Triveni Journal

1927 | 11,233,916 words

Triveni is a journal dedicated to ancient Indian culture, history, philosophy, art, spirituality, music and all sorts of literature. Triveni was founded at Madras in 1927 and since that time various authors have donated their creativity in the form of articles, covering many aspects of public life....

Non-Violence Through The Ages

Prof. Sudhansu Bimal Mookherji, M. A.



The ideal of non-violence (ahimsa) dates to the grey dawn of history. It may have first flashed across the mental horizon of the holy sages and seers (Rishis) in the sylvan retreats of India centuries before Christ. In the Chhandogya Upanishad, for example, Ghora Angirasa lays great stress on the virtue of non-violence. The Mundaka Upanishad too indirectly extols non-violence by condemning sacrifices which necessitate acts of violence, i.e., slaughter of animals. The Mahabharata declares in no uncertain terms that non-violence is the highest duty (‘Ahimsa paramo dharmah’).

The wheel of time revolved non-stop. Centuries rolled on. Waters flowed down India’s holy rivers till the 6th century before Christ, when the gospel of non-violence found one of its noble exponents in a king’s darling, who renounced the world with all that it offered to serve humanity. He was no other than Gautama, the Buddha. The first of the ‘Five Vows’ (Pancha Sheela) prescribed by him for his lay disciples enjoins abstinence from the destruction of life...

“I undertake the precept from killing to abstain.”
(“Panatipata ceramani sikkhapdam samadyami.)

Buddha’s non-violence was not a negative or passive concept. He made it an active and positive virtue by enjoining that an evil tendency should be conquered by the contrary good tendency. The Dhammapada, for example, says that never should hostility be sought to be conquered with hostility (“Na hi cerena cerani sammantidha kadachanam”Dhammapada, 5). We read elsewhere in the Dhammapadathat anger, dishonesty, miserliness and falsehood should be conquered with love, honesty, liberality and truth, respectively.

“Akkodhena jine kodham

“Asadhum sadhuna jine

“Jine kadariyam danena

“Succhena alikavadinam”–Dhammapada, 223

It may be noted in passing that, in between the age of the Mahabharata and that of Buddha, the Jaina teachers–twenty four in all–also preached and practised non-violence. Their followers were to practise non-violence (ahimsa), truth (Satyam), non-theft (asteya), non-acquisition (aparigraha) and continence (brahmacharya). The Jaina concept of non-violence seems confused to the modern mind as it attributes;” souls not only to birds and beasts but also to plants, metals, water, etc.”

Buddhism spread far and wide, and Buddhist missionaries were the torch-bearers of civilization and culture in many a land steeped in superstition, ignorance and barbarism. Buddhism is, in fact, India’s greatest contribution to the world. A code of practical morality. It stood above theological disputations and ritualistic observances. It broadcast the message of non-violence, peace, amity, concord and human brotherhood.

Lao-tze of China, a contemporary of Buddha, preached that evil should be conquered with good–“Requite injury with kindness. To the good I would be good; to the evil I would also be good, in order to make them good. With the faithful I would keep faith; with the unfaithful also I would keep faith. He who has no faith in others will find no faith in them” (The Wisdom of the Chinese by B. Brown, p. 85)

Plato, the great Greek philosopher of the 4th century B. C., and some of the Hebrew Prophets also spoke of returning good for evil (Vide Plato by Eric Leon, p. 30, and Proverbs 24; l7, 29 and 25; 21).

Non-violence found one of its greatest exponents in Jesus Christ nearly six centuries after Buddha. Christ’s was a life dedicated to non-violence. He held fast to it even in death, and prayed to God from the Cross to forgive those who had crucified him. “But I say unto you,” he told his disciples, “that ye resist not evil; but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Matthew 5; 39). “Love your enemies,” he exhorted. “Bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despite fully use you, and persecute you.” (Matthew 5; 44). How very similar to the sermons of Buddha quoted above! A Semitic Buddha, it seems, is delivering in Hebrew the same soul-stirring message as did the Aryan in Pali six hundred years earlier. St. Paul and St. Peter, among the Apostles, held high the Master’s banner (Vide Romans 12; 17, 21 and Peter 3; 9). So did many of the early Christians.

Non-violence preached and practised by Christ was not “passive submission.” He wanted to fight evil with good. Christian Europe unfortunately “mistook the bold and brave resistance, full of wisdom, by Jesus of Nazareth for passive resistance as if it was of the weak ....” (Mahatma Gandhi in a letter to a Swiss pacifist, Madamme Edmond Privat–Vide Harijan, December 7, 1947, p. 453.)

Islam, universally regarded as a militant creed, has been compared to a “flaming sword.” But the Quoranwaxes eloquent at places in its praise of forgiveness and benevolence, and advocates the return of good for evil, e.g., “Turn away evil with that which is better” (Quoran 41; 34); “Paradise is for those who bridle their anger and those who forgive men; for God loveth the benevolent” (Quoran 43; 77). The teachings of Islam on forgiveness and on returning good for evil have been summed up in the following words: “Seek again him who drives you away; give to him who takes away from you; pardon him who injures you” (Vide The Spirit of Islam by Syed AmeerAli, p. 177).

Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, two of America’s foremost thinkers and intellectuals in the 19th century, read the Bhagavadgitaand some of the ancient Indian literature in translation, and fell under the spell of non-violence. Their thoughts and writings were considerably influenced by the ideal of non-violence. Thoreau spoke and wrote against the iniquity of the United States Government making war on Mexico. He refused to pay taxes to such a Government, and was sent to jail for his principles. On release, he published his famous essay The Virtue of Civil Disobedience.

A copy of this essay was sent a few decades later by some one from England or America to Count Leo Tolstoy in Russia. Tolstoy, a firm believer in non-violence, had already written powerfully on the subject in his great essays on the significance of the life and the mission of Christ. Mahatma Gandhi, who was in South Africa at the time, had already read Tolstoy’s works, and had developed a great admiration for him. Gandhi wrote to Tolstoy, and Tolstoy responded. The latter sent a copy of Thoreau’s essay on Civil Disobedience to the former. Gandhi was delighted to read it. Hundreds and thousands must have read it before and after Gandhi. But on none perhaps did it leave a more profound impression. It stirred Gandhi to the depths of his being. The reason is not far to seek. Gandhi’s mind, steeped in the Hindu, Jaina and Buddhist traditions of India, was fully prepared for the reception of the age-old ideal ofnon-violence re-stated by Thoreau. The ideal–we all know–yielded a rich harvest in the years to come. Gandhi adopted the phrase ‘Civil Disobedience’from Thoreau; and used it in his epic struggles against the organised might of Governments at home in India and abroad in South Africa. These struggles were, in Gandhi’s words, his “Experiments with Truth.” Gandhi cannot–and he did not–claim that he invented non-violence and civil disobedience. But both were transformed in his minds, and, in the transformation, led to the emergence of Satyagraha. Satyagrana, translated as soul-force, assumes that the world rests on the bed-rock of satyaor truth. Satya also means ‘that which is.’ Satyagraha, therefore, means the soul’s battle for the realisation of Truth, which in its purest and highest form is identical with God. The use of ‘Satyagraha’ in political struggles by Gandhi elevated and ennobled politics. Politics was spiritualised; and Gandhi, the apostle of non-violence, the prophet of ‘Satyagraha’, has been rightly described as “a saint among statesmen” and “a statesman among saints.”

Non-violence as conceived by Gandhi must not be mistaken for mere non-resistance. “It is,” as Jawaharlal Nehru points out, “non-violent resistance–a positive and dynamic method of action. It was not meant for those who merely accept the status quo. The very purpose for which it was designed was to create ‘a ferment in society’ and thus to change existing conditions.” (An Autobiography, p. 540)

Some noble souls before Gandhi applied the method of love in their personal lives. But the credit for having adopted it as a plan for social and political liberation must go to Gandhi. Under his captaincy, organised groups in India and South Africa used it on a large scale for the redress of their grievances. He tabooed violence for the attainment of political ends and developed a “new technique in the history of political revolution.” He believed that “Ahimsa is always tested in the midst of himsa, kindness in the midst of cruelty, truth in the midst of falsehood, love in the midst of hate.” (Gandhi to his Muslim visitors at Delhi on the Id day, 1947.)

Non-violence and Satyagraha have won laurels not only in South Africa and India but in other countries as well. Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, the Prime Minister of Ghana (former British colony of Gold Coast), heard of Gandhiji and of his non-violent political struggle while he (Dr. Nkrumah) was a student at the Lincoln University in the U. S. A. He used the non-violent technique successfully in his country’s struggle for independence. A firm believer in non-violence and Satyagraha himself, Kwame Nkrumah would have other African nations use them in their own fight against foreign yoke.

Non-violence had another feather added to its cap when sometime Negroes in the city of Montgomery, Alabama, U. S. A., were led by a Negro priest, the Rev. Martin Luther King, in a successful, non-violent boycott to end racial discrimination on a local bus line. Many Negro groups in the Southern States of the U. S. A. are today eagerly studying the Gandhian method of Satyagraha.

Defence by violence and arms is out of question in this so-called nuclear age. Some other method or methods has or have to be devised. “The way to such a substitute,” writes the Vigil, “has been shown by Gandhiji. The inexorable logic of the situation is forcing men like Commander Sir Stephen King-Hall–not a pacifist but an expert on military strategy–to the conclusion that defence in the nuclear age must eschew arms and become non-violent. He has given a detailed programme for a non-violent defence of Britain under possible Soviet attack and Soviet occupation. What is remarkable about it is not that many of Sir Stephen’s proposals appear to derive directly from Gandhiji’s prescription–that was inevitable–but that even those who still support the British Government’s defence strategy based on the H-bomb as the ultimate deterrent, have treated Sir Stephen’s thesis with respect and admit that it calls for a point-by-point reply.” (‘Search for Security’–Leader in the Vigil, April 5, 1958.)

Non-violence and Satyagraha, we believe, may finally prove to be the saviour of a world rushing headlong to the abyss.

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