Gandhi’s Non-Violence

Thanks to Ron Epstein
Other quotes from Gandhi:

Gandhi on Non-Violence (speech 1919)

I do believe that, where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence. Thus when my eldest son asked me what he should have done had he been present when I was almost fatally assaulted in 1908, whether he should have used his physical force which he could and wanted to use, and defended me, I told him that it was his duty to defend me even by using violence. Hence it was that I took part in the Boer War, the so-called Zulu Rebellion and the late war. Hence also do I advocate training in arms for those who believe in the method of violence. I would rather have India resort to arms in order to defend her honour than that she should, in a cowardly manner, become or remain a helpless witness to her own dishonour.

But I believe that non-violence is infinitely superior to violence, forgiveness is more manly than punishment, forgiveness adorns a soldier. But abstinence is forgiveness only when there is the power to punish; it is meaningless when it pretends to proceed from a helpless treasure. A mouse hardly forgives a cat when it allows itself to be torn to pieces by her. I therefore appreciate the sentiment of those who cry out for the punishment of General Dyer and his ilk. They would tear him to pieces if thy could. But I do not believe Indian to be helpless. I do not believe myself to be a helpless creature. Only I want to use India’s and my strength for a better purpose.

Let me no be misunderstood. Strength does no come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will. An average Zulu is any way more than a match for an average Englishman in bodily capacity. But he flees from an English boy, because he fears death and is nerveless in spite of his burly figure. We in India may in a moment realize that one hundred thousand Englishmen need not frighten three hundred million human beings. A definite forgiveness would therefore, mean a definite recognition of our strength. With enlightened forgiveness must come a mighty wave of strength in us which would make it impossible for a Dyer and a Frank Johnson to heap affront on India’s devoted head. It matters little to me that for the moment I do not drive my point home. We feel too downtrodden not to be angry and revengeful. But I must not refrain from saying that India can gain more by waiving the right of punishment. We have better work to do, a better mission to deliver to the world.

I am not a visionary. I claim to be a practical idealist. The religion of non-violence is not meant merely for the risbis holy people and saints. It is meant for the common people as well. Non-violence is the law of our species as violence is the law of the brute, and he knows no law but that of physical might. The dignity of man requires obedience to a higher law-to the strength of the spirit.

I have therefore ventured to place before Indian the ancient law of self-sacrifice. For satyagraha and its off shoots, non-cooperation and civil resistance are nothing but new names for the law of suffering. The risbis who discovered the law of non-violence in the midst of violence, were greater geniuses than Newton. They were themselves greater warriors than Wellington. Having themselves known the use of arms, they realized their uselessness, and taught a weary world that its salvation lay not through violence but through non-violence.

Non-violence in its dynamic condition means conscious suffering. It does not mean meek submission to the will of the evil-doer, but it means the pitting of one’s whole soul against the will of the tyrant. Working under this law of our being, it is possible for a single individual to defy the whole might of an unjust empire to save his honour, his religion, his soul, and lay the foundation for that empire’s fall or its regeneration.
In his leadership of the great national liberation struggle of India against British imperialism, Gandhi established the methodology of nonviolence, which is essential to a culture of peace. To Gandhi, there must be no enemy – only an adversary or opponent who has not yet been convinced of the truth.

Fundamental to his philosophy was the distinction between man and his deed. As he says in under Ahimsa and Search for Truth, page 86 in his autobiography, “Whereas a good deed should call forth approbation and a wicked deed disapprobation, the doer of the deed, whether good or wicked, always deserves respect or pity as the case may be. ‘Hate the sin and not the sinner’ … 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.”

As he described in 1920 before a court of law in India, he called his methodology Satyagraha: “The term ‘Satyagraha’ was coined by me in South Africa … Its root meaning is holding on to truth, hence truth-force. I have also called it love-force or soul-force. 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 the other. 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 own self.

“But in the political field, the struggle on behalf of the people mostly consists in opposing error in the shape of unjust laws. When you have failed to bring the error home to the lawgiver by way of petitions and the like, the only remedy open to you, if you do not wish to submit to error, is to compel him by physical force to yield to you or by suffering in your own person by inviting the penalty for the breach of the law … In my opinion, the beauty and efficacy of Satyagraha are so great and the doctrine so simple that it can be preached even to children.

Speaking later that year to the Congress considering Non-Cooperation, Gandhi explained that passing a resolution was not enough but each individual must put make it work by harnessing the power of anger into the practice of nonviolence: “For non-co-operation is a measure of discipline and sacrifice and it demands patience and respect for opposite views. And unless we are able to evolve a spirit of mutual toleration for diametrically opposite views, non-co-operation is an impossibility. I have learnt through bitter experience the one supreme lesson to conserve my anger, and as heat conserved is transmuted into energy, even so, our anger controlled can be transmuted into a power which can move the world.”

Nonviolence is difficult and requires great discipline. Gandhi warned that there is no easy way. “It takes a fairly strenuous course of training to attain to a mental state of non-violence … unless there is a hearty co-operation of the mind, the mere outward observance will be simply a mask, harmful both to the man himself and to others. The perfect state is reached only when mind and body and speech are in proper co-ordination. But it is always a case of intense mental struggle … Such a struggle leaves one stronger for it … Non-violence is a weapon of the strong. With the weak, it might easily be hypocrisy … Love wrestles with the world as with itself, and ultimately gains a mastery over all other feelings (quotations from The Law of Love).

He compares the discipline that is needed to that of a soldier: “In daily life, it has to be a course of discipline though one may not like it, like, for instance, the life of a soldier.”

Gandhi often said that while nonviolence was superior to violence, violence, in turn, was superior to passivity in the face of injustice. For example, writing in Young India in August 1920 (see Chapter 28), he said “I do believe that, where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence….I would rather have India resort to arms in order to defend her honour than that she should, in a cowardly manner, become or remain a helpless witness to her own dishonour. But I believe that non-violence is infinitely superior to violence…”

Nonviolence, according to Gandhi, must be founded on love. As he describes in The Law of Love “Wherever there are jars [conflicts], wherever you are confronted with an opponent, conquer him with love. In a crude manner, I have worked it out in my life. That does not mean that all my difficulties are solved. I have found, however, that this Law of Love has answered as the Law of Destruction has never done.”

Gandhi was profoundly influenced by the teachings of Jesus, as he explained in a speech in 1925: “Non-violence … requires greater heroism than of brave soldiers … The world does not accept today the idea of loving the enemy. Even in Christian Europe the principle of non-violence is ridiculed … Christians do not understand the message of Jesus. It is necessary to deliver it over again in the way we can understand … But I must say that so long as we do not accept the principle of loving the enemy, all talk of world brotherhood is an airy nothing. “

Gandhi’s message, like that of Martin Luther King, is essential for revolution in the 21st Century. New methods must be developed to defend the revolution against the violence of the inevitable attacks by the capitalist culture of war without falling into the trap of the socialist culture of war. Gandhi and King have shown that this is possible through nonviolent means.

One Comment

This was written in 1919. Gandhi supported Britain in WWI and, at least partly as a result of this, a half million Indians served on the battlefield. It wasn’t long after the war (as I shall document elsewhere – I have a related blog under preparation) that he became a complete pacifist. He did not support Britain in WWII, which much angered Churchill, though he certainly saw Hitler as evil. As Japanese troops approached the Indian border, he advocated only pacific actions in response.


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