Remembering Gandhi at 150: The Power of Nonviolence and Respect for Life
(compiled by John Whitehead)
The world just marked the 150th birthday anniversary of a famous advocate for nonviolent resistance and the consistent life ethic, Mohandas K. Gandhi. This lawyer who turned to advocating for India’s independence from Great Britain became famous for using civil disobedience against British imperial rule. His birthday of October 2nd is celebrated as the International Day of Nonviolence.
To remember this activist for peace and justice, we offer a few notable quotations from his writings and public remarks.
Gandhi on Nonviolence
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. 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. (From All Men Are Brothers)
I…justify entire non-violence, and consider it possible in relations between man and man and nations and nations; but it is not “a resignation from all real fighting against wickedness”. On the contrary, the non-violence of my conception is a more active and more real fighting against wickedness than retaliation whose very nature is to increase wickedness. I contemplate a mental, and therefore a moral opposition to immoralities. I seek entirely to blunt the edge of the tyrant’s sword, not by putting up against it a sharper-edged weapon, but by disappointing his expectation that I would be offering physical resistance. The resistance of the soul that I should offer instead would elude him. It would at first dazzle him, and at last compel recognition from him, which recognition would not humiliate him but would uplift him. (From Non-violence in Peace and War)
Gandhi on Racism, Imperialism, and Civil Disobedience
Gandhi was imprisoned in 1922 for agitating against British rule in a series of newspaper articles. At his trial he offered the following comments:
I owe it perhaps to the Indian public and to the public in England…that I should explain why from a staunch loyalist and cooperator I have become an uncompromising disaffectionist and Non-cooperator…
My first contact with British authority in [South Africa, where Gandhi’s political activism began] was not of a happy character. I discovered that as a man and an Indian I had no rights. More correctly, I discovered that I had no rights as a man, because I was an Indian…
I came reluctantly to the conclusion that the British connexion had made India more helpless that she ever was before, politically and economically. A disarmed India has no power of resistance against any aggressor if she wanted to engage in an armed conflict with him…She has become so poor that she has little power of resisting famines. Before the British advent, India spun and wove in her millions of cottages just the supplement she needed for adding to her meagre agricultural resources. The cottage industry, so vital for India’s existence, has been ruined by incredibly heartless and inhuman processes as described by English witnesses. Little do town-dwellers know how the semi-starved masses of India are slowly sinking to lifelessness…No sophistry, no jugglery in figures can explain away the evidence that the skeletons in many villages present to the naked eye…
The greatest misfortune is that Englishmen and their Indian associates in the country do not know that they are engaged in the crime I have attempted to describe. I am satisfied that many Englishmen and Indian officials honestly believe that they are administering one of the best systems devised in the world and that India is making steady though slow progress. They do not know that a subtle but effective system of terrorism and an organized display of force on the one hand, and the deprivation of all powers of retaliation or self-defence on the other, have emasculated the people…
I believe that I have rendered a service to India and England by showing in Non-cooperation the way out of the unnatural state in which both are living. In my humble opinion, Non-cooperation with evil is as much a duty as is cooperation with good. But in the past, Non-cooperation has been deliberately expressed in violence to the evil doer. I am endeavouring to show to my countrymen that violent Non-cooperation only multiplies evil and that as evil can only be sustained by violence, withdrawal of support of evil requires complete abstention from violence.
Non-violence implies voluntary submission to the penalty for Non-cooperation with evil. I am here, therefore, to invite and submit cheerfully to the highest penalty that can be inflicted upon men for what in law is a deliberate crime and what appears to me to be the highest duty of a citizen. The only course open to you, the Judge, is either to resign your post and thus dissociate yourself from evil, if you feel that the law you are called upon to administer is an evil and that in reality I am innocent; or to inflict on me the severest penalty if you believe that the system and the law you are assisting to administer are good for the people of this country…
[He would be sentenced to six years in prison but serve less than two.]
Gandhi on Respect for Life
Ahimsa [rejection of killing or the desire to kill] means infinite love, which again means infinite capacity for suffering. Who but woman, the mother of man, shows this capacity in the largest measure? She shows it as she carries the infant and feeds it during nine months and derives joy in the suffering involved. What can beat the suffering caused by the pangs of labour? But she forgets them in the joy of creation. (From All Men Are Brothers)
Gandhi recounted once receiving a letter from a young man whose wife had had an affair with the man’s friend and was now pregnant. The letter writer had been advised by his father that his wife should have an abortion. Gandhi wrote in reply
It seems to me clear as daylight that abortion would be a crime. Countless husbands are guilty of the same lapse as this poor woman, but nobody ever questions them. Society not only excuses them but does not even censure them. Then, again, the woman cannot conceal her shame while man can successfully hide his sin.
The woman in question deserves to be pitied. It would be the sacred duty of the husband to bring up the baby with all the love and tenderness that he is capable of and to refuse to yield to the counsels of his father. (From All Men Are Brothers)
Gandhi, Hindus, and Muslims
Gandhi greatly desired peace between Hindus and Muslims, India’s major religious groups. In 1921, he wrote “If not during my life-time, I know that after my death both Hindus and [Muslims] will bear witness that I had never ceased to yearn after communal peace.” He decried sectarian strife and around the time of the partition between India and Pakistan noted “My one aim with respect to the Hindu-Muslim question is that the solution will be complete only when the minority, whether in the Indian Union or Pakistan, feels perfectly safe, even if they are in the minority of one.” (See Ishtiaq Ahmed, “The Gandhian Legacy of Hindu-Muslim Relations.”)
Conflict over the Kashmir region, which began during Gandhi’s lifetime, has led to continuing high tensions today between India and Pakistan. With war in South Asia—a war that could have catastrophic global consequences—a real threat, Gandhi’s philosophy and practice of nonviolence is much needed today.
For some of our blog posts on notable individuals, see:
Women’s History Month: Jane Addams by Mary Krane Derr & others
Courageous Woman: Elizabeth Anscombe (1919-2001) by Julianne Wiley
Dorothy Day and the Consistent Life Ethic: by Rob Arner
How to Value People Like Mister Rogers by Andrew Hocking
The Redemptive Personalism of Saint Oscar Romero by Julia Smucker
Elizabeth Cady Stanton by Mary Krane Derr & Elizabeth Cady Stanton
Difference this Time: Prolife Heroism (Garrett Swasey, the pro-life police officer killed in shootings at the Colorado Planned Parenthood] by Rachel MacNair