Note on Gandhi’s Understanding of Ahimsa

Though it was deeply influenced by Hindu, Jain, Buddhist and Christian theories of non-violence, Gandhi’s theory was in a class by itself. Let us examine Gandhi’s understanding of Ahimsa by first examining the Hindu, Jain and Buddhist understanding of the word.

Hindu, Jain and Buddhist Understanding of Ahimsa

According to the Indian tradition, Ahimsa means absence of a wish or desire to harm others which involve renunciation of feeling of enmity and an attitude of non-enmity. Hindu thinkers also admitted that human in life, whatever human beings did, they would always be guilty of ‘some’ violence – not only their biological survival but also in their social existence. So, if causing harm or destruction was inescapable or required to maintain cosmic or social order, and not born out of ill-will or malice, it was fully justified. It is important to add here that etymologically and in its standard usage, the term himsa means wish to kill or harm and implies ill-will; conversely ahimsa implies not just refraining from causing harm or destruction but the absence of a wish to do so. For Hindi thinkers, then, not all harm or destruction amounted to himsa. If it was inescapable or socially or religiously necessary and thus justified, it was not himsa. Himsa referred to unjustified harm and ahimsa to both justified harm and non-harm.

Buddhist and Jain thinkers thought differently and criticised the Hindu view. According to them, such a view (as the Hindu one) encourages casuistry, leads people to several forms of harm and destruction (in the name of justified violence) and uses the authority of religion to sanction unacceptable violence. They preferred to define all harm or destruction as himsa. For them justified and unjustified harm was himsa, not ahimsa. Ahimsa referred to absence of harm and destruction.

It is also important to mention that much of Gandhi’s understanding of Ahimsa also came from Tolstoy, which he regarded as one of the best advisor of such philosophy, for he also lived according to it. But to explicate this point will be going further than the aim of this essay.

Gandhi’s Reinterpretation of Ahimsa

Although deeply influenced by the Indian traditions of non-violence, Gandhi departed from it in several significant ways. As we observed above, Indian thinkers defined ahimsa in negative terms – non-violence and non-killing – but why so, asked Gandhi? Ahimsa is non a lack, it must not be read as a-himsa – the lack ‘a’ of violence ‘himsa’ – but as a positive entity of its own. It must be read as Ahimsa. Ahimsa is a positive desire, a wish, not to cause harm or destruction; it is the element of conscious compassion that constitutes the essence of Ahimsa. Where there is no compassion there is no Ahimsa; the test of Ahimsa is compassion.

Gandhi distinguishes between two senses of Ahimsa. In its ‘narrow’, literal’, ‘negative’ or ‘passive’ sense, it means refraining from causing harm causing harm and destruction to others. In its ‘broad’, ‘positive’ and ‘active’ sense, it means promoting the well-being of others. In both sense Ahimsa is grounded in love; in one, love is expressed negatively, in the other, positively. Gandhi concluded that Ahimsa is really the same as love: it is active love – which is identification with and love for all living things

Gandhi arrived at his broad definition of Ahimsa by means of three crucial steps. He first equated Ahimsa with compassion and the latter with love, to finally define love in love in worldly and active terms. Hindus and Jains generally reject all three and the Buddhist the last two.

Although Gandhi vacillated on the subject, he seems to have thought that self-inflicted or self-directed harm was not violence. Indian traditions contained scattered references to atma-himsa (violence to oneself) and atma-ahimsa (non-injury to oneself), but generally defined violence as injury to ‘other beings’. Gandhi shared this view and remarked on several occasions that violence meant ‘causing injury to another’. Suicide, for him, was cowardice and not violence.

It must also be added that harm caused to others in the course of pursuing one’s own legitimate or just self-interest is not himsa. Self-interest is that which a person requires for survival and this is opposed to selfishness, which is himsa. It is from this context that Gandhi said the following famous quote: “there is enough in the world for everyone’s self-interest but not for everyone’s selfishness”.

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