By-Dr. Varsha Das :21st century has witnessed wide-spread violence in many countries of the world. No place seems secure. We have as if reached an impasse. In the midst of this scenario the UN General Assembly has declared October 2, the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi as the International Day of Non-violence. The world has recognized that there are only two alternatives, non-violence and non-existence.
Association of Gandhi with non-violence has existed for over a century. He had not only shown the path but had walked on it and had demonstrated that that was the only path that can lead to harmonious co-existence in the society, the only path to fight against injustice and exploitation. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr., an exponent of passive resistance in the Civil Rights movement in the United States of America, and a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, “Gandhi was probably the first person in history to lift the love ethics of Jesus above mere interaction between individuals to a powerful and effective social force on a large scale. Love for Gandhi was a potent instrument for social and collective transformation.”
Non-violence was not a new concept. Gautam Buddha and Mahavir had spoken about it in the 6th-5th Century B.C. Ancient Indian scriptures have also described it as a core value of human beings inherent in each and every person whatever may be one’s nationality, religion, caste, creed, or socio-economic status in the society. This and many other dormant values are activated and manifested by certain external factors and also by one’s own sensitivity towards them. It is a process of evolution, just like a seed turning into a tree with good sunshine, rain and nourishment.
Mohandas, a young advocate of 24, lacking in confidence and experience went to South Africa in 1893. It turned out to be his battlefield for internal and external struggles. Here Mohandas experienced personal humiliations, witnessed discrimination and exploitation, and mustered courage to say ‘no’ even at the risk of his life. On September 11, 1906 under the leadership of Mohandas 2000 passive resisters took the oath to endure sufferings without retaliating violently. It required tremendous inner courage, and sympathy towards the opponent. It was not just a spiritual concept, but non-violence in thought, speech and action.
Nelson Mandela, who led South Africa in its historic transition to multi-racial democracy in 1994 and became the first President of post-apartheid South Africa says,
“We in South Africa owe much to the presence of Gandhi in our midst for 21 years. His influence was felt in our freedom struggles throughout the African continent for a good part of the 20th century….His philosophy contributed in no small measure to bringing about a peaceful transformation in South Africa and in healing the destructive human divisions that had been spawned by the abhorrent practice of apartheid….I called him the “sacred warrior” because of the manner in which he combined ethics and morality with a steely resolve that refused to compromise with the oppressor.”.
For Gandhi, “non-violence is the language of love, not of hatred…. Anger proves our intolerance. We shall lack the capacity to bear one another’s criticism. This is a very important quality of public life.” He demonstrated this in South Africa.
General Jan Christian Smuts was dealing with Indian Affairs in South Africa when Mohandas was imprisoned. This is what General Smuts had to say, “It was my fate to be the Antagonist of a man for whom even then I had the highest respect….In jail he had prepared for me a very useful pair of sandals which he presented to me when he was set free. I have worn these sandals for many a summer since then, even though I may feel that I am not worthy to stand in the shoes of so great a man.”
Gandhiji made sandals for his ‘adversary’! He practiced what he preached. And that impacted the world.
Nobel Peace Prize recipient, human rights activist and former President of Poland Lech Walesa emphatically says, “Please do not appropriate Mahatma Gandhi and limit him to South Africa and India alone. His impact is felt throughout the world.”
Among the people who had influenced Gandhiji through their non-violent behaviour in day to day life were his parents and his wife Kasturba.
In the issue of Harijan, dated 24th December 1938 Gandhiji wrote:
“I learnt the lesson of Non-violence from my wife, when I tried to bend her to my will. Her determined resistance to my will on the one hand, and her quiet submission to the suffering my stupidity involved on the other, ultimately made me ashamed of myself and cured me of my stupidity in thinking that I was born to rule over her and, in the end, she became my teacher in Non-violence.”
Gandhiji was a great learner. He has mentioned in his autobiography, “Three moderns have left a deep impress on my life and captivated me: Raychandbhai by his living contact; Tolstoy by his book The Kingdom of God is within you; and Ruskin by his Unto This Last.” The first one was an Indian, the second a Russian and the last one was an Englishman. Gandhiji throughout his life continued to learn and evolve.
He firmly believed that “there is a limit to violent action and it can fail. Non-violence knows no limits and it never fails.” Gandhiji exemplified this in his life and succeeded in convincing hundreds and thousands of Satyagrahis who with pride participated in the struggle for India’s freedom. A non-violent grass-root level mass movement ultimately succeeded. The attainment of freedom for Gandhiji, “whether for man, a nation, or the world, must be in exact proportion to the attainment of non-violence.”
Nobel Laureate, Bangladeshi banker and renowned economist Muhammad Yunus believes that in these troubled times that we live in, his memory and message is as important as they were before. He further says, “within a framework that encompasses Gandhiji’s philosophy of tolerance, non-violence, compassion for all humanity and peaceful coexistence, we can work together to create a world that our grandchildren and great grandchildren can be proud of.”
Similar views are echoed by Daisaku Ikeda, President of Soka Gakkai International and a recipient of United Nation’s Peace Award, “….in today’s world intensifying confusion makes it hard for people to find a reliable philosophy and firm values….How can we create a society free of conflict and strife?…The way of life symbolized in Gandhi’s satyagraha (devotion to truth) and the dignity of humanity provides a compass guiding us towards harmony and symbiosis. Then a great swell of non-violence and compassion will usher in a new dawn for the world.”
Evolution of non-violence in human beings sounds a natural process but actually it is a conscious process of perseverance, self-reflection and reformation throughout the life, whatever may be the challenges and circumstances. It is an all time valid and doable ‘formula’ for a peaceful and harmonious co-existence even in the 21st century.
*Director, National Gandhi Museum, New Delhi.