Thinking About Religion
Volume 7 (2007)

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Satyagraha & Ahisma,
Gandhi’s Weapons of Moral & Political Power

Nathaniel Samuel Murrell
University of North Carolina at Wilmington

According to a prediction, “Generations to come. . . will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.”[1] Ranked among the 100 most prominent luminaries of the 20th century and an Indian icon extraordinary, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948), the world’s most respected Mahatma, holds a coveted title of larger than life martyr for freedom, justice, and peace. Of course, he did not win the Nobel Peace Prize given to his compatriot Rabindranath Tagore in 1913, or his protege US Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. in 1964, but his internationally recognized work of nonviolent protest against injustice has profoundly impacted the world.[2] Gandhi means many things around the world. In India the frail-looking little man from Porbandar called Bapu is hailed a national hero, Simon Bolivar Liberator for independent India, who led his country’s fledgling nationalist movement in social and political reform. To the world’s pious, Gandhi is the humblest of saints, the likes of St. Francis of Assisi and Mother Teresa; his moral fortitude, saintly life and legacy are celebrated worldwide.[3] Westerners with an intellectual or socially conscious interest in religion see in Gandhi the ultimate “this worldly” practitioner of an inclusive modern Hindu faith.[4] To my baby boomer generation, Gandhi is peacemaker-advocate par-excellence for nonviolent activism in civil rights and freedom for all people. This freedom fighter, visionary, and reformer, dreamed a life-changing dream for victims of discrimination in southern Africa and three hundred and fifty million oppressed peoples of India and fought for it with unconventional weapons - - weapons of spirit, mind, and body designed not for mass human destruction but liberation and human dignity.

Amazingly, the celebrated Mahatma was a below average student with no special gifts to commend him to the prolific writer-journalist, liberator, and civil rights leader he became. After the timid and insecure Gandhi dropped out of college in India, his family paid his way to law school in England in 1888 and leaders of his tribe in Porbandar, incensed by his decision to “be spoilt” by a British education against their advice, declared the nineteen-year old an outcast. Like most young people in colonial India, Gandhi grew up with both dread and admiration of the British who ruled his country with imperial power and social and economic indifference. His admiration for the Empire was nurtured while he pursued his dream in England of becoming an attorney, a status symbol in the Commonwealth. In exchange for his Indian inferiority complex, Gandhi spared no effort trying to become an “English Gentleman,” adopting to British culture and a most loyal British subject. Later, as a successful attorney in Johannesburg, he staunchly defended “the British way” for half of his adult life. So how did Gandhi become Britain’s thorn in the flesh, India’s liberator from colonialism, and the world’s most respected Mahatma? Credit circumstances, satyagraha, and ahimsa.  

If it is true that some people are born great and others have greatness thrust upon them, Gandhi achieved it by taking his place in national crises in the history of British-Indian and South African colonialism and his ingenious response to those crises; what he calls a search for and an experiment with satyagraha and ahimsa, truth and nonviolent active resistance or non-corporation with injustice. This was a moral, political, and religious battle and search for reality that shaped Gandhi’s entire weltanschauung. His experiments with satyagraha and ahimsa are not unlike the truth and nonviolence taught by the Jewish prophet from Nazareth and embraced by Martin Luther King Jr. A Gandhi expert, Richard Johnson, places his experiments in three inseparable realms: the experiments in his private life, his public satyagraha, and the constructive program[5] of ahimsa; all three of which are influenced by his life-altering experiences in India, south Africa, and Britain under the canopy of religion and politics.

Private Experiment with Truth

As if to precursor his epoch-making contribution to India’s history, Gandhi began an inward journey in his personal life as an experiment in character building and morality. Born of a bania (merchant caste) father, a prime minister of a few Indian states, Gandhi lived among the privileged caste-class system he rejected as restrictive and oppressive after the plight of the poor untouchables afflicted his soul making him their strongest advocate. While studying law in England, Gandhi committed himself to his first experiment with truth, not from jurisprudence but in his private life; he became a committed vegetarian. According to Mark Juergensmeyer, he dined at meatless restaurants where he met a variety of socialist, Christian, and other visionary followers of Tolstoy[6] who would cradle his young mind in its quest for identity. Gandhi opened his own vegetarian club[7] which, though short lived, underscored his Hindu respect for the preservation of all animal life, his awareness of his own human appetite, and his need for religious faith as growing life-long preoccupations -- not normal concerns for a law student.

Gandhi imposed on himself a moral code that would later provide strength for his resolve and fodder for his political vision. He fulfilled a promise made to his mother to return to his childhood Hindu faith and vowed to not indulge in sexual infidelity, alcoholism, or eating meat. This experiment with moral truth deepened when he took a bramacharya in 1906 -- a vow to practice chastity and to control his thoughts, actions, and emotions during times of crisis. He employed meditation and fasting to harness biological drives and passions, all the while denying food and pleasures the power to control his urges and appetite. This vow colored Gandhi’s relations to possessions and people; his relationship with his wife (from his arranged marriage at thirteen) went from one of domination to love, tenderness, and respect. He confessed, “I took the vow of brachmacharya in 1906 and that for the sake of better dedication to the service of the country. . .from that day. . . our freedom began. My wife became a free woman, free from my authority as her lord and master, and I became free from my slavery to my own appetite which she had to satisfy.”[8] Later Gandhi rejoiced, “With the gradual disappearance in me of carnal appetite, my domestic life became and is becoming more and more peaceful, sweet, and happy.”[9] This sense of spiritual nirvana would, in the midst of social crises, turn the reticent youth into a man of steel giving him unusual resolve to fight political battles for his people.

London facilitated Gandhi’s second experiment with truth and ecumenical religion that would help shape his religious philosophy and political action. He was born of Vaishnavite parents in a religiously pluralistic Gujarat state on India’s Kathiawar Peninsula; Vaisnava Hindus followed a tradition called Vallabhacarya or sincere devotion to Lord Krishna, in the spirit of the Bhagavad Gita. His mother Putalibai, a devotee in the Paramini sect, read to him and his siblings the Gita, other Hindu scriptures, and the Koran, and entertained Parses, Jains, Muslim friends, and people of other faiths during which they discussed many religious topics. Johnson says Gandhi’s interest in world religions rekindled in cosmopolitan London and expanded during his twenty-two-year struggle in South Africa. While reading and translating the Gita from its original Sanskrit for two friends, he got enthralled by Hindu religious philosophy. His reading of the Gita, Edwin Arnold’s theosophical The Light of Asia, (which celebrates the life of Buddha), and the Bible began for him a sustained fascination with religion east and west. He said the New Testament, especially Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, went straight to his heart.[10] During his prison years (between 1907 and 1914) in South Africa, he fed his insatiable reading appetite for religious literature on the Upanishads, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata (the world’s largest literary religious epic) and other classical Hindu scriptures. From these he acquired an expansive understanding of Hindu religion and philosophy which his own life and thoughts would modernize (Chatterjee).

The social-political crisis in which Gandhi found himself in South Africa made his religious quest central to his life and struggle. Two Western authors, Leo Tolstoy and John Ruskin, influenced his thinking; and an Indian Jainist Rajchandra Ravijibhai Matha, whom he called Raychandbhai, was his spiritual mentor. In his early years in South Africa, Tolstoy’s Kingdom of God Is Within You impacted Gandhi’s formative thoughts; among other things, it convinced him that the forces of truth and love (when born in us) can actually transform culture, tradition, and politics. To change popular opinion, he founded several ashrams, core religious retreat centers of disciples to help win over the masses through discussion and prayer with lives of honesty, integrity, humility, self-sacrifice, and adherence to truth. He named one of his ashrams Tolstoy’s Farm in honor of the utopia prophet “with whom he had developed a lively correspondence.”[11] Gandhi also made a lifelong friend in Episcopalian missionary C. F. Andrews, an emissary of the Indian National Congress, through whom he had a most historic meeting with the great poet Rabindranath Tagore in 1915.

So Tolstoy’s thinking, Hindu, Muslim, Jainist, Buddhist, Jewish, and Christian (notwithstanding its legacy as a bastion of Apartheid in southern Africa) ideas cradled Gandhi’s religious and political philosophy; he waded strong parallels among these traditions while his ideas remained rooted in Hindu thought throughout his struggle. As Johnson noted, Bapu took this experience of religion into the political sphere and blended eastern spirituality with western political activism into a practice uncommon in either East or West at the time.

Indian religious traditions tended to treat the world as an illusion and therefore not worthy of a spiritual seeker’s attention. Self-realization, or moksha -- liberation from the cycle of birth and death – could best be attained by separating oneself from the illusions of the outer world. The tendency in the west was and is to split religion and morality off from politics, the ‘real world’ of individual achievement and social concern. Gandhi’s belief in serving others in the Indian community provided the bridge between religion and politics” (Johnson, 7).  

Experiment With Satyagraha

After his brief but unsuccessful attempt to be a perfect English Gentleman, Gandhi was admitted to the bar in 1891 to practice law in the British Commonwealth. He headed home to become a successful loyal colonial servant of class and caste. When he returned to India, however, Gandhi saw his first attempted career as an attorney a total failure; his legal study had not prepared him for Indian law practice and the shy, nervous, pitiful twenty-three year old was still searching for self and an identity.[12] Unable to find a decent job, even in Bombay, and now a pariah in his own country, Gandhi seized the opportunity to jump start his career in 1893 by working on a case for a Muslim firm in South Africa.[13] There, however, his experiment with truth and nonviolence met its greatest test against violence, institutional racism, hate, and discrimination; his dream would find a defining moment on a fierce battle ground of white supremacy he had not seen even in England.

Gandhi was radicalized against his colonial ambitions as a loyal British servant committed to the values and institutions of the Empire by two notoriously nefarious acts: In 1906, the South African Transvaal Government adopted its racist Asiatic Registration Act (called “Black Act”), or “Draft Asiatic Law Amendment Ordinance,” abridging the freedoms and citizenship and abusing the humanity of non whites in the country. As a principle of this segregation, the law required Indians, Turks, Arabs, and other ethnic peoples to be registered with the government by being fingerprinted like common criminals, have bodily marks recorded, and carry their identification papers at all times. Like African American victims of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) at the center of the US Jim crow laws, Gandhi experienced the impact of the discriminatory Act on public transportation when, because of his ethnicity, in 1906 he was forcibly removed from his rightful first-class accommodation on a South African train, about fifty years before Rosa Parks sparked a firestorm for her seat on a white people’s bus in the United States that led to the movement of civil disobedience.

Gandhi was dumbstruck and incensed also in 1906 over the British brutal slaughter of the Zulu people. Now thirty seven years old, Gandhi made a dramatic political shift from faith in the British empire to rejecting its oppressive ways; although he was trained in Britain to respect the imperial system, he awoke to the truth that it was futile for him to work within it. Dennis Dalton says “It was then that the first meeting of swaraj (self-rule) and satyagraha occurred and the long relationship began.”[14] After the bloody suppression of Zulu Rebellion, Gandhi adopted his famous bramacharya or strict code of moral discipline as a strategy and method of engaging the political crisis; this odd political weapon involved a renunciation of his career in jurisprudence and his ambitions for a life of simplicity, integrity, and purity in personal morality as well as the courage to endure loss, pain, and suffering in conflict. Such an unconventional preparation for battle in a political experiment in civil disobedience required a radical action of law breaking which, according to Dalton, separated Gandhi “irrevocably from the law abiding liberal style of politics he had faithfully followed in South Africa. He had become a satyagrahi, no longer a practicing English educated lawyer, and his destination was more often prison than the courts” (Dalton, 171). Gandhi came to realize then that his was an unavoidable crisis. A battle had come to his doorstep and he had few alternatives; fight British exploitation and violence with nonviolence or, like the proverbial coward, die 1000 times before his death.

Initially, Gandhi and his supporters did not know what to name their method of active engagement and called it passive resistance, passive resisters, and civil disobedience; they even announced a contest to find a name. Influenced by Tolstoy’s idea of “Soul-Force” or “Love-force,” and the philosophy of selfless sacrifice in Jainism, the Sermon on the Mount, and Krishna’s dialogue with Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, Gandhi adopted the Hindi terms satya (truth) and agrahis (aspirants of truth or truth-force)[15] and ahimsa (nonviolent action). According to Juergensmeyer, Gandhi redirected the focus of social conflict with institutions and systems to a higher moral ground, his experimental principles Satyagraha, “grasping onto principles or truth force,”[16] and ahimsa, self-sacrificing non-violent non-corporation with injustice. Satyagraha became for Gandhi a preoccupation with the quest for and the propagation of the universal principle of truth, a fight to hold unflinchingly to the truth of human reality as a weapon for engaging social-political conflict. Gandhi saw exploitative structures of the industrial world, the caste system, apartheid, and other dehumanizing creations as a perversion of satya, the same way human imperfections are seen as a rupture of relationship with the divine.

Thrust reluctantly into leadership in a fight by political forces at the eye of the storm of the conflict that was beyond his control, Gandhi took up the gauntlet to fight for Civil Rights in South Africa and Swaraj, self determination, dignity, and freedom from oppression for Indian peoples under British rule; an imperial system that had reduced them to the status of the wretched of the earth (untouchables, outcasts of Indian society); they were treated as the mleccha, candala, yavana (foreigner) and dom who cremated corpses and were not allowed to live in the community. Gandhi and his supporters had taken on a political wildebeest in South Africa and the British super power in India in two constitutional fights, with a weapon of truth. Viewing the “fight against untouchability” and oppression as “a fight against the impure in humanity,” Gandhi held hopes that “the very best in the human family will come” to his assistance if he embarked on the mission with a heart “free of impurity, free of all malice, and all anger,”[17] and committed to truth. Could Gandhi win a political battle with such innocuous moral and spiritual munitions?

Notwithstanding Gandhi’s religious casting of the battle, Margaret Chatterjee says, he was embarrassed by those who sought him as a “darshan sanyasi,” or holy man. He made himself a karma yogi, a servant of action not contemplation; one who ascribes to religion an ethical social purpose of improving and stabilizing society. His was a practical engagement with liberation not a life of mere meditation.[18] Gandhi fought for life in the world, not in heaven, and salvation here today, not in tomorrow’s utopia. For example, he founded, assisted, and supported or defended many local groups, organizations, social enterprises, and movements designed to changing the living conditions and lot of poor people and their communities in South Africa and India. Whether it was working for educational and economic reform for the village people of Bihari, securing medicine to treat a variety of disease in unsanitary communities, defending poor exploited sharecroppers in remote villages, solving labor disputes among the working poor in districts like Kheda and Ahmedabad, fighting for the care of poor abandoned children, discouraging the selling and destroying of unwanted girl babies, and opposing abuse of untouchables, Gandhi’s moral conscience and earthly compassion was unmatched in its attempt to rid India of these evil structures and practices.

Gandhi rejected the Hindu caste and class system which, in the Indian village, exploited the untouchables, or “wretched of the earth,” who live at the mercy of caste Hindus. He dressed like and lived among the untouchables and, in preparation for Swaraj, fought to rid the country of the evil of untouchability; which, though defended in Hindu scriptures and traditions, denied the truth of a common Hindu humanity. That human evil was outlawed in November, 1948,[19] a few months after Gandhi’s death. As an aspirant of truth, Gandhi defended the rights and dignity of all human beings: he fought for the Zulus of southern Africa; rallied the cause of Muslim, Hindu, Christian, and other merchants in Pretoria; he joined the hunger strikes against injustice throughout India; he led the famous Salt March of 1930 against the exploited workers in the British-Indian salt industry; and, in 1931, he marched with white textile workers in England for better compensation. Gandhi always seems to be fighting for the humanity of the suffering masses with little regard to their ethnicity, caste, social status, and at the risk of his own life. Between 1907 and his death, Gandhi was arrested and imprisoned several times and narrowly escaped assassination attempts even from those for whom he fought in South Africa and India. What was his crime?  Fighting for people with truth through civil disobedience-- disobeying unjust, immoral, and oppressive human laws and systems he saw as a violation of the principle of truth in human dignity. He dared to defend the cause of the poor, bore the burden of the untouchables, and sacrificed his freedom for the freedoms of others.

It is noted that Martin Luther King Jr. was sent to a Birmingham jail for precisely the same reason; he regarded Jim Crow laws as unjust and a violation of the principle of truth on which America stood – that principle held as self evident the truth that all humans are created equal and are equally entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Juergensmeyer says: “A Century earlier Thoreau was put behind bars because of a similar refusal to accept a legal code that he regarded as immoral. Gandhi read Thoreau when he was young, and like him went to jail willingly to protest unjust laws.”[20] Thoreau, Gandhi, and King fought against systemic evil with the truth and held to the conviction that people who passively acquiesce to an evil system are just as guilty of its dehumanizing force as those who perpetrate it. King said on the eve of the historic Montgomery bus boycott, he thought hard about Thoreau’s Essay on Civil Disobedience. He writes, “I came to see that what we were really doing was withholding our cooperation from an evil system, rather than merely withdrawing our economic support from the bus company. . . the basic aim was to refuse to cooperate with evil.” He concludes, “We were simply saying to the white community, ‘We can no longer lend our cooperation to an evil system’.” (Stride Toward Freedom, 51) Until his death at thirty-nine, however, King never gave up on America (as Malcolm X did) as Gandhi broke with the British at thirty seven. King believed in the American system and followed a dream that he and his supporters could overcome evil and secure freedom and justice within the system by holding the nation to its great truth-creed through love and nonviolent protest.

Although in his social engagement Gandhi used a variety of non-co-operation tactics like civil disobedience, demonstrations, sit-in, hunger strikes, and boycotts, he did not consider using dishonest means to circumvent or cheat the system and its perpetrators appropriate. Satyagraha had to be transparent in order to be truth. In his first public speech in South Africa (given to a group of Hindu, Muslim, Parses, Sikhs, and other merchants in Pretoria) on the subject “observing truthfulness in business,” Gandhi complains:

I had always heard the merchants say that truth was not possible in business. I did not think so then, nor do I now. Even today there are merchant friends who contend that truth is inconsistent with business. Business, they say, is a very practical affair, and truth a matter of religion; and they argue that practical affairs are one thing, while religion is quite another. Pure truth, they hold, is out of the question of business, one can speak it only in so far as it is suitable.[21]

Gandhi strongly contested the merchants' ethic on truth and sought to awaken their sense of duty to be truthful in business. His method in South Africa was to conquer the evil system of hatred, segregation, injustice, and untruth with love and truth, even if it meant suffering loss, pain, inconvenience, and possible death.

Gandhi’s concept of truth resembles that promoted in the Bible as an activity befitting a godly life and a basis for human morality (e.g: Deut 32:4; Ps 51:6 and 119:30; Prov 23:23; Jer 9:3; Zech 8:16; 1 Cor 5:8 and 2 Cor 13:8; Eph 4:15; 2 Tim 3:15). He was specially cognizant of John finding in Jesus the source of “grace and truth” (John 1:14). In John, Jesus offered himself as (T)ruth itself; knowledge of which is supposed to make a person free from moral, spiritual, and human bondage (John 8:32). Jesus is the way, the ALETHIA, and the life - - the only path to God and true freedom (John 14:6). At his trial Jesus told Pilate he came to bear witness to the Truth and that anyone who is of the Truth hears his voice; i.e., his followers will become satya-agrahists, pursuers of truth, honesty, or integrity. Jesus left unanswered Pilate’s question “What is truth?” and Gandhi was happy to be filling in the blanks.

As Juergensmeyer noted, Gandhi “equated truth with God, implying that morality and spirituality are ultimately the same.” That is, Satya is “the conviction that morality is the basis of things, and that truth is the substance of all morality.”[22] Although Gandhi admitted that elements of truth may be relative – your truth may differ from my truth – he contends, “Beyond these limited truths, however, there is the one absolute Truth which is total and all-embracing. But it is indescribable, because it is God. . . God is Truth. All else is unreal and false”[23] Truth therefore is a divine-human reality and “state of being. Nothing is or exists in reality” without it. Gandhi says “It is more correct to say Truth is God than to say that god is Truth. . . without Truth it is impossible to observe any principles or rules in life.”[24] In Gandhi’s experiment, God as Truth may be a quest but not a mere epistemological question in the theory of knowledge; God is the very basis of human reality, morality, justice, love, and freedom in the world. Those who aspire to follow Truth scrupulously, satya-agrahist, must not be guilty of unscrupulous and hasty acts; they must speak and act in accordance with the truth (Moral & P/Writings: 156).

Gandhi denied that the West and Christianity gave him and the world the high ideals of Satya. As he says, the propagation of the principle of Truth is as ancient as the Himalayas. Since the third millennium, Hindus taught Truth as the essence of Brahma, the eternal Truth and immeasurable intelligence. The Mahanarayan Upanishad says, everything rests on Truth “the highest of the highest” (Mahanarayan Upanishad, XXVII.1). According to the Mahabharata, “There is no duty higher than Truth and no sin more heinous than untruth. Indeed, Truth is the very foundation of righteousness.”[25] The ten-fold law in the Code of Manu (ca 1580 BCE) lists qualities needed for disciplining the mind to reach the highest Satya. So the Gospel writers were much later discussants of the Truth, of which Gandhi speaks. His God-Truth is the principal reality or broad compass of true religion; the

religion which transcends Hinduism, which changes one’s very nature, which binds one indissolubly to the truth within and which ever purifies. It is the . . . element in human nature which counts no cost too great in order to find full expression and which leaves the soul utterly restless until it has found itself, known its Maker, and appreciated the true correspondence between the Maker and itself.[26]

Gandhi concludes, when “a man reaches the heart of his own religion, he has reached the heart of the others too” (All Men Are Brothers, 54). He understands Truth and self sacrifice, ahimsa, the mode and vehicle of satyagraha.  

Ahimsa and Self-sacrifice

While Gandhi did not further define the term, “he regarded the rule of ahimsa as the litmus test that would determine where truth could be found. . . So long as a man does not of his own free will put himself last among his fellow creatures, there is no salvation for him. Ahimsa is the farthest limit of humility.”[27] In its negative form, it discourages injuring any living being’s body or mind. One should not hurt a person or “wrong-doer, or bear any ill will to him and so cause him mental suffering. . . Ahimsa requires deliberate self-suffering, not a deliberate injuring of the supposed wrong-doer.”[28] From the Bhagavad Gita, Gandhi adopted the “ancient Sanskrit epigram, Ahimsa paramo dharma: the highest dharma is ahimsa, nonviolence, universal love for all living creatures; for every kind of violence is a violence of dharma, the fundamental law of the unity of life.”[29] Ahimsa is the greatest love, love of one’s enemy, and the greatest courage to endure suffering.

Inspired by Gandhi less than two generations later, Martin Luther King Jr. argued for love for one’s enemies on the premise that they are not inherently evil but limited by conscientious, moral blindness, intellectual ignorance, misinformation, and untruth in the evil system in which they participate. King saw the command to love as essential for human survival in an age of hate, lex talionis, and injustice. Rendering hate for hate only multiplies hate and increases the deep “darkness to a night already devoid of stars.” (Strength to Love, 51, 36-45). Love is the most enduring power in the world and the only force potent enough to transform an enemy into a friend (Strength to Love, 55). Like Gandhi, King admits that this is a very difficult proposition but, as our best alternative to destruction, it requires unusual strength and courage.

Gandhi’s unusual ideas on nonviolence draws from many sources not the least of which are: the paradoxical Bhagavad Gita, teachings of Jesus, and the Chandogya Upanishad. The Gita taught Gandhi encyclopedically that: “Fearlessness, purity of heart, perseverance. . .charity, sense restraint, sacrifice, study of the scriptures, austerity, honesty, nonviolence, truthfulness, absence of anger, renunciation. . .compassion for all creatures, freedom from greed, gentleness. . .fortitude. . .are the qualities of those endowed with divine virtue” (Gita: 16:1-3). The Gita is a book of choices and self discipline for the person of action whose aim is goodness and truth in a world of conflict. At the start of the “battle of Armageddon,” warrior prince Arjuna has lost his nerves and is unwilling to fight after he discovers that his victims in battle will be his own kinsmen; people he could take no pleasure in slaying, not even for wealth and fame. Arjuna complains:

Teachers, uncles, sons, grandfathers, maternal uncles, fathers-in-law, grandsons, brothers-in-law, and other relatives. I do not wish to kill them, who are also about to kill, even for the sovereignty of three worlds, let alone for this earthly kingdom, O Krishna. . . What pleasure shall we find in killing the sons of Dhritaraashitra? Upon killing these felons we shall incur sin only. . . This brings the family and the slayers of the family to hell, because the spirit of their ancestors are degraded (Bhagavad Gita 1: 34, 42)  

The all-knowing divine Krishna counsels Arjuna that he is a born warrior and will live up to his nature to rise up and fight bravely. This drama seems to support the claim that Krishna and the Gita justify war and killing, an un-Hindu act. Gandhi retorts, however, “just base your life on the Gita sincerely and systematically and see if you find killing or even hurting others compatible with its teachings.”[30] The epic shows that the real fight is within Arjuna; it is against the self and the need for self-mastery, courage, self sacrifice, and detachment or “nishkama karma, selfless actions, work free from any selfish motives” (Gita, 33). The ideal devotee is a self-disciplined liberated individual not controlled by circumstances, his possessions, cravings, and passions. Such a one finds peace in consciousness of infinite spirit and is free from the delusion of possessing material things and the illusion of the world. His personality is not extinguished but comes to full blossom in the desire to love, give, and serve. He demonstrates the true spirit of ahimsa (Gita, 41).  

Gandhi finds the ultimate paradigm for Ahimsa in the teachings of Jesus. Influenced by the Sermon on the Mount to love one’s enemies, and do good to those who hate you, pray for those who despitefully use you and slander your good name, Gandhi urges that good be done even to the evil doer who hates you. Jesus of Nazareth said one should neither return evil for evil, nor do good only to those who can do good to them. He taught his disciples to turn the other cheek to their persecutors and give their cloaks to those who want their coats. In the 1960s, King and his Alabama freedom fighters lived Christ’s and Gandhi’s philosophy of ahimsa; they fought the unchecked violence of white supremacy, vicious police canines, water hoses, bloodletting pistols, mob lynching, and hate with nonviolence through civil disobedience (Juergensmeier, 28). They did not fight fire with fire; they used the much more potent but peaceful and self-sacrificing ahimsa, a resolute commitment to dying in the cause of truth.

When a huge demonstration against the British turned violent during India’s independent struggle, Gandhi admitted he had a Himalayan miscalculation assuming that all of the freedom fighters were ready for satyagraha and ahimsa. They were not all willing to endure the physical pain and suffering that came with the battle. Gandhi writes: “The path of truth is for the brave alone, never for the coward. . . because a much greater effort is required to go up the steep slope of truth than to climb the Himalayas.”[31] Gandhi showed Herculean strength in his climb of the treacherous Himalayan slope of freedom from British domination of India. Yet, the enigmatic Gandhi writes, “I have nothing new to teach the world.” Nonviolence and truth with and for which I fight “are as old as the hills.” (All Men are Brothers, 42).

One cannot practice ahimsa as a coward. Gandhi says, “He is no follower of Mahavira, the apostle of Jainism, or of Buddha or of the Vedas, who being afraid to die, takes flight before any danger, real or imaginary, all the while wishing that somebody else would remove the danger by destroying the person causing it” (M/Political Writings, 213-214). The Jainist vow of ahimsa is so difficult to maintain, Gandhi compares it to walking on the edge of a sword. “Complete adherence to it is almost impossible for one who has a physical form. Severe penance is required for its practice,” and one must free one’s thoughts of violence even under pain of suffering (M/Political Writings, 218). Gandhi knew too well that violence breathes after its own kind. Any violent response to the conflict with the government will not only breathe death and destruction down the necks of defenseless masses from the British, but it is a simplistic and cowardly way out. It is the breakdown of a good fight which reveals the source and foundation of satya that defends the human right of all individuals to existence or the affirmation of life. The process of fighting a nonviolent fight will reveal the truth as well as the deception on both sides (Juergensmeyer, 14). Gandhi says, “We do not attempt to have individuals punished but, as a rule, patiently suffering wrongs at their hands”[32] to rid them of their evil.

Critics like Malcolm X (1925-65) and Sri Aurobindo Ghose (1872-1950), Gandhi’s contemporary countryman, dismissed his philosophy of nonviolent engagement as an example of passivism run amuck; burying one’s head in the sand like an ostrich while leaving one’s body to the mercy of storm and predator, or turning the other cheek to your enemy while he aims his deadly bayonet at your juggler. Malcolm said African Americans should defend themselves against anti-black American violence by any means necessary but for Gandhi, violence represents a denial of the truth of human reality in the protagonists; humanity of the oppressor as well as the oppressed is violated. Violence is untruth because it takes away true life; it is himsa, it intends to harm permanently. Ahimsa, on the other hand, is the absence of the desire to create death and destruction whether with a powerful military or a famished and angry mob. “His ideal was active nonviolent resistance to injustice.”[33] He based his fight on a resolute commitment to love and nonviolence.

Gandhi’s experiment with truth and nonviolent action through civil disobedience led to India’s liberation from British rule as early as 1937. The people of India were then able to serve in their parliaments and congresses, and within ten years move towards full Swaraj or independence from Britain. They were not dissuaded by the British last ditch effort to continue to divide and rule them by making three countries of India: Pakistan and Bangladesh to the west and east controlled by Muslims to sandwich the predominantly Hindu Indian masses in the middle. The intent was to keep them fighting each other and stay divided under the British imperial model of divide and rule.    


Gandhi remained true to his mission and quest after truth until a gunshot ended his life while he walked with some of his admirers. Nehru declared the “the light has gone out of our lives and there is darkness everywhere” but Gandhi’s influence and legacy was too powerful to die around the world. He changed us through Martin Luther King jr. and Joan Beaz. He inspired Britain through E.M. Schumacher, France in Lanza del Vasto, Sicily through Danilo Dolci, and South Africa through Albert Luthuli[34] to name a few. Gandhi’s personal philosophy of life was simple: Seek after truth which cannot be proven but experienced, practice nonviolent actions or non-corporation with injustice as the way to true holiness, dedicate one’s life to celibacy, and owe nothing to anyone. He awoke a slumbering world to the truth that we are all brothers and sisters and the color of our skin and kin should make no difference in our relationships. His weapons of moral and political power appeared simplistic and naive but have much to commend them to morally questionable political leaders and countries who believe violence holds the key to solving political or social conflict in our world of complex relations. May the legacy of the servant of satyagraha live in infinite memory.


[1].Klaus Klostermaier, A Survey of Hinduism, 2nd ed. (New York: State University of New York Press, 1994), 447.
[2].T. S. Rukmani, “Tagore and Gandhi,” in Indian Critiques of Gandhi, ed. Harold Coward (New York: State Univ. of New York Press, 2003), 124.
[3].Lloyd I. Rudolph and Susanne Hoeber Rudolph, Gandhi, The Traditional Roots of Charisma (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1983); Mark Juergensmeyer, “St. Gandhi,” in Saints and Virtues, ed., John Stratton Hawley (Berkeley: University of California Press,1986).
[4].Mark, Juergensmeyer, “Mohandas Gandhi,” Encyclopedia of Religion 5-6 (New York: MacMillan, 1995): 482.
[5].Richard L. Johnson, ed., Gandhi’s Experiment With Truth, Essential Writings by and About Mahatma Gandhi, (New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2006), xii.
[6].Juergensmeyer, “Mohandas Gandhi,” 482.
[7].Johnson, Gandhi’s Experiment, xii; 4.
[8].Gandhi boasted, “No other woman had any attraction for me in the same sense that my wife had Gandhi,” All Men are Brothers, 44.
[9].Mohandas K. Gandhi, An Autobiography: the Story of My Experiments with Truth (Boston: Beacon Press), 278.
[10].Johnson, Gandhi’s Experiments, 4; Juergensmeyer, “Mohandas Gandhi,” 482; Gandhi, An Autobiography, 68.
[11].Juergensmeyer, “Mohandas Gandhi,” 482.
[12].Gandhi, An Autobiography, 6.
[13].Ibid., 94; Johnson, Gandhi’s Experiments, 5.
[14].Dennis Dalton, Mahatma Gandhi, Nonviolent Power in Action (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 13.
[15].Raghavan Iyer, ed., The Moral and Political Writings of Mahatma Gandhi, Volume 2 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986), 157.
[16].Young India, November 5, 1919. Cited in Juergensmeyer, Fighting With Gandhi, 3.
[17].Krishna Kripalani, ed., All Men Are Brothers, Autobiographical Reflections of Mahatma Gandhi, Compiled and edited with Introduction by Sarvepalli Radharkrishnan (New York: Continuum, 1987), 37.
[18].Margaret Chatterjee, Gandhi’s Religious Thought (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983), 5 and 15-18.
[19].Harold Coward, Indian Critiques of Gandhi (New York University Press, 2003), 41-6.
[20].Juergensmeyer, Fighting With Gandhi, 7.
[21].Gandhi, An Autobiography, 126.
[22].Juergensmeyer, “Mohandas Gandhi,”482.
[23].Iyer, Moral and Political Writings II, 155-56.
[25].Ibid., 151
[26].Gandhi, All Men are Brothers, 51.
[27].Ibid., 35; and An Autobiography 125.
[28].Iyer, Moral and Political Writing, Vol 2, 212.
[29].Bhagavad Gita, trans. By Eknath Eswaran, US edition (Nilgri Press, Tomales California: 1985), 17.
[30].Ibid., 6.
[31].Moral and Political Writings, 155. See also M. K. Gandhi, The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (Publications Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India, 1961), 7:43.
[32].The Collected Works, 7:43.
[33].Juergensmeyer, Fighting With Gandhi, 27; Young India, August 16, 1928). Dalton, Mahatma Gandhi, 14.
[34].Juergensmeyer, “Mohandas Gandhi,” 483.


Thinking About Religion, Volume 7
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Posted 6/3/2008

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