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The Power of Ahimsā (Nonviolence):
Gandhi’s gift to a violent world

Ruwan Palapathwala
University of Melbourne, Australia

Gandhi once said: “in this age of the rule of brute force, it is almost impossible for anyone to believe that anyone else could possibly reject the law of the final supremacy of brute force” (Attenborough, 2002, p. 39). Although it is nearly six decades or so since he pronounced these words the truth they reveal has remained unchanged to this very day. The scale of destruction we witness across the globe today, and the economic and political imperialism which has engulfed the world in the form of globalisation in the 21st century, have come to mirror and embody various aspects of this “brute force” which Gandhi called himsā (violence). Gandhi’s teaching that ahimsā (nonviolence) alone is the antidote for this violation of life. His message that ahimsā is a universally applicable spiritual reality and that it is the most fundamental means to self-knowledge, to social truth, justice and happiness offers us a significant alternative to work with for the betterment of our world.

While it is the view of some that the political and economic conditions that were created by the two Great Wars contributed to the ending of British rule in India, the role that Gandhi’s satyagraha (soul force) movement played in the process also cannot be overlooked. The optimism that the same soul force can morally and spiritually win over brute force once again led me to write this essay. Through answering five questions I will explain Gandhi's understanding of ahimsā and demonstrate its capacity as a powerful spiritual instrument by which we may transform the conditions of a violent world for the good of humanity and all creation.


At the outset, it can be said that Gandhi's teaching of ahimsā is based on the classical Indian philosophy of God-realisation and its penultimate experience of union with the Divine – the state in which one can say: tat twam asi, I am, Thou art. However, in developing his notion of ahimsā Gandhi goes beyond this Vedic and ascetic static notion of ultimate union with the Divine and reconstitutes this process of becoming or God-realisation into a moral action. Gandhi does this by firmly anchoring his religious outlook in the classical Indic position of God-realisation while adopting, at the same time, the dynamism Buddha introduced to the  static state of “being That” as a means of wayfaring towards the Divine. For Gandhi, this dynamic life process is the spiritual development of the inner truth for social good which has moral duty as its most essential perquisite. The outworking of this moral duty is what is meant by the word ahimsā and the breadth of its meaning can be best explained by understanding what he means by violence or himsā. Gandhi explains violence in three ways: as “killing”, “killing by inches” and “tearing”.

For Gandhi the Sanskrit word ahimsā – which can also be translated as “non-killing” – is too limiting if it is taken only mean the material ending of physical life. This is so because for Gandhi killing primarily refers to the soul – the life principle. However, since the soul is imperishable, ahimsā cannot mean non-killing. Therefore, he defines himsā as injury done or suffering caused. The only exception is when it is done for the greater benefit of a society or an individual who would otherwise suffer the injury (e.g. stopping a tyrant and amputating a leg to save life). By himsā Gandhi also means killing for the sake of the destructible body. Such killing includes activities such as eating, breathing, walking and occupying space. In this sense of the word physical embodiment itself can mean himsā.

“Killing by inches” means two things for Gandhi. Firstly, it means the interruption of the soul’s natural life and growth in the body. Secondly, its means the damage caused to the body which results from the effects that have culminated by obstructing the soul’s natural life. This killing, which can injure the physical, emotional or mental make up of an individual, Gandhi calls “tearing”. Terror, repression, humiliation, systematic false trade, starvation, chronic under-nourishment etc., are examples of such violence. 

Gandhi’s interpretation of himsā indicates clearly that the negative particle “non” in the word “nonviolence” does not mean that it is a negative force. Gandhi said that he had to coin the word “nonviolence” “to bring out the root meaning of ahimsā” (Gandhi, 1945, pp. 121-22). For him ahimsā is a spiritual force which has the atmā – the soul – as its source of origin. This understanding enables him to make nonviolence an absolute force and maintain that in the same way the soul does not depend on the physical body for its existence, “similarly, nonviolence, or soul-force, too does not need physical aid for its propagation or effect. It acts independently of them. It transcends time and space” (Gandhi, 1962, p. 11). Therefore, for him, ahimsā is the “greatest and the activist force in the world” (Gandhi, 1945, pp. 121-22).  He believed that his activities of nonviolence – satyagraha – were channels for this force to come to effect. So when he describes an act of “nonviolence” what he means is that the soul-force has the effectiveness to nullify the evil in violence. Therefore, according to Gandhi, “nonviolence” is not “un-violence”; it is the restraint of expected violence resulted by the spiritual force.


Gandhi answers this question by bringing together the views of two schools of Hindu philosophy: the schools of non-duality and duality. By taking this position he claims to be both an advaitist (believer in non-dual subsistent reality underlying all reality) and a dvaitist (believer in dualism). By holding this dual position he affirms two opposing philosophical views by maintaining that:

  •     there is an essential unity of humanity and all that lives.

  •     we experience two forces – “God and Satan” – in the world which we experience at an empirical level. This empirical world for Gandhi is the world of duality where evil is real. Based on this understanding, he maintains the principle dichotomy of violence and nonviolence he equates violence with evil and believes that all analysis of the empirical world proceed in terms of this dichotomy.

The paradox of Gandhi’s position is that while he believes in the goodness of the all pervading God who is One, it is God who creates in this world what human beings imagine as evil. For Gandhi, this imaginary evil is an incentive for human beings, as moral beings, to struggle against actively. Therefore, while evil is ultimately imaginary, it is real and the moral imagination which creates it follows its own laws. According to Gandhi, human beings can sustain themselves in the world “only by assuming the existence of the imaginary dual to be real” (Gandhi, 1961, p. 226). His fundamental claim here is that God creates this evil in our mental consciousness to induce the activity, virtues and discrimination which can eventually lead us to our ultimate goal – God-realisation.


It is well-known that the Bhagavat Gītā was Gandhi’s constant companion and inspiration. In spite of the fact that the word ahimsā only appears four times in the Bhagavat Gītā, verses 54-72 in Chapter II of the Gītā were particularly important for Gandhi’s development of his concept of ahimsā. In Shloka 54, Arjuna asks Krishna: “who is the person of poise, Krishna? Who is steady in devotion? How does this person speak, rest, walk?” Krishna’s answer – sthita-prajya, the steady minded person whose consciousness is established in the Spirit – provides Gandhi with his archetype of the nonviolent person. Sthita-prajya is the ideal person who subdues desires, anger, ignorance, malice, and other passions and thus cultivates restraint, selflessness and detachment (Shloaks 55-61). Because this person is content in the atman he is above the mutual pulling and tearing of material forces and therefore causes no himsā. Sthita-prajya, therefore, is the one who discovers and cherishes the truth which transcends matter, the atman – the life principle – and can thus speak out of his innermost conviction that he is not this body but atman and that he may use the body only with a view to expressing atman, i.e. self-realisation. By this exercise of restraint sthita-prajya progressively grows in the power to express nonviolence even in his material make-up.

From this understanding of the ideal person and sthita-prajya’s identification with the atman Gandhi proceeds to define Truth as moral authenticity and equates Truth with nonviolence. “Moral authenticity” is what sthita-prajya represents: his outer conduct is guided by his inner status. Espousing such action, Gandhi believes, brings into the world the moral quality of “Truth”. Conversely, he believes that the Truth involved in moral authenticity leads to nonviolence. Therefore, he says: “We have to live a life of ahimsā in the midst of a world of himsā and that is possible only if we cling to Truth. That is how I deduce ahimsā from Truth” (Gandhi, 1962, pp. 4-5).


My view is that Gandhi adopts the dynamism he found in Buddhism to demonstrate how sthita-prajya’s experience of Truth can be implemented as a progressive moral ideology. Gandhi’s indebtedness to Buddhism has been noted on several occasions. One of the most revealing confessions is found in a letter which he wrote to a Burmese friend in 1919, saying: “when in 1890 or 1891 I became acquainted with the teaching of Buddha, my eyes were opened to the limitless possibilities of nonviolence” (quoted by Iyer, 1973, p. 226). In another context Gandhi said that the Buddha was the greatest teacher of ahimsā and that he “taught us to defy appearances and trust in the final triumph of Truth and Love” (Gandhi, 1959, p. 160). Since the word ahimsā does not occur frequently either in the Buddhist scriptures or the commentaries, one may wonder how Buddhism came to give the dynamism to Gandhi’s idea of ahimsā.

Mrs. Rhys Davids (1978), the eminent Buddhist scholar, claims that the search for the self inwardly which is one in nature with the Highest – the “progressive revelation of a More in man” in the Upanishads, the pursuit seen as the Way leading to Brahman, the Ultimate, was the teaching that Buddha taught and on which he expanded (pp. 8-9, 19-20). Davids also refers to that “More in man” as “God-in-Man”, “Divine Selfhood”, “Very God”, and Mahattam (the Great Self”) (pp. 12, 13, 55). Davids highlights two aspects of the early teaching which, she says, were Buddha’s original contribution to the existing teaching of the Upanishads: (i) that “the true Becoming (where there is no decay) is in every [person], the spirit the soul”; and (ii) substituting the Upanishadic teaching of attaining the splendid human knowledge of “I am, Thou art” from a static state of “being That” to the dynamic: “For the rapt complacency Buddha taught the divine unrest of the inner urge we call “duty”, “conscience”, and which India, though not then in religious terms, called Dharma (that which should be “borne”, in mind, in heedfulness)” (p. 21). The outcome of this transition from the static to the dynamic is, she claims, that Dharma in Buddhism came to take prominence over the idea of self in the Brahmanic teaching. According to Davids, there is a further relational aspect to the “becoming more” that is found in the idea of “Amity (Mettā) and its kindred sentiments … between man and man … as an essential way of ‘becoming More in wayfaring towards the Most’” (pp. 30-31). However, she sees the gradual disappearance of the “Way of Becoming”, which she says is “now universally called not becoming, but Eightfold Way (more usually Path)” (p. 22). Consequently, while the Buddhist “never lost sight of the need of ‘making become’ this and that in thought and conduct,” she says, the Buddhist “fell away” from seeing that “the Becoming was the Way towards becoming ‘That’ [The Most or Self]” (p. 38).

While Davids’ interpretation is less acceptable to the Theravādians, I am of the opinion that she provides us with a helpful framework to interpret how Gandhi himself may have understood Buddha’s message and the dynamism he had introduced to the process of becoming or God-realisation.


Because Gandhi believes that the quality of evil is a material quality which belongs to the empirical word and thus arises and resides in the psycho-physical phenomenon of the human person, he says that only a force whose origin is spiritual and whose power is greater than that of any material force can conquer violence. For this reason his actions of nonviolence and methods employed do not attempt to rearrange the  material elements of the phenomenal order, but rather draw into action this spiritual force of the soul which alone, he claims, has the power to change the quality of human relations. To that extent, for Gandhi, ahimsā is a universally applicable force and satyagraha was the art of bringing the effect of this spiritual force to remedy the ills of the world. At large, what Gandhi seeks to do is to employ this soul-force to eradicate evil that manifests in society in the forms of social and political injustice. Then, for Gandhi, ahimsā is a means to truth – it is the path to seeking social truth and justice for all.


In spite of the seeming idealism of ahimsā and the impossibility of its achievement by ordinary human beings, Gandhi says: “I am not a visionary. I claim to be a practical idealist. The religion of nonviolence is not meant merely for the rishis and saints. It is meant for the common people as well. Nonviolence is the law of our species as violence is the law of the brute” (Attenborough, 2002, pp. 43-44).

Ultimately, the driving force for nonviolence is based on one coming to a consciousness, a living awareness that one’s soul is identical with God, and so with all humanity and all creation. In short, his position is: since the ultimate aim of humanity is the realisation of God all our activities – social, political and religious – have to be directed by that ultimate goal.  If this is achieved, the experience of divine will be made manifest in life. In this way, Gandhi offers his methods of nonviolence as the “sovereign” means for the realisation of Truth through this moral struggle.

In a world that is increasingly violent and seeks to resolve conflicts and establish peace by the means of war and threats of pre-emptive strikes, Gandhi’s call to embrace a path of nonviolence is a beacon of hope for us.  Furthermore, in a world where religious fundamentalism is on the rise in the forms of militant Islam and the Religious Right, to note that Gandhi’s understanding of nonviolence is fundamentally an interfaith one is of great significance.

The forcefulness of Gandhi’s teaching of ahimsā is that he grounds this sublime truth in the reality of our empirical world and admits that nonviolence is an unattainable ideal. However, his argument is that it is an ideal which must be constantly striven for as if achievable. Gandhi’s realism aligns us with the central Vedic teaching from which he proceeds and expands on for practical application – the fundamental aim and yearning of humanity for God-realisation and attaining it through moral action. Therefore, it is this yearning – or as our Muslims brothers and sisters say, the jihad al nafs, the struggle for one’s soul against one’s own base instinct which can give us that dynamic impulse to resist violence and work for the transformation and betterment of humanity.  


Attenborough, Richard (2002). Ed. Gandhi: in my own words. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

Davids, Rhys (1978). Outlines of Buddhism. New Delhi: Oriental Books Reprint Corporation, Munshiram Manoharlal Publishes Pvt. Ltd.

Gandhi, Mohandas K. (1945). Non-violence in peace & war, Vol 1. Mahadev Desai comp.; Ahmedabad: Navajivan Press.

Gandhi, Mohandas K. (1962).  In Search of the Supreme.  Vol. 1. 1st edition V.B. Kher, comp. Ahmedabad: Navajivan Press, 1961.

Gandhi, Mohandas K. (1959).  The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi. Vol. 40. New Delhi: Government of India Publications.

Gandhi, Mohandas K. (1962).  The Law of Love. Anand T. Hingorani, Comp. 2nd edition; Pocket Gandhi Series, No. 3; Bombay; Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.

Lal, P. (1994). Tr. The Bhagavad Gita. The Lotus Collection. New Delhi: Roli Books Pvt Ltd.

Lyer, Raghavan (1973). The Moral and Political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi. Orford: Orford University Press.

Copyright 2006 - Journal of Globalization for the Common Good -

Copyright 2006 - Journal of Globalization for the Common Good -