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Gandhi on Non-Violence

By Thomas Merton

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One of the most significant facts about the life and vocation of Gandhi was his discovery of the East through the West. Like so many others of India, Gandhi received a completely Western education as a young man. He had to a great extent renounced the beliefs, the traditions, the habits of thought, of India. He spoke, thought, and acted like an Englishman, except of course that an Englishman was precisely what he could never, by any miracle, become. He was an alienated Asian whose sole function in life was to be perfectly English without being English at all: to prove the superiority of the West by betraying his own heritage and his own self, thinking as a white man without ceasing to be “a Nigger.” The beauty of this (at least to Western minds) was that it showed Western culture to be a pearl of such great price that one could reasonably sell the whole of Asia in order to acquire it, even though the acquisition was not that of a new being, or even of a new identity, but only of a new suit.

Gandhi was unusual in this. Instead of being fooled by the Western costume, and instead of being persuaded that he no longer really existed as an Asian, he recognized that the West had something good about it that was good not because it was Western but because it was also Eastern: that is to say, it was universal. So he turned his face and his heart once again to India, and saw what was really there. It was through his acquaintance with writers like Tolstoy and Thoreau, and then his reading of the New Testament, that Gandhi rediscovered his own tradition and his Hindu dharma (religion, duty). More than a tradition, more than a wisdom handed down in books or celebrated in temples, Gandhi discovered India in discovering himself. Hence it is very important indeed to understand Gandhi’s political life, and particularly his non-violence, in the light of this radical discovery from which everything else received its meaning. Gandhi’s dedicated struggle for Indian freedom and his insistence on non-violent means in the struggle—both resulted from his new understanding of India and of himself after his contact with a universally valid spiritual tradition which he saw to be common to both East and West.

The Christianity, the spiritual and religious humanism, of the West opened his eyes to forces of wisdom and of love which were closer to his own heart because they were expressed in the symbols and philosophic language of his own people, and they could be used immediately to awaken this sleeping and enslaved people to an awareness of its own identity and of its historic vocation. He neither accepted Christianity nor rejected it; he took all that he found in Christian thought that seemed relevant to him as a Hindu. The rest was, at least for the time being, of merely external interest.

Here was no syncretism and no indifferentism. Gandhi had the deepest respect for Christianity, for Christ and the Gospel. In following his way of satyagraha* he believed he was following the Law of Christ, and it would be difficult to prove that this belief was entirely mistaken—or that it was in any degree insincere.

One of the great lessons of Gandhi’s life remains this: through the spiritual traditions of the West he, an Indian, discovered his Indian heritage and with it his own “right mind.” And in his fidelity to his own heritage and its spiritual sanity, he was able to show men of the West and of the whole world a way to recover their own “right mind” in their own tradition, thus manifesting the fact that there are certain indisputable and essential values—religious, ethical, ascetic, spiritual, and philosophical—which man has everywhere needed and which he has in the past managed to acquire, values without which he cannot live, values which are now in large measure lost to him so that, unequipped to face life in a fully human manner, he now runs the risk of destroying himself entirely.

Call these values what you will, “natural religion” or “natural law,” Christianity admits their existence at least as preambles to faith and grace, if not sometimes vastly more (Romans 2:14-15, Acts 17:22-31). These values are universal, and it is hard to see how there can be any “catholic-ity” (cath-holos means “all-embracing”) that even implicitly excludes them. One of the marks of catholicity is precisely that values which are everywhere natural to man are fulfilled on the highest level in the Law of the Spirit. And in Christian charity. A “charity” that excludes these values cannot claim the title of Christian love.

In rediscovering India and his own “right mind,” Gandhi was not excavating from libraries the obscure disputed questions of Vedantic scholasticism (though he did not reject Vedanta). He was, on the contrary, identifying himself fully with the Indian people, that is to say not with the Westernized upper classes nor with the Brahmin caste, but rather with the starving masses and in particular with the outcaste “untouchables,” or Harijan.

This again is a supremely important fact, without which Gandhi’s non-violence is incomprehensible. The awakening of the Indian mind in Gandhi was not simply the awakening of his own spirit to the possibilities of a distinctly Hindu form of “interior life.” It was not just a question of Yoga asanas and Vedantic spiritual disciplines for his own perfection. Gandhi realized that the people of India were awakening in him. The masses who had been totally silent for thousands of years had now found a voice in him. It was not “Indian thought” or “Indian spirituality” that was stirring in him, but India herself. It was the spiritual consciousness of a people that awakened in the spirit of one person. But the message of the Indian spirit, of Indian wisdom, was not for India alone. It was for the entire world. Hence Gandhi’s message was valid for India and for himself in so far as it represented the awakening of a new world.

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Yet this renewed spiritual consciousness of India was entirely different from the totalitarian and nationalist consciousnesses that came alive in the West and in the East (Japan) to the point of furious and warlike vitality. The Indian mind that was awakening in Gandhi was inclusive, not exclusive. It was at once Indian and universal. It was not a mind of hate, of intolerance, of accusation, of rejection, of division. It was a mind of love, of understanding, of infinite capaciousness. Where the extreme nationalisms of Western Fascism and of Japan were symptoms of paranoid fury, exploding into alienation, division, and destruction, the spirit which Gandhi discovered in himself was reaching out to unity, love, and peace. It was a spirit which was, he believed, strong enough to heal every division.
In Gandhi’s mind, non-violence was not simply a political tactic which was supremely useful and efficacious in liberating his people from foreign rule, in order that India might then concentrate on realizing its own national identity. On the contrary, the spirit of non-violence sprang from an inner realization of spiritual unity in himself. The whole Gandhian concept of non-violent action and satyagraha is incomprehensible if it is thought to be a means of achieving unity rather than as the fruit of inner unity already achieved.

Indeed this is the explanation for Gandhi’s apparent failure (which became evident to him at the end of his own life). He saw that his followers had not reached the inner unity that he had realized in himself, and that their satyagraha was to a great extent a pretense, since they believed it to be a means to achieve unity and freedom, while he saw that it must necessarily be the fruit of inner freedom.

The first thing of all and the most important of all was the inner unity, the overcoming and healing of inner division, the consequent spiritual and personal freedom, of which national autonomy and liberty would only be consequences. However, when satyagraha was seen only as a useful technique for attaining a pragmatic end, political independence, it remained almost meaningless. As soon as the short-term end was achieved, satyagraha was discarded. No inner peace was achieved, no inner unity, only the same divisions, the conflicts and the scandals that were ripping the rest of the world to pieces.

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This, then, is the second crucially important principle that we discover in Gandhi. Contrary to what has been thought in recent centuries in the West, the spiritual or interior life is not an exclusively private affair. (In reality, the deepest and most authentic Western traditions are at one with those of the East on this point.) The spiritual life of one person is simply the life of all manifesting itself in him. While it is very necessary to emphasize the truth that as the person deepens his own thought in silence he enters into a deeper understanding of and communion with the spirit of his entire people (or of his Church), it is also important to remember that as he becomes engaged in the crucial struggles of his people in seeking justice and truth together with his brother, he tends to liberate the truth in himself by seeking true liberty for all. Thus Plato taught that “to philosophize and concern oneself with politics is one and the same thing, and to wrestle with the sophist means at the same time to defend the city against tyranny.” (8)

So true was this that Socrates would not turn his back on the equivocation of his fellow citizens and their betrayal of truth, even when their hatred of reason meant his own death.

The “spiritual space” created by the Polis was still, in any event, the only place for the philosopher. True, in an imperfect city a fully human life was not possible, and hence a fortiori the perfect philosophical life was out of the question. “The philosopher has no place in the city except at its helm.” Yet if he is not only silenced but even condemned unjustly to death, it remains his function as philosopher to teach the city truth by his death rather than fly into exile or withdraw into private life, since a purely private existence could not be fully “philosophical.” This was Gandhi’s view also, and we know that he had no illusions about the perfection of the Indian Polis.

Gandhi’s career was eminently active rather than contemplative. Yet his fidelity in maintaining intact the contemplative element that is necessary in every life was well known. However, even his days of silence and retirement were not days of mere “privacy”; they belonged to India and he owed them to India, because his “spiritual life” was simply his participation in the life and dharma of his people. Their liberation and the recovery of their political unity would be meaningless unless their liberty and unity had a dimension that was primarily spiritual and religious. The liberation of India was to Gandhi a religious duty because for him the liberation of India was only a step to the liberation of all mankind from the tyranny of violence in others, but chiefly in themselves. So Gandhi could say, “When the practice of ahimsa becomes universal, God will reign on earth as He does in heaven.”

*A term coined by Gandhi. Its root meaning is “holding on to truth,” and, by extension, resistance by non-violent means.

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