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Home » Resources » Written Works » Essays » Peace Essays
The Courage of Nonviolence
[From the book One by One, by Daisaku Ikeda]
"I don't want toys or chocolate. All I want is peace and freedom. People of Europe, people of the world, please find the humanity in your hearts to put an end to this war!"
--A young girl of the former Yugoslavia
I was visiting Raj Ghat, where Mahatma Gandhi, the father of Indian independence, had been cremated.
Somewhere a bird sang. A forest was nearby, and squirrels ran through its lush green thickets.
The area was a spacious, well-tended shrine to nonviolence.
As I offered flowers before the black stone platform that constitutes Gandhi's memorial, I bowed my head.
I pondered Gandhi's brilliant spirit. I thought of his ceaseless struggles to douse the fires of hatred with water drawn from the pure springs of love for humanity.
And I thought of how alone he was in his quest.
"Whose Side Are You On?"
"Gandhi tells us not to retaliate against the Muslims! How can he take their side? There's no way! They killed my family, including my five-year-old son!"
"Is he telling us just to endure the attacks of the Hindus? Ridiculous! Doesn't he know what we Muslims have been through all these years? After all, Gandhi's a Hindu himself, isn't he?"
The elderly sage went everywhere, wherever Hindus and Muslims were mired in blood-stained cycles of conflict and reprisal. He called for the killing to end. But people, crazed by hate, did not listen. They told him to leave, calling his attempts at reconciliation hypocritical or worse. They demanded to know whose side he was on.
But he wasn't on either side. And at the same time, he was on both sides. To him, people are brothers and sisters. How could he stand by, a silent witness to mutual slaughter?
Gandhi declared that he was willing to be cut in two if that was what people wanted, but not for India to be cut in two. What good, he demanded to know, could ever come of hatred? If hate was returned with hate, it would only become more deeply rooted and widespread.
Suppose someone sets fire to your home and you retaliate by setting fire to theirs, soon the whole town will be in flames! Burning down the attacker's house won't bring yours back. Violence solves nothing. By engaging in reprisals, you only hurt yourself.
But no matter how urgently Gandhi called on people to listen to reason, the fires of hatred raged on. Against the lone Gandhi there were far too many people fanning the flames.
Fire Cannot Extinguish Fire
On January 20, 1948--10 days, in fact, before he was assassinated--a handmade bomb was hurled at Gandhi as he attended a gathering. This act of terrorism was carried out by a Hindu youth. Fortunately, the bomb missed the mark and Gandhi survived.
The youth was arrested.
The next day, several adherents of the Sikh faith called on Gandhi and assured him that the culprit was not a Sikh.
Gandhi rebuked them, saying that it mattered nothing at all to him whether the assailant was a Sikh, a Hindu or a Muslim.
Whoever the perpetrator might be, he said, he wished him well.
Gandhi explained that the youth had been taught to think of him as an enemy of the Hindu cause, that hatred had been implanted in his heart. The youth believed what he was taught and was so desperate, so devoid of all hope, that violence seemed the only alternative.
Gandhi felt only pity for the young man. He even told the outraged chief of police to not harass his assailant but make an effort to convert him to right thoughts and actions.
This was always his approach. No one abhorred violence more than Gandhi. At the same time no one knew more deeply that violence can only be countered by nonviolence.
Just as fire is extinguished by water, hatred can only be defeated by love and compassion. Some criticized Gandhi for coddling the terrorist. Others scorned his conviction, calling it sentimental and unrealistic, an empty vision.
Gandhi was alone.
Many revered his name, but few truly shared his beliefs. For Gandhi, nonviolence meant an overflowing love for all humanity, a way of life that emanated from the very marrow of his being. It made life possible; without it, he could not have lived even a moment. But for many of his followers, nonviolence was simply a political strategy, a tactic for winning India's independence from Britain.
Gandhi was alone.
The more earnestly he pursued his religious beliefs, the deeper his love for humanity grew. This love made it all the more impossible for him to ignore the political realities that shaped people's lives. At the same time, contact with these political realities strengthened his conviction that nothing is more essential than the love for humanity that religious faith can inspire.
This placed him, however, in the position of being denounced by both religious figures, who saw his involvement in the sullied realm of politics as driven by personal ambition, and political leaders, who called him ignorant and naïve.
Because he walked the middle way, the true path of humanity that seeks to reconcile apparent contradictions, his beliefs and actions appeared biased to those at the extremes.
Putting an End to Terrorism
The September 11 attacks against the United States were savage beyond words. Our fellow SGI members and friends were among the victims. The attacks provoked universal revulsion and the heartfelt desire that such slaughter never be repeated.
For what crime were these innocent people killed? There is no reason, nothing that could possibly justify such an act. Even if, as has been reported, the perpetrators believed they were acting based on their religious faith, their acts in no way merit the name of martyrdom. Martyrdom means offering up one's own life, not taking the lives of others. True self-sacrifice is made to save others from suffering, to offer them happiness. Any act that involves killing others is reprehensible and purely destructive.
The time has come for humankind to join together to put an end to terrorism. The question is, how can this be achieved? Will military retaliation serve that end? Isn't it likely only to incite more hatred?
Even if, for argument's sake, the immediate "enemy" could be subdued, would that bring true peace? Long-simmering hatreds would only be driven further underground, making it impossible to predict where next in the world they might burst forth. Our world would be tormented with ever greater fear and unease.
Here I am reminded of the simple wisdom of the Aesop fable "The North Wind and the Sun." The North Wind tried to make a traveler remove his coat by assailing him with icy gusts, but the harder the North Wind blew, the tighter the traveler pulled his coat around him.
Peace that is based on the forceful suppression of people's voices and concerns, whether it be in your own or other countries, is a dead peace--the peace of the grave. Surely that is not the peace for which humanity yearns.
Violence vs. Nonviolence: The Struggle of the Twenty-first Century
I am also reminded of a moving episode that Leo Tolstoy related in a letter written two months before his death. The letter, dated September 7, 1910, was addressed to Mahatma Gandhi.
The episode went something like this. There was a test on the subject of religion in a certain girls' school in Moscow. A bishop had come to the school and was quizzing the girls one by one about the Ten Commandments. When he came to the commandment "Thou shalt not kill," the bishop asked: "Does God forbid us to kill under all circumstances?"
The girls each answered as they had been taught. "No," they said, "not under all circumstances. We may kill in war or as legal punishment."
"Yes, that's right! You've answered correctly!" said the bishop.
Then one of the girls, her face flushed with indignation, spoke up: "Killing is wrong under all circumstances!"
The bishop was flustered and marshaled all his rhetorical skills to convince the girl that there were exceptions to the commandment against killing, but to no avail.
"No," she declared. "Killing is a sin under all circumstances. It says so in the Old Testament. Moreover, Jesus not only forbade killing but taught that we must do no harm to our neighbors."
In the face of truth in the girl's assertion, the bishop's authority and verbal skills were of no use whatsoever. In the end, he could only fall silent. The young girl, Tolstoy wrote with evident satisfaction, had proven victorious.
Let us amplify the words of that young girl--"It is wrong to kill, even in war!" And let us broadcast them to the world!
The twentieth century was a century of war, a century in which hundreds of millions of people died violent deaths. Have we learned anything from those horrific tragedies? In the new era of the twenty-first century, humanity must be guided by the overriding principle that killing is never acceptable or justified--under any circumstance. Unless we realize this, unless we widely promote and deeply implant the understanding that violence can never be used to advocate one's beliefs, we will have learned nothing from the bitter lessons of the twentieth century.
The real struggle of the twenty-first century will not be between civilizations, nor between religions. It will be between violence and nonviolence. It will be between barbarity and civilization in the truest sense of the word.
Extinguish the Flames of Hatred with a Flood of Dialogue
More than half a century ago, Gandhi sought to break the cycles of violence and reprisal. What distinguishes us from brute beasts, he said, is our continuous striving for moral self-improvement. Humanity is at a crossroads and must choose, he asserted, violence (the law of the jungle) or nonviolence (the law of humanity).
The world today, in fact, has an extraordinary and unprecedented opportunity. We have the chance to open a new page in human history. Now is the time to make the following declaration:
We regard terrorist attacks to be a challenge to the law of humanity. It is for just this reason that we refuse to follow the law of the jungle upon which the attacks were based. We declare our determination to find a solution not by military means but through extensive dialogue. Rather than further fuel the flames of hatred, we choose to douse them with a great "flood of dialogue" that will enrich and benefit all humanity.
This is the best, the only means to assure that such horrors are never repeated, and we believe it is the most fitting way to honor the memory of those who lost their lives in the attacks.
Such a declaration, put into action, would certainly be met with the unstinting praise of future historians.
Great good can come of great evil. But this will not happen on its own. Courage is always required to transform evil into good. Now is the time for each of us to bring forth such courage: the courage of nonviolence, the courage of dialogue, the courage to listen to what we would rather not hear, the courage to restrain the desire for vengeance and be guided by reason.
Peace Is Born from a Willingness to Listen
In conversations with Mrs. Veena Sikri, director general of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR), we discussed Indian philosophy and the tradition of nonviolence. And I spoke of my desire to bring the light of India, with its immense spiritual heritage, to the people of Japan. This wish was eventually realized in the form of an exhibition entitled "King Ashoka, Mahatma Gandhi, and Nehru--Healing Touch" that was held in Japan in 1994.
King Ashoka was a wise and virtuous monarch of ancient India (around the third century BCE). After witnessing firsthand the cruel realities of war, he converted to Buddhism, deciding that he would base his rule not on military force but on the Dharma, the principles of Buddhism. When Gandhi was asked whether a nonviolent state was possible, he replied that indeed it was. He pointed to Ashoka's reign as an example, and asserted that it must be possible to reproduce the ancient king's achievement.
Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of independent India, was Gandhi's direct disciple. When he visited Japan in 1957, he voiced his profound concern over the escalating violence in the world. In one of his addresses he stated that the only truly effective response to the hydrogen bomb was not a bomb of even bigger destructive capacity but a spiritual "bomb" of compassion. This was just one month after Josei Toda, the second president of the Soka Gakkai, made his own declaration calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons.
Some of the Japanese involved in preparing for the "King Ashoka, Mahatma Gandhi, and Nehru" exhibition at first had difficulty appreciating the "healing touch" theme proposed by our Indian partners. This may have been partly because "healing" in the broader sense was not as familiar a term in Japan as it has since become. But no theme goes more to the very heart of nonviolence. For violence is born from a wounded spirit: a spirit burned and blistered by the fire of arrogance; a spirit splintered and frayed by the frustration of powerlessness; a spirit parched with an unquenched thirst for meaning in life; a spirit shriveled and shrunk by feelings of inferiority. The rage that results from injured self-respect, from humiliation, erupts as violence. A culture of violence, which delights in crushing and beating others into submission, spreads throughout society, often amplified by the media.
The American civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a student of Gandhi's philosophy. He declared that a person whose spirit is in turmoil cannot truly practice nonviolence. It was my hope that the light of India--a country known in the East since ancient times as "the land of moonlight"--would help spread the spirit of peace, much as the cool beams of the moon bring soothing relief from the maddening heat of the day. From a healed, peaceful heart, humility is born; from humility, a willingness to listen to others is born; from a willingness to listen to others, mutual understanding is born; and from mutual understanding, a peaceful society will be born.
Nonviolence is the highest form of humility; it is supreme courage. Prime Minister Nehru said that the essence of Gandhi's teachings was fearlessness. The Mahatma taught that "the strong are never vindictive" and that dialogue can only be engaged in by the brave.
Fischer, Louis. The Life of Mahatma Gandhi. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1950.
Gandhi, M. K. Gandhi on Non-Violence--A Selection from the Writings of Mahatma Gandhi. Ed. by Thomas Merton. New York: New Directions Publishing Corp., 1965.
Gandhi, M. K. My Religion. Ahmedabad, India: Navajivan Trust, 1955.
Kytle, Calvin. Gandhi, Soldier of Nonviolence. Washington, D.C.: Seven Locks Press, 1982.
Tolstoy, Leo. Tolstoy's Letters, Vol. 2 (1880-1910). Ed. and trans. by R. F. Christian. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1978.
Yamazaki, Kayoko. Aru hi mura wa senjo ni natta--Bachuga kara todoita kodomotachi no messeji (One Day Our Village Became a Battlefield--Messages from the Children of Bachuga [in the former Yugoslavia]). Tokyo: Shueisha, 1995.