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Nonviolence Essays


Agricultural Revolution. Industrial Revolution. Digital Revolution/ Information Age. Massive alterations in outlook and behavior have accompanied each of these profound shifts in human culture. No writer has come close to the masterful chronicling of the pell-mell morphing of our time to be found in two classic works written in the late 1900s by Alvin and Heidi Toffler: Future Shock and The Third Wave.  Both books still make fascinating and highly instructive reading.

It's likely you feel an uncomfortable stirring in moments of reflection, a tightening sense of unease and uncertainty in your chest. Change tends to disturb us. And if anything, the speed of change so brilliantly limned by the Toffler's seems to continue its breathtaking acceleration. We are creating, with every day that passes, the very different future in which we and our children will live. These astonishing changes are propelled by myriad social pressures and technological inventions. It's not a question of whether we'll experience a massive cultural upheaval—a "great turning," a "paradigm shift," a cultural transformation. Right now we are, in fact, experiencing a huge one. The question is whether the change will be mostly violent or mostly peaceful and where will we end up.

Skeptics and "hard core realists" can quite legitimately question the notion that as a key tool to affect this transformation, we might purposefully embrace a profoundly less violent world view. With a critically cocked eyebrow or perhaps a slightly patronizing smile they can ask, "If nonviolence movements have the power to transform our societies—create a great paradigm shift from cultures steeped in violence at every level to ones that embrace nonviolence—why haven't they already achieved this transformation? Furthermore, what makes you think these methods are poised to succeed now?" 

I'll share my opinion about these two questions shortly. First, however, we need to establish some perspective on nonviolence movements, in the present and the recent past.


Alice Paul is one of my heroes. She was pivotal in the U.S. suffragist's "civil disobedience" movement to give women, including me, the right to vote. She was courageous, willing to endure arrest, imprisonment, and force-feeding for her cause. And she exemplifies masterful use of the "media," organizing parades, marches, and the first picket line in front of the White House. But most especially, she's my hero because she was a woman who knew when not to compromise.  

Willingness to compromise is critical to making and keeping peace—and it is, by the way, a trait much more characteristic of women than men—but sometimes there are issues about which compromise is unacceptable. In order to avoid creating excessive ill will from the public and a wide variety of authorities, women in other suffragist groups of her day were willing to secure women's right to vote on a piecemeal, state-by-state basis.

Paul saw clearly that this would only create laws relatively easily repealed at some future whim of each state's electorate. She fought without compromise for a constitutional right that had been exercised from the country's beginning by white men, and later extended with the 15th Amendment to black men. Paul's inner vision said that this "right" for women had to be in the Constitution. She refused to settle for less.

An engaging way to learn about Alice Paul and her movement is the movie "Iron Jawed Angels." The actress Hillary Swank does a masterful job of depicting Paul's ten year struggle not only with other women's groups, but also her joy in 1920 on the day the 19th amendment to the constitution was ratified. (Sheri Browne offers an interesting article on Paul).

Alice Paul, the daughter of Quakers, is especially dear to me because her brilliantly led campaign to do this extraordinary thing was nonviolent.

At roughly the same time, the modern age's indisputably most famous and most systematic theorist and practitioner of nonviolence, Mohandas K. Gandhi, was beginning his long career. He started in South Africa (1893-1915), but before going there, Gandhi had observed first hand in Britain the successes being made by British suffragists. He admired much of their efforts, although he ultimately rejected their occasional use of violence (e.g., tossing bricks through windows and setting fires). As his ideas developed, he decided that his movement was to be based entirely on "nonviolent non-cooperation with injustice."

During his struggles to win civil rights for the Indian community in South Africa, he acquired further insights into the power of nonviolent noncooperation as a method for achieving social transformation. He became aware of the philosopher in the United States, Henry David Thoreau, who in 1849 had penned a remarkable treatise on nonviolent action eventually called "Civil Disobedience" which shared many of Gandhi's ideas. He may even have known about Alice Paul.

After twenty years, in 1915, he returned to India, the country of his birth. India was at that time the most brilliant jewel in the crown of the British Empire, gifted with such riches as spices, gems, cotton, sugar, indigo, calico, and raw silk. The British could not remotely conceive of living without India, which was in many ways the empire's  financial foundation.

Gandhi was headed into what could only be a gargantuan struggle. He wanted to end British rule in India, and his vision was to shape a future after his people had achieved the dignity of independence in which Hindus and Muslims lived together in peace, an example for the world.

Due in no small part to his tireless and determined efforts over several decades—marches, writing, imprisonment—his homeland won independence in 1947. He had stated that he wanted to use India to show that nonviolence on the part of resisters can succeed in bringing about major transformation. In that, he succeeded. Sadly, Gandhi's greatest vision, of a united and peaceful India, was not to be. Separatists wanted to partition the country into Hindu and Muslim states. Their cause won, and the country was partitioned into India and Pakistan. We continue to live with that result.

Fighting soon began in earnest, and on January 13, 1948, at the age of 78, Gandhi began a fast with the purpose of stopping bloody sectarian rioting by thousands. After five days, the opposing leaders pledged to stop the killing, and Gandhi broke his fast. He was still urging accommodation between Muslims and Hindus, and a Hindu radical who opposed the partition felt that Gandhi had betrayed Hindus. Twelve days after Gandhi broke the fast, the man assassinated Gandhi with three point-blank shots to the chest. We continue to live with that result as well. Who knows what "might have been," even in spite of partition, had Gandhi lived to give more nonviolent guidance to his country's leaders.

His profoundly moving story is a study in the awesome power of nonviolent action to create huge and lasting social change, although not without great sacrifice. His struggle is famously portrayed by the actor Ben Kingsley in the epic film "Gandhi ." Gandhi's goal included freedom from the yoke of British rule, and freedom won by love, not by guns. Not only did the British ultimately leave India voluntarily, they left on terms friendly enough that India and Britain remain allies to this day.

The nonviolent methods used by practitioners like Alice Paul and later Mohandas Gandhi have not yet transformed the world. Nonviolence as a way of life, a way of resolving conflicts, clearly has not become the world's fundamental guiding philosophy. But as remarkable—and to many people as unbelievable—as the possibility of using nonviolence to shape our future in positive ways may seem, a great many nonviolent movements are at this very moment working passionately and intelligently to do just that.  And what may surprise many of the readers of this essay is that there is, for the first time in recorded history, a genuine chance that they may succeed.

There's another pioneer nonviolence movement that deserves extremely high profile but remains virtually unknown by most folks. It's an example of how nonviolence, correctly applied, has the astounding power to bring about positive change in the most surprising places. It teaches that there is no social, financial, or religious limit to its potential.

In the 19 October 2008 issue of the Los Angeles Times, Alan M. Jalon wrote an extensive review of a new documentary film about the long life of Abdul Ghaffar Khan, often called Badshah Khan. This imposing 6'3" tall Pakistani Pashtun tribal leader was a contemporary and follower of the relatively diminutive Gandhi. Khan died in self-imposed exile in 1988 at the age of 98.

He started by buildings schools throughout the region of northern India that is now Pakistan and Afghanistan, and he traveled, taught, and recruited extensively. At one point in this traditionally very aggressive region steeped in an ethos of revenge, Khan had built an army of nearly 100,000 Islamic followers sworn to the use of nonviolent methods to resist British control of their land and lives. His soldiers wore uniforms and maintained military discipline but did not carry weapons as they opposed British efforts to keep them subjugated. They stood before their opponents unarmed, suffering beatings and jail.

The British were deeply afraid to loose control of the Pashtun region because this was the buffer zone needed to keep Russia out of India, the empire's most critical possession. As a result, British efforts were uncharacteristically brutal. Whole villages were destroyed. Many people were killed. Being assigned to Northern India was the toughest assignment a British soldier of the time could draw.

Don't rush past this profound fact. Clearly if Khan could achieve this among notoriously warring Pashtuns, the potential for peaceful change exists even in the world's remotest and violent areas, in the most violent of hearts—indeed, Gandhi said:

"There is hope for a violent man to become nonviolent, but none for a coward."

Note also that religion is not the problem when it comes to divesting ourselves of violence; rather, the key is leadership that leads out of an uncompromising nonviolent vision.

Gandhi eventually gave this assertive but nonviolent approach to social transformation the name satyagraha, which literally means "clinging to the truth." It is often translated as "soul force" or "truth force."  There are, of course, subtle differences in meaning between these several terms (civil disobedience, nonviolent non-cooperation, satyagraha, soul force), but they refer to a process so similar that I use them interchangeably.  Fundamental to satyagraha is the principle that nonviolence  practitioners must seek to convert their opponents, not beat them or destroy them. The goal is to win them over without using physical force. And the nonviolent non-cooperator must be willing to suffer, if necessary, to do so.

This approach must not be mistaken for "passive resistance":  there was, and is, nothing passive about satyagraha and it's certainly not limited to resistance. Martin Luther King Jr. called it "love in action."


One of the most succinct and clear explanations of these terms and of the general principles of satyagraha that you can treat yourself to is found in a small pamphlet, Hope or Terror, by professor Michael Nagler.

Other nonviolent movements have followed those of Paul , Gandhi, and Khan and each has succeeded at some level. According to Nagler, who cited figures taken from the book Peace is the Way, the number of such movements has grown since 1948 both quantitatively and qualitatively. "In one year alone, 1989-1990, there were thirteen uprisings against despotic rule," of which twelve were essentially nonviolent.  "The exception, Rumania," he points out, "was by far the most violent revolution of the post-Communist transitions—and characteristically accomplished the least. All but one of the remaining twelve, the disastrous Tienanmen uprising in China—led their participants to freedom."

Nagler also points out that these uprisings (in, among other places, Latvia, Bulgaria, Kazakhstan, Hungary, Indonesia, and Chile) "embrace a population of 1.7 billion people, or 1/3 of the planet." He sums up: "If we step back and look at the whole past century, getting India also into the net, an astounding 3.3 billion people, or more than half the human population on the earth, now enjoys freedoms that were formerly denied to them (and in most cases could never have been secured by force) thanks to Satyagraha."


It's clear from these many examples that nonviolent civil disobedience has the power to transform. What is also clear is that too often the progress made is eventually lost, examples being the uprisings in the Philippines, in South Africa, in Serbia and the Ukraine. Certainly no one would suggest that our dominator governing systems around the globe have been transformed into egalitarian ones. Even more disappointingly, humanity's entrapment in violence in the form of domestic violence, civic violence, and war persists.

Gandhi died having experienced the profound disappointment of civil war and the partition of India along religious lines. Why was that? Why did things ultimately fall apart in India? Why is Russia in 2008 slowly but inexorably loosing democracy, slipping back into authoritarianism? Why is Pakistan, after all of Badshah Khan's great success is the area where he lived, now embroiled in a brutal shooting war with India in Kashmir and infested along its border with Afghanistan with Muslim terrorists. Why despite the examples of Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela has nonviolence not yet transformed the whole world? For that matter, why did the nonviolent teachings of Jesus ultimately get twisted by all but a few small groups that appeared now and then, such as the Quakers, into "business as usual?"

The reason is not because guns and bombs or even financial or political power are more powerful than satyagraha. When hundreds of thousands of men, women, children, the aged, and the weak are led by a leader who knows how to train followers in nonviolent action, nonviolence will defeat even guns, bombs, and the secret police. The numerous nonviolent revolutions cited by Nagler also make clear that even without the guidance of a charismatic figure, ordinary people acting nonviolently can produce significant shifts.

The world is not yet convinced of this truth, however, despite the notable examples just reviewed. The vast majority of people still view these instances as rare historical flukes, exceptions and not a process we can adopt systematically. Or they are viewed as irrelevant or impossible to use in a world that has gone way too violent. This commonly shared ignorance and/or skepticism is at the moment, in my view, the single biggest barrier to the successful adoption and application of nonviolence. Using this method of transformation will not be broadly adopted until we convince a critical mass of people and leaders that it works.

But the point of this essay isn't to argue that civil disobedience works—it clearly does—but to explain why the results too often do not persist and the technique itself does not spread like wildfire, transforming every culture, every society, in its path.  Why hasn't the nonviolence of Jesus or Buddha or the suffragists or Gandhi not yet transformed our violent, warrior cultures into the reality of living in peace?



There was a famous wine commercial in which the pitch man, the impressive actor and director Orson Wells, would claim that ""We will sell no wine before its time." I believe all historical peace movements with which we are familiar—from before Jesus and including Buddha and all the other wise men who preached love and compassion rather than violence—up until roughly the end of the 20 century, were "before their time."

The world wasn't ready for them. Wasn't ready to listen. Wasn't ready to learn. Wasn't ready to act. From all of these nonviolence predecessors we learned much: about ourselves as humans and about our aspirations and longing for a less violent society. Each in their way laid a foundation for the practice of nonviolence. But the environment into which all earlier nonviolence movements were offered wasn't an environment within which they could persist and deliver massive social transformation of our dominator cultures for two principle reasons.

First, because the global community had not yet reached the end of its rope. Each time such a nonviolent, peace-seeking movement arose, most people felt that how the world worked was still okay, or at least was still tolerable, or was simply the way things have always been and you just had to deal with it. You might have to pick up and migrate elsewhere if you were really, really unhappy, persecuted, or in dire poverty. But at least there were still elsewheres to go to. Now, for all practical purposes, the world is full. Our backs are to the wall, so to speak, when it comes to emigration to escape the worst.

For example, we had not yet created inescapable environmental destruction on a scale so massive that it is life- and civilization-threatening (ozone holes, dying coral reefs, melting glaciers and ice caps, radical changes in global temperature and vegetation distribution).  We still had not yet created weapons of mass destruction capable of literally obliterating whole populations or poisoning the entire global environment.

In recent history, many of the world's most powerful leaders and denizens believed that democracy and capitalism would create wealth, freedom, and happiness for all. In that democratic world with its free-market capitalism the causes of violence would fade. With the recent collapse of the United State's capitalist market and the spread of financial crisis around the world, the idea that unbounded capitalism and democracy has the capacity to cure the problem of poverty, let alone violence, is pretty much dead.

Pick your own favorite catastrophe in waiting. Whether we know it or not consciously, all of us have arrived at the end of the rope, and those who are paying close attention are convinced. Masses of people, at last, are ready to listen, ready to consider some other way. Our survival instinct is aroused. It tells us that we are urgently in need of a way out...in need of transformation.

Second, none of these previous nonviolence movements, including the suffragists, recognized fully the critical, key role women must play to temper human male inclinations for dominance using force. The suffragist and feminist movements of the late 1800s and early 1900s had not begun to approach maturity even in the developed world; in the early 1900s, women had only barely won the right to vote. Many years of struggle lay ahead to allow women to gain the education, financial resources, and legal rights that are the backbone of empowerment.

The nonviolence pioneers of the 20th century, and for that matter, all centuries preceding it, had no idea that for their movement to not only succeed but persist, a necessary requirement was that they fully deploy, in significant numbers, the natural allies of nonviolence and social stability...women.

I repeat this vital point: women, in general, are the natural allies of nonviolent conflict resolution in a way that men, in general, are not. For example, studies show that in decision-making situations where two sides are in conflict, women are more inclined to use compromise and negotiation as a first choice rather than adopt a win/loose strategy, something more characteristic of men.

The reasons for these gender differences when it comes to resolving conflicts are explored elsewhere. The significance of this difference, however, is that along with many other necessary changes required of us in the way we live if we are to transform our societies and abolish war, we need to empower women. Empower them not only as efficient workers in the cause, but women as leaders and governors. Women who are sharing in decision-making after the cause is won.  Instead, for the past millennia of recorded history, women were kept out of such public policy making.

It was not always so for our species. The nomadic hunter-gatherers of our deep past lived in egalitarian and for the most part nonviolent social groups in which women shared equal power with men and social groups moved from place to place. The anthropologist Douglas Fry describes their lives with reference to violence and points out that something about settled living changes our ways of dealing with each other.

Among these changes, three notable shifts occur when hunter-gatherers cease being nomadic, the reasons for the alterations still being debated and requiring explanation: development of hierarchical social structure, subjugation of women, and war. Consequently, taking off in earnest at the time of the Agricultural Revolution, roughly 10,000 years ago—the time of great settling down—women's public input and power began a long, agonizing decline when it came to influencing matters of violence and war, and much else as well.

Societies without meaningful feminine voices in governing have created hierarchical dominator cultures, a natural inclination of human males, where status and power are enforced with violence, first in our homes, then in our communities, and by extension, between nations. History is mostly the story of how a minority of men have led society after society, culture after culture, civilization after civilization into war.

So this new reempowerment of women is the second reason we are finally ready to listen. Women in substantial numbers, at least in the developed world, have begun to reclaim public power, including governing power, and their innate preference for nonviolence in the face of serious conflict is working its way into every nook and cranny of their societies. Knowledgeable observers are beginning to concede openly and document the critical importance of women's voices at all levels of governing if we are to create and sustain a less violent future., The women, half of humanity, definitely are listening.


To offer one example of women stepping up to the responsibility of governing, in mid-November of 2007, over seventy five women—current and former heads of state, influential ministers, and leaders of inter-governmental and non-governmental organizations—were invited to the first International Women Leaders Global Security Summit at the Jumeirah Essex House Hotel in New York City. Note that the subject was "global security," not "national security." The co-hosts were former Irish President Mary Robinson and former Canadian Prime Minister, Kim Campbell. These women convened to discuss, evaluate, and endorse meaningful strategies for securing positive change (read about the meeting here).

Similar, earlier meetings have likewise stoked the process of energizing women, one of the highpoints being the "Fourth World Conference on Women" in Beijing in 1995. It was there that the U.S. President's wife, Hillary Clinton, the woman who a short 14 years later would become the U.S. Secretary of State, forcefully addressed women's issues, telling delegates from more than 180 countries, "If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women's rights and women's rights are human rights, once and for all." 

Six of the seven living women Nobel Peace Laureates have organized their own response, The Nobel Women's Initiative, to changing the way we run our societies in the hopes of ending war—Jody Williams, Shirin Ebadi, Wangari Maathai, Rigoberta Menchú Tum, Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan Maguire (the seventh, Aung San Su Chi, is currently imprisoned in Myanmaar).

African women, suffering terribly from poverty, AIDS, and war, are getting particularly fed up. For example, in Liberia in 2003, Christian and Muslim women banded together to use nonviolent means to force their dictator president to the negotiating table and ultimately they won a peace treaty (this remarkable, modern day successful peace movement is documented in the film produced by Abigail Disney and narrated by one of the Liberian women, Leymah Gbowee: "Pray the Devil Back to Hell."


Why, then, were former nonviolence efforts unable to create lasting transformation of our cultures? I suggest it's primarily because of these two barriers:

  • we did not yet understand the critical importance of women's input in governing our affairs, nor were there enough educated and independent women to govern even if we had understood their value.  There are many other necessary conditions to be met if we are to end war and transform our cultures, such as ending poverty, ending ignorance, building fully mature liberal democracies, an d dealing with the problems of young men with little or nor hope for their futures. But without the input of women, our efforts will end like the efforts of well-intended generations before us...more of same.
  • we were not yet at the end of our rope so we were not yet ready to listen to the voices of nonviolence.

Elsewhere, in an essay entitled "How Far We Have Already Come," I describe six key changes or innovations, going back some 700 years, that were necessary predecessors of our ability now to abolish war, one of our most despicable forms of violence, if we choose. These building blocks are:

  • the Renaissance and Reformation (led to recognition of the worth of the individual),
  • the invention of the modern scientific method (enables us to know our nature),
  • the return to democracy as a form of government as exemplified by the English, French, and American Revolutions ( a method for restraining tyrants and warmongers),
  • women's enfranchisement in significant numbers of countries (enables strong female influence),
  • the development of reliable forms of birth control and family planning (key to empowering women),
  • the development of the Internet (facilitates instant global communications).

Like the two changes highlighted in this essay—recognition of the necessary role women must play and that we are finally ready to listen—these six building blocks also make our time different.

But our time isn't just different.  It's radically different. These eight preparatory changes have set the stage for a massive paradigm shift that favors, although it does not guarantee, a future civilization characterized by a number of wonderful things, among them an ethos of nonviolence.

Fortunately, because of the labors and sacrifices of those who went before us—before sufficient numbers of us were ready to listen—we don't need to reinvent the wheel: we don't need to discover how nonviolence works or how to implement it. Their experiences, their trial and errors, their knowledge of how to make nonviolence work for us, all of these are like a fabulous wine laid aside for us to drink when the time was right. In our time, nonviolence can finally work its magic. Our challenge, our pleasure, is to uncork the many stored bottles laid down by the pioneers of satyagraha and begin to dispense the elixir liberally.


I would prefer to end on this positive note. I must, instead, close with a warning.

With all of this positive promise going for us, the very worst thing we can be is complacent, so buoyed by the positive that we overlook the negative, and thereby ultimately loose the struggle. Nonviolence is a powerful positive force. Equally powerful negative forces arrayed against us never sleep. They don't take time out for vacations. They certainly don't take time out to smell the roses. Principle among these I would list the spreading sickness of terrorism, the persistence of ignorance, the ease of sloth or indifference, the potential social and cultural breakdown as negative consequences of global climate change assail us, and the extraordinarily motivating force and deeply entrenched culture of violence and greed. We are in a race, a terrible race, and the stakes could not be higher.

I sense in some sectors of various peace movements the idea that love is so powerful, we can simply love our way into that better future. This incorrect assumption was among the chief sources of failure of some former generations of peace activists such as the hippies of the 1960s. Jesus certainly preached such love, as have other great souls of the past, but all such movements were eventually co-opted.

Satyagraha depends on love, but it also depends on willingness to learn discipline and to suffer. In some cases, I've heard well meaning proponents of a great positive shift in our time argue that such a shift is an ordained outcome of human spiritual evolution. That the triumph of love and peace is inevitable. There is danger here. If we assume that the Age of Aquarius is our destiny and assuming its inevitability undermines our determination and willingness to suffer to win this change, we very well may see this extraordinary historic window of opportunity tightly close. We need to act forcefully, quickly—and without compromise. If we fail, we may be forced to settle for something far less grand for our descendents than our vision of a peaceful future.

Nonviolence is a mighty technique for social transformation; it is not a guarantee. There has, however, never been a time more favorable for men and women, as full partners in the practice of nonviolence, to do their work.

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"Non-Violence" redirects here. For the monument and memorial to peace, see Non-Violence (sculpture).

Nonviolence is the personal practice of being harmless to self and others under every condition. It comes from the belief that hurting people, animals or the environment is unnecessary to achieve an outcome and refers to a general philosophy of abstention from violence. This may be based on moral, religious or spiritual principles, or it may be for purely strategic or pragmatic reasons.[1]

Nonviolence also has 'active' or 'activist' elements, in that believers accept the need for nonviolence as a means to achieve political and social change. Thus, for example, the Tolstoy and Gandhian non violence is a philosophy and strategy for social change that rejects the use of violence, but at the same time sees nonviolent action (also called civil resistance) as an alternative to passive acceptance of oppression or armed struggle against it. In general, advocates of an activist philosophy of nonviolence use diverse methods in their campaigns for social change, including critical forms of education and persuasion, mass noncooperation, civil disobedience, nonviolent direct action, and social, political, cultural and economic forms of intervention.

In modern times, nonviolent methods of action have been a powerful tool for social protest and revolutionary social and political change.[2][3][4] There are many examples of their use. Fuller surveys may be found in the entries on civil resistance, nonviolent resistance and nonviolent revolution. Here certain movements particularly influenced by a philosophy of nonviolence should be mentioned, including Mahatma Gandhi leading a successful decades-long nonviolent struggle against British rule in India, Martin Luther King's and James Bevel's adoption of Gandhi's nonviolent methods in their campaigns to win civil rights for African Americans,[5][6] and César Chávez's campaigns of nonviolence in the 1960s to protest the treatment of farm workers in California.[7] The 1989 "Velvet Revolution" in Czechoslovakia that saw the overthrow of the Communist government[8] is considered one of the most important of the largely nonviolent Revolutions of 1989.[9] Most recently the nonviolent campaigns of Leymah Gbowee and the women of Liberia were able to achieve peace after a 14-year civil war.[10] This story is captured in a 2008 documentary film Pray the Devil Back to Hell. In an essay, "To Abolish War," evolutionary biologist Judith Hand advocated the use of nonviolent direct action to dismantle the global war machine.[11]

The term "nonviolence" is often linked with or used as a synonym for peace, and despite being frequently equated with passivity and pacifism, this is rejected by nonviolent advocates and activists.[12] Nonviolence refers specifically to the absence of violence and is always the choice to do no harm or the least harm, and passivity is the choice to do nothing. Sometimes nonviolence is passive, and other times it isn't. For example, if a house is burning down with mice or insects in it, the most harmless appropriate action is to put the fire out, not to sit by and passively let the fire burn. There is at times confusion and contradiction written about nonviolence, harmlessness and passivity. A confused person may advocate nonviolence in a specific context while advocating violence in other contexts. For example, someone who passionately opposes abortion or meat eating may concurrently advocate violence to kill an abortionist or attack a slaughterhouse, which makes that person a violent person.[13]

"Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon. Indeed, it is a weapon unique in history, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it."

— Martin Luther King, Jr., The Quest for Peace and Justice (1964) Martin Luther King's Nobel Lecture, delivered in the Auditorium of the University of Oslo at December 11, 1964


This section needs expansion. You can help by adding to it.(October 2017)

Nonviolence or Ahimsa is one of the cardinal virtues[14] and an important tenet of Jainism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. It is a multidimensional concept,[15] inspired by the premise that all living beings have the spark of the divine spiritual energy; therefore, to hurt another being is to hurt oneself. It has also been related to the notion that any violence has karmic consequences. While ancient scholars of Hinduism pioneered and over time perfected the principles of Ahimsa, the concept reached an extraordinary status in the ethical philosophy of Jainism.[14][16]

Parsvanatha, the twenty-third tirthankara of Jainism, advocated for and preached the concept of nonviolence in around eighth-century BC.[17] Mahavira's, the twenty-fourth tirthankara further strengthened the idea in sixth-century BC.[18]


Advocates of nonviolent action believe cooperation and consent are the roots of civil or political power: all regimes, including bureaucratic institutions, financial institutions, and the armed segments of society (such as the military and police); depend on compliance from citizens.[19] On a national level, the strategy of nonviolent action seeks to undermine the power of rulers by encouraging people to withdraw their consent and cooperation. The forms of nonviolence draw inspiration from both religious or ethical beliefs and political analysis. Religious or ethically based nonviolence is sometimes referred to as principled,philosophical, or ethical nonviolence, while nonviolence based on political analysis is often referred to as tactical,strategic, or pragmatic nonviolent action. Commonly, both of these dimensions may be present within the thinking of particular movements or individuals.[20]


The fundamental concept of pragmatic (or tactical or strategic) nonviolent action is to create a social dynamic or political movement that can create a national or international dialogue which effects social change without necessarily winning over those who wish to maintain the status quo.[21]

Nicolas Walter noted the idea that nonviolence might work "runs under the surface of Western political thought without ever quite disappearing".[22] Walter noted Étienne de La Boétie's Discourse on Voluntary Servitude (sixteenth century) and P.B. Shelley'sThe Masque of Anarchy (1819) contain arguments for resisting tyranny without using violence.[22] In 1838, William Lloyd Garrison helped found the New England Non-Resistance Society, a society devoted to achieving racial and gender equality through the rejection of all violent actions.[22]

In modern industrial democracies, nonviolent action has been used extensively by political sectors without mainstream political power such as labor, peace, environment and women's movements. Lesser known is the role that nonviolent action has played and continues to play in undermining the power of repressive political regimes in the developing world and the former eastern bloc. Susan Ives emphasizes this point by quoting Walter Wink:

"In 1989, thirteen nations comprising 1,695,000,000 people experienced nonviolent revolutions that succeeded beyond anyone's wildest expectations ... If we add all the countries touched by major nonviolent actions in our century (the Philippines, South Africa ... the independence movement in India ...), the figure reaches 3,337,400,000, a staggering 65% of humanity! All this in the teeth of the assertion, endlessly repeated, that nonviolence doesn't work in the 'real' world."

— Walter Wink, Christian theologian[9]

As a technique for social struggle, nonviolent action has been described as "the politics of ordinary people", reflecting its historically mass-based use by populations throughout the world and history.

Movements most often associated with nonviolence are the non-cooperation campaign for Indian independence led by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, and the People Power Revolution in the Philippines.

Also of primary significance is the notion that just means are the most likely to lead to just ends. When Gandhi said that "the means may be likened to the seed, the end to a tree," he expressed the philosophical kernel of what some refer to as prefigurative politics. Martin Luther King, a student of Gandhian nonviolent resistance, concurred with this tenet, concluding that "nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek." Proponents of nonviolence reason that the actions taken in the present inevitably re-shape the social order in like form. They would argue, for instance, that it is fundamentally irrational to use violence to achieve a peaceful society.

People have come to use nonviolent methods of struggle from a wide range of perspectives and traditions. A landless peasant in Brazil may nonviolently occupy a parcel of land for purely practical motivations. If they do not, the family will starve. A Buddhist monk in Thailand may "ordain" trees in a threatened forest, drawing on the teachings of Buddha to resist its destruction. A waterside worker in England may go on strike in socialist and union political traditions. All the above are using nonviolent methods but from different standpoints. Likewise, secular political movements have utilized nonviolent methods, either as a tactical tool or as a strategic program on purely pragmatic and strategic levels, relying on their political effectiveness rather than a claim to any religious, moral or ethical worthiness.

Respect or love for opponents also has a pragmatic justification, in that the technique of separating the deeds from the doers allows for the possibility of the doers changing their behaviour, and perhaps their beliefs. Martin Luther King wrote, "Nonviolent resistance... avoids not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. The nonviolent resister not only refuses to shoot his opponent, but he also refuses to hate him."[23]

Finally, the notion of Satya, or Truth, is central to the Gandhian conception of nonviolence. Gandhi saw Truth as something that is multifaceted and unable to be grasped in its entirety by any one individual. All carry pieces of the Truth, he believed, but all need the pieces of others’ truths in order to pursue the greater Truth. This led him to believe in the inherent worth of dialogue with opponents, in order to understand motivations. On a practical level, the willingness to listen to another's point of view is largely dependent on reciprocity. In order to be heard by one's opponents, one must also be prepared to listen.[citation needed]

Nonviolence has obtained a level of institutional recognition and endorsement at the global level. On November 10, 1998, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed the first decade of the 21st century and the third millennium, the years 2001 to 2010, as the International Decade for the Promotion of a Culture of Peace and Non-Violence for the Children of the World.


For many, practicing nonviolence goes deeper than abstaining from violent behavior or words. It means overriding the impulse to be hateful and holding love for everyone, even those with whom one strongly disagrees. In this view, because violence is learned, it is necessary to unlearn violence by practicing love and compassion at every possible opportunity. For some, the commitment to non-violence entails a belief in restorative or transformative justice, an abolition of the death penalty and other harsh punishments. This may involve the necessity of caring for those who are violent.

Nonviolence, for many, involves a respect and reverence for all sentient, and perhaps even non-sentient, beings. This might include abolitionism against animals as property, the practice of not eating animal products or by-products (vegetarianism or veganism), spiritual practices of non-harm to all beings, and caring for the rights of all beings. Mohandas Gandhi, James Bevel, and other nonviolent proponents advocated vegetarianism as part of their nonviolent philosophy. Buddhists extend this respect for life to animals, plants, and even minerals, while Jainism extend this respect for life to animals, plants and even small organisms such as insects.[24][25]

The classical Indian text of Tirukkuṛaḷ deals with the ethics of non-violence or non-harming through verses 311-320 in Chapter 32 of Book 1,[26] further discussing compassion in Chapter 25 (verses 241-250), vegetarianism or veganism in Chapter 26 (verses 251-260), and non-killing in Chapter 33 (verses 321-330).[27]



Ancient Vedic texts[edit]

Ahimsa as an ethical concept evolved in Vedic texts.[16][28] The oldest scripts, along with discussing ritual animal sacrifices, indirectly mention Ahimsa, but do not emphasise it. Over time, the Hindu scripts revise ritual practices and the concept of Ahimsa is increasingly refined and emphasised, ultimately Ahimsa becomes the concept that describes the highest virtue by the late Vedic era (about 500 BC). For example, hymn 10.22.25 in the Rig Veda uses the words Satya (truthfulness) and Ahimsa in a prayer to deity Indra;[29] later, the Yajur Veda dated to be between 1000 BC and 600 BC, states, "may all beings look at me with a friendly eye, may I do likewise, and may we look at each other with the eyes of a friend".[16][30]

The term Ahimsa appears in the text Taittiriya Shakha of the Yajurveda (TS, where it refers to non-injury to the sacrificer himself.[31] It occurs several times in the Shatapatha Brahmana in the sense of "non-injury".[32] The Ahimsa doctrine is a late Vedic era development in Brahmanical culture.[33] The earliest reference to the idea of non-violence to animals ("pashu-Ahimsa"), apparently in a moral sense, is in the Kapisthala Katha Samhita of the Yajurveda (KapS 31.11), which may have been written in about the 8th century BCE.[34]

Bowker states the word appears but is uncommon in the principal Upanishads.[35] Kaneda gives examples of the word Ahimsa in these Upanishads.[36] Other scholars[15][37] suggest Ahimsa as an ethical concept that started evolving in the Vedas, becoming an increasingly central concept in Upanishads.

The Chāndogya Upaniṣad, dated to the 8th or 7th century BCE, one of the oldest Upanishads, has the earliest evidence for the Vedic era use of the word Ahimsa in the sense familiar in Hinduism (a code of conduct). It bars violence against "all creatures" (sarvabhuta) and the practitioner of Ahimsa is said to escape from the cycle of rebirths (CU 8.15.1).[38] Some scholars state that this 8th or 7th-century BCE mention may have been an influence of Jainism on Vedic Hinduism.[39] Others scholar state that this relationship is speculative, and though Jainism is an ancient tradition the oldest traceable texts of Jainism tradition are from many centuries after the Vedic era ended.[40][41]

Chāndogya Upaniṣad also names Ahimsa, along with Satyavacanam (truthfulness), Arjavam (sincerity), Danam (charity), Tapo (penance/meditation), as one of five essential virtues (CU 3.17.4).[15][42]

The Sandilya Upanishad lists ten forbearances: Ahimsa, Satya, Asteya, Brahmacharya, Daya, Arjava, Kshama, Dhriti, Mitahara and Saucha.[43][44] According to Kaneda,[36] the term Ahimsa is an important spiritual doctrine shared by Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. It literally means 'non-injury' and 'non-killing'. It implies the total avoidance of harming of any kind of living creatures not only by deeds, but also by words and in thoughts.

The Epics[edit]

The Mahabharata, one of the epics of Hinduism, has multiple mentions of the phrase Ahimsa Paramo Dharma (अहिंसा परमॊ धर्मः), which literally means: non-violence is the highest moral virtue. For example, Mahaprasthanika Parva has the verse:[45]

अहिंसा परमॊ धर्मस तथाहिंसा परॊ दमः।
अहिंसा परमं दानम अहिंसा परमस तपः।
अहिंसा परमॊ यज्ञस तथाहिस्मा परं बलम।
अहिंसा परमं मित्रम अहिंसा परमं सुखम।
अहिंसा परमं सत्यम अहिंसा परमं शरुतम॥

The above passage from Mahabharata emphasises the cardinal importance of Ahimsa in Hinduism, and literally means: Ahimsa is the highest virtue, Ahimsa is the highest self-control, Ahimsa is the greatest gift, Ahimsa is the best suffering, Ahimsa is the highest sacrifice, Ahimsa is the finest strength, Ahimsa is the greatest friend, Ahimsa is the greatest happiness, Ahimsa is the highest truth, and Ahimsa is the greatest teaching.[46][47] Some other examples where the phrase Ahimsa Paramo Dharma are discussed include Adi Parva, Vana Parva and Anushasana Parva. The Bhagavad Gita, among other things, discusses the doubts and questions about appropriate response when one faces systematic violence or war. These verses develop the concepts of lawful violence in self-defence and the theories of just war. However, there is no consensus on this interpretation. Gandhi, for example, considers this debate about non-violence and lawful violence as a mere metaphor for the internal war within each human being, when he or she faces moral questions.[48]

Self-defence, criminal law, and war[edit]

The classical texts of Hinduism devote numerous chapters discussing what people who practice the virtue of Ahimsa, can and must do when they are faced with war, violent threat or need to sentence someone convicted of a crime. These discussions have led to theories of just war, theories of reasonable self-defence and theories of proportionate punishment.[49][50]Arthashastra discusses, among other things, why and what constitutes proportionate response and punishment.[51][52]


The precepts of Ahimsa under Hinduism require that war must be avoided, with sincere and truthful dialogue. Force must be the last resort. If war becomes necessary, its cause must be just, its purpose virtuous, its objective to restrain the wicked, its aim peace, its method lawful.[49][51] War can only be started and stopped by a legitimate authority. Weapons used must be proportionate to the opponent and the aim of war, not indiscriminate tools of destruction.[53] All strategies and weapons used in the war must be to defeat the opponent, not designed to cause misery to the opponent; for example, use of arrows is allowed, but use of arrows smeared with painful poison is not allowed. Warriors must use judgment in the battlefield. Cruelty to the opponent during war is forbidden. Wounded, unarmed opponent warriors must not be attacked or killed, they must be brought to your realm and given medical treatment.[51] Children, women and civilians must not be injured. While the war is in progress, sincere dialogue for peace must continue.[49][50]


In matters of self-defence, different interpretations of ancient Hindu texts have been offered. For example, Tähtinen suggests self-defence is appropriate, criminals are not protected by the rule of Ahimsa, and Hindu scriptures support the use of violence against an armed attacker.[54][55] Ahimsa is not meant to imply pacifism.[56]

Alternate theories of self-defence, inspired by Ahimsa, build principles similar to theories of just war. Aikido, pioneered in Japan, illustrates one such principles of self-defence. Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of Aikido, described his inspiration as Ahimsa.[57] According to this interpretation of Ahimsa in self-defence, one must not assume that the world is free of aggression. One must presume that some people will, out of ignorance, error or fear, attack other persons or intrude into their space, physically or verbally. The aim of self-defence, suggested Ueshiba, must be to neutralise the aggression of the attacker, and avoid the conflict. The best defence is one where the victim is protected, as well as the attacker is respected and not injured if possible. Under Ahimsa and Aikido, there are no enemies, and appropriate self-defence focuses on neutralising the immaturity, assumptions and aggressive strivings of the attacker.[58][59]

Criminal law

Tähtinen concludes that Hindus have no misgivings about death penalty; their position is that evil-doers who deserve death should be killed, and that a king in particular is obliged to punish criminals and should not hesitate to kill them, even if they happen to be his own brothers and sons.[60]

Other scholars[50][51] conclude that the scriptures of Hinduism suggest sentences for any crime must be fair, proportional and not cruel.


There is no consensus on pacifism among modern Hindu scholars. The conflict between pacifistic interpretations of Ahimsa and the theories of just war prescribed by the Gita has been resolved by some scholars such as Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, as being an allegory,[61] wherein the battlefield is the soul and Arjuna, the war is within each human being, where man's higher impulses struggle against his own evil impulses.[48]

Non-human life[edit]

The Hindu precept of 'cause no injury' applies to animals and all life forms. This precept isn't found in the oldest verses of Vedas, but increasingly becomes one of the central ideas between 500 BC and 400 AD.[62][63] In the oldest texts, numerous ritual sacrifices of animals, including cows and horses, are highlighted and hardly any mention is made of Ahimsa to non-human life.[64][65]

Hindu scriptures, dated to between 5th century and 1st century BC, while discussing human diet, initially suggest kosher meat may be eaten, evolving it with the suggestion that only meat obtained through ritual sacrifice can be eaten, then that one should eat no meat because it hurts animals, with verses describing the noble life as one that lives on flowers, roots and fruits alone.[62][66]

Later texts of Hinduism declare Ahimsa one of the primary virtues, declare any killing or harming any life as against dharma (moral life). Finally, the discussion in Upanishads and Hindu Epics[67] shifts to whether a human being can ever live his or her life without harming animal and plant life in some way; which and when plants or animal meat may be eaten, whether violence against animals causes human beings to become less compassionate, and if and how one may exert least harm to non-human life consistent with ahimsa precept, given the constraints of life and human needs.[68][69] The Mahabharata permits hunting by warriors, but opposes it in the case of hermits who must be strictly non-violent. Sushruta Samhita, a Hindu text written in the 3rd or 4th century, in Chapter XLVI suggests proper diet as a means of treating certain illnesses, and recommends various fishes and meats for different ailments and for pregnant women,[70][71] and the Charaka Samhita describes meat as superior to all other kinds of food for convalescents.[72]

Across the texts of Hinduism, there is a profusion of ideas about the virtue of Ahimsa when applied to non-human life, but without a universal consensus.[73] Alsdorf claims the debate and disagreements between supporters of vegetarian lifestyle and meat eaters was significant. Even suggested exceptions – ritual slaughter and hunting – were challenged by advocates of Ahimsa.[74][75][76] In the Mahabharata both sides present various arguments to substantiate their viewpoints. Moreover, a hunter defends his profession in a long discourse.[77]

Many of the arguments proposed in favor of non-violence to animals refer to the bliss one feels, the rewards it entails before or after death, the danger and harm it prevents, as well as to the karmic consequences of violence.[78][79]

The ancient Hindu texts discuss Ahimsa and non-animal life. They discourage wanton destruction of nature including of wild and cultivated plants. Hermits (sannyasins) were urged to live on a fruitarian diet so as to avoid the destruction of plants.[80][81] Scholars[82][83] claim the principles of ecological non-violence is innate in the Hindu tradition, and its conceptual fountain has been Ahimsa as their cardinal virtue.

The classical literature of Hinduism exists in many Indian languages. For example, Tirukkuṛaḷ, written between 200 BC and 400 AD, and sometimes called the TamilVeda, is one of the most cherished classics on Hinduism written in a South Indian language. Tirukkuṛaḷ dedicates Chapters 26, 32 and 33 of Book 1 to the virtue of Ahimsa, namely, vegetarianism, non-harming, and non-killing, respectively. Tirukkuṛaḷ says that Ahimsa applies to all life forms.[84][85][86]


Main article: Ahimsa in Jainism

See also: Jain vegetarianism

In Jainism, the understanding and implementation of Ahimsā is more radical, scrupulous, and comprehensive than in any other religion.[87] Killing any living being out of passions is considered hiṃsā (to injure) and abstaining from such an act is ahimsā (noninjury). The vow of ahimsā is considered the foremost among the 'five vows of Jainism'. Other vows like truth (satya) are meant for safeguarding the vow of ahimsā. In the practice of Ahimsa, the requirements are less strict for the lay persons (sravakas) who have undertaken anuvrata (Smaller Vows) than for the Jain monastics who are bound by the Mahavrata "Great Vows".[90] The statement ahimsā paramo dharmaḥ is often found inscribed on the walls of the Jain temples.[91] Like in Hinduism, the aim is to prevent the accumulation of harmful karma.[92] When Mahavira revived and reorganised the Jain faith in the 6th or 5th century BCE,[93] Ahimsa was already an established, strictly observed rule.[94]Rishabhanatha (Ādinātha), the first Jain Tirthankara, whom modern Western historians consider to be a historical figure, followed by Parshvanatha (Pārśvanātha)[95] the twenty-third Tirthankara lived in about the 8th century BCE.[96] He founded the community to which Mahavira's parents belonged.[97] Ahimsa was already part of the "Fourfold Restraint" (Caujjama), the vows taken by Parshva's followers.[98] In the times of Mahavira and in the following centuries, Jains were at odds with both Buddhists and followers of the Vedic religion or Hindus, whom they accused of negligence and inconsistency in the implementation of Ahimsa.[99] According to the Jain tradition either lacto vegetarianism or veganism is mandatory.[100]

The Jain concept of Ahimsa is characterised by several aspects. It does not make any exception for ritual sacrificers and professional warrior-hunters. Killing of animals for food is absolutely ruled out.[101] Jains also make considerable efforts not to injure plants in everyday life as far as possible. Though they admit that plants must be destroyed for the sake of food, they accept such violence only inasmuch as it is indispensable for human survival, and there are special instructions for preventing unnecessary violence against plants.[102] Jains go out of their way so as not to hurt even small insects and other minuscule animals.[103] For example, Jains often do not go out at night, when they are more likely to step upon an insect. In their view, injury caused by carelessness is like injury caused by deliberate action.[104] Eating honey is strictly outlawed, as it would amount to violence against the bees.[105] Some Jains abstain from farming because it inevitably entails unintentional killing or injuring of many small animals, such as worms and insects,[106] but agriculture is not forbidden in general and there are Jain farmers.[107]

Theoretically, all life forms are said to deserve full protection from all kinds of injury, but Jains recognise a hierarchy of life. Mobile beings are given higher protection than immobile ones. For the mobile beings, they distinguish between one-sensed, two-sensed, three-sensed, four-sensed and five-sensed ones; a one-sensed animal has touch as its only sensory modality. The more senses a being has, the more they care about non-injuring it. Among the five-sensed beings, the precept of non-injury and non-violence to the rational ones (humans) is strongest in Jain Ahimsa.[108]

Jains agree with Hindus that violence in self-defence can be justified,[109] and they agree that a soldier who kills enemies in combat is performing a legitimate duty.[110] Jain communities accepted the use of military power for their defence, there were Jain monarchs, military commanders, and soldiers.[111]


Further information: Noble Eightfold Path; Buddhist ethics § Killing, causing others to kill; Buddhism and violence; and Engaged Buddhism

In Buddhist texts Ahimsa (or its Pāli cognate avihiṃsā) is part of the Five Precepts (Pañcasīla), the first of which has been to abstain from killing. This precept of Ahimsa is applicable to both the Buddhist layperson and the monk community.[112][113][114]

The Ahimsa precept is not a commandment and transgressions did not invite religious sanctions for layperson, but their power has been in the Buddhist belief in karmic consequences and their impact in afterlife during rebirth. Killing, in Buddhist belief, could lead to rebirth in the hellish realm, and for a longer time in more severe conditions if the murder victim was a monk. Saving animals from slaughter for meat, is believed to be a way to acquire merit for better rebirth. These moral precepts have been voluntarily self-enforced in lay Buddhist culture through the associated belief in karma and rebirth. The Buddhist texts not only recommended Ahimsa, but suggest avoiding trading goods that contribute to or are a result of violence:

These five trades, O monks, should not be taken up by a lay follower: trading with weapons, trading in living beings, trading in meat, trading in intoxicants, trading in poison.

— Anguttara Nikaya V.177, Translated by Martine Batchelor[117]

Unlike lay Buddhists, transgressions by monks do invite sanctions. Full expulsion of a monk from sangha follows instances of killing, just like any other serious offense against the monastic nikaya code of conduct.


Violent ways of punishing criminals and prisoners of war was not explicitly condemned in Buddhism,[119] but peaceful ways of conflict resolution and punishment with the least amount of injury were encouraged.[120][121] The early texts condemn the mental states that lead to violent behavior.[122]

Nonviolence is an overriding theme within the Pali Canon.[123] While the early texts condemn killing in the strongest terms, and portray the ideal king as a pacifist, such a king is nonetheless flanked by an army.[124] It seems that the Buddha's teaching on nonviolence was not interpreted or put into practice in an uncompromisingly pacifist or anti-military-service way by early Buddhists.[124] The early texts assume war to be a fact of life, and well-skilled warriors are viewed as necessary for defensive warfare.[125] In Pali texts, injunctions to abstain from violence and involvement with military affairs are directed at members of the sangha; later Mahayana texts, which often generalise monastic norms to laity, require this of lay people as well.[126]

The early texts do not contain just-war ideology as such.[127] Some argue that a sutta in the Gamani Samyuttam rules out all military service. In this passage, a soldier asks the Buddha if it is true that, as he has been told, soldiers slain in battle are reborn in a heavenly realm. The Buddha reluctantly replies that if he is killed in battle while his mind is seized with the intention to kill, he will undergo an unpleasant rebirth.[128] In the early texts, a person's mental state at the time of death is generally viewed as having a great impact on the next birth.[129]

Some Buddhists point to other early texts as justifying defensive war.[130] One example is the Kosala Samyutta, in which King Pasenadi, a righteous king favored by the Buddha, learns of an impending attack on his kingdom. He arms himself in defence, and leads his army into battle to protect his kingdom from attack. He lost this battle but won the war. King Pasenadi eventually defeated King Ajatasattu and captured him alive. He thought that, although this King of Magadha has transgressed against his kingdom, he had not transgressed against him personally, and Ajatasattu was still his nephew. He released Ajatasattu and did not harm him.[131] Upon his return, the Buddha said (among other things) that Pasenadi "is a friend of virtue, acquainted with virtue, intimate with virtue", while the opposite is said of the aggressor, King Ajatasattu.[132]

According to Theravada commentaries, there are five requisite factors that must all be fulfilled for an act to be both an act of killing and to be karmically negative. These are: (1) the presence of a living being, human or animal; (2) the knowledge that the being is a living being; (3) the intent to kill; (4) the act of killing by some means; and (5) the resulting death.[133] Some Buddhists have argued on this basis that the act of killing is complicated, and its ethicization is predicated upon intent.[134] Some have argued that in defensive postures, for example, the primary intention of a soldier is not to kill, but to defend against aggression, and the act of killing in that situation would have minimal negative karmic repercussions.[135]

According to Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, there is circumstantial evidence encouraging Ahimsa, from the Buddha's doctrine, "Love all, so that you may not wish to kill any." Gautama Buddha distinguished between a principle and a rule. He did not make Ahimsa a matter of rule, but suggested it as a matter of principle. This gives Buddhists freedom to act.[136]


The emperors of Sui dynasty, Tang dynasty and early Song dynasty banned killing in Lunar calendar 1st, 5th, and 9th month.[137][138]Empress Wu Tse-Tien banned killing for more than half a year in 692.[139] Some also banned fishing for some time each year.[140]

There were bans after death of emperors,[141] Buddhist and Taoist prayers,[142] and natural disasters such as after a drought in 1926 summer Shanghai and an 8 days ban from August 12, 1959, after the August 7 flood (八七水災), the last big flood before the 88 Taiwan Flood.[143]

People avoid killing during some festivals, like the Taoist Ghost Festival,[144] the Nine Emperor Gods Festival, the Vegetarian Festival and many others.[145][146]


Nonviolent action generally comprises three categories: Acts of Protest and Persuasion, Noncooperation, and Nonviolent Intervention.[147]

Acts of protest[edit]

Nonviolent acts of protest and persuasion are symbolic actions performed by a group of people to show their support or disapproval of something. The goal of this kind of action is to bring public awareness to an issue, persuade or influence a particular group of people, or to facilitate future nonviolent action. The message can be directed toward the public, opponents, or people affected by the issue. Methods of protest and persuasion include speeches, public communications, petitions, symbolic acts, art, processions (marches), and other public assemblies.[148]


Noncooperation involves the purposeful withholding of cooperation or the unwillingness to initiate in cooperation with an opponent. The goal of noncooperation is to halt or hinder an industry, political system, or economic process. Methods of noncooperation include labour strikes, economic boycotts, civil disobedience, sex strike, tax refusal, and general disobedience.[148]

Nonviolent intervention[edit]

Compared with protest and noncooperation, nonviolent intervention is a more direct method of nonviolent action. Nonviolent intervention can be used defensively—for example to maintain an institution or independent initiative—or offensively- for example, to drastically forward a nonviolent struggle into the opponent's territory. Intervention is often more immediate and effective than the other two methods, but is also harder to maintain and more taxing to the participants involved.

Gene Sharp, a political scientist who seeks to advance the worldwide study and use of strategic nonviolent action in conflict, has written extensively about the methods of nonviolent action. In his book Waging Nonviolent Struggle he describes 198 methods of nonviolent action.[149] In early Greece, Aristophanes' Lysistrata gives the fictional example of women withholding sexual favors from their husbands until war was abandoned. A modern work of fiction inspired by Gene Sharp and by Aristophanes is A Door into Ocean by Joan Slonczewski, depicting an ocean world inhabited by women who use nonviolent means to repel armed space invaders. Other methods of nonviolent intervention include occupations (sit-ins), blockades, fasting (hunger strikes), truck cavalcades, and dual sovereignty/parallel government.[148]

Tactics must be carefully chosen, taking into account political and cultural circumstances, and form part of a larger plan or strategy.

Successful nonviolent cross-border intervention projects include the Guatemala Accompaniment Project,[150]Peace Brigades International and Christian Peacemaker Teams. Developed in the early 1980s, and originally inspired by the Gandhian Shanti Sena, the primary tools of these organisations have been nonviolent protective accompaniment, backed up by a global support network which can respond to threats, local and regional grassroots diplomatic and peacebuilding efforts, human rights observation and witnessing, and reporting.[151][152] In extreme cases, most of these groups are also prepared to do interpositioning: placing themselves between parties who are engaged or threatening to engage in outright attacks in one or both directions. Individual and large group cases of interpositioning, when called for, have been remarkably effective in dampening conflict and saving lives.

Another powerful tactic of nonviolent intervention invokes public scrutiny of the oppressors as a result of the resisters remaining nonviolent in the face of violent repression. If the military or police attempt to repress nonviolent resisters violently, the power to act shifts from the hands of the oppressors to those of the resisters. If the resisters are persistent, the military or police will be forced to accept the fact that they no longer have any power over the resisters. Often, the willingness of the resisters to suffer has a profound effect on the mind and emotions of the oppressor, leaving them unable to commit such a violent act again.[153][154]


Certain individuals (Barbara Deming, Danilo Dolci, Devere Allen etc.) and party groups (e.g. Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, Pacifist Socialist Party or War Resisters League) have advocated nonviolent revolution as an alternative to violence as well as elitist reformism. This perspective is usually connected to militant anti-capitalism.[citation needed]

Many leftist and socialist movements have hoped to mount a "peaceful revolution" by organising enough strikers to completely paralyse the state and corporate apparatus, allowing workers to re-organise society along radically different lines.[citation needed] Some have argued that a relatively nonviolent revolution would require fraternisation with military forces.[155]


Ernesto Che Guevara, Leon Trotsky, Frantz Fanon and Subhas Chandra Bose were fervent critics of nonviolence, arguing variously that nonviolence and pacifism are an attempt to impose the morals of the bourgeoisie upon the proletariat, that violence is a necessary accompaniment to revolutionary change or that the right to self-defense is fundamental. Note, for example, the complaint of Malcolm X that "I believe it's a crime for anyone being brutalized to continue to accept that brutality without doing something to defend himself."[156]

George Orwell argued that the nonviolent resistance strategy of Gandhi could be effective in countries with "a free press and the right of assembly", which could make it possible "not merely to appeal to outside opinion, but to bring a mass movement into being, or even to make your intentions known to your adversary"; but he was skeptical of Gandhi's approach being effective in the opposite sort of circumstances.[157]

Reinhold Niebuhr similarly affirmed Gandhi's approach while criticising aspects of it. He argued, "The advantage of non-violence as a method of expressing moral goodwill lies in the fact that it protects the agent against the resentments which violent conflict always creates in both parties to a conflict, and it proves this freedom of resentment and ill-will to the contending party in the dispute by enduring more suffering than it causes." However, Niebuhr also held, "The differences between violent and non-violent methods of coercion and resistance are not so absolute that it would be possible to regard violence as a morally impossible instrument of social change."[158]

In the midst of repression of radical African American groups in the United States during the 1960s, Black Panther member George Jackson said of the nonviolent tactics of Martin Luther King Jr.:

"The concept of nonviolence is a false ideal. It presupposes the existence of compassion and a sense of justice on the part of one's adversary. When this adversary has everything to lose and nothing to gain by exercising justice and compassion, his reaction can only be negative."[159][160]

Malcolm X also clashed with civil rights leaders over the issue of nonviolence, arguing that violence should not be ruled out if no option remained.

In his book How Nonviolence Protects the State, anarchistPeter Gelderloos criticises nonviolence as being ineffective, racist, statist, patriarchal, tactically and strategically inferior to militant activism, and deluded.[161] Gelderloos claims that traditional histories whitewash the impact of nonviolence, ignoring the involvement of militants in such movements as the Indian independence movement and the Civil Rights Movement and falsely showing Gandhi and King as being their respective movement's most successful activists.[161]:7–12 He further argues that nonviolence is generally advocated by privileged white people who expect "oppressed people, many of whom are people of color, to suffer patiently under an inconceivably greater violence, until such time as the Great White Father is swayed by the movement's demands or the pacifists achieve that legendary 'critical mass.'"[161]:23 On the other hand, anarchism also includes a section committed to nonviolence called anarcho-pacifism.[162][163] The main early influences were the thought of Henry David Thoreau[163] and Leo Tolstoy while later the ideas of Mohandas Gandhi gained importance.[162][163] It developed "mostly in Holland, Britain, and the United States, before and during the Second World War".[164]

The efficacy of nonviolence was also challenged by some anti-capitalist protesters advocating a "diversity of tactics" during street demonstrations across Europe and the US following the anti-World Trade Organization protests in Seattle, Washington in 1999. American feminist writer D. A. Clarke, in her essay "A Woman With A Sword," suggests that for nonviolence to be effective, it must be "practiced by those who could easily resort to force if they chose."

Nonviolence advocates see some truth in this argument: Gandhi himself said often that he could teach nonviolence to a violent person but not to a coward and that true nonviolence came from renouncing violence, not by not having any to renounce.[citation needed]

Advocates responding to criticisms of the efficacy of nonviolence point to the success of non-violent struggles even against the Nazi regimes in Denmark and even in Berlin.[165] A study by Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan found that nonviolent revolutions are twice as effective as violent ones and lead to much greater degrees of democratic freedom.[166]


A 2016 study finds that "increasing levels of globalization are positively associated with the emergence of nonviolent campaigns, while negatively influencing the probability of violent campaigns. Integration into the world increases the popularity of peaceful alternatives to achieve political goals."[167]

See also[edit]



  1. ^A clarification of this and related terms appears in Gene Sharp, Sharp's Dictionary of Power and Struggle: Language of Civil Resistance in Conflicts, Oxford University Press, New York, 2012.
  2. ^Ronald Brian Adler, Neil Towne, Looking Out/Looking In: Interpersonal Communication, 9th ed. Harcourt Brace College Publishers, p. 416, 1999. "In the twentieth century, nonviolence proved to be a powerful tool for political change."
  3. ^Lester R. Kurtz, Jennifer E. Turpin, Encyclopedia of Violence, Peace, and Conflict, p.557, 1999. "In the West, nonviolence is well recognized for its tactical, strategic, or political aspects. It is seen as a powerful tool for redressing social inequality."
  4. ^Mark Kurlansky, Nonviolence: The History of a Dangerous Idea, Foreword by Dalai Lama, p. 5-6, Modern Library (April 8, 2008), ISBN 0-8129-7447-6 "Advocates of nonviolence — dangerous people — have been there throughout history, questioning the greatness of Caesar and Napoleon and the Founding Fathers and Roosevelt and Churchill."
  5. ^"James L. Bevel The Strategist of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement" by Randy Kryn, a paper in David Garrow's 1989 book We Shall Overcome Volume II, Carlson Publishing Company
  6. ^"Movement Revision Research Summary Regarding James Bevel" by Randy Kryn, October 2005, published by Middlebury College
  7. ^Stanley M. Burstein and Richard Shek: "World History Ancient Civilizations ", page 154. Holt, Rinhart and Winston, 2005. As Chavez once explained, "Nonviolence is not inaction. It is not for the timid or the weak. It is hard work, it is the patience to win."
  8. ^
Mohandas Gandhi, often considered a founder of the nonviolence movement, spread the concept of ahimsa through his movements and writings, which then inspired other nonviolent activists.
Petra Kelly founded the German Green Party on nonviolence
Gandhi used the weapon of nonviolence against British Raj
The hand with a wheel on the palm symbolises the Jain Vow of Ahimsa. The word in the middle is "Ahimsa". The wheel represents the dharmacakra which stands for the resolve to halt the cycle of reincarnation through relentless pursuit of truth and non-violence.

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