Gandhi and the Philosophy of Non-Violence

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Gandhi and the Philosophy of Non-Violence

Isabel Sorlózano Trigos

Peace and Culture

Proffessor Dr. Peter van den Dungen








In modern times, nonviolence is a powerful tool for social protest. There are many examples of its use in nonviolent resistance and nonviolent revolution, including Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi leading a decades-long nonviolent struggle against British rule in India, which eventually helped India win its independence in 1947.

In this essay, we will first briefly explain the philosophy of nonviolence with regards to its philosophical and strategic nature. We will then review some important aspects of the biography of Mohandas Gandhi, for he is maybe the most important figure of nonviolence theories. In fact, he was the key protagonist of one of the most important revolutions of the last century, whose nonviolent weapons are still used today: hunger strikes, pacific demonstrations, nonviolent sittings, civil disobedience, etc.

As Albert Einstein affirmed, “(…) the coming generations will probably doubt that a man such as Gandhi has been a real man of this world, a man of flesh and blood”. Certainly, the souvenir of his image as a small man, thin to the limits, wearing only a dhoti –cloth around the hip-; makes it almost impossible for us to believe the fact that he was able to unify all Indians for the common cause of Independence. Even more importantly, he leaded the cause through only nonviolent means and achieved the Independence of India from the most powerful Empire of the 20th century. People of India (four hundred millions at that time, being one fifth of the whole world’s population) venerated him almost as a God and he was even called the “Prophet of Freedom” and “The Father of India” (Bapu).

In fact, Mohandas Gandhi is best known as Mahatma Gandhi, Mahatma meaning “big soul” in Hindi. This name was firstly coined by the great Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, Nobel Literature Prize of 1913, who in fact described him as a “great soul dressed as a farmer”.

Nonviolence as a Philosophy and as a Strategy

Nonviolence is a philosophy, but also a strategy for social change as an alternative to passive acceptance of oppression.

On the one hand, religious or ethically based nonviolence is sometimes referred to as philosophical nonviolence. There are several fundamental concepts to consider when explaining the philosophy of nonviolence, such as:

  1. Ahimsa: To cause no harm to any living being in any manner (present in the Taoist concept of wu-wei, or effortless action; and also in the philosophy of the martial art Aikido; in the Buddhist principle of metta, or loving-kindness towards all beings; and in the principle of ahimsa, shared by Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism).

  2. Love: The goal is not to defeat the enemy, but to win them over and create love and understanding between all. Such principles can be found in each of the major religions. Examples of nonviolence include the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus urges his followers to "love the enemy" (this lecture stirring Mohandas Gandhi and Leo Tolstoy very deeply).

  3. Forgiveness of sin can be found in the story of Abel in the Qur'an and in many Biblical stories. The American author, Henry David Thoreau (Civil Disobedience, 1849) had also a major impact on the philosophy of nonviolence (and thus on Tolstoy, Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.).

  4. Truth: The notion of Satya, or truth, is central to the Gandhian conception of nonviolence. Gandhi saw the persecution of the greater truth as the ultimate objective of life. This led him to believe in the inherent worth of dialogue with opponents, in order to understand motivations reciprocally. In order to be heard by one's opponents, one must also be prepared to listen.

  5. Respect: Nonviolence involves a respect and reverence for all beings. This might include the practice of not eating animal flesh (vegetarianism or veganism), religious practices of non-harm to all beings (Jainism, for example), and caring for the welfare of all beings. Mohandas Gandhi and other nonviolent proponents advocated vegetarianism as part of their nonviolent philosophy. Buddhists extend this respect for life to animals, plants, and even minerals.

On the other hand, nonviolence based on political analysis is often referred to as tactical, strategic, or pragmatic nonviolence. Generally speaking, the strategy of nonviolence seeks to undermine the power of rulers by encouraging people to withdraw their consent and cooperation from those who wish to maintain the status quo (in Gandhi’s case, the British rulers).

The methods of nonviolent action by and large comprise three categories: Acts of Protest and Persuasion, Noncooperation, and Nonviolent Intervention.

Nonviolent acts of protest and persuasion are symbolic actions performed by a group of people to show their support or disapproval of something. The goal is to bring public awareness to an issue, persuade or influence a particular group of people, or to facilitate future nonviolent action. The message can be directed toward the public, opponents, or people affected by the issue through speeches, public communications, petitions, symbolic acts, art, processions and marches, and other public assemblies.

Noncooperation involves the withholding of cooperation or the unwillingness to initiate in cooperation with an opponent. The goal of noncooperation is to halt or hinder an industry, political system, or economic process. Methods of noncooperation include labor strikes, economic boycotts, civil disobedience, tax refusal, and general disobedience.

Nonviolent intervention is the most direct method of nonviolent action, and it is therefore often more immediate and effective than the other two methods, but is also harder to maintain. They include sit-ins, blockades, fasting or hunger strikes

As we will see, Gandhi resorted to almost all possible forms of nonviolence acts. His tactics were carefully chosen, taking into account the political and cultural circumstances of his time. We will now see which strategies he recoursed to in order to achieve his larger plans.

Gandhi and the nonviolence struggle

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (born in the Indian city of Porbandar in 1869) leaded one of the most important ideological revolutions ever. Though he was one of the few privileged men of the colonized India, he was determined to struggle against poverty and injustice. He was an idealistic man fighting for his principles, and he was successful in achieving them only through nonviolent means. It is very difficult to sum up his biography in such a limited space; however, I will try to include all key facts.

Gandhi was born in a wealthy family pertaining to the third caste: the Vacies, who were merchants and civil servants coming “from the legs of the god Brahma”i. He married at the age of 13 –following the Hindu tradition- to Kasturbai, pertaining to the same caste as Gandhi himselfii. Gandhi’s parents were extremely religious and he took the best from Hinduism. Though he did not pay much attention to spirituality at his childhood and early youth, he would later become very keen on learning about other major religions through the ideologies of certain occidental authors, such as Leo Tolstoy and his work The Kingdom of God is within You.

Contrary to the vast majority of children in India, Gandhi had the possibility to go to the school of Porbandar. He then started to study the degree of Law –following his father’s will- at Samaldar College in Ahmedabad, but he would have to finish the degree in London because he needed to improve his knowledge of English. This implied a huge economic effort for the family. He also had to overcome many difficulties, but he gained a great training in return, opening his eyes very much to the globe.

Once he was a lawyer, he tried hard to find a job in India, but his studies abroad would not offer him the knowledge of the real problems in India. For that reason, he accepted a job offer in Durban, South Africa. He again had to leave Kasturbai in India (with whom he already had two children). There he soon realized that the native population was exploited by the colonizers, and the natural resources, too. Indians living in that country were also working as semi-slaves during 5 years –after which they could claim for very few rights as citizens. For the first time, Gandhi became aware of the injustices that other Indians were living in South Africa due to their color and faith. He also suffered from discrimination several times during his stay in that country (he was expelled from the train, for instance). Nevertheless, he was determined in staying there and fighting for the abolition of any type of racial prejudice. He enjoyed a privileged situation in South Africa, for he was a well-paid lawyer working with other white lawyers who treated him equally. However, he did -as the rest of Indians- not have any rights concerning the daily life, and he was not allowed to cross certain public spaces.

For that reason, he accepted his first challenge as a public figure when the right to vote was abolished for the Indian population of South Africa. Without accepting any salary for this duty (only the necessary fund for the development of the work), he concluded that a public organization had to be created in order to fight for the attainment of civil rights. The Indian Congress of Natal was created in the year 1894 for that purpose, and Gandhi was the secretary.

He then went back to India to bring his wife and children with him to South Africa. At his short stay, he published one of his best known books, The Green Book (due to the color of the book), which concerned the injustices and the poor conditions that Indian workers had to stand in South Africa. He also volunteered in Mumbai because there was a plague and he even started cleaning up the huts of the pariahs.

He since then proposed to abandon any kind of violent struggle, because it justifies the aggressor’s violence (in this case, the colonizers’ violence). Patience and compassion are the only tools to promote mutual understanding. Nonviolence acts took place repeatedly, one example being the boycott to the Black Law in 1907, where many color population refused to get registered because policies were becoming ever more racist. Gandhi was jailed for two months for the first time in his life.

At this time, he was willing to serve as a lawyer of all those who were suffering injustices but always with a great consideration and loyalty to the British rulers. He thought that the Independence of India could only be attained through the British Empire. In fact, some of the criticisms he received were because of his offers and active help to serve the British Empire during revolts or wars. For many years, he thought that the British Empire would veil for the world’s well-being.

It was not until much later in his life when he realized that colonization had tremendously negative consequences on the peoples. In fact, an evolution of his thoughts is to be observed during his quite long life.

In the year 1915, at the age of 45, he returned to his home country. His fist objective was to travel throughout the country in order to know the realities of the Indian peoples. He continued living in ashrams and became an even more fervent defender of the rights of farmers, on whose hands lied the future of the country. One of the most known speeches of this time starts with the following words: “Majesties, I suggest you to abandon all luxuries and share with the poor everything that you have (…), millions of Indians are starving and they hope that we will do something for them today…”.

By 1920, he had outlined the bases for the non-collaboration towards the British Government. His views had changed and now he considered Independence as an urgent must. He was elected as the President of the Home Rule League (or League for Independence). His first measure was to boycott all imported clothing from Britain, enhancing the production of autochthonous kadhi and khaddaz (cotton hand-made Indian clothing). Only resources from India would be used, thus also promoting more jobs within the country for millions of Indians living in poverty. As part of this boycott, clothes and other materials imported from Britain were burnt, children abandoned English schools, Indian civil servants quitted their jobs, soldiers rejected being in the army… Nevertheless, it is important to reflect on the fact that Gandhi always informed the British rulers exactly how their actions were going to develop, in order to avoid disturbances, and maybe achieve the goals through a more opened dialogue.

However, the British Government did not like those acts, which sometimes encountered violent reprisals. More than 100.000 Indians were imprisoned after the famous “Salt March” (1930), in which thousands of people followed Gandhi in a 400 km march towards the sea and took salt with their own hands -symbolizing the fact that salt was being monopolized by the British.

Mahatma Gandhi also fought for the attainment of civil rights through the edition of several newspapers: Indian Opinion (1904, South Africa); Young India and Navajivan (1920, India), Harijans (1933, India). He was very aware of the importance of the communication media within society as transmitters of information, but also as the creators of opinions. Some of these newspapers were translated into 10 different languages, for Gandhi also was a fervent defender of Indian languages and dialects.

Gandhi’s answers to violence were always nonviolent, for as he said “an eye for an eye would make the world blind”. He always used the time in prison to reflect through the lectures of religious and historical books. He also wrote a biography entitled My experiments with the truth.

One of the most famous “weapons” that Gandhi used were hunger strikes. Out of a total of 16 hungers strikes during his life, in two occasions he almost died because he fastened during two weeks. However, most of them -if not all- had great achievements. Hunger strikes, following his words, “forces your adversary to react urgently”. Moreover, the British did not want him to become a martyr for the cause of Independence and he was released from prison more than once (also due to his weak health).

Gandhi practiced a simple life of ahimsa –love to all creatures. Consequently, he was a strict vegetarian and defender of natural medicine. He also practiced chastity (brahmacharya) to save all his energy for spiritual purposes. He would be considered a real guru and, as such, he continuously travelled all through the country giving messages for peace. Regardless of other options, he always travelled in third class in order to get in touch with peoples from all castes. In a symbol of solidarity towards the poorest, Gandhi decided to wear a dhoti, which was a cloth around the hip that was used by those who did not have enough money to buy more clothes for the rest of the body.

Indians treated him almost as a divinity. He was impressive even to British rulers and many of them admired him. His actions required great amounts of courage: Let us just remember the extensive peregrinations in India, the hard work in the ashrams, the years imprisoned after general strikes all throughout India, or the dangers of the long hunger strikes.

Gandhi realized that his privileged life as a lawyer was not compatible with his ideals of sacrifice and simplicity, and he founded several ashrams. These were communities aimed at the growth of the spirituality, where all the members shared religious worship (though they had different religions), meditation and dialogue, but also where they shared all their goods and renounced to private ownership. Education was very important, too. They did all kinds of manual work: reparation of shoes, carpentry, etc. This way of living inspired Gandhi and the ultimate aim was to be independent, because he thought that industrialization and exodus towards the city were very dangerous.

After the Second World War, Britain had not enough resources to keep the control over the colony. Another circumstance yet accelerated the Independence, the fact that religious confrontations amongst Hindus and Muslims were getting more and more conflictive. Therefore, India achieved its Independence on the 15th of August of 1947, only some months before Gandhi was shot to death by a radical Hindu angry for Gandhi’s defense of all religions interests (also Muslims).

Gandhi died violently after a life of nonviolent struggle to attain rights for all Indians. His experience and wisdom made it possible for him to unify several traditions and thoughts, thus creating an exceptional model of struggle against injustice. His aims were not just the Independence of India and achieving the equal treatment of the pariahs, but he was also engaged in promoting gender equality, the tolerance amongst religions and the promotion of an own rural and sustainable economy. He had always been keen on abolishing millenary traditions of India, such as the castes system and the marriages among children. He devoted himself towards the struggle against poverty and hunger.

He put himself and his life as the means to achieve Independence, but more remarkable: he refused to have political power when he could have used it. He was an idealist fighter, and he was aware that the power is corruption, and he only wanted to serve the poorest.


Some fervent critics of nonviolence argue that it is an attempt to impose the morals of the bourgeoisie upon the proletariat and that violence is a necessary accompaniment to revolutionary change. Other critics assert that nonviolence does not actually work in our real world. However, the example of Gandhi proved both that it was possible to achieve the goals with a great social struggle (of a wide population) and by using only peaceful means.

After reading the biographies of Gandhi, those critics are unfounded if we consider the great achievements he did. However, this is one of the great personal challenges posed by nonviolence: Once one believes in nonviolence in theory, how can the person live it?

Gandhi was once again the example of such life, which requires an opening of the heart and mind, and a deep love towards all existent creatures. Because we are all interconnected, to love oneself is to love everyone; to hate another is to hate oneself. Because every day we learn violence, it is necessary to unlearn that violence through practicing love and compassion at every possible opportunity. As Martin Luther King said, "Nonviolence means avoiding not only external physical violence, but also internal violence of spirit. You not only refuse to shoot a man, but you refuse to hate him".

Nonviolence has more recently obtained a level of institutional recognition and endorsement at the global level. On November 10, 1998, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed the first decade of the 21st century -the years 2001 to 2010- as the International Decade for the Promotion of a Culture of Peace and Non-Violence for the Children of the World. This year this decade is going to end… Did we actually pay enough attention? Or can we all live a more peaceful existence through examples such as Gandhi’s life? I am sure that the more I know about this impressive figure, the more I will personally try my best to live in accordance to nonviolence philosophy.


  • C. Albaladejo Vivero (2005), Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi Biography, Edimat Libros S.A.

  • Wikipedia:, consulted on the 9th of November 2010.

  • Class notes.

i The two higher castes were the Brahmans and the Sutras (clergy and warriors respectively). The fourth caste was formed by the Surds (farmers and artisans). There was another social group formed by the “untouchable” or pariahs (more than one sixth of the population at that time), who were not allowed to enter the temples, own properties, drink from public fountains or live in the villages. Gandhi would all his life fight to defend the rights of the pariahs, although it was not until two years after his death (1950) that the Indian constitution decreed the disappearance of this lowest caste.

ii He loved his wife for the rest of his life, even though he was completely against marriage of children, a millenary tradition in India.

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