A critique of nonviolence


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Ahimsā paramo dharmo – this is one aphorism with which almost every Indian schoolchild is acquainted. From early childhood we are tutored to discern the symptoms of the pathological everyday we inhabit, taught to be increasingly protective of ourselves in a progressively more violent world, and in the same breath told that all sane Indians of the past swore by the creed of ‘nonviolence’. Offering, as though a therapeutic solace to the troubled souls of today, it is incessantly reiterated that ancient Indians were unwavering in asserting the ethical propriety of ahimsā.

We are repeatedly reminded, the one singular achievement of ancient India was that all her sages, meaning ‘custodians of people’ called upon to preserve harmony among different callings and thus augment loka-samgraha or ‘social wealth’, condemned himsā or ‘violence’ without so much as a demur. And, to refurbish this popular wisdom, the modern ideologues committed to it invariably hark back to the Mahābhārata, the colossal work that within the tradition of Indian taxonomy of genres bears the title itihāsa. With the express intention of affirming iti-ha-āsa or ‘so indeed it was’, they cite selective portions of the Mahābhārata.

With great fondness, they keep mouthing, for example, the dictum handed out to Yudhishthira by grandsire Bhishma in ‘Anuśānaparvan’. The dictum, lilting in terms of lyrical cadence, makes the expression ‘ahimsā paramo dharmo’ or ‘ahimsā is the highest dharma’ more weighty by appending to it expressions such as, ‘Ahimsā is the highest form of self-control’, ‘Ahimsā is the highest austerity’, ‘Ahimsā is the highest sacrifice’, ‘Ahimsā is the best friend’, ‘Ahimsā is the greatest happiness’, ‘Ahimsā is the highest truth’ (13.117.37-38).*

Indisputably, there is a kind of critical consensus that itihāsa places an exceedingly high premium on ‘nonviolence’. Also certainly, it is this uncritical or unconscious adherence to the same unanimity, which gives to the painstaking statistical exercise undertaken by Alf Hiltebeitel the quality of the unexpected. Alf Hiltebeitel, in his 2001 book Rethinking the Mahābhārata, prepares a tally-sheet for the phrase paramo dharmo and demonstrates that out of the 54 times it occurs in the Mahābhārata, it is conjoined with the word ahimsā only four times – and, of those four, one is contained in Bhishma’s dictum quoted earlier!1


Even if we grant that frequency distributions based on quantitative analyses are by themselves not sufficiently strong measures of weights attached to values, Alf Hiltebeitel’s chart provides other information that have the potential to meet the deficiency. We gather from it that along with ‘nonviolence’ and ‘truth’ there is one order of excellence extolled by the Mahābhārata, which by a curious twist of logic, appears to give lie to the truth of nonviolence. And that is ānŗśamsya or ‘noncruelty’. Moreover, and surely this is telling, although the expression ānŗśamsyam paro dharma or ‘noncruelty is the supreme dharma’ features eight times in the Mahābhārata, it is only very recently that scholars have begun to take cognizance of ānŗśamsya as a complex concept on its own right.

Mukund Lath, in his path-blazing 1987 article on the term has gone so far as to say, ‘It has been kind of voyage of discovery for me, to understand what ānŗśamsya means in the Mahābhārata… [It is more so because] outside the Mahābhārata, whether in the literature preceding the Mahābhārata or following it, the word hardly has the supreme significance [as] it has in the epic’.2

The obvious questions that this observation gives rise to are: (a) What is the ideological role of ānŗśamsya in the Mahābhārata? (b) Does it have any relevance beyond the framework of itihāsa?


In the justly famous dialogue between Yudhishthira and Dharma, the highest authority on the meaning of Good-ness, appearing as a Yaksha in the ‘Âraņyakaparvan’, the philosophical Yudhishthira’s response to Yaksha’s question, ‘What is the greatest virtue in the world?’ was, ānŗśamsyam paro dharmo, ‘absence of cruelty is the highest virtue’ (3. 297.54-55 and 3. 297.71). In the course of the interrogation which took in its stride such intriguing existential issues as ‘the substance of self’, ‘the meaning of happiness’, ‘the surest path of acquiring authentic knowledge’, ‘the problem of recognizing one’s own mortality’, the statement ānŗśamsyam paro dharma comes twice. The fact that Yudhishthira the Dharmarāja chose to conclude the session by stating it once again gives to the expression the air of a well-considered maxim (3.297.11-298.22).

It surely is instructive that the person most sensitive and upright among the chief protagonists of the Mahābhārata, the one hero compulsively obsessed with intricacies involving moral conundrums, should choose to mark ‘noncruelty’ and not ‘nonviolence’ as the ultimate humane attribute. However, the underlying assumptions behind the privileging is supplied not by Yudhishthira but by a fowler by profession – instead of Dharmarāja, they are spelt out by a Sūdra reverentially referred to as Dharmavyādha. They are there in the lecture, rather lengthy and tiresome one at that, which the Dharmic Fowler delivered to a haughty Brahminin ‘Âraņyakaparvan’ (3.198.1 to 3.206.32).


Let us now focus on the salient features of the discourse on ānŗśamsya spun by Dharmavyādha of Mithilā, the conscientious Sūdra whose very livelihood depended on killing fowls of the air, beasts of the field and selling flesh in the open market. Schematically put, this is what Dharmavyādha said:

1. ‘Ahimsā is the highest dharma, which, again, is founded upon truth’ (3.198.69). (Incidentally, of the four times we encounter the phrase ahimsā paramo dharma in the Mahābhārata, one of them comes from Dharmavyādha.)

2. But, even though men of learning and wisdom have advocated non-violence from the earliest times, anyone who thinks hard enough is bound to reach the conclusion that there is none who is nonviolent (3.199.28). (This same view is forcefully voiced by Arjuna in ‘Śāntiparvan’. The hero whom an immobilizing depression seized immediately before the commencement of the Kurukshetra War but who, thanks to Krishna’s sobering as well as stimulating discourse managed to shake it off just in the nick of time said, long after peace had returned to the land, ‘I do not see a single person in this world who lives by nonviolence’ (12.15.20).

3. Hence, the best way to resolve the paradox is to temper the exacting demands of ‘nonviolence’ by emphasizing ‘leniency’ or ‘noncruelty’ and, for all practical purposes, replace the commandment ‘ahimsā is the highest dharma’ by ‘ānŗśamsya is the highest dharma’ (3.203.41). (In Mukund Lath’s words, ‘What the Mahābhārata preaches is not ahimsā but ānŗśamsya’.3 Lath’s claim is indeed provocative. Unlike J.L. Mehta, who believes ‘[Mahābhārata’s] central message, repeated again and again, is that non-violence (ahimsa) and compassion (anrisamsya) are the highest duties of man’4, Lath sees a distinct hierarchy at work in the Mahābhārata – a subtle distinguishing operation that places ānŗśamsya over and above ahimsā.)


Dharmavyādha reckons ‘state of violence’ to be an irremediable, unavoidable factor of ‘human condition’. By the same token, in his system of Ethics, ahimsā obtains the precarious status of an unrealizable ideal – it is as if, no matter how morally judicious a subject is in conducting his daily life, the goal of ahimsā can only be approached by moving along an asymptomatic curve that converges only at infinity. The Dharmic Fowler’s axiomatic propositions – propositions that he himself claims to be part and parcel of authentic ‘Brahmanic philosophy’ (3.201.14) – lead inexorably to the framing of, what, for the sake of convenience may be called, a ‘principle of proxy’.

In the Brāhmanic universe of the scrupulous Sūdra, the notion of ānŗśamsya functions as a stand-in for ahimsā. It maintains a critical distance from both the components of the himsā-ahimsā or ‘violence-nonviolence’ binary without dissolving either of the two. It opens up a discursive space within which excessive violence is condemned and unqualified nonviolence considered unviable. Placed as a golden mean between two extremes, ānŗśamsya gestures towards the apparently contradictory prescript of ‘violence without violation’. In short, given the fact that every being on earth is obliged to abide by certain violent but objective conditions, the only way left to man to differentiate himself from other living things and assert his specific species-being is to treat ānŗśamsya as the closest possible approximate of ahimsā.


But then, we are dealing with itihāsa, a compendium of fables that has the extraordinary felicity of attaching contending signifieds to the same signifier. This flexibility may be bothersome; but, it often achieves effects that are overwhelming. Ānŗśamsya too has an indeterminate ambiguity about it. There are moments in the Mahābhārata in which the word comes so close to anukrosha or ‘empathy’ as to make ahimsā and ānŗśamsya not only mutually exchangeable (as envisaged by J.L. Mehta) but also to construe a general grammar of ‘ethical care’ on the basis of ānŗśamsya.5 The ‘fable of the parrot’ in the Anuśāsanaparvan is a case in point. On Yudhishthira’s plea ‘I wish to hear of the merits of ānŗśamsya’, Bhishma had recounted the legend (13.5.1-31).

The story went: a fowler had mistakenly pierced a forest-tree with a poison-arrow; as a result, the tree withered away; despite the destruction, a parrot living in the hollow of the tree’s trunk did not desert his nest; surprised by this show of (irrational) attachment, Indra approached the parrot and enquired into his reasons for cohabiting with the condemned; justifying his voluntary decision on the grounds of ‘compassion’, ‘kindliness of feeling’ and affection for the erstwhile protector, the parrot invoked successively the concepts ānŗśamsya and anukrosha (13.5. 22-23).6


The puzzle posed by the parable was, how come lower animals exhibit a sensibility which humans take for granted to be peculiarly humane. Indra wondered about the parrot’s supernatural feat of practicing ānŗśamsya (13.5.9) and resolved the problem by adducing to the primary supposition of a (supposed) ‘Natural Ethics’. Indra discerned in the parrot’s behaviour a confirmation of the principle of ‘mutual care’ – there was no mystery; the urge to be generous towards others was a predilection common to all creatures (13.5.10).

Doubtless, the ‘fable of the parrot’ exceeds the limit set by Dharmavyādha to the category of ānŗśamsya. Similar exceeding can be found in other parts of the Mahābhārata too. For example, in the almost last (significant) episode of itihāsa in which Indra forbade Yudhishthira from entering the celestial abode if Dharmarāja insisted on continuing with the dog that had been accompanying him in his final journey. Yudhishthira was, however, adamant; he refused to abandon the humble animal. In expressing his touching loyalty for the loyal dog, Yudhishthira employed the word ānŗśamsya (17.3.7); and, a little later, shedding the disguise of the dog, Dharma himself praised Yudhishthira for being thoroughly informed by the moral compulsion of anukrosha (17.3.17). Here too, conjoined as it is with a word etymologically rooted in the notion of ‘crying out that "follows" (anu) someone else’s "cry"(krosha)’7, ānŗśamsya over-steps the boundary imposed on it by Dharmavyādha.

But, before one can cognize the ‘supplement’ that ‘supplants’ any ‘steady’ signification, it is imperative to follow the ‘logic’ of the ‘main argument’ to its end. Hoping that spots of confounding aporia would inevitably appear as we proceed and the spree for the free play of deconstruction would gather force, we mostly restrict ourselves to Dharmavyādha’s discourse in this paper.


To trace the genealogical route of the term ānŗśamsya (as explicated by Dharmavyādha) most scholars refer back to the great ideological clash that took place about two and half thousand years back in the Indo-Gangetic plain. The two parties involved in the battle are generally known as the Brahmin and the Śŗamaņ – the former comprising the votaries of animal sacrifice and the latter men disenchanted by Vedic chants and the magical powers imputed to the act of sacrifice.

Most of the Śŗamaņs – the two most prominent of whom were the Buddhists and the Jains – denounced the senselessness involved in killing innocent animals for either gratification or appeasement of the so-called gods. It was the dumbness of being cruel towards ‘dumb creatures’, a form of dumbness unhesitatingly sanctified by priests practiced in the art of Vedic rituals, which exercised them the most – the dissenting Śŗamaņs fleshed out their idea of ahimsā as a protest against this outrage. This, however, does not mean that all those anti-Brahminical sects which propagated ahimsā also preached that it was beneath the dignity of men to consume meat as food.


The fact that the ideals of ahimsā and vegetarianism did not stem from the same origin but evolved along two different paths is borne out by facts like: while the Theravāda school of Buddhism permitted its followers to eat flesh provided they were not guilty of procuring the flesh by their own hands, the Jain scriptures poured scorn on the Theravāda ordinance as being an example of sophistry designed to camouflage the desire for the taste of meat – in contradistinction to the early Buddhists, the Jains from the very beginning favoured absolute prohibition on all meat-eating.8 While the Buddhist Emperor Ashoka (3rd c. BCE) is credited to have introduced virtual vegetarianism, the declaration in his First Rock Edict, ‘Here [meaning perhaps, Ashoka’s capital] no animal is to be killed for sacrifice’, clearly imposed a limiting condition on the solicitous state policy governing the practice of vegetarianism.9


It is also legitimate to think that in the process of bringing about a ‘revaluation of all (Brāhmanical) values’ through the category of nonviolence – in the Jain-like exaggerated diction or otherwise – the Śŗamaņs reinforced some of the precepts which were part of the tradition of (pre-Śŗamaņic) Upanişad. The Śŗamaņic insistence on ahimsā certainly cast a new light on sayings such as, ‘Verily, a person is a sacrifice… austerity, almsgiving, uprightness, ahimsā, truthfulness are the gifts [for that sacrifice]’ (Chāndogya Upanişad: III. 16.1 and III. 17.4).10

Again, undoubtedly, fighting against the home-dwelling Brāhmins, the priests who had no qualms about earning their livelihood by gifting animal flesh to gods, the homeless Śŗamaņs could have garnered moral support for their irremediable wanderlust as well as claim a longer and nobler lineage than the himsā-epitomizing Brāhmins from pre-Śŗamaņic utterances as ‘Verily, he is the great unborn Self… Desiring Him only as their worlds, monks wonder forth. Verily, because they knew this, the ancient (sages) did not wish for offspring’ (Bŗhad-āraņyaka Upanişad: IV. 4.22).11

On the whole, despite the earlier invocations of the creed of nonviolence, the Brāhmin-Śŗamaņ hostility was scripted by treating ahimsā as the moot point of contention – and, due to that, what were before, at best, perfunctory and scattered, coalesced to shape a wholesome discourse. Moreover, such is the wholesomeness of the discourse, it still shows no sign of disintegration.

Patanjāli, India’s legendary grammarian of 2nd c. BCE, had compared the Brāhmin-Śŗamaņ hostility with the natural snake-mongoose hostility. Then again, while expounding on the ‘antagonistic compound’, Patanjāli had instantiated it by referring to the ‘eternal conflict’ between the Brāhmin and the Śŗamaņ!12 This grammatical wit is sufficiently incisive to keep us forewarned that the ancient ideological contrariety is yet to be transcended.


Neither Mukund Lath13 nor Alf Hiltebeitel14 would face any difficulty in accepting Mahābhārata’s ānŗśamsya as a compromise formula – a formula devised to diffuse the disaccord between the orthodox Brahmana and the non-conformist Śŗamaņ. What is more, this view is quite palatable to many a radical interpreter of India’s past, such as, Kashi Nath Upadhyaya, the author of the outstanding treatise, Early Buddhism and the Bhagavadgītā (1971).15 None of them would contest that the concept of uncompromising ahimsā conceived by a section of the Śŗamaņs in order to morally nullify the himsā-oriented Brāhminical practices provided the founding condition for Mahābhārata’s ānŗśamsya. Of course, there are dissenters; e.g., Chaturvedi Badrinath, the author of The Mahābhārata: An Enquiry in the Human Condition. He wrote as late as in 2006, ‘The three powerful words ahimsā paramo dharmo that [keep] resound[ing] in the Mahābhārata …would later become the cardinal foundation of Jainism’.16

Nevertheless, if we leave aside the complicated business of arguing on the basis of historical evidence and take the softer option of deriving information from literary study of characters, it seems the first view has the greater chance of being vindicated. Take a look at the Mahābhārata’s chief ideologue of ānŗśamsya, the Dharmic Butcher.


Dharmavyādha’s body is like a repository of various contesting predilections; it houses all but combines them in such a fashion that all real antagonistic contradictions seem to disappear: he does not slay animals but pursues his family-trade by selling the meat of hogs and buffaloes killed by others (3.198.31); he lays out chopped out flesh in the marketplace for the gratification of culinary appetite of his customers but he himself is a strict vegetarian (3.198.32); he subscribes to the theory of karmaphala but, (as though to negate the Buddhist-like semantic revolution of redefining the word karma to connote ‘personal intention’ in place of ‘Brahmin ritualism’17), insists that it is Destiny which calls people to their respective vocations (3.199.2).

He readily admits that his profession is heinous but exculpates himself on the ground that he is a mere ‘passive instrument’ (3.199.3); he displays a great sense of discomfiture vis-à-vis the cruelties he daily practices but mitigates it by claiming that his steadfastness in observing swadharma or ‘the duty of one’s order’ (3.199.14) bestows upon his job the benediction of ānŗśamsya or ‘noncruelty’; he appreciates the lowliness of his rough trade but it gladdens him to think that he supplies meat to ‘gods’ (3.199.4) offered in duly conducted Sacrifices.

On the whole, Mahābhārata’s Dharmavyādha, a rare example of a Sūdra trained in ‘Brahmanic philosophy’, stands out as a person who to the last syllable of his being fulfils one of Manu’s kernel injunctions. In the very first chapter of his Book of Laws, Manu had issued the writ: ‘The Lord assigned only one activity to a Sūdra: serving the other castes without resentment’.18 And, it is this lack of ‘resentment’ (or better still of Nietzschean ressentiment) towards so-called natural superiors which enables Dharmavyādha to simultaneously epitomize servility and make a case for ‘leniency’ or ‘compassion’.


It is, therefore, not surprising that playing the role of mediating middle term, ānŗśamsya should come to the rescue of the Vedic Sacrifice, remove the taint of himsā ascribed to it by the Śŗamaņs. It underpins the rationale behind the new ‘rules of the game’ chalked up by embattled Brahmanism, by lawmakers embarrassed by Śŗāmaņic charges. Ânŗśamsya places, for example, Manu’s dictum, ‘…killing in sacrifice is not killing…The violence sanctioned by the Veda and regulated by official restraints is known as nonviolence’,19 on a surer footing.


Clearly, the ‘new word’20 which captures the imagination of both Mukund Lath and Alf Hiltebeitel, is rather about attitude than any concrete instance of violence or nonviolence – set up to countermand the Śŗāmaņic over-valorization of ahimsā, ānŗśamsya bespeaks of an ‘affective state’. Encourages as it does to cultivate a sense of detachment to the consequences of his actions in the mind of the doer, the ‘new word’ bears familial resemblances with many Brahmanic and Śŗāmaņic concepts. For example: in ‘Śāntiparvan’, after saying, ‘I know what ānŗśamsya is, because I have always marked the conduct of good people’ (12.158.1), Yudhishthira heaps praises on a sensibility central to the set of precepts associated with the famed nishkāma karma (12.164.41-46).

Aparigrahah is one word that ānŗśamsya recalls most strenuously. The word itself has a checkered history. Aparigrahah generally implies ‘non-possession’. It appears in the ancient, most probably pre-Buddhist, Jābāla Upanişad;21 it is one of the ‘Five Great Vows’ enjoined by Jainism;22 it recurs once in Chapter Six, Verse number ten in the Bhagavadgītā.23

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi – the apostle of ahimsā of modern India who on occasions looked back to Yudhishthira in his attempts to define the term24 and besides translating the Gītā into Gujarati composed immensely influential commentaries on the book – was deeply impressed by the Gītā’s employment of aparigrahah. Lest we muddle up things, it is important to remember that aparigrahah or ‘[to be] free from longing for possessions’25 used in conjunction with thoroughgoing ahimsā connotes a value quite distinct from the one produced by its conjunction with the more malleable ānŗśamsya.


Being a self-professed ‘practical idealist’,26 Gandhi was often driven to reflect on the epistemological limits of the creed of ‘nonviolence’. A pacifist, he consistently disavowed the ‘doctrine of the sword’ in his battles against imperialist forces. In pointing to the distinctive character of man’s species-being Gandhi did not, unlike the Dharmic Fowler, stop at ‘noncruelty’, but said, ‘Nonviolence is the law of our species as violence is the law of the brute’.27 He paid tributes to Mahavira, the Jain teacher who was among the staunchest advocates of the gospel of ahimsā, and the Buddha as well and termed them ‘soldiers’ for the cause of ‘nonviolence’.28 Nonetheless, Gandhi maintained, there were certain aspects of violence which were ‘inevitable’;29 he boldly asserted that his own doctrine of ahimsā was ‘new’, not ‘dependent upon the authority of [previous] works’ including those belonging to the Jain school of thought.30


There are several passages in Gandhi’s An Autobiography or The Story of My Experiments with Truth (volume I: 1927; volume II: 1929) in which he expresses great fascination with the Gītā and its English translation by Edwin Arnold titled The Song Celestial (1885).31 He took the Gītā as his Book of ‘conduct’ and sought to develop his idea of ahimsā on its basis.32 And, it is striking that Gandhi’s political lexicon is most profoundly coloured by a word which appears only once in the Gītā, his ‘dictionary of daily reference’.33 That word, as Gandhi put it himself, ‘gripped’34 him from the start and as years passed by, helped him to forge his most original contribution in the field of social sciences: the notion of ‘trusteeship’. The word was aparigrahah.

Gandhi wrote in his Autobiography: ‘I understood the Gita teaching of [aparigrahah or] non-possession to mean that those who desired salvation should act like a trustee who, though having control over great possessions, regards not an iota of them as his own’.35 Note the crucial difference: while according to the Jain tenet aparigrahaħ signifies renunciation of all material possession in the exact sense of the term, Gandhi derives from Gītā’s aparigrahaħ the profile of a ‘subject’ who does not give up his private property for good but has the perspicuity to not to call anything one’s own for the sake of public good.


It may now be safely surmised that the concept of ānŗśamsya has a positive bearing on itihāsa as well as on modern history. The ‘supreme significance’36 ascribed to it in the epic is doubtless absent in post-Mahābhārata literature. However, its hidden intellectual career can be uncovered once we align ānŗśamsya with aparigrahah and follow the latter’s role in shaping the image of the responsible leader of New India – a man gifted with both control over great possessions and the right attitude towards them; a man who affirms ahimsā but knows periodic release of controlled violence may be mandatory in the discharge of his duties.

There still remains a serious epistemological problem. It is quite apparent that in pre-modern texts the will to himsā is equated to will to slay – it is assumed that even the most trivial act of himsā inclusive that of ‘speech’ or ‘thought’ is grounded on and geared to the final solution of annihilating some other. Even when the Jains advised that it was advisable to avoid violence ‘not so much because it harm[ed] other beings [but] because it harm[ed] the individual who commit[ed] it’,37 the ‘selfish’ motive was dictated by the fear of damaging, in the extreme case damaging physically, someone else. Nonetheless, it seems, in the light of more recent formulations, neither the Śŗāmaņic celebration of ahimsā nor the Mahābhārata’s resolution of opposites through ānŗśamsya nor the latter’s disguised deployment in modern political theory, evince sufficient alertness to the mechanisms of violence.


A whole section of Mahābhārata’s ‘Śāntiparvan’ is devoted to āpad-dharma, to the rules in situations of extremity when normal rules do not apply (12.129.14 to 12.167.24). Almost at the beginning of the section there is a sloka which is like a prelude to what is to follow. It says: ‘As a hunter discovers the track of a deer wounded with arrow by marking spots of blood on the ground, so should one try to find out the reasons of dharma’ (12.130.20). We are then introduced to a series of tales and counsels whose chief burden is to underscore the over-riding importance of ‘self-preservation’.

The instruction is: ‘See the efficacy of self-interest’ (12.136.140). Therefore, recognizing instinctively that ‘this body is my friend’ (12.139.73), a person should not refrain from doing things, no matter how distressful or distasteful they are, in order to save his most intimate friend; knowing that, ‘One should keep up his life by any means in his power without judging of their charter’ (12.139.59), it is quite permissible and passable for a person threatened by imminent death to cause injury to others. (Incidentally, Gandhi too accepted the necessity of applying violence for self-defence.)

This means at the moment of deepest crisis, the man caught up in it has every right to suspend all codes of formal behaviour or sadāchāra. More importantly, this also indicates that, in the ultimate analysis, the source of violence is always positioned as being external to the body; it is taken for granted that the violence which may entail one’s destruction is always inflicted from the outside; the terrible enemy is forever stationed elsewhere. This sense of exteriority in relation to fatal dangers also circumscribes the reach of ahimsā – to be ‘nonviolent’ then becomes a corollary and an extension of the urge to conserve one’s body.


It is no wonder, therefore, that Sudharman, a direct disciple of Mahāvira, in stating the irrevocable factum tenet of the Jain system, the first of the ‘Five Great Vows’,38 took recourse to the metaphor of the ‘body’ dreading foreign invasion and the criterion of ‘reciprocity’. He said: ‘All [bodies] are subject to pain; hence they should not be killed… Know this to be the real meaning of the Law of ahimsā: as you do not wish to be killed, so others do not wish to be killed’.39

Armed with this Law, Sudharman launched a frontal attack on the competing Śŗamaņ school of Buddhism and declared: ‘See! There are men pretend[ing] to be houseless, i.e., monks such as the Bauddhas, [who] destroy earth-body by bad and injurious things…a wise man should not act sinfully towards earth, nor cause others to act so’.40 Going by this extremist dogma, if a man lays down his life for any cause, say, for ahimsā, he does so because he willfully lets the other-directed himsā to fall upon him and not because desire for violence stems from his own body. Mahābhārata too – the text, that in S. Radhakrishnan’s opinion is a stellar example of ‘readjustments’ initiated by Brāhmanism to process some of the objections raised by diverse ‘systems of revolt’41 – in substance reiterates the same criterion of ‘reciprocity’ when it teaches that the sum total of man’s duties is contained in the maxim, ‘Thou shalt not do to others what is disagreeable to thyself’.42


However, complacency apropos violence can no longer be entertained. Among others, the psychoanalytic intervention in the matter precludes such a possibility. In 1920 Sigmund Freud published Beyond the Pleasure Principle (English translation: 1922). Sitting in Vienna, Freud composed that perplexing work just after the First World War ended and the Austro-Hungarian Empire had vanished from the political map. The two inter-related concepts he introduced in the book have radically altered all earlier visions as regards man’s aptitude for controlling violence. One of them was primary masochism and the other, death-instincts.

At one point in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud alluded to E. Hering’s theory that all ‘living substance[s]’ were subject to two contrary processes, one ‘constitutive or assimilatory’ and the other ‘destructive or dissimilatory’. Next, with no prior intimation whatsoever, Freud suddenly took a mighty speculative leap. He substituted Hering’s ‘vital processes’ by ‘instinctual impulses’ and proposed that every living substance was ‘dualistic’ in nature – each was simultaneously motivated by ‘life instincts’ and ‘death instincts’.43


The expression ‘death-instincts’, later more famously known as Thanatos, makes its ‘first published appearance’44 in Beyond the Pleasure Principle – and, at the very moment of its debut it forces us to take seriously, perhaps for the first time in recorded history, bizarre hypotheses such as, ‘[There exists an irresoluble] opposition between the ego or death instincts and the sexual or life instincts’45 or ‘The instincts of self-preservation… are component instincts whose function is to assure that the organism shall follow its own path of death’.46

The death-driven Freudian psyche supplies the aetiology necessary for sociological analyses of ‘suicide’. But, it does more. Thanatos and the ‘primary regression’ called masochism together bring ‘violence’ to centre stage – the human appetite for self-consumption changes the meaning of ‘danger’ to include instances that overstep boundaries set by the principle of ‘self-preservation’; the sensational hypothesis that ‘pain’ can jolly well be a pleasurable sensation for the human animal, in effect, problematizes the Śŗāmaņic doctrine of ‘mutual dependence’, the psychosomatic axiom upon which the pre-modern notion of ahimsā was premised.


The 1932 correspondence between Albert Einstein, the physicist whose elegant formula e = mc2 provided the theoretical frame for making the atom bomb a practical proposition, and Sigmund Freud, the psychoanalyst who widened the horizon of ‘violence’, unambiguously demonstrates that the latter in later life regarded the antimony of two basal instincts, eros and Thanatos, as one inviolable factor of ‘human condition’.47 So did the Śŗamaņs when they spoke of bodily pains and Mahābhārata’s Dharmavyādha when he said it was absurd to think that one could avoid doing violence to others in any absolute sense. In each case the theory is produced in response to a specific circumstance, each articulation is backed by a political intention.

If the Śŗāmaņic insistence on ahimsā, on according respect to all and giving credence to individual suffering was a strategy to mount an ethical attack on Brahmanism and Mahābhārata’s ānŗśamsya an apologia for Brahmanism, then Freud’s Thanatos was an offshoot of the brutalities regularly practiced by men during the First World War and the initial phase of Nazism. And, Adolf Hitler, the arch-ideologue of Nazism, in the concluding chapter titled ‘The Right to Self-Defence’ in his 1924 autobiography Mein Kampf had written: ‘[just as] a weak pigmy cannot contend against athletes, a negotiator without any armed defence at his back must always bow in obescience’.48

On 6 August 1945, the allied forces fighting against the Evil of Nazism dropped the first atom bomb on Hiroshima and thereby officially inaugurated the Nuclear Age. With that strike, at one stroke man acquired a ‘new attribute’: ‘the ability to extinguish all life upon earth’.49 Replaces as it does the age-old diachronic order associated with ‘death’ by the possibility of the ‘synchronic’, by the ever-looming terrifying thought that man can actually make everything and being sign out all at once if he so wills, also brings to Freud’s idea of Thanatos or individualistic death-wish a quaint charm. It is in the historical context of the technological revolution which has the capacity of posing ‘utter calamity’ as the telos of humanity, that the real one feels, epistemological challenge of today is to re-think the question of ‘nonviolence’; ask again, what really is ahimsā?



* All Mahābhārata references are to the Critical Edition of the Mahābhārata published by the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Pune. The English translations are based on (a) M.N. Dutt, The Mahābhārata (nine volumes), Parimal Publications, Delhi, 2004 and (b) Kisari Mohan Ganguli, The Mahābhārata (four volumes), Munshiram Manoharlal, New Delhi, 2004.

1. Alf Hiltebeitel, ‘Chapter Five: Don’t Be Cruel’, Rethinking the Mahābhārata: A Reader’s Guide to the Education of the Dharma King (first published 2001), Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2002, p. 207.

2. Mukund Lath, ‘The Concept of Ānŗśamsya in the Mahābhārata’, The Mahābhārata Revisited, ed. R.N. Dandekar, Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi, 1990, p. 113, p. 115.

3. Mukund Lath, ibid., p. 119.

4. J.L. Mehta, ‘The Discourse of Violence in the Mahabharata’, Philosophy and Religion: Essays in Interpretation, Indian Council of Philosophical Research and Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, New Delhi, 1990, p. 256.

5. Vrinda Dalmiya, ‘Dogged Loyalties: A Classical Indian Intervention in Care Ethics’, Ethics in the World Religions, eds. J. Runzo and Nancy M. Martin, Oxford, 2007, pp. 293-306.

6. For discussions on the fable see: (a) Alf Hiltebeitel, op cit., p. 213; (b) Vrinda Dalmiya, op cit., p. 294.

7. For a detailed discussion on the moral implications of anukrosha, see Vrinda Dalmiya, ibid., pp. 298-305.

8. Sources of Indian Tradition (Volume One: ‘From the Beginning to 1800), ed. Ainslie T. Embree, Penguin Books, New Delhi, 1992, pp. 170-171.

9. The original text: ‘1 Shilānusāshana’, Ashokalipi, ed. and tr. Amulyachandra Sen, Mahabodhi Book Agency, Kolkata, 1994, p. 144.

For English translation see: Sources of Indian Tradition (Volume One), op .cit., p. 144.

10. Chāndogya Upanişad, ‘III.16.1’ and ‘III.17.4’, tr. S. Radhakrishnan, The Principal Upanişads, HarperCollins Publishers India, New Delhi, 1998, p. 394 and p. 396.

11. Bŗhad-āraņyaka Upanişad, ‘IV.4.22’, The Principal Upanişads, ibid., p. 279.

12. The Vyākaraņa Mahābhāsya of Pataňjali, edited by F. Kielhorn, Volume 1, p. 474, p. 476.

13. Mukund Lath, op cit., pp. 118-119.

14. Alf Hiltebeitel, op cit., p. 203.

15. Kashi Nath Upadhyaya, ‘Chapter II: Section B: The Compromising Character of the Bhagavadgītā’, Early Buddhism and the Bhagavadgītā, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 2008, pp. 106-109.

16. Chaturvedi Badrinath, ‘Chapter Five: Ahimsā – Non-violence, the Foundation of Life’, The Mahābhārata: An Inquiry in the Human Condition, ed., p. 114 [emphasis added]

17. Richard F. Gombrich, ‘Chapter III: The Buddha’s Dhamma’, Theravada Buddhism: A Social History from Ancient Benares to Modern Colombo, Routledge, London, 1988, p. 67.

18. Manusamhitā, ‘I.91’, ed. Panchanan Tarkaratna, Sanskrit Pustak Bhandar, Kolkata, 2000, p. 40.

For English translation see: The Laws of Manu, ‘I.91’, tr. Wendy Doniger and Brian K. Smith, Penguin Books, New Delhi, 1991, p. 13.

19. Manusamhitā, ‘V.39 & V.44’, ed. Panchanan Tarkaratna, op cit., p. 129 and p. 130.

For English translation see, The Laws of Manu, ‘V.39 and V.44’, tr. Wendy Doniger and Brian K. Smith, op cit., p. 103 and p. 103.

20. (a) Mukund Lath, op cit., p. 113. (b) Alf Hiltebeitel, op cit., p. 202.

21. Jābāla Upanişad, ‘Verse No. 5’, tr. S. Radhakrishnan, The Principal Upanişads, HarperCollins, New Delhi,1998, p. 898.

22. Âkārāňga Sūtra, ‘Book II, Lecture I5: i-v’, tr. Herman Jacobi, The Sacred Books of the East (Volume 22), ed. F. Max Müller, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 2002, pp. 202-210.

Uttarādhyayana Sūtra, ‘Lecture XXIII’, tr. Herman Jacobi, The Sacred Books of the East (Volume 45), ed. F. Max Müller, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 2004, pp. 119-129.

23. The Bhagavadgītā, ‘VI.10’, ed. S. Radhakrishnan, HarperCollins, New Delhi, p. 192.

24. M.K. Gandhi, ‘Problems of Non-violence’ (in Gujarati: 9 August 1925), The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Volume XXXII, The Publications Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India, Delhi, 1968, p. 273.

25. The Bhagavadgītā, ‘VI.10’, tr. S. Radhakrishnan, op cit., pp. 192-193.

26. M.K. Gandhi, ‘The Doctrine of the Sword’, (in Gujarati: 11 August 1920), The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Volume XXI, op cit., p. 134.

27. Ibid,, p. 134.

28. M.K. Gandhi, ‘On Ahimsa’, The Penguin Gandhi Reader, ed. Rudrangshu Mukherjee, Penguin Books, New Delhi,1993, p. 97.

29. M.K. Gandhi, ‘Problems of Non-violence’, The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Volume XXXII, op cit., p. 273.

30. M.K. Gandhi, ‘On Ahimsa: Reply to Lala Lajpat Rai’ (October 1916), The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Volume XV, op cit., pp. 251-252.

31. ‘I have read almost all the English translations of [the Gītā], and I regard Sir Edwin Arnold’s as the best’: M.K. Gandhi, An Autobiography or The Story of My Experiments with Truth, The Selected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Volume I, Navajivan Publishing House, Ahmedabad, 1968, p. 100.

32. M.K. Gandhi, An Autobiography or The Story of My Experiments with Truth, The Selected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Volume II, ibid., p. 393.

33. Ibid., p. 393.

34. Ibid., p. 393.

35. Ibid., p. 394.

36. Mukund Lath, op cit., p. 115.

37. A.L. Basham, ‘Introduction: Basic Doctrines of Jainism’, Sources of Indian Tradition (Volume One), op cit., p. 57.

38. Âkārāňga Sūtra, ‘Book II, Lecture I5: i’, op cit., pp. 202-204.

Uttarādhyayana Sūtra, ‘Lecture XXIII’, op cit., pp. 119-129.

See also, Upinder Singh, ‘Chapter Six: Cities, Kings and Renunciasists: North India, c. 600-300 BCE: Section: Early Jainism’, A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India: From the Stone Age to the 12th Century, Pearson Longman, Delhi, 2009, pp. 312-319.

39. Sūtrakritāňga, ‘Book I, Lecture I, Chapter 4: Verse nos. 9 & 10’, tr. Herman Jacobi, The Sacred Books of the East (Volume 45), ed. F. Max Müller, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 2004, pp. 247-248.

The same commandment is repeated in: Sūtrakritāňga, ‘Book I, Lecture II: Verse nos. 9 and 10’, op cit., p. 311.

40. Âkārāňga Sūtra, ‘Book I, Lecture I, Lesson 2’, op cit., pp. 3-5.

41. S. Radhakrishnan, ‘Chapter VIII: Epic Philosophy’, Indian Philosophy, Volume 1, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1999, pp. 477-478.

42. Ibid., p. 506.

43. Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, tr. James Strachey, The Penguin Freud Library, Volume 11: ‘On Metapsychology’, Penguin Books, London, 1991, pp. 311-322.

44. Angela Richards, ‘Footnote 2’, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, op cit., p. 272.

45. Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, op cit., p. 316.

46. Ibid., p. 311.

47. For a detailed discussion on the subject see, Sibaji Bandyopadhyay, ‘Defining Terror: A Freudian Exercise’, Science, Literature and Aesthetics, ed. Amiya Dev, History of Science, Philosophy and Culture in Indian Civilization, Volume XV, Part 3, Centre for Studies in Civilization, New Delhi, 2008, pp. 567-631.

48. Adolf Hitler, ‘The Right to Self-Defence’, Mein Kampf, Jainco Publishers, Delhi, p. 572.

49. Heinar Kipphardt, In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer, tr. Ruth Speirs, Methuen, London, 1967, p. 67.