Gandhi’s Political Ethics. Part Two: Avoid Violence, but Do Not Avoid the Conflict

by Arne Naess

Gandhi always gravitated toward the center of a conflict. Belonging as he did to a small group of wise men called karmayogi, his deeds accorded well with this designa­tion, for karmayogi is the name for a yogi who seeks the highest end through action. A karmayogi does not iso­late himself from a struggle; he remains at the very heart of it, immersed in the conflicts of his fellow men as one among them. From the center of the struggle he tries to bring about a general reduction of violence, instead of avoiding it himself. It is not enough to put oneself hors de combat; hence the principle, “Act in group struggle, and act, moreover, in a way conducive to the long-term, universal reduction of violence.”

Two statements by Gandhi are particularly important here. The first is from his Autobiography: “To see the universal and all-pervading Spirit of Truth face to face one must be able to love the meanest of crea­tion as oneself. And a man who aspires after that cannot afford to keep out of any field of life. That is why my devotion to Truth has drawn me into the field of pol­itics. ”(p. 504)

And the second statement I would use is from the periodical Gandhi edited, Harijan: “I could not be leading a religious life unless I identified myself with the whole of mankind, and that I could not do unless I took part in politics. The whole gamut of man’s activities today constitutes an indivisible whole. You cannot divide social, economic, political, and purely religious work into watertight compartments.” (24 December 1939)

By being compliant, and by living in modesty and se­clusion, it is certainly possible to avoid committing vio­lence, possible even to avoid himsa itself, in its more ex­acting senses. But what good is that if other people still go on using violence? In any case, to disengage ourselves from a conflict often means indirect support of the vio­lence we put ourselves above, an indirect support suggest­ing that we are content to leave the fighting to those who are less particular about the means to be adopted, though the cause be one we would really like them to win for us. But Gandhi’s principle states that all himsa—one’s own or that of others—directly affects every one of us. In other words, his principle is diametrically opposed to a pacifism which would preach involvement as only a narrow personal responsibility for nonviolence.

Let us take an example. During the political struggles between the imperial authorities and the freedom move­ment in India in the 30s, students organized the boycott of a university. They lay on stairways and pathways in order to hinder those who did not want to join in their action. Gandhi spoke out against this, again in Harijan: “It is degrading to the opponent to step on people and be­cause it is degrading he will not do it. But he will hardly be less embittered, and it has nothing to do with the af­fair in hand whether he has a high ethical standard and does not want to step on others, or whether he defies the action and fills the auditoriums.” (4 March 1939)

Such conduct, Gandhi observed, would not diminish the opponent’s hatred, and why should it? Admittedly the opponent might be brought to the point of not enter­ing the university, but the reasons he would have for not entering would not necessarily stem from the right source. Indeed, such action might easily result in making the struggle more bitter than before.

According to Gandhi there can be a nonviolence that is on the offensive,
which is an active participation in conflict,
violating no requirement essential to moral virtue.

A famous passage from St. Matthew (v: 39-44) is an excellent illustration of the difference between nonvio­lence and passivity: “But I say unto you, that ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” This extract, together with the whole passage from which it comes, has re­ceived a number of different and mutually incompatible interpretations in theological literature. Sometimes, but not often, it has been taken to express an actively nonviolent standpoint. Others, however, interpreted it as a recommendation of non-interference with the perpetra­tors of violence, non-participation at all costs, however great the provocation. But as we have seen, according to Gandhi there can be a nonviolence that is on the offensive, which is an active participation in conflict violating no requirement essential to moral virtue. Gandhi saw this as a principle moving him to pursue his positive aim regardless of the blows that would be directed at him from all quarters. Gandhi saw that he must remain true to this aim, an aim that he recognized as one common to himself and all who opposed him.

Thus, one does not “turn the other cheek” in order to confuse or bewilder or cast shame on the aggressor; one disregards the aggression and simply does not try to avoid a blow on the other cheek. Active nonviolence concentrates on the positive goal, whatever the provoca­tion.

A NOTE ON THE TEXT: This essay by Arne Naess is from the long out of print, Gandhi and the Nuclear Age, Totowa (New Jersey): Bedminster Press, 1965; Part Two, Chapter 3, pp. 39-42. We are grateful to Mrs. Arne Naess for permission. Copyright © 2013 Mrs. Arne Naess/Estate of Arne Naess. We are also grateful to Alan Drengson for his assistance.

EDITOR’S NOTE: An extensive editor’s note is appended to our earlier Naess postings, as at the end of the “Gandhi and Group Conflict” articles. For an example click here.

“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