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Gandhian Ethics of Fast-Nonviolence
By Maithili R. Gupte*
Fasting is an institution as old as Adam. It has been resorted to for self-purification or for some ends noble as well as ignoble. Buddha, Jesus and Mohammed fasted so as to see God face to face. Ramchandra fasted for the sea to give way for his army of monkeys. Parvati fasted to secure Mahadev himself as her Lord and Master. In Gandhi's fast he follows these great examples, no doubt for ends much less noble than theirs. Even today  this weapon of fasting used to fight against evils.
Non-violence is also old as human culture. Non-violence has occupies a pre-eminent position in Indian philosophy and religion. It has been the first among the five-fold virtues.Which form the essence of Hindu Ethics and are known by various names, such as pancayama, pancasila or panca-maha-vrata. Jainism placed it higher than truth (Satya). The Buddha identified it with universal compassion. It was regarded as equivalent to Dharma or the Moral Law - it was a necessary means to Moksa or salvation and vital part of the spiritual discipline prescribed by teachers of Yoga like Patanjali.
Now the question is - why does violence exist in us? Because we can't see ourselves as part of a universe, because we see ourselves as being separate. In that separation is violence. If we separate ourselves from everybody else, then of course, we have to fight for our own survival.
Everybody is fasting fighting with everybody and how can you be non-violent if you are continuously fighting? We are so cunning that we can change, transform our non-violence also into a weapon. We can make a weapon out of it, we can start fighting non-violently.
A very non-violent method- fasting unto death. You are not harming anybody. That's what Gandhi was doing whole life- fasting unto death. But is it non-violence? It is violence, pure violence.

Concept of non-violence in Indian Philosophy and culture:
In Indian culture non-violence has alwaysbeen regarded as the highest Dharma. There is no limit to its power. The psychology of non-violence is full of significance. It is a plan for self-purification, mass-purification and enemy-purification. It is an active principle of love. It is conscious suffering for the cause of righteousness. It is a way of righteousness. It is a way of life that makes the full use of the strength of the spirit.
The idea of non-violence appeared first in the ChandogyaUpanisad, which described the enlightened person as one who was non-violent toward all things except the victim; that is the victim of the Vedic sacrifice. Indian great thinker advocated the practice of non-violence to lead towards a painless state of Moksha. Non-violence has been prescribed and practised in India for thousands of years before Gandhi's emergence.

Gandhi's concept of non-violence:
Non-violence does not simply mean non-killing. Violence or himsa means causing pain to or killing any life out of anger, or from a selfish purpose, or with the intention of injuring it. Refraining from so doing is non-violence.
In the quest of ultimate truth, Gandhi singled out non-violence as the fundamental moral virtue which ought to be practiced at all times by all men. Truth and non-violence are no new ideals. Gandhiji has reinterpreted these fundamental laws in terms of modern life. His special contribution was to make the concept of non-violent action to use as a positive force in search for ultimate truth.
 Mahatma Gandhi firmly believed that,” truth without non-violence is not truth but untruth” and hence truth can be attained only by non-violent means. Truth is thus the end and non-violence is the means to attain it. His theory of non-violence needs a careful study, for truth and non-violence are Mahatma Gandhi's greatest contribution to the humanity pining to attain peace. Non-violence is not be mistaken as cowardice. Gandhi himself had said that, “where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence”
Gandhi taught us that all violence issinful, but violence that is inevitable may not be regarded as a sin. The sin in violence lies not in merely taking life, but in doing so in the interests of one's perishable body. “But the destruction of bodies of tortured creatures being for their own peace cannot be regarded as himsa, or the unavoidable destruction caused for the purpose of protecting one's ward cannot be regarded as himsa.”
Gandhi held that “taking life may be a duty.”  We destroy plant life to sustain our bodies; in the interest of health we kill mosquitoes; and for the benefit of the species we destroy carnivorous beasts, and even perform manslaughter, yet we do think we are being irreligious.
Gandhi also explained the concept of non-violence as a distinctive and strategic force blessed with the finer aspects of religion, which are as follows:
  1. Non-violence implies as complete self-purification as is humanly possible.
  2. Man for man, the strength of non-violence is in exact proportion to the ability, not the will of non-violent person to inflict violence.
  3. Non-violence is without exception superior to violence, i.e., the power at the disposal of a non-violent person is always greater than he would have if he was violent.
  4. There is no such thing as defeat in non-violence. The end of violence is surest defeat.
  5. The ultimate end of non-violence is surest victory. In reality where there is no sense of defeat, there is no sense of victory.
(- M. K. Gandhi, Harijan, Oct 1935)
The futility of violence as a means of universe and ultimate victory is the root cause of Gandhi's preference of non-violence. He repeatedly tells that violence is the force and weapon of the brutes while non-violence enriches the tradition.
Thus, by Gandhi's analysis, we do not violate the principle of non-violence in the context of the benevolent though tragic in the context of the benevolent though tragic taking of life when the well-being of the patient is our sole motivating force.

Gandhi's concept of fasting:
By fasting is understood abstinence from food and drink, or at least - in a looser sense of the word- from certain kinds of food for a determined period. The custom of fasting is wide-spread among peoples at very different stages of civilization, and is practiced for a variety of purpose.
The Hindus believe that a fasting person will ascend to the heaven of that god in whose name he observes the fast. The Hebrews associated fasting with divine revelation. St. Chrysostom says that fasting “makes the soul brighter, and gives it wings to mount up and soar high.”(Folklore, Vol. 18, No. 4, Dec., 1907).
No one aspect of Gandhian philosophy is more misrepresented than fasting. To the western mind the very idea of fasting, as a means to reform, is incomprehensible and therefore its practice is openly ridiculed. As fasting is one of the ways to self-purification being alien and repugnant, the necessity of fasting is not understood. What is bread to a hungry stomach fasting is to a soul struggling for self-realization.

Gandhi's Rules of fasting :
From a layman's and from a purely physical stand-point I should lay down the following rules for the all those who may wish to fast on any account whatsoever:
  1. Conserve your energy both physical and mental from the very beginning.
  2. You must cease to think of food whilst you are fasting.
  3. Drink as much cold water as you can, with or without soda and salt, but in small quantities at a time (water should be boiled, strained and cooled). Do not be afraid of salt and soda, because most waters contain both these salts in a free state.
  4. Have a warm sponge daily.
  5. Take an enema regularly during fast. You will be surprised at the impurities you will expel daily.
  6. Sleep as much as possible in the open air.
  7. Bathe in the morning sun. A sun and air bath is at least as great a purifier as a water bath.
  8. Think of anything else but the fast.
  9. No matter from what motive you are fasting, during this precious time, think of your Maker, and of your relation to Him and His other creation, and you will make discoveries you may not have even dreamed of.
(Young India, Dec. 17, 1925)

Fasting as a weapon of Non-violent person:
What should a non-violent person do when he find that his friends, relatives, or countrymen refuse to give up an immoral way of life and all arguments do not show any positive response. The fast is a more efficacious weapon in the armoury of non-violence. Fasting is a fiery weapon. It has its own science. There is no room for selfishness, anger, lack of faith, or impatience in a pure fast.
According to Gandhi, the voice of conscience must be obeyed in these circumstances of course this may present further problem: what one person sees as truth may just as clearly be untruth for another. For this reason, Gandhi warns,' no one has right to coerce others to act according to his own view of truth' (Harijan 24 Nov 1933), therefore non-violence is the only appropriate means for arriving at truth.
The dynamic of ideological non-violence is based on the acceptance of suffering i.e. fasting. The voluntary acceptance of suffering is designed to purify oneself; it also demonstrates his sincerity to others.
Further it is an appeal to the opponent and the uncommitted sufferer and the opponent are transformed: the opponent(s) by being compelled to confront their own views on the truth of the situation which may lead to conversion; and sufferer who may be morally enriched by not compromising fundamental principles.
Fasting is a potent weapon in the Satyagraha armoury. It cannot be taken by everyone. Mere physical capacity to take it is no qualification for it. It is of no use without a living faith in God. It should never be a mechanical effort nor a mere imitation. It must come from the depth of one's soul. It is therefore always rare. It seems to be made for it. Thus fasting though a very potent weapon has necessarily very strict limitations and is to be taken only by those who have undergone previous training.

Non-violence is the basic principle of Gandhian ethics of fasting. Those who want to go in for a Satyagrahi fast should certainly possess some personal experience of fast for spiritual purification. Fasts for riding the body of impurities are also beneficial. In the end of course, there is only one basis of the whole idea of fasting and that is purification. (Harijan: Sept 8, 1940)
Non-violence in its positive aspect as benevolence is the greatest force because of the limitless scope it affords for self-suffering without causing or intending any physical or material injury to the wrong-doer. The object of fasting is to evoke an appeal to his better nature. Thus, fasting under certain circumstances is an appeal par excellence.
Fasting motivates non-violence which aims not so much at changing the opponent's behaviour, rather it aims to change the opponent's values which in turn will lead to change in behaviour. The end of this process is truth, means for reaching it is non-violence. Because it is an axiom of Satyagraha that good ends can never grow out of bad means, there should be no threat, coercion or punishment. Instead, the person practicing Satyagraha undergoes self-suffering in the optimistic belief that by touching the opponent's conscience, they can be converted to seeing the truth of the Satyagrahi's position.
I have tried to highlight through this paper that the advantages of fasting are it converts the person or s him and brings about expected change without violence. Thus the goal is achieved with the result that peace and harmony prevail. With fasting a person always turns to be a winner.

  1. M. K. Gandhi : (1944), Ethics of Fasting. Indian Printing Works, Lahore.
  2. Journal of Religion and Health, Vol. 45, No.3 (Fall,2006), pp. 310-327.
  3. Unto Tahtineh : Ahimsa - Non-violence In Indian Tradition Rider and Company London 1976
  4. Gokhale B.G: Indian Thought- Through The Ages. Asian Publishing House, Bombay 1961.

Courtesy: This article has been reproduced from the ISBN Publication - Gandhi in the New Millennium - Issues and Challenges' published by Khandwala Publishing House.

* Maithili Gupte is a Lecturer, Department of Philosophy, Kirti College, Mumbai.