Mahatma Gandhi: Crusader of Non-violence and Peace

Published: 27.10.2008
Updated: 30.07.2015


Mahatma Gandhi's concept of nonviolence is the outcome of his vast experiences in his life. He inherited religiousness from his mother and uprightness from his father. He learnt his first lesson in nonviolence at the feet of his father, Kaba Gandhi. He had committed a theft in the house. But then he confessed before his father. His father was greatly moved. Gandhi says, "Those pearl drops of love cleansed my heart, and washed my sin away - This was for me an object-lesson in nonviolence - when such nonviolence becomes all embracing, it transforms everything it touches. There is no limit to its power." In 1889, at England, two Theosophist brothers introduced Gandhi to "The Song Celestial" - Sir Edwin Arnold's English translation of Bhagvatgita. This made a deep impression on him. Gandhi writes, "The verses in the second Chapter … made a deep impression on my mind, and they still ring in my ears. The book struck me as one of principles wroth. I regard to it today as the book par excellence for the knowledge of Truth. It has afforded me invaluable help in my moments of gloom." It was Gandhi's conviction that in trying to enforce in one's life the central teaching of the Gita, one is bound to follow truth and nonviolence. His active non-violence began after seven days of his arrival in South Africa in 1889. During his train journey from Durban to Pretoria he was travelling in first class and he was thrown out from the train. In 1938, Gandhi told Dr. John R. Moit that this incident changed the course of his life and that his active non-violence began from that day. Louis Fischer says, "That bitter night at Maritzburg, the germ of social protest was born in Gandhi." Gandhi's distinct contribution to nonviolence is that he "applied it to mass movements in organized corporate fashion." is not the originator of the doctrine of nonviolence. As a spiritual heir of India, he inherited the conceptual wealth of nonviolence from her seers and philosophers and made an ethical capital out of it for the realization of Truth, which is God to him. So, the concept of nonviolence is not the discovery or Gandhi, and, he, himself accepts this. He says, "I have nothing new to teach the world. Truth and nonviolence are as old as the hills. All I have done is to try experiments in both on a vast scale as I could. In doing so I have sometimes erred and learnt by errors. Life and its problems have thus become to me as experiments in the practice of truth and non-violence. I was not so much a votary of nonviolence as I was of truth, and I put the latter in the first place and the former in the second. For, I was capable of sacrificing nonviolence for the sake of truth. In fact, it was in the course of my pursuit of truth that I discovered nonviolence."

Gandhi feels that it is difficult to define nonviolence. The only way to understand nonviolence is to practice it. Gandhi says, "Ahimsa in theory no one knows. It is as indefinable as God. But in its working we get glimpses of the Almighty in his working amongst and through us." For Gandhi, nonviolence was not a matter of academic thesis and theory, but a fact of effeminate experience, not a subject of dialectic and discussion but discipline and practice of softer virtues. He says, "for me non-violence is not a mere philosophical principle, it is the rule and breath of my life." Again he says, "Nonviolence is the first article of my faith. It is also the last article of my creed." and "To me nonviolence has a world of meanings and takes me into the realms much higher, infinitely higher. To define something is to explain its exact meaning, to lay down and fix the limits of its scope, to make its conception clear as crystal. But when we try to define nonviolence, we realize that it is really a very hard thing; an up-hill climb, a Herculean task, almost an impossible feat to pin-point the exact nature of nonviolence. To define any object (thing, place or person) is never an easy job; for definition presupposes an exhaustive knowledge of the connotation of what is to be defined. Here the difficulty of the task, no doubt, is great. The difficulty of the task is greater still in the case of the definition of an intellectual discipline. But the difficulty of definition proves the greatest of all when we try to define a non-intellectual discipline like Gandhi's nonviolence which is the finest quality of the heart. Gandhi therefore, honestly feels that it is not at all possible to define nonviolence. In fact, he not only denies negatively the possibility of the definition of ahimsa but also asserts its impossibility positively in these words: "Ahimsa is an indefinable as God." Gandhi's God is 'an indefinable mysterious Power.' So also is his nonviolence. Gandhi was a pragmatist who applied himself to the solution of problems that mankind in general and the people of India in particular were facing with. He acted in a way in which few of us could ever have thought of acting. For Gandhi, God, Truth, Nonviolence, Beauty, the Infinite the Unborn and the Undying, the absolute bliss, are all one and the same.

According to Gandhi, "We cannot know nonviolence in theory. The one and the only way to understand nonviolence is to practice it. That is why Gandhi did not cut himself off from the daily problems and struggles of humanity and sit in an ivory-tower, to formulate his philosophy of nonviolence. "I have been practising with scientific precision nonviolence and its possibilities for an unbroken period of over fifty years. I have applied it in every walks of life - domestic, institutional, economic and political. I know of no single case in which it has failed. Where it has seemed sometimes to have failed, I have ascribed it to my imperfections. I claim no perfection for myself." For him ahimsa was not a mere matter of academic thesis and theory, but a fact of intimate experience, not a sheer subject of dialectic and discussion, but discipline and practice of softer virtues. "For me nonviolence,' declares Gandhi, 'is not a mere philosophical principle. It is the rule and breath of my life." Philosophy is essential theoretical; religion is predominantly practical. One is correct belief; the other is righteous living. Gandhi treats nonviolence as religion rather than philosophy.

Thus we find that it is not possible for Gandhi to give us a perfect definition of nonviolence. "Since the truth itself is beyond any expression that can be found for it, there can be no such thing as the perfect formulation. All are necessarily inadequate and if taken too literally, lead to error". The interpretation is never adequate to the experience. The definition is always less than the thing or thought defined. But this does not mean that Gandhi has not at all attempted to define nonviolence. In fact, he has given a number of definitions, however imperfect and inadequate they may be. Let us take into account a few of them and examine critically how far he has succeeded in his earnest endeavour to loosen the knotty nature of nonviolence. He defines nonviolence thus:

    1. 'The highest religion has been defined by a negative word - nonviolence.'
    2. 'Literally speaking, nonviolence means non-killing. But to me it has a world of means. It really means that you may not offend anybody; you may not harbour an uncharitable thought, even in connection with one who may consider himself to be your enemy.'
    3. 'nonviolence is not only non-killing or non-injury but also nonviolence in thought, word and deed.'
    4. 'Not to hurt any living thing is no doubt a part of nonviolence. But it is its least expression. The principle of nonviolence is hurt by every evil thought, by undue haste, by lying, by hatred, by wishing ill to anybody.'
    5. 'nonviolence, in not mere non-killing. A person who remains smugly satisfied with the non killing of noxious life but has no love in his heart for all that lives will be counted as least in the Kingdom of Heaven. 6. 'Nonviolence in its positive form, meaning the largest love, thegreatest charity.'
    6. 'Nonviolence in its dynamic condition means conscious suffering.'
    7. 'Nonviolence is not passivity in any shape or form. It is the most active force in the world.'
    8. 'Nonviolence is both an attitude of mind and action consequent upon it.'
    9. Nonviolence is a conscious, deliberate restraint put upon one's desire for vengeance.'
    10. 'Nonviolence is the farthest limit of humility.'
    11. 'Nonviolence is the soul-force or the power of Godhead within us.'
    12. 'Nonviolence is my God.'
    13. 'Nonviolence is the soul of truth.'
    14. 'Nonviolence is truth.'

If we take into consideration the above-mentioned definitions of nonviolence, we will come to the conclusion that Gandhi has dealt with almost all-important constituents of nonviolence and peace. His definition of nonviolence is at once literal, interpretative and creative. He starts with the etymological definition, gathering momentum from psychology, sociology, anthropology etc., and finally ends with the ontological definition of nonviolence. Gandhi's concept of nonviolence is essentially moral, without ceasing to be physical, mental, rational, theological, spiritual and metaphysical. It seeks a totality or harmony of sight, insight, foresight and trans-sight into the nature of nonviolence. Gandhi's definiton of nonviolence begins with the appreance of nonkilling but ultimately probes into the reality of love, which is, God, who is, above all, truth.

Nonviolence: Concept

The word 'ahimsa' (nonviolence), as used by Gandhi, is of protean significance. It has puzzling, perplexing and even paradoxical meanings, and stands for complex and contrary ideals and realities of life. Gandhi himself says, 'Ahimsa is a comprehensive principle.' The comprehensive principle of nonviolence may conveniently be divided into two sets of meanings 1. Negative Meanings, 2. Positive Meanings.

1. Negative meanings

The word nonviolence, which expresses Gandhi's ethical precept, consists of two syllables, 'a' plus 'himsa' (a+himsa). The negative prefix 'a' mean 'non' and 'himsa' means 'injury'. Hence nonviolence is usually translated as 'nonviolence'. But nonviolence is a vague fogy word. It is doubtful in appearance, mistful in meaning, mystical in significance and mysterious in reality. The first negative meaning of ahimsa is 'non-killing'. And Gandhi accepts it when he says: 'Literally speaking, ahimsa means "non-killing". 'Kill not' is therefore, a categorical imperative to the literalist. He tries to abide by this commandment under all circumstances, at all times and places, and with all persons, without raising any ifs and buts. For him the negative meaning of the negative word 'ahimsa' is both the law and the prophet.

Gandhi was a revolutionary thinker. According to him, "Nonviolence is not the crude thing it has been made to appear. Not to hurt any living thing is no doubt a part of nonviolence." He takes nonviolence in a very wide sense. It is not only non-killing or non-injury but also nonviolence in thought, word and deed. He writes: 'Not to hurt any living thing is no doubt a part of nonviolence. But it is the least expression. The principle of nonviolence is hurt by every evil thought, by undue haste, by lying, by hatred, by wishing ill to anybody. It is also violated by our holding on to what the world needs.' Gandhi's nonviolence is not so much physical as psychological. Motive precedes intention, even as intention precedes action. His nonviolence is abstinence from killing or causing pain, both mentally, verbally and physically. This is the second negative meaning of Gandhi's nonviolence. 

Gandhi's nonviolence is Patanjali's renunciation of hatred. He observes: 'Hate is the subtlest form of violence. We cannot be really nonviolent and yet have hate in us.' This is the third negative meaning of Gandhi's nonviolence. It is Gandhi's considered conviction that 'ill-will cannot stand in the presence of nonviolence' As a votary of nonviolence, he promises: 'I shall not bear ill-will towards any one.' He who is untruthful, dishonest, ungentle, unmannerly, jealous, malicious, uncharitable, rude, crude, clever, cunning, cruel, wicked, proud, angry, greedy etc. is a wrose victim of subtle violence, and therefore a greater criminal before the ethical code and court of Gandhi's nonviolence.

Broadly the negative meanings of Gandhi's nonviolence may be divided into two parts: (a) Gross Negative Meaning. Non-killing comes under it. (b) Subtle Negative Meanings. They consist in the abstinence from lust and anger, greed and infatuation, pride and falsehood - the 'six deadly enemies' within us; and are constituted by the negative virtues (restraints or yamas) of non-anger (akrodha), non-stealing (asteya), non-possession (aparigraha), non-attachment (asanga), non-fear (abhaya), non-taste (asvada), non-hurting (apida), and finally non-killing (ahimsa).

2. Positive Meaning

The word 'nonviolence' is seemingly negative in form on account of the negative prefix 'non'. But this should not delude us into thinking that nonviolence is negative in content also. Gandhi says: 'Things in this world are not what they seem and do not seem as they really are. Or if they are seen as they are, they so appear only to a few who have perfected themselves after ages of penance.' In reality nonviolence is pregnant with positive meanings though in appearance it has, as explained above, only negative meanings. Nonviolence, in the opinion of Gandhi, is not merely freedom from vices but practice of positive virtue as well. The meaning of ahimsa is not only negative, static and passive but also positive, dynamic and active. And the latter aspect is much more important than the former one.

To quote Gandhi, "Nonviolence means the largest love, the greatest charity. If I am a follower of ahimsa, I must love my enemy … This active ahimsa necessarily includes truth and fearlessness. Nonviolence including the whole creation, and not only human." To Gandhi, nonviolence means 'the law of love', the great eternal law governing man', 'the supreme law of our being', 'the Summum bonum of life', 'the highest dharma', and "in its dynamic condition, (as) conscious suffering" "Nonviolence is a force which is more positive than electricity and more powerful than even ether. At the center of non-violence is a force which is self-acting". The highly evolved meaning for non-violence is Satyagraha or nonviolent direct action.

The positive meanings of Gandhi's ahimsa may be divided into three parts

  1. Nonviolence as love
  2. nonviolence as suffering, and
  3. nonviolence as an active force.

Let us analyse them respectively.

(i) Nonviolence as Love nonviolence, in the opinion of Gandhi, should mean complete freedom from ill will and anger and hate and an overflowing love of all. "I accept the interpretation of ahimsa. Namely, that it is not merely a negative state of harmlessness but it is a positive state of love, of doing good even to the evil-doer. But it does not mean helping the evil-doer to continue the wrong or tolerating it by passive acquiescence. On the contrary, love, the active state of ahimsa requires you to resist the wrong-doer by dissociating yourself from him even though it may offend him or injure him physically." This is the first positive meaning of Gandhi's nonviolence.

Nonviolence in its positive aspect, according to Gandhi, means 'love' in the most comprehensive sense of the term. He says: 'Nonviolence is love in the broadest sense.' It means love of God's entire creation, from the meanest flower to man, the finest specimen of His garden. In its positive form, nonviolence means the largest love, the greatest charity. In fact, nonviolence is identical with love in the positive meaning of Gandhi's nonviolence. It may be safely compared with the Christian charity and the Greek agape. One tender touch of nonviolence absolutely abolishes the distinction between friend and foe, neighbour and stranger, and makes the whole world kin. Nonviolence is therefore in its active form goodwill towards all life. Gandhi's 'goodwill towards all life' is Lincoln's 'with charity for all.' It is Christ's 'Love thy neighbour as thyself.' Self-love is all-love, which is complete nonviolence. It is the conviction of Gandhi that 'we can only win over the opponent by love, never by hate.' Hatred ceases not by hatred but by love.

In the dictionary of Gandhi, nonviolence and love are synonymous. They are interchangeable terms and always go together. True nonviolence is an 'overflowing love for all.' For Gandhi, 'ahimsa means universal love.' And 'where love is there God is also.' In fact, 'God is love' itself. Absolute nonviolence is absolute love. And absolute love means love of the 'Absolute' or 'Reality' itself. But none has yet been able to describe the Reality, and no one can. This is Gandhi's conviction. "Absolute nonviolence", he writes, "is a complete absence of wishing evil to any living being. It applies even to beings lower than the human species, without the exception of insects and harmful animals. Nonviolence under its active form consists, consequently, in goodness towards everything that exists. It is pure love.' Hence the positive meaning of Gandhi's nonviolence is love. And perfect nonviolence is perfect and agapatic love.

(ii) Nonviolence as Suffering

With nonviolence, when it is dynamic, the concept of suffering is invariably associated. Nonviolence means not only love but also suffering for it. Nonviolence, for Gandhi, is suffering, conscious suffering. He says: 'Nonviolence 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 …' Suffering is the condition as well as culmination of love. Love involves suffering, voluntary suffering. In fact, love and suffering go together. In the opinion of Gandhi, no one who really loves can escape suffering. He writes: 'Love never claims, it ever gives. Love ever suffers, never resents, never revenges itself.' The more we love, the more we suffer. The heart that aches is the heart which loves. The more tender it is, the more does it suffer. Gandhi looks at the lovers of humanity wearing through all the ages the supreme crown of suffering and sacrifice. Suffering is the essence of suffering is the second positive meaning of Gandhi's nonviolence.

(iii) Nonviolence as an Active Force

Gandhi's nonviolence should neither be mistaken for passive resistance nor non-resistance. It is an active nonviolent resistance. He says, "The nonviolence of my conception is a more active and more real fighting against wickedness that retaliation whose very nature is to increase wickedness. I contemplate a mental, and therefore a moral, opposition to immoralities." Gandhi's nonviolence is an 'active force of the highest order. It is soul force or the power of Godhead within us … We become Godlike to the extent we realize nonviolence. He writes, "In my opinion nonviolence is not passivity in any shape or form. Nonviolence, as I understand it, is the most active force in the world.' In fact, Gandhi's creed of nonviolence is militant in character. 'Yours should not merely be a passive spirituality that spends itself in idle meditation, but it should be an active thing which will carry war into the enemy's camp.' Gandhi's doctrine of nonviolence preaches neither inaction nor non-action but direct action. "Never has anything been done on this earth without direct action. I reject the word "passive resistance", because of its insufficiency and its being interpreted as a weapon of the weak." Gandhi stood for direct action also took recourse to it many a time against British imperialism. Active force is the third positive meaning of Gandhi's nonviolence.

The following qualifications were laid down by Gandhi for persons adopting non-violence as their way of life.

    1. He must have a living faith in God, for He is his only rock.

    2. He must believe in truth and non-violence as his creed, and, therefore, having faith in the inherent goodness of human nature which he expects to evoke by his truth and love expressed through his suffering.

    3. He must lead a chaste life and be ready and willing for the sake of his cause, to give up his life and his possessions.

    4. He must be a habitual khadi-wearer and spinner. This is essential for India.

    5. He must be a teetotaller and be free from the use of other intoxicants in order that his reason may be always unclouded and his mind constant.

    6. He must carry out with a willing heart all the rules of discipline as may be laid down from time to time.

    7. He should carry out the jail rules unless they are specially devised to hurt his self-respect.

    Gandhi says, "The qualifications are not to be regarded as exhaustive. They are illustrative only."'s greatest contribution to the concept of non-violence is his theory of social change. He brought a change in the very method of revolution. To him, it is a mis-conception to think of any social change through violence of force. If the world is to be saved from violence, if mankind is to be delivered from the menace of the third world war, if ethics is to flower and religion to flourish, if our civilization is to survive and culture to endure, we must be guided and governed by Gandhiji's principle of nonviolence. Bertrand Russel says, "I do think that the arms race between the great powers teach us that only nonviolent methods of solving differences will permit the survival of mankind." To Arnold Toynbee, "The Philosophy of non-violence is going to be mankind's only alternative to self-destruction in the Nuclear Age." Hence non-violence is far greater than ever before.

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Some texts contain  footnotes  and  glossary  entries. To distinguish between them, the links have different colors.
  1. Abhaya
  2. Ahimsa
  3. Anger
  4. Anthropology
  5. Aparigraha
  6. Asteya
  7. Discipline
  8. Ether
  9. Fearlessness
  10. Gita
  11. Greed
  12. Jain Vishva Bharati
  13. Jain Vishva Bharati University
  14. Mahatma
  15. Meditation
  16. Non-violence
  17. Nonviolence
  18. Pride
  19. Soul
  20. Violence
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