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Non-violence Relative Economics And A New Social Order: Thoughts and Ahimsa

Published: 02.06.2015
Updated: 13.07.2015

What could be more puerile and absurd, more contrary to nature and the realities of existence, than the devout India's attempt to live without harming any creature? The realm of life is full of conflict. Everywhere we see living thing preying upon living thing. The strong overwhelm and devour the weak, while the weak, becoming parasites, insidiously invade, debilitate, and destroy the bodies of the strong. Even organisms of the same species compete stubbornly for living space, food, light, or mates. Vainly we look for mercy and compassion in the relentless strife of nature. Then why should not we, who have the power, take from weaker or more stupid creatures what we desire from them, to preserve our health or give us pleasure? If, as the Stoics taught, to live virtuously is to live according to nature, then ahimsa or absolute harmlessness, as taught in such Eastern religions as Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism, is no part of virtue but a fantastic counsel of perfection that disregards realities.

But let us take a deeper look at the matter. When we survey broadly the course of cosmic evolution, we find everywhere a movement to bring order from chaos, to build up the primal materials of the Universe into patterns of ever-increasing amplitude, coherence, and complexity - a process that I have elsewhere called'harmonization'. (The Quest of the Devine, Boston, USA, 1956) Protons, neutrons, and electrons join to form atoms, the larger of which consist of a great number of these minute particles united in a complex, enduring structure. Atoms of the same or different kinds combine into molecules, which are often of great complexity and long duration. Atoms or molecules line up, orderly rank upon orderly rank, to form crystals, which are frequently of arresting beauty and may persist for ages. On a far larger scale, vast clouds of diffuse matter, thinly spread over immense expanses of space, condense to form solar systems, each with a central incandescent star, about which planets revolve with majestic regularity. Many of these planets are in turn surrounded by moons that circulate around them with the same admirable precision. Throughout its vast extent, from its smallest particles to its largest masses of material, the Universe appears to be striving to bring order and harmony into its swarms of "jarring atoms."

But it is in the living world that harmonization has been carried farthest. Here we find the most complex patterns, the greatest diversity of materials, bound together into the most coherent systems, the many parts of which are structurally and functionally interdependent. Our ancient planet bears on its wrinkled surface a myriad organisms that are more complex, more closely integrated, than the great solar system of which they are so many infinitestimal parts. And in certain privileged sections of this living world, the Universe is at last achieving the capacity to appreciate itself, to understand itself and become consciously aware of its aims - which is evidently the implicit goal of the whole aeonian movement. The higher forms of life are a triumph of the world process, of harmonization.

Yet this living world, this realm of intricately and delicately constructed organisms, is as we have seen, infected by the most bitter, relentless strife. Creatures that individually are masterpieces of harmonization form collectively a struggling crowd which is its negation. If we seek an explanation of this paradox, we find it in the very intensity of the movement to build the raw stuff of the world into patterns of ever-increasing coherence and complexity. So many patterns are initiated so close together, that they inevitably collide and contend for the space and materials necessary for their own completion. Living things are generated in such prodigious numbers that they must compete fiercely, and in many instances prey upon each other, in order to survive. Strife or evil is the secondary result of the intense, but evidently unguided, movement to bring order or goodness into the Universe. Paradoxically, if harmonization were weaker or more restrained, there would be less disharmony in the world, especially the living world.

Thus, when we consider deeply, we find that the strife and carnage of the living world, which seems part of the very fabric of nature, is somehow unnatural. It is unnatural in the sense that it is contrary to the main movement of nature or the Universe, which is to build its materials into patterns of ever-increasing amplitude and coherence, bringing order from chaos, harmony from discord. The strife that destroys many of the fairest of nature's creations is evidently a miscarriage of the world process, an accidental involvement that threatens to halt its advance.

Without great capacity to rectify aberrations and overcome obstacles, even to make constructive use of them, the world process would never have progressed as far as it has done. The destructive competition among animals, which often threatens to overwhelm them, has at least, in the devious course of evolution, served to sharpen their senses and improve their brains as aids to survival. In man, this trend has gone farthest, giving us at last constructive intelligence and spiritual insight. As the mind, which is at first turned outward and concerned above all with the satisfaction of animal needs and the escape from perils, makes ever-deeper contact with our inmost self, we feel increasingly uncomfortable in this regime of strife. To destroy creatures that are products of the same process that formed us, which resemble us in so many ways, seems to be incompatible with our inmost nature and to violate something sacred within us. This feeling, which has sprung up independently in the spiritually most advanced men of various lands, appears to have arisen earliest and most intensely in ancient India; and it is certainly there that it has received its most articulate expression and its most through incorporation in the moral maxims and customs of a people. It has found succinct expression in the doctrine of ahimsa, or harmlessness, applied universally.

To a naturalistic philosophy, all things are natural, in the sense of being products of the one constructive process that set the planets on their courses around the sun, built up molecules and crystals, and brought forth man with all his thoughts and aspirations. Man's compassion is certainly no less natural than the tiger's ferocity - or his own. Viewed in its cosmic context, the cultivation of ahimsa or harmlessness is seen to be nature's attempt to extricate life from the internecine struggle in which it became involved as a consequence of its own extreme fecundity. This strife is, as we have seen, an aberration from the main line of cosmic advance; ahimsa is an atempt, still feeble in the present age, to restore the lost direction, to set the living world back upon the straightforward path. If to be natural is to be in accord with the dominant process of the Universe, ahimsa is more natural than the strife that it seeks to overcome.

Compassion is, indeed, the key to our interpretation of the world. If we regard it as a development, at a higher level, of a universal trend, as an expression of something deep and fundamental in the Universe, then we have grounds for hope. If, on the contrary, we regard it as an inexplicable accident, an anomaly in a world of strife, then the compassionate man finds nothing to bind him to the larger whole, and he must live in this world as a sullen alien.

It is not only to living things that harmlessness should apply. One who appreciates the unity of the creative process will be careful never needlessly to injure the forms of the inorganic world, including crystals, mineral formations, springs and streams, and all the beautiful or sublime features of the earth's crust. At the other extreme, he will respect all the worthy creations of human hands and minds, the works of art or literature wherein man strives to express his spirit or his conception of the world, the structures that he has raised for use or enjoyment. Whatever has form, whether in the inorganic world, among human artifacts, or in the realm of thought, is a product of the same formative process that created living things, including ourselves, and as such has a claim upon our forbearance.

Although, especially in India, many pious people have striven to achieve absolute harmlessness in their lives, it is certain that none has even succeeded. Would anyone who is not a hypocrite pretend that he has never, on his walks, especially in a teeming tropical land, crushed some unseen creeping things? We sustain our lives at the expense of other lives. The most innocent diet consists of fruits and vegetables, but even these, as every husbandman is aware, cannot be produced without some destruction, whether intentional or incidental, of the animals of various kinds that attack our crops, lurk in myriads in the ground that we till, or make their homes among the branches of the trees that we prune. Even if, like the Jairta or Buddhist monk we ourselves abstain from agricultural and culinary activities so as to avoid harming living things, by accepting the products of the farm and the kitchen we tacitly acquiesce in whatever injury to life the farmer and the cook unavoidably inflict in providing them for us. Those who produce the things that we use are our agents, and we are morally responsible for what our agents do for us. One determined to practice ahimsa absolutely would necessarily abstain from eating and movement, and even then would become responsible for destroying a living being - himself!

It is useful to distinguish between moral principles and moral ideals. A principle is a rule of conduct which we are prepared to follow undeviatingly, dying, if need be, rather than violate it. Not to betray one's country to a foreign enemy, not to lie or steal, not to compromise one's chastity, are principles which courageous men and women have forfeited their lives to preserve. Ahimsa evidently does not belong to this class, for to practice it absolutely is impossible. Rather we must regard it as an ideal, like the attainment of truth or of perfection in art, which we ever strive valiantly to fulfil, to which we may approach ever closer as we grow in wisdom and self-control, but which we never quite attain while life lasts. It is a guiding star rather than a sharply defined path.

A difficult decision confronts the earnest practitioner of ahimsa whenever animals attack his property. Sometimes, by the exercise of intelligence and patience, we can stop the degredation before they become unbearable; but often the only practicable method of putting an end to them is by the destruction of the culprits - the insects or other creatures that devour our crops, the rats and mice that multilate our clothes and household furnishings, the roaches and flies that contaminate our food. To kill these pests seems a gross violation of ahimsa. But the alternative course, to refrain from hurting them and to replace what they destroy, may also be difficult to reconcile with our ideal. Agricultural operations, such as ploughing and weeding, inevitably involve much destruction of humble forms of life; to compensate for what agricultural pests destroy, to replace the fabrics that rodents gnaw at, we would need plant food crops and fibre crops on a larger scale, thereby injuring more of the small denizens of the fields. We must reconcile ourselves to the hard fact that we cannot feed, clothe, and shelter ourselves without destroying life, plants directly, animals incidentally, as in farming and lumbering, or more deliberately to protect the products of field and forest. Although one imbued with the spirit of ahimsa is sometimes forced to wage war upon the creatures that threaten to destroy his home or his food, he combats them regretfully, never with hatred or vindictiveness, never with glee.

To live without avoidably harming any creature sweetens life. Our meals are more enjoyable when we choose foods that are procured with least injury to living things. Our garments cover us more comfortably when they consist of nothing torn from the bodies of slaughtered animals. Our walks through fields and woods are more rewarding when we step where we do least harm to the herbage and pass where it is least necessary to break or cut vegetation. Our studies of nature become more precious to us when pursued without harming the animals that we watch. Nights are more pleasant when we arrange our lights so that they attract the fewest flitting creatures to their doom, when before going to bed we carry outside the stray insect that has blundered into the room. What could be more dramatic than to watch the released moth fly upward toward the stars, what could better prepare us for sound sleep? According to the measure that we succeed in living harmlessly, our self-respect rises. Our body seems a fitter vehicle for our spirit, more worthy of our constant care, where we maintain it without preying upon or harming other animate beings.

These are no small rewards. But we could never win them if we deliberately set about practising harmlessness for such gratification. We must, in the first place, have a strong aversion to injuring any creature. We must be convinced that it is unworthy of us, so detrimental to our inmost selves and those around us that we will suffer privation, the ridicule of unsympathetic neighbours, even persecution, rather than be avoidably guilty of it. Only when we are prepared to suffer ourselves rather than make other creatures suffer are we prepared for the delightful discovery that this course does not impoverish our own life but enriches it immensely.


Title: Non-violence Relative Economics And A New Social Order
Publisher: Jain Vishwa Bharati University, Ladnun, India
Editors: Prof. B.R. Dugar, Dr. Samani Satya Prajna, Dr. Samani Ritu Prajna
Edition: First Edition, 2008

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