BECK index

Gandhi's Nonviolent Revolution

Gandhi's Experiments in South Africa
Nonviolent Campaign for Indian Independence
Soul Force and Nonviolence

This is a chapter in World Peace Efforts Since Gandhi, which is published as a book. For ordering information, please click here.

Click below to see and hear this chapter in two parts.

Gandhi continues what the Buddha began.
In the Buddha the spirit of love set itself the task
of creating different spiritual conditions in the world;
in Gandhi it undertakes to transform all worldly conditions.
Albert Schweitzer, Indian Thought and Its Development

If man will only realize
that it is unmanly to obey laws that are unjust,
no man's tyranny will enslave him.
Mohandas Gandhi, Hind Swaraj

Nonviolence is the law of our species
as violence is the law of the brute.
The spirit lies dormant in the brute,
and he knows no law but that of physical might.
The dignity of man requires obedience to a higher law-
to the strength of the spirit.
Mohandas Gandhi, Young India August 11, 1920

For self-defense, I would restore the spiritual culture.
The best and most lasting self-defense is self-purification.
Mohandas Gandhi, 1924

Those who say that religion has nothing to do with politics
do not know what religion means.
Mohandas Gandhi, Autobiography

A nonviolent revolution is not a program of seizure of power.
It is a program of transformation of relationships
ending in a peaceful transfer of power.
Mohandas Gandhi, 1942

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born on October 2, 1869 at Porbandar in western India. His father was prime minister of the very small state, and his mother was a religious Vaishnavite. At the age of 13 Mohandas was married to a girl his own age and began an active sex life. In his autobiography he admitted that as a boy he secretly ate meat with his friends so that they could become strong like the English. After some local education it was decided that he should go to England to study law. He gained his mother's permission by promising to refrain from wine, women, and meat, but he defied his caste's regulations which forbade travel to England. He joined the Inner Temple law college in London. In searching for a vegetarian restaurant he discovered its philosophy in Henry Salt's A Plea for Vegetarianism and became convinced. He organized a vegetarian club and met people with theosophical and altruistic interests. He discovered the Bhagavad-Gita in Edwin Arnold's poetic translation, The Song Celestial, and offered his limited knowledge of Sanskrit to others. This Hindu scripture and the Sermon on the Mount later became his bibles and spiritual guidebooks. He memorized the Gita during his daily tooth brushing and often recited its original Sanskrit at his prayer meetings.

Gandhi's Experiments in South Africa

By the time Gandhi returned to India in 1891, his mother had died. He was not successful at breaking into the legal profession because of his shyness. So he took the opportunity of representing an Indian firm in Natal, South Africa for a year. South Africa, which was notorious for racial discrimination, gave Gandhi the insults which awakened his social conscience. He refused to remove his turban in court; he was thrown out of a first-class railway compartment; he was beaten for refusing to move to the footboard of a stage-coach for the sake of a European passenger; and he was pushed and kicked off a footpath by a policeman. As a lawyer Gandhi did his best to discover the facts and get the parties to accept arbitration and compromise in order to settle out of court. After solving a difficult case in this way he was elated and commented, "I had learned to find out the better side of human nature and to enter men's hearts. I realized that the true function of a lawyer was to unite parties riven asunder."1 He also insisted on receiving the truth from his clients; if he found out that they had lied, he dropped their cases. He believed that the lawyer's duty is to help the court discover the truth, not to try to prove the guilty innocent.

At the end of the year during a farewell party before he was to sail for India, Gandhi noticed in the newspaper that a bill was being proposed that would deprive Indians of the vote. His friends urged him to stay and lead the fight for their rights in South Africa. He founded the Natal Indian Congress in 1894, and their efforts were given considerable notice by the press. While he was visiting India, Gandhi wrote a green pamphlet entitled The Grievances of the British Indians in South Africa. When he returned from fetching his family from India in January 1897, the South Africans tried to stop him from landing by bribing and threatening the ship-owner Dada Abdulla Sheth; but Dada Abdulla was Gandhi's client, and finally after a long quarantine period Gandhi was allowed to disembark. The waiting mob recognized Gandhi, and some whites began to hit his face and body until the Police Superintendent's wife came to his rescue. The mob threatened to Iynch him, but Gandhi escaped in a disguise and remained in protective police custody for a few days. Later he refused to prosecute anyone, holding to the principle of self-restraint in regard to a personal wrong; besides, it had been the community leaders and the Natal government who caused the problem.

Gandhi felt it was his duty to support the British during the Boer War; so he organized and led an Indian Ambulance Corps to nurse the wounded on the battlefield. Even this effort was somewhat delayed by race prejudice; but when three hundred free Indians and eight hundred indentured servants volunteered, the whites were impressed. Gandhi was given a medal for his service in the Boer War. In 1902 he traveled in India, and with Gokhale's support his resolution for the Indians in South Africa was passed by the Indian Congress in Calcutta.

Gandhi served the Indian community in Johannesburg, and during the plague of 1904 he got Indian money sterilized so that they could get nursing services. He was instrumental in publishing Indian Opinion weekly in English, Gujarati, Hindi, and Tamil from the hundred-acre Phoenix Farm community he founded. Attracted to the simple agricultural life, Gandhi was influenced by John Ruskin's Unto This Last, which he translated into Gujarati. He readily agreed with Ruskin's idea that the good of the individual is contained in the good of all; but the value of labor in tilling the soil or in handicrafts was a revelation to Gandhi. He recruited another Indian ambulance unit during the Zulu Rebellion and was made a sergeant major. Gandhi experimented with celibacy during his thirties, and in 1906 he took the Brahmacharya vow for the rest of his life. That year Gandhi led a delegation to London and met with the Secretary of State for India, John Morley, to present the case for Indians' rights in South Africa. Gandhi also met with Winston Churchill, who promised to help.

His first use of civil disobedience on a mass scale began in September 1906 when the Transvaal government wanted to register the entire Indian population and passed what the Indians called the "Black Act." In response they held a mass meeting in the Imperial Theatre of Johannesburg; some were so angry at the humiliating ordinance that they threatened a violent response if put to the test. However, with Gandhi's advice they all decided as a group to refuse to comply with the registration provisions. Gandhi suggested that they take a pledge in the name of God; even though they were Hindus and Muslims, they all believed in one and the same God. Every one of the nearly three thousand Indians present took the solemn pledge. Gandhi decided to call this technique of refusing to submit to injustice satyagraha, which means literally "holding to the truth." One week after the pledge, Asiatic women were excused from having to register.

When the Transvaal government finally put the Asiatic Registration Act into effect in 1907, only 511 out of 13,000 Indians registered. Gandhi and several other Indians were arrested. He was given two months without hard labor, and he spent the time reading. During his life Gandhi would spend a total of 249 days in South African jails and 2,089 days in Indian jails. Gandhi declared to his followers that a satyagrahi must be fearless and always trust his opponent, "for an implicit trust in human nature is the very essence of his creed."2 Satyagraha thus by its honest purity appeals to the best in the adversary and exposes the true situation for all to see.

It uncovers concealed motives and reveals the truth.
It puts the best possible interpretation
on the opponent's intentions and thereby
gives him another chance to discard baser impulses.
If he fails to do so,
his victims see more clearly and feel more intensely,
while outsiders realize who is wrong.3

On February 3, 1908 General Jan Christiaan Smuts promised Gandhi that he would repeal the Transvaal Asiatic Registration Act if they would accept the compromise and register. Gandhi explained the agreement to a meeting, and a majority agreed to register. However, Gandhi's former client Mir Alam Khan accused him of selling out to General Smuts and swore he would kill any man who gave his fingerprints. A week later Gandhi went to register, and the tall Mir Alam knocked him out. Gandhi was kicked and beat by Mir Alam and his companions until he was rescued by passing Europeans. Gandhi was taken to the home of Baptist minister Joseph Doke, where he gave his fingerprints and recovered from his injuries.

General Smuts then introduced a bill to validate the voluntary certificates but not to repeal the Black Act. So on August 16, 1908 three thousand Indians gathered outside the Hamida Mosque in Johannesburg to hear Gandhi make a speech before they burned about two thousand registration certificates. Mir Alam apologized to Gandhi, and they shook hands. Some Chinese burned their certificates too. Two days later the government started deporting new Asiatic immigrants for not knowing a European language. On October 7 Gandhi was arrested for not having his certificate and for refusing to be fingerprinted. He asked for the maximum punishment and was sentenced to a fine or two months hard labor; he chose the latter.

While reading in jail, Gandhi discovered Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience." He was already familiar with the works of Tolstoy and was "overwhelmed" by The Kingdom of God is Within You as he "began to realize more and more the infinite possibilities of universal love."4 Gandhi distinguished satyagraha from "passive resistance," which had been used by religious Non-conformists and suffragettes in England and sometimes inflicted injuries and damage. In Satyagraha in South Africa Gandhi wrote that passive resistance had been used along with the use of arms; but satyagraha is the negation of brute force and avoids any injury to the opponent while being willing to suffer in one's own person. As other examples of satyagraha he gave Jesus Christ, the early Christians, and the Russian Doukhobors cited by Tolstoy.

The protest movement for Indian rights in South Africa continued to grow; at one point out of the 13,000 Indians in the province 2,500 were in jail, while 6,000 had fled Transvaal. In being civil to the opponents during the disobedience, Gandhi developed the use of ahimsa, which means "non-hurting" and is usually translated "nonviolence." Gandhi followed the precept, "Hate the sin and not the sinner." Since we are all one spiritually, to hurt or attack another person is to attack oneself. Though we may attack an unjust system, we must always love the persons involved. Thus ahimsa became his method in the search for truth. People said that Gandhi was a saint who was losing himself in politics, but he considered himself a politician trying his hardest to be a saint.

Gandhi was sent to London again in 1909, but he felt that suffering in jail did more good than spending money in England seeing politicians and journalists. After meeting extremists who insisted that India could never win its independence without violence, on his return voyage Gandhi wrote the dialog Hind Swaraj, which means "Indian Self-Rule." Based on the conversations he had in London, in this diatribe against the corruption of Western civilization Gandhi suggested that India could gain its independence by nonviolent means and self-reliance. He rejected brute force and its oppression and declared that soul force or love is what keeps people together in peace and harmony. History ignores the peaceful qualities but notices the interruptions and violations which disrupt civilization. He concluded the dialog by declaring that his life was henceforth dedicated to attaining Indian self-rule.

Aided by a donation of 1500 pounds and the 1,100-acre farm bought and built by architect Hermann Kallenbach, Gandhi named this ashram Tolstoy Farm. He exchanged a few letters with the great Russian novelist before he died and continued to write and edit the journal Indian Opinion in order to elucidate the principles and practice of satyagraha.

Three issues brought the quest for Indian rights in South Africa to a crisis-there was a three-pound annual tax on former indentured servants; Asian immigration was banned; and in March 1913 a law went into effect invalidating all but Christian marriages. When Gandhi explained the new law to his wife Kasturbai, she and others crossing the border into Transvaal in protest were arrested on September 15, 1913. Gandhi could not figure out how to feed the striking miners that gathered around him at Newcastle; so after warning them about the horrors of European-run jails, at the end of October he led them from Natal into Transvaal so that they could be "safely deposited in jail." He was followed by 2,037 men, 127 women, and 57 children. After they crossed the border, they were not arrested. Gandhi was arrested and paid bail to return to his army; he was arrested again and released and arrested once more, all within four days. The pilgrims headed toward Tolstoy Farm but were deported back to the Newcastle mines, where they were imprisoned. Gandhi was sentenced to three months' hard labor, but the strikes and demonstrations went on with about 50,000 indentured laborers on strike and thousands of free Indians in prison.

The Christian missionary Charles F. Andrews donated all his money to the movement. Gandhi and the other leaders were released and announced another march. However, Gandhi refused to take advantage of a railway strike by white employees and called off the march in spite of Smuts' broken pledge in 1908. Gandhi explained, "Forgiveness is the ornament of the brave."5 After six months of negotiation the issues were finally resolved by Smuts and Gandhi at the end of June in 1914, and the Indian Relief Act went into effect in July. All marriages regardless of religion were valid; the tax on indentured laborers was canceled including arrears; and Indians were allowed to move more freely. General Smuts expressed his respect for Gandhi and his gentle but powerful methods, which had made him realize which laws had to be repealed. Gandhi summarized in Indian Opinion the power of the satyagraha method and prophesied how it could transform modern civilization.

It is a force which, if it became universal,
would revolutionize social ideals and do away with despotisms
and the ever-growing militarism
under which the nations of the West are groaning
and are being almost crushed to death,
and which fairly promises to overwhelm
even the nations of the East.6

Nonviolent Campaign for Indian Independence

Meanwhile India was still suffering under British colonial rule. Gandhi arrived in England during the first week of the World War, and again he supported the British by raising and leading an ambulance corps; but he became ill and returned to India in January 1915. The great poet Rabindranath Tagore gave Gandhi the title "Mahatma," meaning "Great Soul," and in May 1915 Gandhi founded the Satyagraha Ashram for his family and co-workers near the textile city of Ahmedabad in Gujarat. When a family of untouchables asked to live in the ashram, Gandhi admitted them. Orthodox Hindus believed this polluted them. Funds ran out, and Gandhi was ready to live in the untouchable slums if necessary; but an anonymous benefactor donated enough money to last a year. To help change people's attitudes about these unfortunate pariahs, Gandhi renamed them "Harijans" or "Children of God." Later he called his weekly magazine Harijan also. In a speech at the opening of Benares University on February 6, 1916 Gandhi said he was ashamed to be speaking in English but questioned whether the anarchists' use of assassination and bomb-throwing was honorable. Yet he agreed that Indians must take power into their hands to gain self-government. Actually Gandhi had not planned to say these things but did so after he was interrupted by the opposition of Theosophist Annie Besant.

Gandhi began wearing home-spun khadi in order to encourage self-sufficient village industries and thus help alleviate poverty in India. In April 1917 Gandhi went to Bihar to learn how suffering indigo workers in Champaran were being exploited by exorbitant fees of landlords. He was arrested and ordered to leave; but as he insisted on staying, he was put in jail. However, the officials soon realized that the Mahatma was the only one who could control the crowds. Assistants helped by carefully documenting the grievances of several thousand peasants, and reforms were won again by civil disobedience. The textile workers of Ahmedabad were also economically oppressed. Gandhi suggested a strike; when the workers were weakening in their resolve, he went on a fast to encourage them to continue the strike. Gandhi explained that he did not fast to coerce the opponent but to strengthen or reform those who loved him. He did not believe in fasting for higher wages, but he fasted so that the workers would accept the system of arbitration to resolve the conflict, which they did.

In the spring of 1918 Gandhi was persuaded by the British to help raise soldiers for a final victory effort in the war. Charlie Andrews criticized Gandhi for recruiting Indians to fight for the British. Gandhi spoke to large audiences but gained hardly any recruits. He was experimenting with a limited raw-food diet and became sick. Even after the war the Rowlatt Act continued the strict laws against sedition. Despite India's cooperation with Britain during the war, they did not receive Dominion Status, and civil liberties were being curtailed.

Guided by a dream or inner experience, Gandhi decided to call for a one-day hartal or general strike on all economic activity. Many signed the satyagraha pledge, and Gandhi suggested making "a continuous and persistent effort to return good for evil."7 Before that day in Old Delhi, Gurka troops opened fire on a march and killed five Hindus and four Muslims. On April 6, 1919 all Indians stopped working. Gandhi spoke and said that machine-guns would no longer afflict them. Two days later he was arrested trying to go to Delhi. News of his arrest led to civil disobedience. Gandhi was allowed to return to Ahmedabad, which he found under martial law because mill workers had killed a British officer, burned government buildings, extorted money, captured weapons, plundered shops, and attacked private houses. Gandhi realized that now he must protest the behavior of his own people, and he announced a penitential fast for three days, calling off the campaign and declaring he had made a "Himalayan miscalculation."

In an infamous incident at Amritsar on April 13, 1919 Brigadier General Reginald Dyer, reacted to the killing of three Englishmen by an Indian mob by prohibiting public meetings and then ordering his soldiers to fire into the crowd at an outdoor gathering, killing 379 and wounding 1,137 with only 1,650 bullets. The Hunter Report quoted Dyer's own report that he was less concerned with dispersing the crowd and more intent on "producing a sufficient moral effect from a military point of view."8 General Drake-Brockman of Delhi also made the statement, "Force is the only thing that an Asiatic has any respect for."9 The Hunter Report concluded that the moral effect was quite opposite from the one intended; General Dyer was censured and later relieved of his command.

Gandhi was given editorial control over two weeklies without advertisements-Young India in English and Navajivan in Gujarati and later Hindi. More than seven thousand delegates attended the Amritsar Congress the last week of 1919. Gandhi agreed to support the Muslim Khilafat movement without requiring them to stop slaughtering cows. Instead of civil disobedience, he proposed a nation-wide campaign of nonviolent noncooperation with the British government. For the peasant this meant not paying taxes and not buying liquor because the government gained revenue from its sale. Gandhi wrote to the Viceroy, returning his war medals. In October 1920 at the annual Indian Congress 14,000 delegates enthusiastically agreed on noncooperation with the British and to end untouchability. Gandhi promised that noncooperation would bring about self-government in one year. At the beginning of 1921 Motilal Nehru, D. R. Das, Vallabhbhai Patel, and thousands of others abandoned their law practices and British courts as students, teachers, and professionals went into the villages to teach literacy and noncooperation.

Gandhi traveled throughout India addressing mass meetings, and imported fabrics were burned. He urged people to spin and weave their own cloth while boycotting British products, and he designed a Congress flag with a spinning wheel in the center. When the Prince of Wales (Edward VIII) visited Bombay in November 1921, protests degenerated into mob violence with looting. Some policemen were beaten to death; in three days of riots 58 Bombay citizens were killed, and four hundred were injured. Gandhi went on a fast to end the violence. In December the arrests began. By the time Congress met in the last week of 1921 there were 20,000 in jail. Some nationalist patriots urged rebellion. Although Gandhi believed that cowardice is worse than violence, he still believed that nonviolent action is better than both. Six thousand delegates approved Gandhi's resolution for civil disobedience of all government laws, especially those banning public meetings.

Gandhi planned a massive nonviolent campaign in Bardoli, a county of 87,000; but news of how an Indian mob had murdered 23 constables by burning their police station reached him on February 8, 1922, the day it was to begin. Although this incident occurred 800 miles from Bardoli, he once again canceled the campaign, this time before it had started; instead, he fasted for five days in penance. Yet the British Viceroy ordered Gandhi's arrest, and on March 10, 1922 Gandhi was given his only judicial trial by the British. He made no apology for his noncooperation, which he admitted was legally seditious. To Justice Robert Broomfield he said,

I do not ask for mercy.
I do not plead any extenuating act.
I am here, therefore, to invite and cheerfully submit to
the highest penalty that can be inflicted upon me
for what in law is a deliberate crime
and what appears to me to be the highest duty of a citizen.10

He explained, "In my opinion, non-cooperation with evil is as much a duty as is cooperation with good."11 Broomfield sentenced him to six years and hoped the government would reduce the term. Gandhi was in fact released after 22 months after he had an appendectomy.

Perhaps the greatest block to Indian unity and self government was the religious conflict between Hindus and Muslims. In 1924 an anti-Muslim book led to riots and the murder of its author. After 36 Hindus were killed at Kohat, Gandhi fasted for three weeks. He pleaded for unity in diversity, religious tolerance, and love for one another. After he approved of killing stray dogs, Gandhi was accused of abandoning ahimsa. He was blamed for killing a maimed calf that was suffering from an incurable disease at his ashram; but he considered that action nonviolent because the unselfish purpose was to relieve the pain of the calf.

During the late 1920s Gandhi wrote An Autobiography, which he subtitled "The Story of My Experiments with Truth." This book is quite candid and humble in the way he examined his faults and his efforts to overcome them. In the preface he indicated that his goal was spiritual liberation (moksha). In his speeches he pointed out his five-point program on the fingers of his hand: equality for untouchables, spinning, no alcohol or opium, Hindu-Muslim friendship, and equality for women. They were all connected to the wrist, which stood for nonviolence. Finally in 1928 he announced a satyagraha campaign in Bardoli against a 22% increase in British-imposed taxes. Refusing to pay taxes, the people had their possessions confiscated, and some were driven off their land; but they remained nonviolent. It lasted several months, and hundreds were arrested. Finally the government gave in and agreed to cancel the tax increase, release all prisoners, and return confiscated land and property; the peasants agreed to pay their taxes at the previous rate.

The Indian Congress wanted self-government and considered war for independence. Gandhi naturally refused to support a war but declared that if India was not free under Dominion Status by the end of 1929, then he would demand independence. Consequently on January 26, 1930 he asked people to celebrate Independence Day, and he proclaimed a manifesto that India must sever its connection with Britain and attain complete independence. Gandhi announced an eleven-point program that included reducing land revenue by fifty percent, abolishing the salt tax, prohibiting alcohol, passing a tariff to protect against foreign cloth, enacting a coastal reservation bill to help Indian shipping, revaluating the rupee, reducing military expenditures by at least fifty percent, reducing salaries of civil servants by half, releasing all political prisoners except for murder, abolishing or controlling the Criminal Investigation Department that was targeting Congress, and issuing firearms for self-defense under popular control.

Then on March 2, 1930 Gandhi wrote a long letter to Viceroy Irwin informing him that civil disobedience would begin on March 11. He noted how ruinously expensive was the British military administration that was exploiting them. Even the salt from the sea was taxed. He believed that nothing but organized nonviolence could stop the organized violence of the British government. Civil disobedience would begin with a few people from his Satyagraha Ashram, but others might choose to join. Gandhi explained, "My ambition is no less than to convert the British people through nonviolence, and thus make them see the wrong they have done to India. I do not seek to harm your people."12 Gandhi decided to disobey the Salt Laws, which forbade Indians from making their own salt, because this British monopoly especially struck at the poor.

Beginning with 78 members of his ashram, Gandhi led a 240-mile march to the sea that took 24 days. Thousands had gathered at the start, and several thousand joined them on the march. First Gandhi and then others all along the seacoast gathered some salt water in pans to dry it. In Bombay the Congress had pans on the roof; 60,000 people assembled, and hundreds were arrested. At Karachi, where 50,000 watched the salt being made, the crowd was so thick that the police could make no arrests. The jails were filled with at least 60,000 offenders. Amazingly enough there was practically no violence at all; the people did not want Gandhi to cancel the movement. Gandhi was arrested before he could invade the Dharasana Salt Works, but the poet Sarojini Naidu led 2,500 volunteers and warned them not to resist the blows of the police. According to an eye-witness account by the United Press reporter Webb Miller, they continued to march in hour after hour and were beaten down with steel-shod lathis by the 400 police; but they did not try to fight back, and the injured were dragged away by women. The poet Tagore declared that Europe had lost her moral prestige in Asia. Soon more than 100,000 Indians were in prison, including almost all the leaders.

Gandhi was called to meet with Viceroy Irwin eight times. Lord Irwin wanted the civil disobedience ended, but Gandhi demanded an inquiry into the police brutality. Finally on March 5, 1931 they signed the Delhi Pact that treated India as an equal with England and provided for constitutional issues to be discussed at a Round Table Conference in London. Civil disobedience was called off; prisoners were released; and salt manufacture was permitted on the coast.

Gandhi traveled to London, where he met Charlie Chaplin, George Bernard Shaw, and Maria Montessori among others. Not having seen a movie, Gandhi did not know who Chaplin was; but his criticisms of modern civilization may have influenced his film Modern Times. Gandhi spoke for a half hour on radio to the United States about a nonviolent way better than brute force to fight for freedom that is more consistent with human dignity. He appealed to the conscience of the world to rescue his people, who were dying in order to regain liberty. In discussing relations with the British he said he did not want isolated independence but voluntary interdependence based on love. However, the British Labour Party had been replaced by a coalition led by Ramsay MacDonald, and they used the Indian minorities problems to divide the Indian Congress. In his final speech at the Conference on November 30, 1931 Gandhi said he still wanted complete independence and warned, "Today you have to fight the school of terrorists which is there with your disciplined and organized terrorism, because you will be blind to the facts or the writing on the wall."13

Back in India at the beginning of 1932, communication with the Viceroy broke down over the threat of civil disobedience, and Gandhi was arrested. As during the salt campaign, the old Regulation XXV of 1827 was used to detain him indefinitely without a trial. While in the Yeravda jail Gandhi fasted on behalf of the Harijans because they had been given a separate electorate. It was to be a "fast unto death" unless he could awaken the Hindu conscience. On September 21, 1932 millions of Indians fasted with him for 24 hours. Three days later the Yeravda Pact was signed, and it was ratified the next day. After an overwhelming vote in favor of it, Hindu temples were opened to untouchables for the first time. Gandhi replaced Young India with the weekly Harijan. Still concerned about the Harijans, he fasted for three weeks in May 1933; British officials, afraid he might die, released him from prison. In August 1933 he was arrested again and was sentenced to one year. On the seventh day of his fast he was released unconditionally in a very precarious condition. After he recovered, Gandhi went on a speaking tour and raised money for the Harijans (untouchables), traveling more than 12,000 miles. In May 1934 the All-India Congress endorsed Gandhi's proposal to call off the civil disobedience campaign except for specific grievances.

By the time the second world war was approaching, Gandhi had been confirmed in his pacifist principles. He pointed out how Abyssinia could have used nonviolence against Mussolini, and he recommended it to the Czechs and China. He suggested, "If it is brave, as it is, to die to a man fighting against odds, it is braver still to refuse to fight and yet to refuse to yield to the usurper."14 As early as 1938 he exhorted the Jews to stand up for their rights and die if necessary as martyrs so that a degrading manhunt could be turned into a calm and determined stand. Gandhi even recommended the British use nonviolent methods to fight Hitler; no longer could he support any kind of war or killing. On December 24, 1938 he wrote,

How can nonviolence combat aerial warfare,
seeing that there are no personal contacts?
The reply to this is that behind the death-dealing bomb
there is the human hand that releases it,
and behind that still is the human heart
that sets the hand in motion.
And at the back of the policy of terrorism
is the assumption that terrorism if applied in a sufficient measure
will produce the desired result,
namely, bend the adversary to the tyrant's will.
But supposing a people make up their mind
that they will never do the tyrant's will,
nor retaliate with the tyrant's own methods,
the tyrant will not find it worth his while
to go on with this terrorism.15

He even wrote an open letter to Hitler himself, asking him not to go to war. In April 1939 Gandhi prophesied that before the war ended, the democracies would have adopted the tactics of the Fascists and Nazis, including conscription and methods of force to compel and exact obedience.

Calling for mass satyagraha in defiance of the ban on propaganda against the war, Gandhi promised Congress he would stay out of jail; but his disciple Vinoba Bhave was arrested in October 1940, and about 15,000 were in prison by May 1941. The next year Gandhi wrote, "Supposing that the women and the children of Europe became fired with the love of humanity, they would take the men by storm and reduce militarism to nothingness in an incredibly short time."16 He suggested ways to resist the Japanese nonviolently, though he also said that if India had a national government, it should ally itself with the United Nations against the Fascist powers. He criticized the Japanese for attacking China and predicted that their ambition would fail and might prevent the "world federation and brotherhood without which there can be no hope for humanity."17

Gandhi was concerned that the British presence would invite the Japanese to invade India. So on July 14, 1942 the Congress Working Committee adopted the famous "Quit India" resolution, and on August 7 the massive nonviolent struggle began under the leadership of Gandhi. Two days later he and the other leaders were arrested, and Congress was declared illegal. The paper Harijan was put under a ban and was not allowed to publish again until 1946. Thus for three and a half years we have little or no writing from Gandhi. While he was detained at the Aga Khan palace, he complained that the government was spreading rumors that he was encouraging violent activities. He announced a three-week fast to seek justice from God because the government had denied him justice. Although the Viceroy warned him that he would consider a fast by Gandhi "political blackmail" and would let him die, Gandhi disagreed and began fasting on February 10, 1943. If he had not taken some lime juice with his water, he probably would have died. Gandhi's release from prison on May 5, 1944 has been called the end of the Gandhian era.

When the war ended, Gandhi hoped for a real peace based on freedom and equality for all races and nations. He contrasted nonviolence to the horrible violence of the atomic bomb, and he called the use of this weapon on Japan cowardice. In his last years he became more of a socialist, because he believed that inequality breeds violence while equality produces nonviolence. He went on a pilgrimage to Noakhali to help the poor. Independence for India was now imminent, but the Muslim leader Jinnah was holding out for the creation of a separate state of Pakistan. In a last-ditch effort to salvage Indian unity, on April 1, 1947 Gandhi proposed that Jinnah and his Muslim League control the new government; but this was considered impractical as partition became inevitable. Two weeks later the last viceroy Mountbatten and Gandhi did get Jinnah to sign with them the following statement:

We denounce for all time the use of force to achieve political ends,
and we call upon all the communities of India,
to whatever persuasion they may belong,
not only to refrain from all acts of violence and disorder,
but also to avoid both in speech and writing,
any word which might be construed as an incitement of such acts.18

Gandhi prayed for unity and tolerance, and he even read from the Qur'an at his prayer meetings. Hindus attacked him because they thought he was partial to Muslims; but Muslims demanded he let them have Pakistan.

Gandhi went to Calcutta to calm the Hindu-Muslim strife and violence, and on August 15, 1947, the long-awaited independence day for India, he fasted and prayed there instead of going to the ceremonies at Delhi. On the first of September he fasted again, and he only broke it three days later after municipal officials assured him that there had been no violence for 24 hours. The princely state of Kashmir was invaded by Muslim tribesmen and Pakistani troops. The Hindu maharajah asked to join the Indian Union and said he intended to appoint the Muslim Sheikh Abdulla prime minister, whose National Conference party also appealed to India to repel the invaders. On October 29, 1947 India announced the accession of Kashmir and sent in troops. Gandhi was criticized for approving this action; but he believed it was justified in these circumstances because not to stand one's ground to defend oneself against an aggressor would be cowardice. Although he may not help one retaliate, Gandhi believed that he must not let a coward find shelter behind the guise of nonviolence.

His last fast began on January 13, 1948, and on the third day the Indian cabinet followed Gandhi's advice and agreed to pay the forty million pounds from united India's assets that they had withheld from Pakistan because of Kashmir. Gandhi's kidneys were not functioning well, and on January 18 Congress got the Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Jews, and other religious groups to sign a peace agreement; on that day he ended his fast. Although this religious hatred saddened Gandhi, India had gained her independence, accomplishing the greatest nonviolent revolution in the history of the world. Finally Gandhi was assassinated by a small Hindu conspiracy on January 30, 1948 at a prayer meeting; with his last breath the Mahatma chanted the name of God.

Soul Force and Nonviolence

Albert Einstein considered Gandhi to be the most enlightened statesman of the age and declared,

Gandhi had demonstrated that a powerful human following
can be assembled not only through the cunning game
of the usual political maneuvers and trickeries
but through the cogent example
of a morally superior conduct of life.19

Einstein also predicted, "The problem of bringing peace to the world on a supranational basis will be solved only by employing Gandhi's method on a large scale."20 The Encyclopedia Britannica summarizes Gandhi's significance with the statement, "He was the catalyst if not the initiator of three of the major revolutions of the 20th century: the revolutions against colonialism, racism, and violence."21 What was his philosophy of nonviolent soul-force, and what instructions did he give in the use of these methods?

Satyagraha means literally holding on to the truth. The Hindu understanding of Sat is more than conceptual truth but means also being, existence, reality; ultimately we realize that our spiritual beingness is the essence of truth as a reality greater than any concept of the mind. Thus the term "soul-force" conveys the idea of employing our spiritual energies. For Gandhi this truth or spiritual reality is the goal, and the means to the goal must be as pure and loving as possible. He noted that we may always control the means but never the ends. Thus the means must be as good as the goal. Ahimsa therefore is the way of acting without hurting anyone or inflicting oneself against another spiritual being. We may hate an injustice for the harm that it brings to people, but we must always love all the people involved out of respect for human dignity. Satyagraha attempts to awaken an awareness of the truth about the injustice in the perpetrators, and by ahimsa this is done without hurting them. Since humans are subject to error and we cannot be sure we are judging accurately, we must refrain from punishing. Thus ahimsa is an essential safeguard in the quest for truth and justice.

Gandhi explained that satyagraha is not a method of the weak, like passive resistance, but it is a tool for the strong that excludes the use of violence in any shape or form. Satyagraha is insisting on the truth and can be offered in relation to one's family, rulers, fellow citizens, or even the whole world. Gandhi elucidated three necessary conditions for its success:

1. The satyagrahi should not have any hatred in his heart
against the opponent.
2. The issue must be true and substantial.
3. The satyagrahi must be prepared to suffer till the end
for his cause.22

Gandhi emphasized self-suffering rather than inflicting suffering on others. By undergoing suffering to reveal the injustice the satyagrahi strives to reach the consciences of people. Satyagraha does not try to coerce anyone but rather to convert by persuasion, to reach the reason through the heart. Satyagraha appeals to intelligent public opinion for reform. In the political field the struggle on behalf of the people leads to the challenging of unjust governments or laws by means of noncooperation or civil disobedience. When petitions and other remedies fail, then a satyagrahi may break an unjust law and willingly suffer the penalty in order to call attention to the injustice. However, one does not hide or try to escape from the law like a criminal, rather one openly and civilly disobeys the law as a protest, fully expecting to be punished. In Hind Swaraj Gandhi wrote, "It is contrary to our manhood if we obey laws repugnant to our conscience."23 By eliminating violence satyagraha gives the opponent the same rights and liberties.

Satyagraha requires self-discipline, self-control, and self-purification, and satyagrahis must always make the distinction between the evil and the evil-doer. They must overcome evil with good, hatred with love, anger with patience, falsehood with truth, and violence with ahimsa. This takes a perfect person for complete success, and therefore training and education are essential to even make it workable. Gandhi emphasized that every child should know about the soul, truth, love, and the powers latent in the soul. Both men and women and even children may participate, and it demands the courage that comes from spiritual strength and the power of love. Surely it takes more courage to face the weapons of death without fighting than it does to fight and kill. From his experience Gandhi believed that those who wished to serve their country through satyagraha should observe chastity, adopt poverty, follow truth, and cultivate fearlessness. It is through fearlessness that we can have the courage to renounce all harmful weapons, filling and surrounding ourselves with the spiritual protection of a loving and peaceful consciousness.

Gandhi listed detailed rules to guide the satyagrahi. One should harbor no anger but suffer the anger of the opponent, putting up with assaults without retaliating but not submitting out of fear of punishment nor to any order given in anger. One should not resist arrest by a person in authority nor resist confiscation of property; but if one is the trustee for the property of another, one may refuse to surrender it. One should not swear or curse or insult the opponent nor join cries that are contrary to the spirit of nonviolence. Civil resisters may not salute the Union Jack (a flag), but they should not insult it nor officials. If officials are being assaulted, one should protect them by risking one's life. In prison one should behave with decorum and observe discipline that is not contrary to self-respect; one should not consider oneself superior to other prisoners nor observe any distinction. One should not fast to gain conveniences. Gandhi believed that civil resisters who have chosen to join the corps should obey all orders of the leader. One should trust the care of dependents to God. One should not cause communal quarrels; but in the event of a disagreement should support the party clearly in the right.

Noncooperation is a comprehensive policy used by people when they can no longer in good conscience participate in or support a government that has become oppressive, unjust, and violent. Although satyagrahis do not attack the wrong-doer, it is their responsibility not to promote or support the wrong actions. Thus noncooperators withdraw from government positions, renounce government programs and services, and refuse to pay taxes to the offending government. While challenging the power of the state in this way noncooperators have the opportunity to learn greater self-reliance. Gandhi held that noncooperation with an unjust government was not only an inherent right but as much a duty as is cooperation with a just government.

Most of the time Gandhi and his followers were involved in constructive programs, and he considered these the most important part of nonviolent action. For Gandhi they included Hindu-Muslim friendship or communal unity, removing untouchability or racial discrimination, abstaining from alcohol and drugs, practicing spinning, weaving, and other village industries, sanitation, schooling and adult education, uplift of women, education in hygiene and health, cultivating one's language, working for economic equality, forming labor unions, helping the poor, rural people and lepers, and improving the education and lives of students.

Ahimsa or nonviolence is absolutely essential to Gandhi's civil disobedience. Satyagrahis are expected to give their lives in efforts to quell violence if it erupts. Gandhi interpreted ahimsa broadly as refraining from anything at all harmful. This principle can be hurt by every evil thought, by undue haste, by lying, by hatred, by wishing ill to anybody, or by our holding on to what the world needs. Thus even greed and avarice can violate ahimsa. Nonviolence has a great spiritual power, but the slightest use of violence can taint a just cause. The strength is not physical but comes from the spiritual will. Nonviolence implies self-purification, and the spiritual power the nonviolent person has is always greater than one would have by using violence. The end of violence is always defeat, but nonviolence is endless and is never defeated. The following is Gandhi's summary of the implications of nonviolence:

1. Nonviolence is the law of the human race
and is infinitely greater than and superior to brute force.
2. In the last resort it does not avail to those
who do not possess a living faith in the God of Love.
3. Nonviolence affords the fullest protection
to one's self-respect and sense of honor,
but not always to possession of land or movable property,
though its habitual practice does prove a better bulwark
than the possession of armed men to defend them.
Nonviolence, in the very nature of things,
is of no assistance in the defense of ill-gotten gains
and immoral acts.
4. Individuals or nations who would practice nonviolence
must be prepared to sacrifice (nations to the last man)
their all except honor.
It is, therefore, inconsistent with the possession
of other people's countries, i.e., modern imperialism,
which is frankly based on force for its defense.
5. Nonviolence is a power which can be wielded equally by all-
children, young men and women or grown-up people,
provided they have a living faith in the God of Love
and have therefore equal love for all mankind.
When nonviolence is accepted as the law of life
it must pervade the whole being
and not be applied to isolated acts.
6. It is a profound error to suppose that
while the law is good enough for individuals
it is not for masses of mankind.24

Gandhi's struggle was so overwhelming and significant, because he challenged the institutional violence of the modern state. He not only recommended refusing military service but also refusing to pay taxes to a militarized state. In addition to citizens' not cooperating with an evil government, a neutral country also has the obligation to refuse to support or assist a military state or aggressor.

Gandhi suggested a nonviolent army that could engage in constructive activities, lessen tensions, and sacrifice their lives to calm mobs and end riots. He described the qualifications for such a peace brigade in 1938. One must have a living faith in nonviolence and the courage to die without anger, fear, or retaliation. The peace messenger must have equal respect for all religions. This work for peace is done locally alone or in groups. Peace messengers will cultivate contacts with people through personal service. One must have integrity and be strictly impartial. Peace brigades should be aware of brooding conflicts and anticipate conflicts before they break out into conflagrations. Volunteers can be drawn from various walks of life. A distinctive dress would enable the brigade to be recognized without difficulty. The cost of training and equipping such a peace brigade or even an army of satyagrahis would be insignificant compared to the huge expenses of the modern military establishment.

Gandhi envisioned a nonviolent state which would protect itself by not cooperating with any aggressor. He was concerned that the democracies would adopt the forceful methods of the Fascists; but true democracy must ultimately be nonviolent, for violence is an obvious restriction of liberty. He observed that the science of war leads to dictatorship, but the science of nonviolence leads to democracy. In 1946 Gandhi asserted that a true democracy will not rely on an army. It is a poor democracy that depends on military assistance because military force interferes with the free growth of the mind and smothers the soul.

Gandhi criticized America for its treatment of the Negro. He observed that armaments are used for greedy exploitation and that the competition and desire for material possessions and the great power's imperialistic designs are the biggest blocks to world peace. Also they must shed their fear of destruction; then by disarmament peace can be attained. Gandhi warned that if the mad arms race continued, it would result in unprecedented slaughter. If a victor remains, the victory will be a living death for that nation. The only escape from this impending doom is by boldly and unconditionally accepting nonviolence with all its glorious implications. His concept of sarvodaya urged us to go beyond family and country to consider the good of all, and he recommended a world governing body which would recognize the equal independence of each nation. He believed that religion means being friendly to one's opponents because being friendly to friends is just business. Gandhi said that the golden way is to be friends with the world and regard the whole human family as one.


1. An Autobiography by M. K. Gandhi, p. 100.
2. The Life of Mahatma Gandhi by Louis Fischer, p. 81.
3. Ibid., p. 84.
4. An Autobiography by M. K. Gandhi, p. 119.
5. The Life of Mahatma Gandhi by Louis Fischer, p. 115.
6. Ibid., p. 117.
7. Ibid., p. 177.
8. Ibid., p. 182.
9. Ibid., p. 183.
10. Ibid., p. 202.
11. Ibid., p. 203.
12. Speeches and Writings of Mahatma Gandhi, p. 744.
13. Ibid., p. 891.
14. The Life of Mahatma Gandhi by Louis Fischer, p. 344-345.
15. M. K. Gandhi in Harijan, December 24, 1938 quoted in The Gandhi Reader ed. Homer A. Jack, p. 339.
16. Women and Social Justice, p. 100 quoted in Verma, M. M., Gandhi's Technique of Mass Mobilization, p. 135.
17. The Life of Mahatma Gandhi by Louis Fischer, p. 383.
18. Mahatma: Life of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Volume 7 by D. G. Tendulkar, p. 377.
19. Gandhi: A Life by Yogesh Chadha, p. 467.
20. Einstein on Peace ed. Otto Nathan and Heinz Norden, p. 543.
21. The New Encyclopedia Britannica, 1975, Vol. 7, p. 878.
22. M. K. Gandhi in Harijan, 31 March 1946 quoted in Non-Violent Resistance (Satyagraha), p. 382.
23. Hind Swaraj or Indian Home Rule by Mahatma Gandhi, p. 80.
24. M. K. Gandhi in Harijan, 5 November 1936, vol. IV, p. 236 in Non-Violence in Peace & War, Volume 1, p. 127-128.

Copyright © 2003-2005 by Sanderson Beck

This is a chapter in World Peace Efforts Since Gandhi, which is published as a book. For ordering information, please click here.

Gandhi's Nonviolent Revolution
Wilson and the League of Nations
United Nations and Human Rights
United Nations Peacekeeping
Einstein and Schweitzer on Peace in the Atomic Age
Pacifism of Bertrand Russell and A. J. Muste
Clark-Sohn Plan for World Law and Disarmament
King and the Civil Rights Movement
Lessons of the Vietnam War
Women for Peace
Anti-Nuclear Protests
Resisting Wars in Central America
Gorbachev and Ending the Cold War
Mandela and Freeing South Africa
Chomsky and Zinn on US Imperialism
Protesting the Bush-Iraq Wars
Nonviolent Revolution for Global Justice
Appendix: My Efforts for World Peace


Chronology of Peacemaking

BECK index