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

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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.
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First archival date: 2021-10-16
Latest version: 2 (2021-10-20)
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