In the contemporary world it is Mahatma Gandhi who incarnates the Hindu approach to Conflict Resolution most clearly.

He believed that hostilities among people arose not from some permanent stain of sin but from a mistaken perception of what was ultimately good for all parties. One can see in this point of view, reflections of both the ancient Vedic emphasis on order and the Upanishadic notion of the ultimate oneness of that which appears to be disparate or conflictual. Gandhi’s actions were premised on the belief that even the most hostile opponent can be taught by confronting him with patient, non-violent suffering.

It is in the application of ahimsa to the issues of war and peace, however, that Gandhi’s teachings can be seen to be uncompromising. Non-violence does not signify the unwillingness to fight against an enemy. But, he argued, the enemy is always in ignorance and the evil which men do: it is not in human beings themselves. Even though he loathed war and violence in all its forms, Gandhi could not be classified as an orthodox pacifist. Indeed, he held that the courage and heroism often displayed by war-struck individuals reflected well upon their moral character, even if war itself was a dark moral blot on those who encouraged or allowed it to happen. For himself, he rejected indirect participation in war, and refused to let others fight his battles for him.

If I have only a choice between paying for the army of soldiers to kill my neighbours or to be a soldier myself, I would, as I must, consistently with my creed, enlist as a soldier in the hope of controlling the forces of violence and even of converting my comrades.

Training for war demoralized and brutalized people, Gandhi believed, and its after-effects brought nations down to abysmal levels of dissolution and discontent. He therefore strove to show how non-violence was the cleanest weapon against terrorism and torture. He asserted that the man who holds to a high sense of dignity and brotherhood, even to the point of death, confounds aggression and may even shame his attackers. Whilst insisting that non-violence was the only means for bringing to an end the familiar vicious cycles of revenge, he recognized that this required expert timing. Poor timing could lead through foolhardiness to a form of suicide or martyrdom, and Gandhi held that there was a higher truth in living for non-violence than in inadvertently dying in its name. Witnessing the course of warfare from the Boer War through the Second World War, he only strengthened his conviction in regard to the basic creed of nonviolence. Indeed, when he heard of the bombing of Hiroshima, he declared.» Unless now the world adopts non-violence, it will spell certain suicide for mankind.» In a non-violent state, it should finally be possible to raise a non-violent army, which could resist armed invasion without recourse to arms. However distant such a prospect, Gandhi refused to relinquish it, for he knew that violent triumphs guarantee nothing but the brutalization of human beings and the perpetuation of further violence.


He wrote: “I do not believe in a personal deity, but I believe in the Eternal Law of Truth and Love which I have translated as non-violence. This Law is not a dead thing like the law of a king. It’s a living thing – the Law and the Law-giver are one.»

The seeker must only be honest with himself and truthful to others. Where he cannot speak the truth without doing great harm, he may be silent, but Gandhi, like Emanuel Kant, insisted he must never lie. The truth-seeker cannot be so concerned with his own safety or comfort that he abdicates from his larger duties. According to Gandhi». He alone is a lover of truth who follows it in all conditions of life.» The virtues stressed by most religious and philosophical traditions cannot be dismissed by the genuine seeker of truth as alien or beyond his concern. He must, rather, synthesize these virtues in ahimsa or non-violence, the moving image and decisive test of truth. If all existence is a mirror of the divine, violence in any form is a blasphemous repudiation of Deity itself; if all souls are sparks of the divine, rooted in the transcendental Truth, all violence is a species of deicide.

Just as humility is the natural accompaniment of true heroism, ahimsa is the necessary partner of fearlessness. In Gandhi’s vision, the maintenance of moral stature and spiritual dignity must be based upon the practice of ahimsa. He conceived of ahimsa as an integral part of yajna or sacrifice, a concept rooted in the Indian conception of a beneficent cosmic order and a humane discipline requiring self-purification and self-examination. The moral force generated by ahimsa or non-violence was therefore held by Gandhi to be infinitely greater than any force founded upon selfishness. The essential power of non-violence was viewed alternatively by Gandhi as being ‘soul-force’ and ‘truth-force’. The two terms are fundamentally equivalent, and differ only in their psychological or ontological emphasis. For Gandhi, ahimsa represented not a denial of power but a renunciation of all forms of coercion and compulsion. He held in fact that ahimsa had a strength which no earthly power could continue to resist. Although Gandhi was noted for his advocacy of ahimsa in social and political arenas, its most fundamental and intimate use lay for him in the moral persuasion of free souls.

Just as Gandhi sometimes inflated the word ahimsa to encompass all virtues, he equally broadened the notion of himsa or violence to include all forms of deceit and injustice. Himsa proceeds from fear, which is the shadow of ignorant egotism. Its expulsion from the heart requires an act of faith which transcends the scope of analysis. Gandhi held, however, that just as intellect plays a large part in the worldly use of violence, so it plays an even larger part in the field of non-violence. The mind, guided by the heart, must purge all elements of egotism before it can embody ahimsa. Gandhi postulated that the willingness to kill exists in human beings in inverse proportion to their willingness to die. This must be understood in terms of tanha – the will to live – which is present to some degree in every human being and reinforces the concept of the separative ego.

As that ego is illusory and transitory in nature, it has a necessary tendency to fear for its own future, and with that an inevitable propensity towards violence. Gandhi held that ahimsa could be taught and inculcated only by example, and never by force. Coercion, indeed, would itself contradict ahimsa. The roots of violence and himsa lie in the mind and heart, and therefore mere external restraint or abstention from violence cannot be considered true ahimsa. Gandhi choose the term ahimsa because himsa or violence is never wholly avoidable; the word ahimsa stresses that which is to be overcome. Whilst acknowledging that some violence can be found in every being, Gandhi could never concede that such violence was irreparable or irreducible. He held that those who begin by justifying force become addicted to it, while those who seek the practical reduction of himsa in their lives should be engaged in constant self-purification.

Ahimsa, in the widest sense, means a willingness to treat all beings as oneself. Thus ahimsa is the basis of anasakti, selfless action. It is equivalent to the realization of absolute Truth, and it is the goal towards which all true human beings move naturally, though unconsciously. Ahimsa cannot be realized alone; it has meaning only in the context of universal human interaction and uplift. Like truth, ahimsa, when genuine, carries conviction in every sphere. Unlike many forms of love, however, ahimsa is embodied by a truth-seeker not out of longing or lack, but out of a sense of universal obligation. It is only when one takes the vow of ahimsa that one has the capacity to assess apparent failures in terms of one’s own moral inadequacies. Ahimsa means, at the very least, a refusal to do harm. “In its positive form, ahimsa means the largest love, the greatest charity.»

Gandhi’s refusal to set different standards for saints and ordinary men, combined with his concern to give ahimsa a practical social function rather than a purely mystical use, led him to extend and employ the word in novel ways. The political strength which ahimsa can summon is greater and profounder than the impact of violence precisely because ahimsa is consubstantial with the immortal soul. Any programme of social or political reform, including civil disobedience, must, therefore, begin with the heroic individual, for only when such pioneers radiate the lustre of ahimsa will all humanity be uplifted.

Anyone may practice non-violence in the absence of support and even in the face of hostility. Indeed, ahimsa in the midst of adversity becomes the sovereign means of self-purification and the truest road to self-knowledge. Ahimsa is the anti-entropic force in Nature and the indefeasible law of the human species. Just as unconditional commitment to Truth can lead to limited truth in action, so too the universal creed of ahimsa may yield an appropriate policy of non-violence. As a policy, non-violence is a mode of constructive political and social action, just as truth-seeking is the active aspect of Truth. Truth and non-violence are the integrated aspects of immutable soul-force. “Non-violence and truth together form, as it were, the right angle of all religions,» the Mahatma reminds us.

One must, be sure, however, not to believe conveniently in ahimsa as a policy, whilst doubting the creed. Whether or not any specific policy is demonstrably effective, it is imperative to hold true to the creed. Gandhi distinguished, moreover, between policy and mere tactics. Some successful tactics might at times be inappropriate, but the policy itself continues to be apt. Gandhi marvelled at those who, conceding that his non-violent programme worked in the case of the British, insisted that it must inevitably fail against a Hitler or Mussolini. Such a view romanticized the benevolence of the British and altogether denied that tyrants are a part of the human species.

Gandhi’s own experience had shown him that the British could be utterly ruthless or devious, even though his firm faith forbade him from excluding anyone from the possibility of growth, change of heart and recognition of necessity. Something more reasonable than subtle racism would be required to challenge the universal relevance of ahimsa.

By Kamaluddin Mohammed, Ambassador of Trinidad and Tobago to C A R I C O M[1]

  1. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Conflict Resolution. El presente artículo fue publicado en idioma original en el Número 2 de ADE, en el mes de diciembre de 2001. El autor Excellency Mr. Kamaluddin Mohammed who was Ambassador of Trinidad and. Tobago … Embajador, Político, Lingüista, Líder Religioso, Imam …

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