Nonviolence in the 21st Century:
Challenges and Choices
By Arun Gandhi
The greatest challenge in promoting nonviolence is the English language
and its limitations.
The next is our perception, rooted for centuries, that violence is the
only way we can resolve our problems.
Going back to the first challenge when Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi developed
his philosophy of nonviolence in South Africa and wanted an appropriate
word to describe it he could not find one. "Passive Resistance"
and "Civil Disobedience" did not appeal because he said there
was nothing passive or disobedient about the movement. He even offered
a reward to anyone who could come up with a positive English word to describe
what he had in mind but, alas, no one could.
At this point Gandhi decided a Sanskrit word might be more appropriate
since he was planning to move back to India and lead the Indian struggle
for freedom. He found "Satyagraha" described his philosophy
the best. It is a combination of two Sanskrit words "Satya"
meaning Truth and "Agraha" meaning pursuit of. Thus, "Satyagraha"
means the "Pursuit of Truth", which is important because it
is the opposite of the Western concept of "Possessing the Truth."
Nonviolence, therefore, can be described as an honest and diligent pursuit
of truth. It could also mean the search for the meaning of life or the
purpose of life, questions that have tormented mankind for centuries.
The fact that we have not been able to find satisfactory answers to these
questions does not mean there is no answer. It only means we have not
searched with any degree of honesty. The search has to be both external
We seek to ignore this crucial search because the sacrifices it demands
are evolutionary. It means moving away from greed, selfishness, possessiveness
and dominance to love, compassion, understanding and respect. It means
to be true to our Faith and religion - it is not enough that we pray 10
times a day but that we make the scriptures the basis of our existence.
Because of our materialistic and greedy lifestyle we have become very
possessive. We seek to possess not only material goods but also even our
spiritual beliefs and even peace, if we find it. How many times have we
heard people say: "I am at peace with myself." Or, when Gurus
say to their devotees "find your peace and hold on to it." Can
anyone find peace or spiritual awakening and greedily hold on to it for
him or herself?
A favorite story that Grandfather liked to tell us was the story of an
ancient Indian King who was obsessed with the desire to find the meaning
of peace. What is peace and how can we get it and when we find it, what
should we do with it were some of the issues that bothered him. Intellectuals
in his kingdom were invited to answer the King's questions for a handsome
reward. Many tried but none could explain how to find peace and what to
do with it.
At last someone said the King ought to consult the sage who lived just
outside the borders of his Kingdom: "He is an old man and very wise,"
the King was told. "If anyone can answer your questions he can."
The King went to the sage and posed the eternal question. Without a word
the sage went into the kitchen and brought a grain of wheat to the King.
"In this you will find the answer to your question," the Sage
said as he placed the grain of wheat in the King's outstretched palm.
Puzzled but unwilling to admit his ignorance the King clutched the grain
of wheat and returned to his palace. He locked the precious grain in a
tiny gold box and placed the box in his safe. Each morning, upon waking,
the King would open the box and look at the grain to seek an answer but
could find nothing. Weeks later another sage, passing through, stopped
to meet the King who eagerly invited him to resolve his dilemma.
The King explained how he had asked the eternal question and this sage
gave him a grain of wheat instead. "I have been looking for an answer
every morning but I find nothing."
The Sage said: "It is quite simple, your honor. Just as this grain
represents nourishment for the body, peace represents nourishment for
the soul. Now, if you keep this grain locked up in a gold box it will
eventually perish without providing nourishment or multiplying. However,
if it is allowed to interact with the elements - light, water, air, soil
- it will flourish, multiply and soon you would have a whole field of
wheat which will nourish not only you but so many others. This is the
meaning of peace. It must nourish your soul and the souls of others, it
must multiply by interacting with the elements."
This is the essence of Gandhi's philosophy of "nonviolence"
or the pursuit of truth. In the life-long pursuit of truth we must always
be guided by love, compassion, understanding and respect, allow everything
we have to interact positively with the elements and help create a society
of peace and harmony. The more possessions we have the more we have to
secure them from those who covet it generating feelings of jealousy and
the desire to take by force what the needy cannot get through compassion.
The four essential principles of Gandhi's philosophy are quite simple
to understand and implement. At the public level the four principles are:
Truth, Ahimsa, Trusteeship and Constructive Action. While at the personal
level the four principles are: Respect, Understanding, Acceptance and
The success in attaining enlightenment or finding the Truth depends on
how honest we are and whether we can liberate ourselves from the attachments
that tie us down. Gandhi said being liberated politically or socially
is not enough. He did not mean that we become careless or adopt a "don't
care" attitude towards life and relationships. Freeing yourself of
attachments means one must be willing to stand up for truth and justice
and not be afraid of the consequences like losing your possessions, your
job or even your life.
It is only when we reach that level of spiritual power that nonviolence
will become relevant. When white racists humiliated Grandfather in South
Africa because they did not want a "black" man traveling in
a first class compartment of a train he tried to enlist the support of
the non-whites in South Africa to stand up for their rights. Instead,
he found that fear dominated their response. "What will happen to
my family? My job? My home and possessions?"
The middle-class was content to submit to the white man's injustices
rather than stand up to them and risk losing everything. That was when
grandfather discovered the corrupting influence of materialism. This attitude
persists everywhere. We still accept injustice because we are afraid of
suffering and losing our possessions or our security? True liberation
comes when we can liberate ourselves of the FEAR that controls our lives.
In the final analysis that is the key.
In reality, this is not something impossible that nonviolence demands.
When we are forced by law to sacrifice our lives to protect our country
in war, we don't ask who is going to take care of the family or what will
happen to my possessions. We just go with the knowledge that we may not
come back again. This is a sacrifice that is forced upon an individual
by a government. Then, why is it so difficult for the same individual
to make the same sacrifice to stand up for justice, ethics and values?
"I am prepared to die but there is no cause for which I am prepared
to kill," Gandhi said. However, to come back to the core principles
The meaning of TRUTH is, of course, obvious. We must remember truth has
many sides and it is ever changing. What appears true today may not be
true tomorrow. Or what appears to be the Truth to us does not necessarily
appear to be the Truth to others. We cannot therefore say that we possess
the Truth and so our understanding or Truth is the right one. We must
develop the ability to look at everything from different perspectives
and have the humility to understand that we could be wrong.
AHIMSA, is the Sanskrit word for total nonviolence, that is, nonviolence
in thought, word and deed. Grandfather recognized the limitations of ahimsa.
Living the way we do being totally nonviolent may not be possible for
everyone. It may even not be possible for anyone. Yet, it must be the
objective of every individual in the same way as getting an "A+"
grade is the objective of every student who goes to school. If any student
goes to school with the mindset that he/she will never get an "A+"
grade then that student is in big trouble. That person has already discounted
himself and will, therefore, only slide down into oblivion.
TRUSTEESHIP is a unique concept that needs to be properly understood.
.Each individual has the talent or the ability to achieve our goals. We
exploit that talent or the ability for personal gains in the belief that
we "own " the talent or ability. Gandhi said we don't own the
talent but God appoints us Trustees and so we must use the
talent to help others, less fortunate or talented than us. But this "giving"
or "sharing" or "helping" must not cripple the receiver.
There is a very thin line that divides "pity" and "compassion"
and we often mistake one for the other. Pity is degrading and oppressive
while compassion is uplifting for both the giver and the receiver. Pity
is when we give hungry person money to buy food or when we feed the hungry
through soup kitchens. When feeding becomes an end in itself then we are
causing a problem. Feeding should be a means to constructive action. By
feeding the hungry we make them dependent on handouts.
On the other hand, compassion requires that we get involved in finding
ways in which the unfortunate can be helped to become self-sufficient
citizens. The help they receive should be such as to help rebuild their
self-confidence and self-respect, which are crushed by poverty and oppression.
CONSTRUCTIVE ACTION is the natural corollary to trusteeship. It means
getting involved in finding constructive solutions to problems. We are
usually so pre-occupied with the Self that we don't have time for anyone
or anything. We usually want to hang the responsibility on someone's shoulders.
Usually the Government's shoulders, yet they have severe limitations.
Bureaucrats or paid social workers don't always have the compassion needed
for this kind of work.
In 1970 six young people in Mumbai City in India, each working for a
livelihood and committed to raising their children, decided to find a
solution to the overwhelming homelessness in the city that is growing
rampantly. Using Gandhi's philosophy of trusteeship and constructive action
this group, led by Mahipat Rao Mohite, assembled more than 500 homeless
people and challenged them to become a part of the solution by saving
a coin everyday to build the necessary capital so that an economic project
could be launched.
Mohite could have sought donations or applied for grants but that would
give the homeless the feeling they could ask for what they need and receive
it on a platter. Mohite said the homeless would have to collectively save
a coin everyday. Most people would have considered this impossible or
even heartless to ask someone to save a coin every day when they did not
know where the next meal was going to come from. However, the homeless
accepted the challenge and with Mohite's encouragement saved the equivalent
of $11,000 in about 19 months.
The money was used to start in 1971 a small textile factory with second
hand power looms in a tin shed in Vita village near Sangli, 200 miles
south of Mumbai. Some 70 of the homeless were sent to the village to work
in the jointly owned factory under the guidance of Mohite and his friends
until the homeless were trained to run the business for themselves. Today
all those who contributed to the capital are back in their village living
on the earnings of their four textile factories, enjoying a much better
life-style and able to send their children to schools and higher education.
The homeless continued saving money and in 1978 opened the Sangli Jilla
Kranti Cooperative Bank in Mumbai City. Today the Bank has 7 branch offices
and total assets worth $2 million. This is an example of what Gandhi meant
by trusteeship and constructive action. Mohite and his friends did not
make major sacrifices other than their leisure and vacation time.
The four principles of nonviolence to be practiced by individuals begin
with RESPECT. We must respect ourselves, respect others and respect our
relationship to all of creation. A myth persists, especially in the West,
that we are independent individuals with no responsibilities towards others.
A cohesive society cannot be built with each individual pulling in different
To achieve harmony and cohesiveness we must accept the fact that we are
inter-dependent, inter-related and inter-woven working together to build
a human society. It is not enough to respect individual human beings.
We must also respect different cultures, different ways of life and different
belief systems. Danger lies in our becoming competitive, in believing
that ours is the only way and the best way and attempting to impose our
way on others.
To assume that our way is the best is to say that we "possess"
the Truth. When we accept that others could also be right then we join
others in an honest search for Truth. Religion, Grandfather explained,
is the beginning of a spiritual journey. When we come to understand Religion
properly we reach an understanding of spirituality, which is the acceptance
and respect for different ways of worship. Salvation is when we reach
the mountaintop. When we become one with creation and creation becomes
one with us.
UNDERSTANDING is reached when we learn who we are and what is our role
in all of creation. In our arrogance we believe that humans are not a
part of nature. We are here to conquer nature. In our attempt to conquer
nature we are destroying our habitat and cannot expect to survive for
ACCEPTANCE is reached when we accept the differences - physical and philosophical
-- between human beings. When these differences begin to melt away then
we accept each other as human beings and can dispense with the labels
that keep people apart.
APPRECIATION of our humanity is achieved at this stage. The best way,
however, to understand Gandhi's philosophy of nonviolence is to first
understand the extent of violence that we practice, consciously or unconsciously,
every day of our lives. Grandfather made me aware of the violence in society,
including the violence within myself, by asking me to work on a family
tree of violence on the same principles as a genealogical tree.
He said: "Violence has two children - Physical and Passive. Now,
everyday before you go to bed I would like you to write under each heading
everything that you experienced during the day and the relationship of
the violence with each other." I had to be honest and write about
my own acts of violence during the day. This meant that every night I
had to analyze my actions and if I found them to be violent then the act
had to be put down in its appropriate place.
It was an excellent way of introspection and acknowledgement of one's
own violence. We generally deny our own violence because we are ignorant
about it or because we are conditioned to look at violence only in it's
physical manifestation - the wars, fighting, killing, beating, rapes etc.
where we use physical force. However, we don't consider oppression in
all its forms, name-calling, teasing, insulting, disrespectful behavior
etc. as passive forms of violence.
The relationship between passive violence and physical violence is the
same as the relationship between gasoline and fire. Acts of passive violence
generate anger in the victim and since the victim has not learned how
to use anger positively the victim abuses anger and generates physical
violence. Thus, it is passive violence that fuels the fire of physical
violence, which means if we wish to put out the fire of physical violence
we have to cut off the fuel supply.
The choice before humanity, to quote Gandhi's words, is quite simple:
"We have to be the change we wish to see." Unless we change
individually no one is going to change collectively. For generations we
have been waiting for the other person to change first. A change of heart
cannot be legislated; it must come out of conviction.
Is nonviolence relevant for the 21st Century? Nonviolence is always relevant
because it is the natural response of any civilized human being. Violence
is unnatural, a learned behavior. If violence were human nature then we
would not need martial arts institutes and military academies to teach
us how to kill. We should be born with the instinct and the ability to
The question that we need to ask is, therefore, not whether nonviolent
is relevant but whether we are willing to move away from greed, selfishness
and all the negative attributes that govern our lives to the more positive
attributes of love, compassion, understanding and respect.
THE CHOICE IS OURS TO MAKE.