By David Frawley (Pandit Vamadeva Shastri)
The Question of Non-Violence
The great majority of people in the world do not seem to respect the principle of non-violence that India has long upheld as the ideal way of action. This includes most religious and political groups in the Western world. Most people believe in self-defence and even in pre-emptive strikes against those who may threaten them.
This attitude is obvious among the people of the Middle East, where the tendency is to resort to violence as the first rather than the last thing in a confrontation. Americans and Europeans are slower to respond with violence, but they will not hesitate if they feel their economic or political security is at risk, as occurred in the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many people claim that non-violence does not work and allows one to be overcome by hostile or tyrannical opponents. They say that violence is better, if righteous in its aims, as long as its basic motive is protecting ourselves against those who are evil.
Cultures which incline toward non-violence are looked at by Western people as inferior, as lacking in strength compared to those in the West who stand up for their rights by force of arms as soon as they see the need. Hindu non-violence and tolerance has been perceived by such groups not as a form of strength or spirituality but as a type of weakness, cowardice or lack of faith.
After all, if you really believe in something, won’t you stand up for it when it is challenged or attacked? When a violent group perceives a non-violent group as weak, this very non-violence gives them the incentive to promote their advantage. Hence it is argued that non-violence can actually incite violence, while a strong defence can protect against attack.
Today many modern Hindus have questioned the validity of the politics of non-violence, because the passive attitudes of the Indian government, often under the pretext of non-violence or tolerance, have not been able to end the violence and hostility in the country and in the wider-region. The government of India, they say, has frequently bowed before minority interests to calm minority riots and assuage their threats of violence, and has been unable to grant security to its citizens from terrorism.
Riots, terrorism and separatist movements have not ceased – as is evident in Kashmir and the North-East, and – and in these regions Hindus, like the Kashmiri Pandits, have been oppressed and turned into refugees in their own land. It appears that anti-Hindu elements in India have learned to resort to violence or threats of violence to gain privileges, and that it usually works. Furthermore, the dwindling Hindu minorities in Pakistan and Bangladesh routinely suffer violence and a lack of security. Many Hindus feel that an over-emphasis on the principle of non-violence has only served to make them permanent victims.
This sad state of affairs might cause some Hindus to think that the yogic principle of non-violence has no validity, and to think that the Indian sages were wrong in making ahimsa or non-violence the supreme principle of human conduct. This view would, however, only uphold the value of violence, which certainly has not brought any lasting benefit to humanity and is the source of most of the problems in the world today. It would destroy the deep sensitivity of the Hindu religion and place it on par with less evolved teachings.
The real problem, if we examine the traditional Hindu teachings about non-violence, is that the modern Hindu political practice of non-violence is often contrary to the tradition. The Hindu tradition of non-violence has always included the way of the warrior and honored the value of a defensive or Dharmic war. The real problem is that Hindus have failed to implement non-violence in the right manner. This is strange because Hindu scriptures and Shastras clearly delineate the right way to practice non-violence, which does not mean passively offering yourself to your enemy to do with as he wishes.
The Meaning of Ahimsa
First of all, ahimsa does not simply mean nonviolence or not resorting to arms. It means having an attitude that tries to reduce harm to living creatures. Sometimes force or violence is necessary to prevent or reduce harm. If a car is heading toward a child, we may have to push the child forcefully out of the path of the vehicle in order to save its life. If a wild animal is attacking people the animal may have to be wounded or killed. Another possible translation for ahimsa is non-aggression because all violence is not necessarily avoidable for self-defense but can be avoided as an aggressive policy.
However, modern Hindu leaders have not always applied the principle of non-violence according to the tradition, perhaps because they did not adequately examine traditional teachings. They have simply stereotyped it as avoiding any violence, even that which might save a life. Moreover they have used non-violence to appease violent groups, responding to threats of violence by giving into the demands of those who make them, which has not resulted in peace but in the escalation of further demands.
There is a non-violence born out of fear or appeasement, which is a defeatist policy. This is not the yogic principle of non-violence, which arises from fearlessness and is not done to placate anyone. This is the non-violence that responds to the threat of violence by giving its perpetrator what he wants. Naturally the violent person will only get more demanding and eventually become yet more violent. This is the main mistake of modern Hindu ahimsa.
It is a great spiritual truth that non-violence in the true sense, seeking to reduce harm and suffering to creatures, does bring about the greatest development of compassion and understanding for the human soul. When a person gives up all thoughts of wishing harm to living beings, God does directly descend into that individual, who thereby becomes a guide and example for all. Yet for non-violence to be successful, it must not be done out of fear, cowardice, or as a compromise with evil. It must be practiced along with an attitude of non – appeasement. As an inner attitude it need not preclude defending oneself or one’s country against attack either. It must arise from strength, not from weakness.
The Problem of Appeasement
If we respond to the violence or bigotry of others by appeasing them – by giving in to their demands or granting them special favors in order to keep them from becoming violent – such a practice is not truly non-violence, even though it may appear to avoid violence.
It is violence against oneself and against truth, and in the long run only aggravates violence in others who learn that the threat of violence gets them what they want. Whatever we appease, we give power to. Appeasing violent people to end their violence only succeeds in making them more violent in the long run. It teaches them that violence or the threat of violence makes other people cater to them, which naturally encourages them to adapt it as a way of action.
Appeasing violence in others under the pretext of non-violence is really practicing violence in disguise. It is not avoiding violence but reinforcing it, postponing perhaps its immediate effect but strengthening its eventual consequences.
Swami Rama Tirtha, a great Self-realized sage of the earlier part of this century, once said in a meeting with the Muslims of Lucknow:
“The policy of appeasement is never successful. It increases the demands of the bully and encourages his unreasonableness. He will never listen to you. On the contrary, he will further insult you, by heaping imaginary allegations on you and finding baseless aberrations in you, because he is too proud of his transitory wealth, status, power, position, or authority.”
To appease a bully, tyrant, or fanatic only makes him more arrogant and violent. It gives him the sense that his violent attitude has been victorious and provides him with the incentive to push his advantage further. Yet to appease anyone to make them quiet – like giving candy to children to silence their crying – also only spoils them and makes them expect further special treatment to reward their upsets.
Rama Tirtha also said:
“Vedanta, therefore, does not allow you to shirk your responsibility, to be inactive or to bow down before the tyrant if your cause is right or just. Your inertness, indolence or tolerance will further encourage the tyrant in his acts of terrorism or despotism. Vedanta expects you to stick to your righteous duty with fearlessness, but with honesty, truthfulness, love for all and hatred for none.”
Unfortunately the non-violence practiced in modern India is generally associated with a policy of appeasement, particularly of religious minorities. Appeasing minorities can never result in their pacification or integration into a society (though it may temporarily gain their votes). It can only result in them asking for more special privileges and resorting to greater agitation to get them. It grants advantage to their special identity, which must strengthen their sense of being separate.
When we are confronted with oppression or violence we should not appease or accept it, from whatever quarter it comes. We have to take a stand against it. Mahatma Gandhi stated that to remove evil, it must be exposed. The actions he undertook exposed the violence hidden in the British rule of India.
Gandhi did not appease the British, though he practiced non-violence. He did not remain silent and inactive in the face of the oppression perpetrated by them, and hence they had to see the truth of what they were doing. Yet there are times when such a passive non-violence may not be enough and a more Kshatriya response is appropriate, if not crucial for the protection of Dharma.
Here Gandhian non-violence can fail. In this regard Gandhi encouraged Hindus not to defend themselves even against criminals and goondas, which is a questionable policy.
In addition Gandhi and other Hindu leaders were hesitant to confront the bigotry or violence on the part of religious minorities in India, particularly Muslims, so as not to offend them or alienate them from the cause of an independent India.
This action created an unfortunate precedent, which has grown with successive leaders of the country, to restrict the principle of non-violence to Hindus and to tolerate violence in other religious groups if it is in accord with their beliefs.
They have gone so far to blame Hindus for the violence that occurs in India among other religious groups, as if Hindu non-violence should be capable of ending violence in other people, even without their cooperation.
This is a policy of appeasement and has only served to arouse Islamic fundamentalism in India, not to unite Muslims with Hindus or to promote the liberal elements within the Islamic community. Such a political strategy may have been based on good intentions, but it clearly failed and was not in harmony with traditional Hindu teachings on the subject.
Because of this attitude of appeasement Hindus seldom take a stand against the violence perpetrated in the rest of the world, particularly that done by groups who use the veil of religion to excuse their actions. Hindus will criticize violence among Hindus as being irreligious, but seldom question violence done by non-Hindus, particularly that of religious militants, even if it is done against Hindus.
Ahimsa as a Universal Principle
Through their respect for other religions, even when these religions resort to violence, Hindus have created a double standard on the issue of non-violence. Violence is allowed for people whose religion teaches them to be violent but it is not allowed for Hindus because their religion teaches non-violence. However, non-violence is a universal principle, like non-stealing. One cannot expect only Hindus to be held up to this standard, while accepting or rationalising violence of non-Hindus.
Otherwise such non-violence is a form of hypocrisy. While it may be temporarily political advantageous not to question the violence of other groups, particularly if it is done in the name of religion, there is nothing spiritual about such a policy. It is just a politician’s way of appealing to the vote banks of different communities.
While we should be considerate of the feelings of other people we fall from the unity of truth when we allow double standards in this way. There cannot be one acceptable norm of worldly conduct for the Hindus, another for the Muslims, and a third for the Christians, any more than there is any different set of natural laws for each group.
We all live under the same reality and have to face the same consequences of our actions. Nor are we truly serving others when we fail to make them aware of the karma of their actions, which is that violence is wrong even if it is taught by a religion.
If non-violence is a universal principle then the aggressive missionary efforts of Christianity and Islam must come in for criticism on this count. Members of these religions are also subject to the laws of the universe. Why should they be made exempt from universal laws for political purposes or for engineering a temporary social harmony, when obviously the laws of the universe apply to them as much as anyone else?
If a person has a wrong idea about the truth, thinking for example that fire does not burn or water isn’t wet, it is our duty to correct their wrong attitude not to tolerate it under the guise of non-violence or a misguided harmony of beliefs.
To excuse violence on the part of some people but to criticise and oppose it on the part of others destroys the consistency of the policy. Such a policy, in failing to uphold the universality of the Dharma, cannot truly uphold Dharma. To really work, non-violence must be wedded to truthfulness as it is in yogic thought.
It should not be used to excuse a policy of prejudice or violence by those of another religious belief, any more than by those of one’s own belief. The modern Hindu policy of non-violence has gone so far as to place false beliefs beyond criticism.
The Conscience of Non-Violence
Non-violence does not mean being unwilling to uphold the truth in order not to offend anyone. It means questioning violence in all its forms, even if that done in the name of God. Modern Hindus are generally unwilling to challenge evil, including the limitations of modern commercial sensate culture, or the backward, exclusivist, and often anti-Hindu views of various religious groups. Rather, they accept these things out of a passive attitude that masks itself as non-violence or tolerance.
There is much destruction going on in the world of land, plants, animals, people, and cultures. Yet Hindus have kept silent on these issues though Hindu Dharma teaches the unity of life, the sacred nature of the Earth, the protection of animals, and the inviolability of the law of karma. Such passivity is not true tolerance but a sanctioning of the forces of destruction. The moral force of Hindu spiritual principles is necessary for humanity to survive.
While many Westerners of different religious backgrounds are adapting such principles in ecological and yogic movements, Hindus are afraid of asserting these principles in their own country for fear of offending others or appearing intolerant.
Such Westerners often cite Mahatma Gandhi’s action of non-violent resistance against the British as a model to follow in social action. But few Hindus are adapting these methods to deal with the social or ecological problems of India and Asia, for them nonviolence means not taking a stand against anything. They have taken the resistance out of Gandhian non-violence and turned it into an excuse for ignoring what is happening around them. For this reason India as a country does not have a strong moral or ethical voice in the world. The modern government of India has placated oppressive and dictatorial regimes like China, Saudi Arabia or Iran, and has ignored the oppression of Hindus and other religious minorities in Pakistan and Bangladesh.
While serving as a land of refuge for the Tibetans it has silently allowed the Chinese to massacre them. The better part of Gandhian non-violence has thus been replaced by a general policy of placation or appeasement.
This does not mean that Hindus should become self-righteous but that they must both live and express their Dharma, not use it as an excuse for inaction. Violence is owing to the ego. It is not the property of only one group or another, and such egoism is found to some degree in everyone.
Yet that egoism should be questioned wherever it is. We should not bow down to the egoism of outside groups, any more than we should we fail to question it in ourselves or in our own community.
Non-Violence and Non-Appeasement
Many of the problems in India today have arisen because of this inability to combine non-violence with non-appeasement. Non-violence in India has been associated with an attitude of telling all religious groups that they are right, even when what they may be perpetrating is wrong or harmful. But Hinduism is not a limited religion based upon a particular belief. As Sanatana Dharma, or a formulation of the universal religion, it states that we are all subject to the same universal laws. Hence non-violence itself is part of a global Dharma and must be used to address all the issues of humanity, or it has no real meaning.
That a policy of non-violent appeasement has not worked does not mean that a policy of non-violence has failed. Appeasement is another form of violence, not the basic attitude of non-violence. Appeasement or giving in to the violence of others, is a passive form of violence, not true non-violence.
For a responsible social action in the world that holds to spiritual principles, both non-violence and non-appeasement must be practiced together. The bird of Dharma and seva (right action and service) has these two wings of non-violence and non-appeasement. Without both wings it cannot fly.
As non-violence has not been correctly applied, the problems caused by it have made a policy of violence appear in a favorable light for some people. However, a policy of violence is not the answer to our human problems either. It is easy to fall into violence and its related passions.
This only further enkindles the flames of hatred, which like a forest fire will respect no one. The true alternative is to apply non-violence in a way that is not destructive of the needs of all levels of society, including self-defense and the protection of life and property.
A culture of martyrs is not going to save the world but only one of responsible and flexible individuals, who refuse to respond according to mass forces and dogmas.
Unless non-violence is practiced correctly, it cannot stem the tide of violence. Those who practice non-violence must therefore cease to appease those who are violent or unreasonably demanding, nor should they be incapable of self-defence, if necessary. Non-violence must be applied as a universal principle to members of all beliefs. There should be a dialogue with all religious and political groups for the purpose of ending violence in the world, which includes the violence of economic exploitation, the destruction of the environment, and the violence of the missionary conversion process, which is destroying indigenous and tribal cultures.
True non-violence must take a stand against evil and error, not merely placate it or compromise with it. We should not excuse or bow down to oppression or violence from wherever it comes. Such non-violence may not be pleasing to everyone and may call us to question some cherished beliefs – but it is the only real way to lasting peace.
This article is a chapter from the book Awaken Bharata: A Call for India’s Rebirth, by Vamadeva Shastri (with minor modifications)