Gandhi’s Militant Nonviolence in the Light of Girard’s Mimetic Anthropology
2. Mimetic Rivalry as the Root of Human Conflicts
Girard first discussed mimetic rivalries in personal relationships, often love relationships, as described in key novels in his book Deceit, Desire, and the Novel (Girard 1966). In Violence and the Sacred he deepened his understanding by turning to sibling rivalries, which are a prevailing theme in ancient and traditional cultures (Girard 1977, pp. 59–67). Following Girard, Jonathan Sacks used recently sibling rivalry as a key to the understanding of religious violence in his careful reading of the Book of Genesis (Sacks 2015). Girard did not limit his reflections to the personal sphere, but also showed how mimetic rivalries contribute to dangerous dynamics in the political realm between states or other political actors, as Girard’s last book Battling to the End illuminates. By emphasizing competition, Girard was able to reject, for instance, concepts like Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” to explain terrorism in our contemporary world. Soon after 9/11, Girard recommended that we focus on globalized competition to explain terrorist attacks against the West, instead of seeing it as being caused by religious differences (Girard and Tincq 2002).1We are competitive rather than aggressive. In addition to the appetites we share with animals, we have a more problematic yearning that lacks any instinctual object: desire. We literally do not know what to desire and, in order to find out, we watch the people we admire: we imitate their desires. […] Unlike animal rivalries, these imitative or mimetic rivalries can become so intense and contagious that not only do they lead to murder but they also spread, mimetically, to entire communities.
Gandhi’s struggle with jealousy continued during his years of study in London, and stayed with him for some time in South Africa (Gandhi 1958–1994, p. 39:77). It contributed to his vow of chastity, brahmacharya, which he took in 1906 to overcome “lustful attachment” (Gandhi 1958–1994, p. 39:165–71). Oughourlian is right to connect Gandhi’s “withdrawing from any carnal possession […] to completely liberate love from desire and no longer be dominated by it” with his awareness “that all sexual relations involve a dose of rivalry and aggression that is susceptible of degenerating into violence” (Oughourlian 2010, pp. 68–69). He, however, incorrectly claims that Gandhi and his wife promised to renounce carnal love at their wedding ceremony. Gandhi and Kasturba married at the age of thirteen, and this child marriage was partly responsible for Gandhi’s early obsession with sexual love, which even caused him to sleep with his pregnant wife on the night of his father’s death. The negligence of his dying father encumbered Gandhi throughout his life (Gandhi 1958–1994, p. 39:28–30). It would, however, be wrong to understand Gandhi’s negative view of sexuality in a purely puritanical sense. Erik Erikson shows that at its root was an “aversion against all male sadism—including such sexual sadism as he had probably felt from childhood on to be part of all exploitation of women by men”. Gandhi’s criticism of his father as being dominated by “carnal pleasures” when he married, at the age of forty-eight, an eighteen-year-old woman—Gandhi’s mother—supports Erikson’s thesis. According to Uma Majmudar, Gandhi viewed such “old man-young woman marriages […] as an abominable social custom that formally sanctioned male violence over females” (Gandhi 1958–1994, p. 39:7; Majmudar 2005, p. 35). It is not by chance that his vow of chastity happened immediately after he served in an ambulance unit during the Bambatha Rebellion, where he witnessed the “outrages perpetrated on black bodies by white he-men” (Erikson 1993, p. 194). Gandhi recognized a close connection between male sexuality and violence (Parekh 1999, pp. 199, 220; Bose 2014, p. 171). After his vow, he described his relation to Kasturba as a relation of friendship in which one no longer regards “the other as the object of lust” (Gandhi 1958–1994, p. 39:222). Gandhi identified sexuality with a narrow but widespread male perspective which, according to Erikson, closes off all possibility that “a sexual relationship could be characterized by what we call ‘mutuality’” (Erikson 1993, p. 236). Girard, too, was aware of how easily sexuality can trigger violence: “Sexuality leads to quarrels, jealous rages, mortal combats. It is a permanent source of disorder even within the most harmonious of communities.” (Girard 1977, p. 35). Contrary to Gandhi, however, the French-American anthropologist recognizes more clearly mimetic rivalries as the source of violence and knows that, detached from them, sexuality can be enjoyed mutually: “I think that sexual pleasure is possible to the extent that the other is respected—and maybe there’s no true satisfaction except in that case, when the shadowy presence of rivals has been banished from the lovers’ bed: that’s probably also why it is experienced so rarely.” (Girard 2014a, p. 12)The thought made me a jealous husband. Her duty was easily converted into my right to exact faithfulness from her, and if it had to be exacted, I should be watchfully tenacious of the right. I had absolutely no reason to suspect my wife’s fidelity, but jealousy does not wait for reasons. I must needs be for ever on the look-out regarding her movements, and therefore she could not go anywhere without my permission. This sowed the seeds of a bitter quarrel between us. The restraint was virtually a sort of imprisonment.
Like Girard, also Gandhi observed sibling rivalry as a root of human conflicts when he remarked on how often fights break out between “two brothers living together” (Gandhi 1958–1994, p. 10:32). He too knew from his own experience that “little quarrels of millions of families in their daily lives” are just part of human life (Gandhi 1958–1994, p. 10:48).A single tactless remark, a slip or oversight, an uncouth habit, heedlessness or disregard of another’s feelings may set people’s nerves on edge and make life hell for the whole family. Competition in this narrow world is keen; even the youngsters feel the edge of it; little things assume big proportions; the slightest suggestion of unfairness or partiality gives rise to petty rivalries, jealousies, and intrigues.
Even more interesting from a mimetic point of view is Gandhi’s description of the conflicts between Europeans and Indians that broke out in Natal, and his assertion that were also the main cause of Gandhi’s plan to stay for one year in South Africa finally becoming twenty-one years. He refers to “competition” to explain the main reason for these conflicts (Gandhi 1958–1994, p. 29:25–28). The other term that he frequently uses to address white discriminations against Indians is “trade jealousy”. We find it already in his 1895 petition to Lord Ripon, the colonial secretary in London, and later in a letter to Tolstoy (Gandhi 1958–1994, p. 1:207; 9:444; cf. Coovadia 2020, p. 64). In Transvaal, too, competition made European traders jealous of the Indian newcomers:As the Dutch were in search of good lands for their own expansion, so were the English who also gradually arrived on the scene. The English and the Dutch were of course cousins. Their characters and ambitions were similar. Pots from the same pottery are often likely to clash against each other. So these two nations, while gradually advancing their respective interests and subduing the Negroes, came into collision.
It is this longing for wealth that makes the conflict almost inevitable. As Gandhi rightly remarked, the Europeans’ aim “to amass the maximum of wealth in the minimum of time” did not allow for Indians to become “co-sharers” with them in South Africa (Gandhi 1958–1994, p. 29:76). Gandhi is aware of the divisiveness of “acquisitive mimesis”, i.e., the longing for indivisible goods (Girard 1987, p. 26). Where he reflects on ways to overcome the exploitation of the masses in the Western world, he expresses the need for a just distribution that could not be gained by multiplying “material wants” but by “their restriction consistently with comfort” (Gandhi 1958–1994, p. 28:148): “We shall cease to think of getting what we can, but we shall decline to receive what all cannot get.” He also underlines the dangers of acquisitiveness in his interpretation of the Bhagavadgītā (4:21; 6:10): “Where there is possessiveness, there is violence”, and this necessitates not only the “renunciation of possessions” but also the “desire for possessions too” (Gandhi 1958–1994, p. 32:115, 240; cf. Conrad 2006, p. 217).Their great success excited the jealousy of European traders who commenced an anti-Indian campaign in the newspapers, and submitted petitions to the Volksraad or Parliament, praying that Indians should be expelled and their trade stopped. The Europeans in this newly opened-up country had a boundless hunger for riches.
Gandhi saw Smuts as a man of the “highest character among the Europeans”, but he nevertheless criticized his position harshly as “hypocrisy” supported by “pseudo-philosophical” arguments seeking a justification to mask selfish enrichment and racism (Gandhi 1958–1994, p. 29:76–77). “The only remaining factors are trade and colour.” (Gandhi 1958–1994, p. 29:78). In an article in Indian Opinion from February 1905 on “Questions of Colour”, Gandhi claims that only a racist view neglects the fact of rivalrous competition: “The origin of the whole matter is trade jealousy. It is this petty motive alone that animates the anti-Indian movement; and it is perfectly apparent to all who are not blinded by colour prejudice.” (Gandhi 1958–1994, p. 4:355) By pointing to rivalry as the real cause of the conflicts between Europeans and Indians, Gandhi implicitly deconstructs racism as an offspring of acquisitive mimesis that easily results in scapegoating.2 He comes close to Girard’s insight that racism is best explained with the help of our modern use of the term scapegoat, which describes how groups often contain their internal rivalries by channelling them to the outside. Scapegoats multiply “wherever human groups seek to lock themselves into a given identity—communal, local, national, ideological, racial, religious, and so on” (Girard 2001, p. 160; cf. Reineke 1998, pp. 76–81). Girard discovered in ancient myths, medieval texts, and in the modern world many examples of groups and societies that turn to scapegoating if they are facing a crisis. He refers, for example, to medieval and modern anti-Semitism, and also to the fact of how often “ethnic and religious minorities tend to polarize the majorities against themselves […]. In India the Moslems are persecuted, in Pakistan the Hindus” (Girard 1986, pp. 17–18; cf. 48).I may have no racial legislation, but how will you solve the difficulty about the fundamental difference between our cultures? Let alone the question of superiority, there is no doubt but that your civilization is different from ours. Ours must not be overwhelmed by yours.
He criticized the dog-in-the-manger policy frequently during his time in South Africa and also later in his Indian fight against the British salt tax (Gandhi 1958–1994, p. 4:18.104.22.1689; 43:168). In 1939, he criticized the Kathiawar States in India for their dog-in-the-manger policy, which prevented them from overcoming the drought in an area where there would be plenty of water if all aimed for the common good. This critique indirectly shows how often scarcity is not caused by nature, but rather artificially created by mimetic rivalry (Dumouchel 2013, pp. 3–96).All over the Colony, the small farms are owned by Indians, whose keen competition gives offence to the white population. They are following a dog-in-the-manger and suicidal policy in so behaving. They would rather leave the vast agricultural resources in the country undeveloped, than have the Indians to develop them.”
Mimetic rivalry easily results in violence, as the fate of the Indians in South Africa clearly illustrates.What happens when a brown man can afford a Rolls Royce! Is that not a direct insult to those white people who still have to run Fords? There is something wrong somewhere, argued the whites. We must look into this matter. They did! To such purpose that the legislative adoption of a series of anti-Asiatic Acts aggravated the disparity between the whites and browns. Here was social, legal and commercial discrimination.
3. The Contagious Nature of Violence and the Danger of Its Escalation
This contagious nature of violence easily results in an escalation to extremes: “The slightest outbreak of violence can bring about a catastrophic escalation.” (Girard 1977, p. 20) Girard refers, for instance, to the “nuclear rivalry” that installs the atomic bomb as the world’s supreme idol, ultimately leading towards death (Girard 1987, pp. 255, 414).The mimetic attributes of violence are extraordinary—sometimes direct and positive, at other times indirect and negative. The more men strive to curb their violent impulses, the more these impulses seem to prosper. The very weapons used to combat violence are turned against their users. Violence is like a raging fire that feeds on the very objects intended to smother its flames.
- The lamp not burning,
- On what will the moth throw itself and be burnt?
- Seeking to burn us,
- You burn yourself first.
Gandhi saw the atomic bomb as the peak of the Western reliance on brute force, and did not overlook its mimetic dimension when he claimed, in an interview on the day before he was assassinated, that the United States should give up nuclear weapons because “the war ended disastrously and the victors are vanquished by jealousy and lust for power” (Gandhi 1958–1994, p. 90:522). He not only shares with Girard the recognition of the dangers coming along with nuclear rivalry but also recognizes that the bomb “usurps the place of God” (Gandhi 1958–1994, p. 88:167).It does not frighten me at all that the world seems to be going in the opposite direction. For the matter of that, when the moth approaches its doom it whirls round faster and faster till it is burnt up. It is possible that India will not be able to escape this moth-like circling.
4. Breaking with the Cycle of Violence: Progressively Substituting Force with Nonviolence
Girard justly highlights the renunciation of counterviolence in the Sermon on the Mount. A masochistic quietism is not recommended by Jesus, but rather a retreat from imitating violence: “When Christ says ‘if someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also’ (Matt. 5:39) he is not advocating a form of masochistic quietism, but the danger of bad reciprocity, of any escalation of bad mimesis” (Girard 2008, pp. 252–53). By reading Mt 5:39 in connection with Ps 37:8, the Jewish theologian Pinchas Lapide translates this verse in a way that highlights its rejection of mimetic counterviolence: “Do not compete in doing injustice.” (Lapide 1986, p. 134). Although Girard rejected criticisms of the Sermon on the Mount “as a utopian sort of pacifism, manifestly naïve and even blameworthy because servile, doloristic, perhaps even masochistic”, he did not become a pacifist himself (Girard 2014b, p. 19): “I should make it clear that I myself am not an unconditional pacifist, since I do not consider all forms of defense against violence to be illegitimate.” (Girard 2014b, p. 131). In Battling to the End, he even claims—along with Carl Schmitt—that “pacifism fans the fires of warmongering” (Girard 2010, p. 65). For a concrete example, he refers to the fact that France did not react against Hitler’s re-arming of the Rhineland in 1936 when it could have stopped Hitler’s career immediately, and most likely for ever (Girard 2010, pp. 182–88). Girard, however, did not develop a peace ethics or a political ethics. He remained quite vague in this regard, and often referred to the religious conclusions that he drew from his anthropological insights. When he was asked in 2005 what he would propose to politicians following his understanding of Clausewitz, he evaded the question: “It’s a complicated question because my vision fundamentally is religious. I believe in non-violence, and I believe that the knowledge of violence can teach you to reject violence.” (Haven 2020, p. 107) Despite Girard’s rejection of quietist readings of the Sermon on the Mount, he was not able to move beyond a rather passive renunciation of violence. This becomes most obvious in his last book Battling to the End, which recommends Hölderlin’s “mystical quietism” (Girard 2010, p. 123). Several authors who are familiar with mimetic theory have criticized Girard for his quietist leanings (Reineke 2012; Colborne 2013; Avery 2013, pp. 244–50). Furthermore, his interpretation of Mt 5:39 also remains quite passive, as the following passage shows, where Girard explains the rules of the Kingdom of God as the request to end the mimetic rivalry by giving “way completely to your rival” (Girard 2014a, p. 47; Cayley and Girard 2019, pp. 48, 50): “If you’ve been hit on the left cheek, offer up the right.” This rather passive interpretation does not really grasp the gist of the Sermon on the Mount, as we immediately can recognize in Girard’s mixing up of the right cheek that is mentioned by Jesus (Mt 5:39: “if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also”) with the left one. At first sight, this does not seem to matter much, but we will soon see that it indicates his neglect of the active side of nonviolent resistance.To leave violence behind, it is necessary to give up the idea of retribution; […] we think it quite fair to respond to good dealings with good dealings, and to evil dealings with evil, but this is precisely what all the communities on the planet have always done, with familiar results. People imagine that to escape from violence it is sufficient to give up any kind of violent initiative, but since no one in fact thinks of himself as taking this initiative—since all violence has a mimetic character, and derives or can be thought to derive from a first violence that is always perceived as originating with the opponent—this act of renunciation is no more than a sham, and cannot bring about any kind of change at all. Violence is always perceived as being a legitimate reprisal or even self-defence. So what must be given up is the right to reprisals and even the right to what passes, in a number of cases, for legitimate defence. Since the violence is mimetic, and no one ever feels responsible for triggering it initially, only by an unconditional renunciation can we arrive at the desired result.
These verses from the Sermon on the Mount were important for Gandhi because, very similarly to Girard, he knew about the mimetic dynamic of violence and its dangerous escalation. In 1924, he noted that traditional wisdom was aware that the mirroring of violence must be stopped in order to overcome it:The verses, ‘But I say unto you, that ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man take away thy coat let him have thy cloak too’, delighted me beyond measure and put me in mind of Shamal Bhatt’s ‘For a bowl of water, give a goodly meal’, etc. My young mind tried to unify the teaching of the Gita, The Light of Asia and the Sermon on the Mount.
Like Girard, who claimed for his mimetic anthropology a scientific objectivity, Gandhi also talks about a natural law that must be understood in order to overcome violence. The most important ethical conclusion that Gandhi draws from his insight into mimetic dynamics was his insistence that the means to achieve peace must be nonviolent. Against the wide-spread belief that ends justify means, Gandhi emphasizes that the means must correspond with the end. In Hind Swaraj he rejects “brute force” as the adequate means to end the British occupation of India, because one cannot achieve a lasting peace by sowing war: “The means may be likened to a seed, the end to a tree; and there is just the same inviolable connection between the means and the end as there is between the seed and the tree.” (Gandhi 1958–1994, p. 10:43). He often repeated this insight in his writings. Another example can be found in 1924, when he rejected Bolshevism for its belief in “short-violent-cuts to success” (Gandhi 1958–1994, p. 25:424): “Those Bolshevik friends who are bestowing their attention on me should realize that however much I may sympathize with and admire worthy motives, I am an uncompromising opponent of violent methods even to serve the noblest of causes.”It has been my invariable experience that good evokes good, evil—evil; and that therefore, if the evil does not receive the corresponding response, it ceases to act, dies of want of nutrition. Evil can only live upon itself. Sages of old, knowing this law, instead of returning evil for evil, deliberately returned good for evil and killed it. Evil lives nevertheless, because many have not taken advantage of the discovery, though the law underlying it acts with scientific precision.
Gandhi would concur with Girard’s criticism of France’s pacifistic reluctance to stop Hitler in 1936 because it was not nonviolence out of strength, as he understood his concept of satyagraha, but a cowardly attitude that is worse than violence (Gandhi 1958–1994, p. 18:132). Similarly, he criticized the Munich agreement with Hitler as a “peace without honour” (Gandhi 1958–1994, p. 67:404). Gandhi completely rejected the persecution of the Jews by the Nazis, and claimed that “if there ever could be a justifiable war in the name of and for humanity, a war against Germany, to prevent the wanton persecution of a whole race, would be completely justified” (Gandhi 1958–1994, p. 68:138). He himself, however, did not believe in war, and recommended in 1938 that the Czechs and the Jews should fight non-violently against Hitler (Gandhi 1958–1994, p. 67:404–6; 68:137–39; cf. Guha 2018, pp. 54–60, 550–52).7 This recommendation has been discussed since, and is indeed questionable (Meir 2021), especially with hindsight. After Hitler unleashed the war, Gandhi moved towards a more qualified understanding of nonviolence that also allowed violent resistance in specific circumstances to count as a form of resistance that is close to the ideal of nonviolence. After Hitler’s troops invaded Poland in 1939, Gandhi recognized that, in this situation, only a violent self-defence was available for this country: “If Poland has that measure of uttermost bravery and an equal measure of selflessness, history will forget that she defended herself with violence. Her violence will be counted almost as non-violence.” (Gandhi 1958–1994, p. 70:181). He defended his position regarding an “almost non-violence” in later discussions. In August 1940, he summarized his revised view in the following way:Under exceptional circumstances, war may have to be resorted to as a necessary evil […]. If the motive is right, it may be turned to the profit of mankind and that an ahimsaist may not stand aside and look on with indifference but must make his choice and actively co-operate or actively resist.
This more balanced view of nonviolence allows Adam Roberts to associate Gandhi—like Martin Luther King—with a concept that he calls “progressive substitution”. Force has, according to this concept, an important function in policing and defence as long as it cannot be substituted by nonviolent means: “In this view, civil resistance needs to be developed skilfully and strategically if it is to serve the functions previously served by armed force. The hope is that it will replace reliance on force progressively in a succession of issue-areas. The central idea is that only if there is a viable substitute can force be effectively renounced.” (Roberts and Ash 2009, p. 8).If a man fights with his sword single-handed against a horde of dacoits armed to the teeth, I should say he is fighting almost non-violently. Haven’t I said to our women that, if in defence of their honour they used their nails and teeth and even a dagger, I should regard their conduct non-violent? She does know the distinction between himsa and ahimsa. She acts spontaneously. Supposing a mouse in fighting a cat tried to resist the cat with his sharp teeth, would you call that mouse violent? In the same way, for the Poles to stand valiantly against the German hordes vastly superior in numbers, military equipment and strength, was almost non-violence.
He was aware that an independent India would rely on nonviolence only to a certain degree. Gandhi’s reflections on how a state should be organized prove Roberts’ thesis, too. Contrary to Tolstoy’s anarchism, Gandhi did not reject the state completely, but saw a certain need of it. In December 1921, he responded to the question of whether imprisoned satyagrahis should refuse to do any work in the prisons. He rejected that position because he did not foresee a society without prisons and warned of “chaos and anarchy”, claiming that a “civil resister is […] a friend of the State” (Gandhi 1958–1994, p. 22:19). This positive view of the state, however, should not overlook the fact that Gandhi was, in general, closer to anarchism than to a full endorsement of the modern concept of the state with its coercive means (Gandhi 1958–1994, p. 13:214). According to Gandhi, a “non-violent State will be an ordered anarchy”, asking—like Henry David Thoreau—for a state “which is governed the least” (Gandhi 1958–1994, p. 72:388–89; cf. 47:91; Marin and Blume 2019; Thoreau 2013, p. 145). This minimalist view of the state results in Gandhi’s idea about the type of police force which is appropriate for a state that is committed to nonviolence. In a discussion with pacifists in February 1940, he remarked that a government “cannot succeed in becoming entirely non-violent, because it represents all the people. I do not today conceive of such a golden age”. For this reason, he maintained that “even under a Government based primarily on non-violence a small police force will be necessary” (Gandhi 1958–1994, p. 71:226; cf. 72:388–89; Parel 2016, p. 110). A couple of months later he published his “idea of a police force” that is highly relevant for our world of today if we think of all the cases of police violence:A believer in non-violence is pledged not to resort to violence or physical force either directly or indirectly in defence of anything, but he is not precluded from helping men or institutions that are themselves not based on non-violence. If the reverse were the case, I would, for instance, be precluded from helping India to attain swaraj because the future Parliament of India under swaraj […] will be having some military and police forces.
On the international level, Gandhi hoped to substitute armies with an “international police force”, as he recommended it in a statement on the occasion of the San Francisco Conference preparing the Charta of the United Nations in 1945 (Gandhi 1958–1994, p. 79:389–91).The police of my conception will […] be of a wholly different pattern from the present-day force. Its ranks will be composed of believers in non-violence. They will be servants, not masters, of the people. The people will instinctively render them every help, and through mutual co-operation they will easily deal with the ever-decreasing disturbances. The police force will have some kind of arms, but they will be rarely used, if at all. In fact the policemen will be reformers.
5. Overcoming Mimetic Rivalry by Opening Up to God and Losing the Fear of Death
- The union of soul and body,
- The same in you as in me;
- Unless you wound yourself,
- Us you cannot hurt.
- So soon as I owned myself your lover,
- You stood declared my beloved;
- A name I’ve bestowed on you,
- And will cease only when I perish.
- Such airs you give yourself today,
- Your eyes stern and proud;
- These your arrows
- Will turn back upon you, myself unharmed.
- You live, if I live; if I die,
- Tell yourself you die too;
- Your being is wrapped up in mine
- Aiming a blow at me,
- You shall only hurt yourself.”
Gandhi is aware that nonviolence requires “a living faith in God”, and mentions it on top of the qualifications that he recommended that members of the Peace Brigade will need to deal with communal riots (Gandhi 1958–1994, p. 67:126; cf. 66:405–7; Häring 1986, p. 127): “A non-violent man can do nothing save by the power and grace of God.”Hinduism, Islamism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity and all other religions teach that we should remain passive about worldly pursuits and active about godly pursuits, that we should set a limit to our worldly ambition, and that our religious ambition should be illimitable. Our activity should be directed into the latter channel.
In a letter to Mirabehn, Gandhi shows how both verse 2:59 from the Bhagavadgītā and Mt 6:33 direct us toward God as our highest good, who will deliver us from the fears which come along with mortality:I tell you that if you will understand, appreciate and act up to the spirit of this passage, you won’t even need to know what place Jesus or any other teacher occupies in your heart. If you will do the proper scavenger’s work, clean and purify your hearts and get them ready, you will find that all these mighty teachers will take their places without invitation from us.
Gandhi’s emphasis on overcoming the fear of death leads us to investigate the deepest roots of mimetically incited violence. According to Girard, it is a fundamental “lack of being” that pushes human beings to imitate the desire of others, and often leads to rivalries (Girard 1977, p. 146). With the help of the cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker, we can complement Girard’s mimetic theory by emphasizing death anxiety as the cause of this lack of being. According to Becker, human mortality causes an existential longing for self-esteem of cosmic significance, which people can only obtain from others. This human inadequacy easily ends up in competitive struggles for recognition and other types of mimetic rivalries. Becker explains with it the “ubiquitousness of envy”, and mentions “sibling rivalry” to demonstrate this human predicament (Becker 1975, p. 12; Becker 1997, p. 4):Objects of senses are eradicated only by seeing God face to face, in other words by faith in God. To have complete faith in God is to see Him. […] When we meet Him, we will dance in the joy of His Presence and there will be neither fear of snakes nor of the death of dear ones. For there is no death and no snake-bites in His Presence.
Becker’s anthropological insight not only complements Girard’s mimetic theory but addresses existential problems with which all world religions must deal.Sibling rivalry is a critical problem that reflects the basic human condition: it is not that children are vicious, selfish, or domineering. It is that they so openly express man’s tragic destiny: he must desperately justify himself as an object of primary value in the universe; he must stand out, be a hero, make the biggest possible contribution to world life, show that he counts more than anything or anyone else.
According to advaita, what Becker called a longing for “cosmic significance” is “the intrinsic desire for brahman (the infinite), where alone there is freedom from suffering […]. The infinite is, according to the Advaita tradition, what human beings really want, as opposed to the unending finite ends that we pursue.” (Rambachan 2015, p. 30).The fundamental human predicament, as understood in Advaita, is that of a self-conscious being experiencing a profound sense of inner lack and insignificance and discovering that culturally approved gains such as pleasure, wealth, fame, and power do not resolve this emptiness.
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Rivalries and even wars between religions are not uncommon in our world. According to Girard, however, they result from religious actors who substitute the adoration of the holy with worldly pursuits (Palaver 2013, pp. 93–95). Similarly, Gandhi also claims that fights between religions “are not part of religion although they have been practised in its name” (Gandhi 1958–1994, p. 10:24).
Highlighting Gandhi’s deconstruction of racism does not mean that he was free of racial prejudices when he came to South Africa (Meer 1995, pp. 1027–41; Kolge 2016). He, however, overcame over the years his own prejudices. In this he was positively influenced by John Dube, the founding president of the African National Congress, who reciprocally appreciated Gandhi’s nonviolent struggle against racial discrimination (Reddy 1995, pp. 27–32; Presbey 2016). Nelson Mandela was right when he claimed, in 1995, that the African struggle “is rooted […] in the Indian struggle”, referring to the influence that Gandhi and Dube had on each other (Mandela 1995, p. 563).
Recent criticisms of Gandhi’s relation to the caste system often overlook the complexity of his argument. One can, however, claim that he was most likely rather naïve to believe that the discriminatory caste system could be changed without a strong liberating initiative by the Dalits like Dr. Ambedkar themselves (Dumont 1980, p. 223; Rambachan 2019, p. 155).
More in line with the Sufi tradition of the moth-and-flame metaphor, Gandhi could appreciate in the poem ‘Fakirs We’—which he mentions in connection with the poem ‘Blow for a Blow’—lines like these: “Fakirs we’ve made of ourselves/For the motherland’s sake;/We’ve kindled the flame of love/To burn us for India’s sake.” (Gandhi 1958–1994, p. 9:491). What he appreciates in this poem is the “voluntary poverty” that should characterize every satyagrahi. This attitude differs from the revolutionaries whose sacrifices were more the result of their imitation of colonial violence. Like the revolutionaries, Gandhi too understood that nonviolence requires sacrifices. He distinguished, however, a “pure sacrifice” from the “thoughtless annihilation of the moth in the flame. […] Without the requisite purity, sacrifice is no better than a desperate self-annihilation devoid of any merit. Sacrifice must […] be willing and it should be made in faith and hope, without a trace of hatred or ill-will in the heart.” (Gandhi 1958–1994, p. 85:203). For a more detailed comparison between Gandhi’s and Girard’s understanding of sacrifice, see Palaver 2019.
Shamal Bhatt’s stanza ends with ”return with gladness good for evil done” (Gandhi 1958–1994, p. 39:34) and emphasizes, like the Sermon on the Mount or Rom 12:21, that evil should be overcome with good.
It is important to note that Gandhi addresses, here, an exceptional case. In his eyes, good intentions do not justify any means, but have to correspond to ends. If, however, violence cannot be avoided, it is important to refrain from any desire to kill or injure.
We have to distinguish between Gandhi’s personal rejection of war and his political insight that as long as a great majority of the people do not follow his example, nonviolence cannot fully be realized. Gandhi hoped for the “adoption of non-violence to the utmost extent possible”, at least for a “militarism of a modified character” (Gandhi 1958–1994, p. 76:215–16). This becomes most obvious in his letter to president Roosevelt in July 1942, in which he proposed that the Allies could keep their troops in a free India to prevent Japanese aggression: “My personal position is clear. I hate all war. If, therefore, I could persuade my countrymen, they would make a most effective and decisive contribution in favour of an honourable peace. But I know that all of us have not a living faith in non-violence” (Gandhi 1958–1994, p. 76:264; cf. 186–87, 207–8; Fischer 1953, pp. 425–26; Guha 2018, p. 659; Coovadia 2020, pp. 128–29).
I follow Gandhi’s translation in his “Discourses on the ‘Gita’” (Gandhi 1958–1994, p. 32:94–376).
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Palaver, W. Gandhi’s Militant Nonviolence in the Light of Girard’s Mimetic Anthropology. Religions 2021, 12, 988. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12110988
Palaver W. Gandhi’s Militant Nonviolence in the Light of Girard’s Mimetic Anthropology. Religions. 2021; 12(11):988. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12110988Chicago/Turabian Style
Palaver, Wolfgang. 2021. "Gandhi’s Militant Nonviolence in the Light of Girard’s Mimetic Anthropology" Religions 12, no. 11: 988. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12110988