Gandhi and the Struggle for Non-Violence

By Jahanbegloo, Ramin | UNESCO Courier, June 1992 | Go to article overview

Gandhi and the Struggle for Non-Violence

Jahanbegloo, Ramin, UNESCO Courier

IT is impossible to discuss the subject of tolerance today without referring to the thought and action of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948), known to the world as Mahatma ("great soul"). Yet the word tolerance appears only rarely in his works even though his whole life proved him to be a man of exemplary tolerance. This paradox is an indication of the difficulty of the concept.

According to Gandhi, to affirm one's tolerance is to establish a hierarchy between one's own position and that of others. "I do not like the word tolerance", he wrote in a letter to his followers in 1930 while he was imprisoned at Yeravda Mandir, "but could not think of a better one. Tolerance may imply a gratuitous assumption of the inferiority of other faiths to one's own, whereas ahimsa [non-violence] teaches us to entertain the same respect for the religious faiths of others as we accord to our own, thus admitting the imperfection of the latter. This admission will readily be made by a seeker of Truth, who follows the law of love.

"If we had attained the full vision of truth, we would no longer be mere seekers, but would have become one with God, for Truth is God. But being only seekers, we prosecute our quest, and are conscious of our imperfection."

Here we touch on one of the basic principles of Gandhi's philosophy. We are in an area of spiritual theory in which the very concept of tolerance is situated, not in relation to a given political or religious context, but in relation to a belief in the liberty of human conscience. Gandhi demands more than just respect for another human being; he seeks to encourage the quest for truth, whilst being convinced that this quest is inseparable from obedience to the law of love. Thus, for Gandhi, it is impossible to evoke the concept of tolerance without affirming the notion of truth. This is a crucial point, but it is even more important to understand that truth can only be respected through the path of nonviolence.

The terms "non-violence" and "truth" are so closely allied as to be virtually interchangeable. "Ahimsa and truth", wrote Gandhi, "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 side is the obverse and which 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. When once we have grasped this point, final victory is beyond question."


Gandhi does not seek to establish a rational explanation of the world on the basis of the notion of truth, or to favour a traditional line of thought. "Truth resides in every human heart", he declares, "and one has to search for it there .... But no one has a right to coerce others to act according to his own view of truth." It is, therefore, impossible to separate religious life from political life, as is shown by the way in which Gandhi organized his struggle both against British repression and against the injustice done to the untouchables by the Indian caste system. Following the Socratic example, Gandhi bravely confronted the spirit of tyranny and intolerance of his contemporaries with no other weapons than fasting and prayer. "The only tyrant I accept is the `still small voice' within me, And even though I have to face the prospect of a minority of one, I humbly believe I have the courage to be in such a hopeless minority."

By acting on the basis of these principles, the Mahatma rid himself of all political reservations. On the contrary, the standpoint he adopted aimed to ensure the victory of the humanitarian approach over the political approach, which seeks to put ideological values before the values of the community. His unwavering concern for truth and for the equality of all citizens led him to revolt against tricks and lies which he judged to be ignoble means to noble ends. …

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