Gandhi’s Philosophy of Ahimsa and Its Application to Current Conflicts

The best or essential part of Gandhi’s philosophy as a whole can be grasped from his own statement:

“The whole gamut of man’s activities…constitutes an indivisible whole. You cannot divide life, social, economic, political and purely religious, into watertight compartments…”

It clearly indicates that Mahatma Gandhi, influenced by Vedantic doctrine that ‘all life is one’, believes in the unity of human life; this unity is a synthetic whole and can neither be divided in spheres like social, religious, political, moral or ethical nor it can be distinguished in levels like individual or collective. What seem us to be separate segments are, in fact, different facets of human life; they are related to each other and act, react upon one another. The division of activities of human life into different compartments is artificial and it is completely far from the reality.

God or the Supreme Being, who is the Creator of all and called by different names, is the power behind the above unity; for Gandhi, He is also the ‘Truth’ and it is His voice within everyone that inspires to follow the vision of Truth, and that is possible only by complete realization of Ahimsa-the non-violence. Thus, Mahatma Gandhi taking God-the Supreme Being as the Creator of all; declares Him the Truth and the basis as well as the symbol of Unity; and it is Ahimsa-the non-violence, also one of the two sides of that very coin, of which Truth is the other side, that can be the only means to reach Truth or to recognize Him.

As Ahimsa-the non-violence is the only means to reach Truth; also it is one of the two sides of that very coin, of which Truth is the other side, i.e. it is equal to Truth, its role in practices of all walks of human life becomes most important.

Mahatma Gandhi himself admits:

“My love for non-violence is superior to that for every other thing-mundane or supramundane. It is equalled only by love for Truth, which is to me synonymous with non-violence; through which and which alone I can see and reach Truth.”

And, that is why; Gandhian philosophy or Gandhism, which is an amalgam of Mahatma Gandhi’s views and practices, revolves around Ahimsa-the non-violence.

Non-Violence-The Ahimsa

Generally, we attribute Ahimsa-the non-violence as a dictum that prescribes non-snatching of anyone’s life. Or in other simple words, it is said that not to take life of any of the living beings is non-violence. But, in reality, this is neither a true meaning of Ahimsa-the non-violence nor it is a complete derivation pertaining to the concept of it. As Ahimsa-non-violence is quite opposite to Himsa-the violence, we can say:

“Total non-violence consists in not hurting some other one’s intellect, speech or action by own thought, utterance or deeds and not to deprive some one of his life.”

Or in few words we can say like this:

“Abstinence in toto from violence is non-violence.”

Mahatma Gandhi, agreeing to this meaning and definition of non-violence and connecting it with bravery declares it to be a [continuously] active force. In it, as Vinoba Bhave rightly points out:

“There must be preparedness for battle.”

Mahatma Gandhi admits Ahimsa to be neither a rough thing, nor an inactive thought or a value established by man. He is of the firm belief that it is a dynamic and live value and an essential condition for existence, development and the ultimate goal [even the Unity]. Along with this, non-violence is a strongest force to be used properly and with high understanding, and not with equal ease. In Gandhi’s own words:

“Ahimsa cannot be dismissed as lightly as you think. Ahimsa is the strongest force known. But if all can use the strongest force with equal ease, it would lose its importance. We have not been able yet to discover the true measure of the innumerable properties of an article of our daily use like water. Some of its properties fill us with wonder. Let us not, therefore, make light of the strongest force like Ahimsa, and let’s try to discover its hidden power with patience and faith.”

There are some important points to be noted here with regard to Gandhian non-violence, especially while inviting youths of the day to be familiar with it; and first of them is humility. Humility-that is Vinamrata in Indian terms, is a quality of a man free from ego and pride. And, as there is no place to ego and pride in Ahimsa-the non-violence, it is necessary for a person who claims to be non-violent that he follows it in his routines. In this context Mahatma Gandhi himself says:

“If one has pride and egoism, he is not non-violent. Non-violence is impossible without humility.”

Secondly: without self-purification in all walks of life the realization of Ahimsa as an active force remains to be a dream only; and in such a situation, how can there be the guarantee of its success? But, in its active form Ahimsa travels extraordinarily, and then it becomes a miracle. And, that is why; declaring non-violence to be an active force and a live value, Mahatma Gandhi calls upon self-purification, not only in one or two walks of individual life, and not on some occasions only, but in all walks of life and continuously, so that it could be fully realized; Satya-the Truth could prevail all around and the way to unity could be visible. To quote Mahatma Gandhi himself:

“Identification with everything that lives is impossible without self-purification; without self-purification the observance of the law of Ahimsa must remain an empty dream; God can never be realized by one who is not pure of heart. Self-purification, therefore, must mean purification in all walks of life. And purification being highly infectious, purification of oneself necessarily leads to purification of one’s surroundings.”

The over emphasis of Mahatma Gandhi upon self-purification may seem to the people, and especially to the youngsters to be difficult or burdensome; it may seem to be possible only for a few, or sometimes it may seem to be impractical for one reason or the other, but for those who are bent upon to follow the path of Ahimsa, it is not only important but essential too. Then the path of Ahimsa is not an easy one. It is for the brave and not for a coward; it is for sacrifice and not for empty gains. Mahatma Gandhi himself states:

“But the path of self-purification is hard and steep. To attain to perfect purity one has to become absolutely passion free in thought, speech and action; to rise above the opposing currents of love and hatred, attachment and repulsion.”

Admitting the fact simultaneously, he also says:

“I know that I have not in me as yet that triple purity, in spite of constant ceaseless striving for it. That is why; the world’s praise fails to move me; indeed it very often stings me. To conquer the subtle passion seems to be harder for than the physical conquest to the world by the force of arms. Ever since my return to India, I have had experiences of the dormant passions lying hidden within me. The knowledge of them has made me feel humiliated though not defeated. The experiences and experiments have sustained me and given me great joy. But I know that I have still before me a difficult path to traverse. I must reduce myself to zero. 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.”

Although, Ahimsa-the non-violence even occupies in one way or the other its due or supreme place in ideas and behaviours of those who do not believe in the power of God-the Supreme Being, or those who are atheists, but for Gandhi, the source of Ahimsa is God Himself and “Non-violence succeeds only when we have a real living faith in [Him] God.” It is necessary because Gandhi’s philosophy of ‘Unity of Human Life’ that is a synthetic whole, of which Ahimsa is the means, as we have discussed in brief in the beginning, can only be significant if it accepts the existence of God and makes Him the basis of that Unity.

Application to Current Conflicts

Now, after becoming familiar with philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi, in which Ahimsa is nucleus, we have to discuss its application in current conflicts. Through the ages, conflicts, though temporary in nature and subject to transformation by cooperation, are inevitable in various walks of human life including international field. Ahimsa-the non-violence-a value permanently present in human nature, in its different forms and through its many supplementary values show the way to overcome the situation of conflicts, or in other words transform conflicts into cooperation.

As everything in the world is subject of constant change, and conflicts also are not the exception, the nature of conflict too changes from time-to-time, no matter if conflicts are inevitable and the basis or root cause of them seems to be the same in one way or the other, Gandhian non-violence accords solution to all problems; it is capable to transform conflicts into cooperation to make the way of life peaceful and developing, if it is applied according to demand of time and prevailing circumstances in space.

For example, after passing through the process of development for thousands of years since man’s inception on Earth, we are, now, witnessing the days of globalization. Citizens of the world are continuously coming close to one another in different ways, and in all walks of human life; day-by-day, the tempo of mutual cooperation is increasing. Even at international level dependence on each other is too so much increasing that no nation, how mighty or resourceful it maybe, can dream of its development by remaining indifferent and in the state of isolation. Today, none of the nations can remain without being the least affected from any change or from a series of events occurring at global level.

In such an unprecedented situation, and I must admit, benevolent too, problems or conflicts in all the walks of life, at all levels in general and at international level in particular, affecting and involving more and more people, and for this reason the solution or transformation of them demands collective efforts. In other words, I can say that, now, we would have to march forward together, especially to resolve international problems or to transform global conflicts in larger interest.

Now, those days have gone when a particular group of people or inhabitants of a country indulged in false vanity over the superiority of their history or geography. It is the time, now, to face and remove all complications by accepting the situation as it warrants. Now, along with a spirit of nationalism, as I believe, it is necessary even to strengthen globalization, a mature international understanding is utmost essential; development in mutual cooperation is the need of the hour. But, how can we succeed in this regard within the scope of Gandhian philosophy or in other words within the domain of Ahimsa-the non-violence? It is an important question, especially in completely changed situation.

No doubt, for the fulfillment of requirement for a mature understanding and cooperation, the only way as per the expectation [of Gandhian philosophy] is that the non-violent activities be applied to resolve dispute and conflicts, but they should be adopted by making them befitting in accordance with the prevailing condition, because only then concrete results would be feasible; and to make them fully practical in international sphere, it is absolutely necessary for parties involved in dispute or a particular conflict that they come forward on the basis of following three fundamental points:

  • To be serious;
  • To accept reality; and
  • To be ready to make sacrifices

    Today, as all of us know, there are a number of problems at international level, of which some are of very serious nature and they are in existence for decades. I do not want to count them here, but we all are aware that they, from time-to-time, give birth to conflicts. Consequently, they not only affect the parties directly involved particularly, but, more or less, they affect other nations also, and solution to them some times seems to be impossible or very-very difficult. But, if during the resolution to a problem or transformation of conflict the three fundamental points, as mentioned above, are honestly kept in mind by parties in the process, in my opinion, there should be no doubt of success. But, for it parties concerned need to have great courage, high morality and mature understanding, for which the philosophy of Gandhi or his Ahimsa-the non-violence calls upon the whole world.

    For years, India, the Motherland of Gandhi, had a dispute with her neighbour Bangladesh on the issue of sharing water of the Ganges River. The Ganges mostly flows through India and finally merges with the Indian Ocean via today’s Bangladesh, which was earlier a part of India herself. In seventies India installed Farakka Barrage on this river, which became a matter of serious concern for Bangladesh and it was very much annoyed of it. But, it was the process of dialogue betwixt the two, in the centre of which were the above three points that first of all both went to the root of the problem, later they could understand difficulties of each other. And, ultimately only through this very process of direct dialogue they entered into a compromise. Although India had to sacrifice little more in comparison to its counterpart, but the situation was win-win for both of them. It was, definitely, the Gandhian way to settle a dispute and the same could be feasible to resolve other problems also.

    Human history is full of instances relating to conflicts, or in other words wars between groups and nations. We have especially before us the account of two world wars fought in the Twentieth Century. Perhaps the younger generation is not acquainted with the fact that the World War First [1914-18] claimed the lives of more than ten million people. Besides, twenty-two and a half million people were badly injured. Similarly, in the World War Second [1939-45] fifty million people were killed and approximately thirty-five million people were either badly injured or maimed. Most of the countries involved in the two wars took ten and fifteen years respectively to stand again on their own feet, or to pave the way of development. And, we know that the warring nations after getting tired of wars and naked dance of violence and death aspired for peace and pacific measures. For this purpose they formed the League of Nation after the First World War and the United Nations Organizations after the Second World War.

    But, we are also aware of the fact that even after the process of dialogue, negotiations, compromises and treaties applied to prevent the wars, that was necessary, parties concerned were not, more or less, serious; they, knowingly or unknowingly, were not ready to accept the realities, and they had also not come ahead to make sacrifices. Instead of honesty and sincerity, diplomacies in their full swing were there in dialogues, negotiations, compromises and treaties. Resultantly, if they prepared ground for the World War Second in 1918 itself, they also paved way to anew international situation after the World War Second in 1945, of which Cold War and Balance of Power were some of the features. Along with this, some new conflicts emerged, and transformation of which has not been feasible till day.

    Gandhian way is very simple, though sincerity, sacrifice, high morality and courage, essential for active Ahimsa-the non-violence, are parts of it. But, it is unfortunate that through the ages we have been habitual of not accepting a simple pathway like this. We have been accepted that is over-elaborated. Even today what I am emphasizing here maybe not acceptable to many; it is possible that my views fail to attract attention of some of you only because I am expressing them in quite simple way. I am a student of political science. I studied all aspects of politics, and especially relating to international politics including diplomacy. So, I could express my views even on this subject related to Gandhian philosophy and its application to current international conflicts in that manner. But it would not be fair.

    The fair thing is this that we seriously think over the way shown by Mahatma Gandhi, whose life is like an open book, whose message is simple, straightforward and horizontal, but for this, as I have said, we need high degree of courage, morality and sincerity. And, if we could do so, I have no doubt we would over come of all problems, resolve disputes, transform conflicts and pave way to unity of human life, which is the essence of Gandhian philosophy.

  • Dr. Ravindra Kumar is an eminent writer, Indologist, political scientist and a former vice chancellor of Meerut University, India, who authored and edited over 100 works on great personalities like Mahatma Gandhi and on various social-cultural issues.