Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Gandhian Nonviolence

Nonviolence for Gandhi is the law of our being, the cohesive law of love that binds humanity together and makes collective life possible and meaningful. It is also the power that operates through history facilitating human evolution towards the fulfilment of its destiny. So he wanted humanity to accept nonviolence as an article of faith – i.e., in thought, word and deed - and organize life on the basis of the principle of nonviolence. Gandhi was not content with advancing sound arguments in justification of the acceptance of nonviolence as the central organising principle of human life and existence. He demonstrated to the world the efficacy of non- violence by making it the basis of his personal life and of all his public activities including the fight for rights and freedom.

Gandhian nonviolence is premised on certain basic assumptions and convictions. The most fundamental of them is recognition of the oneness of life. All life is one. Everything that exists is intricately and inseparably inter-related. It is, in fact, a living consciousness of this oneness of life that provides the metaphysical and spiritual basis for the acceptance of positive and active nonviolence as an article of faith. Gandhi described nonviolence as ‘soul force’, a constituent characteristic of the human spirit. Once this is accepted, not merely at the intellectual level but deep at the level of the human psyche and spirit, the lines that separate persons and things, you and I would fade away. So one attains the realisation that one cannot harm or injure another without at the same time harming oneself; hurting others is hurting oneself. In order to attain this consciousness one has to undergo a process of self-purification through an arduous process of conquering one’s ego and reducing oneself to a cipher. Gandhi and some members of his ashram achieved this through the practice of ethical vows, known as ekadasa vrtas – eleven vows. When nonviolence is practised with as much ‘scientific precision’ as possible, it even tends to develop into an objective force. Such nonviolence transcends time and space and becomes a symbol, a perennial source of inspiration and a point of reference for the votaries of ahimsa. Also it becomes a force/power that can move mountains, even the most immovable mountains of the minds. Gandhi demonstrated this potentiality of the power of nonviolence when he calmed the mad fury of the violent mobs in Bengal and Delhi who were engaging themselves in a killing spree in the communal riots that followed the partition of India in 1947.

Gandhi’s contribution was not limited to developing nonviolence into a great spiritual and moral power by practicing it in thought, word and deed. For him nonviolence was not a cloistered virtue. He made nonviolence the central organizing principle of all his activities, social, economic and political. His unique contribution, it is generally agreed, lay in developing nonviolence into a matchless method of fighting against injustice and exploitation, architecturing the weapon of Satyagraha – nonviolent direct action. Satyagraha is the application of love force or soul force in the theatre of conflict. Satyagraha is the antithesis of terrorism. It draws a distinction between the evil and the evil - doer. While satyagraha aims at removing or eliminating the evil, it aims also at saving the evil-doer too, along with the victims, from the coils of evil. Terrorism might destroy some of those perceived as evil-doers, but the evil would remain. Some times it even intensifies and escalates. As a discerning student of human history and the human mind, Gandhi understood these dynamics of violence and nonviolence. He, therefore, tried and succeeded in organizing non-violence into a method of struggle and developed it into a moral equivalent of war.

Gandhi believed that nonviolence being soul-force or love force, has universal applicability. It could be used for resolving any form of dispute and conflict, removing even a dictatorial regime. He had used it in the solution of the problem of racial and political discrimination in South Africa, and also for the removal of several social evils that had infected Indian social life like untouchability, discriminations against women and girl- children, alcoholism etc. Another point that Gandhi proved through his nonviolent movement was that even ordinary people, the illiterate, the poor and the so called weaker sex - women, were capable of wielding the weapon of nonviolence as effectively as any other accomplished persons. Thus the Gandhian nonviolent movement exploded the myth that nonviolence was the prerogative of the few who were morally or spiritually evolved. Through proper mobilisation and training quite ordinary people - even the lowliest and the least- could be empowered to become brave nonviolent resisters or satyagrahis. This fact has infused great confidence and hope into the nonviolent movements all over the world.

Humanity is in a “now or never” situation. It is true that organized violence has built its own cathedrals, the armament industry, and the stockpiles of weapons of infinite destructive power and has almost mystified the world. But we must know that unless we start acting right from now on it may be too late. And we must begin from one's own self and try to reach out. A systematic transformation of the human self through the conscious and assiduous cultivation of the nonviolence latent in each one of us is the first step in the direction of a nonviolent future. But for Gandhi personal transformation was not an end in itself. It was a means towards the realization of the larger goal of social transformation. Only transformed individuals will be able to bring about social transformation. Unless and until personal transformation leads to an organized attempt for change and transformation of society, it would be of no avail. Hence Gandhi emphasised the collective use of nonviolence for the creation of a culture of nonviolence.

Gandhi pointed out that as nonviolence was the law of our being and the cohesive force that held human life together, it was essential to make nonviolence the central organizing principle of all human transactions and activities. Social, political and economic organizations should be made on the basis of the law of nonviolence. He explained that when life came to be organized consciously on the basis of the principle of nonviolence, its results would be really marvellous, probably far beyond what humans can visualize.

It is not enough that we agree with Gandhi that nonviolence is the greatest force at the disposal of humankind. We should work it out in our personal as well as collective lives. Let his example inspire us.

M.P. Mathai (An edited version of a speech given at the International Intercultural Forum, Monterrey, Mexico)

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