Gandhi 3: “Ahimsa” or Non-Violence: a Way of Peace in a World of Violence

The philosophy and practice of political non-violence was Gandhi’s great gift to political philosophy. In the long expanse of human history, Gandhi was the first political leader to embrace non-violence as a principle of statesmanship. The early Christians, for example, practiced non-violence, but in so doing distanced themselves from the Roman state and military. Since the decline of the Roman Empire in the West no political leader ever embraced nonviolence as a state policy. The same is true in the east. Whereas Taoism is generally pacifistic in nature, no Chinese politician embraced pacifism. Gandhi did. In his long struggle for Indian independence, he continued to embrace, defend, and expand upon this practice of “ahimsa” or “no violence.

Definition and Aspects of Nonviolence

In Sanscrit the word “himsa” is the word for violence. “Ahimsa” literally translates “no violence. For Gandhi, the term “ahimsa” implies a commitment to no use of violence of any kind, physical, mental, or emotional. Thus, even passive aggressive behavior is a form of violence to be avoided. In the work of Gandhi, non-violence moved from the arena of the philosophically desirable to the realm of the politically possible.

One analyst of Gandhi sees the following aspects to Gandhi’s notion of “Ahimsa”:

  1. Nonviolence implies the virtues of love, active resistance to injustice, courage in the face of violence, and truthfulness in the face of lies.
  2. Nonviolence implies avoidance of physical, mental, emotional and other forms of violence towards the other in an act of self-giving love.
  3. Nonviolence is not the strategy of the weak but of the strong who have overcome the temptation to violence in every human heart.
  4. Nonviolent persons must hold nonviolence to be of higher importance than their own life. (It is interesting to recall that Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., both proponents of non-violence were victims of assassination.)
  5. True nonviolence is not limited to the political but is an aspect of the economic sphere of life, which Gandhi connected to his commitment to manual labor as a way of demonstrating his solidarity with the poor.

Nonviolence as an Ultimate Value

For Gandhi, nonviolence is an ultimate value on three for three basic reasons: (i) it is universally applicable (i.e. everyone should be nonviolent in all situations); (ii) it enhances all other values without detracting from any (that is to say that no other virtue is interfered with by nonviolence), and (iii) it is unlimited in its application (that is to say that unlimited nonviolence by all people would not create any moral evil). [1] In other words, there can be no logical or moral contradiction in advancing the cause of nonviolence. For Gandhi, any form of violence had negative consequences, and thus violence is a moral evil in all situations, however justifiable one might think a resort to violence to be under the circumstances. In this, Gandhi follows the reasoning of the Tao, for which any violence, however necessary, is ultimately a bad thing. [2]

The Christian writer Thomas Merton quoted Gandhi describing the dubious nature of using violence to eliminate moral evils as follows:

In the use of force, one simplifies the situation by assuming that the evil to be overcome is clear-cut, definite, and irreversible. Hence there remains but one thing: to eliminate it. Any dialogue with the sinner, any question of the irreversibility of his act, only means faltering and failure. Failure to eliminate evil is itself a defeat. Anything that even remotely risks such defeat is in itself capitulation to evil. The irreversibility of evil then reaches out to contaminate even the tolerant thought of the hesitant crusader who, momentarily, doubts the total evil of the enemy he is about to eliminate. [3]

In this passage, Gandhi is noting that the use of violence is always preceded by cutting of dialogue and therefore a relationship with the one who is attacked. This “cutting off” may be physical (as in war), mental (as in cutting off negotiations and discussions), emotional (as in cutting off a friend or partner), or even spiritual (as in devaluing the other). Gandhi believes that the inevitable result is the descent of the moral crusader into the very evil he or she is attempting to eliminate.

The Necessity of Nonviolence

As Gandhi surveyed the horrors of the Second World War and the obvious evil of both Stalin and Hitler, as well as the tactics of “Total War” employed by the allies, he saw that the nations were moving inexorably towards disaster and continued to urge nonviolence. When he heard of the atomic bomb, he was convinced that the world had reached a point of no return. The only option remaining was some form of nonviolence. He felt, like Einstein that the world was headed towards catastrophe unless the nations of the world in some way embraced nonviolence.

The Rational Practice of Nonviolence

Gandhi was, as he often said, not a theoretician, but a practical person of action. As such, during the course of his lifetime he was able to develop his nonviolence as he adapted himself to political, social and economic conditions. While he never developed a “system” in the philosophical sense, he did develop practical rules that are rational and can be defended. Some of the principles are as follows:

  1. Nonviolence is not an excuse for inaction in any area of life. Thus, nonviolence is active, not passive in its nature. Thus, Gandhi says, “Truth and nonviolence are no cloistered virtues but are applicable as much in the forum and the legislatures as in the market-place.”
  2. Nonviolence is not irrational but rational in the deepest sense. Thus, the person practicing nonviolence is called to act rationally, truthfully, and wisely under the circumstances presented.
  3. Nonviolence is the active interjection of compassion and love into a concrete situation. Thus, it must to be practiced in such a way as to minimize the potential violent reaction even of the opponent, since the opponent’s violence will harm himself and his followers.
  4. Nonviolence is to be practiced with courage and fortitude, including a willingness to suffer for the cause undertaken.
  5. Nonviolence begins with a personal commitment to achieve the virtue of nonviolence in one’s own life through humility, faith in God, truthfulness, willingness to suffer for the truth, and compassion upon all things.
  6. Nonviolence is a virtue, a personal attribute of the virtuous person. Thus, it must be applied in many and constantly changing situations. Gandhi himself indicated that he was still learning truth and nonviolence since he continued to live and adapt to a changing environment.
  7. Nonviolence is not just a strategy; it is a skill to be tested. Thus, it must be tactically applied to specific political and social action, the tools of civil disobedience, noncooperation, nonviolent strike, and constructive action are cherished


As readers will recall, in my first blog I mentioned Niebuhr’s objection that Gandhi was either unaware or unable to sustain awareness of the difference between his principles of Non-Violence and Truth Force and the reality of the battle for independence. [4] Thus, Niebuhr believes that any responsible leader of a political community must be willing to use coercion. In a revealing passage Niebuhr state that, like Mr. Gandhi, “such a leader may make every effort to keep his instruments under the dominion of his spiritual ideal; but he must use it, and it may be necessary at times to sacrifice a degree of moral purity for political effectiveness.” [5]

I am not sure that Gandhi would have disagreed with a part of what Niebuhr is saying, but I also believe that this is the place where Niebuhr most dramatically misunderstands and thus minimizes Gandhi’s contribution to political thought and to Christian political theology. It is a given of practical life that transcendental ideals, and especially moral ideals, will not always be achieved by actors. However, as mentioned, unlike Niebuhr Gandhi would not have thought that the moral ideals he employed were personal to him “his spiritual ideal”. Instead, he would have thought that truth and love are embedded in reality, and any failure to embody that ideal, whatever its pragmatic attraction, is a failure.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Ajay Kumar Attri, “Gandhi and Luther Philosophies of Non-Violence” International Journal of Education for Peace and Development at (Downloaded August 17, 2022). I have taken the liberty of using this summary as the basis of my own somewhat different summary.

[2] See, G. Chrisopher Scruggs, Centered Living/Centered Leading: The Way of Light and Love Rev. Ed (Cordova, TN: Permisio Por Favor & Booksurge, 2016), Chapter 68 at 126, Chapter 69 at 138,

[3] Thomas Merton, Gandhi on Nonviolence (New York, NY: New Directions Publishers, 1964, 1865), at 21.

[4] MMIS, at 242,

[5] MMIS, at 244.