On Gandhi and Nonviolence as a Spiritual Virtue

But It Did Illuminate his Divine Duty

The more he took to violence, the more he receded from Truth.


Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi described “ahimsa,” nonviolence or more accurately love, as the “supreme duty.” This essay seeks to understand the necessity of nonviolence in Gandhi’s life and thought.

Toward the end of his life, Gandhi was asked by a friend to resume writing his autobiography and write a “treatise on the science of ahimsa.” What the friend wanted were accounts of Gandhi’s striving for truth and his quest for nonviolence, and since these were the two most significant forces that moved Gandhi, the friend wanted Gandhi’s exposition on the practice of truth and love and his philosophical understanding of both. Gandhi was not averse to writing about himself or his quest. He had written—moved by what he called Antaryami, the dweller within, his autobiography, An Autobiography or the Story of My Experiments with Truth. Even in February 1946 when this exchange occurred he was not philosophically opposed to writing about the self. However, he left the possibility of the actual act of writing to the will of God.

On the request for the treatise on the “science of ahimsa” he was categorical in his refusal. His unwillingness stemmed from two different grounds: one of inability and the other of impossibility.

He argued that as a person whose domain of work was action, it was beyond his powers to do so. “To write a treatise on the science of ahimsa is beyond my powers. I am not built for academic writings. Action is my domain, and what I understand, according to my lights, to be my duty, and what comes my way, I do. All my action is actuated by the spirit of service.” He suggested that anyone who had the capacity to systematize ahimsa into a science should do so, but added a proviso “if it lends itself to such treatment.” Gandhi went on to argue that a cohesive account of even his own striving for nonviolence, his numerous experiments with ahimsa both within the realms of the spiritual and the political, the personal and the collective, could be attempted only after his death, as anything done before that would be necessarily incomplete.

Gandhi was prescient. He was to conduct the most vital and most moving experiment with ahimsa after this and he was to experience the deepest doubts about both the nature of nonviolence and its efficacy after this. With the violence in large parts of the Indian subcontinent from 1946 onward, Gandhi began to think deeply about the commitment of people and political parties to collective nonviolence. In December 1946 Gandhi made the riot-ravaged village of Sreerampore his home and then began a barefoot march through the villages of East Bengal.

This was not the impossibility that he alluded to. He believed that just as it was impossible for a human being to get a full grasp of truth (and of truth as God), it was equally impossible for humans to get a vision of ahimsa that was complete. He said: “If at all, it could only be written after my death. And even so let me give the warning that it would fail to give a complete exposition of ahimsa. No man has been able to describe God fully. The same hold true of ahimsa.”

Gandhi believed that just as it was given to him only to strive to have a glimpse of truth, he could only endeavor to soak his being in ahimsa and translate it in action.

It is important for us to understand as to why it was a necessity of life for Gandhi to strive for nonviolence. This striving is captured by the epigram with which this essay begins. Violence takes us away from ourselves; it makes us forget our humanity, our vocation, and our limits, and for Gandhi such amnesia can only lead to destruction of self and others. The following section seeks to explain the complex set of arguments and practices through which Gandhi elucidated the relationship between nonviolence and self—recognition and freedom. For Gandhi freedom—both collective and personal—is predicated upon an incessant search to know oneself. This self-recognition, Gandhi believed, eluded all those who were practitioners and votaries of violence.

Gandhi described violence as “brute force” (sharir bal or top bal, in Gujarati) and nonviolence as “soul force” (atma bal or daya bal, in Gujarati). The distance between the two, between the beastly and the human, is marked by nonviolence. The idea of brute force locates violence in the body and the instruments that the body can command to cause injury or to inflict death. It connotes pure instrumentality. By locating violence within the realm of the beastly, Gandhi clearly points out the absence of the conscience, of the normative. He wrote: “Nonviolence is the law of our species as violence is the law of the brute. The spirit lies dormant in the brute and he knows no law but that of physical might. The dignity of man requires obedience to a higher law—to the strength of the spirit.” The term “soul force” is indicative of the working of the conscience, of the human ability to discern the path of rectitude and act upon this judgment. In a speech given before the members of the Gandhi Seva Sangh in 1938, he brought this distinction sharply into focus: “Physical strength is called brute force. We are born with such strength. But we are born as human beings in order that we may realize God who dwells within our hearts. This is the basic distinction between us and the beasts . . . .

Gandhi sought the guidance of his inner voice not only in the spiritual realm but also in the political realm.

Along with the human form, we also have human power—that is the power of nonviolence. We can have an insight into the mystery of the soul force. In that consists our humanity.” Gandhi clearly indicates two aspects: One, that nonviolence is a unique human capacity; it is because we are capable of restrain, of nonaggression, of ahimsa that we are human. Two, to be human is to fulfill the human vocation, which is to realize the God—Truth as God—who dwells in our hearts. This was Gandhi’s principle quest. In his autobiography, Gandhi clarified the nature of his pursuit. He wrote: “What I want to achieve—what I have been striving and pining to achieve these thirty years—is self-realization, to see God face-to-face, to attain moksha. I live and move and have my being in pursuit of this goal.”

He worshipped Satya Narayan, God as Truth. He did not ever claim that he had indeed found Him, or seen Him face-to-face. But Gandhi was seeking this absolute truth and was “prepared to sacrifice the things dearest to me in pursuit of this quest.” Although Gandhi never claimed to have seen God face-to-face, he could imagine that state: “One who has realized God is freed from sin forever. He has no desire to be fulfilled. Not even in his thoughts will he suffer from faults, imperfections, or impurities. Whatever he does will be perfect because he does nothing himself but the God within him does everything. He is completely merged in Him.”

This state was for Gandhi the state of perfect self-realization, of perfect self-knowledge. It was a moment of revelation, a moment when the self was revealed to him. Although he believed that such perfect knowledge may elude him so long as he was imprisoned in the mortal body, he did make an extraordinary claim. This was his claim to hear what he described as a “small, still voice” or the “inner voice.” He used various terms such as “the voice of God,” “of conscience,” “the inner voice,” “the voice of Truth” or “the small, still voice.” He made this claim often and declared that he was powerless before the irresistible voice, that his conduct was guided by his voice. The nature of this inner voice and Gandhi’s need and ability to listen to the voice becomes apparent when we examine his invocation of it.

The first time he invoked the authority of this inner voice in India was at a public meeting in Ahmedabad, where he suddenly declared his resolve to fast. The day was February 15, 1918. Twenty-two days prior to this date, Gandhi had been leading the strike of the workers at the textiles mills of Ahmedabad. The mill workers had taken a pledge to strike until their demands were met. They appeared to be going back on their pledge. Gandhi was groping, not being able to see clearly the way forward. He described his sudden resolve thus: “One morning—it was at a mill hands’ meeting—while I was groping and unable to see my way clearly, the light came to me. Unbidden and all by themselves the words came to my lips: ‘unless the strikers rally,’ I declared to the meeting, ‘and continue to strike till a settlement is reached or till they leave the mills altogether, I will not touch any food.’”

He was to repeatedly speak of the inner voice in similar metaphors: of darkness that enveloped him, his groping, churning, wanting to find a way forward and the moment of light, of knowledge when the voice spoke to him. Gandhi sought the guidance of his inner voice not only in the spiritual realm, a realm that was incommunicable and known only to him and his maker, but also in the political realm. He called off the noncooperation movement against the British in February 1922 in response to the prompting of his inner voice. His famous Dandi March also came to him through the voice speaking from within. Gandhi’s search for a moral and spiritual basis for political action was anchored in his claim that one could and ought to be guided by the voice of truth speaking from within. This made his politics deeply spiritual. Gandhi expanded the scope of the inner voice to include the political realm. Gandhi’s ideas of civilization and swaraj were rooted in this possibility of knowing oneself.

In 1909, Gandhi wrote his most important philosophical work, the Hind Swaraj. Gandhi argued in the Hind Swaraj that modern Western civilization in fact decivilized it and characterized it as a blackage or satanic civilization. Gandhi argued that civilization in the modern sense had no place for either religion or morality. He wrote: “Its true test lies in the fact that people living under it make bodily welfare the object of life.” By making bodily welfare the object of life, modern civilization had shifted the locus of judgment outside the human being. It had made not right conduct but objects the measure of human worth. In so doing, it had closed the possibility of knowing oneself.

True civilization, on the other hand, was rooted in this very possibility. He wrote: “Civilization is that mode of conduct which points out to man the path of duty. Performance of duty and observance of morality are convertible terms. To observe morality is to attain mastery over our mind and passions. So doing, we know ourselves.” This act of knowing oneself is not only the basis of spiritual life but also of political life. He defined swaraj thus: “It is swaraj when we learn to rule ourselves.” This act of ruling oneself meant the control of mind and passions, of observance of morality, and of knowing the right and true path. Gandhi’s idea and practice of satyagraha with its invocation of the soul force is based on this. Satyagraha requires not only the purity of means and ends but also the purity of the practitioner. Satyagraha in the final instance is based on the recognition of one’s own conscience, on one’s ability to listen to one’s inner voice and submit to it.

Gandhi created a regimen of spiritual discipline that enabled him to search himself through and through.

Gandhi knew that his invocation of the inner voice was beyond comprehension and beyond his capacity to explain. He asked: “After all, does one express, can one express, all one’s thoughts to others?” Many tried to dissuade him from the  fast in submission to the inner voice. Not all were convinced of his claim to hear the inner voice. It was argued that what he heard was not the voice of God but was a hallucination, that Gandhi was deluding himself and that his imagination had become overheated by long years of living within the cramped prison walls.

Gandhi remained steadfast and refuted the charge of self-delusion or hallucination. He said that “not the unanimous verdict of the whole world against me could shake me from the belief that what I heard was the true Voice of God.” He argued that his claim was beyond both proof and reason. The only proof he could probably provide was the fact that he had survived the fiery ordeal. It was a moment that he had been preparing himself for. He felt that his submission to God as Truth was so complete, at least in that particular instance of fasting, that he had no autonomy left. All his acts were prompted by the inner voice. It was a moment of perfect surrender. Such a moment of total submission transcends reason. He wrote in a letter: “Of course, for me personally it transcends reason, because I feel it to be a clear will from God. My position is that there is nothing just now that I am doing of my own accord. He guides me from moment to moment.”

This extraordinary confession of perfect surrender perturbed many. The source of this discomfort is clear. Gandhi’s claim to hear the inner voice was neither unique nor exclusive. The validity and legitimacy of such a claim was recognized in the spiritual realm. The idea of perfect surrender was integral to and consistent with the ideals of religious life. Although Gandhi never made the claim of having seen God face-to-face, having attained self-realization, the inner voice was for him the voice of God. He said: “The inner voice is the voice of the Lord.” But it was not a voice that came from a force outside of him. Gandhi made a distinction between an outer force and a power beyond us. A power beyond us has its locus within us. It is superior to us, not subject to our command or willful action, but it is still located within us. He explained the nature of this power.

“Beyond us” means a “power that is beyond our ego.”

According to Gandhi, one acquires the capacity to hear this voice when the “ego is reduced to zero.” Reducing the ego to zero for Gandhi meant an act of total surrender to Satya Narayan, God as Truth. This surrender required the subjugation of human will, of individual autonomy. It is when a person loses autonomy that conscience emerges. Conscience is an act of obedience, not willfulness. He said: “Willfulness is not conscience. . . . Conscience is the ripe fruit of strictest discipline Conscience can reside only in a delicately tuned breast.” He knew what a person with conscience could be like. “A conscientious man hesitates to assert himself, he is always humble, never boisterous, always compromising, always ready to listen, ever willing, even anxious to admit mistakes.” A person without this tender breast delicately tuned to the working of the conscience cannot hear the inner voice or, more dangerously, may in fact hear the voice of the ego. This capacity did not belong to everyone as a natural gift or a right available in equal measure. What one required was a cultivated capacity to discern the inner voice as distinct from the voice of the ego, as “one cannot always recognize whether it is the voice of Rama or Ravana.”

Truth is not merely that which we are expected to speak. It is that which alone is.

What was this ever-wakefulness that allowed him to hear the call of truth as distinct from voice of untruth? How does one acquire the fitness to wait upon God? He had likened this preparation to an attempt to empty the sea with a drain as small as the point of a blade of grass. Yet it had to be as natural as life itself. He created a regimen of spiritual discipline that enabled him to search himself through and through. As part of his spiritual training, he formulated what he called the Ekadash Vrata, Eleven Vows or Observances. The ashram, or a community of co-religionists, was constituted by their abiding faith in these vrata and by their act of prayer. Prayer was the very core of Gandhi’s life. Medieval devotional poetry sung by Pandit Narayan Moreshwar Khare moved him. He drew sustenance from Mira and Charlie Andrews’s rendition of “When I survey the wondrous cross,” while young Olive Doke healed him with “Lead Kindly Light.” He recited the Gita every day. What was this intense need for prayer? What allowed him to claim that he was not a man of learning but a man of prayer? He knew that mere repetition of the Ramanama was futile if it did not stir his soul. A prayer for him had to be a clear response to the hunger of the soul. What was the hunger that moved his being?

His was a passionate cry of the soul hungering for union with the divine. He saw his communion with God as that of a master and a slave in perpetual bondage; prayer was the expression of the intense yearning to merge in the Master. Prayer was the expression of the definitive and conscious longing of the soul; it was his act of waiting upon Him for guidance. His want was to feel the utterly pure presence of the divine within. Only a heart purified and cleansed by prayer could be filled with the presence of God, where life became one long continuous prayer, an act of worship. Prayer was for him the final reliance upon God to the exclusion of all else. He knew that only when a person lives constantly in the sight of God, when he or she regards each thought with God as witness and its Master, could one feel Rama dwelling in the heart at every moment. Such a prayer could only be offered in the spirit of non-attachment, anasakti.

Moreover, when the God that he sought to realize is truth, prayer though externalized was in essence directed inward. Because truth is not merely that which we are expected to speak. It is that which alone is, it is that of which all things are made, it is that which subsists by its own power, which alone is eternal. Gandhi’s intense yearning was that such truth should illuminate his heart. Prayer was a plea, a preparation, a cleansing that enabled him to hear his inner voice. The Ekadash Vrata allowed for this waiting upon God. The act of waiting meant to perform one’s actions in a desireless or detached manner. The Gita describes this state as a state of sthitpragnya, literally the one whose intellect is secure. The state of sthitpragnya was for Gandhi not only a philosophical ideal but a personal aspiration.

The Gita describes this state as a condition of sthitpragnya. A sthitpragnya is one who puts away “all the cravings that arise in the mind and finds comfort for himself only from the atman”; and one “whose sense are reined in on all sides from their objects” so that the mind is “untroubled in sorrows and longeth not  for joys, who is free from passion, fear and wrath;” who knows attachment nowhere; only such a brahmachari can be in the world “moving among sense objects with the sense weaned from likes and dislikes and brought under the control of the atman.” This detachment or self-effacement allowed Gandhi to dwell closer to Him. It made possible an act of surrender and allowed him to claim: “I have been a willing slave to this most exacting master for more than half a century. His voice has been increasingly audible as years have rolled by. He has never forsaken me even in my darkest hour. He has saved me often against myself and left me not a vestige of independence. The greater the surrender to Him, the greater has been my joy.” What he craved was this absence of independence, the lack of autonomy, because that would finally allow him to see God face-to-face. He knew that he had not attained this state and perhaps would never attain it so long as his body remained as “no one can be called a mukta while he is alive.”

In this we have an understanding of Gandhi’s experiment and his quest. His quest is to know himself, to attain moksha that is to see God (Truth) face-to-face. In order to fulfill his quest, he must be an ashramite, a satyagrahi, and a seeker after swaraj. Swaraj had deep resonance during India’s struggle for freedom, and it continues to have both political and philosophical salience. Swaraj is composed of two terms “swa” (self) and “raj” (rule). Swaraj is thus self-rule; Gandhi used it in two very different ways: self-rule and rule over the self. He added two other practices to this search. One was fasting, the other brahmacharya.

Brahmacharya quite often is used in a limited sense of chastity or celibacy (including celibacy within marriage). Gandhi initially began with this sense, but as he thought deeper and struggled with a state devoid of sexual desire, he began to understand the root meaning of the term. “Brahma” is truth and “charya” is conduct. In the root sense, conduct that leads one to truth is brahmacharya. Fasting in its original sense is not mortification of the flesh but Upvas, to dwell closer to Him. Upvas is widely used to denote various acts of fasting. In the root sense, it is to dwell closer to God, wherein one of the modes of being close to God is fasting. In this sense, there could be no fast without a prayer and indeed no prayer without a fast. Such a fast was both penance and self-purification.

Gandhi’s quest is to know himself, to attain moksha that is to see God (Truth) face-to-face.

The ultimate practice of self-purification is the practice of brahmacharya. For Gandhi the realization of truth and self- gratification appears a contradiction in terms. From this emanate not only brahmacharya but also three other observances: control of the palate; aparigraha, or nonacquisition; and asteya, or nonstealing. The idea of nonacquisition has a place in all ascetic traditions of the world. Gandhi gave the term a profound ecological sense. It is only by nonacquisition that the earth could produce for the needs of all. Gandhi extended the meaning of the term “asteya.” He argued that to possess in excess of what one needs is an act of theft. He further argued that anyone who eats without performing bodily labor also commits an act of theft. Such bodily labor had to be performed in the service of others, which he termed as sacrificial labor.


This was his understanding of the biblical injunction of living by the “sweat of one’s brow.”

Brahmacharya, described as a mahavrata, a difficult observance or a great endeavor, came to Gandhi as a necessary observance at a time when he had organized an ambulance corps during the Zulu rebellion in South Africa. He realized that service of the community was not possible without the observance of brahmacharya. In 1906, at the age of 37, Gandhi took the vow of brahmacharya.

He had begun experimenting with food and diet as a student in England. It was much later that he was to comprehend the relationship between brahmacharya and the control of the palate.

These observances and strivings of self-purification were not without a purpose. He was later to feel that they were secretly preparing him for satyagraha. It would take him several decades, but through his observances, his experiments, Gandhi developed insights into the interrelatedness of truth, ahimsa, and brahmacharya. He came to regard the practice of brahmacharya in thought, word, and deed as essential for the search for truth and the practice of ahimsa. Gandhi, by making the observance of brahmacharya essential for truth and ahimsa, made it central to the practice of satyagraha and the quest for swaraj. Satyagraha involves the recognition of truth and the steadfast adherence to it; it requires self-sacrifice or self-suffering and use of pure, and that is nonviolent means by a person who is cleansed through self-purification. Satyagraha and swaraj are both modes of self-recognition.

This understanding allowed Gandhi to expand the conception of brahmacharya itself. He began with a popular and restricted notion in the sense of chastity and celibacy, including celibacy in marriage. He expanded this notion to mean observance in thought, word, and deed. However, it is only when he began to recognize the deeper and fundamental relationship that brahmacharya shared with satyagraha, ahimsa, and swaraj that Gandhi could go to the root of the term “brahmacharya.” Charya or conduct adopted in search of Brahma, that truth is brahmacharya. In this sense brahmacharya is not denial or control over one sense, but it is an attempt to bring all senses in harmony with one another. Brahmacharya so conceived and practiced becomes that mode of conduct that leads to truth, knowledge, and hence moksha. Thus, the ability to hear the inner voice, a voice that is “perfect knowledge or realization of truth,” is an experiment in brahmacharya.

Gandhi was acutely and painfully aware of the fact that “it is impossible for us to realize perfect truth so long as we are imprisoned in this mortal frame.” If perfect truth was an unattainable quest, so was the attainment of perfect brahmacharya. What was given to us, Gandhi argued, was to perfect the means to truth or brahmacharya. The means for him was the practice of ahimsa or love. Gandhi asserted that ahimsa be regarded as the means to be within our grasp. This places nonviolence in a different category. Nonviolence is for Gandhi attainable and hence it becomes the duty of those seeking truth to practice nonviolence.

It is the capacity to hear the inner voice that for Gandhi reveals the distance he has traversed in his quest. Each invocation of the inner voice indicated to him his submission to God. This listening required proximity with oneself. This proximity could be attained through the practice of ahimsa. Violence on the other hand increased the distance in this quest for self-realization. Violence is to be abjured for this reason. Gandhi clearly stated this aspect of violence: “the more he took to violence, the more he receded from truth.” Ahimsa is a necessity and a supreme duty for Gandhi in this sense. It made possible the realization of God, if not face-to-face, then through the mediation of the small, still voice speaking from within and pointing out to him the path of duty.


The Power of Nonviolent Resistance by M. K. Gandhi

From The Power of Nonviolent Resistance by M. K. Gandhi, edited by Tridip Suhrud. Published by Penguin Classics, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Introduction and selection copyright © 2019 by Tridip Suhrud.

Tridip Suhrud
Tridip Suhrud
Tridip Suhrud works on the life and thought of Gandhi and the intellectual history of Gujarati. He has translated a four-part biography of Gandhi, My Life Is My Message. He is currently working on an eight-volume compendium of peasant testimonies of indigo cultivators of Champaran. He lives in Ahmedabad.

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