Reflections on Nonviolence and Forgiveness in Action

by William J. Jackson

Ahimsa logo; artist unknown; courtesy of

Examples of Nonviolence in Action

Ahimsa (the Sanskrit word meaning the practice of “being un-hurtful,” the way of “harmlessness” or “non-violence”) is an ancient yoga practice. Patanjali, in his Yoga Sutras, around 2200 BCE wrote that “Refusal of violence, refusal of stealing, refusal of covetousness, with telling truth and continence, constitute the Rules” of the practice of Yoga. (1) A translator of the Yoga Sutras, Swami Purohit, commented that, “refusal of violence is love for all creatures.” In the text this sutra follows a discussion of karma, and the problem of an individual creating impediments to his liberation, as well as a discussion of the wisdom of avoiding the future misery entailed by actions of violence, a teaching, which is part of the beliefs about karma.

The Yoga Sutras text also states that, “When non-violence is firmly rooted, enmity ceases in the yogi’s presence.” (2) This ancient teaching reminds me of the last part of Gandhi’s life, when he traveled from village to village in parts of India where there were disturbances caused by communal conflicts. He had long before vowed to take the pacifist path, and his gentle presence inspired villagers to have faith in the power of nonviolence.

It is a principle in many belief systems that violence causes one to be alienated from higher consciousness. Therefore, intelligent self-interest would make one want to be non-violent. For example, in Judaism, King David could not build the temple in Jerusalem, because he had been involved in bloodshed during times of war. His wise son Solomon could undertake to build it because he had not spilled blood. In Hinduism and Buddhism one hurts oneself by hurting others, since all is interconnected, and the cycles of sowing and reaping go on and on, life after life. One binds oneself to recurring cycles of life and suffering by committing acts of violence.

Life stories and legends about great spiritual leaders such as Mahavir include signs of a nonviolent demeanor. As a youth, Mahavir, though a prince born into a warrior caste, early on showed a predilection for nonviolence. In traditional narratives of his life, while Mahavir was still a youth, a god named Sangama appeared one day as a terrifying snake to frighten Mahavir. But the youth fearlessly picked up the serpent and protected it from harm, astounding witnesses. The Jain tradition also is renowned for taking the ideal of nonviolence very seriously. Jains are known for attempts not to harm even insects, let alone higher life forms. There is an ancient Jain teaching: “Parasparopagraho jivanam,” which means, “All life is bound together by mutual support and interdependence.” Modern ecology has arrived at a similar viewpoint.

Buddha, a contemporary of Mahavir, is said to have saved a swan from being killed in his youth, according to traditional biographies. Many Jataka tales, the early Buddhist stories of the Buddha’s lives before he became the Buddha, depict him performing acts of self-sacrifice in order to protect the vulnerable from violence. Allowing violence to oneself as a way of preventing violence to others to resolve conflict is portrayed in many jatakas. In many schools of Buddhist thought the context for the teaching of nonviolence has to do with the nature of ignorance and suffering, the implications of interconnectedness, the unity of the Buddha mind. “The One Mind can take in all minds and return them to the One Mind. This is the meaning of Indra’s Net of inter-existence.” (Yung Ming) “Indra’s Net” is an image already existing in the Vedas, representing symbolically the interconnectedness of consciousness in the universe.

Reverence for life is deeply embedded in Hinduism—in Vedas and Shastras, and in the precepts of yoga. The Jain vision of life, and Buddhist sensibility also, share with Hinduism a belief in karma, reincarnation and nirvana or release, liberation from suffering. All three traditions feature concepts of interconnectedness, and reaping karmic rewards and penalties for one’s actions, and the possibility of extricating oneself from the cycles and reaching ultimate liberation from ignorance and suffering. In Jainism the purified and enlightened rise above the world of suffering. The Buddha is said to have taught that anyone who loves himself will not harm another, and that nirvana exists as the ultimate refuge. The Bhagavad Gita teaches ahimsa is one of the signs of knowledge in chapter XIII, verse 8. The Bhagavad Gita also teaches that via a variety of paths individuals may attain the highest state of pure consciousness, depending on the make-up of one’s personality.

Historians believe that there is evidence the famous Indian emperor Ashoka (304-232 BCE), after feeling responsible for a great many deaths in a war to expand his kingdom, repented and became a Buddhist. After turning over a new leaf, Ashoka was much more concerned about nonviolence, tolerance, mutuality, spreading wisdom and compassion. He reduced the number of animals killed in the royal kitchen, supported monks and nuns, and noble causes. He renounced violence, and became renowned as a generous ruler promoting compassion and wisdom.

The American writer VanWyck Brooks wrote that Hindu regard for sacredness of life comes naturally to writers, who value life, on pain of losing the power to recreate it. (3) It takes empathy to know multiple perspectives. A Shakespeare respects the whole spectrum of lives, from the wise to the ignorant. He sympathizes or sees how the world looks from the bad persons’ viewpoints as well as the good persons’ perspectives. He uses the language of his characters to speak from their attitudes and stations in life. A mean attitude, a narrow self-centered consciousness without a sense of appreciation and wonder at life’s variety, seems unhelpful to creative poets.

There is an old strain of Gnostic viewpoint in Western thought, an intuition that spirit is in all life. There are examples of this sensitivity and sensibility in the lives of many well-known people in history.  The mystical poet and visionary engraver William Blake wrote, “Everything that lives is holy” in Songs of Innocence and Experience.

A wish to avoid inflicting violence on any form of life may be part of the sense that the universe is pervaded by spirit—a mystery, but also an intuition that results in a reverent attitude toward fellow-creatures. If one feels that trees and flowers, birds and bees have spirits or souls, one is likely to treat those living things with more care and gentleness. Such a reverence for life is a part of many pious lives. Francis of Assisi (d. 1226) is remembered not only for his vow of poverty and organizing an order of monks, but in legends also for his attention to birds and a wolf.

John Chapman (d. 1845), sometimes called the American St. Francis, planted orchards for the settlers of a new nation, and was a vegetarian. In folk memories he was recalled as very considerate of bears, bees, snakes and horses, among various other creatures. Frontier life was wild, rough and harsh and he was sensitive.  Chapman was against all violence (including settlers’ treatment of horses) and he encouraged men to become more “gentled,” to use a word favored by Shakespeare. Once while mowing grass for an orchard Chapman was bitten by a rattlesnake. He lamented: “Poor fellow — he only touched me– I in the heat of passion put the heel of my scythe in him and went away; later I returned, and saw him lying there dead, poor fellow.” It is said that one cool autumn night Chapman built a fire, but seeing mosquitoes dying in it, he put it out. Another time he built a fire near a hollow log. When he found the log contained a bear and her cubs and the fire was disturbing them, he put out the fire and slept in the cold. Another time, helping a settler make a road, he destroyed a hornets’ nest. Chapman gently removed a hornet that had stung him and asked his companions not to kill it. “It wouldn’t be right to kill the poor thing–it never intended to hurt me.” Chapman was against pruning and grafting apple trees because he felt these practices pained the trees. (4) Chapman was inspired in part by Christian mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, who taught that “…all things in the world exist from a Divine Origin… clothed with such forms in nature as enable them to exist here and perform their use and thus correspond to higher things.” (5)

Abraham Lincoln in his youth is said to have pursued a snake through thickets to stop the snake from swallowing a frog, and he is said to have saved a fawn’s life by scaring it away from a hunter’s rifle, for which he was severely beaten. (6)

Mahatma Gandhi removed silkworms from the leaves of a tree that were poisoning them (the tree had been treated with a chemical). When as a youth Gandhi ate goat meat, his stomach hurt—as if he felt the goat inside him, and could not eat meat any more. He is also remembered for putting a suffering calf out of its misery. Gandhi’s outlook shows a psyche of sensitivity, a worldview that does not minimize the feelings of others or the repercussion of one’s own small acts of kindness.

Gandhi’s sensibility ran deep; he knew that it was necessary to practice nonviolence in the use of language. Feelings and thoughts impel the words we use, and language eventuates in actions. So, to call someone an insulting name, using a dehumanizing canard, is a step toward harming them. By using hateful speech and slurs, others’ hate can be stirred up too, and violent actions are more likely to come next. So Gandhi found a name for the poorest, the lowliest and the lost, the outcasts of Indian society—“Harijans,” meaning “children of God”—to promote better treatment of the disadvantaged.

The Christian Missionary Albert Schweitzer is remembered for rescuing earthworms being scorched by the sun. John Bertram, the old naturalist, expressed his sorrow when he saw carelessly cut down field flowers. (This is like the sentiment found in a Japanese Buddhist poem: “I offer this field of flowers, just as they are, to Buddha.”) Thomas Hardy in his novel Tess of the D’Urbervilles wrote with sympathy about the pheasants wounded as sport of English gentry. The gentry in his area are said to have snubbed him and kept aloof from him after that. Philosophers Aldous Huxley and Bertrand Russell served as vice-presidents of a society “to stop the sordid and ugly pastime of hunting foxes to death for fun.” (7) Such acts showing compassion for other forms of life may ruffle feathers and upset social niceties, but they represent a resistance to established norms that seem uncivilized to protestors following their conscience. Caroline Kennedy’s 2014 tweet, calling the annual Japanese practice of dolphin hunting inhumane, is another example.

The cultivation of tenderness for life forms less complex seems much needed by humanity today. Without conscious nurturing of that mercy, human life becomes all the more brutal. Torture of dogs and cats is common, even though there are laws against it. Such torture is found in the lives of some serial killers and other sociopaths, as well as in youths trying to impress others with their pranks. Such callousness is sometimes based on the contention that cats and dogs have no souls, but there is something about such heartlessness, which causes dismay, because it is a sign of an inhumane, compassionless sensibility. Treating smaller creatures with compassion is a practice, which develops the heart’s abilities to care for and help others. There is wisdom in caring well for pets, just as there is in the childhood practice of treating a doll with care, as preparation for treating other humans with affection. Dolls function as a kind of developmental stage. For example, Kachina dolls used by Hopi Indians are a kind of training in treating other people decently.

It’s rare to find someone whose life is totally dedicated to accepting others as part of the whole; ordinary society is often not so expanded. That is why John Lennon said: “When it gets down to having to use violence, then you are playing the system’s game. The establishment will irritate you – pull your beard, flick your face – to make you fight. Because once they’ve got you violent, then they know how to handle you. The only thing they don’t know how to handle is non-violence and humor.” (8) Nonviolence, as Gandhi and others have shown in their lives, has a mysterious “self-acting” power, radiating subtle effects, stimulating transformations.

High-Minded Truth: Forgiveness and Reconciliation

Nelson Mandela’s life was an example of the way the practice of nonviolence can lead to a resolution of social conflicts, and reconciliation of offenders and victims. Naturally, it brings up questions about responding to violence. Writer Hari Kunzru tweeted Dec. 5, 2013, “I know Mandela is a secular saint of forgiveness, but some people have more right than others to bathe in his aura.” The feeling of forgiveness is not necessarily contagious or philosophically understandable to others. It may cause concerns that guilty parties may get away scot free without accountability, for example. How can a practice of forgiveness safeguard the innocent—so that the vicious will not get away with horrific crimes and go on to commit even worse ones? The idea of forgiveness may be misunderstood. The kind of forgiveness Mandela exemplified is not just about repressing anger and resentment so that it does not show on the surface. It is a letting go of it, moving on in life, without the bitter feelings eating away at one.

Questions about forgiveness arise in thinkers known for their concern for human rights—for example, the American writer Joyce Carol Oates in a tweet asked “What’s so great about forgiveness?” around the time of Mandela’s death, when he was being celebrated for his forgiving nature. It may be hard to imagine how leaving bitterness, forgoing attachment and entanglement to the hurts one has suffered, can change society. The true forgiveness being discussed here involves a clearing of the air, a change of atmosphere, which opens the way for new possibilities. Bonds and clutter of hate can block the way.

To explore the dynamics of forgiveness requires delving into its effects on both the one forgiven and the one who is forgiving, over a period of time. The effects of forgiveness’s expansiveness are not just in the consciousness of the forgiver, but also they hold a chance of an expansion of peaceful relations in the world at large. It was a surprise to me to hear the singer Bono recently say, “Because of Mandela the history of holy Catholic Ireland was changed forever”. He said it helped the Catholic Irish get beyond hate, rage and anger. He said this when accepting a prize given to U2 at the Golden Globes, on January 12, 2014. I had not made the connection—that the nonviolent forgiveness and reconciliation of South Africa had made a change in Ireland.

One aspect of psychologist Stanislav Grof’s LSD research explored the possibility of transcending one’s neurotic limitations by forgiving. He found that patients traumatized in life by experiences that left deep psychic scars and neurotic patterns, when using a therapy that allowed them to consciously relive in their memories and then forgive the victimization, could find release from the resentments, vengeful bitterness and scars that were hampering them. (9) This is similar to the ancient goal of yoga—to transcend the impressions on the psyche, necessary to attain liberation.

Psychologist James Hillman’s thoughts on the betrayal of trust, and forgiveness, and reconciliation are useful in understanding a cluster of concepts. Betrayal and violence both involve a feeling of violation or harm. When one is harmed, taking revenge is a human temptation, but it does not satisfy, Hillman observed. Revenge promotes feuding, and one involved in it is likely to spend time planning revenge, and that brings out cruel wishes, nurturing vindictiveness, leading to getting stuck in a mode of hate and obsession, binding one to thought-patterns of returning evil for evil. Striking back may give short-term exhilaration, but it is no real solution.

“The worst of revenge, psychologically, is its mean and petty focus, its shrinking effect on consciousness,” Hillman observed. A person caught up in thoughts of retaliation becomes fixated, narrowly focused instead of mentally free. Vengeance can make one small-minded and bitter. The sequence of experiencing trust—and then betrayal, and then forgiveness—is often better for mental health, because forgiveness can be a gate to reconciliation. Reconciliation of clashing differences is healing. In forgiveness the salt of bitterness may be transformed to the salt of wisdom, as Hillman suggests. (10)

“Resentment especially is an emotional affliction of memory which forgetting can never fully repress.” Therefore, Hillman suggests, it is better to recall a wrong, instead of oscillating between forgetting and resenting. He says these emotions have as their purpose to prevent an experience from dissolving into the depths of the unconscious. He suggests these emotions act like a salt preserving the traumatic event. In his words, “they force us to keep faith” with the offense. He sees here a “paradox of betrayal” in which both betrayer and betrayed maintain a fidelity to the event’s bitterness. He suggests the betrayer keeps this fidelity too, because if a betrayer can not admit he betrayed someone, or he attempts to forget it, he stays stuck in an unconscious state of incipient brutality. “Not only do I go on wronging the other, but I wrong myself for I have cut myself off from self forgiveness.” In that state one is unable to grow wiser, and one has nothing with which he may become reconciled. “For these reasons I believe that forgiveness by the one probably requires atonement by the other.” (11)

Jung also explored the meaning of sins—suggesting that their meaning is in the way we “carry” them, that is, take them along with us in our consciousness, live with them, recognizing the brutality involved in committing them. (12) Also, accepting that we committed them entails the possibility of forgiveness, and making atonement. Reconciliation to wrongdoing—the betrayal, the wound, and the hurt–is necessary. Learning from the experience is soulful growth; it is a deepening, a resolve not to commit the same mistakes. A small mind rejoicing in hitting back, hurting, violating the other,  is forever frustrated, and finds no lasting satisfaction. How could that be better than a magnanimous soulful encompassing of the two sides, and a going forward, deepened in understanding? Those who feel there is no virtue in forgiving—that it is easy, lazy, irresponsible—might be enriched to learn more about the actual practice and effects of it in specific people’s lives. Such forgiveness is a pro-active exercise, a remembering, not a denial or minimizing of it. Causing the offender to remember, it can lead to reconciliation’s peace of mind.

There are folk sayings: “Forgive and forget.”  “No use crying over spilt milk because the whole universe conspired to spill it.” “Contentment [instead of the restless unease and frustration of seeking revenge] is a treasure, a continual feast.” But forgiveness involves a deeper mystery of patience, tender-heartedness, a potential of growing maturity in the cycling seasons of one’s life span. The Amish and Mennonites sometimes seem to take the teachings of Christian forgiveness more seriously than many in the mainstream. For example, some news stories report Amish and Mennonite parents who have lost children to violent murderers and predators saying they do not seek revenge, and are not filled with anger and bitterness. They may say something like, “We would like to know who the person or persons are so we could share, hopefully, a love that seems to be missing in these people’s lives,” as Malcolm Gladwell wrote in his article “How I rediscovered faith”. (13) The spiritual practice of nonviolence and forgiveness when facing loss and hurt can be inspiring to others. A faith in subtle gentle acts of kindness, and generosity, shows a reliance on inner strength and patience, faith, hope, love.

The Poetic Response 

May I close with a poem by a veteran of WW II? I was privileged to study with this Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Richard Eberhart. I attended a class he taught at Dartmouth College in 1974. My wife and I were also fortunate to spend time with him and his wife Betty in Maine, where they had a summer place. This poem by Eberhart sounds to me like a spell being cast—a charm to stop wholesale violence (14) :


Christ is walking in your blood today,
His gentle tread you cannot hear nor see.
He tramples down your militant wish to slay.

The whelped deaths you dealt in your war’s day
Arise howling, they will never make you free.
Christ is walking in your blood today.

You did it easily in the heat of the fray.
You did not know what you could do, could be.
He tramples down the massive wish to slay.

You are the front and fore of passion’s play,
Of deepest knowledge you have lost the key.
Christ is walking in your blood today.

To kill is one, is not the essential way
Of action, which you then could not foresee,
He will wash the welling blood. Not slay.

A child becomes a man who learns to pray,
A child-like silence on a moveless sea.
Redeemed you may be of the will to slay.

Christ fermentative be all your blood today.

This poem seems like a magic spell employing the logic of Christian beliefs. Blood is the way—not the way to prevail by employing the violence which sheds blood, but the way to be washed clean in the self-offering of the innocent one depicted in the New Testament. The “key” of “deepest knowledge” which has been lost, an image mentioned in the poem, is commitment to nonviolence, transforming oneself from a spiller of blood. I find it intriguing that the blood Christ is said to be walking in is ambiguous. The line can mean Christ is walking in the sticky stains of blood the violent shed, but also the presence of Christ is in the blood coursing through all our veins. Similarly, the line, “You did not know what you could do, could be” is ambiguous. It can mean, “you did not know you could be a murderer” and also “you did not know you could be a peaceful person beyond revenge”. The aggressive cannot show a way beyond the maze created by feeling compelled to make violent reprisals. A person free of craving knee jerk revenge, such as Christ, associated with universal atonement and forgiveness, in this poem serves as an exemplary vessel of instruction—demonstrating life lessons—a way to transcend bondage and suffering which wound all caught in bonds of reprisal.

Eberhart came from a Christian background, so he naturally used the Christian imagery of his culture to convey his intuitions and ideas in this poem. Christianity has forgiveness and atonement as one of its great teachings. Therefore, the poem sounds as if it is addressed to Christians, but it would also be comprehensible to anyone who is receptive to resonate with the Christ archetype of love and self-sacrifice. It reminds listeners of the precept of turning the other cheek, as opposed to using brutal force to prevail over others.

If one lives long enough, one sometimes wakes up remembering mistakes one has made long ago—ignorant remarks, slights, negligence, insensitive actions. And reflecting on one’s faults one hopes to be forgiven. One hopes that by forgiving others, one will be forgiven too. No one is perfect, but there are ways to atone for some of our failings.

Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson, Ramchandra, observed that his grandfather sought “a civilizational role” for ahimsa (nonviolence) “with a very mixed success,” and he noted that ahimsa resists propagation,” and that it “can only be lived and is most potent as example and not as a weapon propagated.” (15)

It is probably only through considering exemplary lives that some principles become comprehensible. For example, consider the meaning of the motto on Pete Seeger’s banjo: “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.” Despite hostility and censorship and persecution by bigots, Seeger sang songs of peace and overcoming ignorance, and inspired generations on issues of war/peace, civil rights and ecology, overcoming many hurdles in his path. Similarly, Martin Luther King, Jr., with his life dedicated to nonviolence, made Civil Rights contributions that endure. Badshah Khan’s life of self-sacrifice in Afghanistan is another impressive example, and so is Nelson Mandela’s. As Einstein said of Gandhi’s life, it is something people may find hard to imagine. Seeing is believing when it comes to grasping the effectiveness of an inspiring life in action. (16)


(1) Aphorisms of Yoga, by Patanjali, tr. Shree Purohit Swami, London: Faber and Faber Ltd., 1938, II.30

(2) Yoga Sutras, II.35.

(3) VanWyck Brooks, From a Writer’s Notebook, New York: Dutton, 1958. Pp. 40-42.

(4) W. D. Haley, “Johnny Appleseed—A Pioneer Hero,” reprinted in William J. Jackson, The Wisdom of Generosity, Waco: Baylor University Press, p. 234-239.

(5) Emanuel Swedenborg, Heaven and Hell, tr. John C. Ager, (originally published in 1900), West Chester, PA: Swedenborg Foundation Publishers, 2000, p. 108.

(6) Nathaniel Wright Stephenson, Lincoln; An Account of His Personal Life, Especially of Its Springs of Action as Revealed and Deepened by the Ordeal of War. “In this thrilled curiosity about the animals was the side of him least intelligible to men like his father. It lives in many anecdotes: of his friendship with a poor dog he had which he called ‘Honey’; of pursuing a snake through difficult thickets to prevent its swallowing a frog; of loitering on errands at the risk of whippings to watch the squirrels in the tree-tops; of the crowning offense of his childhood, which earned him a mighty beating, the saving of a fawn’s life by scaring it off just as a hunter’s gun was leveled. And by way of comment on all this, there is the remark preserved in the memory of another boy to whom at the time it appeared most singular, “God might think as much of that little fawn as of some people.” Of him as of another gentle soul it might have been said that all the animals were his brothers and sisters.” Chapter one.

(7) Van Wyck Brooks, A Writer’s Notebook, p. 41. Brooks notes: “How paradoxical is our age that praises both Hemingway’s blood-lust and the quixotic humanity of Schweitzer and Gandhi…”

(8) John Lennon, youtube.

(9) Stanislav Grof, Realms of the Human Unconscious: Observations from LSD Research, New York: Viking Press, 1976.

(10) James Hillman, Senex and Puer, (James Hillman Uniform Edition, vol. 3) Spring Publications, 2005, p. 210.

(11) Ibid., p. 211.

(12) Ibid., p. 210.

(13) Malcolm Gladwell, “How I rediscovered faith,” Relevant magazine.

(14) Richard Eberhart, Collected Poems, New York: Oxford University Press, 1976, p. 184.

(15) Ramchandra Gandhi, I Am Thou, New Delhi: Indian Philosophical Quarterly Publications, 1984, p. 25.

(16) See John Nichols, “Pete Seeger: This Man Surrounded Hate and Forced it to Surrender,” The Nation, January 28, 2014.

EDITOR’S NOTE: William J. Jackson is our Literary Editor and a frequent contributor to this site. Please consult his author’s page for biographical and bibliographical information.

“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