By Claude Arpi October 2005 There have existed examples throughout history where ahimsa, the doctraine of non-violence, has been used in political struggle and statecraft. What lessons can we glean from these examples, old and new? Breaking the news’ is a new expression very much in vogue in the media these days. Surf any channel on your TV set and within a few minutes you will see this new mantra flashing on the screen. Were media survey companies to analyze the content of this ‘broken news’, they would certainly come to the conclusion that it is largely related to violence, crime, murders or terrorist attacks. Does not the term ‘breaking’ in itself denote violence? Whether in the recent terrorist attacks in London, Sharm-el-Sheikh, Ayodhya, Srinagar or Iraq, the media seems to be able to only relate to violence. If the analysis was pushed further, one would probably discover that acts of violence get a better audience and therefore better revenue. Indeed, violence invariably catches the attention of (and at the same time appals) the human mind. Why is it so? One of the reasons is perhaps because violence has existed since time immemorial. Was not the Big Bang the first violence to shake the worlds? Since then, Darwinian evolution has taken over with its ‘survival of the fittest’ dictum, which often translates as ‘survival of the mightiest’. There is a proverb in French which says: ‘La raison du plus fort est toujours la meilleure.’ (The reason of the strong is always true); this is usually translated in English as ‘might is right’. If one looks at the history of the past 2000 years, it is an unfortunate fact that might has ruled the world. The concept of ahimsa or non-violence (‘or abstention from the use of physical force to achieve goals’) has ancient roots in India. The Buddha was one of its first proponents. Politically the problem is simple: it was vividly expressed by the Thirteenth Dalai Lama (predecessor of the current Dalai Lama) at the beginning of the 20th century. Chased by Chinese invading troops, he decided to flee Tibet and take refuge in India. Before his arrival, he cabled the British Trade Agent posted in Gyantse, the last large Tibetan town before the Indian border. He sought British protection because: ‘Large insects are eating and secretly injuring small insects.’ History has a tendency to repeat itself: ‘large insects’ seem to always devour ‘smaller ones’. Many years later, the same Dalai Lama wrote in his Testament: ‘As a result of our past meritorious karma and the numerous prayers and services that were conducted in Tibet, internal strife took place in China. It was no problem, therefore, to completely drive out the Chinese force from Tibet.’ This remark introduces an interesting new dimension; it is possible for ‘small insects’ to fight ‘bigger’ ones, by means other than pure physical force. Prayers and spiritual practices can also bring success and undoubtedly more permanent results. Since fleeing into exile in 1959, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama has tried to ‘liberate’ his country and his people in a truer way. He is today recognised the world over as the greatest proponent and practitioner of non-violence. Example of AshokaAhimsa can be seen as a moral principle, as well as a practical tool to defeat or convert an enemy. The first world leader who put this principle into practice in the political and administrative field was probably Emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century BC. Three centuries after the Buddha was transfigured by the discovery that there was a way out of human suffering, the Mauryan emperor had a powerful experience on the battlefield of Kalinga. He had just won the war and instead of rejoicing, he unexpectedly faced a searing question – what is the meaning of conquest, victory and annexation when I see misery and suffering everywhere around me? He pondered: ‘For the sake of my pride, not only have thousands lost their life, but many more have been taken prisoner and deported. They are now separated from their dear ones and they suffer.’ Broken and alone, Ashoka took a decision: one conquest alone is worthy of a great king, the conquest of oneself. The spread of the Dharma became his mission. To quote from one of his Rock Edicts: ‘After the Kalingas had been conquered, Beloved-of-the-Gods (Ashoka) came to feel a strong inclination towards the Dharma… (He) feels deep remorse for having conquered the Kalingas. ‘Indeed, (he) is deeply pained by the killing and deportation that take place when an unconquered country is conquered… Even those who are not affected (by death) suffer when they see friends, acquaintances, companions and relatives affected… This pains Beloved-of-the-Gods.’ For the first time, the great emperor accepted the Dharma as his own sovereign. After his spontaneous conversion, the king spent the rest of his life putting into practice his new belief. The idea was not new to Ancient India; Sri Aurobindo has thus described it in the Foundations of Indian Culture: ‘A greater sovereign than the king was the Dharma, the religious, ethical, social, political, juridic and customary law organically governing the life of the people. This impersonal authority was considered sacred and eternal in its spirit and the totality of its body, always characteristically the same, the changes organically and spontaneously brought about in its actual form by the evolution of the society being constantly incorporated in it, regional, family and other customers forming a sort of attendant and subordinate body capable of change only from within, and with the Dharma no secular authority had any right of autocratic interference.’ This ‘organic law’ was based on the respect of all members of the society, rich or poor, high or low, small or big. The immediate consequence was there was no question of killing or subjugating people: they should be their own masters; they should just be encouraged to practice the Dharma. Ashoka was the first ruler to introduce this concept on the scale of an empire. As Sri Aurobindo explains, the ‘subjection of the sovereign power to the Dharma was not an ideal theory inoperative in practice’, but for the first time it was a living reality at the scale of the greatest empire. The Edicts of Ashoka deal not only with the importance of good and fair governance, but also with the deeper meaning of non-violence – taking life from any living being has a karmic effect which generally goes against the noble objective of bringing happiness to all. Probably the time had not come for this experience to continue on such a vast scale and the Mauryan Empire collapsed 70 years after the death of Ashoka. Perhaps a critical mass of human beings first needs to be converted (or at least convinced) for the experiment to succeed. This nevertheless remains as an attempt and an example. Two aspects are crucial for a larger success: one is what Sri Aurobindo termed ‘changes organically and spontaneously brought about’, and the second is a critical mass of beings accepting a higher truth. If one looks at contemporary examples, particularly the spread of the dreaded disease called ‘terrorism’, it is mainly due to a refusal of certain cultures (or sometimes States) to evolve and adapt to the present days. Another cause of violence is when a religionist (or a State) refuses to tolerate the existence of other laws or ideologies or he believes his own to be superior to others. If laws, beliefs and religions were able to evolve and adapt to the shrinking planet and admit that we are one human family, we would certainly witness fewer cases of violence. Gandhian Non-ViolenceNon-violence as a principle (or a tool) that can change the face of a political conflict resurfaced during India’s independence struggle. Mahatma Gandhi’s practice of ahimsa is too well known to be detailed here. However, some interesting questions should be raised: does non-violence work in all circumstances? What are the limitations of non-violence as a tool to win a just cause? Let us take some historical cases. Shortly after Independence, the Indian Army Chief of Staff had drafted a first paper on threats to India’s security. The paper contained recommendations for dealing with the newly independent nation’s security and defense policy. When General Sir Robert Lokhart took this paper to Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister told him: ‘Rubbish. Total rubbish. We don’t need a defense plan. Our policy is non-violence. We foresee no military threats. Scrap the army. The police are good enough to meet our security needs.’ The new Indian government which had championed the principle of non-violence against the British was keen to show to the world that conflicts could be solved without recourse to force. But Mahatma Gandhi, the apostle of non-violence, was in many ways more realistic than his disciple. He was not against sending Indian troops to defend Kashmir from Pakistani invaders in September 1947. He said that, ‘War was not a joke, that way lay destruction but I could never advise anyone to put up with injustice.’ The words of Mahatma Gandhi raise the important issue of self-defense. It is generally admitted that self-defense with the proper motivation is an acceptable means to protect one’s life or territory against belligerent ‘big insects’. Another aspect of ahimsa should not be brushed aside: when non-violence becomes synonymous with appeasement, the aggressor may take advantage of the person/nation professing ahimsa to increase his violent aggression. There is a famous story in a Buddhist sutra: Once, the f
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