Sunday, June 12, 2005

An Ethical Dilemma-VII

Flaming was not invented with the internet. Here is an excerpt of Gandhiji's letter to C. Rajagopalachari, Oct 21, 1928.

"I hope the calf controversy provides some amusement for you, if it provides no instruction. If I took seriously all the correspondence that comes to me I should have to drown my self in the Sabarmati. As it is, the correspondence affords both entertainment and instruction."


[Before October 25, 1928]


It is three o’clock in the morning. I have read your letter carefully from beginning to end. I think the articles I have been writing these days answer your questions. I therefore advise you to get those articles if you do not have them and read them and ponder over them. Nevertheless, I briefly answer your questions here.

It is not true without exception that no living creature likes to die in any circumstances. I have seen with my own eyes persons laid on the floor as dead rising up alive. I have also heard of instances of persons sitting up on the pyre. But we can act only on the basis of what we assume to be true to the best of our knowledge. The reason for killing the calf was not that I could not bear to see its pain, but that, seeing the pain, I could not help it in any other way. I assumed that it would wish to be delivered from that pain, for I have known many men who so wished to be freed in similar circumstances. One may err in assuming such a wish in a particular case, but in countless situations, Nature has provided man with no other means but to make certain assumptions. I am dictating this letter on the assumption that I shall be alive till the letter is finished and that it will give you some comfort. But it is quite conceivable that I might die before the letter was finished or, possibly, instead of giving you comfort and peace, it might pain, displease and trouble you still more. But even if that was its effect, God would forgive me, because I started writing the letter with the purest of motives.

My answer to your question whether the calf was in unbearable pain is implied in what I have said above. But one more point is that in such matters self-deception is quite possible.

I can also reply that in a way I knew it for certain that the calf was going to die. But I know that you mean otherwise in your letter. You have not said that I could not know for certain from its pain that it would die. But that is what you think. However, I knew that its life was definitely going to end, if not because of the pain then through some other cause. If therefore I committed any error in acting on my assumption its only effect has been to alter the hour of death a little. It need not be necessary for me to try to become omniscient in order to save myself from the sin of altering the hour of death. Where the intention is not to give pain but to relieve pain by ending life, an ignorant man not only has the right to try but it is also incumbent on him to do so.

Please do not have the slightest fear that I would hastily decide to kill the monkeys. But I see that I have gained much by starting the discussion, and so have other people through it. Obeying our desire to live, we knowingly destroy many living things. We know that it is wrong to destroy life in that way. I for one knew it and yet I am unable to overcome the desire to live though I know well enough that the desire is not good. I am therefore trying gradually to wean myself from it. I believe that all of us should do the same. That is our dharma too.

It is quite impossible to keep the monkeys away from the fields without harassing them in some way. Even brandishing a stick at them is inflicting pain on them. Every day I drive away the mosquitoes to protect myself from their nuisance. That too is inflicting pain on them. Though knowing this, out of my desire to live, I give pain to countless creatures. I therefore daily pray to God to deliver me this very day from this body and from the necessity of having to be in a similar body which cannot be kept alive even for a moment without giving pain to some living creature, and till I am so delivered, to take from this body such service as He may wish for the good of others, at least as penance by me for the sin of living. But God’s ways are inscrutable. Even at this moment when I am praying thus, I am giving pain in some way or other to countless creatures. Innumerable creatures are eagerly waiting to settle in the space I now occupy. But what can I do? One cannot free oneself from the body merely by wishing it. To bring it about one must strive hard to live in a spirit of penance. While engaged in such an endeavour I have to accept innumerable troubles like that of the monkeys and I solve the problems according to my lights and to the best of my ability. I do not wish to deceive the world or myself in any way.

You did well of course to write the letter.


{The second half of the next is what is relevant here.}


October 25, 1928


I have your letter.

It was not my duty to know more about Khilafat than I did. Khilafat was not merely Turkey. To me Khilafat had a much deeper meaning and the fight for my conception of Khilafat is still going on. The only difference now is that we no longer have to fight over the issue with the British. Ask me more about this when we meet some day. I would not be able to explain the matter more clearly. Where there is trust it is not proper to ask too many questions. The important thing is that even the British Prime Minister had recognized the claim of the Muslims to be just. The other Governments wanted to annex Turkey.

I will certainly now read the book on the Muslim Saint.

As for the calf I will only say that the argument that we have no right to kill a creature the sight of which gives us pain if our personal interest is not involved does not apply here. The question here was about one’s duty to kill. Think over this difference. At the back of the American’s action was his distrust of the people. He believed that people would not look after his daughter. And the girl was not unconscious. I think there is a lot of difference between her case and that of the calf. I have not been able to read that article in Navajivan again. Do write to me if you have still not been able to see the difference. I will then try to read that article and find time to write to you a more detailed reply.


From a letter to Mirabehn, Oct 27, 1928:

"Things are moving steadily. The calf incident has occupied my attention a great deal. It has done much good in that it has set people thinking."


The following footnote explains the excerpt from a letter to Satis Chandra Das Gupta, October 31, 1928

1 : Enclosing a cutting of Bipin Chandra Pal’s article in Englishman criticizing Gandhiji’s views in the calf controversy, Das Gupta had in his letter remarked that there was an attempt in the article to shape out a philosophy of “the joy of the mere fact of living”, a favourite theme with the author.


I have your letter. I can understand Bipin Babu’s attitude. But I stand unmoved. The position is becoming clearer to me day by day, and we must learn to forget that life is everything and that death is nothing. Indeed, we must learn to regard death as a thing of joy.


Here is another letter, I think related to the calf issue:


October 31, 1928


I have your letter. Not all feel the existence of a prevailing spirit or the power of endurance when they are in intense pain; but some undoubtedly do. It is quite true to say that the Creator puts an end to suffering by death when suffering is beyond endurance. The state of endurance is a question of degree. And if we do not consider death under every circumstance imaginable a terror, we may under well-defined conditions anticipate it without infringing upon the rule of ahimsa.

Yours sincerely,



November 3, 1928


I have your letter. You must not ride the karma theory to death. Every creature is not only weaving his own new karma, but is acted upon by millions of karmas of others. I regard the destruction of the body of the calf as unselfish, because I was not afraid of rendering service. Only, I saw that I could render no service.

About the mosquitoes. There is no harm in using a mosquito-net of foreign make. Mosquito-net is not a piece of clothing. I treat it in the same way I treat an umbrelIa. Of course it is possible to get khadi mosquito-nets, but they are dear.

Yours sincerely,



The following was in reply to a telegram received on November 7, 1928 which read:
“Fiji Times reports you ordered killing calf. Hindus perturbed. Wire truth.”




Excerpt from letter to G.D. Birla, Nov 12, 1928

"The incident of the calf and the monkeys did annoy me but it was a good opportunity of understanding human nature and of controlling my temper. "