It’s believed, not without reason, that we humans are part of animal kingdom. If we are part of animal kingdom it means we are animals and animals are invariably violent. So violence is accepted as something intrinsic to human nature and human psyche, it is thought, has a congenital defect shown in its self-destructive, proclivity.
Wendy Doniger in her book ‘The Hindus’ quotes Mahabharata where Arjuna persuading Yudhisihtira [the first of Pandavas] to action says:”I see no being that lives in the world without violence. Creatures exist at one another’s expense; the stronger consume the weaker. The mongoose eats mice, just as the cat eats mongoose; the dog devours the cat, your majesty, and wild beasts eat the dog”. And this is much before Darwin comes up with his notion of survival of the fittest.
It’s not Mahabharata alone that holds that violence is an essential element of human nature. All the religious scriptures including the Semitic ones share this view of human nature and behavour, and legitimise the use of violence in order to keep the enemies at bay and the faithful on what is in their opinion the right path.“Fish eat fish [matsya- nyaya]” is nothing new. This adage is found way back in time in Mahabharata and Chanakya Kautilya’s Arth-shashtra. In other words use of violence is believed to be the guarantor of survival and power.
In the evolutionary process humans came to discover the disastrous consequences of violence if applied unchecked. It has been most likely the historical realisation born of aggression and wars waged against one another. In their long journey enriched by developing human consciousness, humans devised and honed skills to deal with violence. It has been possible only by becoming more human and humanised through shedding off tendencies associated with their animalistic nature. One of the well-known and historically evolved mechanisms was that rulers were given immense power to apparently negotiate between the strong and the weak to maintain a semblance of order and social equilibrium. This effort spanning thousands of years has morphed into modern state wherein institutions through laws, good or bad, have been given an exclusive right to use coercion as a tool of governing. Subsequently violence is controlled but not eliminated which seems an acceptable development. Strangely, human growth underpinned by consciousness is extremely paradoxical. The more the humans are humanised, the more dangerous they become. In other words by becoming less of animals they have become more dangerous animals. Violence or aggression in animals is dictated by instincts. They don’t indulge in violence or aggression more than what is required by their instinctual drives. A predator after hunting its prey and filling its belly would be at peace with itself and the nature. It wouldn’t wantonly maul and kill weak and vulnerable creatures it lives with. One can assert that animals have limited capacity of violence except in the cases of existential threat while humans have unlimited capacity to do violence. Since violence in human context is linked with power, humans do their utmost to enhance it through myriad means for multiple purposes.
This deadly power is inescapably connected with the development of human consciousness, authentic and false, which gives birth to ideals/causes that need to be defended at all cost. ‘All cost’ implies gargantuan cost for the so-called enemies and the other opposed to exclusive ideals/ causes. A human with his filled belly wants to snatch roti [food] from others and when insulted or hurt wants to kill the offender. A group [read so-called nation] in a conflict over borders and resources wants to annihilate the opponent group with nukes. A religious group wants to slaughter those who don’t share their faith or hold different one. A racial group especially the dominant one wants to skin the others whose skin colour is different. Human propensity to resolve conflicts and settle things through violence seems to be immeasurable. Of course there’s more than one way to skin a cat but unfortunately skinning involves violence and destruction. It’s no longer “as flies to wanton boys are we to the gods, they kill us for their sport”. Humans acting like gods wantonly kill other humans for their sport. Violence as pointed earlier is sanctified as a means to uphold ideals, causes and values. Working classes are coerced in the name of social order tilted heavily in favour of ruling elites. In homes women and children are punished in the name of values and discipline. Not in a distant past, the glimpse of which can be seen even to this day in certain places, when a parent took his boy to a school or seminary he used to say something typical to the teacher while handing him the student: “skin is yours, bones are ours [chum tuhada, haddiyan saadian] implying that the teacher could punish the student to the point of flaying him without breaking his bones. In such conditions children grow up with violent temperament and habits.
The tradition of non-violence [ahinsa] juxtaposed with the phenomenon of violence in the society has almost equally long history but suffers from social ineffectiveness in rectifying the situation.
Mahavira Jain and the Lord Buddha preached non-violence not only in dealing with humans but also with animals. Emperor Ashoka’s renunciation of violence after the great massacre of Kalinga [present-day Orissa] which he got engraved on the rocks in the form of edits, presents a fresh vision of life by a man who used violence and when saw its horrible consequences repented of what he had done in the war. Do we need another Kalinga to realise the intrinsically destructive nature of violence?
In the contemporary world, awash with nuclear weapons, it would be universal annihilation? If we don’t struggle to rid ourselves of self-destructive and cannibalistic tendencies, we are likely to remain what we are; violent.
What we are is well described by Wendy Doniger who quoting from Mahabharata writes that Yudhishthira says that humans negotiating peace are like dogs: “ tail wagging, a bark, a bark back, backing off, baring the teeth howling, and then fights begins, and the stronger one wins and eats the meat. Humans are exactly like that…We are not dogs, but we act like dogs greedy for a piece of meat”. ‘A piece of meat’ is a highly meaningful metaphor for possession over which humans fight using violence. But the question King Lear had asked in the midst of raging storm is still relevant: “is man no more than this”? — firstname.lastname@example.org
Published in Dawn, April 26th, 2021