JBS Haldane on courage and nonviolence:

I AM a man of violence by temperament and training. My family, in the male line, can, I think, fairly be described as Kshattriyas. …From 1250 to 1750 we occupied a small fort commanding a pass leading from the hills to the plains of Scotland. Our main job was to stop the tribal peoples of the hills from raiding the cattle of the plainsmen; but perhaps once in a generation we went south to resist an English invasion, and at least two of my direct ancestors were killed while doing so. …

When I was a child my father read to me Scott’s Tales of a Grandfather, which are legends of the warlike exploits of the Scottish nobility, and trained me in the practice of courage. He did not do so by taking me into battles, as his ancestors might have done, but by taking me into mines. I think he first took me underground when I was four years old. By the time I was about twenty I was accompanying him in the exploration of a mine which had recently exploded, and where there was danger from poisonous gases, falls of roof, and explosions. So when in 1915 I was first under enemy shell fire, one of my first thoughts was ‘how my father would enjoy this’.

… The second word of the Gītadharmakshetre, gives an exact description of my feelings when I went to the trenches for the first time in 1915. I was well aware that I might die in these flat, featureless fields, and that a huge waste of human values was going on there. Nevertheless I found the experience intensely enjoyable, which most of my comrades did not. I was supported, as it were, on a great wave of dharma. The European Kshattriya, or knightly, virtues include a detestation of various kinds of meanness, and a hatred of violence against the defenceless. The European knightly vices include an addiction to gambling.

In the war of 1914-18 I was on several occasions pitted against individual enemies fighting with similar weapons, trench mortars or rifles with telescopic sights, each with a small team helping him. This was war as the great poets have sung it. I am lucky to have experienced it.

We have now to consider two facts. The Gīta, which is an exhortation of Arjuna to violent conduct, was the favourite poem of Gandhi, the great exponent of non-violence.

War has changed its character completely in my lifetime. Modern war has two principal forms. One form is characterized by the wholesale massacre of defenceless civilians with atomic bombs and other weapons. The other, which is going on in Algeria, Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus, and other regions, is characterized by the use of ambushes and individual murder by the less armed side, and the killing of prisoners and the enslavement of whole populations by the more strongly armed side.

Modern war does not evoke any of the Kshattriya virtues except courage. But yet these virtues are absolutely needed in modern Life, as Gandhi saw. … but even Buddha, the great preacher of non-violence, [was a] Kshattriya. … How then can we combine the Kshattriya virtues with non-violence?

Gandhi gave one answer to this question. There are other answers, quite compatible with Gandhi’s answer, but in different spheres. Gandhi was always concerned in struggles between human groups. He did his best to eliminate violence and hatred from them.

There is another kind of struggle. I quote St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, the translation from the Greek (from memory) being my own:

‘For our struggle is not against blood and flesh, but against first principles, against powers, against the lokapalas of the kali-yuga, against the spiritual sources of evil in the heavens.’

I translate his word kosmokrator or world governor, as lokapala. The phrase translated as kali-yuga means literally ‘the darkness of this age’. I think that the notion of the lokapalas had reached Western Asia from Buddhist sources in St Paul’s day.

Some of us struggle against the natural forces which in India are too often worshipped as minor deities, for example cholera and smallpox. My father was mainly concerned with such matters as the ventilation of factories and mines, which is important both in safeguarding health and preventing explosions. When he wished to investigate why men died after colliery explosions when they had received no physical injury, he first examined dead men and horses after underground explosions, convinced himself that they had died of carbon monoxide poisoning, and then proceeded to poison himself with this gas. That is to say he breathed a known amount of it until he had fallen over unconscious, and a colleague pulled him out of the gas chamber. In this way he found out how long it takes for a given amount of this gas to overcome a man. He also found that small birds are overcome much more quickly than men (and recover much more quickly). He was however averse to experiments on animals which were likely to cause them pain or fear (carbon monoxide poisoning causes neither). He preferred to work on himself or other human beings who were sufficiently interested in the work to ignore the pain or fear. His experiments on the effects of heat could perhaps be called tapas. He found that he could live in dry air at 300 °F. At about this temperature his hair began to singe when he moved it. But I do not think his motivation was that of an ascetic practising tapas.

He achieved a state in which he was pretty indifferent to pain. However, his object was not to achieve this state but to achieve knowledge which could save other men’s lives. His attitude was much more like that of a good soldier who will risk his life and endure wounds in order to gain victory, than that of an ascetic who deliberately undergoes pain. The soldier does not get himself wounded deliberately, and my father did not seek pain in his work, though he greeted a pain which would have made some people writhe or groan, with laughter. I think he would have agreed with the formulation that the atman or buddhi in him was laughing at the ahamkara.

I have tried to imitate him. I have drunk or breathed considerable amounts of various poisons, certainly more than half the fatal dose in some cases, and have done similar experiments on other human volunteers, including my wife. For this reason I feel a certain annoyance when I am excluded from a temple of Siva, who, according to a well-known legend, drank poison to save the other gods. If Siva exists, he may be more pleased by such an action than by the recitation of a lakh of mantras.


About isomorphismes

Argonaut: someone engaged in a dangerous but potentially rewarding adventure.
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