On April 6, 1930, after having marched 241 miles on foot from his village to the
sea, Mohandas K. Gandhi arrived at the coastal village of Dandi, India, and gathered salt.
It was a simple act, but one which was illegal under British colonial rule of India. Gandhi
was openly defying the British Salt Law. Within a month, people all over India were
making salt illegally, and more than 100,000 were sent to jail; many fell victim to police
violence, but none retaliated or even defended themselves (Herman 99-101).
The Salt March of 1930 was a vital step toward India’s independence from
Britain. Gandhi, who was known to many as “Mahatma” (Great Soul), had led the
masses of India into a programme of massive disobedience to British law; what was most
important to Gandhi, however, was that Indians use neither violence nor hatred in their
fight for freedom. What was Gandhi’s philosophy? Was he successful?
Elements of Gandhi’s philosophy were rooted in the Indian religions of Jainism
and Buddhism. Both of these advocate ahimsa (non-violence), which is “absence of the
desire to kill or harm” (Chapple 10). The Acaranga Sutra, a Jainist text, describes the
fundamental need for non-violence: “All beings are fond of life; they like pleasure and
hate pain, shun destruction and like to live, they long to live. To all, life is dear”
(Chapple 11). Ahimsa is a way of living and thinking which respects this deeply.
Gandhi was both religious (he was Hindu) and open-minded, and saw the different religions
as paths to the same goal. He was inspired by the teachings of Jesus, in particular the
emphasis on love for everyone, even one’s enemies, and the need to strive for justice. He
also took from Hinduism the importance of action in one’s life, without concern for
success; the Hindu text Bhagavad-Gita says, “On action alone be thy interest, / Never on
its fruits / Abiding in discipline perform actions, / Abandoning attachment / Being
indifferent to success or failure” (Wolpert 71).
For Gandhi, ahimsa was the expression of the deepest love for all humans,
including one’s opponents; this non-violence therefore included not only a lack of
physical harm to them, but also a lack of hatred or ill-will towards them. Gandhi rejected
the traditional dichotomy between one’s own side and the “enemy;” he believed in the
need to convince opponents of their injustice, not to punish them, and in this way one
could win their friendship and one’s own freedom. If need be, one might need to suffer
or die in order that they may be converted to love (Shepard 4).
Gandhi also firmly believed that if violence was used to achieve any end – even if
it was employed in the name of justice – the result would be more violence. But such
pragmatism in matters of non-violence was unimportant to Gandhi. Thomas Merton
"In Gandhi’s mind, non-violence was not simply a political tactic which
was supremely useful and efficacious in liberating his people from foreign rule.
[. . .] On the contrary, the spirit of non-violence sprang from an inner realization
of spiritual unity in himself" (6).
This way of thinking reflects the Hindu idea of “being indifferent to success or failure,”
which I described above.
Gandhi’s main tactic in his fight against the British was what he called
Satyagraha, which means “Soul-Force” or “The power of truth” (Miller 61). Gandhi
developed Satyagraha as the practical extension of ahimsa and love; it meant standing
firmly behind one’s ideals, but without hatred. Satyagraha took the form of civil
disobedience and non-cooperation with evil. Civil disobedience involved breaking a
specific law if it was believed to be unjust, and then facing the consequences. The Salt
March of 1930, which I described above, was one of Gandhi’s greatest successes in civil
disobedience. Salt was necessary to the life of Indian farmers’ cattle, and the British
monopoly on salt production had led to massive taxes on the vital substance.
The other element of Satyagraha, non-cooperation with evil, consisted of pulling
out all support for an unjust system, such as the British rule of India. This tactic need not
break any law, but might include boycotting British products, refusing to work for British
employers, pulling one’s children out of British schools, refusing to supply the British
with services, and not paying taxes (Shepard 3). In 1920, after the British army
massacred 400 unarmed demonstrators, Gandhi organized a nation-wide Satyagraha
which used non-cooperation techniques such as the ones above, as well as public
demonstrations, in order to “withdraw Indian support from the vast, monstrous Machine
of Empire until it ground to a halt” (Wolpert 63).
Although this nation-wide strike hit the British hard, and led to thousands of
Indians being jailed, in 1922 it erupted into violence. A mob of “Satyagrahis” lit fire to a
police station, killing two dozen police officers trapped inside. Gandhi called off the
entire Satyagraha and apologized for his “Himalayan blunder”; he had mistakenly
believed that his followers truly understood non-violence (Wolpert 64).
To examine whether Gandhi’s programme of Satyagraha was a success, we must
first look at his objectives. I have already mentioned two of his aims -- to earn Indian
independence, and to do it non-violently. In these, Gandhi was successful. India became
independent in 1947, with scarcely any violence toward the British, and Gandhi’s
leadership was crucial. The struggle had been difficult and long, but, in the end, Britain
simply lowered its flag over India and left.
Sadly, however, Gandhi’s dream was not fulfilled. Gandhi was dismayed by
Hinduism’s treatment of the Muslim minority in India, and by the resulting calls for the
creation of a separate Muslim state of Pakistan. Widespread distrust and hatred was
growing between Hindus and Muslims and, on the eve of India’s independence, riots
erupted all over India. The country became a bloodbath, in which it was estimated that a
million lives were lost (Wolpert 69). Many believed that Gandhi’s non-violence had
But had it? In these “months of chaos and terror,” Gandhi spent his time in the
most violent areas: “Each night he preached Peace and Love and prayed,” writes Stanley
Wolpert. “Gandhi walked from village to village through the heart of that violent
madness, [. . .] preaching Ahimsa” (69).
Mohandas K. Gandhi, the “Great Soul,” was anything but a failure. In a world
seemingly dominated by violence and hatred, Mahatma Gandhi reincarnated the ancient
idea of Ahimsa, non-violence, as the only way of living in peace. His example influenced
and inspired many later peaceful struggles, for example the civil rights movement of
Martin Luther King, Jr. Despite India’s shortcomings, Gandhi never lost faith in Ahimsa:
"My faith is as strong as ever. [. . .] There is no hope for the aching world
except through the narrow and straight path of non-violence. Millions like me
may fail to prove the truth in their own lives; that would be their failure, never of
the eternal law (Merton 74-75).
Back to My Pages.
Brown, Judith. “Gandhi and Nehru: frustrated visionaries?” History Today. 47 (1997): 22-7.
Chapple, Christopher K. Nonviolence to Animals, Earth, and Self in Asian Traditions. New
York: State University of New York Press, 1993.
Fischer, Louis. The Life of Mahatma Gandhi.7th ed. India: Bhavan, 1998.
Gandhi. Dir. Richard Attenborough. Perf. Ben Kingsley, Candice Bergen, and Edward Fox.
Columbia Pictures, 1983.
Gandhiserve: Mahatma Gandhi Research & Media Service. Ed. Peter Ruhe. March 1999. 28
Feb. 2000 http://www.gandhiserve.com.
Green, Martin. The Origins of Nonviolence. Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press,
Herman, A.L. Community, Violence, & Peace. New York: State University of New York, 1999.
Merton, Thomas, ed. Gandhi on Non-Violence. New York: New Directions, 1965.
Miller, William R. Nonviolence: A Christian Interpretation. London: Allen and Unwin, 1964.
Wolpert, Stanley. India. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1991.
Back to My Pages.