The Mysterious Power of Non-violence: Part 1

By Paul Sinclair (One World One People) 11/9/06 and revised on 2/3/22

‘In one village a notoriously fierce communal agitator came up to Gandhi in front of hundreds of paralyzed onlookers, put his hands around Gandhi's slender throat, and began choking the life out of him. Such is the height to which Gandhi had grown that there was not even a flicker of hostility in his eyes, not a word of protest. He yielded himself completely to the flood of love within him, and the man broke down like a little child and fell sobbing at his feet. For those who watched, it seemed a miracle. For Gandhi, who had got used to the "miracles" of love, it only proved for the hundredth time in his own life the depth of the words … "Hatred does not cease by hatred at any time; hatred ceases by love. This is an unalterable law." ’ – Eknath Easwaran, Gandhi the Man: The Story of His Transformation. 1

Mahatma Gandhi

Mahatma Gandhi began his life long struggle in South Africa to demonstrate that non-violence is the greatest force at the disposal of humankind. The movement he was instrumental in forming was named ‘Satyagraha.’

Throughout his lifetime, Gandhi successfully applied the practice of non-violence and continually overcame what appeared to be impossible odds stacked against him. He defeated and overturned unjust laws that oppressed Indians in South Africa; he liberated India from British Rule; and he peacefully ended numerous violent uprisings during the partition of India. These are but a few of his extraordinary achievements. He claimed, ‘I have been practising with scientific precision non-violence and its possibilities for an unbroken period of over fifty years. I have applied it in every walk of life — domestic, institutional, economic and political. I know of no single case in which it has failed.’

His statements would seem vindicated as ‘the science of non-violence’ as Gandhi often called it, was later used by Martin Luther King Jr to win civil rights for African Americans in the United States. Nelson Mandela also used it to peacefully end apartheid in South Africa. So let’s revisit the past to look at the science of non-violence and using the great Mahatma Gandhi's own words as much as possible, let’s try to see what makes it tick, so to speak. Let us also attempt to ascertain why non-violence has been so successful in the past and why Gandhi claimed it to be the vital rule of conduct for the world’s people if we are to live consistently with human dignity and attain world peace.

So let’s revisit the past to look at the science of non-violence and using the great man’s own words as much as possible, let’s try to see what makes it tick, so to speak. Let us also attempt to ascertain why non-violence has been so successful in the past and why Gandhi claimed it to be the vital rule of conduct for the world’s people if we are to live consistently with human dignity and attain world peace.

At the very core of Gandhi’s Satyagraha movement was the belief that the Universe has been created, is ordered and under the control of a supreme intelligence. That governing intelligence he saw as benevolent and has as one of its manifest attributes, equal love for all humanity. Gandhi was constantly striving throughout his life to meet his Maker by realising his true nature as a soul: The soul being imperishable, changeless and eternal with infinite life.

‘He who seeks refuge in God ought to have a glimpse of the Atma (soul) that transcends the body; and the moment one has a glimpse of the imperishable Atma one sheds the love of the perishable body… Violence is needed for the protection of things external; non-violence is needed for the protection of the Atma…”

This quest to realise the ‘truth’ of his own soul became his guiding light and was responsible for the birth of the satyagraha movement. Satyagraha is, ‘Truth (Satya) implies love, and firmness (graha) engenders and therefore serves as a synonym for force; the force which is born of truth and love or non-violence.’

The real power of Satyagraha is what he called soul-force as opposed to body-force. Soul-force was produced when people adhered to certain natural laws and ways of living. The practice of non-violence was for Gandhi a core condition: ‘Man as animal is violent, but as Spirit is non-violent. The moment he awakes to the Spirit within, he cannot remain violent.’

‘In the application of Satyagraha, I discovered in the earliest stages that pursuit of truth did not admit of violence being inflicted on one’s opponent but he must be weaned from error by patience and sympathy. For, what appears to be truth to the one may appear to be error to another. And patience means self-suffering. So the doctrine came to mean vindication of truth, not by infliction of suffering on the opponent, but on one’s self.’

In the following he gives a practical example: ‘For instance, the government of the day has passed a law which is applicable to me. I do not like it. If by using violence I force the government to repeal the law, I am employing what might be termed body-force. If I do not obey the law and accept the penalty for its breach, I use soul-force. It involves sacrifice of self.’

We’ll now let Gandhi’s own words more fully explain the incomparable use of soul force.

‘Everybody admits that sacrifice of self is infinitely superior to sacrifice of others. Moreover, if this kind of force is used in a cause that is unjust, only the person using it suffers. He does not make others suffer for his mistakes.’

‘Non-violence in its dynamic condition means conscious suffering. It does not mean meek submission to the will of the evil-doer, but it means putting of one’s whole soul against the will of the tyrant. Working under this law of our being, it is possible for a single individual to defy the whole might of an unjust empire to save his honour, his religion, his soul, and lay the foundation for that empire’s fall or its regeneration.’

‘The hardest heart and the grossest ignorance must disappear before the rising sun of suffering without anger and without malice.’

‘And history is replete with instances of men who by dying with courage and compassion on their lips, converted the hearts of their violent opponents.’

‘It (non-violence) is meant for the common people as well. Non-violence is the law of our species as violence is the law of the brute. The spirit lies dormant in the brute, and he knows no law but that of physical might. The dignity of man requires obedience to a higher law, to the strength of the spirit.'

‘I have ventured to place before India the ancient law of self-sacrifice. For Satyagraha and its offshoots, non-cooperation and civil resistance, are nothing but new names for the law of suffering.’

‘Suffering is the law of human beings; war is the law of the jungle. But suffering is infinitely more powerful than the law of the jungle for converting the opponent and opening his ears, which are otherwise shut, to the voice of reason.’

‘…if you want something really important to be done you must not merely satisfy the reason, you must move the heart also. The appeal of reason is more to the head but the penetration of the heart comes from suffering. It opens up the inner understanding in man.’

‘I seek entirely to blunt the edge of the tyrant’s sword, not by putting up against it a sharper-edged weapon, but by disappointing his expectation that I would be offering physical resistance. The resistance of the soul that I should offer would elude him. It would at first dazzle him and at last compel recognition from him, which recognition would not humiliate but would uplift him.’

‘It is the acid test of non-violence that in a non-violent conflict there is no rancour left behind, and in the end the enemies are converted into friends.’

According to Gandhi, non-violence in its purest form is a soul-force and has behind it the power of the Universe’s Creator. Next, in part two we must ask what principles and laws need to be adhered to in order to produce soul-force and who is qualified to use it?

Continue on to Part 2: Satyagraha and the Mysterious Power of Gandhi’s Non-violence



Eknath Easwaran (2001), Gandhi the Man: The Story of His Transformation, 3rd edition, Nilgiri Press.

© One World One People, 11 September 2006
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