Sunday, June 12, 2005

An Ethical Dilemma-V

The debate on Gandhiji's killing of a maimed calf continued in private as well as in public.


October 12, 1928


I have your letter for which I thank you. Evidently we look at the same thing from opposite points of view. You think that killing in self-defence is not himsa, whereas the killing of the calf for its own good, no matter how mistaken it might afterwards be discovered to be, is himsa. Here I see no meeting ground. I regard even the killing of a snake to be himsa. That I may not be able to avoid it, being afraid of the snake, does not make the act of destruction any the less himsa.

Yours sincerely,



October 13, 1928


I got your letter only yesterday. All your letters are good. They are well reasoned and are never discourteous. There can, therefore, be no question of impropriety in them. However, your letters do have one defect. They are too long for me. I have thought about most of what you say, and I would therefore grasp your point even if you put it concisely, and if I did not understand I would ask. This preface was prompted by your letter, as long as a pamphlet, placed before me by Kakasaheb nearly fifteen days ago. I have kept it in my file, so I see it every day, but being much too long it remains unanswered for want of time. Even this I do not say as criticism of you but only as an explanation of my having missed reading your previous letter. Now the reply to your letter.

You must have observed that I give new meaning to old words or enlarge their old meanings. I do not do that arbitrarily or to suit my purpose, but because I think it right to do so. The words of poets are inexhaustible in their meaning. The word kavi originally meant an enlightened person. The perfectly enlightened person is the perfect poet. If, therefore, I do not draw the right meaning of old words or sayings, I would have to waste my energy in, starting a new religion and would also be guilty of killing the souls of those words. I have realized that even words have souls. If, therefore, you wish, you can compel me to admit that I may be giving a new meaning to the word ‘ahimsa’. It seems to me an exaggeration to describe ‘ahimsa’ as the supreme dharma in the sense you give to the word. But I have never quarrelled over the meaning of words. Hence if my purpose can be served without the word ‘ahimsa’, I will certainly give up its use.

Even at the time of the killing [of the calf] the risk was indeed there that people would draw wrong conclusions from my action. But I felt that the discernment of the true meaning of ahimsa had become so weak that I must do what I did even at the risk. And how could I hide having done something when the occasion required otherwise?

As for the question about the daughter I would only say I would not kill her thinking that I would otherwise commit a sin, but I would kill her if I thought that she would ask for the gift of death if she could speak. I do not at all subscribe to the belief that under no circumstance is a person willing to give up his or her life. I smell cowardice in it and it is against the experience of many people. If man is indeed so much attached to life, he can make no progress. How then can he ever attain moksha? I have seen in innumerable cases that such attachment is very much less in other countries.

As for the nuisance of the monkeys I see that I would again have to quarrel about the meaning of ‘ahimsa’.May I leave that discussion? How about keeping the question for a full discussion some time in future when we meet? I have much to say about the three principles you have put forward. If I get the time I will discuss the contents of your letter in Navajivan.


{I jump forward here, to this article which appeared in Navajivan, 21-10-1928, because it further addresses the points raised by P.K. Kapadia.}


A Jain friend who is reputed to have made a fair study of the Jain philosophy as also of the other systems has addressed me a long letter on ahimsa. It deserves a considered reply. He says in effect:

"Your interpretation of ahimsa has caused confusion. In the ordinary sense of the term himsa means to sever life from body and not to do so is ahimsa. Refraining from causing pain to any living creature is only an extension of the original meaning which cannot by any stretch of language be made to cover the taking of life. You would not understand me to mean from this that I regard all taking of life as wrong in every possible circumstance; for I do not think that there is any ethical principle in this world that can be regarded as absolute and admitting of no exception whatever. The maxim “Ahimsa is the highest or the supreme duty” embodies a great and cardinal truth but it does not cover the entire sum of human duties. Whilst therefore what you have termed “non-violent killing” may be a right thing it cannot be described as ahimsa."

I am of opinion that just as life is subject to constant change and development, the meanings of terms too are constantly undergoing a process of evolution and this can be amply proved by illustrations from the history of any religion. The word yajna or sacrifice in the Hindu religion for instance is an illustration in point. Sir J. C. Bose’s discoveries are today revolutionizing the accepted connotations of biological terms. Similarly if we will fully realize ahimsa we may not fight shy of discovering fresh implications of the doctrine of ahimsa.

We cannot improve upon the celebrated maxim, “Ahimsa is the highest or the supreme duty” but we are bound, if we would retain our spiritual inheritance, to explore the implications of this great and universal doctrine. But I am not particular about names. I do not mind whether the taking of life in the circumstances I have mentioned is called ahimsa or not, so long as its correctness is conceded.

Another poser mentioned by this friend is as follows:

"I have been unable to follow you in your description of the imaginary killing of your daughter in the hypothetical circumstances described by you. It may be right to kill the ruffian in such a case, but what fault has the poor daughter committed? Would you regard the pollution of the poor victim as a disgrace to be avoided by death? Don’t you think that in such circumstances even if the poor girl for fear of public ignominy and shame begs to be put out of life, it would be your duty to dissuade her from her wish? As for me, I do not see the slightest difference between a case of dishonour, rape, and a case in which one has had one’s limbs cut off by force. "

My reason for putting my daughter to death in circumstances mentioned by me would not be that I feared her being polluted but that she herself would have wished death if she could express her desire. If my daughter wanted to be put out of life because she was afraid of public scandal and criticism I would certainly try to dissuade her from her wish. I would take her life only if I was absolutely certain that she would wish it. I know that Sita would have preferred death to dishonour by Ravana. And that is also what, I believe, our Shastras have enjoined. I know that it is the daily prayer of thousands of men and women that they might have death rather than dishonour. I deem it to be highly necessary that this feeling should be encouraged. I am not prepared to admit that the loss of chastity stands on the same footing as the loss of a limb. But I can imagine circumstances in which one would infinitely prefer death even to being maimed.

The third poser runs:

"I cannot understand why the idea of wounding a few monkeys in order to frighten away the rest instead of straightway proceeding to kill them off should be regarded as intolerable by you. Don’t you feel that the longing for life is strong even among the blind and the maimed animals? Don’t you think that the impulse to kill a living creature because one cannot bear to see its suffering is a kind of selfishness?"

The idea of wounding monkeys is unbearable to me because I know that a wounded monkey has to die a lingering death if left to itself. And if monkeys have to die at all by any act of mine, I would far rather that they were killed summarily than that they were left to die by inches. Again it beats my comprehension how I am practising ahimsa by thus wounding the monkeys instead of killing them outright. It might be a different thing if I was prepared to erect a hospital for wounded monkeys. I concede that the maimed and the blind would evince a longing for life if they have some hope of getting succour or relief. But imagine a blind, ignorant creature, with no faith in God, marooned in a desert place beyond the reach of any help and with a clear knowledge of his plight, and I cannot believe that such a creature would want to continue its existence. Nor am I prepared to admit that it is one’s duty to nurse the longing for life in all circumstances.

The fourth poser is as follows:

"The Jain view of ahimsa rests on the following three principles:

“No matter what the circumstances are or how great the suffering, it is impossible for anyone deliberately to renounce the will to live or to wish another to put him out of pain. Therefore the taking of life cannot in any circumstances be morally justified."

“In a world full of activities which necessitate himsa, an aspirant for salvation should try to follow ahimsa engaging in the fewest possible activities."

“There are two kinds of himsa—direct such as that involved in agriculture, and indirect as that involved in the eating of agricultural produce. Where one cannot altogether escape from either, a votary of ahimsa should try to avoid direct himsa.”

"I would earnestly request you critically to examine and discuss these three Jain principles of ahimsa in Navajivan. I notice that there is a vital difference between your view of ahimsa and that of the Jains. Whereas your view of ahimsa is based on the philosophy of action, that of the Jains is based on that of renunciation of action. The present is an era of action. If the principle of ahimsa be an eternal and universal principle untrammelled by time and place, it seems to me that there is a great need to stimulate the people’s mind to think out for themselves as to how the principle of ahimsa that has so far been confined to the field of renunciation only can be worked in present-day life of action and what form it will take when applied to this new environment."

It is with the utmost reluctance that I have to enter into a discussion of these principles. I know the risks of such discussion. But I see no escape from it. As for the first principle I have already expressed my opinion on it in a previous portion of this article. It is my firm conviction that the principle of clinging to life in all circumstances betrays cowardice and is the cause of much of the himsa that goes on around us and blind adherence to this principle is bound to increase instead of reducing himsa. It seems to me that if this Jain principle is really as it is here enunciated, it is a hindrance to the attainment of salvation.

For instance a person who is constantly praying for salvation will never wish to continue his life at the expense of another’s. Only a person steeped in ignorance who cannot even remotely understand what salvation means would wish to continue life on any terms. The sine qua non of salvation is a total annihilation of all desire. How dare, then, an aspirant for salvation be sordidly selfish or wish to preserve his perishable body at all cost? Descending from the field of salvation to that of the family, one’s country, or the world of humanity, we again find innumerable instances of men and women who have dedicated themselves to the service of their family, their country or the world at large in entire disregard of their own life and this ideal of utter self-sacrifice and self-abnegation at present is being inculcated throughout the world. To hang on to life at all cost seems to me the very height of selfishness. Let however nobody understand me to mean that one may try to wean another even from such sordid egoism by force. I am adducing the argument merely to show the fallacy of the doctrine of will to live at all cost.

As for the second, I do not know whether it can at all be described as a principle. But be that as it may, to me it represents a truism and I heartily endorse it.

Coming to the third principle in the form in which it is enunciated by the friend, it suffers from a grave defect. The most terrible consequence of this principle to me seems to be this that if we accept it then a votary of ahimsa must renounce agriculture although he knows that he cannot renounce the fruits of agriculture and that agriculture is an indispensable condition for the existence of mankind. The very idea that millions of the sons of the soil should remain steeped in himsa in order that a handful of men who live on the toil of these people might be able to practise ahimsa seems to me to be unworthy of and inconsistent with the supreme duty of ahimsa. I feel that this betrays a lack of perception of the inwardness of ahimsa.

Let us see, for instance, to what it leads to if pushed to its logical conclusion. You may not kill a snake but if necessary, according to this principle, you may get it killed by somebody else. You may not yourself forcibly drive away a thief but you may employ another person to do it for you. If you want to protect the life of a child entrusted to your care from the fury of a tyrant, somebody else must bear the brunt of the tyrant’s fury for you. And you thus refrain from direct action in the sacred name of ahimsa ! This in my opinion is neither religion nor ahimsa. So long as one is not prepared to take the risks mentioned and to face the consequences, one cannot be free from fear and so long as a man has not shed all fear he is ipso facto incapable of practising ahimsa. Our scriptures tell us that ahimsa is all conquering. That before it, even the wild beasts shed their ferocity and the most hard-hearted of tyrants forget their anger. Utterly inadequate and imperfect as my own practice of ahimsa has been, it has enabled me to realize the truth of this principle. I cannot once more help expressing my doubt that Jainism subscribes to the third principle of ahimsa as enunciated by this friend. But even if Jain doctrine is just as it is stated by the friend, I must say, I for one cannot reconcile myself to it.

Now to come to the question of renunciation versus action: I believe in the doctrine of renunciation but I hold that renunciation should be sought for in and through action. That action is the sine qua non of life in the body, that the Wheel of Life cannot go on even for a second without involving some sort of action goes without saying. Renunciation can therefore in these circumstances only mean detachment or freedom of the spirit from action, even while the body is engaged in action. A follower of the path of renunciation seeks to attain it not by refraining from all activity but by carrying it on in a perfect spirit of detachment and altruism as a pure trust. Thus a man may engage in farming, spinning, or any other activity without departing from the path of renunciation provided one does so merely for selfless service and remains free from the taint of egoism or attachment. It remains for those therefore who like myself hold this view of renunciation to discover for themselves how far the principle of ahimsa is compatible with life in the body and how it can be applied to acts of everyday life. The very virtue of a dharma is that it is universal, that its practice is not the monopoly of the few, but must be the privilege of all. And it is my firm belief that the scope of Truth and ahimsa is world-wide. That is why I find an ineffable joy in dedicating my life to researches in truth and ahimsa and I invite others to share it with me by doing likewise.

Young India, 25-l0-1928