Nonviolence in Practice
By Eknath Easwaran
By Eknath Easwaran
Nonviolence, Gandhi states, “is the final flower of Truth.” Because love draws a deeper response out of everybody, love is not just the most idealistic basis for action but also the most practical. Every person – every creature, I would say – has an innate response to loving action. “Love is a rare herb that makes a friend even of a sworn enemy,” Gandhi says. It is a revelation that he proved in the crucible of his own life over and over. Attacked so many times, vilified, thrown into prison again and again, betrayed, his life threatened and eventually even taken – Gandhi bore all these without resentment, without once stooping to retaliation.
It is not that injustice did not move Gandhi to anger; not at all. But instead of exploding in anger, he had learned to sink into the very depths of consciousness in meditation, where we are one and resentment is impossible.
In this supreme descent every vital organ exults; the whole nervous system is renewed. These are not miracles of mystical awareness; they are miracles of health, which I would say everyone can learn. It is because he had learned the supreme miracle of transforming anger that this little man was able to work for others fifteen hours every day without ever getting tired or tense, never unkind, never unloving, from his early years well into his seventies. Conversely, even when anger is warranted, every explosion of anger is at the expense of your own vital organs. A flood tide of energy is wasted. This is the lesson that Gandhi learned early on and expressed in that famous statement: “I have learnt through bitter experience the one supreme lesson to conserve my anger, and as heat conserved is transmuted into energy, even so our anger controlled can be transmuted into a power that can move the world.”
When Gandhi talks about transmuting energy and power that can move the world, it is not mere simile. He means just what he says. The innumerable occasions we have every day to get angry, to say and do unkind things, are opportunities for conserving a tremendous and potentially creative power.
In mystical language, a river of divine love is flowing in the depths of every one of us. When you and I return kindness for unkindness, that cosmic river carries our act of love into the depths of the unkind person’s consciousness. Only a fraction of this river’s effect may be visible, yet it goes on — silently, and over a long period. When Gandhi insists that only one man or woman, acting constantly out of such love, can change the course of the whole world, he is talking about the power of this cosmic force. This is what he named satyagraha, the power of love in action.
When we return kindness for unkindness, we are stirring the unkind person’s consciousness. When we do good to those who would harm us, as Jesus pleads with us to do, not only are we protecting our own mind from anger, we are educating the perpetrators of harm too – in a manner of which they may not even be aware. This is the basis of Gandhi’s long-drawn-out campaign to get British rulers to leave India: a sincere appeal to their sense of decency, “until they tire of exploiting us.” This grand faith in the nobility of human nature – which he demonstrated tirelessly, day in and day out, over a period of some fifty years – is what distinguishes Gandhi from any other world leader I know.
Perhaps no man or woman in the West has enacted satyagraha so visibly as Martin Luther King, Jr, whom I had the privilege of hearing speak at the University of Minnesota.
As a young man King listened to a sermon by the president of Howard University, recently returned from a trip to India. He spoke of Mahatma Gandhi. “His message was so profound and electrifying,” King writes, “that I went out and bought half a dozen books on Gandhi’s life. I became deeply fascinated by his campaigns of nonviolent resistance.”
King did his research for a doctoral degree on Gandhi’s methods. “As I delved deeper,” he tells us,
My skepticism concerning the power of love diminished, and I came to see for the first time its potency in the area of social reform. Gandhi is probably the first person in history to lift the love ethic of Jesus to a powerful and effective social force on a large scale. I came to feel this was the only morally and practically sound method open to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom.
King brought satyagraha into service for black Americans with a variety of moves: lunch counter sit-ins, marches, strikes against bus lines, and legal suits to desegregate schools, all backed up by a thorough program as to its nonviolent purposes. The turning point came during the drawn-out strike (ultimately successful and never violent) against the municipal bus system of Montgomery, Alabama. “Living through the actual experience of the Montgomery protest,” King wrote, “nonviolence became more than a method; it became for me a commitment to a way of life.”
Throughout the struggle for basic services and liberties, Martin Luther King never lost sight of what it was his people were really hoping to accomplish:
True pacifism is a courageous confrontation of evil by the power of love – in the faith that it is better to be the recipient of violence than the inflicter of it, since inflicting violence only multiplies bitterness in the world. Receiving violence when struggling for a just cause may develop a sense of shame in the inflicter, and thereby bring about a change of heart.
Along the way of life someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate.
This gets at the very kernel of Gandhi’s faith. “I hold myself to be incapable of hating any being on earth,” he declared. “By a long course of prayerful discipline, I have ceased for over forty years to hate anybody. I know this is a big claim. Nevertheless I make it in all humility.”
The critical phrase is “a long course of prayerful discipline.” Gandhi is telling us plainly that any individual undergoing the same kind of disciplines can attain this saintly stature. This is the goal we should aim at always. In it the human personality becomes a lighthouse, lighting the course of every passing ship in the treacherous currents of turbulent times.
One of the most terrible arguments against war is that when we train young men and women to fight and kill, we are teaching them not only to combat the official enemies of the nation but anybody they come in conflict with: their friends, their partner, even their parents or children. Under duress, and especially under the stress of sustained frustration, a person’s will breaks down and all that combative conditioning is released. Tragically, even one’s nearest and dearest are often the victims. You cannot train a person to kill without weakening the bonds of his basic humanity.
Encouraging children to hate even one person can erode their relationships throughout life. If they are going to be kind, they must practice being kind to everybody; if they are to learn love, they must practice loving everybody.
This can have far-reaching effects. I am proud of the fact that, by and large, the people of India have forgotten the exploitation they were subjected to. The young people of India today have not been bequeathed a legacy of resentment. That is one of Gandhi’s greatest contributions. He showed that when conflict is resolved through love in action, both sides emerge stronger and closer; upcoming generations can grow up free from the onerous burden of hate and fear.
If we can start teaching our children that it is every nation’s responsibility to help bring lasting peace to those who are at war, I am convinced that by the time they reach the age of discretion, they will be in a position to build a vastly safer world.
The world can be very harsh. We have to learn to deal with unfavorable circumstances, unmerited condemnation, labor that goes unappreciated. Because Gandhi puts his faith in the essential law of unity, he would say that this occasional harsh reality of life gives us the opportunity to learn never to be shaken by attack, never to retaliate, but to continue actively loving and respecting those very people who attack us.
This is Gandhi’s winning strategy. What he has in mind is something far more than the outcome of individual battles for good causes, no matter how meritorious. He has in mind the ultimate triumph of the forces of good in our lives.
This article is from the Summer 2019 Special Edition of the Blue Mountain Journal, celebrating the 150th anniversary of Gandhi's birth.