More about the autor

Evening Focus: Gandhi’s Nonviolent Philosophy

February 12, 2011

Our Evening Focus

Evening Focus: Gandhi’s Nonviolent Philosophy

President Obama said, “It was the moral force of non-violence that bent the arc of history toward justice once more.” This calls to mind the life and work of  India’s and South Africa’s Mohandas Gandhi. (More)

Many scholars have documented and analyzed the Gandhi’s life and work; I cannot do it justice nor examine its rich roots in a few paragraphs. Still, there may be something to learn that would help us to better understand the genesis of the current nonviolent youth movements in the Middle East.

Mohandas Gandhi, born into a pious, educated, Hindu, merchant class family in colonized India on October 2, 1969. He was educated in the UK, was able to lead the Indian people into a nonviolent rebellion, leading to India’s independence from England. He also was a major influence in South Africa, where he first developed the theories he used to foment change.

In his youth, the future “Mahatma” (Great Soul) was a slight, shy boy, afraid of the dark, a mediocre student at best, and an autocratic and jealous groom to his young bride Kasturbai; the children were joined at age 13, according to custom. Reluctantly, his family sent him to study law in England, where he also extensively studied Hindu, Christian, Buddhist and Muslim literature. He became a yet more committed Hindu, but was moved and strongly influenced by his mother’s Jainism (which promotes conquering internal forces in a path of non-violence towards all living beings), and by the Christian Sermon on the Mount, and by Tolstoy and Thoreau.

One cannot separate Gandhi’s spirituality from his political action so it may be important to note that  he found that the basic principle of  Love in all these religions were the same. He said that we are all part of one interconnected whole, and that is why loving God and loving others is the same, and why one must actively refuse to harm others, even those who harm you.

The South Africa Years

For various reasons he was having trouble making a living as a lawyer upon his return to India, and he traveled to South Africa, to take a job offered by a friend of his older brother.

And then something happened that changed the course of his life, and thus ours. Soon after arriving in (then British) South Africa, he was riding in the first-class compartment of a train. A white man boarded and called railway officials to remove Gandhi because he was a brown man with whom he did not wish to share a car. Since he had bought a first-class ticket, Gandhi had refused to leave. A policeman literally threw him off the train with his baggage. Nothing like this had happened to him before, and he contemplated his future that night in the station. His legal career had not exactly thrived, and as he sat at the station, he actually thought of an entire new way to resolve legal cases through mediation, which set his legal career on an entirely new and quite successful path.

Since he was now quite upset about the unfair way he and others were treated by white South Africans, supported by laws of White Privilege, he began meeting with other Indian expats to determine what to do. Not without controversy amongst even his peers, but based on his strong beliefs, Gandhi developed methods of non-violent resistance against injustice, such as protest marches and strikes that later also served as a model for black Americans and black South Africans to finally win their civil rights.

Gandhi was often harassed, sometimes even beaten or jailed. Still, he did not give up his insistence that everyone was to be respected and that hurting others was simply not an option, but allowing themselves to live with injustice was no loving option either.

Back to India

By 1913, in 20 years time, after many adventures, many new laws had been agreed to and Gandhi felt his work in Africa was done. He went home to India, where he wanted to apply what he had learned to free his country from British rule. India, like America before our war of Independence, was supposed to enrich England, and Indian citizens had little say, because Britain made and enforced all the laws to benefit themselves. This was unacceptable, and Indian citizens demanded independence, which wealthy Britons of course opposed. (As a side note, I wonder how much has changed in America a few hundred years later, with multinational corporations taking the place of colonial rulers. It is certainly a point to contemplate.)

What Methods did he use?

Gandhi’s methods included protest marches for change, communal prayers, fasts (refusing to eat until the unjust thing was changed), and strikes (refusing to work or purchase certain goods until the unjust thing was changed). He taught people to read and to be self-sufficient.

He did not avoid violence toward himself or his followers in the cause of justice and freedom. He said that, like any other soldier, nonviolent activists had to be ready to die for their cause. The difference was that nonviolent activists, while willing to die, must never be willing to kill, for then hatred had won the day.

To draw popular attention to  unjust law, he refused to obey certain laws, like when he famously led thousands of followers to make salt from the sea even though it was against the law. At first the authorities decided to ignore him. But hundreds of thousands of Indians began making and selling their own salt. Gandhi announced that he intended to lead a peaceful takeover of a British-owned salt works and was arrested on the evening before the action.

The next day, with Gandhi in jail, the Indian people tried nonviolently to enter the salt works. The British clubbed them, and over 60,000 people were eventually put in jail. This brutality by the British, as the world was watching, guaranteed eventual Indian victory.

As we see, his courageous nonviolent action plan was definitely not a way to run away from problems. Quite the opposite. Deliberately, no-one could ignore him. In fact, he kept up his protests, whatever form they took, until the authorities reacted in uncivil ways, though it may put himself or his followers in harm’s way. I think of the young Google exec who kept repeating on TV this week that he was willing to die to free his country. The Egypt youth movement had studied and trained in nonviolent practices, and demanded it from their followers as Gandhi did – as the lunch counter sit-ins and voter registration drives in the American South did – and succeeded in much the same way.

To address the economics of colonialism, Gandhi added a new ingredient to his recipe for freedom and justice. He called it non-cooperation. He told the people to use only Indian-made goods and services and to only wear Khadi (hand spun cloth). He himself wore Khadi clothes, and would sit to spin on his Charkha (Spinning wheel). This was actually a radical move. People stopped buying British-made goods, even lit bonfires with them. He urged all Indians to boycott (not use) British goods, courts, schools, and government offices.

The beginning of world-wide change

We all know both the victory and tragedy of the rest of the India story. Independence was won, but the country was partitioned along religious lines into India and Pakistan, significant tensions remain, and Gandhi was assassinated (martyred) at evening prayers by a Hindu zealot.

But since the 1950’s his ideas, his philosophy, and his people-powered methods have transformed autocratic regimes the world over.

You just may be interested to know that the current “spontaneous” Egyptian revolution took (The April 6 Group) 3 years to carefully plan. Some info can be found at the FOR blog The mythology of spontaneity: nonviolent action in Egypt and Creating a Culture of Peace …  and, my next piece will focus on the work of nonviolent trainer Gene Sharp, who you can read about in the Feb 11 2011 issue of Scientific American, if you want an early start .

My brief summary draws in  part from information prepared by Unity Church for a seven-week study, “The Wisdom of Gandhi.”

  • JanF

    We are lucky to have a president who uses words like “the moral force of non-violence” instead of immediately thinking about bombing or attacking something.

    It is much harder to live the kind of life that Gandhi did than to destroy things.

    Thank you for this post, revgerry.

    • Yes, Jan, our President is far more well-versed than I in the writings of great leaders such as D]Gandhi and Dr, King. I like that the media is starting to run the narrative that this nonviolent revolution shows that bombs are not the weapons of choice in these situations.

  • addisnana

    Jan Smuts was a Prime Minister of South Africa. As a parolee Gandhi served as a servant in his house. I visited Smuts’ house which was built to be dissembled and moved. (I was taken with the 1920’s version of a ‘mobile home’.) Smuts had kind and funny words about Gandhi which I am paraphrasing from memory. His diary was on display in his house. “That pesky Indian and his non-violent ways. I will miss him as he made the best slippers ever. Surely he will change the world and all of us with it.” The two apparently had some wide ranging philosophical discussions the gist of which Smuts put in his diary. (Smuts was very white BTW)

    • Oh,addisnana, I would love to hear a whole lot about your visit to Smuts’ house and what you learned by being there.

  • addisnana

    Gerry.. great piece. Watching all the coverage of Egypt had me wondering if just social media could get millions into public squares and orchestrate protests that were decidedly non-violent. I am wondering if the back-story of preparation will be covered by main stream media. Thanks!

    • Thank you, addisnana. I am personally hoping that the back story is not widely covered; I would probably want to throw something (nonviolently of course) at the teevee to hear pundits dissecting it. But following the links from Fellowship of Reconciliation may help us to get a small glimpse into the work of the April 6 Group and others.

  • rb137

    I enjoyed this, revgerry. We could use a couple of Gandhis, couldn’t we?

    I want to suggest that Gandhi’s tactics only work when the aggressors have a shred of humanity. If they do not see their opponent as human, or on some level worthy of kindness and respect, there is no level of non-violence that will impress them. Such an aggressor will just exterminate them.

    That said, I expect there are several places that suffer conflicts right now that would benefit from growing a new Gandhi…

    • rb137

      Oh, I can’t write today!

      Such an aggressor will just exterminate those they oppress…

    • Thank you, rb137. Yes, we could use a few Gandhis, people who were deeply centered enough to see through the storm and drung of the current corporate colonialism and help i=us to see a way out…

      • rb137

        That is a place where it could work — corporate colonialism. Although, it helps when the world is watching. The Niger Delta comes to mind right now. I hope that corporate colonialism gets set back there.

        Sudan also comes to mind, where I think peaceful resistance doesn’t help much. That’s a real case of corporate colonialism (in this case it’s China) that I think won’t get pushed back by non-violent civil disobedience.

        Anyway, I enjoyed your essay. I like Gandhi stories. 🙂

  • NCrissieB

    Thank you for this wonderful essay, Gerry. I’m sorry I couldn’t be here in the evening when it posted. I spent most of yesterday afternoon and evening helping with cleaning and rearranging at Casa Crissie. I look forward to your Evening Focus series on nonviolence next week (February 21-22).

    I see four keys to the success of nonviolence: (1) protesters must have the courage to accept being hurt or even killed; (2) protesters must have the discipline not to retaliate in kind; (3) the protests must happen in the unblinking public eye; and, (4) authorities must have the capacity for shame.

    Without the courage, the protests never happen or are quickly stifled. Without the discipline, the violence can be portrayed as tit-for-tat. Without the unblinking public eye, the authorities can spin the story of the violence in their defense. And without the capacity for shame, as rb137 noted, the authorities will simply exterminate the protesters and ignore any condemnation.

    I think #1 and #2 are harder to create and maintain than #3 and #4 … but we too often complain of #3 or #4 as excuses for the absence of #1 or #2.

    • I agree with that Crissie, and my persona despair, when I think deeply about our current situation, is that people are too “comfortable” to be willing to risk much to make change happen, nor are people being trained. Heck even here in Arizona, the big BS1070 marches, the peacekeepers are almost all my age (I am 69).

      My fantasy is that here in Arizona Russell Pearce and his minions will have gone so far that the entire population is willing to stand up to oppression.

      As to the retaliating in kind, even though we are only talking words, that is my major problem with the frustrati. They allow the media meme that the left and the right are the same.

      off to church and the day. Will check in later.

  • J Brunner fan

    Thanks revgerrry

    Excellent discussion. We need a Gandhi here in America…besides the President.

    • Thanks, JBf. I had hoped in earlier times the “Rainbow Coalition” would be a tool for change. Perhaps it would come together in a different way where all potential members from different constituencies felt they counted equally.

      We have to remember that the Civil Rights movement did not spring whole cloth into being any more than the Egyptian revolution did.

      I will be interested to explore the works of Gene Sharp next week. He brought a secular training perspective to the movements, was translated into many languages, and may have been instrumental in inspiring our current events.

  • sjterrid

    Revgerry thank you for this excellent post. I’m looking forward to your series on Gene Sharp next week.

    • thanks, sgterrid. I seem to be laser-focused on nonviolent social action at the moment, so why not explore with others… who knows, the brilliant minds here may have an out-of-the-box moment that could shift everything.

  • I keep musing, so am going to use some space here for notes to self, and if you happen to come back here, and comment, well, I will love that too.

    I can’t get out of my head this idea of corporate colonialism, and my brain is spinning a reframing of some of our current challenges.

    Gandi’s salt march was effective for many reasons, but one was, the people went to harvest salt from their own beaches which the colonists had claimed as their private property. The people so clearly had a right to harvest their salt that the image was simple for the world to understand.

    The corporate colonialists of this present day (mostly multinational, but not all, with no allegiance to America – and, like countries, no natural death cycle) have found a way to undermine what the people won, back in the American revolution, by purchasing what is not anyone’s to sell through the purchase of the democratic process. They have taken over such things as

    Our airwaves.
    Our waterways.
    Our parks and wilderness spaces.
    The resources that lie beneath our ground.

    When I was writing the piece on Tucson’s history, I couldn’t get over the image of a Spanish monk walking up and claiming the land for Spain, as though no one lived there, and then Mexico selling it to the US. The colonialists had an agreement to divide the world up between themselves, and no other being mattered. –

    I am struck as well by Gandhi’s non-co-operation through boycotts of everything not made from scratch in India.

    Reading between the lines, you know I am trying to apply the lessons of Gandhi’s India and this week’s Egyptian revolution to the situation in which we find ourselves, to see a way forward that isn’t whiny and complaining, but instead affirming basic rights..

    • NCrissieB

      Most European colonization began as corporate colonialism. Entrepreneurs went off in search of new resources and markets, and claimed them on behalf of a nationally-chartered corporation. When the locals objected, the owners called on government – the military and then civil administrators – to “protect our national interests.”

      Then as now, government colonization was corporate welfare.

      • It is difficult I think for the American Exceptionalism crowd to see themselves as the victims of (often foreign) corporate colonialist squatters and thugs depriving their children of a good future.

        Why is it that labor unions, the womens movement, civil rights veterans and others have been willing to be marginalized?

  • winterbanyan

    Reading between the lines, you know I am trying to apply the lessons of Gandhi’s India and this week’s Egyptian revolution to the situation in which we find ourselves, to see a way forward that isn’t whiny and complaining, but instead affirming basic rights..

    I am so with you on this, Gerry. I don’t always succeed, but I try.

    • Thanks, winter, I know that the solution is right there, just beyond our understanding, and that Egypt provides a moment where the MSM would be supportive (attentive) to a vivid disruptive change (in the systems sense)

      Arizona seems ripe- with BS1070, Minutemen, defunding of education while giving corporate welfare, death panels deciding poor people can’t have transplants, selling off public resources, gun mania, closing down Tucson’s Ethnic Studies, but maybe Florida would want to play?

  • I am letting my brain wander on this. We need a Rosa Parks moment, but we are not prepared for it, we will miss it when it comes along. We have probably missed many.

    These young people planned and trained for three years.

    Americans are too comfortable and the theft is too gradual for most.. Like the frog in the pot who never jumps out because the water warms gradually…and becomes dinner. Those who are hurting the worst have bought into the idea that they are failures rather than that their future has been stolen.

  • Then Came Wisconsin!!
    Now they have defunded womens health…

About revgerry

Tucson AZ retired minister and clinical social worker. Dean Democrat, former Democratic Party PC and State Committee member, co-founder of the Progressive Caucus of the AZ Dem Party. Ordained Independent New Thought minister (think Unity, The Law of Attraction, Marianne Williamson).

View all posts by revgerry