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  • The Coexistence of Violence and Nonviolence in Hinduism
  • Anantanand Rambachan (bio)

violence and nonviolence in Hinduism, Gandhi, V. D. Sarvarkar, Hindutva and Hinduism, Maha Sabha, RSS, BJP, VHP, Jana Sangh, dharma yuddha

The most famous Hindu of all times, Mahatma Gandhi (1869–1948) is widely perceived, especially in the West, as embodying the Hindu worldview and ethos. Gandhi made ahimsa (nonviolence) the cornerstone of his philosophy and practice and spoke of it as constituting the essence of Hinduism. In light of Gandhi’s significance, many were surprised and bewildered when, on December 6, 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 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 ruins. Thousands lost their lives in the struggle over this site, and there is clamoring for the reclamation of other sacred sites, including one in the city of Mathura.

Ten years later in 2002, we saw the outbreak of violence between Hindus and Muslims in the state of Gujarat, precipitated by the tragedy at the Godhra railway station when train carriages were set ablaze. 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 neighbors.

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 [End Page 96] that sanction violence under certain circumstances and that ahimsa and himsa (violence) have coexisted uneasily in Hinduism for centuries. The relationship between violence and nonviolence is a complex one, and Gandhi’s representation of Hinduism must be properly contextualized.

The Purusa Sukta hymn in the Rgveda, 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 brahmins (priest-teachers); from his arms, the ksatriyas (warrior-kings); from his thighs, the vaisyas (trader-craftspersons); and from his feet, the sudras (manual laborers). 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 and 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 defense of dharma. The ancient ideal of the ksatriya is one that is being 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 the most popular deities of the Vedic period, has many warrior-like attributes. While Manu (ca. 200 b.c.e.–100 c.e.), ancient India’s influential lawgiver, lists ahimsa among the general human virtues, the ksatriyas are exempt. He permits killing in self-defense 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 nonviolence, exceptions are made for the use of violence. The Mahabharata war is referred to, in the Bhagavadgita, as a “dharma yuddha,” a war fought in defense of justice and righteousness and for the security and well...


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