Genesis, Evolution and Flowering of the Concept of Ahimsa
- By P. A. Nazareth
(Text of lecture by Ambassador (Retd) Pascal Alan Nazareth, Managing Trustee, Sarvodaya International Trust, at National Institute of International Affairs, on September 22, 2005)
The concept of ‘ahimsa’ was born in India and is her great gift to the world. Like all her other great spiritual concepts it has evolved from simple beginnings into a complex matrix of meaning and practice.
The best researched work, in the English language, on the genesis and evolution of Ahimsa that I have come across is the Finnish Scholar Unto Tathinen’s ‘Ahimsa – Non Violence in the Indian tradition’. In it he points out that in early Vedic literature, there are many more references to ‘Himsa’ than to ‘Ahimsa’, but that ‘Himsa’ is used mainly in prayers to the Gods –the benevolent of whom are called ‘ahimsana’- to save them from the ‘himsa’ of rakshasas (demons), dasyus (thieves), wild animals, natural calamities etc.
Whereas Dr. T. W. Rhys Davids claims the earliest reference to Ahimsa is in the Chandogya Upanishad, (dated to about the 8th century BC) Tahtinen states that earliest said reference is in Kapisthala Katha Samhita which is pre-Upanishadic. He concurs with scholars like S.Piggot, A.L.Basham and G.C. Pande that the practice of non violence dates back to the Indus civilization, excavations at Mohenjodharo and Harappa having revealed a highly developed civilization in which animals and trees were worshipped and lethal weapons were surprisingly scarce.
The Chandogya Upanishad lists ahimsa as the fourth of five virtues [tapa (penance), danam, (alms) arjavam (honesty), ahimsa & satyavachanam (truthfulness)] to be practiced in the ‘yajna’ of life. It states that he who practices ‘ahimsa’ towards all creatures, except at ‘tirthas’ (holy places), does not return to the world again. This indicates that animal sacrifices at ‘tirthas’ were within the ambit of ‘ahimsa’. However, in the Kapisthala Katha Samhita ‘pashu ahimsa’ is mentioned even in the context of sacrifice. This suggests, according to Tahtinen that animal sacrifices were a later development, most probably of the Brahmana period.
According to Manu, animal sacrifices leads a “twice born”, as also the slaughtered animal, to the “uttama” (highest) position. Similarly, killing of animals which cause destruction to crops and domestic herds and for earning one’s livelihood, was permissible.
In the Mahabharata ‘himsa’ done to an evil doer (asadhu himsa) is not only permissible but also prescribed as an inescapable duty particularly for Khastriyas. There are numerous urgings, including from Lord Krishna himself, not shirk this duty. However, whereas this epic is replete with brutal violence of every type it ends with Bhisma telling Yudhistira from his bed of arrows, that “Nothing is greater than ahimsa”. In fact, as Gandhi saw it, the moral of this great epic, next to its primary one of confronting evil whenever and wherever one is faced with it, is that in war there are no real victors only death and destruction.
By the time Jainism and Buddhism appeared on the Indian spiritual horizon animal sacrifices has reached horrendous proportions. The prevalent theory and practice was the larger the animal sacrificed the greater and longer lasting its spiritual benefits. There are references even to rhinoceros being sacrificed. The only animal exempted was the cow. One of the important planks of the two new religions, which essentially were dissident movements within Hinduism, was opposition to animal sacrifices.
With the advent of Jainism ahimsa was made mandatory in respect of all forms of life (sarva bhuta) and raised to the status of prime virtue (“Ahimsa paramo dharma”) both for monks and layman. Jain ethics can be said to be built on non violence, because all other moral virtues are included as specific aspects of non violence. For monks, Jain ethics prescribes non resistance when faced with violence of all kinds, even lethal. The Acaaranga Sutra requires a monk attacked by robbers to bear their violence “like a hero”, and neither get angry nor vindictive. Animal sacrifices of all types were proscribed and considered ‘ajnana’ It was Jainism which gestated vegetarianism in India. Some of its sects are so strict that even eating honey is taboo because in collecting it young bees are killed. No meals can be had after sunset as night insects are attracted to lamps and get burned. No root vegetables can be eaten as earthworms and other live organisms are killed when they are pulled out of the earth. No other Indian religious community has gone so far safeguard animal, reptile and insect life.
Buddhism, with its emphasis on “Dukkha Nirodha” (elimination of suffering), gave ‘ahimsa’ a wider, more positive meaning by enunciating the concept of compassion (karunataa). This not only forbade all types of himsa to sentient beings, including avihimsa (mental injury), but also required followers to constantly strive to remove the suffering of others. All suffering is caused by ignorance of the nature of reality and the craving, attachment, and grasping that arise from such ignorance. Suffering can be ended by overcoming ignorance and attachment. Besides, the roots of himsa are in the mind. Evil and violent thoughts always precede evil and violent deeds. The essential first step to eliminate ‘himsa’ and establish ‘ahimsa’ is strict mind control. Because of this, Fritjof Capra, author of ‘The Tao of Physics’ describes Buddhism as ‘psychotherapy rather than metaphysics.’
Under the combined impact of Jainism and Buddhism, nearly all animal and bird sacrifices ceased in Hinduism and by the time of Shankara were replaced with coconuts, fruits and flowers. Arnold Toynbee, in his book ‘A Historians approach to Religion’ terms this Hinduism as “post Buddhaic”
The next great triumph for ‘Ahimsa’ after Mahavira and Buddha, both of whom were royal princes, commenced preaching their respective gospels, came with Emperor Ashoka’s conversion to Buddhism in 260 BC. Thereafter he strenuously propagated Buddhism within his realms and also abroad through ‘Dhamma Mahamattas’, rock edicts and other means. He sent his own son Mahinda to Sri Lanka, Buddhist monks to Nepal, Burma, Central Asia, and diplomatic missions to Syria (of Antiochus II Theos), Egypt ( of Ptolemy II Philadephus), Macedonia ( of Antigonus Gonatas) and Epirus ( of Alexander). Romila Thapar has indicated that whereas these diplomatic missions were primarily meant to promote the “dhamma” they also promoted knowledge and use of medicinal plants by carrying with them packets of seeds and tree cuttings. She quotes Pliny that the Selucids attempted to grow some Indian plants such as amomum and nardum.
In Sri Lanka, Mahinda had achieved early success when King Devanampiya Tissa heard his sermon in a park on the outskirts of Anuradhapura, then capital of Sri Lanka, and decided to convert to Buddhism. Soon therafter Sri Lanka’s first Buddhist Monastery, later revered as the Mahavihara, was established here. Subsequently King Tissa requested Emperor Ashoka for a sapling of the Bodhi Tree. The latter obliged and sent the sapling with his daughter Sangamitta. It was planted with much ceremony at Anuradhapura. Later a tooth of the Buddha was also received, to house which the great Temple of the Tooth was built at Kandy.
Subsequently, Buddhaghosa, the great Theravada Buddhism philosopher came to Sri Lanka, as a young Bhikku. It was here that he wrote his renowned Visuddhi Marga (Path of Purity), a treatise on Buddhist meditation. It was also in Sri Lanka, about 50 BC, that the Theravada Buddhist canon, in Pali, was first compiled and written. Its surviving texts are the oldest extant anywhere. Because of them Pali continues as the language of Theravada Buddhism in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand and Cambodia.
The next big triumph for non violence and compassion after the Sri Lankan King’s conversion to Buddhism in about 250 BC, was the Bactrian Greek King Menander’s similar conversion about 150 BC. Buddhism now took firm root in Central Asia right upto the Oxus river. Menander’s dialogues with Nagasena the learned monk philosopher who converted him, are contained in the classic ‘ Milindapanho’ (Questions of King Milinda).
The next and perhaps the greatest such triumph came neither with an emperor nor a king but with a Jewish carpenter, called Jesus Christ. His ‘Sermon on the Mount’ and injunctions about “turning the other cheek”, being a “good Samaritan” and resisting all evil thoughts were a radical break with the long standing Jewish Mosaic Code of an “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”. The following three sayings of Christ will clearly establish this point:
“You have heard it said, love your friends and hate your enemies, but I tell you love your enemies and pray for those who revile and persecute you.”
“You have heard it said, do not commit adultery, but I say to you anyone who looks at a woman with a lustful eye is guilty of committing adultery with her in his heart.
“He who raises the sword will perish by it”
The similarities between the teachings of Christ and the Buddha are so striking that many seriously believe Christ came to India in his early twenties and spent some years here before beginning his public life at age 30 in Israel. It is more probable however that he met and interacted with Buddhist missionaries at Alexandria in Egypt where he spent the early years of his life. Excavations at Alexandria in recent years have revealed a number of “South Asian skulls” and these are believed to be those of Buddhist monks at the famed Alexandria Library, which was as much an international university as a library. They were there partly to teach and partly to learn.
In his book ‘Jesus and Buddha – the parallel sayings’ edited by Marcus Borg lists the striking similarities between the important pronouncements of these “two most remarkable figures who ever lived” as also the various books, commencing with William James’ turn of the 20th century book ‘The Varieties of Religious Experience’ to Roy C. Amore’s 1978 book ‘Two Masters, One Message’ which delve into various aspects of this amazing fact.
Irrespective of whether or not Christ met and was influenced by Buddha’s teachings it is undeniable that his gospel of love, compassion, non violence and good neighbourliness was a further great triumph for non violence and compassion.
The first three hundred years of Christianity is a glorious chapter in the history of non violence. Thousands of Christians bravely faced the lions and the cross rather than renounce their faith or rise in revolt. Their suffering was rewarded with the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine to Christianity in 330 AD. This intensely persecuted religion overnight became the faith of the Roman Empire and the cross which was the symbol of merciless cruelty was transformed into a symbol of love and compassion. Constantinople, the great new city established by Emperor Constantine remained the capital of Christendom until it fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 AD.
The next triumph for the Compassion was in China. Buddhism had first entered that country through the ‘Silk Route’ in the early 2nd century AD. The earliest Chinese Buddhist temple still standing is dated to 145 AD. However, as all Buddhist scriptures were either in Pali or in Sanskrit, Chinese access to them was very limited during this period.
In 383AD a Chinese military expedition attacked Kucha, located on the northern branch of the Silk Route. Among the prisoners it took was the scholarly Buddhist monk Kumarajiva. He was taken to Xian, where the Tang Emperor Yao Chang appointed him Purohit (spiritual guide) to his Royal Court. This was done so promptly that one suspects the mentioned military expedition was actually intended to kidnap this monk! In 388 AD, as advised by Kumarajiva, the Emperor convened a great Buddhist conclave at Xian, the imperial capital, to initiate collection and translation of important Buddhist texts. Over 800 monks attended this conclave. By the time Kumarajiva died in 413 AD, 98 major Buddhist scripturesd had been translated into Chinese. Among these that of the Saddharmapundarika (Lotus Sutra) remains the most valued and revered work.
To fill the void created by Kumarajiva’s death, the Tang Emperor invited him the famed Gunavarman, who had converted the Javanese Sailendra royal family to Buddhism in about 420 AD, to come to China. He arrived in Nanking in AD 431.
The next important milestone in Chinese Buddhism was the arrival in Canton from Kancheepuram in 520 AD, of the monk Bodhidharma, bringing with him the knowledge of ‘Dhyan’ and ‘Kalaripayyat’. In Chinese the former came to be known as ‘Chan’ and in Japan as ‘Zen’. ‘Kalaripayyat’ evolved into Chinese ‘Kung Fu’ and Japanese ‘Judo’
The sprouting and later flowering of Buddhism, with its essence of compassion, non violence and mind control, was an event of far reaching importance in the development of Chinese thought and culture. Once all the major Buddhist scriptures had been translated into Chinese, this religion managed to establish itself firmly in China and came to be spoken of, along with Confucianism and Taoism, as one of “The Three Teachings” thus achieving a status of virtual equality with the native traditions.
Whereas Buddhism was harbinger of culture and civilization in Central Asia and South East Asia, China was a notable exception. By the time Buddhism entered China in the first century AD, it already was an old and great civilization Buddhism therefore had to compete with well established indigenous philosophical and religious systems. That it succeeded in doing so makes its firm establishment in China its greatest overseas triumph. Theodore Barry, in his ‘Sources of Chinese Tradition writes “For nearly eight centuries, from the fall of the Han dynasty (AD 220) to the rise of the Sung Dynasty (AD 960), Chinese culture was so closely identified with Buddhism that less civilized neighbors like the Koreans and the Japanese embraced the one with the other, and thought of great Tang China, the cynosure of the civilized world, more as a ‘Buddha - land’ than the ‘Land of Confucius’. The famed centres of learning, to which pilgrims and scholars came from afar, were the great Buddhist Temples, where some of the best Chinese minds were engaged in teaching and developing new schools of Buddhist philosophy”.
Buddhism came to Japan through Korea in the early 6th century AD. However, the formal date given for its arrival is AD 593, when Prince Shotoku proclaimed it Japan’s state religion. The Prince, who was the Imperial Regent, is still revered as ‘Father of Japanese Buddhism’. So strong was the early Buddhist impact on Japan that in the 8th century Emperor Shomu declared himself ‘A servant of the Three Jewels” and established state supported monasteries in all major towns. At Todaiji Temple in Nara he ordered installation of an enormous (50 foot high) Vairocana Buddha statue gilded with gold “as an earthly symbol of Buddha’s Heavenly tranquility” The statue was completed in 750 AD. Some years later Emperor Shomu abdicated the throne to join a monastery. The Empress who succeeded him did likewise, and appointed a monk in her place. However the Imperial court dethroned him and prevented Japan becoming a Buddhist ecclesiastical state.
The next great victory for the gospel of compassion and ahmisa came with the conversion of Tibet’s first great historic king Song Tsan Gampo to Buddhism in the middle of the 8th century AD. Like the renowned Emperor Ashoka a thousand years earlier, he had fought many battles, unified Tibet and created an empire. He had become so strong and renowned that the Tang Royal court was willing to give him one of their princesses in Marriage. It was his wife Wen Chang, a Tang Chinese princess who converted him. In coming to Lhasa, she had brought with her a large bronze Buddha statue, to house which the Jo Khang temple, still extant, was built in Lhasa. With the King’s conversion the Royal court and most of Tibetans adopted the new religion. The King sent his minister, Thu-Mi to India to procure sacred scriptures and invite Indian monks to Tibet to teach Buddhism. Among those who came in subsequent decades and centuries were Padma Sambhava, (who built the revered Samye monastery and created the religious educational system of ‘Lamaism’) and Atisha, former Chancellor of Vikramashila Univerity, who launched a massive effort to translate Buddhist Sanskrit works into Tibetan. From then on, Tibet became the real repository of India’s historic Buddhist legacy as it had evolved up to the middle of the 11th century, as most Buddhist monasteries and universities in India were destroyed by about this time by Afghan invaders.
About the same time Tibet was being transformed from a nomadic, warring, conglomeration of tribes to a peaceful, compassionate, monastic nation, the great Buddhist city of Pagan was being built a the capital of the Burmese Kingdom and the great Buddhist architectural marvel was being built at Borobuddur in central Java.
The period between the 11th and 13th centuries, which saw Afghan Marauders frequently invading India to plunder temples and royal treasuries, and European Christian nations launching Crusades to retrieve the Holy Land from Sejuk Turks, apparently is a “Clash of Civilizations” between Hinduism, Christianity and Islam. Yet, amazingly, it was at this very time that Islam was undergoing a radical internal transformation through Sufism towards compassion and non violence. Though some claim Sufism is as old Islam itself and originated with the transcendental mental state in which Prophet Mohammed received Divine revelation, it actually sprouted as a distinct doctrine with the woman ascetic Rabiah (d. 801 AD) who spoke of union with the Divine through love and total internal surrender. Hasan Al Mansur, a century later, carried forward this doctrine. However the real flowering of Sufism and its widespread acceptance within the “ummah” came with Al Ghazali (d. 1111) and Jalaluddin Rumi (d. 1275). Sufism urges striving for Divine union through love, total internal surrender to God and respect for all religions. For them ‘Love is Action; Action is Knowledge; Knowledge is Truth; Truth is Love’. From their practice of constantly meditating Sufis became known as “those who always weep” and consider this world “a hut of sorrows.” Writing about them, Karen Armstrong, in her book ‘Islam – A Short History’ writes “When a Sufi first heard the Divine call, he or she became aware of their painful separation from the source of all being. The mystical journey was simply a return to what is truly natural to humanity, a doctrine very similar to that held by Buddhists. Sufism remained a fringe movement during the Abbasid period, but later Sufi masters would create an esoteric movement which would captivate the majority of Moslems.” It is interesting to note that a number of Sufi masters, including Jalaluddin Rumi, emerged out of Afghanistan, where Buddhism had flourished for almost a thousand years from Ashoka’s time until the advent of Islam in the 7th century AD. Sufism achieved its greatest influence in India during Akbar’s reign, and it was from here that Sufi Islam spread to Indonesia and other parts of South East Asia. This accounts for its non dogmatic and highly tolerant character in all these countries.
In the early 13th century the warlike Mongols, led by their greatly feared leader Chengiz Khan, emerged out of the remote Mongolian grasslands to conquer the world. Between 1207 – 1258 he, his sons and grandsons overthrew the Kin, Kwarasmian, Chinese and Abbasid Empires and conquered all kingdoms and lands from northern China to Hungary. The speed and cruelty of their campaigns struck terror into the hearts of all in their path. In 1275, having overthrown the Sung Empire in southern China, Kublai Khan, grandson of Chengiz Khan, became Emperor of China. His empire extended from the South China Sea to the Baltic Sea.
Whereas Kublai Khan had all the power and grandeur he desired he lacked legitimacy in the eyes of the Chinese people most of whom were as Buddhist as they were Confucian. He therefore decided to invite the revered abbot of the Tibetan Sakya Monastery, to bless his regime. When said Abbot visited Peking in 1282 he was accorded the highest honours. He reciprocated by blessing the Mongol regime and proclaiming Kublai Khan an incarnation of the Bodhisattva ‘Manjushri’. The latter then appointed Phagspa, an important Tibetan monk as ‘Teacher of the Realm’. He actively promoted Buddhism all over the empire but particularly in China where he whittled down the privileges of the Taoists who were his main rivals.
It was during the reign of Khublai Khan that Buddhism took root in Mongolia, and within a century transformed that country and its people, like it had done five hundred years earlier in Tibet, from their nomadic, cruel way of life into a monastic, pastoral and peaceful one.
When the Mongol dynasty was overthrown by the Mings, Karakoram, the Mongol capital, was sacked (1388). Much damage was done to its Buddhist monasteries, stupas and sacred literature. However, a major religious revival took place under the Mongol King Altan Khan, who in 1578 invited the head Lama of the Drepung Monastery, Sonam Gyatso to visit Mongolia. When said visit took place he bestowed the title of ‘Dalai Lama’ on this abbot. Thereafter his successors have carried the same title. A first important step in translating sacred scripture from Tibetan to Mongolian was taken by Sonam Gara, with ‘Subhasitaratnonidhi’. By the early 17th century, over 330 canonical works had been translated. Today there are several dozen Buddhist monasteries in Mongolia all of which have become quite active after the collapse of Communism. Among these the Gandanthekcheling is most renowned.
In volume I of his monumental ‘The Story of Civilization’ the eminent historian Will Durant has written thus about India’s spiritiual impact on Asia: “Whereas Buddhism disappeared from India, it won over nearly all the remainder of the Asiatic world. The cultural zenith of most of these nations came from the stimulus of Buddhism. As Christianity transformed Mediterranean culture in the third and fourth centuries after Christ, so Buddhism in the same centuries effected a theological and aesthetic revolution in the life of China. In the seventh century AD, the enlightened warrior Srong-tsan Gampo, established an able government in Tibet, annexed Nepal, built Lhasa as his capital and made it rich as a halfway house in China–India trade. He invited Buddhist monks to come from India to spread Buddhism and inaugurated the Golden Age of Tibet….. In Cambodia and Indo China, Buddhism conspired with Hinduism to provide the religious framework of one of the richest ages in the history of oriental art. Buddhism, like Christianity, won its greatest triumphs outside the land of its birth – and won them without shedding a drop of blood”.
In the 19th century Buddhism began to impact in Europe and the USA. Thanks to the efforts of a few dedicated British civil servants in India, particularly William Jones and Charles Wilkins who were encouraged by Governor General Warren Hastings and supported by the Asiatic Society founded in 1784, a number of ancient Sanskrit works were translated into English and gave the world for the first time an idea of the spiritual treasures and great literary beauty of these works. Among those deeply impressed by them were Goethe, Hegel and Schopenhauer. But it was Max Muller who made the greatest contribution in interpreting ancient Indian spirituality to Europe. In his book ‘India: What can it teach us?’ he wrote: “ If I were asked under what sky the human mind has most fully developed some of the choicest gifts, has most deeply pondered on the greatest problems of life and has found solutions of some of them which well deserve the attention even of those who have studied Plato and Kant – I should point to India.”
In 1879, Sir Edwin Arnold, using a prose translation of ‘Lalitavistara’, an account of Buddha’s youth and enlightenment, wrote a long verse narrative under the title ‘Light of Asia’. This created a wide interest in Buddhism in Victorian England.
The first American intellectuals to read and be inspired by India’s ancient wisdom, were Emerson, Thoreau and Walt Whitman.
Ralph Waldo Emerson’s first contact with India’s spiritual literature came in 1818 when as a student at Harvard, he read some writings of Raja Ram Mohan Roy. By 1836 he read William Jones ‘Code of Manu’ and Wilkin’s ‘Bhagavat Gita’. and subsequently the Vishnu Purana and the Kathopanishad. The impact of all this was first seen in his poem ‘Hamatreya’. His renowned poem (1856) however is ‘Brahma’, the first stanza of which reads as under:
“If the red slayer thinks he slays
or if the slain think he is slain
they know not well the subtle ways
I keep, and pass, and turn again.
Henry David Thoreau, read a great deal more of India’s sacred literature than Emerson. He read the Dharma Sastra in 1841 when he was 24 and the Bhagavat Gita at 28. Subsequently, he read Shakuntalam, Vishnu Purana and Hitopadesa. His book on ‘Civil Disobedience’ justifying non payment of taxes in opposition to slavery was one of the important formative influences on Gandhi.
Walt Whitman, led to Indian Philosophy by Thoreau, got deeply interested in it, particularly in Advaita. He often referred to the “real me” in his writings. The opening and closing stanzas of his best known work, ‘Passage to India”, read as under:
“Passage O soul to India!
Eclairicise the myths Asiatic, the primitive fables.
Passage to India, cooling airs from Caucasus far, soothing cradle of man……
On one side China and on the other side Persia and Arabia
To the south the great seas and the Bay of Bengal,
The flowing literatures, tremendous epics, religions castes,
Old occult Brahma interminably far back, the tender and junior Buddha…
Passage to more than India!
Sail forth – steer for the deep waters only,
Reckless O soul, exploring, I with thee, and thou with me,
For we are bound where no mariner has yet dared to go
And we will risk the ship, ourselves and all.”
Col. Henry S. Olcott, reared in a puritan Christian family, late in life became a Buddhist. In 1875, in collaboration with Madame H. P. Blavatsky, a Russian emigree, he set up the Theosophical society in New York. This society brought together many strands of religious and spiritual wisdom as also nationalities. Its hallmark was tolerance, non violence and spiritual growth. It was Mrs. Annie Besant, Col. Olcott’s successor as the Society’s President, who moved its headquarters to Madras.
Mohandas K Gandhi, with his innovative Truth and non violence ‘Satyagraha’ strategy, first against racial injustice in South Africa and then against British Colonialism and social injustices in India, gave non violence a new potency and status. The eminent psychologist Eric Ericson has aptly described it as “militant non violence”. Its successes came to world attention mainly through news reports in the New York Times, which after the 1930 Salt March editorialized that “Whereas Britain lost America on Tea, it was losing India on Salt.” Time Magazine put Gandhi on the front cover of its January 5th 1931 issue as its ‘Man of the Year’. The historian Will Durant wrote ““China followed Sun Yat Sen, took up the sword and fell into the arms of Japan. India, weaponless, accepted as her leader one of the strangest figures in history, and gave to the world the unprecedented phenomenon of a revolution led by a saint, and waged without a gun”.
In Russia the famed novelist Count Leo Tolstoy, who had started life as a soldier and fought first in the Crimean War and then in Chechenya, later turned to the gospel of Love and Non Violence, which he affirmed the Russian Church had abandoned. He wrote much about this and was excommunicated for it. He followed Gandhi’s non violent struggle in South Africa with great interest, and a few days before his death in 1909 wrote to him “I have received your letter and your book ‘Indian Home Rule’. I read your book with great interest because I think that the question you treat in it – passive resistance – is a question of the greatest importance not only for India but for whole humanity.”
Martin Luther King was won over to Gandhi’s Satyagraha strategy in 1956 after hearing a speech by Dr Mordecai Johnson, President of Howard University. He came to India in 1959 to learn first hand from Gandhi’s disciples how non violent resistance was planned and implemented. On his return to the US he wrote “I left India more convinced than ever before that non – violent resistance is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom.”
It was in the Montgomery bus boycott of 1961 that King first tried out ‘Satyagraha’ in his struggle for racial equality. Using it consistently thereafter he brought about more beneficial change for American blacks in eight years of non violent struggle, than had taken place in the hundred years after the Civil War. The transformational effect which non violent struggle had on his fellow blacks King described thus. “When legal contests were the sole form of activity, the ordinary negro was involved as a passive spectator. His interest was stirred, but his energies were unemployed. Mass marches transformed the common man into the star performer he became. The Negro was no longer a subject of change; he was the active organ of change. The dignity his job denied him, he obtained in political and social action"
King expressed his great respect for Gandhi thus :“ Mahatma Gandhi was the first person in human history to lift the ethic of Love, of Jesus Christ, above mere interaction between individuals and make it into a powerful and effective social force on a large scale If humanity is to progress, Gandhi is inescapable. We may ignore him at our own peril”. The US Civil Rights Act of 1970, which finally ended racial discrimination all over the US is a monumental tribute to Martin Luther King’s dedicated and fearless non violent struggle to which he gave everything he had including his life.
~~~~ At this point the ‘Force More Powerful: Nashville – We were Warriors’ 30 minute film, showing how non violent struggle against racial discrimination in the US South was organized and successfully waged will be screened~~~~~~~~~~~~.
Even before Martin Luther King took up the non violent struggle against racial oppression in the US south, a few US and Western intellectuals were evaluating non violent struggle as a viable alternative to destructive warfare. Paul Wehr, in his article 'Non Violence and National Defence' in the book 'Gandhi in the Post Modern Age', points out that Walter Lippman was the first write about it in 1928. Kenneth Boulding in his 1939 book 'Paths of Glory: A new way with War' proposed that Britain, adopt a non violent defence policy as a “functional substitute for war”. Lindberg in Denmark (1937), and Vrind in Holland (1938) urged similar action for their respective countries. In 1955, Arne Naess and Johann Galtung in Norway enunciated the concept of ‘non violent social defence’ based on Gandhi’s ideas. In the USA, Cecil Hinshaw (1956) argued that military defence in the nuclear age was too expensive and proposed social defence as a sensible option. In 1959, Stephen King Hall, a respected former naval commander, in his book ‘Defence in the Nuclear Age’ urged British renunciation of nuclear weapons, rejection of the US nuclear umbrella, reliance on non nuclear European defence alternatives and consideration of social defence domestically. These ideas coincided with the formation of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) which organized marches throughout Britain. Two decades later CND enlarged itself into the European Nuclear Disarmament Campaign.
Separately, in 1959, Johann Galtung in Norway and Gene Sharpe in the USA carefully analyzed various non violent resistance movements, particularly during Nazi occupation of Denmark and Norway, and established a credible case for Social Defence in which the military occupation is resisted by the entire population, as Norway and Denmark did during Nazi occupation, by police refusing to locate and arrest resisters, teachers refusing to teach Nazi propaganda, workers adopting go-slow tactics, farmers destroying crops and newspapers refusing to accept censorship. Such struggle against occupation, rather than defence at the border, shifts it to the turf where resisters have decided advantages to foil the invader’s ambitions to occupy, administer and exploit their country.
The 1964 Oxford Conference on Civilian Defence brought together military strategists, defence researchers, political analysts and people with direct experience of non violent resistance and resulted in a scholarly publication by Adam Roberts on the efficacy and potential of non violent defense.
The 1967 Munich conference led to the setting up of a research group led by Theodore Ebert. It made a detailed study of the civilian resistance which followed the 1968 Soviet suppression of the Czech uprising and submitted a proposal for a German Social Defence strategy.
The Norwegian government was the first to study the merits of social defence. The Galtung and Hansen Commission it set up for this purpose in 1987 recommended ‘Total Defence’ whereby Norwegians would be trained for military as well as civilian defence. A similar study subsequently undertaken by Denmark recommended that in case of any future attack by a foreign power only Jutland would be militarily defended and the Danish islands would rely only on civilian defence. Other European Governments that have set up such study commissions were Holland Sweden, Austria and Finland.
By the 1990s Social Defence had been incorporated as an integral component in the national defence policies in Sweden, Norway and Lithuania with Denmark, Holland and Finland moving in the same direction.
Paul Wehr concludes his historical survey of the evolution of ‘Social Defence’ thus: “Social Defence as a concept originated in the ethical principles of the Gandhian movement and in pacifist ideology. The Gandhian movement demonstrated the power of massive non cooperation with an occupying power in that case Britain…At first social defence research was non governmental. By the 1970s Governments were supporting it and political parties and peace movements were debating it. A quarter century of scholarly research has produced a respectable body of knowledge about the underlying principles, diverse methods and practical developments of social defence….Only time and events will tell whether Gandhi’s ideas and practice will be as influential in the area of national defence as they have been in the field of social change”.
In the early 1980s began the real flowering of non violent struggle. ‘Solidarity’ was set up in Poland that year by Lech Walensa and fellow dock workers in Gdansk. Their seven year struggle ended successfully with the collapse of Communism in Poland and the election of Lech Walensa as President. During the same period “People’s Power” revolutions ended Apartheid in South Africa, the Marcos Dictatorship in the Phillipines, the Pinochet regime in Chile, and Communist dictatorships in GDR, Czechoslovakia, Romania, the Baltic States, Russia, Ukraine, Serbia, Georgia & Uzbekistan.
About the same time non violence also began to impact in the field of environment. The United Nations’ Environmental programme made Gandhi’s maxim “The world has enough for everyone’s need but not for everyone’s greed” its promotional slogan in its poster campaign. Petra Kelly, a founder of the German Green party, publicly stated: “In one particular area of our political work we have been greatly inspired by Mahatma Gandhi. That is in our belief that a lifestyle and method of production which rely on an endless supply and a lavish use of raw materials generates the motive for the violent appropriation of these raw materials from other countries. In contrast, a responsible use of raw materials, as part of an ecologically oriented life style and economy, reduces the risk that policies of violence will be pursued in our name”.
The 1992 UN Conference and Environment and Development held at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, June 3–14, 1992, was the largest gathering of world leaders in history, with 117 heads of state and representatives of 178 nations attending. With the treaties and other documents signed at the conference, most of the world's nations committed themselves to the pursuit of economic development in ways that would protect the Earth's environment and nonrenewable resources.
In September 1999, the UN General Assembly adopted a Declaration on a Culture of Peace calling upon governments, international organizations and civil society to promote this culture based on respect for life, freedom, justice, tolerance, dialogue, cooperation, democracy, development and equal rights and opportunities for all. The year 2000 was declared as ‘The International Year for the Culture of Peace and the period 2001 – 2010 as the International Decade for a Culture of Peace and non Violence for the Children of the World’. This was the first time that non violence made a clear and distinct component in a universal declaration and programme of action.
In his book ‘The Unconquerable World’, Jonathan Schell writes about the “two conflicting traditions – one worldly, sanctioning violence, the other spiritual, forbidding it” that have coexisted throughout history without either of them being able to eliminate the other. He states that “Western civilization has lived by the example of Ceasar Augustus even though it professes deep reverence for Jesus Christ and dates its calendar by him; St Augustine made a big effort to reconcile the two traditions by arguing that in the spiritual, personal realm of the ‘City of God’, Jesus’ law of love and non violence should be followed, while in the public, political realm of the ‘City of Man’ Ceasar’s law of force would have to apply. The modern separation of Church and State is a distant reflection of this theory. “The bloody record of the 20th century confirms as never before the strength of the tie between politics and violence. If an evil God, had turned human society into an infernal laboratory to explore the utmost extremes of violence, short only of human extinction, he could scarcely have improved upon the history of the 20th century. Totalitarian regimes in their most ferocious epochs became factories of corpses”.
Schell affirms that as the 21st century begins, the vital question is whether the world will repeat and perhaps surpass the bloodshed of the 20th as the use of just a few of the world’s approximately thirty thousand nuclear weapons, could kill more people in an hour than the two world wars together. He urges the imperative need to ask whether there might be another path to follow and holds that, “notwithstanding the shock of September 11th and the need to take forceful measures to meet the threat of global terrorism, such a path has opened up. For in 20th century history another complimentary lesson, less conspicuous than the first but just as important, has been emerging. It is that forms of non violent action can serve effectively in the place of violence at every level of political affairs. This is the promise of Mohandas K. Gandhi’s resistance to the British Empire in India, of Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement in the United States, of the non violent movements in Eastern Europe and Russia that brought down Communism and the Soviet Union…. The century of unprecedented violence was also a century, discreetly, of non violent action …. Quiet but deep changes, both in the world’s grand architecture and in its molecular processes, have expanded the boundaries of the possible. Arms and men have both changed in ways that, even as they imperil the world as never before, have created a chance for peace that is greater than ever before.”.
The fall of Constantinople in 1453 was the greatest calamity to befall Christendom. Yet out of that tragedy the Renaissance emerged. Perhaps out of the great tragedy of the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950 and the flight of thousands of Tibetans, including His Holiness The Dalai Lama, a new spiritual renaissance is being gestated. For the first time again after many centuries the Buddha’s message of non violence, compassion and peace is being widely heard. Among the militarily powerful of the world this message might be falling on deaf years, but as the age old Sanskrit maxim goes “Satyameva Jayate”. In the long run it is only Truth and the justice. Love and on violence it embodies, that triumphs. It is high time it did. As Martin Luther King impactfully put it “The choice is no longer between non violence and violence but between non violence and non existence”.
In concluding, I would like to express my deep and sincere gratitude to NIAS and particularly its distinguished Director Dr K. Kasturirangan, for having invited me to deliver this lecture, in their ‘History of Ideas’ series. I would also like to respectfully urge this reputed institute to commence an interdisciplinary research and seminar programme on the viability and potential of non violence for solving of India’s contemporary political, social, environmental, international and other problems. Much such research has been and is being done in diverse countries. The time has come for the country that gestated ‘Ahimsa’ to study it, in all seriousness and all its aspects, in collaboration with other well established institutions particularly the Swedish International Peace Research Institute Stockholm, Albert Einstein Institute Boston and the Centre for Global Non Violence, Honolulu.