Gandhi’s pacifism today


In some way Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi is ubiquitous. He, the Mahatma, the great soul, is looking upon us, maybe not from up there, but most certainly from every rupee bill there is. Yet, considering the world (also India) after Gandhi’s demise, it seems that he and his philosophy of non-violence have entirely been forgotten – except by, perhaps, Martin Luther King Jr.

Critique of non-voilence

There has always been at least as much critique as there has been admiration for Gandhi. This is also the case when it comes to his philosophy of ahimsa (non-violence). Exempli gratia, as the Philosopher Karl Jaspers writes, because Gandhi’s non-violent protest equalled moral extortion, which let eventually to its own kind of non-physical violence.

Moreover, it seems impossible to be non-violent at all times, whether it is the spider we swallow at night or the ant we crush during the day. Gandhi is aware of this fact and admits himself that human beings could not exist without committing externally, consciously or subconsciously, himsa (violence). Nevertheless, for Gandhi this is not a reason to give up on ahimsa.

A stronger critique is uttered by Hannah Arendt, the renowned political philosopher, who argues like many others that Gandhi’s non-violence was merely successful since he was facing the (in this case) benevolent British Empire. According to her, Hitler and Stalin would not have decolonized India, but committed genocide.

Maybe that would not have deterred Gandhi, as he opines: “Hitler killed five million Jews. It is the greatest crime of our time. But the Jews should have offered themselves to the butcher’s knife. They should have thrown themselves into the sea from cliffs.”

Should Jews really not have defended themselves, if they could? Should the US not have entered World War II? Should we not defend ourselves, when our own life is threatened? Fighting for our own survival – so goes the argument against absolute pacifism – is what we have to do, otherwise there would be no agent left to enact non-violence. (We have seen, though, how flexible the term self-defence is.)

Arguments for non-violence

Non-violence is encountering plenty of difficulties. No wonder Gandhi – the “half-naked, seditious fakir”, as Winston Churchill called him – appears to be solely an inked head on a note nowadays. Yet, there are good reasons to still believe in pacifism, or at least in conditional pacifism – politically as well as personally.

Often non-violence, especially in the political domain, is regarded as being an idealists dream, not fit for “realpolitik”. Does the fact that agents dedicated to non-violence encounter violent agents negate their ideal altogether? I do not think so.

In a scenario where both agents would be devoted to non-violence, their principles would not be that idealistic after all. Often we are facing a kind of prisoner’s dilemma: since everyone supposes everyone else might use force, I am willing to do so as well – best before the others.

So how do we change the attitude of the agents? Right, someone has to start being non-violent, hoping that the opponent will emulate him, will realize that both are better off with ahimsa. Of course, being alive is the premise for the pacifists to be pacifistic.

In the United Kingdom, for example, criminals developed the principal of not carrying guns, which is obviously related to the predominantly (at least until recently) unarmed UK police forces. This shows how the principles of conduct are often shared by two parties. In the same manner, the British adapted, in the main, Gandhi’s code of non-violent conduct concerning conflict.

In order to break out of the circulus vitiosus of violence it takes a lot of courage and persistence. In that way Gandhi is a paragon. Valour and resilience of such kind can merely be evoked, if one makes pacifism his or her principle, as principles constitute our Weltanschauung and thus change our entire demeanour.

This is not even contradicted by exceptions. For the same reason Kant’s categorical imperative (which prohibits lying at all times) is of such great value. It is not because one will never be violent or because one will never lie, yet, since one deliberates about exceptions much more often and intensely. Exceptions will not become the rule.

The strength of the utopia is that, while trying to reach the unattainable, it makes one reach much further than he or she would have without it. Trying to act like Gandhi in all circumstances might be a utopia, however, a utopia that could break the vicious circle of violence. And this is strongly required, whether regarding Syria or the Indo-Pakistani conflict.


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