The idea of nonviolence is very simple, yet very profound. There is nothing new about the principle of doing no harm to others. Putting the principle into practice is more difficult and complex.
Nonviolence works at three levels. First, we have to be nonviolent to ourselves, as we cannot be compassionate to others if we are not compassionate to ourselves. Therefore, taking care of oneself is not selfish. Anger is violence to oneself. When we’re being angry we are punishing ourselves for the mistakes of someone else. Anxiety, inferiority complexes and cynicism are also violence to oneself. Freedom from fear is a prerequisite for peace in the world. To bring peace in the world we have to practice nonviolence in our personal lives, in our thoughts and speech.
Then there is social and political nonviolence. Colonialism, racism, exploitation of the weak, poverty, social injustice, sexism and all kinds of discrimination are forms of social and political violence.
It is easy to recognise the violence of weapons, wars and terrorism but more difficult to recognise the institutionalised violence built into the system of economic inequality and political oppression. The pursuit of a just and equitable social order is integral to the principle and practice of nonviolence.
Religious teachers have often limited the scope of nonviolence to a personal sphere, promoting kindness and generosity while tolerating an unjust order at the social, economic and political level. Nonviolence activists such as Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela have highlighted that challenging institutionalised violence is paramount.
When we are following the path of nonviolence we do not hate the human beings in positions of power who preside over the unjust order. This is a very fine line to tread: hate the sin but not the sinner. Martin Luther King said that he did not hate white people, but loved them and respected them as human beings even if he didn’t like their system. He was not against white people, he was against the system of racial discrimination. He said it is easy to love your friends and those who agree with you but the test of true compassion is to respect your opponents and yet fight against injustice. The power of love and nonviolence is capable of changing the hearts of your opponents and, as a consequence, changing the system.
I had the pleasure of meeting Martin Luther King in 1964. He told me that nonviolence is more than a tactic, even more than a strategy, to bring an end to racial discrimination. Nonviolence is a way of life.
Mahatma Gandhi, who was an inspiration to King, followed a similar path. Gandhi said: ‘I am not against the British, they can live in India as my brothers and sisters without any problem. I am against British colonialism, imperialism, materialism and industrialism. I would oppose any system which was based in the exploitation of others even if it was practised by the Indians themselves.’
Nelson Mandela set an example of nonviolence after his release from 27 years of imprisonment. He said: ‘We are not going to take any revenge on those who have perpetrated the violence of apartheid on us. We want to practice forgiveness through truth and reconciliation because revenge is as much violence as apartheid. You cannot extinguish fire with fire, violence with violence, or apartheid with revenge.’ Under the leadership of Mandela and Desmond Tutu, South Africa set a shining example of nonviolence in practice.
King, Gandhi and Mandela showed that nonviolence does not mean non-resistance to injustice. And they proved that the power of non-violence is greater than the power of the American white establishment, or the British Empire, or the police state of the apartheid regime.
As Albert Einstein said, we cannot solve the problem with the same mind-set and the same tools that created the problem in the first place. The corollary of this statement is that you cannot solve the problem of violence with violent methods. You need to find an antidote to a violent system, and that is the way of nonviolence.
When one is engaged in the nonviolence struggle, one is not expecting an easy ride. One is prepared to sacrifice one’s comfort, even one’s life. When Mahatma Gandhi was brought to court he pleaded guilty of breaking the British law, which he considered unjust. Gandhi spent 12 years in prison.
Yet the way of nonviolence is more democratic than the way of violence. Men, women, younger people, older people – anyone can participate in the process of a nonviolent movement for social change. The power of nonviolence is ultimately people power. Millions of people can withdraw their co-operation from the oppressive system, whereas only a minority can take part in armed struggle. Guerrilla warfare can only be waged by those with training in the use of weapons, the funds to acquire them and the physical capacity to use them. It is not easy to build a mass movement based on weapons of violence.
The 20th century was the century of violence: the first world war, second world war, Vietnam and so on. It continues into this century with the Iraq and Afghan wars; the list is long and the number of civilian and military deaths are in the millions. What did we gain?
The national and international disputes are still with us. We should be at the stage of human evolution when we can solve our problems and disagreements through other means. It is ironic that so often, the more a country is ‘modernised’, ‘developed’ and ‘resourced’, the more weapons of mass destruction it possesses. Any fool can make things complicated; it requires a genius to make things simple. The simple truth is that through compassion and negotiation we can achieve better results than through wars and violence.
Finally, there is nonviolence to nature. Modern humankind looks at nature as something to be exploited for human benefit and comfort. We act as if we are on a mission of conquering nature. The ways we treat animals in factory farms, pollute our rivers and oceans, destroy rainforest, and poison our land with pesticides and herbicides are acts of violence against nature.
Unless we can learn to make peace with nature, we will not be able to make peace with ourselves or with humanity at large. Because personal nonviolence, political nonviolence and planetary nonviolence are three dimensions of one single truth: the truth of learning to live in harmony with oneself, whoever we are; with others, whatever their race, religion, nationality, sexual orientation and political persuasion; and with nature, accepting the limits and constraints of the finite earth.
It is a total philosophy embracing all aspects of our lives.
Satish Kumar is editor-in-chief of Resurgence & Ecologist magazine.