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Non-violence Relative Economics And A New Social Order: Conditions of the Realization of Non-violence

Published: 13.06.2015
Updated: 02.07.2015

Originally printed in Aryan Path, Vol. XXXVII, 1966.

Nonviolence essentially means universal love (one including subhuman creatures), which implies selflessness based on absence of fear, involving self-suffering, and at times leading to self-violence. It is not "negative," but a creed of positive love leading to action, Gandhi realized that perfect non-violence is impossible, so long as we exist physically, for we want at least some space to occupy. Perfect nonviolence whilst you are inhabiting the body is only a theory like Euclid's point or a straight line.[1]

This impossibility of absolute non-violence is realized in ancient writings as well. The Mahabharata says: The world is filled with creatures which cannot be seen by the eye, though inferred by logic. When we move our eyelids, their limbs break and fall.[2]

But in spite of the "limitations"[3] on the practice of non-violence, Gandhi had deep faith in it as an ideal one must practise to the best of one's ability, and hence he prescribed certain conditions which are ethical in character, having a psycho-physical basis.

I. Brahmacharya

It literally means conduct adapted to the search for Brahman, but in course of time has come to mean celibacy, as spiritual aspirants (going to forests for meditation, etc.) took to celibacy as a necessary condition. Gandhi's reasons for this observance are altruistic rather than merely ascetic. If a man and a woman are attached to each other they naturally feel, "We two first, and the devil take all the rest of them."[4] This natureally comes in the way of non-violence; for the latter means universal love and hence universal service. One may say that in identification with a family circle one gets, at least to a certain extent, out of one's ego. But Gandhi thinks that this only creates a stronger barrier between universal love and oneself. Hence, Gandhi thinks a perfect apostle of Ahimsa should remain celibate, not to "speak of gratification outside the marital bond."[5] This means one must "desist from all forms of self-indulgence... external and internal, subtle and gross, mundane and extra-mundane, direct and indirect."[6] Married couples should live as if they were brothers and sisters, except for the procreation of offspring, which was the only concession Gandhi made. In this an example was set by Gandhi himself. The Buddha endorses this view that Brahmacharya is a condition of Ahimsa. The Dhammapada declares that sages who observe non-violence and control their body will attain Nirvana.[7] Gandhi's Brahmacharya is a voluntarily accepted ethical and psychical principle, leading to a physical discipline.

This, according to Gandhi, demands control of all sense organs, not merely the control of animal passion. When it is perfectly practiced, Gandhi feels, one acquires a capacity for control over body and mind, leading to dispassionate action based on love and selflessness, which is necessary for the realization of non-violence.

II. Control of the Palate

Gandhi was an adept in the practice of dietetics and he knew the force and influcnece of the body over the mind. He thought one must control the palate and avoid such food as strengthens a tendency to animal passion. Even the food one takes, one must take only in moderate quantities; just as "medicine taken in too small a dose does not take effect or the full effect or too large a dose injures the system, so it is with food."[8]

III. Non-Stealing (Asteya)

Gandhi, a leader of men in practical and political affairs, had to train and regulate their conduct, and as a moralist and religious man, interested in social and spiritual welfare, also had to think of the deeper side of every issue. As one interested in the purity of means as the ends-determining process, he has to emphasize the inner aspect of asteya.

Gandhi points out that love and stealing cannot go together as stealing causes injury to others. He thinks that people steal when they eat secretly, as for instance, keeping their children in the dark. Even if there is no one to claim a lost thing, it must be handed over to some proper authority.[9] These are obvious points. Going deeper, Gandhi thinks that it is "theft to take something from another even with his permission if we have no real need of it."[10] The same idea is echoed by the Bhagavata, which declares: "A man should have enough money for food to fill his stomach. A man who desires more than what he has is a thief worthy of punishment."[11] As a practical psychologist, Gandhi develops this idea further, and thinks the root of the evil is the multiplication of wants, which could be reduced if there were a strong determination to do so. In essence, non-stealing means simplicity. Gandhi believes in the simplicity of both heart and mind, which according to him should translate itself in an external form.

Gandhi is not blind, in spite of his concern with the outer expression of this virtue, to the inner aspect. He says clearly that "it is a theft mentally to desire the acquisition of any thing belonging to others,"[12] as much as thieving ideas from others. Therefore, non-stealing implies humility, thoughtfulness, vigilance, and simplicity in habits. This condition of non-stealing leads on to non-possession.

IV. Non-Possession or Poverty (Aparigraha)

As it is a theft to receive more than one needs, so also it is a theft to possess more than one needs. Gandhi thinks that some possess more than what they need, thereby reducing millions to starvation, which is naked violence. This is done out of fear of the morrow, "ignorant of the Law of the Divine which gives to man from day to day his daily bread,"[13] and also out of greed. This criticism by Gandhi is motivated by the idea that we need to eat and drink, sleep and wake, for service alone. This implies that "man should, like the birds, have no roof over his head, no clothing and no stock of food for the morrow." [14]

This idea induces Jadunath Sinha to think that it is an ascetic doctrine of moral purism, suffering from its defects.[15] but it should be noted that Gandhi was advocating this as an ideal at a time when there was an ascendancy of greed and a glorification of possessions, and thisisparticuJarl/iTi eantforSatyagrahis, who should be practical idealists. Although there is an emphasis on asceticism, he is at one with the Buddha when the Enlightened declared at Sarnath:

There are two extremes, O Bhikkhus, which a man who has given up the world ought to avoid. What are these two extremes? A life given to pleasures, devoted to pleasures and lusts: this is degrading, sensual, vulgar, ignoble, and profitless; a life given to mortifications: this is painful, ignoble, and profitless. By avoiding these two extremes. O Bhikkhus, the Tathagata has gained the knowledge of the Middle Path, which leads to wisdom, which conduces to calm, to knowledge, to Sambodhi, to Nirvana.[16]

Of course, there is one difference between the Buddha and Gandhi: the Mahatma's principal aim was formulated as "single-minded devotion to service"[17] while the Buddha's is Nirvana. Gandhi was intensely interested in eradicating misery which was an outcome of certain social, political, and economic conditions. This led him on to a sustained effort to eradicate the system of untouchability in Hinduism, which is a sin against humanity, and to preach tolerance and appreciation of other religions. This shows that the charge that Indian thought is based on "world and life-negation,"[18] is not correct. Gandhi's conception of service is an active process of love towards all fellow beings, all sentient creatures.

V. "Reverence for Life"[19]

Gandhi identifies non-violence with love, as that is the basis of both non-violent thought and action. It implies reverence for life in all its forms. Here it is of interest to briefly compare Albert Schweitzer's idea of "reverence for life." Both of them believe in a positive attitude towards all sentient beings and a positive action based on that. He tears no leaf from a tree, plucks no flower, and takes care to crush no insect. If in summer he is working by lamplight, he prefers to keep the window shut and breathe a stuffy atmosphere rather than see one insect after another fall with singed wings upon his table.[20] He would also agree with the uncompromising idealism of Gandhi in condemning destruction of life as evil,"[21] and both are conscious of limitations on the practice of non-violence. The basic idea is the consideration for the existence and happiness of individual beings.

The Gandhian idea of truth is as dynamic as the "world-view" of Schweitzer. Gandhi's "experiments with truth" are similar to Schweitzer's "will-to-live," which leads him on to a "life-view." This is further confirmed by Schweitzer's view that a "world-view is a product of a life-view, not vice versa,"[22] which is paralleled in Gandhi's history by the fact that his idea of truth underwent modification from "God is truth" to "Truth is God."

This basic similarity between the two has to be discerned by analysis, since Gandhi did not formulate the idea of reverence for life in any full theoretical shape, as Schweitzer did. But the attitude is necessary to Gandhian thought, as, without such an attitude, in spite of various disciplines, the practice of non-violence becomes impossible in Gandhi's sense; for he insists that it must come from within. If there is no reverence for life, the observance of the law of non-violence has no meaning, much less will it bear any fruit; for its practice will be, not out of conviction and courage, but out of fear, weakness, and inability to commit violence. Such a rootless external practice Gandhi strongly disowns.

VI. A Feeling of Oneness with Life

I should like to suggest that Schweitzer seems to overlook the psychological necessity that 'reverence for life' is possible only if one feels part and parcel of the process of life. This would, of course, necessarily lead to a world-view or Weltan-schauung[23] with which he was disillusioned.[24] Hence he relies on the sentiment of "reverence for life."

Now it is of interest to note whether Indian philosophy offers any rational solution to this problem. Sankaracarya comments on the realized person:

He sees all beings... from Brahma, the creator, down to a tuft of grass... as one with the self, and in all the different beings... from Brahma, the creator, down to inanimate objects, he sees the same, i.e., that the self and Brahman (the Absolute) are one.[25]

Swami Abhcdananda, led by this Vedantic explanation of oneness of life, thinks that this gives a reason why we should love our neighbour as ourself, as he is no other than our true self.[26] This rational explanation of universal love satisfies the human intellect, though for one who is not a self-realized person, because he cannot feel the oneness of Brahman and Atman, of his "Self" and that of the "other," it creates difficulties.

The difficulty is, could such an attitude be cultivated? If by a cultivation of a feeling of oneness with life we mean an outward discipline only, it leads nowhere, since it only serves as a cloak to hide one's destructive tendencies. What is most necessary is to be aware of the movement of one's own mind - of all the destructive tendencies in oneself. This alone can free the mind and result in the feeling of oneness of life - of course with the Vedantic idea as an intellectual basis. This is a feeling or an attitude which is necessary for the realization of non-violence. It paves the way for a real "Reverence for Life," which by its essential nature results in genuine non-violence.


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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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Page glossary
Some texts contain  footnotes  and  glossary  entries. To distinguish between them, the links have different colors.
  1. Ahimsa
  2. Albert Schweitzer
  3. Aparigraha
  4. Asteya
  5. Atman
  6. Bhagavadgita
  7. Body
  8. Brahma
  9. Brahmacharya
  10. Brahman
  11. Buddha
  12. Celibacy
  13. Dhammapada
  14. Discipline
  15. Fear
  16. Gandhi
  17. Greed
  18. Hinduism
  19. Mahabharata
  20. Mandir
  21. Meditation
  22. Nirvana
  23. Non-violence
  24. Nonviolence
  25. Sambodhi
  26. Sarnath
  27. Space
  28. Swami
  29. Tolerance
  30. Vedanta
  31. Violence
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