Ahimsa, or the Way of Nonviolence

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Ahimsa, or the Way of Nonviolence
Mohandas K. Gandhi
This article originally appeared in All Men Are Brothers, UNESCO, 1958.


In these excerpts from Gandhi's writings over many years, the un­wavering consistency of his beliefs comes to the surface. It is well to recall that, at the time of writing these thoughts, Gandhi had no assurance apart from his own conviction-that "soul force" would eventually lead to a British withdrawal from the subcontinent of India. He wrote in the dark­est days of a forty-year struggle, without the benefit of hindsight.

As a product of Eastern thought, Gandhi does not argue with the lin­ear logic of the West. His reasoning, which is more in tune with the ap­proach of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, tends to repeat itself in widening circles of insight. One could find many parallels to Jesus' thought in such phrases as "readiness to die" (cf. Jn 10:11), "to love those that hate us" (cf. Mt 5:44), "the impossible ever becoming possible" (cf. Mt 19:20), and others too numerous to mention.

From Gandhi's Autobiography, we read: "Man and his deed are two distinct things, a concept that was taken up by Pope John XXIII in his encyclical "Peace on Earth", which has been widely interpreted as a reference to communism and its adherents. Ever a realist, Gandhi had little regard for a non-violence that has not been tested in a hostile envi­ronment. Somewhat surprisingly, the Indian holy man discounts ahimsa as a "means of personal salvation". Rather, he envisions it as a heartfelt response to "social injustice." One is reminded of the apostle John who wrote: 'Anyone who loves God must also love his brother" (1 Jn 4:23).

Gandhi distinguishes ahimsa from the utilitarianism made popular by the British philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), who sought the "greatest good for the greatest number." Gandhi, on the contrary, says that the followers of ahimsa "will strive for the greatest good of all and die in the attempt to realize the ideal".

In a passage that will challenge an age given to hedonism and the avoidance of pain, Gandhi upholds suffering as "the law of human beings”. It is suffering that "opens up the inner understanding in man "-this applies to oneself and to one's opponents. We could apply to the current arms race Gandhi's final statement in this section about fear and even cow­ardice being linked with the possession of arms. The non-violent cannot be true to their calling without "unadulterated fearlessness.”

Critics have dismissed Gandhi as a dreamer. They argue that suc­cessful non-violent action is overly dependent on a charismatic leader. On the other hand, not all critics have studied his philosophy and methods with any seriousness or tried to put them into practice in seemingly hope­less situations.

Nonviolence is the greatest force at the disposal of mankind. It is mightier than the mightiest weapon of destruction devised by the ingen­uity of man. Destruction is not the law of the humans. Man lives freely by his readiness to die, if need be, at the hands of his brother, never by killing him. Every murder or other injury, no matter for what cause, committed or inflicted on another is a crime against humanity.

Harijan, July 20, 1931
I claim that even now, though the social structure is not based on a conscious acceptance of nonviolence, all the world over mankind lives and men retain their possessions on the sufferance of one another. If they had not done so, only the fewest and the most ferocious would have survived. But such is not the case. Families are bound together by ties of love, and so are groups in the so-called civilized society called nations. Only they do not recognize the supremacy of the law of nonviolence. It follows, there­fore, that they have not investigated its vast possibilities. Hitherto, out of sheer inertia, shall I say, we have taken it for granted that complete non­violence is possible only for the few who take the vow of non-possession and the allied abstinences. Whilst it is true that the votaries alone can carry on research work and declare from time to time the new possibilities of the great eternal law governing man, if it is a law, it must hold good for all. The many failures we see are not of the law but of the followers, many of whom do not even know that they are under that law willy-nilly. When a mother dies for her child she unknowingly obeys the law. I have been pleading for the past fifty years for a conscious acceptance of the law and its zealous practice even in the face of failures. Fifty years' work has shown marvelous results and strengthened my faith. I do claim that by constant practice we shall come to a state of things when lawful possession will com­mend universal and voluntary respect. No doubt such possession will not be tainted. It will not be an insolent demonstration of the inequalities that surround us everywhere. Nor need the problem of unjust and unlawful possession appall the votary of nonviolence. He has at his disposal the non­violent weapon of Satyagraha and non-cooperation which hitherto has been found to be a complete substitute of violence whenever it has been applied honestly in sufficient measure. I have never claimed to present the complete science of nonviolence. It does not lend itself to such treatment. So far as I know, no single physical science does, not even the very exact science of mathematics. I am but a seeker.

Harijan, February 22, 1942
In the application of Satyagraha, I discovered in the earliest stages that pursuit of truth did not admit of violence being inflicted on one's opponent but that he must be weaned from error by patience and sympathy. For, what appears to be truth to the one may appear to be error to another? And patience means self-suffering. So the doctrine came to mean vindication of truth, not by infliction of suffering on the opponent, but on one's self.

Young India, November, 1919
In this age of wonders no one will say that a thing or idea is worthless be­cause it is new. To say it is impossible because it is difficult is again not in consonance with the spirit of the age. Things undreamt of are daily being seen, the impossible is ever becoming possible. We are constantly being astonished these days at the amazing discoveries in the field of violence. But I maintain that far more undreamt of and seemingly impossible dis­coveries will be made in the field of nonviolence.

Harijan, August 25, 1940
Man and his deed are two distinct things. It is quite proper to resist and attack a system, but to resist and attack its author is tantamount to resisting and attacking oneself. For we are all tarred with the same brush, and are children of one and the same Creator, and as such the divine powers within us are infinite. To slight a single human being is to slight those divine pow­ers, and thus to harm not only that being but with him the whole world.

An Autobiography
Nonviolence is a universal principle and its operation is not limited by a hostile environment. Indeed, its efficacy can be tested only when it acts in the midst of and in spite of opposition. Our nonviolence would be a hollow thing and worth nothing, if it depended for its success on the good­will of the authorities.

Harijan, November 12, 1938
Some friends have told me that truth and nonviolence have no place in politics and worldly affairs. I do not agree. I have no use for them as a means of individual salvation. Their introduction and application in every­day life has been my experiment all along.

Harijan, November 12, 1938
No man could be actively nonviolent and not rise against social injustice no matter where it occurred.

Harijan, April 20, 1940
A votary of ahimsa cannot subscribe to the utilitarian formula (of the great­est good of the greatest number). He will strive for the greatest good of all and die in the attempt to realize the ideal. He will therefore be willing to die, so that the others may live. He will serve himself with the rest, by himself dying. The greatest good of all inevitably includes the good of the greatest number, and, therefore, he and the utilitarian will converge in many points in their career but there does come a time when they must part company, and even work in opposite directions. The utilitarian to be logical will never sacrifice himself. The absolutist will even sacrifice him­self.

Young India, December 9, 1926
Suffering is the law of human beings; war is the law of the jungle. But suf­fering is infinitely more powerful than the law of the jungle for converting the opponent and opening his ears, which are otherwise shut, to the voice of reason. Nobody has probably drawn up more petitions or espoused more forlorn causes than I and I have come to this fundamental conclusion that if you want something really important to be done you must not

merely satisfy the reason, you must move the heart also. The appeal of reason is more to the head but the penetration of the heart comes from suffering. It opens up the inner understanding in man. Suffering is the badge of the human race, not the sword.

Young India, November 4, 1931
Nonviolence is a power which can be wielded equally by all-children, young men and women or grown up people--provided they have a living faith in the God of Love and have therefore equal love for all mankind. When nonviolence is accepted as the law of life it must pervade the whole being and not be applied to isolated acts.

Harijan, September 5, 1936
Nonviolence and cowardice go ill together. I can imagine a fully armed man to be at heart a coward. Possession of arms implies an element of fear, if not cowardice. But true nonviolence is an impossibility without the pos­session of unadulterated fearlessness.

Harijan, July 15, 1939

Ghandi, Mohandas K., “Ahimsa, or the Way of Nonviolence.” A Peace Reader. Ed. Joseph J. Fahey and Richard Armstrong. New York: Paulist Press, 1992. 171-174.

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