Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi said “There are two ways of countering injustice. One way is to smash the head of the man who perpetrates injustice and to get your own head smashed in the process. All strong people in the world adopt this course. The consequence is not the progress of a nation, but its decline. But through the other method of combating injustice, we alone suffer the consequences of our mistakes, and the other side is wholly spared. This other method is satyagraha. One who resorts to it does not have to break another’s head; he may merely have his own head broken.”
One of the most powerful speeches in history, from the greatest example of non-violence the world has ever known. Not a single debate, speech, essay or book on non-violence is complete without a quote from Gandhi.
In conventional history, violence is generally celebrated and eulogised; national memorials glamorise death, bloodshed and warfare. However, what most people forget is that non-violent, organised action has been able to undermine the authority and domination of imperial powers, thwart foreign forces, and weaken military occupiers or their domestic representatives.
The oldest concept on non-violence is ‘ahimsa’, which comes from the word ‘himsa’ meaning violence; with the prefix ‘a’, it implies nonviolence, in different scriptures ranging from the Rigveda to the Patanjali Yoga Sutra to the Mahabharata. Most Vedic references on non-violence focus on non-violence towards animals. Later additions to older texts extended the idea of nonviolence to include plants, eventually extending this to include all forms of life.
Mahatma Gandhi’s influence was not limited to India alone. He was also able to influence political movements and important leaders around the world, including Martin Luther King Jr, James Bevel, James Lawson, Aung San Suu Kyi, Nelson Mandela, and others. Gandhi called those who practised non-violence ‘satyagrahis’; satyagraha literally means ‘holding onto truth’. Satyagraha was the opposite of using physical force to harm one’s opponent. The life of a Satyagrahi involved a relentless search for truth, and a determination to reach the truth through the realisation of ahimsa, nonviolence, and ultimately, compassion for all life. Sounds a little similar to the texts in Rigveda, doesn’t it?
An excellent example of the power of non-violence is that of Emperor Ashoka. From 270 BC to 233 BC, Ashoka ruled every part of the subcontinent except for India’s southernmost tip, an empire more extensive than that of any Indian ruler before or since; his influence extended even further abroad, into Sri Lanka and past the furthest border of present-day Afghanistan.
He shepherded the rise of one of the world’s major religions in the form of Buddhism, and in a remarkable U-turn, he transformed himself from a callous conqueror into an intelligent and pacific ruler. He did this through the power of non-violence.