Many of us Indians would be aware of the infamous Jallianwala Bagh massacre that took place on 13 April 1919 in Amritsar, Punjab when a gathering of non-violent protesters were fired upon by troops of the British Indian Army under the command of Brigadier General Reginald Edward Harry Dyer when hundreds of innocent civilians had died and critically injured spreading shock waves throughout the nation. The episode was handled by the British Government in an inefficient and ineffective inquiry including accolades for Dyer by many in the British top administration.
Mahatma Gandhi wrote on this as under:
I can say on oath that I do not will ill to General Dyer in any way, that I have not the least desire to see him punished, were he to fall ill, I would nurse him with love. But I certainly would not share in his sin. I have no doubt that his action was monstrous. The British people by describing it as an error of judgment have taken his sin upon themselves.
It has often been debated with varying perceptions how the sin and sinner should be treated. Going by Gandhi’s analogy, one should oppose sin and not the sinner. Another dimension is added, when one finds different perceptions of people on the same event or person. After all in case of General Dyer too while people of India, even Gandhi, treated this as a monstrous act while many British reportedly treated him as hero, with accolades even from the House of Lords. In other words, the same act is seen as sinful by some while others find it virtuous depending upon the circumstances.
Way back I had opportunity to read a Hindi novel ‘Chitralekha’ written by a famous writer of early twentieth century Shri Bhagwati Charan Verma in1934. Woven around an intense love story, the author tries to explore and analyze what is virtue and sin through various acts and events of the life of protagonists. The chief protagonist is a courtesan, Chitralekha who is a truly empowered woman - beautiful and strong, materialistic by choice, large-hearted by nature and honest to the core.
The other characters in the story are a young feudal lord, an ascetic, a king and princess, a hermit (Guru) and two disciples. Disciples are curious about the virtue and sin so the hermit sends them to the feudal lord and ascetic respectively to learn the lessons of life. In short, one of the disciples falls in love with princess, the princess has a crush on the feudal lord but the latter is in love with the courtesan. The king seeks intervention of the ascetic who persuades the courtesan to part with the young feudal but falls himself for her beauty and charm.
In the course of events, the feudal lord relinquishes his title and fortune in favour of the disciple attached to him to enable him to marry the princess, wins back the love and company of the courtesan and the ascetic returns to his ashram with deep guilt and remorse. The first disciple holds the feudal lord in high esteem and a virtuous man while declaring the ascetic as sinner. The other disciple (attached to the ascetic) still considers him a great soul and virtuous man while treating the feudal lord as a sinner.
At the end, the hermit concludes that humans are victims and slaves of the circumstances and, in fact, there is nothing like sin or virtue. Human beings act according to the circumstances which befall them during their lifetime. Our vision and value system evolves accordingly so also the perception of the sin or virtue. Thematically, the story clearly vindicates the futility of being judgemental.
Circumstances are indeed responsible to a great extent to form individual opinion about the virtuosity or sinfulness of a human act but virtue and sin are universal values and to that extent Gandhi appears vindicated in his statement for all time.