Spell out the assumptions behind my attention to history and to the particular actors in this story (women, lower classes and castes, and animals). Here let me just say a few words about the central action: (non)violence.
The term “nonviolence” (ahimsa) originally applied not to the relationship between humans but to the relationship between humans and animals. Ahimsa means “the absence of the desire to injure or kill,” a disinclination to do harm, rather than an active desire to be gentle; it is a double negative, perhaps best translated by the negative “nonviolence,” which suggests both mental and physical concern for others. The roots of ahimsa may lie in Vedic ritual, in animal sacrifice, in the argument that the priest does not actually injure the animal but merely “pacifies him”; the primary meaning of ahimsa is thus to do injury without doing injury, a casuist argument from its very inception. In the Rig Veda’ (the earliest Sanskrit text, from c. 1200 BCE),the word ahimsa refers primarily to the prevention of injury or violence to the sacrificer and his offspring, as well as his cattle. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the verb on which ahimsa is based, han, is ambiguous, meaning both “to strike or beat” and “to kill.” Ahimsa, therefore, when applied to cows, to take a case at random, might mean refraining either from beating them or killing them—quite a difference. In any case, ahimsa represents not a political doctrine or even a social theory, but the emotion of the horror of killing (or hurting) a living creature, an emotion that we will see attested from the earliest texts. Arguments about whether or not to kill, sacrifice, and or eat animals were often at the heart of interreligious violence, sometimes the grounds on which human beings attacked other human beings (usually with words, though occasionally with blows).
The Arjuna, the heroic warrior of the Mahabharata, the great ancient Sanskrit poem about a tragic war, excuses the violence of war by saying, “Creatures live on creatures, the stronger on the weaker. The mongoose eats mice, just as the cat eats the mongoose; the dog devours the cat, your majesty, and wild beasts eat the dog. Even ascetics cannot stay alive without killing”. The text here justifies human violence by the violence that is rampant in the animal world. Yet the most common sense of ahimsa refers to humans’ decision to rise above animal violence.
Vegetarianism, both as an ideal and as a social fact in India, challenges Arjuna’s belief that
animals must inevitably feed on one another and attempts to break the chain of alimentary violence simply by affirming that it is not, in fact, necessary to kill in order to eat.
Nonviolence became a cultural ideal for Hindus precisely because it holds out the last hope of a cure, all the more desirable since unattainable, for a civilization that has, like most,always suffered from chronic and terminal violence. Non-violence is an ideal propped up against the cultural reality of violence. Classical Hindu India was violent in ways both shared with all cultures and unique to its particular time and place, in its politics in its religious practices (animal sacrifice, ascetic self-torture, fire walking,swinging from hooks in the flesh of the back, and so forth); in its criminal law (impaling on stakes and the amputation of limbs being prescribed punishments for relatively minor offenses);in its hells (cunningly and sadistically contrived to make the punishment fit the crime); and, perhaps at the very heart of it all, in its climate, with its unendurable heat and unpredictable monsoons. Hindu sages dreamed of nonviolence as people who live all their lives in the desert dream of oases.
It is against this background that we must view the doctrine of nonviolence. The history of Hinduism, as we shall see, abounds both in periods of creative assimilation and interaction and in outbursts of violent intolerance. Sometimes it is possible to see how historical circumstances have tipped the scales in one direction or the other. Sometimes it is not.In their ambivalent attitude to violence, the Hindus are no different from the rest of us, but they are perhaps unique in the intensity of their ongoing debate about it.