Theory

PURPOSE: Gandhian nonviolence or ahimsa has its origins in Vedic Hinduism and in the 6th century BC Jain philosophy of “doing no harm” to living things. Jainism was a popular sect in the Indian state of Gujarat where Gandhi was born and raised. Gandhi did not like the word nonviolence, sometimes written as non-violence, which might be said to compound the misunderstanding. A better reading of ahimsa might be not-violence, admittedly awkward, but nonetheless conveying the sense that nonviolence is all that which does not belong to the category of violence, rather than its opposite. A satyagrahi needs to cultivate virtues, habits, and practices that are nonviolent; paramount are patience, forgiveness, and satyagraha or holding to the truth. Gandhi spoke of nonviolence as a way of life and virtue, in part as a counter-reaction to Rabindranath Tagore’s injunction that nonviolence could be used for good or evil. Those who would practice nonviolence must make themselves nonviolent to forestall its misuse. This section of our web site hopes to engage these sorts of definitions, discussions, and the effect of interpretation on current practices. Your contributions are welcomed. The Theory page is edited by Joseph Geraci.

Correcting Common Misconceptions about Nonviolent Action

Posted June 15th, 2017 in Strategy & Tactics, Theory

by Gene Sharp

Dustwrapper art courtesy aeinstein.org

What nonviolent action is.

Nonviolent action is a technique of sociopolitical action for applying power in a conflict without the use of physical violence. Nonviolent action may involve acts of omission—that is, people may refuse to perform acts that they usually perform, are expected by custom to perform, or are required by law or regulation to perform; acts of commission—that is, people may perform acts that they do not usually perform, are not expected by custom to perform, or are forbidden to perform; or a combination of the two.

As a technique nonviolent action is not passive.
It is not inaction. It is action that is nonviolent.

As a technique, therefore, nonviolent action is not passive. It is not inaction. It is action that is nonviolent. These acts comprise a multitude of specific methods of action or “nonviolent weapons.”

Nearly two hundred have been identified to date, and without doubt, scores more already exist or will emerge in future conflicts. Three broad classes of nonviolent methods exist: nonviolent protest and persuasion, non-cooperation, and nonviolent intervention.

Nonviolent action provides a way to wield power in order to achieve objectives and to sanction opponents without the use of physical violence.

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Why the Moral Argument for Nonviolence Matters

Posted June 8th, 2017 in Civil Rights & Martin Luther King, Jr., Strategy & Tactics, The Trump Era, Theory

by Kazu Haga

South African student presenting flowers to police; courtesy gettyimages.com

“Bernard? Oh yeah, he’s great. He was always the principles guy.” That was what an old Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organizer told me when I mentioned that I had been trained by Bernard Lafayette, co-author of the Kingian Nonviolence curriculum and a legend of the civil rights era. “I was always a strategies guy,” this elder went on to tell me. “I believed in nonviolence as an effective strategy, but Bernard was always talking about nonviolence as a principle.”

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Christians and Buddhists: Walking Together on the Path of Nonviolence

Posted May 25th, 2017 in Religion, Theory

by Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue

Nonviolence logo courtesy clipartkid.com

Editor’s Preface: On the occasion of the Buddhist feast of Vesakh, the Vatican issued the message that follows. Vesakh commemorates the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment, and death, and is often referred to as “Buddha’s Birthday.” This is one in a series of recent statements the Vatican, and Pope Francis, have made on nonviolence. Please see Pope Francis’s statement, also posted here, and please see the note at the end for the names of the signatories, links, and acknowledgments.  JG

Message for the Feast of Vesakh, 2017

Dear Buddhist Friends,

(1) In the name of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue, we extend our warmest greetings and prayerful good wishes on the occasion of Vesakh. May this feast bring joy and peace to all of you, to your families, communities and nations.

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Guest Editorial: Truth And Nonviolence

Posted March 16th, 2017 in Gandhi, Guest Editorials, Strategy & Tactics, The Trump Era, Theory

by Arvind Sharma

Gandhi poster courtesy rishikajain.com

Truth and nonviolence are generally considered to be the two key ingredients of Gandhian thought. It is possible to pursue one without the other, possible, for example, to pursue truth without being nonviolent. Nations go to war believing truth is on their side, or that they are on the side of truth. The more sensitive among those who believe truth is on their side insist not that there should be no war but that it should be a just war. The most sensitive, however, and pacifists are among these, avoid violence altogether. But it could be argued that in doing so they have gone too far and have abandoned truth, and even justice. Although he was opposed to war, Gandhi argued that the two parties engaging in it may not stand on the same plane: the cause of one side could be more just than the other, so that even a nonviolent person might wish to extend his or her moral support to one side rather than to the other.

Just as it is possible to pursue truth without being nonviolent, it is also possible to pursue nonviolence without pursuing truth. In fact, it could be proposed that a disjunction between the two runs the risk of cowardice being mistaken for, or masquerading as, nonviolence. The point becomes clear if we take the world “truth” to denote the “right” thing to do in a morally charged situation. Gandhi was fond of quoting the following statement from Confucius: “To know what is right and not to do it is cowardice.”

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The Meaning of Truth

Posted March 9th, 2017 in Gandhi, Strategy & Tactics, The Trump Era, Theory

by Mohandas K. Gandhi

School of Andries Cornelis Lens, “Truth Protecting Us with Her Shield”, c. 1750; courtesy wikigallery.org

Editor’s Preface: “Truth”, “lies”, “alternate facts”, “post-truth politics”, etc., are terms very much in the air these days. Gandhi had much to say about Truth; the selection below is only a small sample focused on the root concepts behind his use of the term, and by application the root of his theory of nonviolence. This is the first of a series of articles we will be posting over the next few months on truth and truth in politics. Other statements on Satyagraha and Truth can be found on our Quotes and Sources page, via the link at the top of the page. JG

(I) The word Satya (Truth) is derived from Sat, which means ‘being’. Nothing is or exists in reality except Truth. That is why Sat or Truth is perhaps the most important name of God. In fact it is more correct to say that Truth is God, than to say that God is Truth. But as we cannot do without a ruler or a general, such names of God as ‘King of Kings’ or ‘The Almighty’ are and will remain generally current. On deeper thinking, however, it will be realised, that Truth (Sat or Satya) is the only correct and fully significant name for God.

And where there is Truth, there also is true knowledge. Where there is no Truth, there can be no true knowledge. That is why the word Chit or knowledge is associated with the name of God. And where there is true knowledge, there is always bliss (Ananda). There sorrow has no place. And even as Truth is eternal, so is the bliss derived from it. Hence we know God as Sat-Chit-Ananda, one who combines in Himself Truth, knowledge and bliss. (1)

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How Nonviolence Works

Posted February 9th, 2017 in Civil Rights & Martin Luther King, Jr., Theory

by Glenn Smiley

Glenn Smiley riding on a bus with Martin Luther King, Jr., 1956; courtesy wagingnonviolence.org

Editor’s Preface: Rev. Glenn E. Smiley (1910-1993) had made a thorough study of Gandhian nonviolence (satyagraha) while serving as a Methodist minister in Los Angeles. He later worked for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and was national field secretary for the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR). During World War II he went to prison for conscientious objection, but he is best remembered for his work with Martin Luther King, Jr. during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Please also see the note at the end for further information, acknowledgments, and links. JG

From the beginning of humankind’s time on the earth, for about 250,000 years, conflicts between individuals and groups have been settled on the basis of force, domination, or submission. In time, the use of force became more or less institutionalized, and continues to this day in many places.

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A Discipline for Non-violence

Posted February 2nd, 2017 in Gandhi, History, Satyagraha, Theory

by Richard B. Gregg

The Wheel of Integral Non-violence is courtesy of chico-peace.org

Editor’s Preface: This 1941 article, with its Foreword by Gandhi, continues our series of important historical documents on the theory and history of Gandhian nonviolence. Gregg here argues for the value of manual labor, as advocated by John Ruskin, and as practiced by Gandhi in his ashrams, where Gregg had lived. Gandhi considered spinning and weaving essential to the routine of a nonviolent community, yet this article is one of the very few to try to explicate this. Please also see the Editor’s Note at the end for more information about Gregg, and please also consult his other article, which we have posted here. JG

Foreword (by M. K. Gandhi): ‘A Discipline for Non-violence’ is a pamphlet written by Mr. Richard B. Gregg for the guidance of those Westerners who endeavour to follow the law of Satyagraha. I use the word advisedly instead of ‘pacifism’. For what passes under the name of pacifism is not the same as Satyagraha. Mr. Gregg is a most diligent and methodical worker. He had first-hand knowledge of Satyagraha, having lived in India and then too for nearly a year in the Sabarmati Ashram. His pamphlet is seasonable and cannot fail to help the Satyagrahis of India. For though the pamphlet is written in a manner attractive for the West, the substance is the same for both the Western and the Eastern Satyagrahi. A cheap edition of the pamphlet is therefore being printed locally for the benefit of Indian readers in the hope that many will make use of it and profit by it. A special responsibility rests upon the shoulders of Indian Satyagrahis, for Mr Gregg has based the pamphlet on his observation of the working of Satyagraha in India. However admirable this guide of Mr. Gregg’s may appear as a well-arranged code, it must fail in its purpose if the Indian experiment fails. (Sevagram, 24-8-1941)

A Discipline for Non-violence

For ages military discipline has won and held men’s faith. However crude, indiscriminate, and brief may be the results of organized violence, the world still has immense respect for its show of firmness and order. Much as we dislike war, when we begin to ask how we can attain justice and peace, we come face to face with this power of the military method. What is the secret of this power? Does it lie merely in men’s fear of violence?

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Guest Editorial: Interconnecting and Friendship’s Bonds

Posted January 26th, 2017 in Education, Guest Editorials, Strategy & Tactics, The Trump Era, Theory

by Tom Gibian

Sandy Spring School, 2nd Grade Art Work; courtesy grover.ssfs.org/~ksantori/art/2nd_grade.htm

One of the underlying principles of Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence is our capacity for interconnectedness, or as Gandhi was to state it, “the interconnectedness of all beings.” Interconnectedness, or connecting, is also very much at the heart of Quaker concerns.

I remember being in third grade and having to line up and pair off with a classmate to walk down the hallway to some destination beyond our classroom.  At Sherwood elementary school, there might have been 29 or 30 nine-year-olds and one teacher. On the day I’m recalling, I was paired off with a kid named Sammy.  I was new at Sherwood and someone warned me that Sammy had sweaty palms.   As we headed down the hallway, he took my hand.  His hand was sweaty, but it didn’t matter.  We held hands without embarrassment.  We were not self-conscious. We were little, at least relative to the world we were living in, and it could not have been more natural to reach out, to partner, to connect. Later, Sam would be one of the first friends of mine to get a high-performance muscle car in high school. That is a different story!

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Nonviolence: A Style of Politics for Peace

Posted January 2nd, 2017 in Guest Editorials, Pacifism, Theory

by Pope Francis

Giotto, “St. Francis Preaching to the Birds”; courtesy jssincivita.com.

Editor’s Preface: The following is the official Papal message for the 50th World Day of Peace, 1 January 2017. It is, however, the first such ever devoted exclusively to nonviolence, in the tradition of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. JG

1. At the beginning of this New Year, I offer heartfelt wishes of peace to the world’s peoples and nations, to heads of state and government, and to religious, civic and community leaders. I wish peace to every man, woman and child, and I pray that the image and likeness of God in each person will enable us to acknowledge one another as sacred gifts endowed with immense dignity. Especially in situations of conflict, let us respect this, our “deepest dignity”, (1) and make active nonviolence our way of life.

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Editorial: Peace Be with You

Posted December 19th, 2016 in Guest Editorials, Pacifism, Theory

by Joseph Geraci

Edward Hicks painting, c. 1823, from the Peaceable Kingdom series; courtesy Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum.

Peace has been for centuries a universal greeting and sign. We may recall that the World War II military victory V-sign was transformed in the 1960s into a peace symbol; signs of the times. Peace was always more than a simple hello; it was a bestowal of peace on someone, a blessing. In the Middle East, for example, that area of the world so riven by violence, it is perhaps not so strange an irony that a common greeting is (in Hebrew) shalom aleikhem (Peace be with you), and the reply aleikhem shalom (Peace also be with you). In Arabic it is as-sal alaykum (Peace be with you), common to Muslims in Turkey, Indonesia, Central Asia, Iran, India, et al. The response is as-salamu alaykum, and can also be translated as “Peace also be with you”.

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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