A Definition of Ahimsa

“The term nonviolence is a literal translation of the Sanskrit word ahimsa that frequently appears in Buddhist and Hindu literature. It is composed of the negative prefix a-, and the noun himsa meaning the desire to harm or to do violence to another living being. Ahimsa is therefore the absence of all desire for violence, that is to say respect for all living beings in thought, word, and deed . . . Ahimsa expresses a liberation from the desire for violence.”
Jean-Marie Muller


Book Review: The Catonsville Nine: A Story of Faith and Resistance in the Vietnam Era by Shawn Francis Peters

by Joseph Geraci

Dust wrapper art courtesy Oxford University Press

The Catonsville Nine protest has often been described as one of the most significant pacifist protests of the Vietnam War era, or, in the words of the actor Martin Sheehan, “arguably the single most powerful antiwar act in American history.” But was it nonviolent, and why should it matter to ask?

All of the Nine were catholic clergymen or laity and took their inspiration, as they said, from the Sermon on the Mount, Vatican Council II, and the recent encyclical of Pope Paul VI, Populorum Progressio (“On the Development of Peoples”). They were grounded in the Christian pacifism of Tolstoy and Dorothy Day, and influenced by the social message and call to action of Liberation Theology.

As Shawn Francis Peters writes in his arresting history, The Catonsville Nine (Oxford University Press, 2012), “They framed their protest as a call to rouse their church from its slumber regarding peace and social justice issues.” And as one of the Nine, Tom Melville declared, “Our church has failed to act officially, and we feel that as individuals we’re going to have to speak out in the name of Catholicism and Christianity.” The protest action was rich in symbols; it resembled a ritual. As they set fire to the nearly 400 draft files with their own homemade napalm, they spoke of the flame as “more than a mechanism for destroying the draft files. It was an enduring Christian symbol that evoked Pentecost.” Daniel Berrigan prayed that the flame would “light up the dark places of the heart, where courage and risk were awaiting a signal, a dawn.”

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Mahatma Gandhi’s Constructive Program: Building a New India

by Allwyn Tellis 

Editor’s Preface: This article is Chapter One of Allwyn Tellis’s unpublished PhD thesis on Gandhi’s constructive program. The notes at the end of the article give details about the text, biographical information, a link to the complete thesis, and acknowledgments. JG

Gandhi poster courtesy, A Future without War; afww.wordpress.com

In a three-part series of articles beginning in September 2006, The New York Times documented the severe water supply crisis that India has been facing for several decades, and that threatens only to get worse as the population increases, the available resources shrink, and the powers that be remain hopelessly ill-equipped and often callously indifferent. The opening article calls attention to the Indian government’s  “astonishing inability to deliver the most basic services to its citizens at a time when India asserts itself as a global power.” (1) This doomsday scenario can be extrapolated onto other basic services such as food supply, air quality, sanitation, health, education, and shelter. As India emerges as a promising “tiger” in the twenty-first century global economy, the majority of her population still leads a subhuman existence forever poised on the brink of epidemics, famines, and genocidal conflicts.

It seems that Mahatma Gandhi’s dire warning that a modernizing India could hope, at best, to be a “second or fifth edition of Europe and America” is becoming increasingly apparent. While India boasts the trappings of a twenty-first century economy and proclaims itself the largest democracy in the world, never before have so many millions of Indians been marginalized and alienated from the official frameworks of the state, political economy, and civil society. The indictments and reprimands that Gandhi hurled at the British Empire can be aimed with greater vehemence at the postcolonial Republic of India. Yet, every year, Gandhi Day is celebrated with a national holiday consisting of prayer meetings, ritual spinning bees, public sanitation drives, and the garlanding of statues of the Mahatma (great soul) or Bapu (father).

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“There is no such thing as Gandhism.”

by M. K. Gandhi

Editor’s Preface: In our continuing series on original texts, we are posting here Gandhi’s little known rejection of “Gandhism”. The editorial notes at the end give textual and other details. JG

Poster art courtesy Elevate to Great; e-2-g.com

There is no such thing as Gandhism, and I do not want to leave any sect after me. I do not claim to have originated any new principle or doctrine. I have simply tried in my own way to apply the eternal truths to our daily life and problems. There is therefore no question of my leaving any code behind like the code of Manu [an ancient Hindu Lawgiver]. There cannot be any comparison between that lawgiver and me. The opinions I have formed and the conclusions I have arrived at are not by any means final. I may change them tomorrow if I find better ones.

I have nothing new to teach the world. Truth and nonviolence are as old as the hills. All I have done is to try experiments in both, on as vast a scale and as best as I could. In doing so I have sometimes erred and learnt by my errors. Life and its problems have thus become to me a series of experiments in the practice of truth and nonviolence. By instinct I have been truthful, but not necessarily nonviolent. As a Jain Muni [Jain holy man] once rightly said, I was not so much a votary of Ahimsa as I was of Truth, and that I put the latter in the first place and the former in the second. For, as he phrased it, I was capable of sacrificing nonviolence for the sake of truth. In fact, it was in the course of my pursuit of Truth that I discovered Nonviolence. Our scriptures have declared that there is no Dharma [law] higher than truth. But nonviolence they say is the highest duty. The word Dharma, in my opinion, has a different connotation as used in the two aphorisms.

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The World Significance of Mahatma Gandhi

by Rev. Dr. John Haynes Holmes

Editor’s Preface: This is the text of a sermon John Haynes Holmes preached to his congregation at the Community Church, New York City in March 1922. It was published in pamphlet form in April of that year, and is one of the earliest extant US statements about the significance of Gandhi, although Haynes also mentions a previous sermon to his congregation some months before, which could not be retrieved. This continues our series of postings of original, historical documents. See the notes at the end for further textual and biographical information. JG

Portrait of John Haynes Holmes, courtesy of commons.wikimedia.org

As I enter this morning upon the discussion of Mahatma Gandhi, of India, and of the universal significance of the work which he is doing in his native country, I am irresistibly reminded of the day, which was not so long ago, when I first had the pleasure of presenting this man to this congregation, and of declaring my conviction, the same now as it was then, that Gandhi is incomparably the greatest man now living in the world. How the situation has changed in these few months! At that time Gandhi’s name was practically unknown outside the borders of India. I hit upon it by the merest chance; and, although I came to feel upon the instant that here was a creative spiritual genius of the first order, my information was of the meagrest description. Furthermore, all endeavors to get additional information met with failure.

Today, however, Gandhi’s name is appearing on the first pages of all the newspapers. Scores of articles have been published in the magazines and reviews of this country, England and the continent. A great journal, the New York World, sends its leading correspondent to India to “spy out the land,” and he returns to write of Gandhi and his policy of nonviolence and non-cooperation. From almost utter obscurity, this man mounts in a few months to a fame as universal as it promises to be immortal. He holds today the center of the world’s attention. That position of primacy held so proudly by Woodrow Wilson in 1918 and 1919, and by Vladimir Lenin in 1920 and 1921, is now occupied by a little Oriental who has never held any official position, who seeks neither glory nor power, and who languishes this day behind the bars of an English jail.

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Gandhi’s Impact on the USA Peace Movement

by Charles C. Walker

Logo of UK-FOR; courtesy of for.org.uk

Gandhi’s influence on the peace movement  in the United States was felt as early as the 1920s. An effective exponent of Gandhi’s ideas was John Haynes Holmes, a prominent Unitarian minister and reformer, and an outspoken pacifist in World War I. He first set forth his discovery of Gandhi in a 1922 sermon titled “World Significance of Mahatma Gandhi” which was widely circulated. In another sermon the same year, “Who is the Greatest Man in the World Today?” this designation of Gandhi amazed many listeners, most of whom had never heard the name before. Gandhi’s autobiography was first published in America in the magazine Unity, which Holmes edited.

There were landmark books: by Romain Rolland in 1924, and three by C.F. Andrews published in 1930 and 1931. The Power of Nonviolence by Richard B. Gregg first appeared in 1934, and two revised editions were subsequently published. Probably no other book on nonviolence has been so widely read by U.S. pacifists, or so widely used as the basis for a study program.

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The Basic Principles of Satyagraha

by Ravindra Varma

Satyagraha logo courtesy ahopefortoday.com

The first half of the 20th century witnessed a series of spectacular and thrilling nonviolent struggles led by Gandhi.  These struggles demonstrated the power of nonviolent action. Gandhi overcame scepticism and ridicule, and established the efficacy, viability and superiority of nonviolent methods of action. He made people aware of the power that lay latent within them. He applied and experimented with nonviolence on an unprecedented scale involving millions of people, inspiring them to embark on militant and revolutionary actions for a host of issues.

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Gandhi’s Constructive Program: A New Society in the Shell of the Old

Earth Charter logo courtesy earthcharterinaction.org

by Joanne Sheehan

Gandhi called for complete independence by truthful and nonviolent means. He counseled that social change requires building the new society in the shell of the old, which he termed the constructive program. The nonviolence movement in the West has not emphasized this goal for the most part. In the United States, we mostly focus on political action, in particular on protest and civil disobedience. We do little organizing around what Gandhi thought was one of the most powerful political actions: non-cooperation with power, “not against men but against measures.” As Robert Burrowes explains in The Strategy of Nonviolent Defense: A Gandhian Approach (Albany, New York: SUNY Press, 1995), “Nonviolence for Gandhi was more than just a technique of struggle or a strategy for resisting military aggression. It was intimately related to the wider struggle for social justice, economic self-reliance, and ecological harmony as well as the quest for self-realization.”

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They Refused to Let Justice Be Crucified

by Terry Messman

Dust wrapper courtesy Un. of Kentucky Press

During their hard-fought struggle to overcome nearly impossible odds and win voting rights for African American citizens who had been disenfranchised for 100 years, civil rights activists marched down the long and treacherous road that led from the brutal battlefield of Selma, Alabama, through a seemingly endless gauntlet of beatings, bombings, bloodshed, gunshots, martyrdom, and a tri-state assassination conspiracy.

Even though their nonviolent efforts to win the right to vote were met with some of the most shocking violence of the civil rights era, the Freedom Movement stood its ground and claimed perhaps its most significant and far-reaching victory for human rights — the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

As a young man, Bernard LaFayette was chosen to become the key organizer of this dangerous and bloody struggle, and he offers a fascinating insider’s look into the Selma campaign in interviews and in his recent book, In Peace and Freedom, My Journey in Selma. The lessons in community organizing, in this highly insightful case study, are deeply valuable and relevant to today’s human rights activists.

Find The Cost Of Freedom

In opening up this chapter of the Freedom Movement to reveal its lessons, it is important to approach it, not as some academic case study in nonviolence, but with the clear-eyed realization of the terrible price that was paid in bloodshed and the loss of life. LaFayette has given us something far more profound than just another case study of nonviolence. He has also opened our eyes to the heartbreaking sacrifices made by decent and compassionate people such as Jimmie Lee Jackson, Viola Liuzzo and Rev. James Reeb, who selflessly gave their very lives in their commitment to fighting for the most basic of human rights.

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Gandhi and Ecological Marxists: The Silent Valley Movement

by A. S. Sasikala

Silent Valley rainforest; photographer unknown; courtesy paradise-kerala.com

Environmental concerns were not much considered at the time of Gandhi, but his ideas on village decentralisation and national unity such as Swaraj, Swadeshi, Sarvodya, and especially the Constructive Programme makes him an advocate of environmentalism. He is generally considered to have had deep ecological views and his ideas have been widely used by different streams of environmentalism such as Green parties and the deep ecology movement founded by Arne Naess. The eminent environmental thinker Ramachandra Guha identified three distinct strands in Indian environmentalism, crusading Gandhians, ecological Marxists, and appropriate technologists, these last being advocates of small-scale, environmentally sound technology, most often known as “intermediate technology”. Guha observed that, unlike the third, the first two rely heavily on Gandhi, but Indian ecological Marxists also used Gandhian strategies and tactics. The Silent Valley Movement in Kerala, south India, is a case in point of just how ecological Marxists were willing to use Gandhian techniques in order to fight against environmental injustice. The role of the Marxist KSSP, Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad (translated as Kerala Science Literature Movement, and also referred to as Kerala People’s Science Movement, PSM) illustrates their various strategies. Methodologies adopted throughout the movement were inspired by Gandhian methods, as previously used by other environmental movements like Chipko [see Mark Shepard’s article here].

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Environmental Thoughts of Gandhi for a Green Future

by A. S. Sasikala

Poster courtesy greenpeace.org; artist unknown

We live in a world in which science, technology and development play important roles in changing human destiny. However, the overexploitation of natural resources for the purpose of development leads to serious environmental hazards. In fact, the idea of development is itself controversial, as in the name of development we are unethically plundering natural resources. It is rather common to encounter high dam controversies, water disputes, protests against deforestation, and against pollution. Eminent Indian environmental activist Vandana Shiva argues that development is actually a continuation of colonialism. Borrowing from Gustavo Esteva she argues that, “development is a permanent war waged by its promoters and suffered by its victims.” (1)

It is true that a science that does not respect nature’s needs, and a development that does not respect people’s needs threatens human survival. The green thoughts of Gandhi give us a new vision to harmonise nature with the needs of people.

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“When planted in the garden, the mustard seed, smallest of all the seeds, became a large tree, and birds came and made their home there.” Luke 13:19

“For me whatever is in the atoms and molecules is in the universe. I believe in the saying that what is in the microcosm of one’s self is reflected in the macrocosm.” M. Gandhi