The Mahatma And The Gita

by Book Excerpts - Oct 2, 2016 07:04 AM +05:30 IST
The Mahatma And The GitaKasturba watches as Gandhi reads 
  • Gandhi’s concept of non-violence stands completely at odds with our Indic philosophy.

    The misconception is that if we reject non-violence, we must fall into violence—there is no alternative beyond those two opposite poles. That is a costly confusion, and one which Gandhi hypnotised us into.

    Gandhi’s most bizarre non-violent appeal was when he called on Britain and all Jews to surrender to Hitler with love in their hearts.

Indian Culture and India’s Future, Michel Danino. DK Printworld, 248 pages, Rs 380

In April 1907, a year before Gandhi wrote his Hind Swaraj in South Africa, Sri Aurobindo expounded in a series of seven brilliant articles in Bande Mataram his ‘Doctrine of Passive Resistance’ intended to become a mass movement against British rule. The series was widely read in the country. In it, Sri Aurobindo advocated non-cooperation with and passive resistance to the colonial authorities as the only practicable policy of the day in the face of the rulers’ crushing military superiority and the Congress Moderates’ lack of support for the ideal of independence. But in his conclusion to the series, he also spelt out the limits of this policy:

‘Every great yajña has its Rakshasas who strive to baffle the sacrifice. ... Passive resistance is an attempt to meet such disturbers by peaceful and self-contained brahmatej; but even the greatest Rishis of old could not, when the Rakshasas were fierce and determined, keep up the sacrifice without calling in the bow of the Kshatriya. We should have the bow of the Kshatriya ready for use, though in the background. Politics is especially the business of the Kshatriya, and without Kshatriya strength at its back, all political struggle is unavailing.’(1)

Decades later, certain similarities in the practical strategies of Sri Aurobindo and the Mahatma prompted some scholars to parallel the two leaders. Sri Aurobindo protested in the following note (written in the third person):

‘In some quarters there is the idea that Sri Aurobindo’s political standpoint was entirely pacifist, that he was opposed in principle and in practice to all violence and that he denounced terrorism, insurrection, etc., as entirely forbidden by the spirit and letter of the Hindu religion. It is even suggested that he was a forerunner of the gospel of Ahimsa. This is quite incorrect. Sri Aurobindo is neither an impotent moralist nor a weak pacifist.

The rule of confining political action to passive resistance was adopted as the best policy for the National Movement at that stage and not as a part of a gospel of Non-violence or pacifist idealism. Peace is a part of the highest ideal, but it must be spiritual or at the very least psychological in its basis; without a change in human nature it cannot come with any finality. If it is attempted on any other basis (moral principle or gospel of Ahimsa or any other), it will fail and even may leave things worse than before. ... Sri Aurobindo’s position and practice in this matter was the same as Tilak’s and that of other Nationalist leaders who were by no means Pacifists or worshippers of Ahimsa.’(2)

It may appear hard to accept that the gospel of ahimsa ‘may leave things worse than before’. But can we for a moment picture what would have happened if, in the middle of the Second World War, with much of Europe including France under German occupation, Britain had faced the Nazi wave with non-violence? And yet, that is exactly what the Mahatma exhorted the British to do in his famous 1940 open letter ‘to every Briton’, in which he called for the British to lay down their arms ‘because war is bad in essence,’ ‘to fight Nazism without arms or ... with non-violent arms,’ and to ‘invite Herr Hitler and Signor Mussolini to take ... possession of your beautiful island’(3). No doubt Hitler would have been delighted had Britain followed such advice, just as Duryodhana would have been highly pleased to see Arjuna lay down his bow.

We note a very different attitude in Sri Aurobindo’s approach, also spelt out in 1940:

‘Hitler and Nazism and its push towards world domination are ... an assault by a formidable reactionary Force, a purely Asuric force, on the highest values of civilisation and their success would mean the destruction of individual liberty, national freedom, liberty of thought, liberty of life, religious and spiritual freedom in at least three continents.’(4)

In September of the same year, in one of the rare public gestures after taking refuge in Pondicherry, Sri Aurobindo sent the Governor of Madras a contribution and a message in support of the Allies during the War. He thus supported the same war that Gandhi abhorred.

The Mahatma And The Gita

Another difference in attitude between them concerns the Nazi persecution of the Jews before and during the Second World War. When, in 1938, a disciple of Sri Aurobindo tried to justify this persecution on the ground that ‘the Jews betrayed Germany during the [First World] war,’ Sri Aurobindo protested:

‘Nonsense! On the contrary they helped Germany a great deal. It is because they are a clever race that others are jealous of them. Or for anything that is wrong you point to the Jews—it is so much better than finding the real cause. People want something to strike at. So the popular cry, ‘The Jews, the Jews’. ... It is the Jews that have built Germany’s commercial fleet and her navy. And the contribution of Jews towards the world’s progress in every branch is remarkable.’(5)

Persecution of the Jews was only one strand in Hitler’s grand design of world domination. For Gandhi, however, it had no particular meaning, except that he wanted the Jews to adopt the true spirit of non-violence. Indeed, he blamed them for having ‘no thought even of “loving the Enemy” ‘ (6). A few months before the start of the Second World War, while claiming that his sympathies were with Germany’s Jews, Gandhi accused them of calling on England and America to wage war against Germany so as to save them. In the face of vehement protests, from Jews and non-Jews alike, he was forced to retract his offending statements (7). He nevertheless continued to deliver regular sermons to the German Jews, the gist of which can be conveyed by a few of his own statements:

Sufferings of the non-violent have been known to melt the stoniest hearts. I make bold to say that if the Jews can summon to their aid the soul power that comes only from non-violence, Herr Hitler will bow before the courage which he has never yet experienced in any large measure in his dealings with men, and which, when it is exhibited, he will own is infinitely superior to that shown by his best storm troopers. The exhibition of such courage is only possible for those who have a living faith in the God of Truth and Non-violence, i.e., Love (8).

A single Jew bravely standing up and refusing to bow to Hitler’s decrees will cover himself with glory and lead the way to the deliverance of the fellow Jews (9).

But what exactly was this ‘deliverance’? For all his talk about melting Hitler’s heart, Gandhi knew that it was not going to happen. Only one option remained in practice:

‘Suffering voluntarily undergone will bring them [German Jews] an inner strength and joy which no number of resolutions of sympathy passed in the world outside Germany can. Indeed, even if Britain, France and America were to declare hostilities against Germany, they can bring no inner joy, no inner strength. The calculated violence of Hitler may even result in a general massacre of the Jews by way of his first answer to the declaration of such hostilities. But if the Jewish mind could be prepared for voluntary suffering, even the massacre I have imagined could be turned into a day of thanksgiving and joy that Jehovah had wrought deliverance of the race even at the hands of the tyrant. For to the godfearing, death has no terror. It is a joyful sleep to be followed by a waking that would be all the more refreshing for the long sleep.’(10)

So death, it would appear, was the logical conclusion of a non-violent attitude in this case, along with a promise of thanksgiving and deliverance. A year later, Sri Aurobindo remarked in a conversation with disciples, ‘Non-violence cannot defend. One can only die by it.’(11)

The Cripps Mission

Let us now turn to the case of the mission of Sir Stafford Cripps, sent to India in 1942 by a proud and reluctant Winston Churchill. Harried by Germany, increasingly pressured by the U.S.A., eager to secure India’s support during the War, Churchill, who had sworn ever to protect the Empire, found himself compelled to present to India on a gold platter an offer of dominion status. (That was the third such offer since the start of the War, but in more explicit terms than ever.)

Sri Aurobindo ‘supported the Cripps’ offer because by its acceptance India and Britain could stand united against the Asuric forces [of Nazism] and the solution of Cripps could be used as a step towards independence’ (12). As a result, he promptly sent messages to the Congress leaders urging them to accept the proposal which amounted to virtual independence at the end of the War. Although others (including Nehru and Rajagopalachari) favoured it, Gandhi told Sri Aurobindo’s messenger that he found it unacceptable, once again ‘because of his opposition to war’ (13). (Churchill, I should add, forbade Cripps to show the slightest flexibility.) The result of Gandhi’s dogmatic stand on the evil nature of war—a dogma Sri Krishna rebuffs in the Gita—was to be heavy with consequences for India. It not only meant an unnecessary postponement of Independence, but it made India’s bloody vivisection unavoidable, even as the Mahatma promised it would happen only ‘over his dead body’; it also meant three wars with our neighbour and the continuing war of attrition and terrorism in Kashmir and elsewhere.

Staffors Cripps with Gandhi (Wikimedia Commons) 
Staffors Cripps with Gandhi (Wikimedia Commons) 

In The History of the Freedom Movement in India, R.C. Majumdar referred to Sri Aurobindo’s ‘advice to the Congress to accept the proposals of Cripps’ and noted, ‘The Congress rejected it at the time but many of its leaders admitted later that Arabinda was right.’ Indeed, Majumdar’s verdict was that Sri Aurobindo ‘had a much clearer idea as to what should be the future politics of India than most of the leaders who shaped her destiny’ (14).

With due respect to the Mahatma, his rigid insistence on an impracticable non-violence may have cost the country dear, as a detached reassessment of his contribution to the struggle for freedom would, in my opinion, show—a critical appraisal that Gandhi’s saintly image has so far kept confined to the scholarly world.

To be fair, we should note that Gandhi did try to understand Sri Aurobindo’s viewpoint; in 1924, for instance, he sent his son Devadas to Pondicherry to sound him on non-violence. Sri Aurobindo simply replied, ‘Suppose there is an invasion of India by the Afghans, how are you going to meet it with non-violence?’ We all know what happened when Kashmir was invaded immediately after Independence, or when Chinese troops poured into north India in 1962, or in 1999 when Pakistani troops occupied peaks in Kargil (and I am afraid there are more Kargils to come). It is a moot point what the Mahatma’s advice would be in such cases: to lay down arms and meet the enemy with non-violence?

The following words of Sri Aurobindo, written in December 1916 in his Essays on the Gita, appear insightful in retrospect:

‘We will use only soul-force and never destroy by war or any even defensive employment of physical violence? Good, though until soul-force is effective, the Asuric force in men and nations tramples down, breaks, slaughters, burns, pollutes, as we see it doing today, but then at its ease and unhindered, and you have perhaps caused as much destruction of life by your abstinence as others by resort to violence.’

Non-Violence vs Force

If, therefore, we mean the Gita’s teaching to be a practicable one—which is what Sri Aurobindo and his companions in the fight for freedom did—we are bound to reject non-violence as a collective creed. It may remain an individual’s choice, for every individual is free to follow his preferred path, but anyone who has to wage a battle for dharma or for the truth—which comes to the same thing—will find a better ally in the use of force which the Gita advocates. Arjuna is of course something of all of us, the symbol of ‘the struggling human soul’, in Sri Aurobindo’s words, and Kurukshetra is the ‘battle of life’, even of our humdrum everyday life if we take the trouble of living for a purpose. Resist a corrupt official and a Kurukshetra opens in front of you; let a women’s group take on liquor barons and you can hear the twang of the Gandiva; if a few villagers or tribals oppose a timber mafia, you will see a hundred Kauravas rise; or simply try to keep your street clean and learn what ghoram karma is all about!

Krishna delivers the Gita to Arjuna (Wikimedia Commons)
Krishna delivers the Gita to Arjuna (Wikimedia Commons)

Now, a frequent misconception is that if we reject non-violence, we must fall into violence—there is no alternative beyond those two opposite poles. That is a costly confusion, and one which Gandhi hypnotised us into. Yet the Gita goes to great pains to dispel it: between blind, Asuric violence and noble but impotent non-violence, there is conscious force, free from hatred and ego, which can remain powerfully still or also wage war, as circumstances demand. True, in the world’s history, most aggressive expansions, especially the Christian and Islamic, followed the Asuric path and washed the earth with blood—there is at least one notable exception, though, and that is India, whose preferred weapon of conquest was her culture. Yet she was by no means non-violent. Alexander was confronted by Porus’s armies; the Gurjara Pratiharas checked the progress of the Arabs into northwest India; we know well enough the great deeds of a Shivaji, a Rani Lakshmibai and countless other heroes of this land, to whom Sri Krishna’s injunctions on the Kshatriya’s dharma were no dead letter.

As to the present, it is a frequently heard complaint that Mahatma Gandhi’s teaching of non-violence is no longer followed in India; but it rather seems to me that it has penetrated the collective Indian consciousness deep enough to make it wince at the very thought of action and put a brake on its use even when and where it is patently needed. Externally, no other country, it seems to me, would have ‘tolerated’ the amount of aggression India has suffered since Independence, and at what terrible cost. Internally, India has been ‘non-violent’ towards the galloping growth of corruption, the criminalization of politics and the cancer of Naxalism. As a nation, India has lacked the courage to put to effective use the elements of strength in her heritage.

Swami Vivekananda, too, noted the irony behind an ahimsa-preaching Christianity and an action-urging Gita:

‘Jesus Christ, the God of the Europeans, has taught: Have no enemy, bless them that curse you; whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also; stop all your work and be ready for the next world; the end of the world is near at hand. And our Lord in the Gita is saying: Always work with great enthusiasm, destroy your enemies and enjoy the world. But, after all, it turned out to be exactly the reverse of what Christ or Krishna implied. The Europeans never took the words of Jesus Christ seriously. Always of active habits, being possessed of a tremendous Râjasika nature, they are gathering with great enterprise and youthful ardour the comforts and luxuries of the different countries of the world and enjoying them to their hearts’ content. And we are sitting in a corner, with our bag and baggage, pondering on death day and night.’

At school, the average Indian pupil will be taught to worship Gandhi as the ‘father of the nation’, but will learn nothing of the Gita’s spiritual ethics and its call to oppose adharma. I wonder how those who drafted India’s education policy arrogated the right to deprive young Indians of this pillar of their heritage. Of course, if we decide that education is only intended to prepare children for getting jobs and has nothing to do with making better human beings out of them, then we admit that there is no more meaning to a human’s life than to an ant’s. The Gita’s message is an effective tool: it offers a purpose in life; it gives strength; it instils self-confidence, elevation in thought, a broader view of life, a deeper understanding of human nature. I believe India would be in a better shape today had the Gita not been kept out of sight and hearing of young Indians, except for a few shlokas at the time of burials.

Michel Danino is a historian and author. He is a guest professor at IIT Gandhinagar and a member of the Indian Council of Historical Research.


1. Sri Aurobindo, Autobiographical Notes and Other Writings of Historical Interest, vol. 36 in The Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry, 2006, pp. 453–54.

2. Nirodbaran, Talks with Sri Aurobindo, vol. 1, Sri Aurobindo Society, Calcutta, 2nd edn, 1986, p. 79.

3. M.K. Gandhi, Harijan, 18 February 1939, in Complete Works, vol. 75, p. 39.

4. M.K. Gandhi, Harijan, 27 May 1939, in Complete Works, vol. 75, pp. 417–18.

5. M.K. Gandhi, Harijan, 17 December 1938.

6. M.K. Gandhi, Harijan, 7 January 1939.

7. M.K. Gandhi, Harijan, 26 November 1938.

8. Sri Aurobindo, India’s Rebirth, p. 224.

9. Sri Aurobindo, Autobiographical Notes and Other Writings of Historical Interest, op. cit., 2006, p. 66.

10. Sri Aurobindo, India’s Rebirth, pp. 235–36.

11. R.C. Majumdar, History of the Freedom Movement in India, vol. 2, p. 186.

12. Evening Talks, recorded by A.B. Purani, Sri Aurobindo Society, Pondicherry, 1982, p. 53

13. Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, p. 42.

14. Swami Vivekananda, ‘The East and the West’, The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, electronic edition, vol. V.

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