Gandhi and Non-Violence

In his trial speech made at Ahmadabad Sessions court in March 1922, Mahatma Gandhi put forward his philosophy with great eloquence, when he stated non-violence to be the 'first article of (his) faith' and the 'last article of (his) creed'. Non-violence had always been the founding principle of Gandhian spirituality, and his bedrock of his political philosophy. Gandhi's distrust of violence as a mode to assume political power and as a tool of revolution was ingrained in his world-view from the very early days of his political career.
It is impossible to look at Gandhi's political activism in isolation. Springing deeply from his belief in truth, Gandhi's political goals were ultimately specific correlatives of higher commitments to humanity and world peace. Non-violence preaches world peace and brotherhood, whereas political movements naturally revel in polemics of difference and anatagonism. Gandhi's greatness lies in bringing together these two apparently combative and incongruous ideas and putting them on a common platform, where they do not subtract, but support each other. Gandhi's significance in the world political scenario is two-fold. First, he retrieved non-violence as a powerful political tool, and secondly, he was the one of the chief promulgators of the theory that political goal is ultimately a manifestation of a higher spiritual and humanitarian goal, culminating in world peace. For Gandhi, the means were as important as the end, and there could be only one means - that of non-violence.

The Origins of Gandhi's Non-Violence Philosophy

Gandhi's secularism and openness to all kinds of theological and philosophical schools is well-known. It was through an assimilation of various concepts and philosophical tenets that Gandhi arrived at his own understanding of non-violence. Jainism and Buddhism were the most important influences that lay behind the foundation of Gandhi's non-violence theory. Both Jainism and Buddhism preached non-violence as the basic principle of existence. All other thoughts and actions propagated by these two religious schools were based on this base of non-violence. Gandhi was deeply influenced by his readings of these scriptures. The Acaranga Sutra of the Jains stated all life to be dear and precious, and Gandhi believed in it earnestly. The Bhagvadgita was another important influence, with its stress on non-attachment and selfless action. Christianity, along with its message of love and compassion, extended even to one's enemies, was another important influence on Gandhi's life. Bringing together all these theological schools, Gandhi was in search for a meaningful life, a life based on truth and honesty, a life that would boast of a moral courage to stand for the right and for justice, even at its own cost. It was this outlook that Gandhi employed as a tool to guide India's freedom struggle, which eventually succeeded to unite the length and breadth of the country like never before.

Gandhi's Use of Non-Violence in India's Freedom Struggle

Gandhi's championing of the cause of non-violence as the tool of India's freedom struggle was not without its share of criticism. That was, however, expected considering the fact that Gandhi entered the political scenario soon after the ascendancy of the extremists in the history of India's freedom struggle. Armed revolution was believed to be the only legitimate way to snatch political power from an oppressive regime. Gandhi's system of Satyagraha on the basis of non-violence and non-cooperation was largely unheard of, and generally distrusted. However, Gandhi's faith was strong. It was a faith based not on arms and antagonism, but on extreme moral courage that drew its strength from innate human truth and honesty. He applied his systems with success in South Africa and was convinced of its power. However, it was an uphill task for him to convince his countrymen. Gandhi slowly started to popularise the ideas in the ranks of the Indian National Congress, under proper guidance from his political mentor Gopal Krishna Gokhale. The Congress was suffering from a lack of national leadership following the arrest and execution of the extremist leaders like Tilak and Lala Lajpat Rai, and the protest to the insulting Rowlatt Act was an immediate necessity. Gandhi soon held the mantle and introduced his non-violence modes with great success in the non-cooperation movement. It was a new era in the history of Indian Freedom struggle. Though the movement ended on an abrupt note, yet its significance was immense.

Gandhi's Rationale for the Application of Non-Violence in Indian Freedom Struggle

Most religions preached non-violence as a way to celebrate the miracle of life. Gandhi's concern was both based on theological as well as more pragmatic considerations. Gandhi in his trial speech accepted that Indian history is replete with tales and narratives of countless foreign invasions. However, he accused the British rule of being particularly despicable because they left the Indians more helpless and emasculated than any of its predecessors. India was in no position to get into an armed conflict with the British, having been robbed of all economic and moral strength. So, Gandhi had the option of reinvigorating a nation that has lost all confidence in its power and inner strength. After these practical considerations, Gandhi found that the only alternative was to fall back upon what was integral to India's cultural and historical psyche, the principle of non-violence. This non-violence was used in conjunction with the philosophy of non-attachment. Gandhi declared the two goals of his life to be ensuring India's freedom and to achieve it through non-violence. One without the other would be unacceptable and weakening. Violence, Gandhi believed, breded violence, and can never be a solution to India's problem. To shame the opponent into submission was a unique feature of Gandhi's political ideology, as were discussions and amicable arrivals at convenient conclusions. No person, for him was integrally good or bad, and he was cautious never to stoop into a visceral rhetoric of hatred, except against what was unacceptable to his spiritual ideology.

One of the greatest criticisms against non-violence was that it was demeaning and cowardly, forwarded particularly by freedom fighters like Savarkar. However, Gandhi believed just the opposite. He emphasized that the moral courage needed to uphold non-violence as a tool of protest was much greater than the one needed to strike back in a violent way. All through his life, he pleaded the Indians to exhibit the moral strength to refrain from resorting to violence, even at the face of all provocation. His disillusionment that followed the Chauri Chaura incident that led to his calling off the non-cooperation movement when at its zenith was an example of his lifelong and earnest commitment to the cause of non-violence.

The Legacy of Non-Violence

Non-violence played a very important role in defining the course of Indian national movement, from the 1920s to the final achievement of the freedom. It formed the basis of the methods of Satyagraha that became closely associated with the Gandhian whirlwind in Indian politics. Gandhi understood economic profit to be the guiding force of the imperialist project and attacked the British government at where it hurt most, which was financial gain. Picketing, non-cooperation and organised resistance to British modes of oppression were the main modes of the non-violent political movements in India. It shaped the course of the Civil Disobedience Movement as well. Even at a later time, during the Quit India Movement, Gandhi's theory of non-violence held strong in the face of the new and radical waves in the world of Indian politics like communism and armed revolution. Even at the dawn of independence, as Nehru was getting ready to eloquently unleash his 'tryst with destiny', Gandhi was busy on the troubled roads of Bengal, preaching non-violence to mad rioters. It was probably pre-ordained that he had to lay down his life for holding on to his ideals.

Gandhi was truly a martyr for the cause of non-violence, who not only preached but practiced what he preached. His life was a glorious example of his thoughts, and thousands of Indians from all walks of life, from cities and villages alike, took encouragement and force from his simple life and unshaken faith in the innate goodness of the human soul. He wielded the weapon of love and understanding, and succeeded to upturn even the strongest of the martial nations with it. Gandhi has left the world richer with a renewed faith in the dictates of non-violence.

Last Updated on 17/04/2013



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