Posted by: nmontague | September 30, 2010

Two lessons from Gandhi

I’ve been reading a book on non-violence and Mahatma Gandhi the last few days. There are a number of things that I didn’t know about Gandhi. I must admit, my ignorance was much higher than I realized. But from reading last night, two things stuck out to me a lot.

Lesson 1: Non-violence is more meaningful when the person using it has a real choice between violence and non-violence and is not simply hiding behind their cowardice.

I was unaware of Gandhi’s efforts in supportng the British Empire in times of war. It was very interesting, here is a man who encouraged non-violence, and yet he supported war. He worked as a nurse and organized his fellow Indians to help him with nursing the wounded back to health. In World War I, he even encouraged them to enlist to fight for the British against the Germans. Which seems completely contrary to what Gandhi stood for, but the reasoning behind it was in the following two quotes:

1. “If we want to learn the use of arms. . . it is our duty to enlist. . . . There can be no friendship between the brave and effeminate. We [Indians] are regarded as a cowardly people. If we want to become free from reproach, we should learn the use of arms. The easiest and straightest way, therefore to win [independence] is to participate in the defenders of the Empire. (Gandhi and King, The Power of Non-violent resistance, p  78)

2. “[I]f  one uses non-violence to disguise one’s weakness or through helplessness, it makes a coward of one. Such a person is defeated. . . and cannot live like a man. . . . It is a thousand times better that we die trying to acquire the strengths of arms. Using physical force with courage is far superior to cowardice. At least we would have attempted to act like men. (Gandhi and King, The Power of Non-violent resistance, p  78-79).

I apologize for the elipses and everything. I hate not quoting passages in context, but that’s all the book posted and I havent had a chance to go further in depth.

Notwithstanding, I think this is very interesting. Gandhi didn’t want people using non-violence to hide behind being afraid to fight. Quite the opposite. He believed that Non-violence took much more courage than violence did.

What really struck me about this is how I was trying to resolve the conflict between my love for the martial arts and my desire not to see violence done to others. Gandhi has basically said something similiar to what I was already thinking: For non-violence to have real power, the person practicing it needs to make a real choice between violence and non-violence and not just be masking cowardice.

This principle rings true to me. And it helps resolve my conflict. I can learn the martial arts and train in it, because unless I have the power to defend myself and others (and the courage to do so) choosing to be non-violent is not as meaningful.

Thinking about it, I’ve seen this principle mentioned in the Karate Kid. Mr Miyagi asked Daniel why he was learning Karate. Daniel thought about it and said “So I don’t have to fight.” (paraphrasing).

Lesson 2: If we want independence from the government of others, we need to learn to govern ourselves.

I learned this lesson while reading about Gandhi’s concept of Swaraj or independence.  This is not the independence from the British Empire, though this was one of the goals. But True Swaraj was learning how to govern oneself.  He taught the people that they not only had to defy the British, but also purify themselves so that they would be sovereign over their own life.

After all, what is the point of throwing off one set of authorities over you if you immediately put other authorities over you. Gandhi was very focused on purifying oneself and learning self government in order to gain true independence.

The concept here again rings true to me. I also see similiar admonitions in the Founders of the United States. They were trying to overthrow the British rule and while doing so did not want to establish another authoritarian government over them. They encouraged people to exercise self government. One of the jobs of the religious preachers was to encourage self government as a way to come closer to God. I find this concept very compatible with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Christ taught that the Truth should set us free. And I believe that looking at the truth would encourage us to live much different lives than many of us live. If we were to live with the truth in our lives, we wouldn’t be as gluttonous. We would be thrifty. Industrious. Honest. Charitable. Humble. In fact, I think it’s difficult to live a virtuous life if we don’t live the truth. It’s one of the greatest obstacle to overcome (I have learned that through hard experience).

This is not an effort to work out our salvation. Rather it’s the quest to use the Atonement in our lives to recieve the blessings of freedom and liberty that come in being committed disciples of Jesus Christ.

The more I read about Gandhi, the more I am fascinated by him.  He had his weaknesses, as does any man, but I think there is much truth we can learn from his life and teachings.



  1. Of course, it isn’t necessary for Ghandi to have held the same values throughout his life. Mandela, who today is also heralded for non-violence, was once involved in some pretty violent stuff. Opposition to violence can grow from experiencing war.

    Speaking of non-violence and martial arts, are you familiar with Ti Kwan Leep?

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