Nonviolence In Practice

A path that preserves the final footsteps of Mahatma Gandhi

The traditional, received understanding of history has almost always linked the great, transforming events involving large-scale violence--whether in the form of warfare, rebellion or revolution. In fact, anything else was seen as the record of daily life, at most social history, certainly not "History," in the sense of the great doings of great men.

This view of history has of course been challenged by representatives of cultures and groups whose perspectives have been silenced or ignored. Woven through the fabric of this "other history" is a rich narrative of nonviolence.

Part of this has been a rediscovery of the ordinary. The normal pattern of daily life in any functioning social group of humans is filled with examples in which conflict and contradiction are discussed, negotiated and resolved without resort to force. Needless to say, women are often the most engaged protagonists in this work of negotiation and resolution.

Moves away from the "great men and their great deeds" view of history have opened up the possibilities of giving more earnest attention to the gradual, cumulative processes by which societies are actually formed and transformed.

Finally, the 20th century--which experienced massive spasms of organized violence in the form of two world wars, a 50-year Cold War and countless armed insurgencies and revolutions--was also the century in which organized nonviolent struggle came into its own as a force capable of transforming societies and moving history.

Gandhi's life offers the quintessential model of nonviolence in action   []

No name is more widely associated with the ideals of nonviolent struggle than Mohandas K. Gandhi, known as the Mahatma or "Great Soul." Drawing on the profound Vedic tradition of ahimsa, or non-harming, Gandhi formulated a proactive style of nonviolent challenge to injustice which he termed satyagraha, a coinage derived from the words for "truth" and "holding firm." His strategy was to confront and awaken the humanity of those implementing the policies of the British colonial administration through acts of nonviolent resistance. The 1930 Salt March, in which he led a band of volunteers on a walk to the sea to gather salt in contravention of the British monopoly on the production and sale of this necessary commodity of life, is emblematic.

In the following decades, African-American citizens of the United States successfully challenged the dehumanizing policies of segregation and discrimination carried out under the infamous "Jim Crow" laws. By risking and accepting arrest for using facilities reserved for whites and boycotting segregated facilities, proponents of nonviolent change challenged the conscience of both the nation and the world, while imposing an unacceptable burden of economic cost on businesses that carried out the discriminatory policies. Like Gandhi, the U.S. Civil Rights Movement built structures of practical strategy and action on deep spiritual foundations--African-American churches and congregations were the driving heart of the movement.

Likewise, the 1989 democratic transformation that swept Eastern Europe was achieved through essentially nonviolent means. In the same period, the "people power" movement in the Philippines was able to bring decades of dictatorship peacefully to an end. Even South Africa was able to hold democratic elections in 1994, overcoming a long history of institutionalized racism enforced with savage brutality. Civil war or violent reprisal by the newly installed majority government was avoided in a process that has been termed miraculous.

To term such transformations "miraculous" is on the one hand to note their remarkable achievements. But at the same time, it takes them far out of the realm of ordinary experience. They remain the exception, with the unvoiced suggestion that violence is still the rule.

This kind of distancing admiration may help explain why nonviolent transformations continue to be given far less research and analytical attention than their importance to human survival actually merits. Part of that research needs to be directed at evaluating the long-term consequences of violent versus nonviolent transformations.

It is time to start studying and learning from humanity's miraculous history. This issue of the SGI Quarterly seeks to contribute to that process.

In doing so, we seek to fulfill the purpose of the SGI described by SGI President Daisaku Ikeda: "to wage a spiritual struggle, issuing from the depths of life itself, against all external restraining forces, whether of violence, authoritarianism or wealth, that continue to threaten human dignity."