Gandhi's Concept of Ahimsa : A Spiritual Power

By Dr. A. Hemabati Devi

It has been written in ancient Hindu scriptures that ahimsa, an ethical virtue, must be observed in thought, words and deeds. It is first mentioned in Chandogya Upanishad, one of the oldest Upanishads, dated eighth or seventh century B.C. The concept of ahimsa was further more developed by Mahatma Gandhi, who revived the traditional concept of it and applied it successfully particularly in the political field on a large scale. His concept of ahimsa is entirely based on love. His positive aspect of ahimsa is greatly influenced by Christian concept of love, Buddhist twin concepts of Karuna (compassion) and Maitri (friendliness); Jaina philosophy of equality of all souls. Ahimsa is found in all religion such as Hinduism, Christianity and Islam. So he called it as the heart of all religions. The teaching of Christianity-“Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that you, and pray for them which despitefully use you and prosecute you” is deeply impressed on Gandhi’s mind. He learnt the lesson of selfless action and renunciation for the fruits of action (nishkama karma) from Bhagavad Gita. He read Quran in translation and considered it is a religion of peace, love, kindness and brotherhood of all men. He found that moral elements are common to all religions and signify the unity of all religions. He mentioned in his autobiography that he inherited toleration of all faiths from his father. He was brought up in a devout Vaisnavite family. He is monist who believed that God is one without a second just like Advaita Vedanta describe Brahman as ekam eva advitam. Moreover he believed in Hindu philosophy that all life comes from one absolute thing. He says, “The chief value of Hinduism lies in holding the actual belief that all life is one i.e., all life coming from one universal source, called it Allah, God or Parameshwara”.1 Every human being has an idea of God in his or her own mind. The interpretations are different due to His innumerable manifestations. The concept of God differs due to different religions, different countries etc. We may all have different definitions of God. Besides all different definitions of God there is certain sameness which would be unmistakable in the heart of all individuals that God is the supreme power and the highest reality. He is a dynamic religious thinker who conceived that nothing exist in reality except truth. All his religious ideas are based on this firm conviction. His concept of religion is undogmatic. He saw religion in the image of truth. Different religions are the different visions of the same reality. He says, “For me, the different religions are beautiful flowers from the same garden, or they are branches of the same majestic tree. Therefore, they are equally true, though being received and interpreted through human instruments equally imperfect.”2 Religion helps to elevate the inner life of human beings. He maintained that the great religions of the world would try to help in promoting a life of self-control, sacrifice, peace and harmony between the individuals so as to create a heaven on earth. There is no superior or inferior religion between the individuals or communities. The meaning of religion is differing from person to person according to his creed, sect and ritual culture in which he belongs. Gandhi’s religion is a spiritual humanism and service to humanity on the basis of ahimsa.

He used ahimsa as a means for the realization of truth. One of the most important philosophical thoughts of Gandhi is the end and means problem. End and means are the two important concepts in his philosophy which play a very important implication for his doctrine of truth and ahimsa. He discussed this two terms very seriously, it became critical in his philosophy. He considered Truth as the end and ahimsa as the means. They are convertible term. “Ahimsa and truth are so intertwined that it is practically impossible to disentangle and separate them. They are like the two sides of a coin, or rather a smooth unstamped metallic disc who can say, which is obverse, and which is the reverse. Nevertheless, ahimsa is the means, Truth is the end. Means to be means must always be within our reach, and so ahimsa is our supreme duty. If we take care of the means, we are bound to reach the end sooner or later.”3 In his philosophy, sarvodaya - greatest good of all, sawarajya - rule over oneself and self-realization, realizing absolute truth, seeing God face to face, attaining moksa or knowing oneself, are the some important ends. All these ends are closely connected with spirituality. The means must be pure because these ends are moral and spiritual ends. Human beings try to easily achieve their aims without caring about the means. An enthusiastic or spiritual man takes care for both end and means. Gandhi regards the only means is real. Gandhi believed that man can bring the heaven or paradise on this earth only if both end and means are used in the right manner. The end which is spiritual cannot be attained by non-spiritual means. It indicates that a good end cannot justify any means. His standpoint is different from Marxism and Machiavelli, who accept end justifies the means. The problem of end and means has also been being discussed from the ancient time. All the Indian Philosophical schools try to find out what would be the means in order to achieve the end i.e. unmixed happiness or in a sense, freedom from all kinds of suffering. In Indian philosophy and Indian ethics, moksa–ultimate end is regarded as paramapurusartha. It is necessary to obey and perform the ethical principles in order to get this ultimate end. They give more importance to the means. Like the traditional view, Gandhi, too, gives more importance to means rather than the end. He thought that both the concepts of end and means are the derivatives of law of karma and karmayoga of Gita. Law of karma is one the basic beliefs in Hinduism. This theory states that every action reproduces the result. Karma should be done without selfishness. Action is the means and its result is the end. Gandhi was definitely a man of action (karma yogi). His thoughts and actions are very much influenced by Gita. The Gita, for him, is a book of daily reference. He says, “To me the Gita became an infallible guide to conduct. It was my dictionary of daily reference. Just as I turned to the English dictionary for the meaning of English words that I did not understand, I turned to this dictionary of conduct for a ready solution of all my troubles and trials.”4 Gandhi considers the Gita as the means that it lays down. The means is ‘renunciation for the fruits of action’. On this basis, Gandhi calls the Yoga of the Gita as anasakti yoga. In anasakti yoga, it is clearly states that one who follows the central teaching of the Gita, he should follow the path of truth and non-violence. In Gita such a votary is called Sthitaprajna or Trigunatita, one who enjoys a state of blissfulness above all three gunas – Rajas, Tamas and Sttva. Gandhi adopted the practice of anasakti and made it as the quality of a satyagrahi. He introduced Satyagraha through the implementation of anasakti of Gita and of the teaching of Jesus Christ.

Ahimsa is ethically, metaphysically and religiously an absolute concept. At the practical level the concept of ahimsa is hardly absolute. No one can observe the literal meaning of ahimsa at the time of war. Gita accepts the niskama himsa. It is necessary in life in order to maintain peace and harmony of the society. Even the Hindu scriptures had permitted the use of violence for self-defense against an armed attacker. As a human being, it is impossible to follow absolute or complete non-violence. There are some activities which necessitate violence. We should try to minimize the use of violence. Extreme violence should be totally ruled out. Even if the violent act appears to be good, the good is not permanent but only temporary. Under certain conditions Gandhi accepts the use of violence. He said, “where choice is set between cowardice and violence, I would advice violence…. I prefer to use arms in defense of honour rather than remain the vile witness of dishonour…”5 He says, “Absolute ahimsa means perfect freedom from himsa, that is, freedom from ill-will, anger and hate rooted in ignorance and an over flowing understanding love for all. From the point of view of complete ahimsa all violence in whatever form, must be eschewed. But such non-violence is a perfect state and is reached when mind, body and speech are in perfect co-ordination.”6 Perfect non-violence is impossible so long as we exist physically. For the survival of human being, something is to be killed and there should have protection from dangerous insects and animals. Violence should be done in specific circumstances; if it is unnecessary to do violence we should try to avoid violence. It is the standpoint of Gandhi.

His concept of ahimsa has various dimensions and its utility. His concept of ahimsa has ethical dimension. He established inseparable link between certain ethical elements and his notion of ahimsa. As generally there are five ethical virtues (truth, non-violence, chastity, non-stealing and non-possession) and he added control of palate, fearlessness, removal of untouchability, bread labour, equality of religion and swadeshi. Gandhi followed such moral principles which helped him in bringing the spiritual development. All these make his soul become pure and see God face to face. All such principles are extremely non-violent in character. He maintained that what he added six moral principles are trying to make fundamental and vital for the development of non-violence and truth in thought, speech and action. These moral principles are advocated to enrich in the human mind to pursue the virtues of truth, love and non-violence in every sphere. His concept of ahimsa has religious dimension too. Religion, for him, is undogmatic, tolerant, ethical and comprehensive. His principle of equality of all religions is a corollary of the principle of non-violence. Religion is not merely uttering the name of God or worshipping at the temple or reading the various religious books or observing rites but it helps man to see God face to face. There are different types of religion in the world. Such different types of religion he considered them as one and same. According to him, different religions have one common goal, viz., the realization of God. They have taught lofty virtue of morality, truth, righteousness, brotherhood, non-violence and universal love. In his opinion, the aim of religion is to try to attain God who resides in all human hearts. He considered non-violence as the supreme religious duty. For the psychological dimension, he firmly believed that the virtues of love, truthfulness, non-violence, brotherhood, altruism, tolerance, self-control, self-sacrifice, spiritualism, compassion, welfare of all can overcome the culture of competition, ego-centrism, hatred, falsehood, selfishness and violence. He believed that man is essentially good and non-violent; even if a man as an animal is a violent one. He can never remain violent only if he awakes to the spirit of non-violence. For this reason, the prophets and avatars have taught the virtues of truth, harmony, brotherhood, justice etc. All such virtues are the attributes of ahimsa. Gandhi has the optimistic nature and thinks about the goodness of human nature. He considers non-violence is the law of our being and on the other hand violence is of the brute. All man in essence is alike. There is something lack in human mind about the importance of human value. But everybody loves self-respect. He says, “The basic principle on which the practice of non-violence rest is that what holds in good respect of us equally applies to the whole universe. All mankind in essence is alike. ‘What is therefore, possible for him, is possible for everybody’’.7 In the socio-politico-economic dimension of non-violence, he wanted to establish a state where there is moral and non-violent socio-political-economic system; and free from exploitation, injustice, inequality, falsehood, hatred, communalism, capitalism, centralization, misuse of political and economic power, fear, possession of property and evils. All these, he considers, are the sources of violence. For the social upliftment, he wanted to establish an ideal state- Sarvodaya society in which all individuals are treated as equal without the discrimination of cast, creed, colour and sex. In the field of politics, he applied his doctrine of non-violence and tried to establish a non-violent democratic society and government. He firmly believed that ‘the science of religion alone can lead to pure democracy’. Without it on a national scale it never leads to such thing as a constitutional or democratic country. In order to have the moralize politics; he established a relationship between politics with religions of truth, love for mankind and non-violence. Like the political field, he also talked about the spirit and moral values of non-exploitation, equality and justice must be included in economics. There can be no true economics where there is disregard of the moral values to the economics. A true economics stands for social justice and it develops well of all equally including the poor. His idea of swaraj bear in his mind is for the poor man’s swaraj. For the economic development, he advocated the spirit of decentralization of economic power, swadeshi, trusteeship and bread labour. His motto of economics is ‘not mass production but the production by the masses’. He established a non-violent economy – khadi, the spirit of swadeshi, through which everybody should be able to get sufficient works and to have the spirit of earn for living.

It has been definitely shown that his concept of ahimsa is a practical one. He called himself a practical idealist. As a practical idealist, he tried to solve the various difficulties and problems in a rational and scientific way. He was not only a preacher of it but also practiced what he preached. Most of his basic tenets are derived from the idealistic trend of traditional thoughts and practiced them in the practical life to redress the grievances of humanity and the evil politics of narrow minded people.

Gandhi became Mahatma, the great leader of the masses through the proper application of ahimsa. His concept of ahimsa tried to establish the Kingdom of God on earth, which can only be hastened by the interior transformation of man’s heart through love. He says, “If a man strike you take no retaliation, Love that person even when they are hurting you.” It is same as Jesus –“If a man strike you on one cheek offer the other also, Love your enemies….” The ethics of love moves basically in the direction of non-violence, non-resistance to evil, i.e., love for all creatures. It is already recommended by Lord Buddha that enmity cannot be put to an end by enmity. ‘Let a man overcome anger by non-anger, let him overcome evil by good, let him overcome the liar by truth’ (Dhammapada- Kodhavaggo).

Ahimsa is a socio-ethical virtue and it is to be cultivated like other virtues. “Non-violence is a power which can be wielded equally by all- children, young men and women or grown up people – provided they have a living faith in the God of love and have therefore equal love for all mankind. When non-violence is accepted as the law of life it must pervade the whole being and not be applied to isolated acts”.8 As a practical idealist he says that if any principle cannot be put into practice in our practical life and never lead to welfare of all, it must be discarded. He became the strongest symbol of non-violence in the twentieth century. Through the spiritual approach of ahimsa, India got independence from British rule in 1947. His concept of ahimsa becomes a spiritual powerful tool which is also the way for establishing peace. The opposite of peace is not war but violence and such notion has been adopted by peace researcher today. Non-violence not merely means absence of violence, non-killing or non-harming to other. It connotes the positive attitudes of mind which comprehends all living beings. So, he expanded the meaning of ahimsa as love. He recommended that every individual should walk and work on the path of ahimsa. It is not an easy thing to understand, still less to practice. It is an attribute of soul so that it can be practised by everybody in all the affairs of life. But it needs great patience. Gandhi’s philosophy of ahimsa is more relevant today than ever before. In our present day society, we are living in a situation of great turmoil where there is no place which is secure and peaceful. We are now facing crime, hatred and distrust between one individual and another, and between one community and another community. Also, with the complexity of life, one group of people wants to eliminate the other for no reason. In order to achieve supremacy or pleasure or reward, they resort to violence as a means, which affects the entire humanity. These violent acts have eroded human values.  All over the world, it is proclaimed again and again that Gandhian notion of pacifism is needed for present crisis. In the midst of the present international scenario, 192 members of General Assembly of United Nations unanimously adopted a resolution on 15th June, 2007 declaring 2nd October, the birth anniversary of Gandhi, as ‘the International Day of Non-violence’.

Mahatma Gandhi was not the pioneer of the concept of ahimsa. He gave a new dimension of the ancient concept of it and applied it very successfully in various fields. It became a spiritual powerful weapon and way of living in peace. His peaceful and non-violent movement influenced to Martin Luther King Jr. for civil right movement in America. Nelson Mandela and many more thinkers and social activists have been greatly influenced by the Gandhian concept of non-violence in their struggle against injustice. They had brought about peaceful solution to the problems through peace and non-violence. Dalai Lama was awarded Nobel Peace Prize in 1989; and the chairman of the committee said that this was ‘in part a tribute to the memory of Mahatma Gandhi’. All Nobel Peace Laureates have proudly acknowledged their debt to Gandhi’s spiritual approach towards non-violence. Ahimsa is the first article of his faith and the last article of his creed.


1. Harijan, Dec., 1936

2. Harijan 30-1-1937, 407

3. Yervada Mandir, p.13

4. Gandhi,M.K., An Autobiography, trans. Mahadev Desai, 1990, p. 221

5. Young India, 11-08-1920, Vol II, p.3.

6. Young India, 1-10-31.

7. Tendulkar, D.G., Mahatma: Life of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, op.cit., Vol. IV, p. 290

8. Selections from Gandhi, Nirmal Kumar Bose, p. 147