Ahimsa and Sarvodaya in the Life of Gandhi

by Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan

Editor’s Preface: When Dr, Radhakrishnan wrote this essay in 1962 for the Gandhi National Memorial Fund, New Delhi he was the second President of India and one of India’s foremost contemporary philosophers. A relatively unknown essay, it is another in our series of discoveries from the War Resisters’ International archive. For an archival reference and biographical information about Dr. Radhakrishnan please see the notes at the end. JG

Indian commemorative postage stamp; courtesy librarykvpattom.wordpress.com

Many parts of the world are eagerly and enthusiastically awaiting the centenary of Gandhi [2 October 1969]. We here in India await it too. Though he belonged to the world, he also belongs to our country. As the London Times remarked: “No country other than India, and no religion other than Hinduism could have produced a Gandhi.” So he belongs to us in a very special sense. There are several ways in which he has worked for the country and the world. He was a great nationalist leader. He was a liberator of the enslaved. He taught the doctrine of a love that never fails. He was a moral genius who tried to chasten himself first before trying to exert any kind of influence on others. In all these ways he has helped us.

It is over thirty years ago that I put to Gandhi three questions: (1) What is your religion? (2) How are you led to it? (3) What is its bearing on life? He gave the following brief answers: “I used to say, ‘I believe in God’, now I say, ‘I believe in truth’. ‘God is truth’, that is what I am saying and today I say, ‘Truth is God’. There are people who deny God. There are no people who deny Truth. It is something which even the atheists admit.” Here he was not enunciating any new proposition. He was merely declaring fundamental truths that have come down to us from the environment in which he lived, the environment which nourished him. He took up two things. Speak the truth, do the right thing: truth and right action. He called them ‘Truth and Ahimsa’. These were his principles. Truth is not something we can casually work at. It requires considerable travail of the human spirit to cultivate harmony between the inward and the outward.

If we are able to establish that harmony, then it is that we have truth, a kind of truth that will not allow us to indulge in distortion, in innuendoes, in exaggerations. It will not allow us not merely to speak lies but it will not allow us to indulge in any statements made with mental reservations. It is, therefore, something we must acquire at considerable cost. We cannot get it for the mere asking. Gandhi also said, “I am myself in a struggle. There is a strain in me between the supreme principle and my factual nature. These two things do not accord with each other. If I am to bring about harmony between these two things, I have to perform penance, ridding myself of all prejudices and trying to make myself one with the supreme spirit which is there.” That is how he put it.

Gandhi told us that truth in action is ahimsa. If we want to translate that into practical action, we will have to become followers of the doctrine of nonviolence. But we have to be very careful about this doctrine of ahimsa. It does not ask us to abstain from force at all times. It tells us that our spirit must be pure. In the presence of ahimsa there is a renunciation of hatred. It is abstention from ill-will towards any creature. That is what we are called upon to adopt. We must control our passions, control our appetites, bear no ill-will to any human being, any creature on earth. Such things have been said by other religions, by other thinkers also. Kant has written: “Treat humanity in your own person and in every other person as an end in itself and not a mere means.” And Albert Schweitzer has said, “Reverence for Life should be the principle which we should adopt.” These are all different ways of expressing the one fundamental truth, which we have formulated times without number but which we have not been able to follow in our daily life.

When Gandhi talks about ahimsa, he means that we must overcome evil. Restrain evil by love. We should try to do our utmost to adopt the principle of nonviolence. But if we are unable to overcome evil, if we are not able to put an end to it, we must not allow the world to be deluged by hatred or fear. Get rid of the feeling of hatred. Hatred deflects our thinking, which makes our conscience subordinate to an ideology. It does not allow us to look upon things that are good for us in a straightforward way. So, we must rid our mind of every kind of hatred. Unless we do it, we cannot be regarded as true devotees of ahimsa. In the religious traditions of India ahimsa, nonviolence, was not primarily abstention from force, but was primarily abstention from hatred and ill-will. In the Bhagavad Gita, when Arjuna tries to avoid battle, the God Krishna tells him that his weakness of heart is unworthy of him.

Over a lifetime Gandhi moved slowly from toleration of some violence towards abstention from hatred. But then, when he saw that the world was developing these great nuclear weapons, giving us no alternatives and posing us with destruction or survival, Gandhi said that if we wanted to survive, we had to repudiate violence altogether. He was experimenting all his life with ahimsa and left us with the message that we should repudiate war altogether.

If today the great nuclear powers are facing each other, but have not brought about a holocaust, this stalemate is due to two things: an instinctive attachment to survival and a healthy reaction against mass suicide. But this cannot go on indefinitely. Unless we are able to make changes within, in the spirit, we will not be able to avoid a nuclear catastrophe. This kind of stalemate based on terror, based on fear, this sort of thing cannot go on. So it is that these great powers are thinking of adopting some other methods than the method of mere balance of terror ; and Gandhiji’s philosophy, his message, is of supreme relevance to us at the present moment and what we should do, whether in our own life or outside, is to work for this principle of repudiation of violence and war.

Gandhi also felt that ahimsa meant sarvodaya, a term he appropriated from Ruskin’s Unto This Last and which would come to mean universal progress or opportunity for everyone in the population without political domination of one group by another. When he saw the pain, degradation and poverty from which this country was suffering, he said, “I must fight this system, I must get rid of it.” And so he did. He also said, “A fallen and prostrate India will not be of any help to herself or to the world. A free and enlightened India can be of help to herself and to the world. I want my country to be free so that one day, if necessary, she may die for the sake of humanity.”

Within the country itself Gandhi felt that we were doing things which were repugnant to our conscience. We were treating human beings as below any kind of dignity. These things we are paying for and, therefore, he looked upon untouchability as a curse. As he also said, “So long as it was there in any Hindu’s heart, I disdain to be a Hindu. So long as a few individuals hold in the hollow of their hands the destiny of millions of people, it is an artificial, unnatural, uncivilised kind of existence.” Social discrimination should go, economic disparity should disappear, political domination also. These things he fought for, from the point of view of pure nonviolence. Ahimsa in this context means an awakening of all, welfare of all, in a word, sarvodaya. His whole life was dedicated to this because he was fighting with himself all the time. He was very humble. He never laid claims to righteousness or any kind of infallibility. He was listening with patience to the views that other people gave him and was open to dialogue. It is the kind of patience that can win in this world today. We are still not in the noon of civilisation. We are in the very early hours of the morning of human history. We have yet a long way to go and if we adopt nonviolence sincerely, seriously and systematically, we can make this world into a better world.

Patriotism, Gandhi said, has its limits. “I will not hurt Germany or England for the sake of serving my country.” That kind of narrowness, that kind of selfish patriotism is unworthy of a truly civilised person. He gave us his vision, his passion, and his expression to awaken us all to a sense of our own dignity, a sense of our honour, to make us feel that we are unworthy to be called human beings if we believe in brute force. Whatever may be the cause, the extreme squalor, great poverty or national prestige, these things may be there but if they seduce us into paths of violence, we will be doing something wrong. Even if we are unable to follow those principles, we must admit their validity, their supreme relevance.

Gandhiji’s message is of universal value. He belongs to a race of prophets whose words may not be accepted by their generations but will be accepted by later generations. We must do everything in our power to broadcast this message first to our own people and then to the whole world.

Reference: IISG/WRI Archive Box 312: Folder 7. We are grateful to WRI/London and their director Christine Schweitzer for their cooperation in our WRI project.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1888-1975) was an Indian philosopher and statesman, who served both as the first Vice President of India (1952–1962) and as the second President of India (1962-1967). He was one of India’s most distinguished twentieth-century scholars of comparative religion and philosophy, and had a long and distinguished teaching career, including King George V Chair of Mental and Moral Science at the University of Calcutta (1921–1932) and Spalding Professor of Eastern Religion and Ethics, Oxford University (1936–1952).  Among his many works are the highly influential The Hindu View of Life, An Idealist View of Life, and Religion and Society.

“When planted in the garden, the mustard seed, smallest of all the seeds, became a large tree, and birds came and made their home there.” Luke 13:19

“For me whatever is in the atoms and molecules is in the universe. I believe in the saying that what is in the microcosm of one’s self is reflected in the macrocosm.” M. Gandhi