Sunday, June 12, 2005

An Ethical Dilemma-X

{Gujarati original in Navajivan, 2-12-1928}


A correspondent who signs himself “A young heart” has addressed me a long letter dealing with a number of subjects. This anxiety to keep the writer’s name secret betrays cowardice or lack of moral courage, alas, fast becoming but too common amongst us. It ill becomes those who aspire after swaraj. I would appeal to our young men to shed this moral weakness and speak out their thoughts with courage and yet with humility and restraint. Even if they cannot be sure of their sense of discrimination and courtesy, let them express their thoughts in the language that comes to them naturally. Cowardly silence will not only not teach them discrimination or courtesy but it will demoralize them into the bargain.


To come now to the questions adverted to by “A young heart” in his letter: The first one is about the yet unfinished calf episode. After observing that it was a grievous error on my part to have killed that calf, he goes on to give his arguments which I will skip over as they have already been answered in Navajivan. He then sums up:

"In short if the poor calf had the tongue to speak it would certainly have implored you to spare it the poison injection and let it die a natural death after drawing its allotted number of breaths. It seems to me that in an excess of pity for the suffering animal you betrayed yourself into a great error and soiled your pure hands with the blood of an innocent calf. I am sure that on further reflection the truth of my observation and the magnitude of your mistake will become clear as daylight to you. It would be improper to say anything more to one like you who has seen truth face to face, still I cannot help adding that in case you ever discover your error and according to your nature confess it to the world, the world would feel grateful to you and further misunderstanding on the subject would be prevented. As it is, your action is bound to be misinterpreted and the sin of it all will be on your head. The sooner, therefore, you confess your error the better it would be for you and the world. May God vouchsafe to us all light and understanding! "

Let me hasten to tell this writer and all those who think like him that I am not in a position to avail myself of their advice. But this much I can promise that the moment I discover that I was wrong I will in all humility confess the wrong and also make for it all the amends possible. Let me also admit that my error, if an error it is found to be in the long run, would be deemed to be no light one as I shall in that event have been guilty of committing an irreligious act—be it in ignorance—in the name of religion. Such a thing would be reprehensible in anybody; in me not the least. For I know that for good or for evil, my conduct is likely to influence many. I have thus a full sense of my responsibility.

But whilst I have not the slightest desire to minimize my responsibility in the matter, I believe that if in spite of the best of intentions one is led into committing mistakes, they do not really result in harm to the world or, for the matter of that, any individual. God always saves the world from the consequences of unintended errors of men who live in fear of Him. Those who are likely to be misled by my example would have gone that way all the same even if they had not known of my action. For in the final analysis a man is guided in his conduct by his own inner promptings, though the example of others might sometimes seem to guide him. But be it as it may, I know that the world has never had to suffer on account of my errors because they were all due to my ignorance. It is my firm belief that not one of my known errors was wilful. Indeed what may appear to be an obvious error to one may appear to another as pure wisdom. He cannot help himself even if he is under a hallucination. Truly has Tulsidas said:

"Even though there never is silver in mother-o’pearl nor water in the sunbeams, while the illusion of silver in the shining shell or that of water in the beams lasts, no power on earth can shake the deluded man free from the spell."

Even so must it be with men like me who, it may be, are labouring under a great hallucination. Surely, God will pardon them and the world should bear with them. Truth will assert itself in the end.


The other question touched by “A young heart” in his letter is regarding the monkeys. He writes:

"All that I wish to write regarding the monkeys is that you will, pray, not entertain the idea of killing them even in a dream. If they threaten your crops you may adopt such measures for keeping them from mischief as other farmers do, as for instance pelting them with stones, shouting, etc., but for heaven’s sake do not recommend their killing for a paltry few measures of
grain. It would be wanton selfishness to compass such destruction for a trifling gain. There cannot be two opinions in this matter: Hindus will always regard your action as himsa pure and simple. It is only on such occasions that one’s ahimsa is put to the test. Is it not monstrous to deprive a fellow-creature of life for the sake of a miserable little crop? What selfishness and what cruelty! How can such an iniquitous suggestion proceed from your lips at all? Well, you may by your superior brute force kill the monkeys but remember you will have to pay the price for it one day, and before the Great White Throne all your subtle arguments will avail you nothing. In the name of mercy, therefore, I humbly beseech you not to besmirch your hands by such cruel deeds."

That this question should be put to me in this way at this late hour of the day surprises me. I have already admitted that there would be violence in killing the monkeys. But what these professors of ahimsa do not seem to realize is that even so there is himsa in stoning or otherwise torturing them. By restricting the meaning of ahimsa to non-killing we make room for nameless cruelties in this country and bring the fair name of ahimsa into disrepute and if we continue like this we shall as a nation soon forfeit our proud title as specialists in ahimsa. What I want is not only to be saved from killing the monkeys but from stoning or otherwise hurting them as well. That is why I have invited suggestions from such readers of this journal as believe in ahimsa. But instead of helping me, most readers have responded only by bombarding me with angry criticisms without even troubling to read my articles, much less to understand them; and even “A young heart” has not been able to avoid this pitfall. I can understand an honest difference of opinion, but what can be the use of advice based on assumptions not in the least warranted by my writings?


The third question adverted to by “A young heart” is that of Hindu-Muslim unity. I cull the following sentences from his observations:

"Thinking that your efforts at establishing Hindu-Muslim unity have proved fruitless you are sitting with your lips almost sealed in this matter. That does not seem to me to be right. You may keep your silence on the question of unity, but do not you think that it is your duty to ascertain facts whenever there is a communal disturbance and after full consideration to express your opinion on merits? You may not take an active part but how will it injure the interests of the country if after giving an impartial hearing to both the sides you frankly speak to whomsoever might appear guilty in your eyes? The attitude that you have taken up with regard to the Godhra riot and Surat is, to be frank, hardly proper. Where is your valour gone now which you displayed abundantly on other occasions by calling a spade a spade? Good God! I am really surprised at this attitude of yours. I humbly ask you to advise the Hindus, if they cannot observe ahimsa as defined by you, to fight, in self-defence, those who assault or murder them and their dear ones without cause."

I have already explained my position in this matter. I trust it is not out of fear that I do not air my views on this subject nowadays. But when it may be out of place for me to write or when I have not sufficient material to form an opinion or when the matter does not fall within my province, I consider it to be my duty to maintain silence. At present neither of the two parties is prepared to accept my solution of the Hindu-Muslim problem. There is therefore no occasion for me to express my opinion.

There remains the question of expressing opinion on the riots that have taken place or might take place in the future. When the subject itself, as I have already pointed out, has gone out of my province, there can be no question of my expressing an opinion on events that may arise. Again, if I proceed to express opinion on such matters before scrutinizing what both the parties might have to say on them, my conduct would be justly held to be improper and even impertinent. There would also be the danger of my misjudging. And how can I set out to make an inquiry into a question when I know that I have no ready solution for it?

Let no one however run away with the idea, from this, that I have washed my hands of this question for good. I am simply biding my time like an expert physician who has faith in his remedy. It is my firm belief that mine alone is the sovereign remedy for this seemingly incurable communal disease and that in the end one or both the parties will willy-nilly accept my cure. In the mean time those who want will fight, in spite of whatever I might say. Nor do they need any prompting from me.

This I have said repeatedly; I do not want any cowardice in our midst. The heroism of ahimsa cannot be developed from cowardice. Bravery is essential to both himsa and ahimsa. In fact it is even more essential in the latter for ahimsa is nothing if it is not the acme of bravery.

Young India, 3-1-1929