The Co-Existence of Violence and Non-Violence in Hinduism

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The most famous Hindu of all time, Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) is widely perceived, especially in the West, as embodying the Hindu world-view and ethos. Gandhi made ahimsa (non-violence) the cornerstone of his philosophy and practice and spoke of it as constituting the essence of Hinduism. In the light of Gandhi's significance, many were surprised and bewildered when, on 6 December 1992, thousands of Hindu volunteers broke through police cordons and demolished the Babri mosque in the holy city of Ayodhya in North India. Many were armed with tridents, the traditional iconographic weapon of Shiva, and they were led by Hindu holy men chanting "Jai Shri Ram" (victory to Ram). The mosque, it is argued, was constructed on the spot where Rama, one of the Hindu incarnations of God, was born. According to these militant Hindus, the Moghul emperor, Babar, destroyed a Hindu temple and built the mosque on its rains. Thousands lost their lives in the struggle over this site, and there is an outcry for the reclamation of other sacred sites, including one in the city of Mathura. More recently, we have witnessed violence between Hindus and Muslims in the state of Gujarat, precipitated by the tragedy at the Godhra railway station where Muslims set ablaze a train with Hindu passengers. Hindus reacted violently. Religious chanting and the invocation of the name of God accompanied many of the acts of violence perpetrated by Hindus upon their Muslim neighbours. Persons were chosen and attacked because they were Muslims and their attackers claimed to be acting in the name of Hinduism.

In recent years, several Hindu organizations have become aggressive and militant in rhetoric and method, reminding us that while Gandhi championed the ethic of ahimsa, there are ancient traditions within Hinduism which sanction violence under certain circumstances and that ahimsa and himsa (violence) have coexisted uneasily in Hinduism for centuries. The relationship between violence and non-violence is a complex one and Gandhi's representation of Hinduism must be properly contextualized.

The Purusa Sukta hymn in the Rigveda, Hinduism's most ancient scripture, describes metaphorically the origin of humankind from the primordial sacrifice of the cosmic Person (purusa). From his mouth came the brahmans (priest-teachers), from his arms the ksatriyas (warrior-kings), from his thighs the vaisyas (trader-craftsmen) and from his feet the sudras (manual labourers). The respective duties of each group are defined and are presented later on in the Bhagavadgita (18:45-47) as conducive to the attainment of liberation. The ksatriyas, the group from which the kings as rulers are supposedly drawn, are the physical protectors of the community. They are the custodians of justice and the defenders of social and ritual order (dharma), by the force of arms, if necessary. Society could not survive without the might of the ksatriyas and the Hindu tradition commends the ideal of the warrior who is prepared to fight in the defence of dharma. The ancient ideal of the ksatriya is one that is invoked and reinterpreted by militant Hindus today.

Vedic society in ancient India did not scrupulously adhere to ahimsa as its highest value. Sacrificial rites involved the slaying of animals and Indra, one of most popular deities of the Vedic period, has many warrior-like attributes. While Manu (ca. 200 BCE-100 CE), ancient India's influential law-giver, lists ahimsa among the general human virtues, the ksatriyas are exempt. He permits killing in self-defence and for implementing the injunctions of the Vedas. Two of the most popular epics in the Hindu tradition, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, culminate in lengthy and violent battles.

The Bhagavadgita, modern Hinduism's most popular scripture, is revealed on a battlefield and advocates the position that participating in war may be viewed, for a ksatriya, as personal duty. We see quite clearly from the Bhagavadgita that while the tradition upholds the ultimacy of non-violence, exceptions are made. …