You need not be a social philosopher to say that we live amid violence. Open your eyes, activate your ways of seeing, and feel the vibrations of your heart: you find the all-pervading violence—be it physical or psychic, economic or cultural. Well, violence is everywhere—in demonic masculinity and brute sexuality; in militant nationalism and neoliberal global capitalism; and in hyper-competitiveness and age-old social hierarchy. In a way, we are violent; we become violent.
Is it possible to think of yet another world—reasonably relaxed and peaceful? Is it possible to combat violence? Or is it that in the process of fighting violence we become more violent, and find ourselves caught in the vicious cycle of violence and counter- violence? Well, these are not merely academic/philosophic questions to be raised by social scientists and psychoanalysts, or poets and mystics. In a way, to live is to confront these questions. And the moment we seek to live with a reasonable degree of awareness and reflexivity, there is no escape from a rigorous process of inner churning.
Unlike an ‘academic’ text on violence, this article is about human dilemmas and anxieties, failures and possibilities; and above all, this is not a ‘science’ of violence; instead, this is an experience of being burnt by violence, and yet to strive for peace.
As the inner world burns…
Every one of us is undoubtedly responsible for all men—and everything on earth, not merely through the general sinfulness of creation, but each one personally for all mankind and every individual man. This knowledge is the crown of life for the monk and for every man. For monks are not a special sort of men, but only what all men ought to be. Only through that knowledge, our heart grows soft with infinite, universal, inexhaustible love.
Father Zossima in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Karamazov Brothers
To begin with, let us reflect on the way we experience violence in the interiority of our existence. What immediately comes to my mind is the burden of ‘ego’. I am ‘somebody’; I am my wealth, my social status, my educational degree; and hence, this ‘ego’ of being ‘somebody’ separates me from others. And this causes pride as well as chronic anxiety. I am ‘superior’ to you because I have a better educational qualification, and I am more powerful than you in the official hierarchy. I begin to diminish your worth; my gestures radiate violence: an act of humiliating the other. Likewise, I am terribly anxiety-ridden because someone is more powerful than me; or I might lose what I possess today. In other words, I am now caught into the toxic logic of ‘superiority’ and ‘inferiority’. I cannot see myself ‘superior’ to others unless at the same time I find myself ‘inferior’ to someone. Yes, with my ‘ego’, I lose the rhythm of connectedness; I fail to realize our shared humanity. Love disappears; my inner world becomes a battle field; I am now a warrior: restless, clever, insecure, anxiety-ridden. It is no longer possible for me to walk with the poet (Rabindranath Tagore), and sing:
Help me bow my head under the dust of your feet.
Help me submerge all my vanity under modest tears.
May not I project myself in my own activity.
It is your intentions that I carry out in my life.
Second, as I feel, it is our desire—the desire to possess or grab—that causes violence. Well, there are biological and physical needs that have to be fulfilled. When I am hungry I need something to eat; or when I am sick I need a doctor to heal my body. Yet, we need more; we are not contented; and suddenly, it becomes exceedingly difficult to distinguish genuine necessities of life from artificial needs which are merely for our egotistic urge to accumulate and possess. This is a transformation: from organic needs to limitless greed, or from inner fulfillment to perpetual restlessness. Desire more—more cars, more gadgets, more luxuries, more sex and more power. Quite often, one’s ego nurtures this ambition. And life becomes strategic, instrumental and manipulative. It loses its calmness. Through this reckless desire we invite violence. We destroy nature; we exploit others.
And third, there is fear. Our inflated egos arouse tremendous fear—the fear of losing, or the fear of being reduced to zero. And the more we fear the more violent we become. We become more possessive; we invent enemies; we plan to destroy others in order to hold our egos. Is it therefore surprising that all dictators are terribly fearful, they can’t trust anybody? In their every gesture you see fear and suspicion. Likewise, we see violence in our relationships. You think that you are in love; but you fear that your beloved might leave you; and hence you seek to possess her; and as a result, the relationship loses its beauty. Furthermore, the ultimate fear—the fear of death—often drives one to be violent. Before the ‘enemy’ kills you, it is better to kill him! Or for that matter, the desire to be ‘immortal’ causes a terribly violent desire to ‘establish’ oneself in history. You seek to find yourself in the museum, in your inheritance, or in the territory you have colonized and conquered.
Yes, the inner world is filled with egotistic pride, reckless desire and chronic fear. Violence is inseparable from the life we lead. No wonder, mystics and spiritual seekers often remind us of the importance of self-awakening. It is this awakening that makes one realize the futility of ego, or the temporality of this embodied existence. We are, as spiritual masters say, are just finite manifestations of the infinite; like tides, we come, disappear and merge with the ocean. This realization causes calmness; it is a journey—from egotistic division to rhythmic connectedness, from a warrior to a lover, or from aggression to compassion. This is what distinguishes Friedrich Nietzsche from Gautam Buddha, or Adolf Hitler from Jesus Christ. In other words, the spiritual answer to violence, it is said, is the cultivation of the meditative self, or religiosity of love and compassion.
And what about the ‘system’ out there?
Wherein is courage required—in blowing others to pieces from behind a canon, or with a smiling face to approach a canon and be blown to pieces? Who is the true warrior—he who keeps death always as a bosom friend, or he who controls the death of others?
At this juncture a question is bound to arise: Is it possible to be meditative when the ‘system’ we live in is violent, and we cannot be separated from it? Or, for that matter, is it possible to transform the inner world without altering the outer world? It is a genuine question. Think of the ‘system’—a structure of societal interactions and institutionalized norms, or the ‘laws’ that govern the state and the market. In other words, the ‘system’, it appears, exits as a ‘solid’ thing with its own ‘objective’ principles over which we have no control. Hence, it can be argued that without being violent we cannot live in this ‘system’. For instance, caste as a structure of social relations is bound to cause a hierarchical/divisive/violent mind: a ‘superior’ Brahmin stigmatizing an ‘inferior’ Dalit! Or patriarchy causes the burden of violent masculinity, or objectification of womanhood. And capitalism, because of its very logic of private property, commodification and possessiveness, would invariably lead to social Darwinism or a hyper-competitive culture. Likewise, the militarization of the consciousness, as the argument goes, is inevitable so long as modern nation-states are engaged in war. We would not hesitate to ridicule John Lennon’s imagination of a world where there is ‘nothing to kill or die for’. In fact, the violence that we experience within ourselves, as it is argued, is the inevitable product of ‘structural’ violence.
I believe there are three ways through which we can deal with this riddle. First, we can accept that the ‘system’ is overwhelmingly powerful over our lives, and hence we cannot do much about it. This orientation might lead to some sort of despair or fatalism. Even if you do not like to engage with violence, you accept your helplessness and exist as a timid/passive observer. And this can also lead to some sort of cleverness. We can justify our violence by arguing that the ‘system’ is violent, and hence in order to survive, we have to learn the strategy of the game. This logic is tempting. It makes us free from self-reflection, or our own responsibility. Instead, we might find some sort of vicarious pleasure in finding ourselves as clever players of the game. Hence, we would argue that tenderness is too ‘feminine’ because capitalism is about strategy, manipulation, profit and competitiveness. Or, for that matter, we would give our consent to deforestation because we would argue that for ‘development’—an ideology of unlimited techno-economic progress— it is needed. In other words, we would follow what the ‘system’ expects from us with an assumption that it is too powerful, and we are robbed of even the minimal agency to resist it.
Second, it is possible to define ourselves as revolutionaries, not mere passive observers of history. We may be driven to alter this violent ‘system’, and create a new social order. But then, we may think that we need counter- violence to defeat the violence implicit in the ‘system’. As a result, we would end up legitimizing our violence as sacred, emancipatory, therapeutic and politically appropriate. Yes, there are moments when this logic sounds convincing. Because quite often, the perpetuators of the ‘system’—say, the ruling classes—refuse to acknowledge the language of nonviolence, or hardly initiate a meaningful conversation with the dissenters. And hence, it is argued that the coercive apparatus of the state can be fought only through counter-violence. From guerrilla warfare to terrorism: it might take multiple forms. The problem with this approach is that the very logic of counter-violence begins to brutalize the dissenters; and even if it produces some immediate results, we remain caught into the vicious cycle of violence and counter-violence. Society becomes more toxic; surveillance is normalized; fear spreads; conspiracy theories begin to float; and, as it is said, one war leads to another. Don’t forget that the Marxist revolution produced a Stalin; and in India the military intervention fails to eliminate suicide bombers in Kashmir. The irony is that we seek peace through violence. Or is it that violence, as Sigmund Freud would have said, is our natural instinct, and we cannot live without it?
And third, there is another way. This time one seeks to combat violence through nonviolence. Here the argument is that you can never fight the ‘system’ through its own logic. When the system is violent, you need nonviolence or ahimsa to overthrow it. The skeptics would, however, argue that ahimsa cannot work because the perpetuators of the violent ‘system’ are insensitive, and it is naïve to think that they would acknowledge a peaceful protest. Yet, the proponents of ahimsa believe that it is the most effective way because it is endowed with moral power, and it can eventually succeed in altering the worldview of the oppressors. Furthermore, it is argued that it is only through ahimsa that we can reconcile the political and the spiritual. Because, as Gandhi would have said, in order to practice ahimsa we ought to engage in the process of self-cleansing; through some sort of sadhana we ought to have control over our anger, greed, desire and brute instincts. Furthermore, this requires immense courage—the courage to strive for truth, resist the evil forces, and even die without falling into the trap of violence.
It is true that the Gandhian way is not easy. In a way, it demands the ‘impossible’ from us—spiritual power, endurance and immense courage. And Gandhi realized that even his ‘followers’ were not always ready for this. Gandhi witnessed the ugliness of communal violence; and as his dream was crumbling, a Hindu fanatic chose to kill him. Through Godse’s bullets did violence establish its supremacy over nonviolence?
Is it then that we are doomed forever?
Avijit Pathak is Professor of Sociology at JNU.