The Primacy of Intention and the Duty to Truth: A Gandhi-Inspired Argument for Retranslating Hiṃsā and Ahiṃsā, with Connections to History, Ethics, and Civil Resistance

A shortened and edited version of this essay, focusing on language-related arguments, will appear as Chapter 12 in V.K. Kool & R. Agrawal, Eds., Gandhi’s Wisdom. Palgrave Macmillan, in press.

46 Pages Posted: 18 Nov 2021

See all articles by Todd Davies

Todd Davies

Stanford University - Symbolic Systems Program; Center for the Study of Language and Information

Date Written: October 9, 2021

Abstract

The words "violence" and "nonviolence" are increasingly misleading translations for the Sanskrit words hiṃsā and ahiṃsā -- which were used by Gandhi as the basis for his philosophy of satyāgraha. I argue for re-reading hiṃsā as “maleficence” and ahiṃsā as “beneficence.” These two more mind-referring English words – associated with religiously contextualized discourse of the past -- capture the primacy of intention implied by Gandhi’s core principles, better than “violence” and “nonviolence” do. Reflecting a political turn in moral accountability detectable through linguistic data, both the scope and the usage of the word “violence” have expanded dramatically. The expanded scope of “violence” reflects greater consciousness of the various forms that serious harm can take, but also makes it harder to convincingly characterize people and actions as “nonviolent.” New translations could clarify the distinction between hiṃsā and ahiṃsā, and thereby prevent some misunderstandings of Gandhi. Training in beneficence would reflect Gandhi’s psychological path to reducing avoidable harm: detachment from the ego, learning to love universally, and seeking truth by experiment.

Keywords: himsa, ahimsa, violence, nonviolence, maleficence, beneficence, Gandhi

JEL Classification: D74, Z12, Z13

Suggested Citation

Davies, Todd R., The Primacy of Intention and the Duty to Truth: A Gandhi-Inspired Argument for Retranslating Hiṃsā and Ahiṃsā, with Connections to History, Ethics, and Civil Resistance (October 9, 2021). A shortened and edited version of this essay, focusing on language-related arguments, will appear as Chapter 12 in V.K. Kool & R. Agrawal, Eds., Gandhi’s Wisdom. Palgrave Macmillan, in press., Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3942952 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3942952

Todd R. Davies (Contact Author)

Stanford University - Symbolic Systems Program ( email )

Stanford, CA 94305-2150
United States

HOME PAGE: http://www.stanford.edu/~davies

Center for the Study of Language and Information ( email )

Stanford, CA 94305-4115
United States

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