(Note: The Modern Review archives run from 1907, when it was founded by Ramananda Babu, to the 1960s. Since this volume was intended to commemorate Ramananda Chatterjee, we looked only at volumes published between 1907 to 1943, the year of his death, and included a few articles from the August 1947 issue as well. Patriots, Poets & Prisoners was published in 2016 and edited by two of Ramananda Chatterjee’s descendants, Devangshu Datta and Anikendra Sen, and me.
By bringing out this volume and sharing excerpts from Patriots, Poets & Prisoners on this blog, we hope to draw attention to the fact that much of India’s true, and often stirring, history lies in the archives of little magazines and turn-of-the-century journals. These periodicals, if curated and reissued, allow readers today to listen in to history as it was being made, with few filters between them and the leaders or brightest minds from the past. It is a heritage that belongs, properly, to the next generation of Indians, but it cannot be so easily claimed until it is brought out of our archives and libraries.)
In 1916, Lala Lajpat Rai and Mahatma Gandhi would debate the principle of non-violence back and forth for a while. The Lala wrote in the July issue that it was the elevation of ahimsa to the highest doctrine that led to the downfall of India; Gandhiji wrote an equally stirring response. “Ahimsa does not displace the practice of other virtues, but renders their practice imperatively necessary before it can be practiced even in its rudiments. Lalaji need not fear the ahimsa of his father’s faith.” Lalaji responded in due course, and so it went, argument countered by deliberation and thoughtful argument.
On Ahimsa: A Reply To Lala Lajpat Rai
Had Lala Lajpat Rai first ascertained what I had actually said on ahimsa, his remarks in The Modern Review for last July would not have seen the light of day. Lalaji rightly questioned whether I actually made the statements imputed to me. He says, that if I did not, I should have contradicted them. In the first place, I have not yet seen the papers which have reported the remarks in question or those wherein my remarks were criticised. Secondly, I must confess that I would not undertake to correct all the errors that creep into reports that appear in the public press about my speeches.
Lalaji’s article has been much quoted in the Gujarati newspapers and magazines; and it is perhaps as well for me to explain my position. With due deference to Lalaji, I must join issue with him when he says that the elevation of the doctrine of ahimsa to the highest position contributed to the downfall of India. There seems to be no historical warrant for the belief that an exaggerated practice of ahimsa synchronised with our becoming bereft of many virtues. During the past fifteen hundred years, we have as a nation given ample proof of physical courage, but we have been torn by internal dissensions and have been dominated by love of self instead of love of country. We have, that is to say, been swayed by the spirit of irreligion rather than of religion.
I do not know how far the charge of unmanliness can be made good against the Jains. I hold no brief for them. By birth I am a Vaishnavite, and was taught ahimsa in my childhood. I have derived much religious benefit from Jain religious works, as I have from scriptures of the other great faiths of the world. I owe much to the living company of the deceased philosopher Raja Chand Kavi4 who was a Jain by birth. Thus though my views on ahimsa are a result of my study of most of the faiths of the world, they are now no longer dependent upon the authority of these works. They are a part of my life and if I suddenly discovered that the religious books read by me bore a different interpretation from the one I had learnt to give them, I should still hold to the new of ahimsa as I am about to set forth here. Our shastras seem to teach that a man who really practises ahimsa in its fullness has the world at his feet, he so affects his surroundings that even the snakes and other venomous reptiles do him no harm. This is said to have been the experience of St. Francis of Assisi.
In its negative form, it means not injuring any living being, whether by body or mind. I may not therefore hurt the person of any wrong-doer, or bear any ill will to him and so cause him mental suffering. This statement does not cover suffering caused to the wrong-doer by natural acts of mine which do not proceed from ill will. It, therefore, does not prevent me from withdrawing from his presence a child whom he, we shall imagine, is about to strike. Indeed the proper practice of ahimsa required me to withdraw the intended victim from the wrong-doer, if I am in any way whatsoever the guardian of such a child. It was therefore most proper for the passive resisters of South Africa to have resisted the evil that the Union Government sought to do to them. They bore no ill will to it. They showed this by helping the Government whenever it needed their help.
Their resistance consisted of disobedience of the orders of the Government, even to the extent of suffering death at their hands. Ahimsa requires deliberate self-suffering, not a deliberate injuring of the supposed wrong-doer.
In its positive form, ahimsa means the largest love, the greatest charity. If I am a follower of ahimsa, I must love my enemy. I must apply the same rule to the wrong-doer who is my enemy or a stranger to me, as I would to my wrong-doing father or son. This active Ahimsa necessarily includes truth and fearlessness. A man cannot deceive the loved ones; he does not fear or frighten him or her.
(Gift of life) is the greatest of all gifts. A man who gives it in reality disarms all hostility. He has paved the way for an honourable understanding. And none who is himself subject to fear can bestow that gift. He must therefore be himself fearless. A man cannot then practise ahimsa and be a coward at the same time. The practice of ahimsa calls forth the greatest courage. It is the most soldierly of a soldier’s virtues. General Gordon1 has been represented in a famous statue as bearing only a stick. This takes us far on the road to ahimsa.
But a soldier, who needs the protection of even a stick, is to that extent so much the less a soldier. He is the true soldier who knows how to die and stand his ground in the midst of a hail of bullets. Such a one was Ambarish who stood his ground without lifting a finger, though Durvasa did his worst. The Moors, who were being powdered by the French gunners, rushed into the guns’ mouth with ‘Allah’ on their lips, showed much the same type of courage. Only theirs was the courage of desperation. Ambarish’s was due to love. Yet the Moorish valour, readiness to die, conquered the gunners. They frantically waved their hats, ceased firing and greeted their erstwhile enemies as comrades. And so the South African passive resisters in their thousands were ready to die rather than sell their honour for a little personal ease. This was ahimsa in its active form. It never barters away honour. A helpless girl in the hands of a follower of ahimsa finds better and surer protection than in the hands of one who is prepared to defend her only to the point to which his weapons would carry him.
The tyrant, in the first instance, will have to walk to his victim over the dead body of her defender, in the second, he has but to overpower the defender, for it is assumed that the canon of propriety in the second instance will be satisfied when the defender has fought to the extent of his physical valour. In the first instance, as the defender has matched his very soul against the mere body of the tyrant, the odds are that the soul in the latter will be awakened, and the girl will stand an infinitely greater chance of her honour being protected than in any other conceivable circumstance–barring, of course, that of her own personal courage.
If we are unmanly today, we are so, not because we do not know how to strike, but because we fear to die. He is no follower of Mahavira, the apostle of Jainism, or of Buddha or of the Vedas, who being afraid to die, takes flight before any danger, real or imaginary all the while wishing that some body else would remove the danger by destroying the person causing it. He is no follower of ahimsa (I agree with Lalaji) who does not care a straw if he kills a man by inches by deceiving him in trade, or who will protect by force of arms a few cows and make away with the butcher, or who in order to do a supposed good to his country does not mind killing off a few officials.
All these are actuated by hatred, cowardice and fear. Her love of the cow or the country is a vague thing intended to satisfy one’s vanity or soothe a stinging conscience. Ahimsa, truly understood, is, in my humble opinion, a panacea for all evils mundane and extra-mundane. We can never overdo it. Just at present, we are not doing it at all. Ahimsa does not displace the practice of other virtues, but renders their practice imperatively necessary before it can be practiced even in its rudiments. Lalaji need not fear the ahimsa of his father’s faith. Mahavira and Buddha were soldiers, and so was Tolstoy. Only they saw deeper and truer in their profession, and found the secret of a true, happy, honourable and godly life. Let us be joint sharers with these teachers and this land of ours will once more be the abode of gods.
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Copyright: Ramachandra Guha holds the copyright to his introduction. The Modern Review is out of copyright and in the public domain; however, the editors request that articles should be reproduced in their entirety wherever possible.