Skip to main content
Select Source:



Gandhian nonviolence (ahimsa ) is an active civic virtue that habitually disposes individuals, social groups, and political authorities to resist violence through non-violent means and to resolve conflicts using peaceful methods. It recognizes violence as a fact and nonviolence as a norm of social life. Its normative character arises from the assumed natural sociability of human beings. Its focal point is the good of society, which includes the good of the individual as well. It is an active virtue, inasmuch as it imposes a twofold obligation on its adherents to resist violence in all its forms and to seek effective nonviolent means to resolve conflicts. To be nonviolent in the Gandhian sense, it is not enough to refrain from committing acts of violence; it is equally necessary to take positive steps to remove the causes of violence wherever they are found, whether in the political, social, economic, or religious arena.

In the Indian context, the organized practice of this virtue is called satyagraha. Coined by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (18691948), this Gujarati term means "firmness in adhering to truth"practical truth. The discovery of the truth underlying a conflict situation by the parties to the conflict is a distinguishing feature of satyagraha. The parties to a conflict are considered not so much adversaries as partners in search of a common end. There is no question of one party losing and the other party gaining. On the contrary, the goal is for both parties to make some moral advance for having engaged in a conflict.

Nonviolence may be practiced by individuals or by groups. In either case, it requires careful moral training and the use of appropriate techniques. Its practice may take several forms: noncooperation (if the offending party is the state), boycott (if the offending party is a business or corporation), strikes (in labor disputes), or protest marches, and so forth. Joan Bondurant's Conquest of Violence (1965) and Mark Juergensmeyer's Gandhi's Way (2002) give excellent accounts of the techniques that Gandhi used in the organized exercise of this virtue.


Gandhi makes a number of distinctions that clarify the meanings of nonviolence: active nonviolence distinguished from passive nonviolence, nonviolence as creed distinguished from nonviolence as policy, and the nonviolence of the brave distinguished from that of the morally weak.

Active nonviolence is the disposition to use not only existing nonviolent means in settling disputes, but also to invent new means if the existing ones prove to be ineffective. Its active character makes it a creative and dynamic force in the culture of a given society. Passive nonviolence, by contrast, is a private, monastic virtue whose goal is the spiritual perfection of the individual. In and of itself, it is indifferent to, if not blind to, the violence that exists in society.

Nonviolence as creed prohibits, always and everywhere, the use of violent means to resist violence. Nonviolence of the brave raises the practice of this virtue to a heroic level, making personal suffering, even death, an acceptable consequence of practicing it. Gandhi saw these two forms of nonviolence as options open only to exceptional individuals; he did not make them mandatory for those who practice nonviolence as a civic virtue.

Nonviolence as policy is preeminently a civic virtue. It too is based on a strong moral conviction against the use of violence to resolve conflicts. At the same time, it permits the lawful use of violence in certain circumstances, as, for instance, in the maintenance of public order or public welfare. Also, wars of legitimate self-defense, conducted under strict rules of natural justice and international law, do not violate the norms of nonviolence as policy. Its object is not the total elimination of violence from societywhich is taken as being existentially impossiblebut the gradual reduction of its frequency and intensity. It stands for a realist, not pacifist, vision of society and polity. However, its practitioners too are obliged to seek, wherever possible, nonviolent ways of resolving conflicts. Finally, the nonviolence of the morally weak is hardly a virtue, since it is practiced for reasons of expediency, not moral conviction.

The Historical Context

The origin and development of Gandhian nonviolence were owed to four forms of violence that Gandhi had to face throughout his career. They were, first, colonialism as practiced in South Africa and India at the turn of the twentieth century; second, the rise of Indian nationalism aligned to terrorism; third, the violent treatment of the untouchables by upper-class Indians; and fourth, the rise of religious extremism in India.

Gandhi viewed colonialism as a product of modern Western civilization (the other product being Marxism). By definition, colonialism legitimized aggressive wars of conquest and condoned the treatment of the colonized as "lesser breeds" without rights. Its twin maxims, he claimed, were "might is right" and the "survival of the fittest." The immediate context of the birth of satyagraha (1906) was Gandhi's confrontation with what was perhaps the most violent form of colonialismthat practiced in South Africa.

Although in its early years Indian nationalism adhered to liberal values, by the turn of the twentieth century an extremist faction was turning to terrorist violence as a means of ending colonialism. Terrorist secret societies, such as the Abhinav Bharat (1904) and the Anusilan Samiti (1905), had gained ground in several regions of India. Gandhi was keenly aware of the dangers that political terrorism posed for Indian society.

Although racism was part of the colonial ideology, Gandhi was appalled more by the quasi-racist treatment of India's so-called untouchables by the Indians themselves than he was by the racism of the whites against nonwhites. The eradication of this form of violence from India was one of the major objects of his nonviolent campaigns. The Vykom Satyagraha (19241925) was directed specifically against untouchability.

What troubled Gandhi most, however, was the rise of religious extremism in India in the first quarter of the twentieth century. Vinayak Damodar Savarkar's (18831966) Hindutva, the basic text of Hindu extremism, was published in 1923, and Abul Ala Mawdudi's (19031979) Jihad, a basic text of modern Muslim fundamentalism, was published in 1927. Both rejected Gandhi's nonviolent vision of society and polity. Gandhi's position was that religious fundamentalism was corrupting both Hinduism and Indian Islam. His philosophy of nonviolence appealed to both moderate Hindus and moderate Muslims, but failed to prevent the partition of India along religious lines.

The Intellectual Context

The ideas that shaped Gandhian nonviolence were drawn both from Western and Indian sources. The trial of Socrates as described in Plato's Apology had a profound impact on Gandhi. In 1908 he published a paraphrase of this work in English and Gujarati under the title The Story of a Soldier of Truth. Socrates was a model for all those who would resist nonviolently the violence of the state. The ethics of the Sermon on the Mount, as interpreted in Leo Tolstoy's The Kingdom of God Is within You (1893), had a lifelong influence on him. Another of Tolstoy's writings, Letter to a Hindu (1908), made Gandhi rethink the role of violence in Indian society. Tolstoy had argued that the British were able to hold India by violence because Indians themselves believed in violence as the basis of society. That is why they submitted themselves to their rajas and maharajas, and treated the untouchables with extreme cruelty. Under these circumstances, the complaints of Indians against colonial violence seemed to him to resemble the complaints of alcoholics against wine merchants. The removal of colonial violence would not solve India's problems with violence. They would be solved only if Indians made nonviolence the basis of a new India. Gandhi was so persuaded by the Letter that he translated and published it in both English and Gujarati.

Gandhi's study of Western jurisprudence made him a lifelong defender of the idea of the rule of law and the legitimacy of the limited, constitutional state. The fight against violence needed such a state as its ally. Here Gandhi departed from Tolstoy's radical pacifism that rejected the state as such.

John Ruskin's Unto This Last (1860) opened Gandhi's eyes to the hidden structures of violence in industrial capitalism. This work, too, Gandhi paraphrased and published in English and Gujarati (1908) under the title Sarvodaya (The welfare of all), a title that he later gave to his own economic philosophy.

Finally, there was the question of nationalism and how to free it from ethnic or religious or terrorist violence. Here he found help in the liberal nationalism of Giuseppe Mazzini, whose An Essay on the Duties of Man, published in 1892, became one of the recommended readings for all those who wanted to understand Gandhi's own fundamental work, Hind Swaraj (1909).

However, it was Indian philosophical thought that helped Gandhi to integrate the ideas he had absorbed from the West. Here three philosophical traditions were significant. The first was the pacifist tradition of Jainism, as interpreted by Rajchandbusinessman, poet and mystic, and a personal friend. His advice was that a nonviolent way of life was possible only if one withdrew from politics and concentrated all one's energies on achieving inner harmony. Gandhi accepted the point about inner harmony but rejected the idea of withdrawing from politics. On the contrary, he sought to link the quest for inner harmony with that for outer harmony in society and polity.

The philosophy of yoga as expounded in the classic text, the Yogasutra of Patanjali, had also impressed Gandhi greatly. Like Jainism, it too believed in the incompatibility between maintaining inner harmony and engaging in active politics. However, it had recommended five moral virtues as being necessary for inner harmony. Nonviolence was one of them; the other four were truthfulness, abstention from theft, celibacy, and moderation in the use of material possessions. Gandhi gladly incorporated nonviolence into his ethical systemwith one modification. He modified it from being a moral virtue into a civic virtue, thereby making it appropriate for political action.

But the philosophy that influenced him most was that of the Bhagavad Gita. He interpreted it as teaching the negative lesson of the futility of war. On the positive side, he interpreted it as teaching that the good life called for the disinterested service of one's fellow human beings, sustained by a deep love of God. Obstacles to the good life came from violence and the undisciplined state of the passions, notably anger, hatred, greed, and lust. Self-discipline therefore was the psychological key to nonviolence.

The philosophical anthropology underlying Gandhi's theory of nonviolence is adapted from that underlying the Bhagavad Gita. Humans are composites of body and soul (atman). As such, body force and soul force were both seen as active in human affairsthe first as a fact and the second as a norm. The body was the source of violence and the passions; the soul was the source of sociability and of the knowledge of good and evil. It was because the spiritual soul was a constitutive element of human beings that nonviolence remained the norm of their behavior. A materialistic view of human life, in Gandhi's view, could not justify, much less sustain, a nonviolent way of life.

The philosophical anthropology of the Bhagavad Gita also gave Gandhi's nonviolence its ethical realism. Because humans are composite beings, perfect nonviolence was possible only in the atman's disembodied state, not in its embodied state. In its embodied state, the will to live always brought with it the will to use force in legitimate self-defense. In the embodied state, one must always abstain from culpable violencethat is, offensive violence used for illegitimate gains. Defensive violence used in legitimate self-defense is not judged culpable.

Fields of Nonviolence

Although nonviolence is a universal norm, Gandhi was insightful enough to recognize that its application depended on the nature of the society (or "field," to use his terminology) in which it was to be applied. He distinguished four such fieldsthe family, the state, the religious community, and the community of sovereign states.

The family, or family-like communities such as the ashram, were best suited to learn the basics of nonviolence. How to treat one another with love and forbearance and how to settle disputes amicably were first learned in the family.

Historically, nonviolence had notable success in liberal states, or colonial states functioning under the supervision of a metropolitan liberal state. Also, it operated well within religions that displayed a capacity for internal self-criticism. That was why it was able to rid Hinduism of untouchability. However, it was less successful in preventing the revival of jihad in South Asia.

In the international field, Gandhian nonviolence operated suo modo. Gandhi's philosophy permitted sovereign states the right to use military force in legitimate self-defense. However, a commitment to nonviolence also required them to strive for progressive disarmament and to increase the effectiveness of international organizations. Never a radical pacifist, Gandhi urged sovereign states to experiment with nonmilitary ways of securing national defense such as using "armies without lethal weapons." He did not envision a warless world, but at the same time he held out the possibility of wars becoming less frequent and less destructive.

The "Vast Majority" Principle

Gandhi's thoughts on the future of nonviolence led him to realize that unless the "vast majority" of the people in a state were nonviolent, that state could not be governed nonviolently. The vast majority principle distributed the responsibility for nonviolence equally on the shoulders of the leaders and ordinary citizens; political leaders could promote nonviolence only to the extent that their own people became nonviolent. And their own people could become nonviolent if theythe peoplecould dismantle, through non-governmental organizations, existing structures of internal violence.

The sociological insight contained in the vast majority principle led Gandhi to write his last major thesis on nonviolence, Constructive Programme (1941). In it he analyzed, among other things, the structures of violence active in Indian society, and concluded that unless Hindus and Muslims in India learned to live in harmony, unless caste violence was set aside, and unless mass poverty was eliminated, there was no chance of India's becoming a nonviolent country.

A corollary of the vast majority principle is that unless a circle of sovereign states became nonviolent in the manner described above, there was no chance of their relations becoming peaceful. Gandhi's vast majority principle is reminiscent of Immanuel Kant's "republican principle," enunciated in his Perpetual Peace (1795).

The Impact of Nonviolence

Gandhian nonviolence has affected global culture in four ways. First, it changed for the better aspects of the political culture of particular countries. In India, for example, it influenced the manner in which colonialism was brought to an end and a new political philosophy introduced. In the United States, it had an impact on the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King Jr.

Second, it inspired many individuals across the world to adopt active nonviolence as their own public philosophy. Those so inspired include the Dalai Lama, Lech Walesa of Poland, Lanza del Vasto of France, Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar (Burma), Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, Cesar Chavez of the United States, and Thomas Merton, the American Trappist monk.

Third, it contributed to the emergence of several nongovernmental organizations worldwide, among them those devoted to disarmament, economic development from below, the green movement, and the dialogue between religions.

Finally, it gave further impetus for nonviolence to become a subject of serious academic study and research in institutions of higher learning throughout the world, notably in the fields of history, sociology, religious studies, theology, and comparative political philosophy.

See also Colonialism ; Hinduism ; Jainism ; Peace ; Resistance and Accommodation .


Bondurant, Joan V. Conquest of Violence: The Gandhian Philosophy of Conflict. Rev. ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1965.

Brown, Judith M. Gandhi: Prisoner of Hope. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989.

Dalton, Dennis. Mahatma Gandhi: Nonviolent Power in Action. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

Gandhi, Mohandas K. Gandhi, an Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth. Boston: Beacon, 1993.

. Hind Swaraj and Other Writings. Edited by Anthony J. Parel. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Contains the text of Gandhi's Constructive Programme.

. Satyagraha in South Africa. Stanford, Calif.: Academic Reprints, 1954.

Juergensmeyer, Mark. Gandhi's Way: A Handbook of Conflict Resolution. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

Merton, Thomas, ed. Gandhi on Non-violence. New York: New Directions, 1965.

Parekh, Bhikhu. Gandhi. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. Past Masters series.

Terchek, Ronald J. Gandhi: Struggling for Autonomy. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1998.

Wolpert, Stanley. Gandhi's Passion: The Life and Legacy of Mahatma Gandhi. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Anthony Parel

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Nonviolence." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . 13 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Nonviolence." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . (December 13, 2017).

"Nonviolence." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . Retrieved December 13, 2017 from


Nonviolence is both an ethical tradition of conflict behavior and a historical method of resistance to coercion. Ethical nonviolence is rooted in the philosophies of Jainism, Buddhism, and Christian pacifists such as Quakers and Anabaptists, all of whom hold human life inviolable. Nonviolence as method, however, has been guided not so much by ethical restraint as by practical necessity. Conscientious and pragmatic nonviolence have often overlapped in their historical development, but are conceptually distinct. In Gandhian nonviolence, they converged in a single movement.

Nonviolence combines numerous principles and techniques of individual and collective action. Civil disobedience, or breaking law on principle ( Thoreau), and conscientious objection to participation in war ( Tolstoy) are perhaps the most influential. A third conceptual pillar is satyagraha or “firmness in truth” ( Gandhi), the seeking of truth through nonviolent conflict. A range of nonviolent methods are commonly used in social conflict: the strike; the boycott; the fast or hunger strike; the sit‐in or other physical obstruction; picketing; and marches. The theoretical foundation of nonviolence is the necessity of mass cooperation for exercising political power. Political scientist Gene Sharp's concept of power as a socially based form of political action has guided numerous theoretical analyses of nonviolence.

The increase in nonviolent action since 1900 has been a response to the growth of the state. As government's control over the individual expanded through taxation, military conscription, colonial occupation, and targeting of civilians, so did nonviolent resistance to it. By the 1980s, when nuclear weapons were threatening the very extinction of life on earth, tens of millions of persons were responding with nonviolent action.

Mohandas K. Gandhi was the first to use nonviolence in mass political action, to win India's independence from Great Britain. In fusing the ethic of nonviolence with the practice of mass noncooperation in the 1930s and 1940s, he created a model of empowerment that has inspired movements throughout the world. In the United States, the labor, civil rights, peace, and environmental movements all drew heavily on the Gandhian experience. Women suffragists were also early users of militant nonviolence. Alice Paul and her Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage (later the National Woman's Party) invented techniques of nonviolent action still in use today.

North American social history is replete with leaders and organizations inventing nonviolent action for peaceful change and war prevention: Jane Addams and the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom; Abraham J. Muste and the War Resisters League; Walter Reuther and the United Auto Workers; Martin Luther King, Jr., and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference; Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker; Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers of America; Elizabeth McAllister and Daniel and Philip Berrigan of the Plowshares movement; and Greenpeace. Some, such as American folk singer Joan Baez and the German Green Party leader Petra Kelly, transcended national boundaries as icons of a global nonviolence culture.

Latin American nonviolence expanded notably after 1970 in response to three historical forces: (1) militarization of the state to protect entrenched elites; (2) the spread of liberation theology in the Catholic Church; and (3) nonviolence training throughout the continent by Servicio de la Paz y Justicia (SERPAJ). Certain figures symbolized this flowering of nonviolence: the martyrs Archbishop Oscar Romero and the environmentalist Chico Mendes; and three Nobel Peace laureates, Oscar Arias, Rigoberta Menchu, and Adolfo Perez Esquivel.

Nonviolence is supported by training and research programs. One line of inquiry, into disciplined nonviolence as a means to resist military conquest, began with the British Commander Sir Stephen King‐Hall in the late 1950s. The theory of civilian‐based defense emerging from that research proposes nonviolent resistance as an integral part of a nation's security policy. Citizens would be prepared for it with the same planning and discipline used in military training. Nonmilitary defense theory has particularly influenced national governments adopting nonprovocative defense—a security policy with no offensive military capability to threaten neighboring states. Such a policy would deter attack partly through civilian readiness to resist it with mass noncooperation. Theorists prominent in this field include Gene Sharp, Adam Roberts, Anders Boserup, and Theodor Ebert. The governments of Sweden, Denmark, and the Netherlands have explored the feasibility of nonviolent defense.

The theoretical and practical significance of nonviolence is threefold: (1) it has stimulated the use of extra institutional politics where formal institutions could not respond to the demand for change; (2) it addresses military institutions directly, as both a means to resist the militarization of national governments and an alternative or supplement to military security; (3) as political and economic power becomes more concentrated in governments and corporations, nonviolence offers an effective “weapon of the weak,” providing for democratic empowerment and fuller political participation of low‐power groups. Among those are women, who have been especially prominent users of nonviolence. As armed struggle becomes ever more costly, nonviolence presents itself as an alternative strategy for both social change and national defense.
[See also Aggression and Violence; Militarism and Antimilitarism; Nuclear Protest Movements; Pacifism; Peace and Antiwar Movements.]


Staughton Lynd, ed., Nonviolence in America, 1966.
Gene Sharp , The Politics of Nonviolent Action, 3 vols., 1973.
Joan Bondurant , Conquest of Violence: The Gandhian Philosophy of Conflict, 1988.
Philip McManus and
Gerald Schlabach, eds., Relentless Persistence: Nonviolent Action in Latin America, 1991.
Paul Wehr, Heidi Burgess, and Guy Burgess, eds., Justice Without Violence, 1994.
Paul Downton, Jr., and and Paul Wehr , The Persistant Activist, 1997.

Paul Wehr

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Nonviolence." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . 13 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Nonviolence." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . (December 13, 2017).

"Nonviolence." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . Retrieved December 13, 2017 from


non·vi·o·lence / nänˈvīələns/ • n. the use of peaceful means, not force, to bring about political or social change.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"nonviolence." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . 13 Dec. 2017 <>.

"nonviolence." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . (December 13, 2017).

"nonviolence." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Retrieved December 13, 2017 from