views updated May 14 2018


NONVIOLENCE . Virtually every religious tradition contains some sort of injunction against taking human life. The biblical instruction "Thou shalt not kill" (Ex. 20:13, Dt. 5:17), considered normative for both Jewish and Christian traditions, is echoed in the New Testament (Mt. 5:21) and also in the Qurʾān: "Slay not the life that God has made sacred" (6:152). In the Buddhist tradition, the first of the Five Precepts mandated as part of the Eightfold Path of righteous living is the requirement not to kill. A Jain text claims that "if someone kills living things his sin increases" (Sūtraktāga 1.1), a sentiment that is also found in Hinduism: "The killing of living beings is not conducive to heaven" (Manusmti 5.48).

Despite the general agreement over the immorality of killing, however, there is a great deal of disagreement within and among religious traditions over such crucial matters as (1) how the rule against killing is justified; (2) when the rule may be abrogated; (3) whether it applies to all animate life; (4) whether it includes a prohibition against forms of harm other than physical; and (5) how central it is to each tradition.

A comparative survey of the concept of nonviolence is also complicated by the fact that the terms used for nonviolent acts and attitudes differ widely from culture to culture and from one century to the next. The words pacifism and nonviolence, for instance, are relatively new inventions in the English language. Nonviolence, a translation of the Sanskrit term ahisā (lit., "no harm"), came into common English usage only in the twentieth century through its association with Mohandas Gandhi and his approach to conflict. While the term has parallels in religious traditions throughout the world, the idea is central primarily in the religious traditions found in India.

In the following survey of nonviolence in the world religious traditions, the concept can be seen as conceived in three basic ways:

  1. As an inner state or attitude of nondestructiveness and reverence for life. This idea is expressed primarily in the Jain, Buddhist, and Hindu traditions through the notion of ahisā. It is also found in certain African and Native American tribal societies and in some Christian communities, including the Quakers.
  2. As an ideal of social harmony and peaceful living. This concept, associated with the Hebrew term shalom and the Islamic term salām, is also found in ancient Greek religion, where gods such as Demeter and Apollo incarnated the virtues of peace. It is linked with visions of a perfect future found in Christianity and in various tribal religions.
  3. As a response to conflict. A nonviolent approach to confrontation, even in oppressive situations, has been the hallmark of the Christian notion of sacrificial love, the Jewish concept of martyrdom, and the Gandhian strategy of nonviolent conflict.

Ancient India

During the Vedic period (c. 1500500 bce), the concept of nonviolence was virtually unknown. The culture of the time was permeated with the values of a military society, and animals were widely used for food and sacrifice. The mythological accounts of Vedic gods are filled with acts of violence, vengeance, and warfareactivities in which the gods of the great epics also participated.

The first mention of nonviolence as a moral virtue is found in the Chāndogya Upaniad (3.17.4), where the word ahisā implies self-sacrifice and restraint. The Yoga Sūtra later requires it as a vow for those undertaking yogic practices. The further evolution of the concept, however, is linked with another notion that arises in the Upaniads, the belief in karman, that is, that one's attitudes and deeds in this life will influence one's status in the next. Acts and attitudes destructive to life are considered to have an especially bad influence. The concept of ahisā, thus elevated, came into a central position in the teachings of the heterodox masters of the sixth century bce, notably Mahāvīra, the prominent figure in the Jain tradition, and Siddhārtha Gautama, the Buddha.

Jain Teachings

The importance of nonviolence in Jainism is due to the tradition's stark view of the law of karman : any association with killing, even an accidental one, is a serious obstacle on the path of karmic purity. For that reason, pious Jains wear masks over their faces to avoid breathing in (and thereby destroying) tiny insects, and they sweep the ground before them in order to avoid stepping on anything living as they walk. In addition, all Jains adhere to a vegetarian diet. Vegetables are also living things, of course, but certain vegetables are thought to carry a greater karmic weight, and these the Jains try to avoid. Jain monks, whose code is even stricter than that of the laity, hold as an ideal the logical conclusion of an extreme form of ahisā : the completion of one's life by starving to death.


The Buddhist ideal of ahisā, even as practiced by Buddhist monks, is not as strict as that of the Jains. Buddhists emphasize motivation as well as action, and traditional Buddhist teachings require five conditions, all of which must be present before one can be considered culpable of an act of killing: (1) something must first have been living; (2) the killer must have known that it was alive; (3) he or she must have intended to kill it; (4) there must have been an act of killing; and (5) it must, in fact, have died.

It is the absence of the third of these conditions that typically allows for some mitigation of the rule of total nonviolence in the Buddhist case. For instance, many Buddhists will eat meat as long as they have not themselves intended that the animal be slaughtered or been involved in the act of slaughtering. Armed defenseeven warfarehas been justified on the grounds that such violence has been in the nature of response, not intent. To use violence nondefensively, however, for the purpose of political expansion, appears to be prohibited under the Buddhist rule.

Perhaps for this reason, the great Buddhist emperor Aśoka came to accept the principle of nonviolence only after his bloody wars of expansion. From his headquarters in what is now the North Indian state of Bihar, Asoka conquered a goodly portion of the South Asian subcontinent in the third century bce. Once in power, however, he instituted the rule of nonviolence as state policy.

Even in modern Buddhist societies such as Thailand, where kingship is a religious as well as a political role, there is a tension between the obligations of political authority and the adherence to the rule of nonviolence. In countries such as China and Japan, where Buddhism is intertwined with other religious traditions, the stringent Buddhist standards are maintained only by monks, while those in political authority rely on other religious traditions, such as Confucianism and Shinto, to justify political force.

Chinese culture has been receptive to Buddhist ideas on nonviolence, however, due to the existence of similar notions in traditional Chinese thought. The Daoist concept of wuwei ("nonstriving") connotes an ideal of peaceful living and the absence of aggression much like that conveyed by the concept of ahisā.

Medieval and Modern Hindu Attitudes

Sometime after the rise of Buddhism, and perhaps because of its influence, the idea of nonviolence gained popularity throughout India and became linked with two other notions, vegetarianism and respect for the cow. Some scholars regard cow worship as a vestige of an earlier nature-goddess religion in India, but in its later, Hindu interpretation, veneration of the cow became a symbol of respect for all living beings, and by extension, a symbol of nonviolence. Despite the popularity of the concept, however, the political history of India has been dominated by military rulers, often members of the warrior caste (katriya ) whose moral obligation (dharma ) includes leadership in battle.

It was Mohandas Gandhi (18691948) who brought the concept of nonviolence into the political sphere. By combining the notion of nonviolence with a traditional means of protestdharā (a general strike)Gandhi made movements of nonviolent noncooperation into instruments of significant political power. By employing nonviolence as an essential element of the consensus style of decision making traditionally practiced by India's village councils (pañchāyat ), Gandhi developed a novel method of conflict resolution he called satyāgraha ("truth force"). He applied this term both to his campaigns for India's independence and to his way of dealing with differences of opinion in everyday life.

Although Gandhi insisted on nonviolence as a general rule, he allowed for several significant exceptions. He condoned the violence required to stop snipers or rapists as they attacked, and permitted the killing of pests and wild animals that threatened his rural commune. He claimed that he preferred violence over cowardice, and he placed the battle for truth on a higher plane than the strict observance of nonviolence. Yet Gandhi also regarded nonviolence as the litmus test that would reveal where truth was to be found. In Gandhi's view, any form of coercion or intimidation was violent and to be abhorred.

Hindu and Sikh Militants

The persistence of violence in India's public life is ample testimony that Gandhi's approach was not unanimously accepted even in his own land. The movement for national independence that Gandhi led was marred by violence, including that perpetrated by Bengali nationalists inspired by Durga, a goddess to whom great destructive powers were ascribed. At the time of independence, Hindu militants led violent assaults against their old Muslim foes and, in 1948, one of them led the fatal assault on Gandhi's life as well.

The assassination in 1984 of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi of India was also motivated by religious concerns. Mrs. Gandhi was killed by a member of the Sikh community in retaliation for her part in ordering a military assault on the Sikh Golden Temple. The fundamental teachings of the Sikhs are not, however, violent: the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century spiritual masters who are regarded as founders of the faith are portrayed as such gentle souls that Gandhi himself claimed to have been inspired by them. But over the years the ranks of the Sikh movement swelled with members of a militant tribal group, the Jats, and Sikhs were involved in violent clashes with the Mughals, the British, and other Indian rulers. The core of the Sikh community is known as "the army of the faithful," and their symbol is a double-edged sword.

Biblical Judaism

Western religious traditions are no less inclined than their Eastern counterparts to combine violent and peaceful images of the divine. And, as in the Hindu tradition, some of the earliest images are the most violent. "The Lord is a warrior," proclaims Exodus 15:3. The utter desolation with which God destroyed his enemies indicated just how fierce a warrior he could be.

Later sections of the Hebrew scriptures temper this image with an attitude of compassion, and some even show a disdain of things military (see Ps. 20, 30, 33, 147; Is. 30). David, for instance, was not allowed to build the Temple because he had shed blood (1 Chr. 28:23), and the prophetic vision that nations will "beat their swords into plowshares" and "never again be trained for war" (Is. 2:4, Mi. 4:3) is one of the most vivid images of pacifism in any religious scripture.

An even more positive approach is indicated by the growing prominence of the biblical term for "peace," shalom, which appears often in the prophetic books of the Hebrew scriptures, especially Jeremiah and Isaiah. The term signifies not only an absence of warfare, but the presence of a spirit of well-being and harmony. In this respect, shalom is the Hebrew equivalent for the positive aspects of ahisā, especially the absence of the desire to harm.

Rabbinic and Modern Judaism

Writings in the Babylonian Talmud continue this Jewish emphasis on shalom and further elaborate a series of ethical restrictions on using violence. On an interpersonal level, the absence of violence is applauded even in the face of provocation. If one is attacked, a fourth-century rabbi advised, "let him kill you; do you commit no murder" (Pes. 25b). At the level of statecraft, the rabbis did sanction warfare, but they distinguished between "religious" war and "optional" war. The former they required as a moral or spiritual obligationto protect the faith or defeat enemies of the Lord. These contrasted with wars that are waged for reasons of political expansion and power; such optional wars are justified only if they are initiated for virtuous reasons.

During the rabbinic period, the Jewish community was also beginning to develop nonviolent forms of self-defense and resistance, both as individual and as communal actions. The confrontations with the occupying Roman government included not only militant clashes, such as the Maccabean Revolt (166164 bce), but also nonviolent encounters, as when the Jewish community resisted Caligula's attempt to establish a statue of himself as Zeus in the Temple at Jerusalem in 40 ce. The revolt at Masada in 73 ce, although violent, involved a show of religious solidarity that culminated in mass suicide, and the rebellion led by Bar Kokhba (c. 132135 ce) involved a kind of passive resistance that resulted in martyrdom.

The concept of martyrdom, kiddush ha-Shem ("sanctification of the divine name"), is central to the Jewish tradition of nonviolent resistance. The term implies that those who revere the divine order must be unflagging in their witness to it, even at the cost of their lives. A rabbinical council in the second century ce narrowed to three the number of offenses that one should refuse to commit even under the threat of death: idolatry, unchastity, and murder. By extension, however, martyrdom was expected in any situation where one was forced to deny the basic tenets of the faith.

In times of political oppression, the ideal of kiddush ha-Shem has served to inspire Jewish resisters to acts of courage and faithfulness even at the risk of their lives. This ideal was tested in the fifteenth century when, during the Spanish Inquisition, many Jews were persecuted for adopting a technique that amounted to passive resistance: they claimed to be Christian converts when in fact they were secretly observing the Jewish faith. In the twentieth century, faced with massive Nazi attempts at genocide, the European Jewish community adopted both violent and nonviolent forms of resistance. One of the most common responses to the Nazis, especially among the Orthodox, was based on the traditional notion of kiddush ha-Shem : they faced their opponents with dignity and faithfulness, rather than adopting any aspect of the enemy's behavior, even if it meant risking death.

Early Christianity

Martyrdom was an important feature of early Christianity as well, partly because it seemed an imitation of the sacrifice of Jesus, but there has been disagreement among Christians from that time to the present over whether Jesus' example of selfless love (agape) was meant to be followed to similar extremes by other members of the Christian community. Those who thought so expected that the peaceable kingdom of God that is often depicted in the Gospels would be realized in this world, and they took literally Jesus' advocacy of a nonviolent approach to conflict: "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (Mt. 5:44).

The early church fathers, including Tertullian and Origen, affirmed that Christians were constrained from taking human life, a principle that prevented them from participating in the Roman army. The fact that soldiers in the army were required to swear allegiance to the emperor's god was also a deterrent, since it would have forced Christians into what they regarded as idolatry.

The adoption of Christianity as the state religion by Constantine in the fourth century ce brought about a major reversal in Christian attitudes toward pacifism and led to the formulation of the doctrine of just war. This idea, based on a concept stated by Cicero and developed by Ambrose and Augustine, has had a significant influence on Christian social thought. The abuse of the concept in justifying military adventures and violent persecutions of heretical and minority groups led Thomas Aquinas, in the thirteenth century, to reaffirm that war is always sinful, even if it is occasionally waged for a just cause.

Pacifist Christian Movements

The late medieval period witnessed the rise of a series of movements dedicated to pacifism and the ethic of love that Jesus had advocated in his Sermon on the Mount. One of the first of such groups was the Waldensian community based in France and North Italy; this was founded by Pierre Valdès, who in 1170 had committed himself to a life of poverty and simplicity, and who refused to bear arms. Although Valdès was excommunicated from the church, he is said to have influenced the young Francis of Assisi, whose religious order later adopted many of Valdès's principles. Similar pacifist teachings were advocated by John Wyclif and his Lollard followers in fourteenth-century England, and in the same century the Hussite and Taborite movements in Czechoslovakia rejected all forms of violence, as did their successors, the Moravians.

The Protestant Reformation provided a new stimulus for groups that rejected the church's compromise with what it often regarded as the political necessity of military force. In the first decades of the sixteenth century, the Anabaptists broke away from Ulrich Zwingli's branch of the Swiss Reformation over the issues of voluntary baptism and absolute pacifismteachings the Anabaptists affirmed and that, later in the same century, were adopted by Menno Simons and his Mennonite followers in Holland. In a tragic and ironic twist of fate, many of these pacifists were persecuted by fellow Protestants as heretics, and were burned at the stake.

Perhaps the best-known Protestant pacifist movement is the Society of Friends, commonly known as the Quakers, which was established by George Fox in England in 1649. The nonviolent ethic of this radical Puritan movement was based on the notion that a spark of the divine exists in every person, making every life sacred. With this in mind, the Quaker colonialist William Penn refused to bear arms in his conflict with the American Indians, with whom he eventually negotiated a peace settlement.

Many pacifist Christian movements in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, such as the Jehovah's Witnesses, owe a substantial debt to Christian predecessors such as those mentioned above. Others have been influenced by Western humanist and Asian pacifist thought, especially, in the twentieth century, by the ideas of Mohandas Gandhi. Gandhi, in turn, was influenced by Christian pacifists, including the Russian novelist and visionary Lev Tolstoi and the American Christian social activists Kirby Page, Clarence Marsh Case, and A. J. Muste. The largest Christian pacifist organization of modern times, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, was founded in England in 1914; and a number of statements urging nonviolence have been issued from the Vatican and from the World Council of Churches in response to the two world wars of this century. In the United States during the mid-twentieth century, Christian pacifist ideas played a significant role in Martin Luther King, Jr.'s nonviolent movement for racial justice, the movement against the American involvement in the Vietnam War, and in movements against the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Some Christian "nuclear pacifists," however, restrict their advocacy of nonviolence to nuclear arms, whose massively destructive power, they feel, vitiates the traditional Christian defense of weaponry in a "just war."


The concept of nonviolence is not so thoroughly developed in Islam as it is in many other religious traditions, but certain parallels do exist. The Islamic concept of peace, for instancesalām is as central to Islam as shalom is to Judaism, and plays a similar role in providing a vision of social harmony. To that end, Islamic communities have placed great emphasis on arbitration and mediation so that intracommunal conflicts will not erupt into violent confrontations.

Yet there are times when recourse to violence is permitted in Islamic law: inside Islam, it is justified as a means of punishment, and beyond Islam, as a tool to subdue an enemy of the faith. The latter situation is known as jihād, a word that literally means "striving" and is often translated as "holy war." This concept has been used to justify the expansion of territorial control by Muslim leaders into non-Islamic areas. But Muslim law does not allow it to be used to justify forcible conversion to Islam; the only conversions regarded as valid are those that come about nonviolently, through rational persuasion and change of heart. For that reason, non-Islamic groups have traditionally been tolerated in Islamic societies, and the Jews in Moorish Spain are often said to have been treated less harshly under their Muslim rulers than under subsequent Christian ones.

Muslim mystics, known as ūfīs, have on occasion rejected the common notion of jihād by redefining it so that it refers primarily to an inner struggle, which they consider "the greater jihād": the conflict of truth and evil within every person. In addition, there have been overtly pacifist sects in Islam, such as the Māziyārīyah and Amadīyah movements. The twentieth-century Muslim Pathans in North India, influenced by Gandhi and led by Abdul Ghaffir Khan, conducted an extensive nonviolent campaign for independence from the British. In other cases, Muslims have responded to oppressive regimes by noncooperation and witnessing to the faith even at peril of deatha form of martyrdom much like that found in the Jewish and Christian traditions.

See Also

Ahisā; Gandhi, Mohandas; Peace.


A general overview of concepts of nonviolence in the major religious traditions is to be found in John Ferguson's War and Peace in the World's Religions (New York, 1977), and a description of the various ways religious traditions have put nonviolence into practice in conflict situations is provided in Richard B. Gregg's The Power of Non-Violence (Philadelphia, 1934); in The Quiet Battle: Writings on the Theory and Practice of Nonviolence, edited by Mulford Q. Sibley (Chicago, 1963); and in Gene Sharp's The Politics of Nonviolent Action, 3 vols. (Boston, 19731980).

Other works are specific to particular religious traditions. For the concept of ahisā in ancient India, see W. Norman Brown's Man in the Universe: Some Continuities in Indian Thought (Berkeley, 1966); for early Buddhism, see David S. Ruegg's "Ahisā and Vegetarianism in the History of Buddhism," in Buddhist Studies in Honour of Walpola Rahula, edited by Somaratna Balasooriya et al. (London, 1980); and for the Jain tradition, see Padmanabh S. Jaini's The Jaina Path of Purification (Berkeley, 1979). Later developments of the idea in Buddhism are explored in Winston L. King's In the Hope of Nibbana: An Essay on Theravada Buddhist Ethics (LaSalle, Ill., 1964) and Stanley J. Tambiah's World Conqueror and World Renouncer: A Study of Buddhism and Polity in Thailand against a Historical Background (Cambridge, 1976). The Gandhian approach is described in Joan Bondurant's Conquest of Violence: The Gandhian Philosophy of Conflict (Princeton, 1958) and in my Ghandi's Way: A Handbook of Conflict Resolution (Berkeley, Calif., 2003).

With regard to the Jewish tradition, biblical attitudes are examined in D. Martin Dakin's Peace and Brotherhood in the Old Testament (London, 1956), and a number of works explore the rabbinic views, including Nahum N. Glatzer's "The Concept of Peace in Classical Judaism," in his Essays in Jewish Thought (University, Ala., 1978), and André Neher's "Rabbinic Adumbrations of Non-Violence," in Rationalism, Judaism, and Universalism, edited by Raphael Loewe (London, 1966). For one of the Jewish responses to Gandhi during World War II, see Judah L. Magnes's "A Letter to Gandhi," in Modern Jewish Thought: A Source Reader, edited by Nahum N. Glatzer (New York, 1977).

A useful sourcebook of Christian writings on nonviolence is War and the Christian Conscience: From Augustine to Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by Albert Marrin (Chicago, 1971), and an excellent discussion of the historical development of the idea is to be found in the brief essays by Geoffrey Nuttal in his Christian Pacifism in History (Oxford, 1958). Good examples of the current discussion of nonviolence in the field of Christian ethics are James F. Childress's Moral Responsibility in Conflicts (Baton Rouge, 1982) and William Robert Miller's Nonviolence: A Christian Interpretation (London, 1964). The Islamic point of view is presented in Majid Khadduri's War and Peace in the Law of Islam (Baltimore, 1955), and comments of Muslim writers on the subject of peace and nonviolence can be found in Eric Schroeder's Muhammad's People (Portland, Maine, 1955).

Mark Juergensmeyer (1987 and 2005)


views updated May 17 2018


Gandhian nonviolence (ahimsa ) is an active civic virtue that habitually disposes individuals, social groups, and political authorities to resist violence through non-violent means and to resolve conflicts using peaceful methods. It recognizes violence as a fact and nonviolence as a norm of social life. Its normative character arises from the assumed natural sociability of human beings. Its focal point is the good of society, which includes the good of the individual as well. It is an active virtue, inasmuch as it imposes a twofold obligation on its adherents to resist violence in all its forms and to seek effective nonviolent means to resolve conflicts. To be nonviolent in the Gandhian sense, it is not enough to refrain from committing acts of violence; it is equally necessary to take positive steps to remove the causes of violence wherever they are found, whether in the political, social, economic, or religious arena.

In the Indian context, the organized practice of this virtue is called satyagraha. Coined by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (18691948), this Gujarati term means "firmness in adhering to truth"practical truth. The discovery of the truth underlying a conflict situation by the parties to the conflict is a distinguishing feature of satyagraha. The parties to a conflict are considered not so much adversaries as partners in search of a common end. There is no question of one party losing and the other party gaining. On the contrary, the goal is for both parties to make some moral advance for having engaged in a conflict.

Nonviolence may be practiced by individuals or by groups. In either case, it requires careful moral training and the use of appropriate techniques. Its practice may take several forms: noncooperation (if the offending party is the state), boycott (if the offending party is a business or corporation), strikes (in labor disputes), or protest marches, and so forth. Joan Bondurant's Conquest of Violence (1965) and Mark Juergensmeyer's Gandhi's Way (2002) give excellent accounts of the techniques that Gandhi used in the organized exercise of this virtue.


Gandhi makes a number of distinctions that clarify the meanings of nonviolence: active nonviolence distinguished from passive nonviolence, nonviolence as creed distinguished from nonviolence as policy, and the nonviolence of the brave distinguished from that of the morally weak.

Active nonviolence is the disposition to use not only existing nonviolent means in settling disputes, but also to invent new means if the existing ones prove to be ineffective. Its active character makes it a creative and dynamic force in the culture of a given society. Passive nonviolence, by contrast, is a private, monastic virtue whose goal is the spiritual perfection of the individual. In and of itself, it is indifferent to, if not blind to, the violence that exists in society.

Nonviolence as creed prohibits, always and everywhere, the use of violent means to resist violence. Nonviolence of the brave raises the practice of this virtue to a heroic level, making personal suffering, even death, an acceptable consequence of practicing it. Gandhi saw these two forms of nonviolence as options open only to exceptional individuals; he did not make them mandatory for those who practice nonviolence as a civic virtue.

Nonviolence as policy is preeminently a civic virtue. It too is based on a strong moral conviction against the use of violence to resolve conflicts. At the same time, it permits the lawful use of violence in certain circumstances, as, for instance, in the maintenance of public order or public welfare. Also, wars of legitimate self-defense, conducted under strict rules of natural justice and international law, do not violate the norms of nonviolence as policy. Its object is not the total elimination of violence from societywhich is taken as being existentially impossiblebut the gradual reduction of its frequency and intensity. It stands for a realist, not pacifist, vision of society and polity. However, its practitioners too are obliged to seek, wherever possible, nonviolent ways of resolving conflicts. Finally, the nonviolence of the morally weak is hardly a virtue, since it is practiced for reasons of expediency, not moral conviction.

The Historical Context

The origin and development of Gandhian nonviolence were owed to four forms of violence that Gandhi had to face throughout his career. They were, first, colonialism as practiced in South Africa and India at the turn of the twentieth century; second, the rise of Indian nationalism aligned to terrorism; third, the violent treatment of the untouchables by upper-class Indians; and fourth, the rise of religious extremism in India.

Gandhi viewed colonialism as a product of modern Western civilization (the other product being Marxism). By definition, colonialism legitimized aggressive wars of conquest and condoned the treatment of the colonized as "lesser breeds" without rights. Its twin maxims, he claimed, were "might is right" and the "survival of the fittest." The immediate context of the birth of satyagraha (1906) was Gandhi's confrontation with what was perhaps the most violent form of colonialismthat practiced in South Africa.

Although in its early years Indian nationalism adhered to liberal values, by the turn of the twentieth century an extremist faction was turning to terrorist violence as a means of ending colonialism. Terrorist secret societies, such as the Abhinav Bharat (1904) and the Anusilan Samiti (1905), had gained ground in several regions of India. Gandhi was keenly aware of the dangers that political terrorism posed for Indian society.

Although racism was part of the colonial ideology, Gandhi was appalled more by the quasi-racist treatment of India's so-called untouchables by the Indians themselves than he was by the racism of the whites against nonwhites. The eradication of this form of violence from India was one of the major objects of his nonviolent campaigns. The Vykom Satyagraha (19241925) was directed specifically against untouchability.

What troubled Gandhi most, however, was the rise of religious extremism in India in the first quarter of the twentieth century. Vinayak Damodar Savarkar's (18831966) Hindutva, the basic text of Hindu extremism, was published in 1923, and Abul Ala Mawdudi's (19031979) Jihad, a basic text of modern Muslim fundamentalism, was published in 1927. Both rejected Gandhi's nonviolent vision of society and polity. Gandhi's position was that religious fundamentalism was corrupting both Hinduism and Indian Islam. His philosophy of nonviolence appealed to both moderate Hindus and moderate Muslims, but failed to prevent the partition of India along religious lines.

The Intellectual Context

The ideas that shaped Gandhian nonviolence were drawn both from Western and Indian sources. The trial of Socrates as described in Plato's Apology had a profound impact on Gandhi. In 1908 he published a paraphrase of this work in English and Gujarati under the title The Story of a Soldier of Truth. Socrates was a model for all those who would resist nonviolently the violence of the state. The ethics of the Sermon on the Mount, as interpreted in Leo Tolstoy's The Kingdom of God Is within You (1893), had a lifelong influence on him. Another of Tolstoy's writings, Letter to a Hindu (1908), made Gandhi rethink the role of violence in Indian society. Tolstoy had argued that the British were able to hold India by violence because Indians themselves believed in violence as the basis of society. That is why they submitted themselves to their rajas and maharajas, and treated the untouchables with extreme cruelty. Under these circumstances, the complaints of Indians against colonial violence seemed to him to resemble the complaints of alcoholics against wine merchants. The removal of colonial violence would not solve India's problems with violence. They would be solved only if Indians made nonviolence the basis of a new India. Gandhi was so persuaded by the Letter that he translated and published it in both English and Gujarati.

Gandhi's study of Western jurisprudence made him a lifelong defender of the idea of the rule of law and the legitimacy of the limited, constitutional state. The fight against violence needed such a state as its ally. Here Gandhi departed from Tolstoy's radical pacifism that rejected the state as such.

John Ruskin's Unto This Last (1860) opened Gandhi's eyes to the hidden structures of violence in industrial capitalism. This work, too, Gandhi paraphrased and published in English and Gujarati (1908) under the title Sarvodaya (The welfare of all), a title that he later gave to his own economic philosophy.

Finally, there was the question of nationalism and how to free it from ethnic or religious or terrorist violence. Here he found help in the liberal nationalism of Giuseppe Mazzini, whose An Essay on the Duties of Man, published in 1892, became one of the recommended readings for all those who wanted to understand Gandhi's own fundamental work, Hind Swaraj (1909).

However, it was Indian philosophical thought that helped Gandhi to integrate the ideas he had absorbed from the West. Here three philosophical traditions were significant. The first was the pacifist tradition of Jainism, as interpreted by Rajchandbusinessman, poet and mystic, and a personal friend. His advice was that a nonviolent way of life was possible only if one withdrew from politics and concentrated all one's energies on achieving inner harmony. Gandhi accepted the point about inner harmony but rejected the idea of withdrawing from politics. On the contrary, he sought to link the quest for inner harmony with that for outer harmony in society and polity.

The philosophy of yoga as expounded in the classic text, the Yogasutra of Patanjali, had also impressed Gandhi greatly. Like Jainism, it too believed in the incompatibility between maintaining inner harmony and engaging in active politics. However, it had recommended five moral virtues as being necessary for inner harmony. Nonviolence was one of them; the other four were truthfulness, abstention from theft, celibacy, and moderation in the use of material possessions. Gandhi gladly incorporated nonviolence into his ethical systemwith one modification. He modified it from being a moral virtue into a civic virtue, thereby making it appropriate for political action.

But the philosophy that influenced him most was that of the Bhagavad Gita. He interpreted it as teaching the negative lesson of the futility of war. On the positive side, he interpreted it as teaching that the good life called for the disinterested service of one's fellow human beings, sustained by a deep love of God. Obstacles to the good life came from violence and the undisciplined state of the passions, notably anger, hatred, greed, and lust. Self-discipline therefore was the psychological key to nonviolence.

The philosophical anthropology underlying Gandhi's theory of nonviolence is adapted from that underlying the Bhagavad Gita. Humans are composites of body and soul (atman). As such, body force and soul force were both seen as active in human affairsthe first as a fact and the second as a norm. The body was the source of violence and the passions; the soul was the source of sociability and of the knowledge of good and evil. It was because the spiritual soul was a constitutive element of human beings that nonviolence remained the norm of their behavior. A materialistic view of human life, in Gandhi's view, could not justify, much less sustain, a nonviolent way of life.

The philosophical anthropology of the Bhagavad Gita also gave Gandhi's nonviolence its ethical realism. Because humans are composite beings, perfect nonviolence was possible only in the atman's disembodied state, not in its embodied state. In its embodied state, the will to live always brought with it the will to use force in legitimate self-defense. In the embodied state, one must always abstain from culpable violencethat is, offensive violence used for illegitimate gains. Defensive violence used in legitimate self-defense is not judged culpable.

Fields of Nonviolence

Although nonviolence is a universal norm, Gandhi was insightful enough to recognize that its application depended on the nature of the society (or "field," to use his terminology) in which it was to be applied. He distinguished four such fieldsthe family, the state, the religious community, and the community of sovereign states.

The family, or family-like communities such as the ashram, were best suited to learn the basics of nonviolence. How to treat one another with love and forbearance and how to settle disputes amicably were first learned in the family.

Historically, nonviolence had notable success in liberal states, or colonial states functioning under the supervision of a metropolitan liberal state. Also, it operated well within religions that displayed a capacity for internal self-criticism. That was why it was able to rid Hinduism of untouchability. However, it was less successful in preventing the revival of jihad in South Asia.

In the international field, Gandhian nonviolence operated suo modo. Gandhi's philosophy permitted sovereign states the right to use military force in legitimate self-defense. However, a commitment to nonviolence also required them to strive for progressive disarmament and to increase the effectiveness of international organizations. Never a radical pacifist, Gandhi urged sovereign states to experiment with nonmilitary ways of securing national defense such as using "armies without lethal weapons." He did not envision a warless world, but at the same time he held out the possibility of wars becoming less frequent and less destructive.

The "Vast Majority" Principle

Gandhi's thoughts on the future of nonviolence led him to realize that unless the "vast majority" of the people in a state were nonviolent, that state could not be governed nonviolently. The vast majority principle distributed the responsibility for nonviolence equally on the shoulders of the leaders and ordinary citizens; political leaders could promote nonviolence only to the extent that their own people became nonviolent. And their own people could become nonviolent if theythe peoplecould dismantle, through non-governmental organizations, existing structures of internal violence.

The sociological insight contained in the vast majority principle led Gandhi to write his last major thesis on nonviolence, Constructive Programme (1941). In it he analyzed, among other things, the structures of violence active in Indian society, and concluded that unless Hindus and Muslims in India learned to live in harmony, unless caste violence was set aside, and unless mass poverty was eliminated, there was no chance of India's becoming a nonviolent country.

A corollary of the vast majority principle is that unless a circle of sovereign states became nonviolent in the manner described above, there was no chance of their relations becoming peaceful. Gandhi's vast majority principle is reminiscent of Immanuel Kant's "republican principle," enunciated in his Perpetual Peace (1795).

The Impact of Nonviolence

Gandhian nonviolence has affected global culture in four ways. First, it changed for the better aspects of the political culture of particular countries. In India, for example, it influenced the manner in which colonialism was brought to an end and a new political philosophy introduced. In the United States, it had an impact on the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King Jr.

Second, it inspired many individuals across the world to adopt active nonviolence as their own public philosophy. Those so inspired include the Dalai Lama, Lech Walesa of Poland, Lanza del Vasto of France, Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar (Burma), Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, Cesar Chavez of the United States, and Thomas Merton, the American Trappist monk.

Third, it contributed to the emergence of several nongovernmental organizations worldwide, among them those devoted to disarmament, economic development from below, the green movement, and the dialogue between religions.

Finally, it gave further impetus for nonviolence to become a subject of serious academic study and research in institutions of higher learning throughout the world, notably in the fields of history, sociology, religious studies, theology, and comparative political philosophy.

See also Colonialism ; Hinduism ; Jainism ; Peace ; Resistance and Accommodation .


Bondurant, Joan V. Conquest of Violence: The Gandhian Philosophy of Conflict. Rev. ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1965.

Brown, Judith M. Gandhi: Prisoner of Hope. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989.

Dalton, Dennis. Mahatma Gandhi: Nonviolent Power in Action. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

Gandhi, Mohandas K. Gandhi, an Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth. Boston: Beacon, 1993.

. Hind Swaraj and Other Writings. Edited by Anthony J. Parel. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Contains the text of Gandhi's Constructive Programme.

. Satyagraha in South Africa. Stanford, Calif.: Academic Reprints, 1954.

Juergensmeyer, Mark. Gandhi's Way: A Handbook of Conflict Resolution. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

Merton, Thomas, ed. Gandhi on Non-violence. New York: New Directions, 1965.

Parekh, Bhikhu. Gandhi. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. Past Masters series.

Terchek, Ronald J. Gandhi: Struggling for Autonomy. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1998.

Wolpert, Stanley. Gandhi's Passion: The Life and Legacy of Mahatma Gandhi. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Anthony Parel


views updated May 29 2018


Nonviolence is a principle that rejects violence as un-conscionable and may reject all forms of coercion. Belief in nonviolence is deeply rooted in American history, from the pacifism of the Quakers and Anabaptists to the nonresistance of the clergyman Adin Ballou, the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, and others. These Americans inspired the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, who advocated social reform, and the Indian nationalist and spiritual leader Mohandas K. Gandhi, whose example reinvigorated American nonviolence in the twentieth century. An adherence to nonviolence took shape among those who read William James on the "moral equivalent of war," supported Jane Addams's efforts to resolve domestic class conflict and international warfare, and were provoked by Randolph Bourne's critique of American mobilization in World War I.

In 1915 three organizations professing nonviolence were formed: Protestant pacifists organized the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR); Jane Addams and other progressives founded the Women's Peace Party, which became the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF); and New York pacifists organized an Anti-Militarist Committee, which became the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Other such organizations followed. In 1917 Quakers organized the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). The War Resisters League (WRL) formed in 1923 to protect the rights of political conscientious objectors. John Haynes Holmes, a New York Unitarian preacher, and A. J. Muste, a Dutch Reformed minister-activist, were major leaders among these groups.

In 1933 two Roman Catholic peace activists, Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day, formed the Catholic Worker Movement. After World War II, Pax Christi became the leading international organization of Catholic peace activists, and the cloistered monk, Thomas Merton, gave them an important theological voice. The nonviolence of David Dellinger, Paul Goodman, James Peck, and Bayard Rustin, four non-Catholic activist-writers who came of age during the Depression, were tested by conscription in World War II. They exercised their greatest influence in the civil rights movement and the struggle against the Vietnam War.

Defending conscientious objectors, those who refused to serve in the armed forces for moral or religious reasons, was one of the nonviolence organizations' main objectives in the first half of the twentieth century. Later, their most important struggles were the Civil Rights movement and protest against the Vietnam War. Some trace the origins of the Civil Rights movement to FOR activities: its sponsorship of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), its Chicago sit-ins contesting segregated lunch counters in 1942, and its 1947 Journey of Reconciliation, testing the segregation of interstate transportation in the South. Yet these events received little notice. By contrast, the Montgomery (Alabama) Improvement Association's nonviolent bus boycott in 1955, with roots in Afro-Christianity, had a decisive impact on civil rights. After the local association had engaged in nonviolent boycott for many weeks, FOR and WRL activists came to Montgomery offering advice and important connections. As a result of the boycott's success, its leader, Martin Luther King, Jr., and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference, became preeminent vehicles for nonviolence in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1960 the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was born out of the sit-in movement and, a year later, CORE launched its freedom rides. Rustin coordinated and King addressed the 1963 March on Washington, which drew far more participants than earlier similar demonstrations and became the example by which all subsequent marches were judged. By the mid-1960s, however, the struggle itself undermined the commitment of CORE and SNCC to nonviolence.

The Civil Rights movement crested, fragmented, and ebbed in a complex relationship to the war in Vietnam. America's armed forces had pioneered in desegregation and were a major vehicle of black social mobility. Rustin thought that the movement's alliance with Lyndon Johnson's administration was crucial to the future of black politics. Thus he broke with nonviolence to support Johnson's prosecution of the war. But King and other adherents of nonviolence, such as the well-known pediatrician and author Dr. Benjamin Spock, called for American withdrawal from the conflict. As the war continued, Daniel and Philip Berrigan, both Roman Catholic priests, tested different practices in nonviolence as a means of protest. King and others insisted that nonviolence might be obliged to violate unjust law, but that it would absorb the penalty for doing so. After committing dramatic acts of nonviolent protest, the Berrigan brothers went underground to avoid arrest. In the twentieth century Americans witnessed the power of nonviolence to effect social change but also the limited capacity of nonviolence to sustain itself through long periods of duress.


Brock, Peter, and Young, Nigel. Pacifism in the Twentieth Century. Syracuse, NY: University of Toronto Press, 1999; distributed by Syracuse University Press.

Chatfield, Charles. The American Peace Movement: Ideals and Activism. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1992.

Cooney, Robert, and Michalowski, Helen, eds. The Power of the People: Active Nonviolence in the United States. Philadelphia: New Society, 1987.

DeBenedetti, Charles. An American Ordeal: The Antiwar Movement of the Vietnam Era. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1990.

Ralph E. Luker

See also:Addams, Jane; Civil Rights Movement; King, Martin Luther; Peace Movements.

William James (1842–1910) was an American philosopher and psychologist. He earned a medical degree from Harvard University, where he later taught anatomy and philosophy before declaring himself a psychologist. In his essay "The Moral Equivalent to War," first given as a speech at Stanford University in 1906 and published in 1910, James proposes that until an activity equal to that of military service in its ability to discipline and unify citizens is implemented, military service and the consequent wars will remain a reality. James suggests that an obligatory national youth corps in which young men serve for two years in physically demanding jobs would both mature the participants and alleviate the need for men to spend a lifetime in such labor.

Dorothy Day (1897–1980) was an American Catholic writer and social reformer, who founded the Catholic Worker Movement (CWM) as well as the radical monthly newspaper Catholic Worker. The CWM, which Day described in her 1939 book House of Hospitality, created "houses of hospitality" in urban areas and farm communities for people who were hard hit by the Great Depression. Day herself chose to live in one of these houses in New York City. She was a pacifist and helped focus the attention of the Catholic Church on peace and justice issues, such as the unionization of farm workers.

Randolph Bourne (1910–1987) was an American civil rights activist who in the early 1940s participated in the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the pacifist organization Fellowship of Reconciliation. During the 1950s Bourne was secretary of the War Resisters' League, and from 1955 to 1960 he worked with civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr. In honor of his colleague and friend A. Philip Randolph, a black labor leader, Bourne founded the A. Philip Randolph Institute, the goal of which continues to be promoting civil rights, labor, and educational reforms.

Bayard Rustin (1912–1987) was a civil rights organizer and political activist. He participated in a number of activist groups, among them the Young Communist League (YCL), Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE), and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), respectively. Labor leader A. Philip Randolph schooled Rustin in the nonviolent direct action tactics that had been so successful for Indian pacifist leader Mohandas K. Gandhi, and during the 1950s Rustin lectured nationwide on non-violent activism, teaching the tactics to Martin Luther King, Jr. Rustin was instrumental in organizing the 1963 March on Washington, from which the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act originated.


views updated Jun 08 2018

Nonviolence is both an ethical tradition of conflict behavior and a historical method of resistance to coercion. Ethical nonviolence is rooted in the philosophies of Jainism, Buddhism, and Christian pacifists such as Quakers and Anabaptists, all of whom hold human life inviolable. Nonviolence as method, however, has been guided not so much by ethical restraint as by practical necessity. Conscientious and pragmatic nonviolence have often overlapped in their historical development, but are conceptually distinct. In Gandhian nonviolence, they converged in a single movement.

Nonviolence combines numerous principles and techniques of individual and collective action. Civil disobedience, or breaking law on principle ( Thoreau), and conscientious objection to participation in war ( Tolstoy) are perhaps the most influential. A third conceptual pillar is satyagraha or “firmness in truth” ( Gandhi), the seeking of truth through nonviolent conflict. A range of nonviolent methods are commonly used in social conflict: the strike; the boycott; the fast or hunger strike; the sit‐in or other physical obstruction; picketing; and marches. The theoretical foundation of nonviolence is the necessity of mass cooperation for exercising political power. Political scientist Gene Sharp's concept of power as a socially based form of political action has guided numerous theoretical analyses of nonviolence.

The increase in nonviolent action since 1900 has been a response to the growth of the state. As government's control over the individual expanded through taxation, military conscription, colonial occupation, and targeting of civilians, so did nonviolent resistance to it. By the 1980s, when nuclear weapons were threatening the very extinction of life on earth, tens of millions of persons were responding with nonviolent action.

Mohandas K. Gandhi was the first to use nonviolence in mass political action, to win India's independence from Great Britain. In fusing the ethic of nonviolence with the practice of mass noncooperation in the 1930s and 1940s, he created a model of empowerment that has inspired movements throughout the world. In the United States, the labor, civil rights, peace, and environmental movements all drew heavily on the Gandhian experience. Women suffragists were also early users of militant nonviolence. Alice Paul and her Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage (later the National Woman's Party) invented techniques of nonviolent action still in use today.

North American social history is replete with leaders and organizations inventing nonviolent action for peaceful change and war prevention: Jane Addams and the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom; Abraham J. Muste and the War Resisters League; Walter Reuther and the United Auto Workers; Martin Luther King, Jr., and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference; Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker; Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers of America; Elizabeth McAllister and Daniel and Philip Berrigan of the Plowshares movement; and Greenpeace. Some, such as American folk singer Joan Baez and the German Green Party leader Petra Kelly, transcended national boundaries as icons of a global nonviolence culture.

Latin American nonviolence expanded notably after 1970 in response to three historical forces: (1) militarization of the state to protect entrenched elites; (2) the spread of liberation theology in the Catholic Church; and (3) nonviolence training throughout the continent by Servicio de la Paz y Justicia (SERPAJ). Certain figures symbolized this flowering of nonviolence: the martyrs Archbishop Oscar Romero and the environmentalist Chico Mendes; and three Nobel Peace laureates, Oscar Arias, Rigoberta Menchu, and Adolfo Perez Esquivel.

Nonviolence is supported by training and research programs. One line of inquiry, into disciplined nonviolence as a means to resist military conquest, began with the British Commander Sir Stephen King‐Hall in the late 1950s. The theory of civilian‐based defense emerging from that research proposes nonviolent resistance as an integral part of a nation's security policy. Citizens would be prepared for it with the same planning and discipline used in military training. Nonmilitary defense theory has particularly influenced national governments adopting nonprovocative defense—a security policy with no offensive military capability to threaten neighboring states. Such a policy would deter attack partly through civilian readiness to resist it with mass noncooperation. Theorists prominent in this field include Gene Sharp, Adam Roberts, Anders Boserup, and Theodor Ebert. The governments of Sweden, Denmark, and the Netherlands have explored the feasibility of nonviolent defense.

The theoretical and practical significance of nonviolence is threefold: (1) it has stimulated the use of extra institutional politics where formal institutions could not respond to the demand for change; (2) it addresses military institutions directly, as both a means to resist the militarization of national governments and an alternative or supplement to military security; (3) as political and economic power becomes more concentrated in governments and corporations, nonviolence offers an effective “weapon of the weak,” providing for democratic empowerment and fuller political participation of low‐power groups. Among those are women, who have been especially prominent users of nonviolence. As armed struggle becomes ever more costly, nonviolence presents itself as an alternative strategy for both social change and national defense.
[See also Aggression and Violence; Militarism and Antimilitarism; Nuclear Protest Movements; Pacifism; Peace and Antiwar Movements.]


Staughton Lynd, ed., Nonviolence in America, 1966.
Gene Sharp , The Politics of Nonviolent Action, 3 vols., 1973.
Joan Bondurant , Conquest of Violence: The Gandhian Philosophy of Conflict, 1988.
Philip McManus and
Gerald Schlabach, eds., Relentless Persistence: Nonviolent Action in Latin America, 1991.
Paul Wehr, Heidi Burgess, and Guy Burgess, eds., Justice Without Violence, 1994.
Paul Downton, Jr., and and Paul Wehr , The Persistant Activist, 1997.

Paul Wehr


views updated May 14 2018

non·vi·o·lence / nänˈvīələns/ • n. the use of peaceful means, not force, to bring about political or social change.