39. A SPIRITUAL DILEMMA
As soon as the news reached
South Africa that I along with other Indians had offered my services in
the war, I received two cables. One of these was from Mr. Polak, who questioned
the consistency of my action with my profession of ahimsa.
I had to a certain extent anticipated
this objection, for I had discussed the question in my Hind Swaraj or
Indian Home Rule,/1/ and
used to discuss it day in and day out with friends in South Africa. All
of us recognized the immorality of war. If I was not prepared to prosecute
my assailant, much less would I be willing to participate in a war, especially
when I knew nothing of the justice or otherwise of the cause of the combatants.
Friends of course knew that I had previously served in the Boer War, but
they assumed that my views had since undergone a change.
As a matter of fact the very
same line of argument that persuaded me to take part in the Boer War had
weighed with me on this occasion. It was quite clear to me that participation
in war could never be consistent with ahimsa. But it is not always
given to one to be equally clear about one's duty. A votary of truth is
often obliged to grope in the dark.
Ahimsa is a comprehensive
principle. We are helpless mortals caught in the conflagration of himsa.
The saying that life lives on life has a deep meaning in it. Man cannot
for a moment live without consciously or unconsciously committing outward
The very fact of his living--eating, drinking and moving about--necessarily
involves some himsa, destruction of life, be it ever so minute.
A votary of ahimsa therefore remains true to his faith if the spring
of all his actions is compassion, if he shuns to the best of his ability
the destruction of the tiniest creature, tries to save it, and thus incessantly
strives to be free from the deadly coil of himsa. He will be constantly
growing in self-restraint and compassion, but he can never become entirely
free from outward himsa.
Then again, because underlying
is the unity of all life, the error of one cannot but affect all, and hence
man cannot be wholly free from himsa. So long as he continues to
be a social being, he cannot but participate in the himsa that the
very existence of society involves. When two nations are fighting, the
duty of a votary of ahimsa is to stop the war. He who is not equal
to that duty, he who has no power of resisting war, he who is not qualified
to resist war, may take part in war, and yet whole-heartedly try to free
himself, his nation and the world from war.
I had hoped to improve my status
and that of my people through the British Empire. Whilst in England I was
enjoying the protection of the British Fleet, and taking shelter as I did
under its armed might, I was directly participating in its potential violence.
Therefore, if I desired to retain my connection with the Empire and to
live under its banner, one of three courses was open to me: I could declare
open resistance to the war and, in accordance with the law of Satyagraha,
boycott the Empire until it changed its military policy; or I could seek
imprisonment by civil disobedience of such of its laws as were fit to be
disobeyed; or I could participate in the war on the side of the Empire,
and thereby acquire the capacity and fitness for resisting the violence
of war. I lacked this capacity and fitness, so I thought there was nothing
for it but to serve in the war.
I make no distinction, from
the point of view of ahimsa, between combatants and non-combatants.
He who volunteers to serve a band of dacoits by working as their carrier,
or their watchman while they are about their business, or their nurse when
they are wounded, is as much guilty of dacoity as the dacoits themselves.
In the same way, those who confine themselves to attending to the wounded
in battle cannot be absolved from the guilt of war.
I had argued the whole thing
out to myself in this manner, before I received Polak's cable, and soon
after its receipt,I discussed these views with several friends, and concluded
that it was my duty to offer to serve in the war. Even today I see no flaw
in that line of argument, nor am I sorry for my action, holding, as I then
did, views favourable to the British connection.
I know that even then I could
not carry conviction with all my friends about the correctness of my position.
The question is subtle. It admits of differences of opinion, and therefore
I have submitted my argument as clearly as possible to those who believe
in ahimsa and who are making serious efforts to practise it in every
walk of life. A devotee of Truth may not do anything in deference to convention.
He must always hold himself open to correction, and whenever he discovers
himself to be wrong he must confess it at all costs and atone for it.
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