Nonviolence and Just War

by Acharya K.K. Chandy

Edward Hicks, “The Peaceable Kingdom”; courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C.;

Editor’s Preface: In the writings about Gandhi’s constructive programme, there are rarely any attempts made to compare it with historical precedents. Acharya Chandy has had the insight that William Penn’s Peaceable Kingdom of Pennsylvania is an apt precursor of a Gandhian community. This previously unpublished article continues our research project at the International Institute for Social History (IISG) in Amsterdam. Please consult that category for other articles, and the project’s statement of purpose. Please also see the notes at the end for acknowledgments, biographical details, and especially a note on the condition of the text. JG

In a context where the survival of the species through nuclear war or environmental degradation has become a main anxiety of the day, ignoring the warnings given by Christ and Gandhi would be to our peril as individuals and nations. Gandhi said, “In every state in the world today, violence, even if it were for so called defensive purposes only, enjoys a status which is in conflict with the better elements of life. The organisation of the best in society should be (our) aim, and this could be done only if we succeed in demolishing the status which has been given to militarism.” (Harijan, Augustus 24,1947) Uncompromising nonviolence, Gandhi said, is adequate to meet any situation – personal, social, political, economic, national and international. As Christ said, “Put up your sword, all who take the sword die by the sword … Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Matt. 26:52)

Immediately following the atomic raid on Hiroshima, H.G. Wells wrote, “Man is at the end of his tether … Homo-Sapiens is played out…” The thing which man has made is pursuing him like a Frankenstein monster before whom he is fleeing for survival. In 1963, with Rev. Paul Sekiya (then Secretary of the Japanese Fellowship of Reconciliation), I was visiting a hospital in Hiroshima, where hundreds of victims of atomic radiation were inpatients, many of whom were in the bombing. As we were coming away, a woman who shared with us her agonising story called us back and said, “Thank you very much for your mission of peace. Please tell the people of the world never to allow the world to be plunged into war again and cause more unfortunates like us to pine away the rest of their lives.” I was reminded of Khrushchev’s words that in an atomic war, “the survivors will envy the dead.”

Ahimsa and Dharmayuddha (Just War)

Gandhi has on various occasions expressed the inspiration he owed to Jesus’s teachings and practice of the law of love – agape, and the nonviolence of the cross. Vinoba Bhave spoke of Jesus Christ as the incarnation of love through nonviolence. Christ said, “A new commandment I give you, love one another as I have loved you.” Love became a ‘new commandment’ because there was something new and more positive in it than the love of the Old Testament, or the ahimsa of the Indian Scriptures. In his book Shanti Sena Vinoba Bhave wrote, “The Lord Jesus said clearly, ‘Love your enemies…’ Others have also said the same thing, but not so clearly as he did.” Praying for his crucifiers Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” He also said that He “did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them.” (Luke 9:56)

The nonviolence as enunciated by Jesus and Gandhi was one which sought to create fellowship where fellowship seemed impossible – the unfailing will (not merely sentiment) for the highest good of the other person, whether friend or enemy. Such nonviolence insisted on purity of means, and believed that there is “as much relation between the means and ends as there is between the seed and the tree,” as Gandhi noted. While military tactics and Marxist revolution would seek to use violence and propaganda, Gandhi was insisting that, “In a righteous war, satyagraha forbids such action. No wonder the nonviolence of the cross created fellowship causing the Centurion who prosecuted the crucifixion to say, ‘Beyond all doubt, this man was innocent … Truly this man was the Son of God.’” (Luke 23:47, Matt. 27:54) Likewise, on Gandhi’s death opponents such as General Smuts of South Africa said, “Here was a man who released a power which eclipsed the power of the atom”, expressing a fellowship where fellowship had previously seemed impossible.

In a context where terrorism in the name of a just war or jihad is making life increasingly perilous, just war theory, or in Gandhi’s Hindu context, the doctrine of Dharmayuddha has become of life and death importance. The Mahabharata states that there is no religion greater than truth and also declares, “Nonviolence is the greatest duty of religion.” And yet in the Bhagavad Gita Lord Krishna advises Arjuna to fight, to wage righteous war and do his duty as a warrior, if without hatred or attachment. The Indian philosopher, S. Radhakrishnan, in his work Religion and Society, commented, “Krishna tried all peaceful methods of getting justice done. But having failed, he advises Arjuna to fight against the selfish and unrighteous exploiters out of a sense of duty for the cause of justice.” But Gandhi gave an entirely different interpretation to Krishna’s injunction to fight. He did not agree that these passages in the Gita were in defence of a physically fought righteous war. Though it is presented in a setting of physical warfare, what righteous battle signifies is the eternal duel between right and wrong that is going on within and between us all. The thesis of the Gita “is neither violence nor nonviolence, but the gospel of selfless action – the duty of performing right action by right means only, and in a spirit of detachment – leaving the fruits of action to the care of God.” (cited in Pyarelal’s Mahatma Gandhi: The Last Phase)

Was Gandhi’s Nonviolence Situational or Absolute?

During the stress and strain of the Sino-Indian war, many Indian leaders including some Gandhians stated that, though Gandhi had stood for absolute nonviolence, he permitted violence under certain circumstances. There are many critics who say that though the ethics of nonviolence may apply in the realm of personal relations it is not practical in social or political relations, and in the achievement of basic justice. They also argue that there is a contradiction between love and power, especially as applied to state power. Let us examine the above assumptions in light of Gandhi’s own words and actions.

Gandhi came to absolute nonviolence only after 1935, as he himself admitted to Louis Fischer, that is, after the First World War. Some of his statements and actions before 1935 might demonstrate that his nonviolence was not absolute but one of expediency. For instance, as mentioned by Sri K.P.S. Menon, “During the First World War Gandhi exhorted his people to fight on the side of the Allies”. The following words of Gandhi are also often quoted by critics to show that Gandhi recognised the need of a limited use of violence: “Man cannot be wholly free from violence so long as he lives a bodily life and continues to be a social being”. But by it, Gandhi clearly referred to the killing of germs and other non-human forms of life. The absolute nonviolence to which he committed himself after 1935 was only in terms of human beings.

In his biography of Gandhi, Louis Fischer also wrote that the day after the beginning of the Second World War Gandhi said that “he could not participate in the war effort, nor would he defend India against an aggressor. He did not want India to have an army.” Gandhi was to write, “I believe that all war is wholly wrong [and] if the Government had not arrested me in 1942, I would have shown how to fight Japan by nonviolence.” (Harijan, June 9, 1946)

An impression however has gained ground that as a participant in the 1942 Bombay resolution of the Indian National Congress, Gandhi had offered to support Britain in the war effort provided Britain pledged freedom to India after the war. But the fact that he was against participation, not only in that war, but also in all wars “on the ground primarily of nonviolence” was declared by him clearly in his letter to the Congress President Moulana Abdul Kalam Azad. Gandhi wrote, “In the course of my discussion in the Working Committee I have interpreted [the Bombay Resolution] to mean that the Congress was to refuse participation in the present, or all wars, on the grounds principally of nonviolence … It is my certain belief that only nonviolence can save India and the world from self-extinction. Such being the case … you will please relieve me of the responsibility laid on me by the Bombay Resolution. I must continue civil disobedience for free speech against all wars with such Congress men and others whom I select, and who believe in the nonviolence I have contemplated.”

And another often quoted instance of Gandhi’s compromising on nonviolence is where he is said to have blessed India’s military action in Kashmir. But Gandhi denied this, and the truth may be seen from what Gandhi told Vincent Sheean during an interview. He said referring to the Cabinet decision to send armed forces to meet Azad Kashmir forces, “They would not lend ear to my council … If I live long enough they will see the futility of it all and come round to my way.”

The following statement made later by Nehru in 1961 demonstrates that Gandhi’s stand on nonviolence was uncompromising: “We were all for peaceful methods in our [freedom] movement … but he said, ‘You must now decide that when India is free you must take to nonviolence.’ It meant keeping no armies, no forces and hardly a police force. This was Gandhiji’s idea of nonviolence. Much as we admired Gandhiji and believed in his peaceful nonviolent movement, we thought we could not commit the future India to that.” (The Hindu, December 29, 1961)

Gandhi clearly rejected nonviolence as an expediency, either to achieve justice or to defend freedom. He wrote, “nonviolence as expediency means nonviolence so far as profitable, and violence when necessary.” This, he believed, was the nonviolence of the weak as against the nonviolence of the brave to which he was uncompromisingly committed.

Violence involved treating men as means. The least among men (oppressed or oppressor) has infinite worth. Nonviolence of the weak is denial of this basic principle of democracy, while that of the brave stands for the equality of all persons as persons irrespective of friend or foe. Nonviolence as expediency might bring about political freedom, but the resultant democracy will not be real freedom or a real democracy of the people. Democracy thus won will inevitably lead to the scramble for power. “It will not bring freedom or power to the weaker, and if long practiced may even render us unfit for self-government.” (Harijan, July 13, 1940)

Nonviolence is as Applicable to Nations as to Individuals

Gandhi said, “It is blasphemy to say that nonviolence can only be practiced by individuals, and never by nations … I do not believe that the unarmed millions in India cannot exercise nonviolence with success in this wide field. Congress men should train themselves to defend their country with a nonviolent army.” (Harijan, September 27, 1947)

His fearless acceptance of nonviolence as a national policy may clearly be seen in this statement: “My love of nationalism is that my country may become free, that if need be the whole country may die that the human race may live.” (quoted in Nirmal Bose, Studies in Gandhism) In order to save humanity from annihilation through war, Gandhi thus was ready even to risk the martyrdom of India by the acceptance of nonviolent defence. He believed that such a martyrdom would lead to renewed strength and power.

There are many who see a contradiction between love and power. But Gandhi said, “Nonviolence of the brave is the greatest force in the world.” (Harijan, June 29, 1947) Christ and Gandhi believed that power through violence is self-annihilating, that the nonviolence of the cross is power; that love and power are the same and do not contradict each other. Gandhi also said, “Nonviolence is power only when it is unadulterated … In this age of the atom bomb, unadulterated nonviolence is the only force that can confound all the tricks of violence put together.”

But, it is asked, is nonviolence effective when confronting dictators? Though nonviolence worked with a nation like the British who had some moral scruples, “will it work in dealing with dictators … who are impervious to pity or moral response, or to world opinion?” Gandhi replied: “Nonviolence does not depend for its working on the sufferance or good will of the tyrant. It is self-sustained.” (Harijan, September 27, 1947)

And yet, will nonviolence work against air attacks and nuclear weapons, where there would be no opportunity for any personal contact with the opponent? Gandhi replied, “Behind the death-dealing bomb is the human hand that releases it and behind that still is the human heart that sets that hand in motion.” That heart as well as the heart of his brutish master whose agent he is, has the divine imprint, and is also open to the influence of prayer, that supreme defence weapon of ahimsa.

Is nonviolence adequate to run a community or state? In seventeenth century Pennsylvania, nonviolence was officially adopted as a state policy and the colony managed without an army or armed police, a just precursor of Gandhi’s constructive programme, his nonviolent community. While the white settlers of other colonies had to carry guns even when they went to church to protect women and children, William Penn counselled the settlers of Pennsylvania to depend on the native tribes [Susquehannocks, Shawnees, and Lenni-Lenape ] for their security. When asked by the English king for a guarantee of security for the colony before he would send soldiers, Penn replied, “I want none of your soldiers. I depend on something better than soldiers. I depend on our moral sense, even on that grace of God, which bringeth salvation.”

Gandhi said that the battle for peace is to be won in the struggle between good and evil in the hearts of every individual. It was such a revolution that took shape in the community life in the early Christian church. They gave heed to the New Testament injunction, “Take up God’s armour; then you will be able to stand your ground when things are at their worst … stand firm … buckle on the belt of truth … let the shoes on your feet be the gospel of peace … take up the great shield of faith and for sword take up that which the spirit gives you, the words that come from God … But take care (that) all you do be done in love … there is nothing that love cannot face.” (Eph. 6:13-17)

It is to such a way of life that Christ and Gandhi have called us. It is to such a way of life that my colleagues and I are called at the Christavashram to which I belong. As Gandhi said, “Education for revolution seems to me to express in three words what our policy should be towards the birth of the new society.” (Harijan, September 27, 1947) That revolution could only be achieved through dynamic nonviolence.

Reference: IISG/Devi Prasad Archive, Box 25. We are grateful to IISG for their assistance and permission.

A NOTE ON THE TEXT: The original manuscript was faded and in poor condition. There were countless additions and corrections in pen, and notes attached with tape. The endnotes were also either incomplete or provided material better suited to the main body of the essay. We have incorporated the notes into the text, proofread, and copy edited the text.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Acharya K. K. Chandy (1908–2001) was President Emeritus, Fellowship of Reconciliation (India), the founder of the Gurukul Ecumenical Center for Peace, and one of the three founders of Christavashram, Kottayam. He is also the author of a major, posthumously published study, A Quest for Community and Dynamic Non Violence,  Delhi: ISPCK Publication, 2002.

“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