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<nettime> A critique of nonviolence
Jeebesh on Tue, 17 Aug 2010 11:20:15 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> A critique of nonviolence

dear all,

waves of euphoria and crisis crisscross public discourse in places  
like india in recent times. this is also a great time for lively  
debates and thinking. here is an essay by Sibaji Bandyopadhyay from  
kolkata. he is an scholar who comfortably traverses multiple  
intellectual and literary traditions. maybe be of some benefit to  
people in this list.




A critique of nonviolence


AhimsÄ paramo dharmo â 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 ânonviolenceâ. 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 ahimsÄ.

We are repeatedly reminded, the one singular achievement of ancient  
India was that all her sages, meaning âcustodians of peopleâ called  
upon to preserve harmony among different callings and thus augment  
loka-samgraha or âsocial wealthâ, condemned himsÄor âviolenceâ  
without so much as a demur. And, to refurbish this popular wisdom, the  
modern ideologues committed to it invariably hark back to the  
MahÄbhÄrata, the colossal work that within the tradition of Indian  
taxonomy of genres bears the title itihÄsa. With the express intention  
of affirming iti-ha-Äsa or âso indeed it wasâ, they cite selective  
portions of the MahÄbhÄrata.

With great fondness, they keep mouthing, for example, the dictum  
handed out to Yudhishthira by grandsire Bhishma in  
âAnuÅÄnaparvanâ. The dictum, lilting in terms of lyrical cadence,  
makes the expression âahimsÄ paramo dharmoâ or âahimsÄ is the  
highest dharmaâ more weighty by appending to it expressions such as,  
âAhimsÄ is the highest form of self-controlâ, âAhimsÄ is the  
highest austerityâ, âAhimsÄ is the highest sacrificeâ,  
âAhimsÄ is the best friendâ, âAhimsÄ is the greatest  
happinessâ, âAhimsÄ is the highest truthâ (13.117.37-38).*

Indisputably, there is a kind of critical consensus that itihÄsa  
places an exceedingly high premium on ânonviolenceâ. 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 MahÄbhÄrata, prepares a  
tally-sheet for the phrase paramo dharmo and demonstrates that out of  
the 54 times it occurs in the MahÄbhÄrata, it is conjoined with the  
word ahimsÄ only four times â and, of those four, one is contained  
in Bhishmaâs 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 Hiltebeitelâs chart provides other  
information that have the potential to meet the deficiency. We gather  
from it that along with ânonviolenceâ and âtruthâ there is one  
order of excellence extolled by the MahÄbhÄrata, which by a curious  
twist of logic, appears to give lie to the truth of nonviolence. And  
that is ÄnÅÅamsya or ânoncrueltyâ. Moreover, and surely this is  
telling, although the expression ÄnÅÅamsyam paro dharma or  
ânoncruelty is the supreme dharmaâ features eight times in the  
MahÄbhÄrata, it is only very recently that scholars have begun to  
take cognizance of ÄnÅÅamsya 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, âIt has been kind of voyage of discovery for me, to  
understand what ÄnÅÅamsya means in the MahÄbhÄrataâ [It is more  
so because] outside the MahÄbhÄrata, whether in the literature  
preceding the MahÄbhÄrata or following it, the word hardly has the  
supreme significance [as] it has in the epicâ.2

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

In the justly famous dialogue between Yudhishthira and Dharma, the  
highest authority on the meaning of Good-ness, appearing as a Yaksha  
in the âÃraÅyakaparvanâ, the philosophical Yudhishthiraâs  
response to Yakshaâs question, âWhat is the greatest virtue in the  
world?â was, ÄnÅÅamsyam paro dharmo, âabsence of cruelty is the  
highest virtueâ (3. 297.54-55 and 3. 297.71). In the course of the  
interrogation which took in its stride such intriguing existential  
issues as âthe substance of selfâ, âthe meaning of happinessâ,  
âthe surest path of acquiring authentic knowledgeâ, âthe problem  
of recognizing oneâs own mortalityâ, the statement ÄnÅÅamsyam  
paro dharma comes twice. The fact that Yudhishthira the DharmarÄja  
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 MahÄbhÄrata, the one hero  
compulsively obsessed with intricacies involving moral conundrums,  
should choose to mark ânoncrueltyâ and not ânonviolenceâ as the  
ultimate humane attribute. However, the underlying assumptions behind  
the privileging is supplied not by Yudhishthira but by a fowler by  
profession â instead of DharmarÄja, they are spelt out by a SÅdra  
reverentially referred to as DharmavyÄdha. They are there in the  
lecture, rather lengthy and tiresome one at that, which the Dharmic  
Fowler delivered to a haughty Brahminin âÃraÅyakaparvanâ (3.198.1  
to 3.206.32).

Let us now focus on the salient features of the discourse on  
ÄnÅÅamsya spun by DharmavyÄdha of MithilÄ, the conscientious  
SÅdra 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 DharmavyÄdha said:

1. âAhimsÄ is the highest dharma, which, again, is founded upon  
truthâ (3.198.69). (Incidentally, of the four times we encounter the  
phrase ahimsÄ paramo dharma in the MahÄbhÄrata, one of them comes  
from DharmavyÄdha.)

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  
âÅÄntiparvanâ. The hero whom an immobilizing depression seized  
immediately before the commencement of the Kurukshetra War but who,  
thanks to Krishnaâs 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, âI do not see a single person in this world who  
lives by nonviolenceâ (12.15.20).

3. Hence, the best way to resolve the paradox is to temper the  
exacting demands of ânonviolenceâ by emphasizing âleniencyâ or  
ânoncrueltyâ and, for all practical purposes, replace the  
commandment âahimsÄ is the highest dharmaâ by âÄnÅÅamsya is  
the highest dharmaâ (3.203.41). (In Mukund Lathâs words, âWhat  
the MahÄbhÄrata preaches is not ahimsÄ but ÄnÅÅamsyaâ.3  
Lathâs claim is indeed provocative. Unlike J.L. Mehta, who believes  
â[MahÄbhÄrataâs] central message, repeated again and again, is  
that non-violence (ahimsa) and compassion (anrisamsya) are the highest  
duties of manâ4, Lath sees a distinct hierarchy at work in the  
MahÄbhÄrata â a subtle distinguishing operation that places  
ÄnÅÅamsya over and above ahimsÄ.)

DharmavyÄdha reckons âstate of violenceâ to be an irremediable,  
unavoidable factor of âhuman conditionâ. By the same token, in his  
system of Ethics, ahimsÄ obtains the precarious status of an  
unrealizable ideal â it is as if, no matter how morally judicious a  
subject is in conducting his daily life, the goal of ahimsÄ can only  
be approached by moving along an asymptomatic curve that converges  
only at infinity. The Dharmic Fowlerâs axiomatic propositions â  
propositions that he himself claims to be part and parcel of authentic  
âBrahmanic philosophyâ (3.201.14) â lead inexorably to the  
framing of, what, for the sake of convenience may be called, a  
âprinciple of proxyâ.

In the BrÄhmanic universe of the scrupulous SÅdra, the notion of  
ÄnÅÅamsya functions as a stand-in for ahimsÄ. It maintains a  
critical distance from both the components of the himsÄ-ahimsÄ or  
âviolence-nonviolenceâ 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, ÄnÅÅamsya gestures towards the  
apparently contradictory prescript of âviolence without violationâ.  
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 ÄnÅÅamsya as the closest possible  
approximate of ahimsÄ.

But then, we are dealing with itihÄsa, 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. ÄnÅÅamsya too has an  
indeterminate ambiguity about it. There are moments in the  
MahÄbhÄrata in which the word comes so close to anukrosha or  
âempathyâ as to make ahimsÄ and ÄnÅÅamsya not only mutually  
exchangeable (as envisaged by J.L. Mehta) but also to construe a  
general grammar of âethical careâ on the basis of ÄnÅÅamsya.5  
The âfable of the parrotâ in the AnuÅÄsanaparvan is a case in  
point. On Yudhishthiraâs plea âI wish to hear of the merits of  
ÄnÅÅamsyaâ, 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 treeâs 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 âcompassionâ, âkindliness of feelingâ and  
affection for the erstwhile protector, the parrot invoked successively  
the concepts ÄnÅÅamsya 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 parrotâs supernatural feat of practicing  
ÄnÅÅamsya (13.5.9) and resolved the problem by adducing to the  
primary supposition of a (supposed) âNatural Ethicsâ. Indra  
discerned in the parrotâs behaviour a confirmation of the principle  
of âmutual careâ â there was no mystery; the urge to be generous  
towards others was a predilection common to allcreatures (13.5.10).

Doubtless, the âfable of the parrotâ exceeds the limit set by  
DharmavyÄdha to the category of ÄnÅÅamsya. Similar exceeding can be  
found in other parts of the MahÄbhÄrata too. For example, in the  
almost last (significant) episode of itihÄsa in which Indra forbade  
Yudhishthira from entering the celestial abode if DharmarÄja 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 ÄnÅÅamsya (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 âcrying out that  
"follows" (anu) someone elseâs "cry"(krosha)â7, ÄnÅÅamsya over- 
steps the boundary imposed on it by DharmavyÄdha.

But, before one can cognize the âsupplementâ that âsupplantsâ  
any âsteadyâ signification, it is imperative to follow the  
âlogicâ of the âmain argumentâ 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 DharmavyÄdhaâs discourse in this paper.

To trace the genealogical route of the term ÄnÅÅamsya (as explicated  
by DharmavyÄdha) 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 ÅÅamaÅ â 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 ÅÅamaÅs â the two most prominent of whom were the  
Buddhists and the Jains â 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 âdumb  
creaturesâ, a form of dumbness unhesitatingly sanctified by priests  
practiced in the art of Vedic rituals, which exercised them the most  
â the dissenting ÅÅamaÅs fleshed out their idea of ahimsÄ as a  
protest against this outrage. This, however, does not mean that all  
those anti-Brahminical sects which propagated ahimsÄ also preached  
that it was beneath the dignity of men to consume meat as food.

The fact that the ideals of ahimsÄ and vegetarianism did not stem from  
the same origin but evolved along two different paths is borne out by  
facts like: while the TheravÄda 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  
TheravÄda ordinance as being an example of sophistry designed to  
camouflage the desire for the taste of meat â 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, âHere  
[meaning perhaps, Ashokaâs capital] no animal is to be killed for  
sacrificeâ, 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  
ârevaluation of all (BrÄhmanical) valuesâ through the category of  
nonviolence â in the Jain-like exaggerated diction or otherwise â  
the ÅÅamaÅs reinforced some of the precepts which were part of the  
tradition of (pre-ÅÅamaÅic) UpaniÅad. The ÅÅamaÅic insistence on  
ahimsÄ certainly cast a new light on sayings such as, âVerily, a  
person is a sacrificeâ austerity, almsgiving, uprightness, ahimsÄ,  
truthfulness are the gifts [for that sacrifice]â (ChÄndogya  
UpaniÅad: III. 16.1 and III. 17.4).10

Again, undoubtedly, fighting against the home-dwelling BrÄhmins, the  
priests who had no qualms about earning their livelihood by gifting  
animal flesh to gods, the homeless ÅÅamaÅs could have garnered moral  
support for their irremediable wanderlust as well as claim a longer  
and nobler lineage than the himsÄ-epitomizing BrÄhmins from pre- 
ÅÅamaÅic utterances as âVerily, he is the great unborn Selfâ  
Desiring Him only as their worlds, monks wonder forth. Verily, because  
they knew this, the ancient (sages) did not wish for  
offspringâ (BÅhad-ÄraÅyaka UpaniÅad: IV. 4.22).11

On the whole, despite the earlier invocations of the creed of  
nonviolence, the BrÄhmin-ÅÅamaÅ hostility was scripted by treating  
ahimsÄ as the moot point of contention â 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.

PatanjÄli, Indiaâs legendary grammarian of 2nd c. BCE, had compared  
the BrÄhmin-ÅÅamaÅ hostility with the natural snake-mongoose  
hostility. Then again, while expounding on the âantagonistic  
compoundâ, PatanjÄli had instantiated it by referring to the  
âeternal conflictâ between the BrÄhmin and the ÅÅamaÅ!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 MahÄbhÄrataâs ÄnÅÅamsya as a compromise formula â  
a formula devised to diffuse the disaccord between the orthodox  
Brahmana and the non-conformist ÅÅamaÅ. What is more, this view is  
quite palatable to many a radical interpreter of Indiaâs past, such  
as, Kashi Nath Upadhyaya, the author of the outstanding treatise,  
Early Buddhism and the BhagavadgÄtÄ (1971).15 None of them would  
contest that the concept of uncompromising ahimsÄ conceived by a  
section of the ÅÅamaÅs in order to morally nullify the himsÄ- 
oriented BrÄhminical practices provided the founding condition for  
MahÄbhÄrataâs ÄnÅÅamsya. Of course, there are dissenters; e.g.,  
Chaturvedi Badrinath, the author of The MahÄbhÄrata: An Enquiry in  
the Human Condition. He wrote as late as in 2006, âThe three powerful  
words ahimsÄ paramo dharmo that [keep] resound[ing] in the  
MahÄbhÄrata âwould later become the cardinal foundation of  

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 MahÄbhÄrataâs chief ideologue of ÄnÅÅamsya, the Dharmic  

DharmavyÄdhaâs 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 âpersonal intentionâ in place of âBrahmin  
ritualismâ17), 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 âpassive  
instrumentâ (3.199.3); he displays a great sense of discomfiture vis- 
Ã-vis the cruelties he daily practices but mitigates it by claiming  
that his steadfastness in observing swadharma or âthe duty of oneâs  
orderâ (3.199.14) bestows upon his job the benediction of  
ÄnÅÅamsya or ânoncrueltyâ; he appreciates the lowliness of his  
rough trade but it gladdens him to think that he supplies meat to  
âgodsâ (3.199.4) offered in duly conducted Sacrifices.

On the whole, MahÄbhÄrataâs DharmavyÄdha, a rare example of a  
SÅdra trained in âBrahmanic philosophyâ, stands out as a person  
who to the last syllable of his being fulfils one of Manuâs kernel  
injunctions. In the very first chapter of his Book of Laws, Manu had  
issued the writ: âThe Lord assigned only one activity to a SÅdra:  
serving the other castes without resentmentâ.18 And, it is this lack  
of âresentmentâ (or better still of Nietzschean ressentiment)  
towards so-called natural superiors which enables DharmavyÄdha to  
simultaneously epitomize servility and make a case for âleniencyâ  
or âcompassionâ.

It is, therefore, not surprising that playing the role of mediating  
middle term, ÄnÅÅamsya should come to the rescue of the Vedic  
Sacrifice, remove the taint of himsÄ ascribed to it by the ÅÅamaÅs.  
It underpins the rationale behind the new ârules of the gameâ  
chalked up by embattled Brahmanism, by lawmakers embarrassed by  
ÅÅÄmaÅic charges. ÃnÅÅamsya places, for example, Manuâs  
dictum, ââkilling in sacrifice is not killingâThe violence  
sanctioned by the Veda and regulated by official restraints is known  
as nonviolenceâ,19 on a surer footing.

Clearly, the ânew wordâ20 which captures the imagination of both  
Mukund Lath and Alf Hiltebeitel, is rather about attitude than any  
concrete instance of violence or nonviolence â set up to countermand  
the ÅÅÄmaÅic over-valorization of ahimsÄ, ÄnÅÅamsya bespeaks of  
an âaffective stateâ. Encourages as it does to cultivate a sense of  
detachment to the consequences of his actions in the mind of the doer,  
the ânew wordâ bears familial resemblances with many Brahmanic and  
ÅÅÄmaÅic concepts. For example: in âÅÄntiparvanâ, after  
saying, âI know what ÄnÅÅamsya is, because I have always marked  
the conduct of good peopleâ (12.158.1), Yudhishthira heaps praises on  
a sensibility central to the set of precepts associated with the famed  
nishkÄma karma (12.164.41-46).

Aparigrahah is one word that ÄnÅÅamsya recalls most strenuously. The  
word itself has a checkered history. Aparigrahah generally implies  
ânon-possessionâ. It appears in the ancient, most probably pre- 
Buddhist, JÄbÄla UpaniÅad;21 it is one of the âFive Great Vowsâ  
enjoined by Jainism;22 it recurs once in Chapter Six, Verse number ten  
in the BhagavadgÄtÄ.23

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi â the apostle of ahimsÄ of modern India  
who on occasions looked back to Yudhishthira in his attempts to define  
the term24 and besides translating the GÄtÄ into Gujarati composed  
immensely influential commentaries on the book â was deeply impressed  
by the GÄtÄâs employment of aparigrahah. Lest we muddle up things,  
it is important to remember that aparigrahah or â[to be] free from  
longing for possessionsâ25 used in conjunction with thoroughgoing  
ahimsÄ connotes a value quite distinct from the one produced by its  
conjunction with the more malleable ÄnÅÅamsya.

Being a self-professed âpractical idealistâ,26 Gandhi was often  
driven to reflect on the epistemological limits of the creed of  
ânonviolenceâ. A pacifist, he consistently disavowed the  
âdoctrine of the swordâ in his battles against imperialist forces.  
In pointing to the distinctive character of manâs species-being  
Gandhi did not, unlike the Dharmic Fowler, stop at ânoncrueltyâ,  
but said, âNonviolence is the law of our species as violence is the  
law of the bruteâ.27 He paid tributes to Mahavira, the Jain teacher  
who was among the staunchest advocates of the gospel of ahimsÄ, and  
the Buddha as well and termed them âsoldiersâ for the cause of  
ânonviolenceâ.28 Nonetheless, Gandhi maintained, there were certain  
aspects of violence which were âinevitableâ;29 he boldly asserted  
that his own doctrine of ahimsÄ was ânewâ, not âdependent upon  
the authority of [previous] worksâ including those belonging to the  
Jain school of thought.30

There are several passages in Gandhiâs An Autobiography or The Story  
of My Experiments with Truth (volume I: 1927; volume II: 1929) in  
which he expresses great fascination with the GÄtÄ and its English  
translation by Edwin Arnold titled The Song Celestial(1885).31 He took  
the GÄtÄ as his Book of âconductâ and sought to develop his idea  
of ahimsÄ on its basis.32 And, it is striking that Gandhiâs  
political lexicon is most profoundly coloured by a word which appears  
only once in the GÄtÄ, his âdictionary of daily referenceâ.33  
That word, as Gandhi put it himself, âgrippedâ34 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  
âtrusteeshipâ. The word was aparigrahah.

Gandhi wrote in his Autobiography: âI 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 ownâ.35 Note  
the crucial difference: while according to the Jain tenet aparigrahaÄ  
signifies renunciation of all material possession in the exact sense  
of the term, Gandhi derives from GÄtÄâs aparigrahaÄ the profile of  
a âsubjectâ who does not give up his private property for good but  
has the perspicuity to not to call anything oneâs own for the sake of  
public good.

It may now be safely surmised that the concept of ÄnÅÅamsya has a  
positive bearing on itihÄsa as well as on modern history. The  
âsupreme significanceâ36 ascribed to it in the epic is doubtless  
absent in post-MahÄbhÄrata literature. However, its hidden  
intellectual career can be uncovered once we align ÄnÅÅamsya with  
aparigrahah and follow the latterâs role in shaping the image of the  
responsible leader of New India â a man gifted with both control over  
great possessions and the right attitude towards them; a man who  
affirms ahimsÄ 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 himsÄ is equated to will  
to slay â it is assumed that even the most trivial act of himsÄ  
inclusive that of âspeechâ or âthoughtâ 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 ânot so much  
because it harm[ed] other beings [but] because it harm[ed] the  
individual who commit[ed] itâ,37 the âselfishâ 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 ÅÅÄmaÅic celebration of ahimsÄ  
nor the MahÄbhÄrataâs resolution of opposites through ÄnÅÅamsya  
nor the latterâs disguised deployment in modern political theory,  
evince sufficient alertness to the mechanisms of violence.

A whole section of MahÄbhÄrataâs âÅÄntiparvanâ is devoted to  
Äpad-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: âAs 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 dharmaâ (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 âself-preservationâ.

The instruction is: âSee the efficacy of self- 
interestâ (12.136.140). Therefore, recognizing instinctively that  
âthis body is my friendâ (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, âOne should  
keep up his life by any means in his power without judging of their  
charterâ (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 orsadÄchÄra.  
More importantly, this also indicates that, in the ultimate analysis,  
the source of violence is always positioned as beingexternal to the  
body; it is taken for granted that the violence which may entail  
oneâs 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 ahimsÄ â  
to be ânonviolentâ then becomes a corollary and an extension of the  
urge to conserve oneâs body.

It is no wonder, therefore, that Sudharman, a direct disciple of  
MahÄvira, in stating the irrevocable factum tenet of the Jain system,  
the first of the âFive Great Vowsâ,38 took recourse to the metaphor  
of the âbodyâ dreading foreign invasion and the criterion of  
âreciprocityâ. He said: âAll [bodies] are subject to pain; hence  
they should not be killedâ Know this to be the real meaning of the  
Law of ahimsÄ: as you do not wish to be killed, so others do not wish  
to be killedâ.39

Armed with this Law, Sudharman launched a frontal attack on the  
competing ÅÅamaÅ school of Buddhism and declared: âSee! There are  
men pretend[ing] to be houseless, i.e., monks such as the Bauddhas,  
[who] destroy earth-body by bad and injurious thingsâa wise man  
should not act sinfully towards earth, nor cause others to act soâ.40  
Going by this extremist dogma, if a man lays down his life for any  
cause, say, for ahimsÄ, he does so because he willfully lets the other- 
directed himsÄ to fall upon him and not because desire for violence  
stems from his own body. MahÄbhÄrata too â the text, that in S.  
Radhakrishnanâs opinion is a stellar example of âreadjustmentsâ  
initiated by BrÄhmanism to process some of the objections raised by  
diverse âsystems of revoltâ41 â in substance reiterates the same  
criterion of âreciprocityâ when it teaches that the sum total of  
manâs duties is contained in the maxim, âThou shalt not do to  
others what is disagreeable to thyselfâ.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 manâs aptitude for  
controlling violence. One of them was primary masochism and the other,  

At one point in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud alluded to E.  
Heringâs theory that all âliving substance[s]â were subject to  
two contrary processes, one âconstitutive or assimilatoryâ and the  
other âdestructive or dissimilatoryâ. Next, with no prior  
intimation whatsoever, Freud suddenly took a mighty speculative leap.  
He substituted Heringâs âvital processesâ by âinstinctual  
impulsesâ and proposed that every living substance was  
âdualisticâ in nature â each was simultaneously motivated by  
âlife instinctsâ and âdeath instinctsâ.43

The expression âdeath-instinctsâ, later more famously known as  
Thanatos, makes its âfirst published appearanceâ44 in Beyond the  
Pleasure Principle â 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, â[There exists an irresoluble] opposition  
between the ego or death instincts and the sexual or life  
instinctsâ45 or âThe instincts of self-preservationâ are  
component instincts whose function is to assure that the organism  
shall follow its own path of deathâ.46

The death-driven Freudian psyche supplies the aetiology necessary for  
sociological analyses of âsuicideâ. But, it does more. Thanatos and  
the âprimary regressionâ called masochism together bring  
âviolenceâ to centre stage â the human appetite for self- 
consumption changes the meaning of âdangerâ to include instances  
that overstep boundaries set by the principle of âself- 
preservationâ; the sensational hypothesis that âpainâ can jolly  
well be a pleasurable sensation for the human animal, in effect,  
problematizes the ÅÅÄmaÅic doctrine of âmutual dependenceâ, the  
psychosomatic axiom upon which the pre-modern notion of ahimsÄ was  

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 âviolenceâ, unambiguously  
demonstrates that the latter in later life regarded the antimony of  
two basal instincts, eros and Thanatos, as one inviolable factor of  
âhuman conditionâ.47 So did the ÅÅamaÅs when they spoke of  
bodily pains and MahÄbhÄrataâs DharmavyÄdha 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  

If the ÅÅÄmaÅic insistence on ahimsÄ, on according respect to all  
and giving credence to individual suffering was a strategy to mount an  
ethical attack on Brahmanism and MahÄbhÄrataâs ÄnÅÅamsya an  
apologia for Brahmanism, then Freudâs 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 âThe Right to Self- 
Defenceâ in his 1924 autobiography Mein Kampfhad written: â[just  
as] a weak pigmy cannot contend against athletes, a negotiator without  
any armed defence at his back must always bow in obescienceâ.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 ânew attributeâ: âthe ability to extinguish all life  
upon earthâ.49 Replaces as it does the age-old diachronic order  
associated with âdeathâ by the possibility of the âsynchronicâ,  
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 Freudâs 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 âutter calamityâ as the telos of  
humanity, that the real one feels, epistemological challenge of today  
is to re-think the question of ânonviolenceâ; ask again, what  
really is ahimsÄ?


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

1. Alf Hiltebeitel, âChapter Five: Donât Be Cruelâ, Rethinking  
the MahÄbhÄrata: A Readerâs Guide to the Education of the Dharma  
King (first published 2001), Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2002,  
p. 207.

2. Mukund Lath, âThe Concept of ÄnÅÅamsya in the MahÄbhÄrataâ,  
The MahÄbhÄrata Revisited, ed. R.N. Dandekar, Sahitya Akademi, New  
Delhi, 1990, p. 113, p. 115.

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

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

5. Vrinda Dalmiya, âDogged Loyalties: A Classical Indian Intervention  
in Care Ethicsâ, 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: âFrom the Beginning to  
1800), ed. Ainslie T. Embree, Penguin Books, New Delhi, 1992, pp.  

9. The original text: â1 ShilÄnusÄshanaâ, 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. ChÄndogya UpaniÅad, âIII.16.1â and âIII.17.4â, tr. S.  
Radhakrishnan, The Principal UpaniÅads, HarperCollins Publishers  
India, New Delhi, 1998, p. 394 and p. 396.

11. BÅhad-ÄraÅyaka UpaniÅad, âIV.4.22â, The Principal  
UpaniÅads, ibid., p. 279.

12. The VyÄkaraÅa MahÄbhÄsya of PataÅjali, 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, âChapter II: Section B: The Compromising  
Character of the BhagavadgÄtÄâ, Early Buddhism and the  
BhagavadgÄtÄ, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 2008, pp. 106-109.

16. Chaturvedi Badrinath, âChapter Five: AhimsÄ â Non-violence,  
the Foundation of Lifeâ, The MahÄbhÄrata: An Inquiry in the Human  
Condition, ed., p. 114 [emphasis added]

17. Richard F. Gombrich, âChapter III: The Buddhaâs Dhammaâ,  
Theravada Buddhism: A Social History from Ancient Benares to Modern  
Colombo, Routledge, London, 1988, p. 67.

18. ManusamhitÄ, âI.91â, ed. Panchanan Tarkaratna, Sanskrit Pustak  
Bhandar, Kolkata, 2000, p. 40.

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

19. ManusamhitÄ, âV.39 & V.44â, ed. Panchanan Tarkaratna, op cit.,  
p. 129 and p. 130.

For English translation see, The Laws of Manu, âV.39 and V.44â, 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.  

21. JÄbÄla UpaniÅad, âVerse No. 5â, tr. S. Radhakrishnan, The  
Principal UpaniÅads, HarperCollins, New Delhi,1998, p. 898.

22. ÃkÄrÄÅga SÅtra, âBook II, Lecture I5: i-vâ, tr. Herman  
Jacobi, The Sacred Books of the East (Volume 22), ed. F. Max MÃller,  
Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 2002, pp. 202-210.

UttarÄdhyayana SÅtra, âLecture XXIIIâ, tr. Herman Jacobi, The  
Sacred Books of the East (Volume 45), ed. F. Max MÃller, Motilal  
Banarsidass, Delhi, 2004, pp. 119-129.

23. The BhagavadgÄtÄ, âVI.10â, ed. S. Radhakrishnan,  
HarperCollins, New Delhi, p. 192.

24. M.K. Gandhi, âProblems of Non-violenceâ (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 BhagavadgÄtÄ, âVI.10â, tr. S. Radhakrishnan, op cit., pp.  

26. M.K. Gandhi, âThe Doctrine of the Swordâ, (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, âOn Ahimsaâ, The Penguin Gandhi Reader, ed.  
Rudrangshu Mukherjee, Penguin Books, New Delhi,1993, p. 97.

29. M.K. Gandhi, âProblems of Non-violenceâ, The Collected Works of  
Mahatma Gandhi, Volume XXXII, op cit., p. 273.

30. M.K. Gandhi, âOn Ahimsa: Reply to Lala Lajpat Raiâ (October  
1916), The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Volume XV, op cit., pp.  

31. âI have read almost all the English translations of [the GÄtÄ],  
and I regard Sir Edwin Arnoldâs as the bestâ: 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, âIntroduction: Basic Doctrines of Jainismâ,  
Sources of Indian Tradition (Volume One), op cit., p. 57.

38. ÃkÄrÄÅga SÅtra, âBook II, Lecture I5: iâ, op cit., pp.  

UttarÄdhyayana SÅtra, âLecture XXIIIâ, op cit., pp. 119-129.

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

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

The same commandment is repeated in: SÅtrakritÄÅga, âBook I,  
Lecture II: Verse nos. 9 and 10â, op cit., p. 311.

40. ÃkÄrÄÅga SÅtra, âBook I, Lecture I, Lesson 2â, op cit.,  
pp. 3-5.

41. S. Radhakrishnan, âChapter VIII: Epic Philosophyâ, Indian  
Philosophy, Volume 1, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1999, pp.  

42. Ibid., p. 506.

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

44. Angela Richards, âFootnote 2â, 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, âDefining Terror: A Freudian Exerciseâ, 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, âThe Right to Self-Defenceâ, 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.

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