Not In God's Name
mahatma gandhi dalai lama tolerance in scripture
Mahatma Gandhi’s Non-Violent Struggle

Mahatma Gandhi, a humble man of petite stature and cloaked in simple robes, has had a global influence on leaders and laymen alike with his remarkable achievements using non-violent civil disobedience in his leadership of the revolutionary struggle in India. He set an example for the modern world through his unswerving commitment to peace and human dignity, teaching us all what is necessary and what is possible.

Born in 1869, during the time of British rule in India, this pre-eminent political and spiritual leader was pivotal in the independence movement to free his native country. Operating in a seeming paradox, Gandhi was devoutly spiritual, but at the same time he challenged fundamental ideas. He was forward thinking, while treasuring and valuing tradition. He exemplified courage and revolutionary leadership while insisting on non-violence. He was committed deeply to his own spiritual path as a Hindu. Yet he affirmed other paths as well, embracing their better qualities but openly acknowledging any shortcomings he perceived.

Gandhi was committed to two separate but related struggles - leading the struggle for India’s Independence from Britain working to resolve the terrible conflict between Hindus and Muslims, which was threatening to tear his beloved country apart.

What were Gandhi’s strategies and initiatives that yielded such success in the War of Independence and in the conflict between Hindus and Muslims? What were the experiences that influenced Gandhi and contributed to such deep conviction and courage; that set him apart from all as a beacon of inspiration and light?

Early Influences

Gandhi was born to wealthy Hindu parents in the Western state of Gujarat, and was greatly influenced by their many books and their own pious behavior. Nonetheless, despite being moved by their beautiful stories and example, Gandhi was initially inclined toward atheism.

Regardless of his early doubts about formal religion, Gandhi always understood that morality was the basis of things, and that, “truth is the substance of all morality.”

As a young man, Gandhi studied in England before moving to South Africa to work as a lawyer. His travels exposed him to many different kinds of people, customs and beliefs, and a tolerance for people of all religions. Living abroad provided opportunities to engage in a variety of friendships and conversations that challenged, tested, and expanded his perspective on religion, politics, and life.

Gandhi’s personal beliefs, and values led him to live his whole life as a humanitarian and champion of human rights. He was a rare visionary who succeeded in employing non-violence to affect tremendous social and political change.

Civil Disobedience and Satyagraha

While practicing Law in South Africa, in his 30’s, Gandhi first encountered racial and social prejudice and began to shape his methods for non-violent resistance to injustice. At this time the term 'Satyagraha' was coined.

Gandhi felt that ‘passive resistance” had a connotation of weakness and could still lead to violence. He had new ideas, which were coined by the Indian word, Sadagraha. Sat means Truth; Agraha means firmness. It was shortened to Satyagraha and became the term used to designate the struggle for independence and peace.

Satyagraha was a culmination of all the values and beliefs Gandhi held dear; truth, courage, service and compassion. Gandhi famously said, “An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind." This reference to the Old Testament, points to Gandhi’s philosophy that using violence to achieve revenge, or even justice, simply will not work - it will only produce more violence and suffering without yielding solutions.


Gandhi returned to India in 1915 when he was in his 40’s. He set out to travel the country and reacquaint himself with the land he barely remembered after so many years in South Africa. He discovered an India in turmoil from rampant poverty under British dominion, and a tense relationship between the people and her rulers. Gandhi had his work cut out for him. He was determined to fight the injustice he witnessed. He began by establishing his sense of connection with the poor, committing himself to a humble life, wearing a traditional dhoti, and refining his diet to mainly fruit. His solidarity with the poor helped him gain consensus and alliance, and he began to organize protests by groups of oppressed peasants, farmers, and laborers against discrimination and the government’s excessive land-tax. The people saw that Gandhi was one of them, and was a person committed to helping better their lives.

In 1921, when Gandhi was 52, he assumed leadership of the Indian National Congress. As an official politician, he championed women’s rights and was an advocate for the Untouchables, Dalits, which means “crushed”. It was the Dalits who suffered the most from in the caste system. It was commonly believed that they deserved their fate and therefore were not worthy of fair treatment or respect from others. Gandhi coined a new name for these unfortunate people: Harijan, which means, "Children of God".

Most significant to Gandhi’s work was India’s independence from British colonialism, which came to be called Swaraj, meaning, self-rule, the ability to have the English system of governance without the English.

For the independence movement, Gandhi used the tactic of “non-cooperation”. He organized strikes, marches, and boycotts, while spending long periods of time fasting to demonstrate his objection to colonial rule. His actions landed him in jail on many occasions, but he accepted this as a necessary evil to insure the success of his non-cooperation movement.

Civil Disobedience in the Fight for Independence
Social protest for justice and independence was exercised in a number of ways.
The Kheda and Champaran Satyagrahas

Gandhi's first significant achievement was the Champaran agitation and Kheda Satyagraha, in 1918. Indian farmers were forced to grow indigo for use in England. When industrial development of synthetic dyes rendered indigo obsolete, the laborers lost their jobs and could no longer afford food or the rent they were expected to pay to British landowners. The agricultural workers suffered terribly, with few options and little hope.

Gandhi helped the desperate laborers by establishing an ashram, a community where he organized supporters to build schools and hospitals and clean up poor sanitation conditions. This helped reinforce the feeling of solidarity among the poor. This also strengthened Gandhi’s growing reputation as a leader. Whenever he was arrested for disturbing the peace, hundreds of thousands of people would gather to protest outside jails, police stations and courthouses to demand his release. The courts always reluctantly agreed to free him, as such mass gatherings wee potential powder kegs of trouble.

On occasion, Gandhi would call for a day of ‘prayer and fasting’ for all Indians. Essentially, this acted as a political strike, closing down all transportation and communication throughout the country. These protests resulted in an agreement from landowners and the government to give farmers control over what they grew, and fair compensation for their labor. It was another major victor for Gandhi and his non-violent protest movement.

As admiration for Gandhi spread throughout India, the people started referring to him reverently and affectionately as Bapu (father) or Mahatma (Great Soul).

Massacre In Punjab and Homespun Cloth

The British Government grew increasingly concerned about the unrest in India, and attempted to put an end to the growing rebellion. Brigadier General Reginald Dyer ordered his troops to open fire on a large crowd of unarmed Sikh civilians, including men, women, and children. This resulted in a slaughter known as the bloody Jallianwala Bagh massacre of unarmed civilians by British troops (also known as the Amritsar Massacre) in 1921. Some reports claim as many as 1,500 civilians were dead, seriously eroding the good will between the Indians and their British rulers. Gandhi condemned both Britain’s violent crackdown that ensued, and the bloody Indian rioting that followed.

Determined to get the struggle back on non-violent terms, Gandhi called for a boycott of foreign-made goods. In particular, he encouraged all Indians to spin their own cloth, khadi, and refrain from wearing clothes made from imported British fabric. This call to action helped to affirm the participation and value of women in society, as Gandhi realized how lowly their status was in India. Making their own clothes in India also helped to provide jobs for impoverished women, who had traditionally been considered on par with the Untouchables. Additionally, Gandhi urged the boycott of all foreign goods and all British institutions.

The non-violent movement was gaining momentum again, only to be upset once more when violence erupted in a small town, Chauri Chaura just as the “non-cooperation” movement led by Gandhi was netting huge results.

Gandhi was so disheartened by the bloodshed, he called off the campaign for independence altogether. But he was still known as the leader of the movement, and in 1921 he was arrested for sedition and sentenced to six years in prison. While he was in jail, his beloved wife of 62 years, Kasturbai died.

Gandhi only served two of his six-year sentence (he was released for appendicitis), but without his leadership the Indian National Congress was splintering apart due to inner conflicts. The Hindus and Muslims had been able to unite briefly for the common goal of overthrowing British Rule, but by now the ancient hatred between the two religions had re-surfaced and erupted into bloody carnage all over the country again.

Gandhi was a frail old man by now, but nonetheless he commenced a three-week fast in hopes that his protest would subdue the renewed violence.

Salt March

A conflict over salt had been brewing for many years throughout India. The British made it illegal to make or sell salt, and had a complete monopoly. When the Salt Tax was imposed, it became too expensive for the common people to afford, and it is a necessity of life.

As a particularly powerful act of defiance and autonomy, in 1930, Gandhi led a 241 mile march from Sabarmati to Dandi to protest the tax on salt and the law granting the British Empire full ownership of all salt. Protesters in the thousands, breaking the law, went to the sea shore and began to make their own salt for their own country’s consumption.

The Salt Rebellion led to the imprisonment of over 60,000 Indians, which created a huge upset throughout the country. It was the greatest victory over the British government, and it marked a major turning point for the movement. Gandhi negotiated with the British to secure the release of the prisoners. The talks finally turned to the topic of Indian independence.

But as Independence became a serious possibility, relations between Hindus and Muslims became more heated. Each group wanted control once the British were out, with some factions wanting to establish separate countries for Hindus and Muslims, while others wanted India to remain unified.

By 1946, the conflict had boiled over into violence once more. Gandhi tried peace negotiations and fasting again, putting himself at great personal risk, his body was already very weak. He vowed to keep fasting until peace was restored between the faiths.

Meanwhile, the struggle for Independence finally was victorious. On August 15, 1947, after extensive negotiations, India officially gained her Independence from Great Britain. Gandhi was 78 years old.

The Philosophy of Satyagraha / Civil Disobedience
Gandhi believed that if people truly behaved ethically, there would be no need for governments or any outside authority to impose control. This philosophy of Satyagraha is described in the book, "For Pacifists.”
The Personal Cultivation of Satyagraha

In the book, Gandhi points out that non-violence is a way of life and a personal cultivation practiced every day. One must live a life of “truthfulness, humility, tolerance, and loving kindness”.

However, Gandhi was aware that this level of non-violence required incredible faith and courage, which he realized not everyone possessed. He therefore advised that everyone need not practice such a level of non-violence, especially if it were used as a cover for cowardice.

Perhaps this is why Gandhi felt so strongly that faith in God was essential to the non-violent approach to conflict. He explains that non-violence is an “active force of the highest order”, and when practiced can make one God-like.

Some criticized Gandhi for not being a true Hindu because of his unwavering belief in non-violence that seemed to go against certain passages of the Bhagavad Gita. The Gita relates stories of Krishna advising Arjuna on the duties of a warrior fighting during War. These passages are said to be allegorical. He asserted that people’s religion is between their Maker and themselves alone. Even if disowned by all Hindus, I Gandhi felt it would not change his status as a true Hindu. He also reminded such critics that the call for non-violence is present in all religions.

“It is necessary to revive the eternal law of answering anger by love and of violence by non-violence…” - Mahatma Gandhi


In his autobiography, Gandhi addresses the importance of service and truth. He felt that service to the poor was perhaps his greatest desire, and this desire made it comfortable for him to identify with them so closely, and live in the simplest manner possible.

Another value demonstrated during his life was simplicity as exemplified by the humble homespun garments he chose to wear. His innate compassion and integrity were evident throughout his life. His vegetarianism was rooted in his love of animals and his objection to their slaughter.

Other ideals, like purity, and faith, posed greater challenges and therefore required a deeper commitment for Gandhi.

Although he had his own human weaknesses, but still he did his best to live by his ideals.

Gandhi wished to lead an ethical and spiritual life. He referred to God as the only real thing and as truth, and he set a course to know God specifically by living in accordance with truth, as best as he could ascertain it. His drive to know truth was so central to his life he even titled his autobiography, The Story of my Experiments with Truth.

A Legacy of Non-Violence - Contemporary Examples

Gandhi was walking to his daily morning prayers. As usual, a large crowd was gathered waiting to see him. As he was considered a great soul, people would come to be in his presence or merely to catch a glimpse of him.

Suddenly a man pushed through the crowd and fired shots point blank at Gandhi, who uttered, “Ram, Ram” – the name of God, as he crumpled to the ground. The assassin was a fundamental Hindu, enraged that Gandhi sought peace between Muslims and Hindus. He objected to the Mahatma’s stance on religious tolerance. Gandhi repeatedly referred to Muslims as brothers even while unabated bloodletting went on all over India. Fundamentalists were enraged at his forgiving attitude. The whole world was shocked at the loss of such a great leader when Gandhi was assassinated in 1948.

But Gandhi has left the world an enduring legacy. Through both action and deliberate inaction, he respected and advocated for all life. He not only developed a keen moral compass, but also had the conviction and discipline to follow its course and to remain true to his principals.

People throughout the world have been influenced by the astounding life and work of Gandhi. World leaders such as Nelson Mandela and His Holiness the Dalai Lama have noted how much they admired him. Perhaps Martin Luther King summed it up most eloquently when he said, “Christ gave us the goals and Mahatma Gandhi the tactics.”

Even today, Mahatma Gandhi remains a giant among men. His example and philosophy of life has left an indelible imprint on humankind – the unmistakable power of non-violence.




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