Oct. 2 is observed all over India as the birthday of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. It is a national holiday. There are programmes and events to remember the man who gave his life for India’s freedom from the British Empire, largest and most powerful dominion known to humankind.
Also known the world over as “Mahatma” or great soul, Gandhi inspired millions of Indians to contest and oppose British rule in India through non-violent civil disobedience. He called this “Satyagraha” or truth-force.
Gandhi’s methods have inspired many all over the world, including Martin Luther King, Jr., Lech Walesa, and Nelson Mandela, and the Dalai Lama. Incidentally, all them won the Nobel Peace Prize for fighting against injustice, inequality, and oppression through non-violent means.
It was only right that the UN recognised Gandhi’s contribution too, albeit nearly 60 years after his death, in declaring his birthday as the “International Non-violence Day.”
The resolution A/RES/61/271 of 15 June 2007, moved by India, was co-sponsored by 140 countries to “disseminate the message of non-violence” through a variety of ways, including “education and public awareness.” It upholds “the universal relevance of the principle of non-violence” and the desire “to secure a culture of peace, tolerance, understanding and non-violence.”
A culture of peace
But how is such a culture of peace to be fostered and promoted? Many people think that non-violence is the recourse of the weak. Gandhi passionately disagreed. He famously said, “Non-violence is the weapon of the strong.”
In an article in his periodical, Young India, published on May 6, 1926, Gandhi admitted that weakness is not something to be proud of. In fact, he called it a “sin”: “I admit that the strong will rob the weak and that it is sin to be weak.” But those who are weak in body, the poor, disposed, disarmed, need not be weak in the soul: “the strength of soul can defy a whole world in arms against it. This strength is open to the weakest in body.”
This was the Gandhian revolution. To empower the weak to resist even the strongest evil or mightiest power in the world through the force of non-violence. As he said on July 20, 1935 in the Harijan, another journal that he edited, “Non-violence is the greatest force at the disposal of mankind. It is mightier than the mightiest weapon of destruction devised by the ingenuity of man.”
We all want to save our lives and to live peacefully. But violence is often imposed upon us. Every soldier of non-violence must be ready to die. But isn’t this the requirement of paid soldiers in armies around the world?
The difference is this: while conventional soldiers are trained to kill others, non-violent activists must be willing to die for the misdeeds and faults of the aggressors. If in the process, the latter’s beliefs and practices can be changed, the sacrifice would not be in vain.
Willingness to die for one’s beliefs
As Gandhi observed in the same article, “Destruction is not the law of the humans. Man lives freely by his readiness to die, if need be, at the hands of his brother, never by killing him. Every murder or other injury, no matter for what cause, committed or inflicted on another is a crime against humanity.” Of course, non-violent resistance requires perfect fearlessness and the willingness to die for one’s beliefs rather than kill others for them.
“Poverty,” Gandhi said famously, “was the greatest violence.” Add to it inequality and injustice, starvation and malnutrition, economic and military violence, and, in today’s day and age, the violence against our habitat, planet earth, the extent of violence in our lives is truly staggering. That is why violence also must be understood in its multiple and complex dimensions.
While perfect non-violence is impossible because life feeds on life, what is required is the cultivation of the attitude and commitment to non-injury in thought, word, and deed. What does this mean in actual practice? Simply to eschew the more violent option in any conflict situation, opting instead for dialogue and conciliation to our utmost capacities. We do this in our families daily.
In well-managed families the powerful deliberately withhold their power so that those who are weaker and more dependent upon them can also grow and thrive. Every mother adopts this method to nurture her children, often sacrificing her own pleasures and needs for her children.
Every father must also forbear in over-exercising his authority. It goes without saying that these gender roles are subject to reversal and exchange whenever needed. The results are there for all to see — the difference between abusive and unhappy families and happy and stable ones.
Similarly, non-violence can be the preferred action on a bigger scale, whether social, political, or international. Ultimately, however, it requires not just a change of heart in individuals, but a change of consciousness on a global level. But this does not mean that we can afford to neglect its daily practice to achieve that greater objective.
Those who’ve been to the UN Visitors’ Plaza in New York will be struck by the sculpture of “Non-violence” by Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd. The Swedish artist’s 50ft bronze is better known as the “Knotted Gun.” It shows a giant Magnum Colt .357 revolver, with its muzzle tied into a knot.
Reuterswärd created it to protest the senseless murder of Beatle John Lennon on December 8, 1980. Subsequently, it was donated to the UN and adopted as the symbol of the Non-violence Project. There are 31 replicas in different parts of the world.
The gun represents not just an actual weapon but our tendency and ability to hurt others, whether in action or even with weaponised thoughts and feelings. Isn’t it time we look within of the eternal source and spring of non-violence?
In that case, even twisting the barrel of the gun would be unnecessarily violent and repressive. The flower of love and fellow-feeling does not need knotting up. It must bloom and flourish freely in all lands and climes.
Is it any wonder, then, that from times immemorial, the sages of India, across traditions, declared, “Ahimsa paramo dharma” — non-violence is the greatest moral obligation.