Sunday, June 12, 2005

An Ethical Dilemma-VI

Here is Gandhiji's next article on the calf issue. The Gujarati original appeared in Navajivan, 14-10-1928.


Some fiery champions of ahimsa, who seem bent upon improving the finances of the Postal Department, inundate me with letters full of abuse, and are practising himsa in the name of ahimsa. They would if they could prolong the calf controversy indefinitely.

Some of them kindly suggest that my intellect has suffered decay with the attainment of sixtieth year. Some others have expressed the regret that the doctors did not diagnose my case as hopeless when I was sent to the Sassoon Hospital {footnote: where Gandhiji was operated on for appendicitis in January 1924} and cut short my sinful career by giving me a poison injection in which case the poor calf in the Ashram might have been spared the poison injection and the race of monkeys saved from the menace of destruction. These are only a few characteristic samples from the sheaf-fuls of ‘love-letters’ that I am receiving daily. The more I receive these letters the more confirmed I feel in the correctness of my decision to ventilate this thorny question in the columns of Navajivan. It never seems to have struck these good people that by this unseemly exhibition of spleen they merely prove their unfitness to be votaries or exponents of ahimsa and strike it at the very root.

I turn however from these fulminations to one from among a batch of letters of a different order that I have received and I take the following from it:

"Your exposition of the ethics of the “calf-incident” has cleared up a lot of my doubts and shed valuable light on the implications of ahimsa. But unfortunately it raises a fresh difficulty. Suppose, for instance, that a man begins to oppress a whole people and there is no other way of putting a stop to his oppression; then proceeding on the analogy of the calf, would it not be an act of ahimsa to rid society of his presence by putting him to death? Would you not regard such an act as an unavoidable necessity and therefore as one of ahimsa? In your discussion about the killing of the calf you have made the mental attitude the principal criterion of ahimsa. Would not according to this principle the destruction of proved tyrants be counted as ahimsa, since the motive inspiring the act is of the highest? You say that there is no himsa in killing off animal pests that destroy a farmer’s crops; then why should it not be ahimsa to kill human pests that threaten society with destruction and worse?"

The discerning reader will have already perceived that this correspondent has altogether missed the point of my argument. The definition of ahimsa that I have given cannot by any stretch of meaning be made to cover a case of manslaughter such as the correspondent in question postulates. I have nowhere described the unavoidable destruction of life that a farmer has to commit in pursuit of his calling as ahimsa. One may regard such destruction of life as unavoidable and condone it as such, but it cannot be spelt otherwise than as himsa. The underlying motive with the farmer is to subserve his own interest or, say, that of society. Ahimsa on the other hand rules out such interested destruction. But the killing of the calf was undertaken for the sake of the dumb animal itself. Anyway its good was the only motive.

The problem mentioned by the correspondent in question may certainly be compared to that of the monkey nuisance. But then there is a fundamental difference between the monkey nuisance and the human nuisance. Society as yet knows of no means by which to effect a change of heart in the monkeys and their killing may therefore be held as pardonable, but there is no evil-doer or tyrant who need be considered beyond reform. That is why the killing of a human being out of self-interest can never find a place in the scheme of ahimsa.

To come now to the question of motive, whilst it is true that mental attitude is the crucial test of ahimsa, it is not the sole test. To kill any living being or thing save for his or its own interest is himsa however noble the motive may otherwise be. And a man who harbours ill-will towards another is no less guilty of himsa because for fear of society or want of opportunity, he is unable to translate his ill-will into action. A reference to both intent and deed is thus necessary in order finally to decide whether a particular act of abstention can be classed as ahimsa. After all, intent has to be inferred from a bunch of correlated acts.

Young India, 18-10-1928