Published in Devlok, Sunday Midday, October 11, 2010

Look at the word Ahimsa. It is created by adding ‘a’ before ‘himsa’. It means not being violent. The primary word is himsa or violence, almost acknowledging that violence is the natural state of man and non-violence is a cultural aspiration, a human discipline.

Nature, contrary to popular poetic perception, is extremely violent. She is as the poet said, ‘red in tooth and claw’. Animals and plants compete with each other to survive. A big plant will not let smaller plants grow as it reaches out for the sunlight. A deer will violently uproot grass or shrub. A lion will chase the deer and eat it. An old lion will be torn to pieces by wild dogs. The act of eating is visualized as a violent activity. Nature kills something so that someone else can survive. Life feeds on death. Death nourishes life. And this is visually presented in Tantrik art as the goddess Chinnamastika, who cuts her own head and drinks the blood spurting from her severed neck and offers the same to her handmaidens.

Culture is violent. Culture involves the domestication of nature. And this act of domestication is a violent one. The act of farming involves burning of trees, uprooting of weeds, levelling of the earth, tilling of the soil, and harvesting of the crop. Bullocks used to pull carts and ploughs are created by castrating bulls. Canals are built by building dams, breaking banks and diverting rivers. The act of cooking, so peculiar to humans, reminds us of the violence involved in the procurement and production of food – it involves breaking, smashing, threshing, pounding, cutting, boiling, roasting and frying. This violence is acknowledged in the images of the mother-goddesses worshipped during Navaratri. Durga slays the buffalo, blood flows on the sacred altar, and everyone – vegetarian or otherwise – is expected to bow before the goddess, to remind us all of the violence inflicted by man on nature in the pursuit of culture.

The violence of nature and culture embarrasses us. At the end of the Bhagavad Gita, there is a horrific 18-day war at Kurukshetra. Mahatma Gandhi, the proponent of a-himsa, loved the Bhagavad Gita, but found it difficult to make sense of the Mahabharata bloodbath. He preferred looking at the war as metaphor, as do many scholars today. But the descriptions of the war are far from metaphorical. It is brutal beyond belief. So one wonders if the Bhagavad Gita is actually merely an elaborate justification of violence!

The Bhagavad Gita is not so much a prescription as it is a reflection. The point is not whether one should be violent or non-violent. It proposes neither one nor the other. It prescribes action, whatever it might be. But demands reflection on the chosen action. The point is not whether you are violent or non-violent. The point is to observe the action carefully and figure out WHY are you violent or non-violent?

Animals are violent only in their quest to survive. But humans have a whole range of reason to be violent. We can be violent because we want to control the world around us – domesticate the world around us, tame fellow human beings and train them with rules so that they do our bidding. We can even use non-violence as a strategic lever to emotionally blackmail and manipulate people to do our bidding. That is non-violence in form but not in thought. The most non-violent man can be passively aggressive as he seeks to dominate those around him. Violence here is not physical but psychological. As we worship the mother-goddess who kills the buffalo demon, we have to ask ourselves what makes us violent. In awareness of our own violence, rather than in its denial, lies wisdom.