Mahatma Gandhi, Apostle of Nonviolence:
By John Dear
When Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated on January 30, 1948, the world hailed
him as one of the greatest spiritual leaders, not just of the century, but of all time. He was
ranked not just with Thoreau, Tolstoy, and St. Francis, but with Buddha, Mohammed and
even Jesus. “Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh
and blood walked upon this earth,” Albert Einstein wrote at the time.
Gandhi’s legacy includes not just the brilliantly waged struggle against
institutionalized racism in South Africa, the independence movement of India, and a
ground-breaking path of interreligious dialogue, but also boasts the first widespread
application of nonviolence as the most powerful tool for positive social change. Gandhi’s
nonviolence was not just political: It was rooted and grounded in the spiritual, which is
why he exploded not just onto India’s political stage, but onto the world stage, and not
just temporally, but for all times.
Gandhi was, first and foremost, a religious man in search of God. For more than
fifty years, he pursued truth, proclaiming that the best way to discover truth was through
the practice of active, faith-based nonviolence.
I discovered Gandhi when I was a Jesuit novice at the Jesuit novitiate in
Wernersville, Pennsylvania. My friends and I were passionately interested in peace and
justice issues, so we undertook a detailed study of Gandhi. We were amazed to learn that
Gandhi professed fourteen vows, even as we were preparing to profess vows of poverty,
chastity and obedience. I added a fourth vow--under Gandhi’s influence--a vow of
nonviolence, as Gandhi had done in 1907. My friends and I undertook our own Gandhian
experiments in truth and nonviolence, with prayer, discussions, fasting, and public
witness, followed by serious reflection. My friends and I returned to Gandhi as a way to
understand how best to respond to our own culture of violence.
Gandhi has helped me enormously over the years in my work for peace,
interreligious dialogue, civil disobedience and opposition to nuclear weapons. When I
was imprisoned for an anti-nuclear demonstration for eight months, I studied Gandhi
again to see how he survived prison and promoted civil disobedience as a tool for social
change. For more than two decades, I have read Gandhi’s writings and biographies to
find clues about how to live humanly in our inhuman world. Gandhi’s answer is always
the same: steadfast, persistent, dedicated, committed, patient, relentless, truthful,
prayerful, loving, active nonviolence.
For example, a 21-year old British student activist named Ronald Duncan wrote a
pamphlet about a labor strike he organized and mailed copies to over one hundred
activists around the world. Only Gandhi replied, explaining that the means are the ends,
and that all our organizing must be nonviolent to the core.
Duncan responded by asking Gandhi if he could someday come to India for a
visit.Gandhi immediately sent a cable saying, “Meet me at Wardha on the 23rd.” With
the fundraising support of friends, Duncan set off to India, arrived in the village of
Wardha, and hired a taxi to the ashram. On the journey through the barren countryside,
Gandhi appeared alone on the road He had walked three miles by himself to meet the
young student Gandhi was in his late sixties at the time.
“As I was saying in my letter,” Gandhi said without missing a beat, “means must
determine ends and indeed it’s questionable whether there is an end. The best we can do
is to make sure of the method and examine our motives.”
They walked back, discussing nonviolence. There were no introductions or
questions about the trip. Gandhi picked up as if they were old friends, engaged in
passionate discussion. That’s Gandhi: single-minded devotion to nonviolence. Duncan
was profoundly impressed.
According to all the accounts I have read, Gandhi had that effect on everyone. He
kept trying to plumb the depths of nonviolence, beginning with his own heart and soul.
Along the way, he unleashed a new method of social change, which he called
“Satyagraha” (from the Sanskrit for truth force.) He led a movement against racial
injustice in South Africa and then brought about a nonviolent revolution in India that
secured independence from the British empire. His example and teachings inspire us to
apply the same single-mindedness in our pursuit of an end to war, nuclear weapons,
environmental destruction, violence, hunger, poverty and injustice, and the creation of a
culture of peace, justice and nonviolence. In other words, he challenges us to become
prophets and apostles of nonviolence.
Gandhi’s Life in South Africa
Gandhi experimented with his life as few others have. He strived to renounce
every trace of selfishness and violence within himself in a relentless pursuit of truth.
While he was plumbing his own depths of nonviolence, he realized that he also had to
pursue the practice of nonviolence as widely as possible in the public sphere in the
pursuit of peace and justice for the poor. He was at once a devoutly spiritual, religious
person as well as an astute politician. He introduced an entirely new way to organize and
run nations and to transform cultures of violence into cultures of nonviolence.
Gandhi’s transformation was a slow, painful process of daily renunciation, prayer,
study and radical experimentation with his own life at great personal cost. He was born in
a small seaside town in India on October 2, 1869 to a proud businessman and a devout
mother who fasted regularly and prayed constantly. A shy boy, he was married at age 13
to a girl, Kasturbai, in a marriage arranged by their parents. At age 18, he was shipped off
to law school in England, where at first he tried to become the perfect Westerner, even
learning how to dance and play the violin When he returned to India in 1891, he was
unable to find a job, so his relatives suggested he pursue an offer to practice law for the
Indian community in South Africa. Desperate and excited, he boarded a ship to South
Africa in 1893.
Fifty years later, a Christian minister asked Gandhi what the most transformative
experience was in his life. Gandhi told the story of his first week in South Africa. He was
traveling overnight by train to conduct a case in Pretoria. He was quietly reading in a first
class compartment when a white conductor appeared at the door and ordered him to move
immediately to a third class compartment, or be thrown off the train. Gandhi found
himself face to face with institutionalized racism. He refused to budge, so they beat him
up and threw him off the train. He sat all night in the freezing cold on the train platform
in the middle of nowhere weighing his options. He could return to India, or he could join
the handful of violent revolutionaries who seek change through bloodshed, or he could
pursue a third path: peaceful, prayerful, public confrontation with legalized racism until
everyone’s civil rights were honored.
“The train steamed away leaving me shivering in the cold,” Gandhi recalled. “The
creative experience comes there. I was afraid for my very life. I entered the dark waiting-
room. There was a white man in the room. I was afraid of him. What was my duty, I
asked myself. Should I go back to India, or should I go forward, with God as my helper,
and face whatever was in store for me? I decided to stay and suffer. My active
nonviolence began from that date. And God put me through the test during that very
journey. That was one of the richest experiences of my life.”
The next day, Gandhi began organizing key leaders within the Indian community
to speak out publicly against segregation. When he turned twenty-five, he won the law
case that had originally brought him to South Africa, and planned to return home to India.
But the day of his departure, the South African government announced that Indians
would no longer be allowed to vote. At the huge farewell party organized in his honor
that night, Gandhi’s friends pleaded with him to stay and help them fight for their civil
rights. He stayed in South Africa for twenty more years.
Indians in South Africa had been denied basic civil rights, including the right to
vote. Gandhi organized widespread nonviolent resistance to these injustices. He
defended hundreds of clients, wrote countless articles and press statements against these
unjust laws, and spoke to any group that would listen. Then in 1906, the Transvaal South
African government announced it was considering new legislation that would require
every Indian to register with the government, be fingerprinted, and carry a certificate of
registration at all times. The Indian community was stunned.
On September 11, 1906, Gandhi called a mass meeting in Johannesburg to protest
the proposed legislation. Three thousand people filled the Empire theater. Gandhi was
not sure what he would say, until one of the preliminary speakers made an offhand
remark, announcing that he would resist these unjust laws “in the name of God” even if it
meant his death. That was the answer. Gandhi stood up and declared that if everyone
present took a vow of nonviolent resistance to these unjust laws, and remained faithful to
their pledge and to God, even if they were arrested, imprisoned, tortured and killed, the
struggle would be won. It was as simple as that. Their voluntary suffering would attract
the sympathy of the world and melt the hearts of white South Africans. The audience was
captivated. They rose as one and took a vow of nonviolent resistance to the proposed
legislation. Within a matter of months, over 1,500 Indians were arrested and imprisoned
for opposing the “pass laws.” Thus was born the Satyagraha movement. (Excerpts from
Gandhi’s famous speech are located at the beginning of chapter 7.)
A short time later, in response to a letter Gandhi had written to him, Leo Tolstoy
wrote to Gandhi that Gandhi was offering not just South Africa, but the whole world, a
new way to fight injustice through the practice of loving resistance on a massive scale.
Tolstoy had theorized and theologized about such a program, but Gandhi was living it.
Gandhi wanted to find a word to describe this new method of opposing injustice, and so
he organized a contest. Eventually, he coined the word himself, Satyagraha, or “truth
force.” “Satyagraha means resisting untruth by truthful means,” Gandhi explained in a
speech in 1911. “It can be offered at any place, at any time, and by any person, even
though he may be in a minority of one. If one remains steadfast in it, in a spirit of
dedication, it always brings success. Satyagraha knows neither frustration nor despair.”
When the Asiatic Registration act became law in July 1907, Gandhi officially
launched the Satyagraha campaign. On January 10, 1908, Gandhi was arrested for the
first time and the next day, he was sentenced to two months of hard labor in prison. It was
his first prison term On August 16, 1908, Gandhi publicly called for the burning of
registration certificates. Indians throughout South Africa were inspired by Gandhi and
joined his campaign. “They will put us in prison, they will torture us, and they will kill
us,” Gandhi told the Indian community, “but we will not fight back nor will we give in,
and so, our victory is assured.” Thousands marched and went to jail and the oppressive
white government was forced to back down. When Gandhi was arrested and imprisoned
later that year, he studied Thoreau and drew the astonishing conclusion that, “The real
road to happiness lies in going to jail and undergoing sufferings and privations there in
the interest of one’s country and religion.”
In 1913, the South African government announced that only Christian marriages
were valid, in a blatant attack on the Indian community, which was largely Hindu and
Muslim. Gandhi organized new marches and demonstrations and Indians burned
registration cards. As government repression intensified, Gandhi called upon Indians to
accept whatever suffering they were forced to endure without flinching or retaliating. He
held that the authorities, as well as the whole world, will eventually be forced to
recognize the Indians’ human dignity and the truth of their cause and give them justice.
As the jails filled up and the world denounced the racist repression, the government
caved in to the growing pressure.
On November 6, 1913, Gandhi led 5,000 Indians, primarily mine workers, in an
illegal march from Natal to Transvaal. He was arrested and imprisoned on November
11th and sentenced to three months hard labor. Like Nelson Mandela fifty years later,
Gandhi spent those long prison days breaking rocks. But within months, the South
African government gave in to the campaign, passed new legislation protecting the rights
of all Indians, and set all the remaining political prisoners free. As the pass laws and other
segregation laws were lifted and the prisoners released, the Indian community declared
victory, not just for themselves, but for all South Africans.
Throughout their years in South Africa, Mohandas and Kasturbai raised four sons.
One day, near the turn of the century, Gandhi visited a Trappist monastery outside of
Johannesburg. He was so inspired by the life of intentional community, prayer,
simplicity, and farming, that he considered forming his own religious community and
farm. His reading of Ruskin’s classic work, Unto This Last, pushed him to do it. In 1904
Gandhi purchased one hundred acres near Durban and created the Phoenix Settlement,
his first ashram.
In 1910, as the movement exploded and hundreds sought to join his farm, he
bought 1,100 acres near Johannesburg and founded Tolstoy Farm, his second ashram,
which became the center of the Satyagraha campaign and the support network for all
political prisoners. Ashram community members grew their own food, built their own
buildings, ran their own schools, pooled all their money, made their own clothes, prayed
together, and shared everything in common. In an effort to be poor and simple, Gandhi
walked nearly everywhere he went. For years, he walked nearly every day to
Johannesburg--a twenty-one mile hike, one way. Gandhi also started a national weekly
newspaper to mobilize and organize the Indian community in their struggle for justice.
Just as he arrived on South Africa’s political stage, Gandhi underwent a profound
inner spiritual explosion. Gandhi studied Tolstoy, Thoreau, Emerson, the New
Testament and the Bhagavad Gita. His reading of the religious scriptures, particularly of
the Sermon on the Mount, deepened his convictions and gave him a moral and spiritual
framework that determined the rest of his life. He committed his life “seeking God face to
face.” In 1906, he professed lifelong vows of truth, nonviolence, celibacy, poverty and
Gandhi’s Struggle for India’s Independence
On July 18, 1914, after negotiating a breakthrough settlement with the
government, Gandhi left South Africa for good. He embarked on a trip to England, and
finally returned to India permanently on January 9, 1915, to a hero’s welcome. Under the
guidance of G. K. Gokhale, a revered politician, Gandhi spent his first year back
rediscovering his homeland by criss-crossing the country, learning its problems and
listening to the poor. He reacquainted himself with India’s needs and potential and
studied how he could apply the lessons of satyagraha learned in South Africa to India’s
struggle for independence from Britain.
Gandhi set up another ashram, on the Sabarmati river near Ahmedabad, where he
lived for the next sixteen years. Over 250 people eventually joined his community, which
practiced the same austerity he originally witnessed at the Trappist monastery in South
Africa. Each member professed 14 vows, including truth, nonviolence, celibacy, poverty,
fearlessness, physical labor, tolerance of all religions, and making their own clothes.
They prayed together, ate together, farmed the land, published newspapers, and prepared
themselves to suffer and die in the nonviolent struggle for independence.
In 1917, a determined peasant from the other side of the country begged Gandhi
to visit his desperately poor remote region (Champaran) and to help the starving peasants
in their struggle against oppressive British landlords. Gandhi agreed, made the long
journey by train, and quietly started gathering information about the specific injustices
committed against the peasants. He expected to stay a month, but stayed nearly two
years. One day, while he was riding along on an elephant, the British arrested him.
Overnight, the news spread throughout the region that a holy man had been arrested
while seeking their rights. Thousands of peasants gathered outside the courthouse to
support Gandhi. He was immediately released, allowed to finish his study of illegal
abuses against the farmworkers, and eventually, the Indian government passed a new
agrarian reform law to protect disenfranchised farmworkers. Gandhi became the hope of
the Indian people.
On March 18, 1919, Britain announced that the repressive measures it set up
during World War I against the Indian independence movement, restricting basic civil
rights, would continue, even though the war was over. The Rowlatt Acts suppressed
freedom of speech, press and assembly, in an effort to crush the ever-growing dissent.
Gandhi announced the next day that he had a dream in which the whole nation had gone
on strike against British rule, and he invited the whole nation to consider making his
dream a reality. On April 6th, in response to Gandhi’s call for a general hartal, a national
day of prayer and fasting, virtually everyone stayed at home to pray and fast and India
was shut down for a day. Millions marched in the street to the stunned shock and
amazement of the British (and Gandhi). Suddenly, India was waking up. The British
government responded by doing what empire’s do--repressing the movement, arresting
its leaders, killing demonstrators. The following week, British soldiers massacred 379
peaceful protesters and wounded another 1,200 in the city of Amritsar.
In the months that followed, Gandhi prayerfully decided to make a complete