Dharma Files | Can evil be fought with goodness or by being noble?

“One strong man (bully?) makes a hundred intellectuals tremble.” — Chandogya Upanishad  7.8 .1 An incident took place several years ago. I...

“One strong man (bully?) makes a hundred intellectuals tremble.”

— Chandogya Upanishad 7.8.1

An incident took place several years ago. I ran into Professor Singh, who taught at the University of Montreal, at a reception at the Hindu Mission. An episode of terrorism had just occurred in India and Singh wanted to know what could be done about it. So I told him — that one can only fight fire with light for so long, a time comes when fire has to be fought with fire. Then he said something which has remained with me since.

He said: “So, we must become like them?”

“Only for a while”, I said.

“What do you mean by that?”

“Well,” I paused. “If during the Second World War you looked at Germany, and then you looked at England, you would probably not find much difference between the two countries. Germany was manufacturing arms, so was England. Germany was training its people to fight, so was England. Then what was this great struggle between the Allies and the Axis powers all about? If the Germans were killing the Jews, the British were also starving three million Indians to death in Bengal. So what was the struggle about, when both the countries merely looked like two warring states engaging in another brutal war?”

“The difference,” I continued, “was that while this was an unusual phase for a democracy, it was the usual condition of a totalitarian state. In order to take on a totalitarian state, even a democracy had to adopt some of its ways. But after a war, a democracy reverts to its natural state, while a fascist state’s very nature is to be aggressive.

Singh responded: “I see what you are saying.”

“You may remember some stories from the Puranas, Dr Singh,” I continued. “In these stories the gods sometimes take on the form of a demon to defeat them. God Vishnu had to take the form of half-man and half-lion to rip the demon Hiranyakapishu apart. The demon was a demon and always had a demonic nature, God Vishnu had to assume a fierce form for a while to kill the demon.”

The point I was trying to make can be illustrated with the example of the police. If you look at the armed intruder and the policeman, both bear arms, maybe even similar arms. Both know how to use them. Then what is the difference between the two? The difference, of course, is that with the armed intruder, the weapon is meant to harm the citizen; with the policeman, it is meant to protect the citizen. The similarities between the two are superficial. If the policeman were to think — how could I become like the intruder by wielding a weapon just like him — then the policeman will be unable to protect either himself or the victim.

What I have just said goes against the grain of how we are raised morally. We are raised on what is known as the silver rule: Don’t do unto others as you would not have done unto you. Or on the golden rule: Do unto others as you would have done unto you. Or on the platinum rule: Return even evil with good. For instance, Mahatma Gandhi recalled, with great affection, this didactic stanza from his childhood:

For a bowl of water give a goodly meal; For a kindly greeting bow thou down in zeal;

For a simple penny pay thou back with gold; If thy life be rescued, life do not withhold;

Thus the words and actions of the wise regard; Every little service tenfold they reward.

But the truly noble know all men as one, And return with gladness good for evil done.

So should one be ‘truly noble’ to a terrorist?

A statement made by Confucius may help us find our way to an answer. He was once asked: “Should we return evil with good? “Confucius replied: “If you return evil with good, what will you return good with? Therefore, return good with good and evil with justice.”

Similarly, once a pupil told him: “A gentleman (Chun-Tzu/Junzi) is one whom all the people of the village love.” He replied: “No, a gentleman is one whom all the good people of the village love and all bad people of the village hate.”

Let us now frame this issue in a dharmic idiom: While violence is the Sva-Dharma (innate disposition of the evil doer), it is only the Apad-Dharma (disposition adopted for dealing with a crisis) for the one fighting the evil-doer. Therein lies all the difference.

The author, formerly of the IAS, is the Birks Professor of Comparative Religion at McGill University in Montreal Canada, where he has taught for over thirty years. He has also taught in Australia and the United States and at Nalanda University in India. He has published extensively in the fields of Indian religions and world religions. Views expressed are personal.​

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