To the reader…
This is the last of this series of posts on Indian Political Thought. They are transcripts of lectures delivered recently by Bharati. Each lecture will be divided into a number of parts and published separately. Bharati has not only endorsed their publication but also checked and improved the transcripts; for which, the blog renders its gratitude. However, yours truly and their good friend are responsible for tracing, checking, and arranging the references. These references are neither authoritative nor exhaustive; treat them simply as the attempts of two cluelesss students at helping themselves and other clueless students understand the lectures just a little better. Often they are pointers to material that might interest the slightly more advanced reader. Some are simply interesting (we hope) pieces of trivia.
Some things before you proceed:
- Sanskrit terms are transliterated following the International Alphabet of Sanskrit Transliteration (IAST) standard. Familiarity with Devanagri sounds is recommended.
- Please use the footnote markers (, , etc.) to jump to footnotes and back to the text.
‘Cruelty’ in the Indian Tradition
20. So, the moral of the Mahābhārata can be said to be the centrality of the relationship between brahma and kṣatra. There are also several dharma related ideas and cruelty is one of them. The Sanskrit word for cruelty is nṛśaṃsa (नृशंस). Now nṛśaṃsa is actually an adjective and it describes a person who wilfully causes injury to others, who inflicts mindless violence on others. That kind of person is called nṛśaṃsya and from that word, a new word, ānṛśaṃsya (आनृशंस्य), seems to have been coined by the authors of the Mahābhārata. Ānṛśaṃsya is an abstract noun. It means non-cruelty. So nṛśaṃsa describes a person who is cruel, anṛśaṃsa (अनृशंस) is one who is compassionate, and ānṛśaṃsya is non-cruelty, or the virtue of non-cruelty.
21. What is the difference between non-cruelty and non-violence? First, remember that most of the key normative ideas in Indian philosophy are negatively formed. And it is something of a puzzle why these have been negatively formed. (I must confess that initially I had taken ānṛśaṃsya also to be a negative and formed in a similar way. But that was a mistake. The word starts with “ā [आ]” and not “a [अ]”.) Take the word ahiṃsā — non-violence. Take the word asteya — non-stealing. Aparigraha — non-holding (non-attachment, non-possession). All these are virtues which are supposed to be virtues that everyone must cultivate regardless of the gender or varṇa. And therefore these are virtues which are prescribed by what is called sāmānyadharma. The word dharma has many meanings. But the meaning that I have in mind here concerns the distinction between sāmānyadharma and varṇāśramadharma. Varṇāśramadharma is that which is specific to your varṇa and your āśrama: your birth and status and the stage of life you are at; whereas sāmānyadharma, which can be loosely translated as universal or general dharma, is something which is valid for everybody.
22. Asteya, aparigraha, ahiṃsā and ānṛśaṃsya, which is to say non-stealing, non-holding, non-violence and non-cruelty are supposed to be valid for everybody and therefore they are part of sāmānyadharma. The śāstric position on the relationship between varṇāśramadharma and sāmānyadharma is rather disappointing. Because having said that everyone should follow non-killing, non-cruelty, etc., the śāstras say that in case of conflict between varṇāśramadharma and sāmānyadharma, varṇāśramadharma prevails. If you are a king, you cannot say that the sāmānyadharma has told you not to kill, therefore you will not go to war or that you will not punish. Because as a king it is your duty to kill and punish. It is only when the two are not in conflict that sāmānyadharma is relevant. All the important virtues which are part of sāmānyadharma are for some reason negatively formulated and anṛśaṃsya is also one of them.
23. It has been speculated on the basis of some stories from the Mahābhārata that cruelty can be of two forms if we provisionally define cruelty as taking pleasure in actively inflicting pain on others. If you happen to be in pain for reasons which have nothing to do with me and I take pleasure and I take pleasure in witnessing you pain, then I can only be called a sadist and there may be something very perverse about that but that is not cruelty. But it is only when that pain has been inflicted by me actively and I take pleasure in witnessing your pain and your agony that I can be called a cruel person. Some of the stories from the Mahābhārata indicate that according to it, cruelty may be of two kinds. It may be cruelty of hand, and cruelty of speech. Let me dispose of cruelty of speech quickly because I don’t want to say much about it. Cruelty of speech can be indistinguishable from humiliation because humiliation of a particular kind uses words. You use derogatory words to insult somebody for example. That is cruelty by speech. And since cruelty by speech and humiliation are indistinguishable, I will keep that aside as not a special case at all. I am simply calling it a form of humiliation.
24. Let us look at cruelty by hand. There is a story in the Mahābhārata which shows one poor but learned Brahmin — a trope that recurs frequently in the tradition with the implicit idea that the poor but learned and virtuous Brahmin must be respected — called Kaśyapa is walking on the road, a rich and powerful and arrogant man’s ratha or chariot goes past him and as it goes past him, it dashes him on the ground and he falls down. The injury is not severe but the fact that the arrogant man should have done this to him is what really hurts him. That is when he starts really lamenting his life and his being born in this world at all. I am a learned Brahmin. But what do I get out of being learned? Why do I have to live such an impoverished, appalling life?
25. This is when Indra takes the form of a jackal and comes and whispers in the ear of Kaśyapa: don’t you think that you are luckier than me? Look at me, I don’t have hands but you do. And therefore there are a lot of things which you can do but I can’t. If I am injured, I can’t actually take care of myself where as you can. Therefore, even if you are blaming your whole life and your being born in this world, I think you are luckier than me. Human beings are luckier than birds or animals.
26. And then there is a discussion about the paradoxical gift of hands. Hands distinguish you from animals and birds because with hands you can do things which animals and birds cannot. (Incidentally, modern science also tells you that a lot of cognitive development is actually connected with our being able to use hands.) So that is something which sets us apart. But having hands also makes it possible for us to indulge in cruelty, which most animals and birds cannot because they do not have hands. So hands have a kind of paradoxical role to play in human lives. They can distinguish us from other creatures, make us superior to them in every respect, but they can also make us morally inferior to them because with our hands we can do things which are cruel and perverse. We find very few stories both in literature and in scientific discourse of cruelty by birds and animals on each other and those remain unconvincing stories. Whereas stories of cruelty by human beings are innumerable.
27. In the American war on terror, they used a prison with special means of torture. You must have heard about it. ‘Terrorists’ were rounded up and tortured there. There was an infamous incident of a woman soldier, Private Lynndie England, who was on duty there and who not only tortured the prisoners but also filmed the act of torture. The torture was aimed at dehumanising the targets of torture but in the process she actually divulged herself as a human being, though a particular kind of human being. She uses her hands to humiliate and dehumanise them. This reminds us of the Mahābhārata story where hands are supposed to be that part of the body which makes us human both in the perverse sense and also in the flattering sense.
28. While it is true that depending on the theory or conceptual framework that you want to use, your understanding of cruelty will be different, there are certain things which seem to be quite obvious. Judith Shklar has pointed out that cowards tend to be more prone to inflicting cruelty on others and yet, as Machiavelli would have told you, with examples, those who are brave and courageous are not free of the vice of cruelty. The opposition between cowardice and bravery doesn’t seem to give you a clue about who will be cruel and who will not be. In fact, what seems to be happening is that an idea emerged in early modern Europe that maybe a certain aristocratic code of valour and nobility will inhibit or discourage cruelty. But even if it is true, it comes at the price of a certain power relationship.
29. The problem is either you institutionalise violence in the form of certain relations of property and authority or you allow cruelty in an uncontrolled way. There seems to be an either/or here. Institutionalisation of violence and uninstitutionalised forms of cruelty. You either have one or you have the other. And sometimes you have both. You have any number of examples of cultures which have effectively discouraged cruelty, given no sanction to acts of cruelty, and yet which have institutionalised forms of violence. So there seems to be a problem here. You either have institutionalised forms of violence or you have uninstitutionalised forms of cruelty. There has been a great deal of research both from philosophers and psychologists about the mind of a person who indulges in cruelty. That is a big area. And since we are looking at Indian Political Thought we are not going into it.
30. Erich Fromm and Bertrand Russell, to take two examples, have tried to analyse human nature philosophically and psychologically to explain what the sources of cruelty in human nature are. But what you find in a text like the Mahābhārata or some of the other Indian texts is that they are distinguishing between non-violence and non-cruelty. They do it in an interesting way. The difference is not of degree or of the element of perversity. It is as follows.
31. It has been said that to live in this world is to be implicated in some form of violence or other. Violence is unavoidable and that therefore non-violence in the literal and most rigorous sense is impossible. At least it is impossible for ordinary human beings: for the householder, the king, etc. So non-violence is the higher ideal. Whereas non-cruelty is something of a lower order and achievable. The distinction is that non-violence is meant only for those who have renounced this world. It is a typical value of the renunciatory path. It is a value of those who have started saṃnyāsa whereas non-cruelty is something which is achievable for a householder or even a king.
32. In the last class when I talked about some of the stories of King Aśoka constructing a prison for torture — and mind you the story I was narrating was from the Buddhist sources which is what is so strange. Now this is something that needs to be avoided. A king cannot follow complete non-violence. But the punishment need not be cruel. It need not be of the kind that Arthaśāstra prescribes. It does not have to be setting on fire parts of the convict’s body. This can be and should be avoided.
33. You might argue that what we regard as inhuman is something which changes from time to time and place to place. And that is of course true. But if we are going to talk about the here and now, then we know by convention and by discussions of what is acceptable and what is not acceptable that certain forms of state action degrade human beings. As long as there is state, there is law and there is punishment and some people will be punished, etc. But you must ensure that there is due process and that the punishment is proportionate to the offence. This is broadly speaking what the hundred-year old human rights movement in different parts of the world has made us believe in. So not being cruel is entirely compatible with being a state functionary or a ruler or a householder or performing any of the roles and functions that you have to perform in this world.
34. Early on in this course, I said that within Indian thinking — and I deliberately said Indian thinking because Brahmanical, Buddhist, and Jaina thought seem to have converged on this point — a distinction was made between the householder and renunciate. The renunciatory path was meant only for a few people because it is extremely hard to give up this world, to give up comforts, to give up pleasure, to ultimately give up even your life because you may be a mendicant and beg for food but eventually you are supposed to even reduce your food intake and finally starve yourself to death. Jainism has an elaborate procedure for what we outside the Jaina tradition might clumsily call religious suicide. Buddhists have talked about it. The ultimate aim of the renunciatory path is that of ending your life or worldly existence. It reaches a point when you end your life. Along the way you are supposed to follow a life style which has not only no ordinary forms of violence but requires practicing ever higher forms of non-violence.
35. It is a common sight of Jaina munis covering their mouth and nose and not practising agriculture, and in both cases it is the idea of non-violence, of not causing injury or harm to other creatures. You also have the familiar description of a Buddhist monk using a cloth as a filter in order to remove small insects from the water. Microbiologists might smile at it. You find all sorts of extreme ideas and extreme practices of non-violence on the renunciatory path. And I think the reason why Gandhi got into all kinds of muddles and perplexities is because he kept on insisting on a literal and extreme meaning of non-violence which neither he nor his associates nor anyone in the world could have possibly followed.
36. He said he will not drink cow’s milk because in doing so, one is depriving the calf of its mother’s milk. That amounts to causing injury. Fair enough. Then he falls ill. Doctors say: he has become so ill that he must at least drink milk. But he says no. And then it is his wife who was probably more practical than he was who says, the vow you have taken is about cow’s milk. What about goat’s milk? And Gandhi agrees!! [laughter] Suddenly I think the lawyer in him got the better of him!
37. But when he narrates it… well, you know how in certain kinds of autobiographical narrations, the author is dripping with guilt and remorse and everything. So Gandhi says that he felt bad, that he felt he was cheating himself, but he became desperate, and didn’t want to displease his family and so he started drinking goat’s milk. The problem arose because he was using the term non-violence in the most absolute sense. No Jaina — with all respect to the practitioners of that faith — can survive without eating agricultural produce. It is one thing to say you will not indulge in agriculture because it involves violence. But you are still eating food-grain which comes from someone else doing the violent act for you. Someone else is taking on their head the sin of causing injury to the insects in order to keep you alive. So whenever people take non-violence literally, they get into all kinds of puzzles.
38. But if you say, yes, my life is full of violence, so is yours and everybody else’s, without violence we cannot live. But what I will try to avoid is cruelty. Cruelty by speech and cruelty by hand so that you can say that you have never indulged in cruelty. If someone were to say this, then it would be a plausible account and it would be a goal worth pursuing. Because non-violence, even non-cruelty is something which is still so remote in this modern world that to posit that as a goal won’t be a bad idea at all.
39.39.What the Indian tradition has done is to distinguish between two paths: that of the householder where you perform your duties, pay your debts, perform you sacrifices, etc., and the path of the renunciator who is supposed to practice non-violence which is the more rigorous and harder goal. It is the householder and king who is supposed to follow non-cruelty: both by hand and by speech. And that amounts to not inflicting pain on others wilfully and not taking pleasure in inflicting pain on others wilfully.
40. But there is a small problem which remains. Can we say indifference to other people’s plight, pain, tribulation, injury is a form of cruelty? (To relish food, drinks and delicacies while the hungry ones look on is cruelty, says the Mahābhārata.) Because the moment you say yes, a lot of things become instances of cruelty. In today’s world where every form of suffering is immediately circulated through modern technology — on YouTube, on WhatsApp, etc. — there is every possibility that you won’t be able to spend even a single day without actually coming across some form of suffering somewhere. If you were to respond to each of these, then you won’t be able to live a normal life. You will have to become a 24-hours activist trying to lessen somebody’s pain all the time. You cannot go to a restaurant without noticing someone somewhere hungry or suffering. So how do you reconcile these things whether it is ‘normal’ day to day living or occasional indulgence in pleasure with the fact that you are confronted by news or visuals of suffering practically all the time?
41. There is no way you can shut yourself completely from news about suffering. If you say I will go ahead and do whatever I am doing, then you are guilty of indifference. If you are guilty of indifference, the question is if that indifference is a form of cruelty, and if indifference is a form of cruelty, then we are back to square one. We left the higher ideal of non-violence saying that it is too exalted to follow because we are householders in some sense of the term. We are not renunciates, or activists. Therefore, we settle for a lower objective or goal of non-cruelty which we define as not taking pleasure in inflicting pain on others. We think that it is something which is possible for us to achieve. And then suddenly this idea that maybe indifference is a form of cruelty comes up. But if indifference is a form of cruelty, and indifference is our defense mechanism, there is no way you can live normally in this world today without having a bit of indifference to protect you from sights or discussions of suffering. If that is the case, then living in a non-cruel way seems to be as difficult as living the life of a non-violent person. And therefore the distinction made by some of the Indian texts between non-violence and non-cruelty where one is supposed to be achievable for normal human beings and the other is not seem to collapse in the 20th and 21st century situation — a situation which is as much a politico-economic form of life as it is a phase constituted by modern technology.
42. About 50 years ago, the world was probably as saturated with suffering as it is today but it is just that there was a delay in the occurring of suffering and the impact that it had on you. There was no internet, computers or mobile phones. But today that is impossible. Leave aside the world, just take South Asia. Suppose you say you are going to be open to all the audio-visual messages that come to you. I don’t think you will be able to spend even a day without getting affected by somebody’s suffering somewhere in this big country. Whether it is the technology or whether it is a certain phase of modernity, (I don’t want to go into that because that is a larger and more complicated question) whatever is the cause, the situation that we find ourselves in is that practicing ānṛśaṃsya, i.e., living in a non-cruel manner, is, or seems to be, as challenging as following ahiṃsā or non-violence in a rigorous manner.
 These ideals are common across tradition. Along with satya [“veracity”] and brahmacarya [“chastity”], these are the give great vows (mahāvratas) that Jainism identifies for ascetics. The same five normative ideas form the five restraints (yamas) of (the subsequently elaborated) Yoga (Yogasūtras 2.30, trans. Rāma Prasāda, p. 155). See also next note.[^]
 The Arthaśāstra (1.3.13, trans. Patrick Olivelle, p. 68) mentions six: non-injury (ahiṃsā), truthfulness (satya), purification (śauca), lack of malice (anasūya), compassion (ānṛśaṃsya), and forbearance (kṣamā). The Manusmṛti (10.63, trans. Patrick Olivelle, p. 211) mentions five: Abstention from injuring (ahiṃsā), truthfulness (satya), not stealing (asteya), purification (śauca), and mastering the organs (indriyanigraha).[^]
 See Mukund Lath, ‘The Concept of Ānṛśaṃsya in the Mahābhārata’, in The Mahābhārata Revisited, ed. R. N. Dandekar (New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1990), 113–19; Arindam Chakrabarti, ‘Non-Cruelty of Speech and the Hand: Hopes for Humanity Inspired by the Mahābhārata and the Buddha’, in Global Forum on Civilization and Peace (Seoul, South Korea, 2009).[^]
 The term “sadism” derives from Marquis de Sade (1714–1840), the French nobleman who is infamous for his literal acts and literary works that combines pornography with violence and pain.[^]
 Mahābhārata 12.[Śāntiparva].173 (trans. Bibek Debroy, vol. 8, 1501).
O brahmana! Without hands, I cannot take out the thorn that is paining my body. For those who possess hands, the gods have given them ten fingers. They can use these to uproot the insects that are biting their limbs. They can act so as to save themselves from the cold, the rains and the heat.They can cheerfully obtain food and enjoy these in beds that are safe from the wind. In this world, they enjoy cattle and employ them to carry burdens. They employ many other means to bring them under their subjugation. Those without hands and those who cannot grind with their tongues do not live for a long time. They have to tolerate many hardships.[^]
 Mahābhārata 12.[Śāntiparva].173 (trans. Bibek Debroy, vol. 8, 1501),
There is no doubt that those with hands obtain riches and are powerful. Men use these to reduce other men to a state of servitude. They repeatedly use these to torment, slay, bind and afflict others. They take pleasure in deceit, sport and are happy. Accomplished in their learning, those spirited ones control others through the strength of their arms.[^]
 While Quantanamo Bay (Cuba) is more well-known, another was Abu Ghraib (Iraq), and it is at the latter that the incident to be mentioned (see below) took place.[^]
 The facts and images of torture inflicted on prisoners at Abu Ghraib (including pictures that show Private England pointing to naked male prisoners and posing with her thumbs up) are documented and archived at https://web.archive.org/web/20161016003840/imgur.com/a/C6mLO [Warning: The pictures and descriptions are extremely graphic and disturbing.][^].
 Shklar, Ordinary Vices, pp. 9–10.[^]
 This is called itvara or sallekhanā. It is described, for instance, in the Ācārāṅga Sūtra 1.7.6 (trans. Hermann Jacobi, p. 71–73)
If this thought occurs to a monk: ‘I am sick and not able, at this time, to regularly mortify the flesh,’ that monk should regularly reduce his food; regularly reducing his food, and diminishing his sins, he should take proper care of his body, being immovable like a beam; exerting himself he dissolves his body.
Entering a village … a monk should beg for straw; having begged for straw he should retire with it to a secluded spot. After having repeatedly examined and cleaned the ground, where there are no eggs, nor living beings, nor seeds, nor sprouts, nor dew, nor water, nor ants, nor mildew, nor waterdrops, nor mud, nor cobwebs — he should spread the straw on it. Then he should there and then effect (the religious death called) itvara.
This is the truth: speaking truth, free from passion, crossing (the saṃsāra), abating irresoluteness, knowing all truth and not being known, leaving this frail body, overcoming all sorts of pains and troubles through trust in this (religion), he accomplishes this fearful (religious death). Even thus he will in due time put an end to existence. This has been adopted by many who were free from delusion; it is good, wholesome, proper, beatifying, meritorious. Thus I say.
The Ācārāṅga Sūtra is the first of 12 Angās that form part of the Agamas, the Jain sacred canon.[^]
 Interestingly, the Manusmṛiti (10.63) says that agriculture is violent.
A Brahmin, or even a Kṣatriya, who earns a living by the Vaiṣya occupation, should try his best to avoid agriculture, which involves injury to living beings and dependence on others. People think that agriculture is something wholesome. Yet it is an occupation condemned by good people; the plow with an iron tip lacerates the ground as well as creatures living in it.[^]
 M. K. Gandhi, An Autobiography, or, The Story of My Experiments with Truth: A Critical Edition, trans. Mahadev Desai (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2018), pp. 432–33.[^]
Chakrabarti, Arindam. 2009. ‘Non-Cruelty of Speech and the Hand: Hopes for Humanity Inspired by the Mahābhārata and the Buddha’. In Global Forum on Civilization and Peace. Seoul, South Korea.
Debroy, Bibek, trans. 2010. The Mahabharata. 10 vols. Penguin Books.
Gandhi, M. K. 2018. An Autobiography, or, The Story of My Experiments with Truth: A Critical Edition. Translated by Mahadev Desai. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Jacobi, Hermann, trans. 1884. Jaina Sutras, Part 1; The Acharanga Sutra, The Kalpa Sutra. Sacred Books of the East 22. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Lath, Mukund. 1990. ‘The Concept of Ānṛśaṃsya in the Mahābhārata’. In The Mahābhārata Revisited, edited by R. N. Dandekar, 113–19. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi.
Olivelle, Patrick, trans. 2013. King, Governance, and Law in Ancient India: Kauṭilya’s Arthaśāstra. New York: Oxford University Press.
Olivelle, Patrick, and Suman Olivelle, trans. 2005. Manu’s Code of Law: A Critical Edition and Translation of the Mānava-Dharmaśastra. South Asia Research. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Prasāda, Rāma, trans. 1912. Pātañjali’s Yoga Sūtras. The Sacred Books of the Hindus 4. Allahabad: The Panini Office.
Shklar, Judith N. 1982. ‘Putting Cruelty First’. Daedalus 111 (3): 17–27.
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