The Mahatma on war: The views of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948) on the moral dilemma of all who choose to oppose evil
Mahatma Gandhi has presented his ideas and views on war in a very unambiguous way. He considers it loathsome, degrading, and brutalizing to the minds and hearts of the men trained for it. In glorifying brute force, it outrages the moral standing of a society and the men who lead it, and inflames passions baser than the original sin.
It is totally antithetical to the ideas of gentleness, patience and compassion -- ideas that he has espoused in his life's supreme struggle against imperial tyranny. He is complete in his opposition to the use of raw force as a means of solving the problems of this world; at the same time, his adherence to "ahimsa" does not mean that he is not cognizant of the fact that in a situation of moral dilemma, different yardsticks may apply to different people.
His abhorrence for any acts of belligerence is total; but at the same time, he never seeks to prevent someone who wishes to take part in war from doing so. It means that he does not wish to impose his philosophy on others. He simply strives to tread an alternative path, the path of non-violent resistance against any form of evil, and lead the way by way of example. He simply places the issue before those who do not believe in his way, and allow them to make their own moral decisions.
However, he goes a step beyond that. When a person who has avowed himself to the principles of war as a means to an end, refuses to do his duty, i.e., when he or she refuses to fight for some reason or other, Gandhi feels it to be his moral obligation to enlighten that person as to his or her eternal duty to fight as soldiers, while at the same time presenting an alternative path of ahimsa. That is, while they are at the station in life that exhorts them to fight, they should do so unflinchingly; however, if they do choose to renounce the principles of war as a means to an end, it should then be their duty to refuse to involve themselves in any acts of violence.
In adhering and putting to practice this belief, Gandhi has indicated his adherence to one of the fundamental principles of Hinduism, namely, the indelibility of Karma, the sense of duty that one is morally obliged to fulfill in one's station in the present life. The moral dilemma is only whether the path of ahimsa is more efficacious than the path of himsa, its antithesis. The principle of karma and its place in the philosophical radar of the individual is absolute, and cannot be challenged. What this means is that it would be a gross folly not to fight a war simply because you have a selfish interest in not doing so; simply because the people you wage war with are your brethren. However, if you do choose to renounce war because you have been convinced of its futility, then it could as well be interpreted as a choice of ahimsa.
By linking duty and belief in this fashion, the Mahatma claims that there is no contrition in recommending to all who have no objection in taking up arms, to fight and wage war to vanquish the evil that challenges and threatens the fabric of our society. However, there is a caveat attached to this thought -- the individual who wages a war against an act of evil, should do so with the single-minded purpose of freeing himself as well his society of that evil. He justifies his attitude by claiming that "one's life is not a single straight line; it is a bundle of duties very often conflicting. And one is called upon continually to make one's choice between one duty and another."
As Gandhi was a firm believer in the principle of ahimsa, it would come as a surprise to the uninitiated that he considered it his moral responsibility to urge people to fight for the preservation of their nation and society. Considering the demoralizing effect that training for war has on the inner psyche of the individual, and in extrapolation, on the society, it is difficult to comprehend why the 20th-century apostle of peace and non-violence, would even recommend to ordinary men and women, the path of war and armed struggle with the purpose of preserving their way of life. Hindu philosophy makes a distinction between ahimsa and non-killing by noting that himsa means killing from motives of anger or selfishness; ahimsa, on the other hand, means refraining from doing so. It never pushes the follower into the path of non-killing and non-resistance; All it says is that whenever an act of killing is done, it should be with the sole purpose of opposing and eventually destroying the seed of evil and injustice, without any feeling of revenge, anger or selfishness. This gives us the moral background to resist all acts of evil and injustice by opposing and eventually destroying the root cause and source of the evil from the hearts and minds of the evildoers, without having to destroy the individual himself. As the Bhagvad Gita notes, it might be possible for the believer of ahimsa to kill, provided that the act of killing is not prompted by anger or selfishness, and is performed with detachment as one's duty.
Even when a person professes the path of non-violence or ahimsa, it is absolute in the sense that it informs the inner spirit and the circumstances under which acts of evil and injustice are committed, and not in the sense that it is a rule which does not allow any exceptions. One person may consider it his moral duty to fight, while another to desist from any form of violence, like Gandhi does. However, it is the supreme duty of both individuals to resist the act of evil and injustice committed against the self and on society, and if need be, wage war, both moral and physical, against it, as the case may be, with the sole purpose of uprooting the cause of malevolence so that it does not raise its head ever again. In either case, the reaction of the individual, as is appropriate as per his or her belief, should never be prompted by a sense of revenge and retribution.