India's Concept of Nonviolence and Gandhi

Mahatma Gandhi clarified the eternality of nonviolence and spoke of its naturalness before the common people.

India is a great country. Its greatness is not in name only. India is an ancient civilization; its harmonious and composite culture is thousands of years old. India has been a leading nation in the fields of spirituality, science, and arts for centuries; it has been accepted as a Jnana-Guru of the world. India brought the gift of the greatest, unique, and adaptable concept of universal acceptance to the world; it gave the slogan of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam to humanity. Furthermore, India gave so many matchless learned men, the Jagatgurus, representing different branches of knowledge. The Light of Asia, Gautama Buddha, and the greatest initiator of Ahimsa,Mahavira, were born on Indian soil.

India's greatness also lies in the fact that its land welcomed and offered refuge to all human beings from different parts of the globe. It did not matter if these people had their own religious-community, faith, traditions, or values; after reaching Indian soil they received a permanent abode without any discrimination. Resultantly, the followers of the world's six major religious-communities dwell in India today as well as people belonging to other religious-communities.

Besides the national language, Hindi, 21 regional languages are recognized by the Indian Constitution. However, 1,618 languages are spoken by the people on a local level throughout India; these dialects are the medium of day-to-day practices of the common people. Furthermore, descendants of six ethnic groups are in India. Indian people celebrate 29 major religious festivals. All those who stay on Indian soil are Indians; they are wayfarers of the Indian Way.

The Indian soil welcomes all. Indians see the image of God in a guest. Providing hospitality is one of the main characteristics of the Indian Way. The one who desired a permanent home on the Indian land not only received permission, but received opportunities to march forward on the way to progress as well. Those who assimilated India's values reached the heights of prosperity and became her own forever. Parsees—the followers of Spitama Zoroaster who reached India from Iran approximately 1,500 years ago—are the living proof of this.

Those who could not fully assimilate Indian values for whatever reason also became part of the Indian Way. However, they did find themselves isolated; and they still find themselves in this same situation today. In comparison to others, they are far behind in development. It is indeed a good lesson to be learned by those who desire advancement while staying on the Indian soil.

India and Nonviolence

Nonviolence (Ahimsa), which is the first human value, is also a perpetual and natural value. It has played a vital role in India's greatness, especially from the perspective that I previously discussed. It is Ahimsa that accorded dynamism in the lives of Indians. It directs their day-to-day behaviors in such a manner that they can ensure their own existence; their conflicts—inevitable in daily life—are transformed and resolved. Furthermore, it has given ever-new dimensions to the process of cooperation; the outcomes of which are present in the form of unprecedented and unending development in various walks of life.

Now, prior to discussing India and Ahimsa in-depth, it is necessary for us to clarify the meaning of it and the main Indian concepts pertaining to it.

In Jainism Ahimsa has been analyzed minutely. The 24th Jain Tirthankara, Mahavira, gave a unique dimension to Ahimsa via his own humanely practices—making it a subject of self-control, pure conduct, and discipline. It is for this reason I have called him the greatest initiator of Ahimsa. The essence of Jain Ahimsa lies in the following words, "Complete aloofness from Himsa [violence] is Ahimsa."

Clearly, Jainism brings Ahimsa within that comprehensive and extensive scope in which the common person's entry is quite difficult. In it the smallest form of violence is accountable. Every form of violence, big or small, committed by a human being knowingly or unknowingly is worthy of consideration. Therefore, it is not possible for everyone to follow Jainism's brand of Ahimsa in the practical sense. Moreover, the Jain Ahimsa is completely based upon negative concepts pertaining to it. For this reason it also becomes impractical for the common people and can only be practiced by an initiator of a new age like Mahavira himself.

The Vedic (Hindu) Philosophy, which directs day-to-day practices of most Indians on the basis of guidelines, decided by the Vedas, especially the Rig-Veda itself, considers Ahimsa to be an evil-free Dharma. Of course, this Dharma establishes itself in the form of duty as well as goodness. Therefore, along with not harming anyone by thought, speech, or deed, and not depriving someone of life, relying for support on violence to maintain order and to accord justice is the basis of Vedic Ahimsa.

Although like Jainism, Buddhism also emphasizes self-control, but generally it is not in favor of any such appeal that becomes impractical for the common people, as far as the application of Ahimsa in daily routines by common people is concerned. Body-control, word-control, and mind-control are the means of violence-control; they are the means of developing nonviolence. Gautama Buddha called upon humanity to develop nonviolence on this basis. He communicated the message of making Karuna (compassion) the basis of maximum possible human practices a vehicle through which nonviolence can develop in all walks of life.

Some 500 years ago, another religious philosophy, known as the Sikh, arose on the Indian soil. As the Sikh philosophy came into existence in accordance with the Indian traditions and like Gautama Buddha, the outlet of its founders and developers was also from the followers of the Vedic religious-community, this philosophy also had the deep impact of Vedic philosophy on it. Like Buddhism it accorded its due place to Ahimsa. All Sikh Gurus, and Guru Nanak Dev in particular, emphasized upon pure and virtuous humanly deeds and self-control to pave the way for developing Ahimsa in man's daily practices. Furthermore, like Buddha, who conformed to the prevailing conditions of his time by making compassion the basis of developing Ahimsa, Guru Nanak, the first Sikh Guru, made harmony the basis of nonviolence during his time and motivated people to regulate their actions according to it.

The four common points that we find in the context of nonviolence in the four chief philosophies established and developed in India that played vital roles in making India great by strengthening the Indian Way are as follows:

  1. Within the domain of nonviolence are all living beings;

  2. In spite of being eternal, natural, and the first human value, it is a subject of practice according to the demands of time and space;

  3. It is an active value; it has nothing to do with cowardice as it is an ornament of the brave; and

  4. It is not a subject to be practiced occasionally; in theory and in practice it is all-timely.

Nonviolence and Gandhi

All the above four points, which are present almost with unanimity in the four major philosophies that were established and developed in India—Vedic-Hindu, Jain, Buddhist, and Sikh—can easily be found in the Gandhian concept pertaining to nonviolence. And, I would go to the extent of saying all the above four points are present overall in Gandhi's ideas and practices—the center of which is nonviolence. Gandhi brought a good harmony among all Indian concepts pertaining to Ahimsa.This clearly indicates that Gandhian nonviolence is an excellent introduction to the Indian concept of Ahimsa overall. If someone desires to know and understand nonviolence in India, he or she should do so by understanding the Ahimsa of Mahatma Gandhi.

Accepting those Rishis—greater geniuses and warriors than Newton and Wellington—who discovered the rule of Ahimsa in the primitive age, Gandhi declared nonviolence to be an active force. Gandhi proved on several occasions that Ahimsa is not the meek submission before the will of the wrongdoer; rather Ahimsa is a fight using soul-force against the will of a tyrant, which ultimately yields victory. In this regard through his own nonviolent actions, he astonished the whole world.

For centuries it was the opinion of many in the world that Ahimsa was a subject limited to hermits or cave dwellers. They believed that it was an individual matter and could be applied in the religious sphere only. Gandhi, however, shattered this myth. He used Ahimsa in the political sphere and proved that it could be successfully applied in all walks of life and at all levels—individual to international—so long as the applier's intention is clear and full of honesty.

Gandhi spoke of achieving victory over the injustices of the world's mightiest empire through the nonviolent actions of the individual. And as we know from history, his ambition was achieved. For confirmation, the whole series of events pertaining to India's freedom struggle (1920-42) under his own leadership is before us.

In fact, for the first time in history, Gandhi added a new dimension to Ahimsa in theory and practice by working to unite the common people. He established nonviolence as a means that could be most effective in the political sphere. By doing so, although he accepted not hurting anyone by one's own thought, utterance, and deed and not depriving of someone of life to be the supreme spirit of Ahimsa, he made the intent behind the act the acid test of it. Hence, he removed the doubt that Ahimsa is a subject beyond the reach of the masses.

Mahatma Gandhi clarified the eternality of nonviolence and spoke of its naturalness before the common people. He expected the whole world and Indians in particular to be as warriors and develop nonviolence to the maximum possible extent. People should apply Ahimsa in their behaviors, ensuring their own personal freedom while securing freedom for all citizens of the world.

Indians have been capable of achieving this goal; history proves this fact. The main reason for India's capability is its people's commitment to nonviolence. During the course of his nonviolent actions, Mahatma Gandhi too believed this, and on the basis of this he stated, "India attracts me. It has everything that a human being with the highest possible aspirations can want."

Being an ancient civilization India has maintained its special place in the world; today it has its own identity and role to play. Without a doubt, India must march forward with the eternal and natural value of Ahimsa at its center. By plying its role in international affairs it must lead the world, and on the basis of Mahatma Gandhi's following message, it must transform the slogan of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam into reality:

"I feel that India's mission is different from that of others. India is fitted for the religious supremacy of the world. There is no parallel in the world for the process of purification that this country has voluntarily undergone. India is less in need of steel weapons, it has fought with divine weapons, it can still do so. Other nations have been votaries of brute force.… India can win all by soul force. Poets have sung about it and seers have described their experiences."

Dr. Ravindra Kumar is a universally renowned scholar and writer. He is the former vice chancellor of Meerut University in India.