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 Philosophy of Nonviolence

by David McReynolds
from Nonviolence Web

Part Two








Nonviolence assumes conflict is inevitable because change is inevitable, and with change comes conflict. If there has been a traditional view of seeing pacifists as "peaceful" (overlooking the fact we usually cause a good deal of trouble, being non-conformists by nature), Gandhian philosophy assumes that the "reality" we see is transitory, that change and struggle is the rule, not the exception.

This view of the world is very old - Heraclitus, (the Greek philosopher who lived about 535-475 B.C.) taught there was no permanent reality except the reality of change - illustrated by his maxim "You cannot step twice in the same river". This is also, in many ways, the essence of Marxism - everything we observe is in a state of change. It may help if we think of the world "of reality" as if it were water in the process of becoming either steam or ice - no change seems to be taking place until, suddenly, there is a great change. (Remember how the institution of Jim Crow suddenly cracked beginning in December, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama).

For Gandhi, as a Hindu, this was an easy assumption, since for Hinduism all the reality we see is an illusion, covering a deeper, changeless, unknowable reality. In thinking of Gandhi we should understand the role of the Bhagavad-Gita (meaning "Song of God") in his life and thinking. The Gita is very old - perhaps the 5th to 2nd century B.C. It is relatively short - the paperback copy I have is just 140 pages. (Printed in 1954, a "Mentor Book by the New American Library" its pages brown and fragile, proof of the instability of matter!). The most poplar work in Hindu religious scripture, it was as well known to Gandhi as the Gospels would be to a devout Christian.

I want to quote one passage which concerns a great battle in which Arunja, the warrior, is about to take part. As he looks on the scene of what is to become a bloody battlefield he turns to Lord Krishna, an incarnation of God, and says:



Krishna, Krishna, / Now as I look on / These my kinsmen / Arrayed for battle, / My limbs are weakened, / My mouth is parching, / My body trembles, / My hair stands upright, / My skin seems burning, / The bow Gandiva / Slips from my hand, / My brain is whirling / Round and round, / I can stand no longer: / Krishna, I see such / Omens of evil! / What can we hope from / This killing of kinsmen? / What do I want with / Victory, empire, / Or their enjoyment? / O [Krishna], / How can I care for / Power or pleasure, / My own life, even, / When all these others, / Teachers, fathers, / Grandfathers, uncles, / Sons and brothers, / Husbands of sisters, / Grandsons and cousins, / For whose sake only / I could enjoy them / Stand here ready / To risk blood and wealth / In war against us?

"Knower of all things, / Though they should slay me / How could I harm them? / I cannot wish it: / Never, never, / Not though it won me / The throne of the three worlds / How much the less for / Earthly lordship! / Krishna, hearing / The prayers of all men, / Tell me how can / We hope to be happy / Slaying the sons / of Dhritarashtra? / Evil they may be, / Worst of the wicked, / Yet if we kill them / Our sin is greater, / How could we dare spill / The blood that unites us? / Where is joy in / The killing of kinsmen? / What is this crime / I am planning, O Krishna? / Murder most hateful, / Murder of brothers! / Am I indeed / So greedy for greatness? / Rather than this / Let the evil children / of Dhritarashtra / Come with their weapons / Against me in battle: / I shall not struggle, / I shall not strike them. / Now let them kill me, / That will be better."

Khrisna responds, explaining that since Arunja is a warrior the battle is his duty - "If you refuse to fight this righteous war, you will be turning aside from your duty. You will be a sinner and disgraced. . . . The warrior-chiefs will believe it was fear that drove you from the battle."



Krishna goes on to spell out for Arunja the path of "Karma Yoga" which is the "yoga of action". (We are familiar with yoga as a form of exercise - in Hinduism there are various forms of the discipline of yoga - one is "Karma Yoga", which is seeking unity with God through good actions, rather than meditation. Gandhi, if we are to understand him, must be seen as a Hindu who took the path of Karma Yoga).

For orthodox Hindus, the text of the Gita is hardly an invocation to nonviolence. On the contrary it seems an apologia for doing one's military duty. But Gandhi, unorthodox in so many ways, was unorthodox here, as well, and saw nonviolence - the path of loving resistance, of "soul force" or Satygraha - as the way out of the pain of engaging in the slaughter of his brothers. Yes, he would accept his duty as if he were in the warrior caste, but he would transform the very nature of battle itself.

I have drastically condensed what should be read whole - if the translation by Swami Prabhavananda & Christopher Isherwood is still available, it is much worth reading [Eds. Note: It is and you can buy it here via Amazon.Com]. One can't grasp the philosophy of nonviolence as Gandhi developed it without looking at this source.

For Gandhi, the hope was that if each conflict could be resolved through nonviolence, the next conflict would occur at a "higher level" - an echo, arrived at by a Hindu, of Marx's thought that the dialectic would lead to positive change. In practical terms there is not much difference between Marx's "material dialectic" and Gandhi's thought, though one was rooted in the rejection of religion and other rooted in it. For Marx, all history was the process of a "material dialectic" between the human race in conflict with its environment, with the cultures that emerged from that conflict reflecting it - thus, the "Gods" of nomadic tribes were different from the "Gods" of early city life. The concept of God evolves from that of the Torah, in which the God of the Jews was one of many Gods - but the only one the Jews should worship - to the God spoken of by Jesus, who was one, and universal. Of course, primary to Marx's thought was that social structures reflected the power of those who owned the means of production.



There is one remarkable line from the Gita that is central to nonviolence: "Of all the world's wonders, which is the most wonderful? . . . That no man, though he sees others dying all around him, believes that he himself will die."

Death is a given. Our own life is supremely important to us - our only experience of consciousness - yet we must come to terms with its inevitable end. At least for those of us who are atheists, there is no afterlife. Part of what makes nonviolence so powerful is its respect for the unique nature of every person. Not one of us has existed before, or will exist again. Each of us contains a kind of "private universe" of experience. It is good to live, good to experience life, good to enjoy that experience, good to rejoice in the wonders of life. All the more urgent, if we are here but once, and briefly, to feel entitled to experience the delights.

It is this extraordinary uniqueness of being that makes the pacifist so absolutely unwilling to destroy another person, for with each death a universe ends, and can never be replaced. How wonderfully we are made, how different from one another. To respect and understand the uniqueness of each person may make it possible also to sense what we have in common, even if what we have in common is only the certainty of our own end. Yet we must be reconciled with the fact that we must die. What we do not have to do is kill - that alone is our choice.

We come in different sizes, shapes, sexes, colors, each of us bearing different cultural and family memories. Nonviolence is about a society in which, far from having people conform to some standard, each person is able to realize, during his or her life, their greatest potential.



Yet . . . it is certain that at some point our life must end. To enjoy life it is, oddly, necessary to realize the dimension death gives it. If we were to live forever, each day would be of less value - our days being endless. (Just as a person with only a single ten dollar bill values it far more highly than the person who has a room jammed full of them ). It is precisely the "finite nature" of our chance to experience life that makes it so wonderful. And it is our willingness not to be "attached" to the material world, to realize death will take from us all we have, that gives daily life its savor. The popular saying "He who dies with the most toys wins" sums up the wrong position - what can a dead man do with his toys? How much more joyous if we say "The one who has given away his toys before the deadline wins". I remember Bayard Rustin once remarking that whatever clothes you had in your closet that you had not worn in the past year no longer belong to you - clearly you didn't need them, and must give them to someone who did. The Christian Gospels contain a parable about the rich man who had gathered great wealth to insure his security and God says "You fool! Tonight you will die - what good will your riches do you?".

So . . . nonviolence is a philosophy based on the assumption of change, and on the realization that change will cause pain and injustice. It is an effort to deal with that one certainty of existence - nothing remains stable. (Think of Gimbels, Woolworth's and the Soviet Union!).

More seriously think of the Industrial Revolution, with its monstrous suffering (if you compare the horror of Stalin's short time in power and the millions who died under him as Russia industrialized with the agony of the century and more of the Industrial Revolution, the suffering is not so different - only the time frame). The struggle against racism in which good people find themselves trapped by old concepts. Think of the struggles of labor, where union organizing often divided families - the old union song "Which side are you on?". Nonviolence means an effort "to do battle with injustice" without risking the destruction of our opponents, both because we cannot be absolutely certain we are right (dealt with in Part One), and because those we oppose are as unique as we ourselves.

Part of the philosophy of nonviolence has to confront the issue of "non-attachment" to materialism and also even to life - a paradox, because we place so high a value on life. And, in the next issue, I want to take up the paradox of how, to achieve justice we have to accept injustice.


The Philosophy of Non-Violence - Part One ] [ The Philosophy of Non-Violence - Part Two ] The Philosophy of Non-Violence - Part Three ] The Philosophy of Non-Violence - Part Four ] The Philosophy of Non-Violence - Part Five ] The Philosophy of Non-Violence - Part Six ] The Philosophy of Non-Violence - Part Seven ]

 ] 비폭력/무저항 주의자 ] The Philosophy of Non-Violence ] Nonviolent Action Handbook ] 악한 자를 대적치 말라 ] Kingdom of God Is Within You ] Ahimsa ] 시민 불복종 ] 양심적 병역 거부 ] 사이버스페이스  독립선언문 ] 미국 독립 선언문 ] 삼일독립선언서 ] Satyagraha ] Last Message to Mankind ] Nonviolence Web Links ]


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