In honor of Gandhi

Belfast, N. Ireland

Yesterday was the International Day of Nonviolence as it was the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi, the face of the Indian nonviolent social movement that shook off the British occupation and achieved India’s independence in 1947. My Indian classmate Swetha tells me that yesterday in India, the entire country took mandatory holiday to honor this figure of liberation.

I want to use this post to acknowledge briefly the importance of Gandhi in understanding the role of nonviolent social movements in pursuits of liberation as well as to take a surface glance at a few of Gandhi’s terribly helpful ideals regarding nonviolence and one’s attitude toward one’s oppressor.

I think I am right in saying that Gandhi is widely considered the face of nonviolence. Whenever I mention nonviolence in the West, two images (really two faces) emerge for folks: Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. MLK drew greatly from the teachings and example of Gandhi as well as Jesus (to whom Gandhi also looked for inspiration, and famously stated, ‘I like your Christ, but I do not like your Christians, for they are nothing like your Christ’). For those of us in the U.S. who admire and celebrate Dr. King and his work in the American Civil Rights Movement, we should also look with respect and intrigue on the examples of Gandhi, and then also Jesus. (It is curious to me that, at least in my experience, it seems most non-Christians clearly see Jesus as a nonviolent practitioner [though using that precise term is quite anachronistic], while so many of those claiming Christianity utterly refuse to acknowledge that Jesus has any relevance to discussions of nonviolent movements and resistance.) I have heard Gandhi explicitly referenced as influential in numerous nonviolent liberation movements, like the one in Sri Lanka to British occupation, in Palestine to Israeli occupation, in the U.S. to the Jim Crow laws of the South, et al. Due to his profound relevance, I find it helpful to analyze a couple of his approaches to and beliefs in nonviolence.

As I understand from my own reading, Gandhi believed in the unity of means and ends. He contested the notion that nonviolence should be pursued as means to an end, that nonviolence was a strategy useful only in reaching a desired goal. Rather, for Gandhi, nonviolence was the end. One pursues nonviolence for the sake of nonviolence. Gandhi argued that if we call on nonviolence only in times of need in the hopes of reaching a particular outcome, then when this goal reaches fruition we will simply discard nonviolence for it has served its purpose and is no longer relevant. Gandhi believed, then, that we should embark on the process of creating the nonviolent self. Creating peaceableness in ourselves and in our immediate interactions within our closest circles is entirely necessary if we hope to be true to nonviolence in the face of oppression and other forms of violence. By pursuing nonviolence internally, we will then naturally practice it externally. For Gandhi, though we structure our lives around the belief that violence is truth and progress (as evident through our actions – see post ‘On religion’), the law of nonviolence actually permeates the world, we just have not realized it yet. A helpful comparison might be the way in which the pre-1492 European world believed the earth was flat and structured their lives around this belief. Clearly, this notion proved to be false. Gandhi seems to suggest the same is true regarding violence.

Furthermore, Gandhi aspired to the notion that unity exists in all life. This informed his diet as a vegetarian, as well as his refusal to see the world in terms of self and other. To filter life through these lenses, allows us to isolate ourselves into camps, making it possible and necessary to build separation walls (whether physically or metaphorically) to ease our fears, but actually primarily result in their reinforcement. When we encounter our enemy or oppressor then, we will not see him or her as an other to be feared, but rather as part of the unity of all life that is to be loved and embraced. Gandhi, like Jesus, argued that without a love for your enemies (or a feeling of ‘brotherliness,’ as Gandhi put it) then we cannot hope to sustain nonviolence in the face of direct and brutal violence. Engendering a spirit of mercy and compassion for the unity of all life will allow us to receive the blows of our attackers as if they were ‘so many flowers.’[1]

While it could be easy to write off Gandhi’s words as utopian or theoretical, we should remember that Gandhi espoused all this while actively resisting a brutal British occupation. Often the critique of pacifism goes, “Pacifism is a luxury paid for by warriors.” But the nonviolent liberation movement Gandhi led can by no means be classified as ‘easy’ or ‘luxurious.’ Nonviolence is terribly dangerous and can certainly lead to death (which is why Gandhi argues we must learn not to fear death – I am not quite there myself). But the hope of nonviolence is that as Kentucky farmer, poet, and prophet Wendell Berry writes, after all the failed attempts at peace that nation-states (and individuals for that matter) have pursued, ‘there is one great possibility that we have hardly tried: that we can come to peace by being peaceable.’[2]

Much peace,


[1] Thomas Merton, ed., Gandhi On Non-Violence,New York: New Directions, 1965, 82-83, emphasis mine.

[2] Wendell Berry, Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community, Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 1998, 84.

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