By Claude Arpi
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 Ashoka
Ahimsa 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.
Non-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 future Buddha was traveling along a river with 500 companions. They reached a gorge where a gang of 500 bandits was waiting to waylay them. As he happened to be an acquaintance of the bodhisattva, one of the robbers was sent couting. When he met the bodhisattva, the robber informed him of the projected attack. The bodhisattva thought, ‘If I warn my companions of the danger of the bandits, they will certainly kill this informer and all of them will attract serious karmic retributions upon themselves; but if I don’t say anything, the 500 bandits will massacre the caravan and they will accumulate very bad karma also.’ He decided to kill the bandit before him, bear the karmic retributions himself, and save both his companions and the bandits from bad karmic consequences.
This story shows that it is always important to keep a sense of proportion before deciding upon any particular path and study carefully all future consequences of one’s actions, keeping in mind that non-violence is the highest possible course.
Question of Effectiveness
Another important question: what happens if the opponent is unable to grasp the higher concept of non-violence? An interesting anecdote is recalled by A. P. Venkateshwaran, a former foreign secretary of India who was posted in the early 1980s as Indian ambassador in Beijing. After watching the movie Gandhi, members of the Chinese Politburo told him, ‘It was a splendid and moving account of Gandhi’s life. But no one had been able to understand what his non-violence is about!’
Even if they did not grasp the principle, the Chinese regime could certainly understand the fall-outs of a non-violent campaign. A striking example occurred on 25 April 1999 when 10,000 Falun Gong members gathered along a road just outside Zhongnanhai, the Politburo residential compound in Beijing. The day-long silent meditation caught the Communist leadership off guard.
For an authoritarian regime, nothing is more destabilizing than something it does not understand. During the following weeks, Beijing did not know how to react. Finally a taskforce, headed by Hu Jintao was set up. It was soon discovered that Falun Gong, a sect based on traditional Buddhist and Taoist meditation techniques, had a large following within the People’s Liberation Army and the Party itself. Some mentioned 70 million members in China only.
Shaken by this mild silent protest, the government reacted violently. In May that year, government officials and employees were warned not to join Falun Gong demonstrations. By June, Falun Gong members were banned from holding large public gatherings. And the repression started. All for a simple meditation! It is one more proof that non-violent mass movements can have a tremendous impact, especially when the motivations are pure. It has been seen again in Ukraine or Kyrgyzstan recently.
Does non-violence work?
An argument against non-violence is that it does not work. It is interesting to look at the case of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan freedom movement. What a strange fate for this young toddler, Lhamo Dhondrub, born 70 years ago in a small village of Amdo province (north-eastern Tibet). At the age of four he was recognized as the reincarnation of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama and enthroned as the head of the Tibetan State. For the Tibetans, the living incarnation of Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of Compassion, had returned.
Though sandwiched between two Asian giants, hina and India, the Roof of the World had managed to remain untouched by the changes and revolutions happening in the world. It was the last Shangri-la on earth.
But this serene state of affairs dramatically changed in October 1950, when the Chinese People’s Liberation Army walked unhindered on to Tibetan soil. A new ideology, less compassionate than the Dharma which had come from India 12 centuries earlier, pretended to liberate the Land of Snows.
With tension mounting, the Dalai Lama had no alternative but to flee his homeland in 1959 and take refuge in India, the Land of the Buddha. Nehru generously provided rehabilitation and education for the 85,000 Tibetan refugees, but he made it clear from the start that India would not provide political support to free Tibet from the Chinese yoke.
The Dalai Lama then became a pilgrim spreading peace and love across the globe. To everyone, his message is, ‘My religion is simple, my religion is kindness’. He stoutly believes that, ‘Through the history of mankind, solutions achieved through the use of force have inevitably been transitory.’ Unfortunately the regime in Beijing has so far not been able to share his belief, though the rest of the world has greatly profited from the Tibetan leader’s wisdom.
After 46 years in exile from Tibet, his political struggle has not so far led him closer to his objective, but the Dalai Lama’s philosophy has spread on the planet: ‘No matter what part of the world we come from, we are all basically the same human beings. We all seek happiness and try to avoid suffering. We have the same basic human needs and concerns.’
The Dalai Lama is a pragmatic man. Once he jokingly explained to me the concept of ahimsa: ‘Non-violence is good, six million Tibetans, one billion Chinese.’ He could not stop laughing. Indeed, Tibetans are small insects in front of mighty China and violence would have had little chance to succeed.
Apart from his principled stand as well as his pragmatic position, it is important to check what we could call the ‘balance sheet’ of the Dalai Lama’s 46 years in exile. Perhaps his political objective is still far away, but his message of peace and compassion has been heard by hundreds of illions throughout the world. It means that the ‘critical mass’ of people wanting a better and more compassionate world, has tremendously grown during the past decades. Furthermore, just look at another world conflict which erupted more or less at the same time as the Tibetan issue – the problem between Israel and Palestine. Everyone can see that force, violence and terrorism have not brought the people on both sides any closer. The paradox of our times is that violence cannot any longer solve problems. Is it not also the lesson of the Iraq War? Therefore the balance sheet of the Dalai Lama is greatly positive.
One should not forget another modern Asian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. The Dalai Lama and Suu Kyi faced a similar problem: a totalitarian regime, which refuses to let go its grip over people’s lives and destiny.
In July 1989, four months before the Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and one month after the tanks rolled on Tiananmen Square in Beijing, Aung San Suu Kyi was arrested for the first time by the Burmese military junta. Since then, she has spent most of her time in jails or under house-arrest.
A couple of months before her arrest, she had demonstrated the power of non-violence. In a small town called Danubyu, she was walking down the street with a few colleagues. Suddenly six soldiers arrived; they ordered them to proceed no further. But the group continued to walk. Apprehending the weakness of his men, the captain jumped out of his jeep, knelt down in front of the group and warned that if they did not stop, he would open fire. His revolver pointed at Suu Kyi who calmly told her companions to move aside. Just when the captain was ready to pull the trigger, a major entered the scene and ordered his junior to hold his fire. Suu Kyi, the fearless lady, continued to walk.
Two years later, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. ‘We are dependent on persons who set examples, persons who can symbolize what we are seeking and mobilize the best in us. Aung San Suu Kyi is just such a person. She unites deep commitment and tenacity with a vision in which the end and the means form a single unit. Its most important elements are: democracy, respect for human rights, reconciliation between groups, non-violence, and personal and collective discipline,’ said the citation.
Indeed, in an often immoral world, we need role models who can incarnate these rare values. Humanity is going through a crisis, which can be called evolutionary, civilizational, or by any other term. But the fact remains that humanity has become a closer-knit family; if the world-boat sinks, the whole humanity will sink. There is no other solution but to live together. There is no more question of one religion, one belief or one ideology having the whole Truth. What makes the richness of the human family is its diversity. Though this diversity often means conflicts, solutions are possible, to quote the Dalai Lama, ‘A solution can be genuine and lasting only if and when it is to the full satisfaction of the people concerned.’ Violence cannot be the base for such solution.
Undoubtedly, as French philosopher Andre Malraux had put it, ‘The 21st century will be spiritual or will not be’. This spiritualization of society which began more than 2000 years ago can go a step further; it is the only way that big insects will stop eating smaller insects.
But this spiritualized society will work only if each one of us human beings is willing to try to work in a truly harmonious manner with our fellow human beings.
Born in Angouleme (France), Claude Arpi has lived in south India since 1974. He is the author of several books on India and Tibet; his latest India and her Neighborhood, a French Observer’s Views (Har Anand Publications)has just been released.
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