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Embodying Nonviolence


Embodying Nonviolence
Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Mohandas Gandhi (1869–1948) used to say that every world religion knows that Jesus taught nonviolence, lived nonviolently, and died a nonviolent death except one: Christianity! Gandhi took the Gospel and his own Hindu texts seriously. He believed our core identity is union with God and that the fruit of this union is nonviolence. As he wrote, “Non-violence is not like a garment to be put on and off at will. Its seat is in the heart, and it must be an inseparable part of our very being.” [1] More than just talking about these beliefs, Gandhi embodied them. Eknath Easwaran (1910–1999), whom I introduced a few weeks ago, described his first encounter with Gandhi:

When the cottage door opened, out popped a lithe brown figure of about seventy with the springy step and mischievous eyes of a teenager, laughing and joking with those around him. He was striding off for his evening walk and motioned us to come along. After a while most of the crowd fell away. He didn’t simply walk fast; he seemed to fly. With his white shawl flapping and his gawky bare legs he looked like a crane about to take off. I have always been a walker, but I had to keep breaking into a jog to keep up with him.

My list of questions was growing. This was a man in his seventies—the twilight of life by Indian standards of those days—burdened daily with responsibility for four hundred million people. He must have lived under intense pressure. . . . Why didn’t he get burned out? . . . What was the source of his apparently endless vitality and good humor?

After the walk it was time for Gandhi’s prayer meeting. . . . A Japanese monk opened with a Buddhist chant and then a British lady began one of Gandhi’s favorite hymns, John Henry Newman’s “Lead, Kindly Light.” Gandhi had closed his eyes in deep concentration, as if absorbed in the words.

Then his secretary, Mahadev Desai, began to recite from the Bhagavad Gita, India’s best-known scripture, which is set on a battlefield which Gandhi said represents the human heart. [2] In the verses being recited, a warrior prince named Arjuna, who represents you and me, asks Sri Krishna, the Lord within, how one can recognize a person who is aware of God every moment of his life. And Sri Krishna replies. . . .

They live in wisdom who see themselves in all and all in them, whose love for the Lord of love has consumed every selfish desire and sense craving tormenting the heart. Not agitated by grief or hankering after pleasure, they live free from lust and fear and anger. Fettered no more by selfish attachments, they are not elated by good fortune nor depressed by bad. Such are the seers. [3]

[Gandhi] had become those words. . . . “Free from selfish desires” didn’t mean indifference; it meant not trying to get anything for yourself, giving your best whatever comes without depending on anything except the Lord within. . . . [Gandhi] spoke of making himself zero but seemed to have become instead a kind of cosmic conduit, a channel for some tremendous universal power, an “instrument of peace.”

These verses from the Gita are the key to Gandhi’s life. . . . They tell us not what to do with our lives but what to be. And they are universal. We see essentially the same portrait in all scriptures, reflected in the lives of spiritual aspirants everywhere.

[1] Mahatma Gandhi, “Has Non-Violence Limits?” Young India, vol. 8, no. 32 (August 12, 1926), 286. See M. K. Gandhi, Non-Violence in Peace and War (Navajivan Publishing House: 1944), 71.

[2] Mahatma Gandhi, Discourses on the Gita, trans. Valji Govindji Desai (Navajivan Publishing House: 2006, ©1960), 12.

[3] Bhagavad Gita, 2:54-57 (Easwaran’s paraphrase).

Eknath Easwaran, Gandhi the Man: How One Man Changed Himself to Change the World (Nilgiri Press: 1972, 2011), 17-18, 20.

Image credit: The Peacemaker (detail), Ernest L. Blumenschein, 1913, courtesy of the Anschutz Collection.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. —Matthew 5:9