploring and reinterpreting his ideals of truth and non-violence.

Elusive Non-Violence: The Making and Unmaking of Gandhi’s Religion of Ahimsa; Jyotirmaya Sharma, Context/ Westland, ₹699.

The reviewer is in the IAS. Views are personal.

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