Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Book: The Bishop Goes to The University

Andrew Greeley's Bishop Blackie Ryan solves yet another locked room mystery. The reason for the mystery and the motive for the murder - both remain mysterious even at the end of the book. But Blackie is a charming character, and one wants to follow him on his expeditions.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Answering ID : Who Designed the Designer?

Intelligent Design (ID) is the idea that living organisms show evidence of having been designed. The only reason to discuss this idea is that proponents of ID want this idea taught in the science classroom as a alternative to the theory of evolution.

Jay Richards is puzzled about how the question of "Who designed the Designer?" provides a refutation of ID arguments.

Thinking out aloud:

0. "Who designed the designer?" is not a refutation of ID, it has no logical force against ID. It is a changing of the subject, a non-sequitur.

A. Who designed Mount Rushmore? Some human. Who designed humans? Humans were not designed, their origins are described by the Theory of Evolution. At this point Jay Richards is permitted to change his mind about this being a non-sequitur {grin}.

1. Is the question "Who designed the designer?" a refutation of design arguments?

A. No. It is only a rhetorical device that reminds one of why design arguments for the origin of species are not scientific. One could assert that the world was created as described by the Bible. Such an assertion, who knows, may even be true. But it is not scientific. The design argument for the origin of species is similarly not scientific.

2. Does the fact of design stand independent of our knowledge of the designer?

A. The answer has to be No, in general. Suppose we assert that "X is best explained by design" but subsequently we are able to show that a designer for X could not possibly exist. Then the status of design being the best explanation melts away. We might be able to effect a rescue, but only by entering the metaphysical realms that Jay Richards wants to avoid, to be able to assert "X is designed" and "the designer of X does not exist" simultaneously.

If it is inconceivable to Jay Richards that evolution could ever explain the origin of the bacterial flagellum, and that opens the door for him, to Intelligent Design, then if it is inconceivable to me that we could possibly identify the Designer, then that opens the door to evolution and natural processes.

I don't think that Jay Richards will make the mistake of saying that the fact that "X is designed" is proof of the designer. It is not, any more than the fact that "light propagates as waves" proves that the existence of the lumniferous aether, the substance though which light waves propagate. "X is designed by Y" merely names Y, it does not provide an explanation or demonstration of the existence of Y. "XBlah is what causes apples to fall off apple trees" merely names XBlah, we could equally well say "XBlah in conjunction with YBlah is what causes apples to fall". Does XBlah or XBlah and YBlah exist? Apples do fall, don't they? That is not proof of XBlah or YBlah. It is when we provide more properties, e.g, XBlah is also what keeps the moon in its orbit, XBlah follows an inverse square law, etc., that we move XBlah from being just a name to being a theory of gravity.

3. How about possible Extra Terrestrial Intelligence? Suppose we receive a radio signal from outer space that appears to be of non-natural origin, are we simply creating a name "ETI" to explain the radio signal, or have we found a new entity? What is the point of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI)?

A. We would have only provisionally found a new entity. If we cannot infer from the content of the radio signal anything about the nature of ETI and we cannot find any other evidence, e.g, by looking towards the origin of the radio signal in other bands of the electromagnetic spectrum, then ETI remains an adhoc explanation. It may be worth remembering why scientists are conducting searches for ETI, however. It is because they think that the laws of physics, chemistry and biology that underlie the origin of the earth and life on earth are equally well in operation elsewhere in the vast expanse of the universe. In our current stage of understanding, however, SETI is like buying a lottery ticket, we are hoping to get lucky. You will find scientists who believe SETI is a waste of money.

4. Isn't "who designed the designer?" an overreach of Ockham's Razor?

A. Pace Richards, the "simplistic and truncated form of Ockham's Razor" does not outlaw all design inferences.

We have independent confirmation of the existence of humans who can do design activity and the examples that Jay Richards could give all day of rational design inferences without knowledge of the identity or intentions of the designer will all be, I bet, implicitly be human acts of design. Certainly, in postulating that the English text we observe in reading his essay is the product of a human, we are not multiplying entities beyond need, we are not creating any new entity as an explanation at all, and there is no invocation of Ockham's Razor at all. Yes, in general, we do not know the specific identity ( the person's name, fingerprints, DNA signature) of the designer, nor do we know the designer's intent. That is why, for instance, there are scholarly debates about who actually wrote Shakespeare's plays.

If we take stretch the meaning of "design" and include bees, ants or birds in the set of known entities that can design (as in beehives, ant hills and nests) we are still not creating any entity that is not otherwise known.

5. Yes, but couldn't the regress be real, and ID still be justified?

A. The reality of the Designer is suspect until we can say something more about the Designer than just "The Designer designed X". The regress could be real, and ID could be justified, but we are not going to learn so merely by making assertions. We have to say something more about the Designer or the process of design to address the reality of ID. "Who designed the designer?" is a rhetorical device to remind us of this fact.

6. ID is merely a proximate explanation, not an ultimate explanation It is merely addressing the modest question "Is specified complexity in X a reliable marker of intelligent design?" It is not interested in the regress implied by "who designed the designer".

A. We again hit our head against the brick wall, that there is no reliable marker of intelligent design unless we can show that the designer exists. "I cannot conceive of a non-design explanation for X" is not binding on anyone except he who utters it. The proximate explanation for where the gas in the car came from, the BP station on Bellevue Way stands up only because we know already that there is an ultimate explanation involving Alaska, refineries and humans.

In the case of the woman found dead in her kitchen with a knife in her back, the detective's proximate conclusion that it was murder and not an accident stands because he is saying, it was done by another human, and not e.g, a poltergeist. If the detective had to postulate some previously unknown entity to explain the murder, then the detective's assistant would be rightfully skeptical. It would be meaningful for the detective's assistant to ask - where did the poltergeist come from? what are its origins? what are its characteristics? and this would not be some kind of unjustified delving into ultimate causes or the higher reaches of metaphysical thought.

7. "All that said, I don’t see any reason to concede the premise that leads to the regress in the first place." My watch is designed, but my watchmaker doesn't have gears.

A. The property in question is not about specific features such as gears, or specified complexity or fine-tuning. The property in question is that of existence and of origin.


Can the Designer be elevated from being anything but XBlah? Can anything be said about the Designer that is not religious in nature?


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

Life at Low Reynolds Number

This talk by E.M. Purcell is a classic, and you may enjoy reading it as much as I did.

Something there caught my peripheral vision:

"I come back for a moment to Osborne Reynolds. That was a very great man. He was a professor of engineering, actually. He was the one who not only invented Reynolds number, but he was also the one who showed what turbulence amounts to and that there is an instability in flow, and all that. He is also the one who solved the problem for how you lubricate a bearing, which is a very subtle problem that I recommend to anyone who hasn't looked into it. But I discovered just recently in reading in his collected works that toward the end of his life, in 1903, he published a very long paper on the details of the sub mechanical universe , and he had a complete theory which involved small particles of diameter 10^{-18} cm. It gets very nutty from there on. It's a mechanical model, the particles interact with one another and fill all space. But I thought that, incongruous as it may have seemed to put this kind of stuff in between our studies of the sub mechanical universe today,"

It reminded me of this, about physicist, Wolfgang Pauli :

"There was another, rather bizarre side to Pauli that is only now beginning to come into view with the publication of more than a thousand letters showing his attempts to explore the unconscious and find a common language for the description of mind and matter. Jung, in his 1935 essay "Dream Symbols of the Process of Individuation," wrote: "My material consists of more than 1000 dreams and visual impressions of a scientifically educated younger man. For the purpose of the present investigation I have studied the first 400 of these dreams." The anonymous dreamer, as we know now, was Wolfgang Pauli."
"....Pauli sought to investigate the human psyche as deeply as he explored the physical world. But he did not feel ready to publish his psychic investigations."

Nuttiness and scientific creativity may be joined at the hip.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Commencement Address by Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple and Pixar (and NeXT), gave the commencement address at Stanford this year. Some newsreports called the speech morbid, because it talked about death.

".... Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life's change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true."

Obviously, I disagree (or why would I post it here?)

PS: I disagree with the news-reports.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Books : Avenger

I really loved Frederick Forsyth's "The Dogs of War" and "The Day of The Jackal". I think those were his best books. Avenger is better than most of his others, but not as good as the aforementioned two. Well worth reading. The story neatly fits into recent events, including the meltdown of Yugoslavia and the emergence of the Al Qaeda. The story at one point relies on the success of an elaborate plan, and the main surprise to the reader is how the plan unfolds - this is unlike, when the Jackal has to improvise. Also Forsyth's account of hacking into corporate computers doesn't sound convincing unlike the logistics described in his two best books. But certainly not a waste of time, this book.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

An Ethical Dilemma-XI

Excerpt from a letter to H.S.L Polak, Dec 7, 1928.

"The calf incident has provided me with much instruction and an equal amount of amusement. It has thrown on me a tremendous amount of work in that I have to go through dozens of letters or rather essays on ahimsa. The majority of which were not in ahimsa but himsa tone. I do not know that I ever held a different view from the one I have now expressed though I had not as clear a perception of it as I seem to have now. You may not remember that when West brought to me a cat whose head was full of maggots and was living in tortures, I endorsed his suggestion that the poor animal’s life should be ended by drowning and it was done immediately. And at the Ashram too I allowed Maganlal to destroy rabid dogs."


I found this next funny:


December 14, 1928


I thank you for your letter. The calf incident was an isolated case with which I was called upon to deal personally. The rats question is too big a question for me to handle. You will therefore excuse me for not dealing with it in the pages of Young India.

Yours sincerely



I do not touch upon the matter of the calf in Navajivan; none should therefore conclude that I have forgotten about it. Two types of people have criticized my action: one, those who are full of anger against me, two, those who are thoughtful. I know that my action which appears to me to be innocent has shocked the second type of people, and chiefly the Jains among them. I have been scrutinizing Jain literature. I believed there ought to be a great deal of support for my action in the Jain books. An expert professing the Jain religion had sent me his opinion and an article in which I found such support.

Hence I carried on correspondence with known Jain friends. As a result I have received the following article [footnote: not included here. {unfortunately}]. I publish it for the benefit of those who can think objectively.

[From Gujarati]
Navajivan, 13-1-1929


Excerpt from letter to Chaganlal Gandhi, February 11, 1929

"You would have already known about the death of Rasik. [footnote: Son of Harilal Gandhi; he passed away at Delhi on February 8, 1929 after prolonged illness. ] I have been constantly comparing the circumstances of his death to the calf’s. We were happy in the death of the calf. We rejoiced in having poisoned him. Rasik passed away on his own. Why should we then be unhappy? If we are, it is because of our selfishness. Moreover, for the last two months, he had immersed himself in prayers and so he has risen high. The saying in the villages that the candles return to their original form of wax after they are burnt up, is beautiful and is worth pondering over. You must have seen that in Young India and Navajivan.


Excerpt from a letter, August 29, 1929

"Have not persons with the noblest feelings got confused intellectually? It happened to Arjuna. I have no doubt at all about my sincerity of motive in killing the calf. But many have ascribed confusion of intellect to me. How can I say that they are wrong? In the same way I have attributed intellectual confusion to Surendra. That should be no reason for him to feel unhappy. I have written him a consoling letter yesterday."


A letter, September 14, 1929

"I cannot give a satisfactory reply to your letter from this distance. I must know many more details. But some points can be clarified. A wrong should never be concealed. If there has been a lapse, it should be immediately made public. This applies particularly to a trustee. It is quite easy thus to lay down a principle. But so long as the erring person who is expected to confess is not able to see his error, the difficulties of such a problem multiply no end. Nobody can be forced to repent his error. Nobody will, or should, till he sincerely sees his error. Take, for instance, my attitude in the case of the calf. People could have lovingly tried to show me my error. But what was the use of attacking me? If it failed to make me see my error, may not the same be true in this case? But I must be fully acquainted with all the facts to know whether it is so. However, where do I have the time for that? And how can it be done through correspondence? I therefore wish to show another and easier way. The duty of ahimsa arose from the imperfections of man. Ahimsa means forgiveness, which in turn means generosity. We should try to be generous to the guilty. This is very necessary in the management of institutions. Where there is generosity there will be patience."


Finally, this last from an essay on another subject:

"The Shastras have taught us both our ideal dharma and our practical dharma....

"However, we do not seek solutions to such problems by regarding them as matters of absolute dharma. Relative dharma does not proceed on a straight path like a railway track. It has, on the contrary, to make its way through a dense forest where there is not even a sense of direction. Hence in this case, even one step is sufficient. Many circumstances have to be considered before the second step is taken and, if the first step is towards the north, the second may have to be taken towards the east. In this manner, although the path may appear crooked, since it is the only one which is correct, it can also be regarded as the straight one. Nature does not imitate geometry. Although natural forms are very beautiful, they do not fit in with geometrical patterns."


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

An Ethical Dilemma-IX

In reply to a letter which read

“My sister aged 20 who is suffering from paralytic attack has had all kinds of treatment from various medical experts. No doctor has yet given hope of recovery. . . . She happened to be near me when I was reading your article on the killing of the Ashram calf. She said in an appealing tone, ‘Will you allow me to end my life? . . .’ She paused for a while, and after some reconsideration said, ‘Oh, how can I escape from my karma? I cannot avoid it; I can only postpone it by death. I suppose, then, Gandhiji is not right in killing the calf.’ . . . May I request you to consider the matter in Young India as I believe that many others may share the same opinion.”


November 28, 1928


I have your letter. I do not propose to deal with it in the pages of Young India for I am sure no one else is likely to draw the
deduction that you and your sister seem to have drawn from my writings. The whole of the case for a humanitarian ending of a creature’s life is based upon the assumption that whether belonging to the human species or a lower order if they had consciousness such a creature would not wish to live as I had assumed the calf would not in the circumstances in which it was placed and that there was no other service possible.

In your sister’s case you and many others are at her beck and call and you all consider it, and that rightly, a privilege to render what service you can and relieve her pain be it ever so little. Her momentary wish to have her life put an end to was purely philanthropic out of regard for the convenience of her nurses. She was wrong in her reasoning. What she considered was an inconvenience to her nurses was a privilege, or should be, in the latter’s estimation. And if she desired death, the nurses could not comply with her desire, for that compliance would be tantamount to shirking of an obvious duty.

The question of karma does not arise at all in either case. This has been repeatedly explained in the pages of Young India. If we were to bring in the law of karma in such matters, we would put an end to all effort. The working of the law of karma is an incessant, ever-going process; whereas you and your sister evidently assumed that certain actions were set in motion and that the motion in that straight direction continued uninterrupted without the operation of any further actions coming into play. The fact indeed is that every activity in nature is constantly interfering with the law of karma. Such interference is inherent in the law. For the law is not a dead, rigid, inert thing, but it is an ever-living, ever-growing mighty force.

Yours sincerely

An Ethical Dilemma-VIII

{Items originally in Gujarati that appeared in Navajivan, 4-11-1928 and 18-11-1928}


Letters in connection with the calf incident still continue to pour in. But I have had my full say already and such letters as needed a reply I have already answered. I however feel in duty bound to deal with some posers addressed to me by some correspondents. Not to do so might lead to consequences not warranted by my action.


One of them writes:

"My baby is four months old. It fell ill a fortnight after its birth and there seems no end of its ailment in sight. Several vaidyas and doctors have tried their skill upon him, but in vain; some of them now even decline to administer any medicine to him. They feel, and I feel with them, that the fate of the poor thing is sealed. I have a big family to maintain and I feel myself reduced to sore straits as I have an accumulation of debts. Nor can I any longer bear to see the terrible sufferings of the baby. Would you kindly tell me what I should do in the circumstances ?"

It is clear that this friend has not been reading Navajivan carefully or he would not have asked this question. There would be no warrant for taking the life of the baby even if all the doctors in the world were to pronounce the case to be hopeless because it would always be possible for its father to nurse it. He can soothe the baby in a variety of ways, its size unlike the calf’s being manageable. It is only when every possible avenue of service however small is closed and the last ray of hope of the patient surviving seems extinct that one is justified in putting him out of pain, and then too only if one is completely free from the taint of selfish feeling. In the present case, not only is the service of the ailing baby possible, but the main consideration that, on the father’s own admission, weighs with him is the personal inconvenience involved in nursing the baby. Largeness of the family or one’s pecuniary difficulty can never serve as a justification for putting an end to the life of an ailing patient and I have not the slightest doubt that in the present instance, it is the bounden duty of the father to lavish all his love and care on his suffering baby. There is however one thing more which he can do: if he has sense enough to see it, he should resolve forthwith to lead a life of perfect self-restraint and further stop procreating irrespective of whether his present baby survives or not.


Another friend writes in the course of a Hindi letter:

"I am the manager of. . . goshala. There are in my charge some 500 head of cattle. They are all utterly useless for any purpose and are simply eating their head off. Out of these from 350 to 400 animals on the average are constantly at death’s door, destined to die off one by one in the long end every year. Now tell me what am I to do?"

As I have already explained, giving the short shrift, from considerations of financial expediency, can never be compatible with non-violence. And if it is a fact that not a day passes in this goshala without some animal or other dying painfully in the manner of that calf in the Ashram, it makes out a strong case for closing the goshala at once for it betrays fearful mismanagement. The calf in the Ashram was reduced to such piteous plight only as the result of an accident but daily instances like this should ipso facto be impossible in a well-managed institution. The duty of the management in the present case is thus clear. It is incumbent upon them and upon the organizers of all similarly placed institutions to devise the most effective means of nursing and ministering to the needs of diseased and ailing cattle. Iwould also recommend to them for careful study and consideration my description of an ideal pinjrapole and the way it ought to be managed that I have given more than once in these pages.


Writes a Kanbi friend:

"There is a grazing-ground for the cattle near our village. It is overrun by a herd of deer about five to seven hundred strong. They work havoc upon all our cotton saplings. We are in a fix. We can easily get rid of them by employing professional watchmen who would kill them for the venison they would get. What would be your advice to a man in my condition? Again when insect pests attack our crops the only way to deal with them is to light a fire of hay which means making a holocaust of the insect pests. What course would you suggest in these circumstances ?

This question is of a different order from the other two questions; it falls under the category of the monkey question, not the
calf question. I am unable to guide anyone in the path of himsa. In fact no person can lay down for another the limit to which he may commit himsa. This is a question which everybody must decide for himself according to the measure of his capacity for ahimsa. This much however I can say without any hesitation that to use the analogy of the monkeys to justify the killing of the deer would only betray a laziness of thought and lack of discrimination; the two cases are so dissimilar. Besides, I have not yet decided to kill the monkeys, nor is there any likelihood of my doing so presently. On the contrary it has been and shall be my ceaseless anxiety to be spared that painful necessity. Moreover there is quite a number of ways of keeping off the deer from the fields which would be impossible in the case of elusive creatures like monkeys. Whilst therefore reiterating what every farmer knows from his daily experience also to be true, viz., that destruction of small insects and worms is inevitable in agriculture, I am unable to proceed any further, but must content myself by stating generally that it is the sacred duty of everybody to avoid committing himsa to the best of one’s power.


Still another friend writes:

"You say that an absolute observance of ahimsa is incompatible with life in the body, that so long as a man is in the flesh he cannot escape the commission of himsa in some form or other as the very process of our physical existence involves himsa. How then can ahimsa be the highest virtue, the supreme duty? Would you set forth as the highest religious ideal a code of conduct which is altogether impossible of being fulfilled in its completeness by man? And if you do, what would be the practical worth of such an ideal?"

My humble submission is that, contrary to what this writer says, the very virtue of a religious ideal lies in the fact that it cannot be completely realized in the flesh. For a religious ideal must be proved by faith and how can faith have play if perfection could be attained by the spirit while it was still surrounded by its “earthly vesture of decay”? Where would there be scope for its infinite expansion which is its essential characteristic? Where would be room for that constant striving, that ceaseless quest after the ideal that is the basis of all spiritual progress, if mortals could reach the perfect state while still in the body? If such easy perfection in the body was possible all we would have to do would be simply to follow a cut-and-dry model. Similarly if a perfect code of conduct were possible for all there would be no room for a diversity of faiths and religions because there would be only one standard religion which everybody would have to follow.

The virtue of an ideal consists in its boundlessness. But although religious ideals must thus from their very nature remain unattainable by imperfect human beings, although by virtue of their boundlessness they may seem ever to recede farther away from us, the nearer we go to them, still they are closer to us than our very hands and feet because we are more certain of their reality and truth than even of our own physical being. This faith in one’s ideals alone constitutes true life, in fact it is man’s all in all. Blessed is the man who can perceive the law of ahimsa in the midst of the raging fire of himsa all around him. We bow in reverence before such a man; he lays the whole world under debt by his example. The more adverse the circumstances around him, the intenser grows his longing for deliverance from the bondage of flesh which is a vehicle of himsa and beckons him on to that blessed state which in the words of the poet,

Even the Great Masters saw only in a trance
Which even their tongue could not declare,

a state in which the will to live is completely overcome by the ever active desire to realize the ideal of ahimsa and all attachment to the body ceasing man is freed from the further necessity of possessing an earthly tabernacle. But so long as that consummation is not reached a man must go on paying the toll of himsa for himsa is inseparable from all physical existence and it will have its due.

Young India, 22-11-1928

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. "


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

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

An Ethical Dilemma-IV

The next article by Gandhiji on the mercy killing of the calf was published in Gujarati, 7-10-1928, and in English, Young India, 11-10-1928.


My article “The Fiery Ordeal” has brought down upon me the ire of many an incensed critic. Some of them seem to have made the violence of their invective against me a measure of their solicitude for ahimsa. Others, as if to test my capacity for ahimsa, have cast all decorum and propriety to the winds and have poured upon me the lava of their unmeasured and acrimonious criticism, while still some others have felt genuinely grieved at what seems to them a sad aberration on my part and have written to me letters to unburden their grief to me. I have not the time to reply to all the letters that have been sent to me, nor, do I feel it to be necessary. As for the acrimonious letters, the only possible purpose that they can serve is to provide me with some exercise in forbearance and non-violence. Leaving aside such letters, therefore, I shall here try to examine some arguments that I have been able to glean from other and soberly written communications.

I am always prepared to give my best consideration to letters that are brief and to the point and are neatly written out in ink in a clear legible hand. For I claim to be a humble seeker after truth and am conducting Navajivan not merely to teach but also to learn.

To come now to the objections and the counsels addressed to me by my correspondents they may be summed up as follows:

1. You should now retire from the field of ahimsa.

2. You should confess that your views about ahimsa are imported from the West.

3. You must not express views even when they are correct if there is a possibility of their being misused.

4. If you believe in the law of karma then your killing of the calf was a vain attempt to interfere with the operation of that law.

5. What warrant had you for believing that the calf was bound not to recover? Have you not heard of cases of recovery after the doctors have pronounced them to be hopeless?

Whether I should retire or not from the field of ahimsa, or for the matter of that from any other field, is essentially and solely for me to judge. A man can give up a right, but he may not give up a duty without being guilty of a grave dereliction. Unpopularity and censure are often the lot of a man who wants to speak and practise the truth. I hold it to be the bounded duty of a satyagrahi openly and freely to express his opinions which he holds to be correct and of benefit to the public even at the risk of incurring popular displeasure and worse. So long as I believe my views on ahimsa to be correct, it would be a sin of omission on my part not to give expression to them.

I have nothing to be ashamed of if my views on ahimsa are the result of my Western education. I have never tabooed all Western ideas, nor am I prepared to anathematize everything that comes from the West as inherently evil. I have learnt much from the West and I should not be surprised to find that I had learnt something about ahimsa too from the West. I am not concerned what ideas of mine are the result of my foreign contacts. It is enough for me to know that my views on ahimsa have now become a part and parcel of my being.

I have publicly discussed my views in the matter of the calf, not necessarily because I believe them to be correct, but because they are to the best of my knowledge based on pure ahimsa and as such likely to throw light on the tangled problem of ahimsa.

As for the problem of the monkeys, I have discussed it publicly, because I do not know my duty in the matter, and I am anxious to be enlightened. Let me assure the readers that my effort has not been in vain and I have already received several helpful suggestions from my correspondents. Let me further assure them that I would not proceed to the extreme length of killing unless I am absolutely driven to it. It is because I am anxious to be spared this painful necessity that I have invited suggestions for dealing with these persistent and unwelcome guests.

I firmly believe in the law of karma, but I believe too in human endeavour. I regard as the summum bonum of life the attainment of salvation through karma by annihilating its effects by detachment. If it is a violation of the law of karma to cut short the agony of an ailing animal by putting an end to its life, it is no less so to minister to the sick or try to nurse them back to life. And yet if a man were to refuse to give medicine to a patient or to nurse him on the ground of karma, we would hold him to be guilty of inhumanity and himsa. Without therefore entering into a discussion about the eternal controversy regarding predestination and free will I will simply say here that I deem it to be the highest duty of man to render what little service he can.

I admit that there was no guarantee that the calf would not recover. I have certainly known cases that were pronounced by doctors to be hopeless and were cured afterwards. But even so I hold that a man is bound to make the utmost use of his reason, circumscribed and poor as undoubtedly it is, and to try to penetrate the mists of ignorance by its light and try to act accordingly. And that is precisely what we do in countless cases in our everyday life. But strangely paradoxical as it may seem, it is nevertheless a fact that the moment we come to think of death the very idea frightens us out of our wits and entirely paralyses our reasoning faculty, although as Hindus we ought to be the least affected by the thought of death, since from the very cradle we are brought up on the doctrines of the immortality of the spirit and the transitoriness of the body.

Even if it were found that my decision to poison the calf was wrong, it could have done no harm to the soul of the animal. If I have erred I am prepared to take the consequences of my error, but I refuse to go into hysterics because by my action I possibly cut short the painful existence of a dying calf say by a couple of hours. And the rule that I have applied to the calf I am prepared to apply in the case of my own dear ones as well. Who knows how often we bring those we love to a premature end by our coddling, infatuation, wrong diagnosis or wrong treatment? The letters that I have received from my correspondents more than ever confirm me in my conviction that in our effusiveness over matters like this we forget the elementary duty of kindness, are led away from the path of true love, and discredit our ahimsa. The fear of death is thus the greatest obstacle in the way of our realizing the true nature of ahimsa.


Saturday, June 11, 2005

An Ethical dilemma-III

This next took the debate into public space. The editors of the Complete Works tell us:

The killing of an ailing calf in the Ashram under circumstances described below having caused a great commotion in certain circles in Ahmedabad and some angry letters having been addressed to Gandhiji on the subject, Gandhiji has critically examined the question in the light of the principle of non-violence in an article in Navajivan, the substance of which is given below.

(My note - the tannery at the ashram used animals that died naturally.)

‘THE FIERY ORDEAL’ ( originally in published in Gujarati Navajivan, Sept 30, 1928 )
Young India, 4-10-1928


An attempt is being made at the Ashram to run a small model dairy and tannery on behalf of the Goseva Sangha. Its work in this connection brings it up, at every step, against intricate moral dilemmas that would not arise but for the keenness to realize the Ashram ideal of seeking Truth through the exclusive means of Ahimsa.

For instance some days back a calf having been maimed lay in agony in the Ashram. Whatever treatment and nursing was possible was given to it. The surgeon whose advice was sought in the matter declared the case to be past help and past hope. The suffering of the animal was so great that it could not even turn its side without excruciating pain.

In these circumstances I felt that humanity [footnote: The Gujarati original has ‘‘ahimsa” ] demanded that the agony should be ended by ending life itself. I held a preliminary discussion with the Managing Committee most of whom agreed with my view. The matter was then placed before the whole Ashram. At the discussion a worthy neighbour vehemently opposed the idea of killing even to end pain and offered to nurse the dying animal. The nursing consisted in co-operation with some of the Ashram sisters in warding the flies off the animal and trying to feed it. The ground of the friend’s opposition was that one has no right to take away life which one cannot create. His argument seemed to me to be pointless here. It would have point if the taking of life was actuated by self-interest.

Finally in all humility but with the clearest of convictions I got in my presence a doctor kindly to administer the calf a quietus by means of a poison injection. The whole thing was over in less than two minutes.

I knew that public opinion especially in Ahmedabad [footnote: words "especially in Ahmedabad" are not in the Gujarati original] would not approve of my action and that it would read nothing but himsa in it. But I know too that performance of one’s duty should be independent of public opinion. I have all along held that one is bound to act according to what to one appears to be right even though it may appear wrong to others. And experience has shown that that is the only correct course. I admit that there is always a possibility of one’s mistaking right for wrong and vice versa but often one learns to recognize wrong only through unconscious error. On the other hand if a man fails to follow the light within for fear of public opinion or any other similar reason he would never be able to know right from wrong and in the end lose all sense of distinction between the two. That is why the poet has sung:

The pathway of love is the ordeal of fire,
The shrinkers turn away from it.

The pathway of ahimsa, that is, of love, one has often to tread all alone.

But the question may very legitimately be put to me: Would I apply to human beings the principle I have enunciated in connection with the calf? Would I like it to be applied in my own case? My reply is yes; the same law holds good in both the cases. The law of (as with one so with all) admits of no exceptions, or the killing of the calf was wrong and violent. In practice however we do not cut short the sufferings of our ailing dear ones by death because as a rule we have always means at our disposal to help them and because they have the capacity to think and decide for themselves. But supposing that in the case of an ailing friend I am unable to render any aid whatever and recovery is out of the question and the patient is lying in an unconscious state in the throes of fearful agony, then I would not see any himsa in putting an end to his suffering by death.

Just as a surgeon does not commit himsa but practises the purest ahimsa when he wields his knife on his patient’s body for the latter’s benefit, similarly one may find it necessary under certain imperative circumstances to go a step further and sever life from the body in the interest of the sufferer. It may be objected that whereas the surgeon performs his operation to save the life of the patient, in the other case we do just the reverse. But on a deeper analysis it will be found that the ultimate object sought to be served in both the cases is the same, viz., to relieve the suffering soul within from pain. In the one case you do it by severing the diseased portion from the body, in the other you do it by severing from the soul the body that has become an instrument of torture to it. In either case it is the relief of the soul within from pain that is aimed at, the body without the life within being incapable of feeling either pleasure or pain. Other circumstances can be imagined in which not to kill would spell himsa, while killing would be ahimsa. Suppose for instance, that I find my daughter—whose wish at the moment I have no means of ascertaining—is threatened with violation and there is no way by which I can save her, then it would be the purest form of ahimsa on my part to put an end to her life and surrender myself to the fury of the incensed ruffian.

But the trouble with our votaries of ahimsa is that they have made of ahimsa [footnote: 'non-killing' would be nearer to the Gujarati original] a blind fetish and put the greatest obstacle in the way of the spread of true ahimsa in our midst. The current (and in my opinion, mistaken) view of ahimsa has drugged our conscience and rendered us insensible to a host of other and more insidious forms of himsa like harsh words, harsh judgments, ill-will, anger and spite and lust of cruelty; it has made us forget that there may be far more himsa in the slow torture of men and animals, the starvation and exploitation to which they are subjected out of selfish greed, the wanton humiliation and oppression of the weak and the killing of their self-respect that we witness all around us today than in mere benevolent taking of life. Does anyone doubt for a moment that it would have been far more humane to have summarily put to death those who in the infamous lane of Amritsar were made by their torturers to crawl on their bellies like worms? If anyone desires to retort by saying that these people themselves today feel otherwise, that they are none the worse for their crawling, I shall have no hesitation in telling him that he does not know even the elements of ahimsa. There arise occasions in a man’s life when it becomes his imperative duty to meet them by laying down his life; not to appreciate this fundamental fact of man’s estate is to betray an ignorance of the foundation of ahimsa. For instance, a votary of truth would pray to God to give him death to save him from a life of falsehood. Similarly a votary of ahimsa would on bent knees implore his enemy to put him to death rather than humiliate him or make him do things unbecoming the dignity of a human being. As the poet has sung:

The way of the Lord is meant for heroes,
Not for cowards.

It is this fundamental misconception about the nature and scope of ahimsa, this confusion about the relative values, that is responsible for our mistaking mere non-killing for ahimsa and for the fearful amount of himsa that goes on in the name of ahimsa in our country. Let a man contrast the sanctimonious horror that is affected by the so-called votaries of ahimsa, at the very idea of killing an ailing animal to cut short its agony with their utter apathy and indifference to countless cruelties that are practised on our dumb cattle world. And he will begin to wonder whether he is living in the land of ahimsa or in that of conscious or unconscious hypocrisy.

It is our spiritual inertia, lack of moral courage—the courage to think boldly and look facts squarely in the face that is responsible for this deplorable state of affairs. Look at our pinjrapoles and goshalas, many of them represent today so many dens of torture to which as a sop to conscience we consign the hapless and helpless cattle. If they could only speak they would cry out against us and say, “Rather than subject us to this slow torture give us death.” I have often read this mute appeal in their eyes.

To conclude then, to cause pain or wish ill to or to take the life of any living being out of anger or a selfish intent is himsa. On the other hand after a calm and clear judgment to kill or cause pain to a living being with a view to its spiritual or physical benefit from a pure, selfless intent may be the purest form of ahimsa. Each such case must be judged individually and on its own merits. The final test as to its violence or non-violence is after all the intent underlying the act.


I now come to the other crying problem that is confronting the Ashram today. The monkey nuisance has become very acute and an immediate solution has become absolutely necessary. The growing vegetables and fruit trees have become a special mark of attention of this privileged fraternity and are now threatened with utter destruction. In spite of all our efforts we have not yet been able to find an efficacious and at the same time non-violent [footnote: the original has "blameless"] remedy for the evil. The matter has provoked a hot controversy in certain circles and I have received some angry letters on the subject. One of the correspondents has protested against the ‘‘killing of monkeys and wounding them by means of arrows in the Ashram”. Let me hasten to assure the reader that no monkey has so far been killed in the Ashram, nor has any monkey been wounded by means of “arrows” or otherwise as imagined by the correspondent. Attempts are undoubtedly being made to drive them away and harmless arrows have been used for the purpose.

The idea of wounding monkeys to frighten them away seems to me unbearable though I am seriously considering the question of killing them in case it should become unavoidable. But this question is not so simple or easy as the previous one.
I see a clear breach of ahimsa even in driving away monkeys, the breach would be proportionately greater if they have to be killed. For any act of injury done from self-interest whether amounting to killing or not is doubtless himsa.

All life in the flesh exists by some himsa. Hence the highest religion has been defined by a negative word ahimsa. The world is bound in a chain of destruction. In other words himsa is an inherent necessity for life in the body. That is why a votary of ahimsa always prays for ultimate deliverance from the bondage of flesh. None, while in the flesh, can thus be entirely free from himsa because one never completely renounces the will to live. Of what use is it to force the flesh merely if the spirit refuses to cooperate? You may starve even unto death but if at the same time the mind continues to hanker after objects of the sense, your fast is a sham and a delusion. What then is the poor helpless slave to the will to live to do? How is he to determine the exact nature and the extent of himsa he must commit?

Society has no doubt set down a standard and absolved the individual from troubling himself about it to that extent. But every seeker after truth has to adjust and vary the standard according to his individual need and to make a ceaseless endeavour to reduce the circle of himsa. But the peasant is too much occupied with the burden of his hard and precarious existence to have time or energy to think out these problems for himself and the cultured class instead of helping him chooses to give him the cold shoulder. Having become a peasant myself, I have no clear-cut road to go by and must therefore chalk out a path for myself and possibly for fellow peasants. And the monkey nuisance being one of the multitude of ticklish problems that stare the farmer in the face, I must find out some means by which the peasant’s crops can be safeguarded against it with the minimum amount of himsa.

I am told that the farmers of Gujarat employ special watchmen whose very presence scares away the monkeys and saves the peasant from the necessity of killing them. That may be but it should not be forgotten that whatever efficacy this method might have, it is clearly dependent upon some measure of destruction at some time or other. For these cousins of ours are wily and intelligent beings. The moment they discover that there is no real danger for them, they refuse to be frightened even by gun shots and only gibber and howl the more when shots are fired. Let nobody therefore imagine that the Ashram has not considered or left any method of dealing with the nuisance untried. But none of the methods that I have known up to now is free from himsa. Whilst therefore I would welcome any practical suggestions from the readers of Navajivan for coping with this problem, let the intending advisers bear in mind what I have said above and send only such solutions as they have themselves successfully tried and cause the minimum amount of injury.


An Ethical dilemma-II

Gandhiji soon had to answer to yet again, regarding the calf that he had had put down.

September 22, 1928


This is my argument, in the fewest possible words, about my deliberately killing the calf.

1. The calf was in great pain. It had been under doctors’ treatment and they had given up all hopes. We could give it no help. Four or five men were required to turn it on its side, and even then this caused it pain. In this condition, I thought that dharma lay in killing it.

2. I see dharma in applying to human beings, in similar circumstances, the rule which I apply to other creatures. There are fewer occasions of acting in that way towards human beings, because we have more means of helping them and more knowledge for doing so. But history tells of occasions, and we can imagine others, in which there might be non-violence in killing a person, in the same way that there is non-violence in an operation performed by a surgeon.

3. The argument that he who cannot create life has no right to destroy it and that no one can violate another’s dharma does not apply in a case like this. That argument can be advanced only for the purpose of preventing violence, that is, cruelty. It may be itself an act of violence to advance such an argument to a person about whose non-violent motives we have no doubt at all, for it is likely to confuse the reason of such a person if he is not vigilant enough and may dissuade him from performing an act of non-violence.

4. It is necessary to bear three points in mind in order to understand the non-violence of the act in question:

(1) It is ignorance to believe that every act of killing is violence.
(2) As there is violence in killing, so also there is violence in inflicting what we regard as lesser suffering.
(3) Violence and non-violence are mental attitudes, they concern the feelings in our heart. A slap given through anger is pure violence, whereas a slap given to a person bitten by a snake to keep him awake is pure non-violence.

Many other arguments can be deduced from this. If you wish to ask me any question exclusively concerning dharma, please do. You can use this letter in any place and in any manner you wish to. My only aim in life is to discover dharma, know it and follow it. I do not wish to breathe a single moment if I cannot do that.

Vandemataram from