Saturday, June 18, 2005

An Ethical dilemma-XII

I missed posting this. It has relevance also because the Terri Schiavo case has flared up again, if briefly. Gandhiji's thoughts on when it would be appropriate to not support human life are at its clearest in this essay. I should have posted this after the fifth or sixth post in this series.

The Gujarati original of this appeared in Navajivan, 28-10-1928.



A correspondent writes:

"I have read your article “The Fiery Ordeal” over and over again but it has failed to satisfy me. Your proposal about the killing of monkeys has taken me aback. I believed that a person like you with his being steeped in ahimsa would never swerve from the right path even though the heavens fell. And now you say that you might kill off the monkeys to protect your Ashram against their inroads. Maybe that my first impression about you was wrong. But I cannot describe what a shock your proposal about the killing of the monkeys has given me, and may I also confess, how angry it has made me feel against you? Would you kindly help me out of my perplexity?"

I have received several other letters too in the same strain. I am afraid people have formed an altogether exaggerated estimate of me. These good people seem to think that because I am trying to analyse and define the ideal of ahimsa I must have fully attained that ideal. My views regarding the calf and the monkeys seem happily to have shattered this illusion of theirs. Truth to me is infinitely dearer than the ‘mahatmaship’ which is purely a burden. It is my knowledge of my limitations and my nothingness which has so far saved me from the oppressiveness of the ‘mahatmaship’. I am painfully aware of the fact that my desire to continue life in the body involves me in constant himsa, that is why I am becoming growingly indifferent to this physical body of mine. For instance I know that in the act of respiration I destroy innumerable invisible germs floating in the air. But I do not stop breathing. The consumption of vegetables involves himsa but I find that I cannot give them up. Again, there is himsa in the use of antiseptics, yet I cannot bring myself to discard the use of disinfectants like kerosene, etc., to rid myself of the mosquito pest and the like. I suffer snakes to be killed in the Ashram when it is impossible to catch and put them out of harm’s way. I even tolerate the use of the stick to drive the bullocks in the Ashram Thus there is no end of himsa which I directly and indirectly commit. And now I find myself confronted with this monkey problem. Let me assure the reader that I am in no hurry to take the extreme step of killing them. In fact I am not sure that I would at all be able finally to make up my mind to kill them.

As it is, friends are helping me with useful suggestions and the adoption of some of them may solve the difficulty at least temporarily without our having to kill them. But I cannot today promise that I shall never kill the monkeys even though they may destroy all the crop in the Ashram. If as a result of this humble confession of mine, friends choose to give me up as lost, I would be sorry but nothing will induce me to try to conceal my imperfections in the practice of ahimsa. AlI claim for myself is that I am ceaselessly trying to understand the implications of great ideals like ahimsa and to practise them in thought, word and deed and that not without a certain measure of success as I think. But It know that I have a long distance yet to cover in this direction. Unless therefore the correspondent in question can bring himself to bear with my imperfections I am sorry I can offer him but little consolation.


Another correspondent writes:

"Supposing my elder brother is suffering from a terrible and painful, malady and doctors have despaired of his life and I too feel likewise, should I in the circumstances put him out of life?"

My reply is in the negative. I am afraid some of my correspondents have not even taken the trouble to understand my article. In propounding their conundrums they forget that whilst I have certainly compared the case of an ailing human being with that of an ailing calf and recommended the killing of the former in exactly similar circumstances, in actual practice such a complete analogy is hardly ever to be found. In the first place the human body being much more manageable in bulk is always easier to manipulate and nurse; secondly man being gifted with the power of speech more often than not is in a position to express his wishes and so the question of taking his life without his consent cannot come within the rule. For I have never suggested that the life of another person can be taken against his will without violating the principle of ahimsa.

Again, we do not always despair of the life of a person when he is reduced to a comatose state and even when he is past all hope he is not necessarily past all help. More often than not it is both possible and practicable to render service to a human patient till the very end. Whilst, therefore, I would still maintain that the principle enunciated regarding the calf applies equally to man and bird and beast I should expect an intelligent person to know the obvious natural difference between a man and an animal. To recapitulate the conditions the fulfilment of all of which alone can warrant the taking of life from the point of view of ahimsa:

l. The disease from which the patient is suffering should be incurable.

2. All concerned have despaired of the life of the patient.

3. The case should be beyond all help or service.

4. It should be impossible for the patient in question to express his or its wish.

So long as even one of these conditions remains unfulfilled the taking of life from the point of view of ahimsa cannot be justified.


A third correspondent writes:

"Well, the killing of the calf is all right so far as it goes. But have you considered that your example is likely to afford a handle to those who indulge in animal sacrifices and thus accentuate the practice; do you not know that even those who commit these deeds argue that the animals sacrificed gain merit in the life to follow?"

Such abuse of my action is quite possible, and inevitable so long as there are hypocrisy and ignorance in this world. What crimes have not been committed in the world in the sacred name of religion? One therefore need not be deterred from doing what one considers to be right merely because one’s conduct may be misunderstood or misinterpreted by others. And as for those who practise animal sacrifice, surely they do not need the authority of my example to defend their conduct since they profess to take their stand on the authority of the Shastras. My fear however is that proceeding on my analogy some people might actually take into their head summarily to put to death those whom they might imagine to be their enemies on the plea that it would serve both the interests of society and the ‘enemies’ concerned, if the latter were killed. In fact I have often heard people advance this argument. But it is enough for my purpose to know that my interpretation of ahimsa affords no basis whatever for such an argument, for in the latter case there is no question of serving or anticipating the wishes of the victims concerned.

Finally, even if it were admitted that it was in the interest of the animal or the enemy in question to be summarily dispatched the act would still be spelt as himsa because it would not be altogether disinterested. The fallacy is so obvious. But who can help people who seeing see not, or are bent upon deceiving themselves?

Young India, l-11-1928