October 2nd is the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi, a major spiritual force behind the Indian freedom movement of the 20th century. Gandhi-ji also was a fundamental and direct inspiration for Martin Luther King Jr.'s civil rights movement of the 1960s, and Nelson Mandela's struggle against apartheid. In this post, we attempt to examine his idea of ahimsa from an optimization perspective.
Update (Oct 5): This Huffington Post article provides amazing insight into Gandhi's ideas.
What is ahimsa?
Indian textbooks mention that Gandhiji brought the colonial empire in India to its knees by using ahimsa and sathyagraha (both were 'spelling bee' words a couple of years ago). These words have no equivalent in English, and are often used to imply "passive resistance", "pacifism", or "non-violence". A mathematical optimization model provides a more useful translation.
The popular Sanskrit verses on himsa and ahimsa given below was popularized by Gandhiji:
ahimsa paramo dharmaha,
dharma himsa tathaiva cha
[Oct 2018 update: the second verse has been attributed to Swami Chinmayananda)
Non-harming is the greatest virtue;
So too is righteous harm.
The second line suggests that allowing cruelty to go unchallenged is equivalent to willingly permitting harm, and therefore, must be resisted. The verses are a combination of the ideal (global optimality = zero harm), and a context-dependent violation of that ideal (soft rule = minimize harm). 'Local harming' is permissible in rare circumstances when it results in an overall reduction in global harm. The gangrenous foot has to be amputated to save the body, or a terrorist who attacks innocents in a mall or a school has to be taken down by security forces. In a recent talk, Narendra Modi tells us a story of how Gandhi would request his assistant at Sabarmati Ashram to pour back half a cup of water back into the river, because all he wanted was half a cup. Minimal harm!
(updated October 2)
Optimization Model of Ahimsa
From an optimization modeling perspective, these ahimsa verses represents an objective function of minimizing harm. In normal circumstances, the optimal value should be zero, but in all circumstances, it should be minimal. When some non-zero harm is inevitable, the goal is to limit the total harm to a minimum, i.e., the employed level of harm is optimal if and only if it is necessary and sufficient to restore dharma. The 'necessary' condition implies minimalism of the counteracting harm, while the 'sufficient' condition implies the safe neutralization of the source of the harm. It's a tough balancing act for humans even though nature itself effortlessly adheres to Newton's third law. A pure hard-constraint version of ahimsa would discourage self-defense and even celebrate cowardice, while a pure soft constraint version could open the doors to unnecessary use of force, and justifying cost versus benefit approaches. (The legal system dictum of "let a hundred guilty go unpunished, but a single innocent should not be wrongly convicted" is an interesting case study in this regard.) Hence, applying any one of these two lines is an incomplete specification and can lead to unpredictable results.
We argued a while ago that these verses are an improved 'fail-safe' choice for the 'zeroth law' of robotics. In the real world, when we build decision models to aid decision making, we can optimize decision variables to pick a pareto-optimal solution that also results in the least disruption to the system ("don't fix what isn't broken"). For example, if we are scheduling workers to maximize efficiency or minimizing cost, then an optimal solution that also minimally disrupts (and preferably, enhances) their quality-of-work-life is more likely to be sustainable over the long run.
Many feel that Gandhiji was partial to the first line, and quotes attributed to him support this claim. On the other hand, Gandhi's 'Hind Swaraj' and his lesser known quotes on preferring violent self-defense to cowardly capitulation suggests that he was aware of both verses. His book 'Hind Swaraj' (Indian self-rule) implies that his primary objective was not merely an overthrow of colonizers, but to achieve the strategic and deeper goal of ending the cultural genocide of India (restoring its Sanskriti and dharma). Applying the ahimsa verses would yield a path to Swaraj that results in minimal incremental harm to India's Sanskriti and dharma. Such a path may not necessarily also be optimal in terms of being the shortest-time path, or the least painful, or one that maximizes regained territory.