Nishant Shah — Jul 7, 2021
Every year, on the day of Samvatsari, after 24 hours of fasting marking eight days of austerity and introspection, people following Jainism – a small sect in India founded as a protest against Hinduism’s abusive and toxic castebased practices – bow their heads, bring their hands together, and utter Micchāmi Dukkaḍaṃ. Originating in Prakrit, one of the vernacular scripts of Sanskrit, the phrase has been translated in different ways:
A banishment of wrong:
»May all evil that has been done be in vain.«
A condemnation of wrongdoing:
»May all evil actions be inconsequential.«
A forgiveness for causing harm:
»I ask pardon from all living beings.«
These multiple interpretations of the phrase are all simultaneously valid and co-constitutive. It is a thesis on violence that departs from the smooth binaries of victims-perpetrators, individuals-structures, and instead proposes a trifecta of actions and reflections that we need to consider in our quest for a post-violent future.
In banishing all that is evil and wrong, the phrase necessitates a recognition and dialogue of things that have been wrong. It demands an honest and hard acceptance that there has been evil, that there has been wrongdoing, and that we take an active role in stopping its expansion. It is a commitment to not just accept the state of things – to see them as they are – but also to map our relationality to them. Evil does not have its own autonomous agency; we are deeply implicated in its spread and sustenance.
Hence the condemnation of the consequences of evil actions, where we acknowledge that these actions have tangible harms. These harms are often experienced by those who can least afford to bear them. They are not small, and if left unattended, they can amplify evil. It is urgent to not only stop the evil action, but also to counteract it. Inaction is not an option. Merely not doing evil or harm is not enough to change the course of these wrong deeds.
Thus comes the third ask of forgiveness, which announces that we have been deeply embedded and indifferent to the state of the world for the evil to have arisen in thought and translated into action. The act of forgiveness is to take responsibility that this evil has not been perpetrated outside of our knowledge or without our consent. We might not be directly participating in its actions, but we seek to benefit and often turn a blind eye because we are not directly affected by its unfolding. In accepting responsibility, we also acquire humility: that we might have failed, that we might have tried and not succeeded, that we might not have understood the consequences of these actions, and now is the time to reckon the hurt and deal with its presence in our lives.
These three modes of operation form a profound thesis on violence: It accepts that we perform violence in speech, action, and thought. However, it does not stop at recognizing these spaces and actions of violence. Instead, it makes us aware that our role in shaping a post-violent future is urgent, emergent, and personal. It forces the person making the utterance witness that violence is a part of our life force. It establishes violence not only as a pathology, but also as a significant part of our modes of survival and being, and in that, provides a moment of reflection of the multiple sources, resources, and life forms that go into our own well-being and survival.
In this threefold manifestation, Micchāmi Dukkaḍaṃ presents a worldview that is quite different from the one we know. The pre-wired responses to violence are recognizable. We immediately identify violence as an exceptional moment and isolate it from our everyday walks and ways of life. In doing so, we often sever its connection from underlying causes and principles, and focus almost all our attention on resolving the symptom at hand rather than looking at the context within which it occurs. In a similar vein, an act of violence, or more particularly, a recognizable act of violence, stages familiar patterns of victims, survivors, and perpetrators.
The act of violence is identified as a unified force and often casts the survivor as without agency and even without identity. It reduces the entire spectrum of violence into one act, and in that, both the survivor and the perpetrator become flat icons rather than complex human beings. Violence is met with justice, but as feminist intervention has repeatedly shown, justice is just violence turned on its head, and not necessarily a way outside of violence. Justice is a redirection of violence and without the considerations of care, restoration, and reparation, it escalates the conditions that led to the violence without necessarily diffusing and rearranging it.
Micchāmi Dukkaḍaṃ captures a fundamental transformation of these narratives of violence for our future. By embracing nonviolence as a core principle, it rescues it from being a negative space – a space empty of violence – and instead offers it as a way of engaging in a conversation with our implicit, complicit, covert, and covetous relationships with different forms of violence. It does so by placing the human subject at the center of the dialogue, and by mapping violence as a default force from which we need to actively free ourselves. Additionally, it challenges us to take responsibility to stop as well as protect those adversely affected by violence.
In this utterance and its cultural context of violence in everyday life, it offers a connected future that unflinchingly recognizes the endemic structures of violence that support our lives. In doing so, it no longer seeks violence as a counterforce. It thus moves away from the »extinction impulse« of our response to violence – one where making violence extinct often results in making people extinct. Instead, it proposes an aspirational quest to transform the way we are, so that all things might survive.
Nishant Shah is a feminist, humanist, and technologist. He is Director of Research & Outreach and Professor of Aesthetics and Cultures of Technology at ArtEZ University of the Arts, the Netherlands. He was the cofounder of the Centre for Internet & Society, India, and is a 2020–21 Faculty Associate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. He serves as a knowledge partner with the Dutch social justice organization HIVOS on their art-technology program Digital Earth and with the Feminist Internet Research Network. Shah’s current work addresses questions of misinformation, fakeness, and humane futures of our digital conditions.
© 2023 Akademie Schloss Solitude and the author