Trinity on Ahimsa (Nonviolence):
Part I - Gandhi's Truth Force
A Sermon Preached by Reverend Lyn Plumb
The Brookfield Unitarian Universalist
Church, January 3, 1999
In the town of Sherborn, MA, about 15 miles west of Boston,
on the grounds of the interfaith Peace Abbey, there is an
eight foot tall statue of Gandhi, the "Mahatma,"
or "Great Soul," that stands in the pose we see
of him often - dressed in his simple peasant garb, knobby
knees clearly showing, with his long walking stick in one
hand. This statue of Gandhi is the centerpiece of the Peace
Abbey's Pacifist Memorial, a memorial that was constructed
and dedicated the year I was an intern peace chaplain there
in 1994 - 95. The statue is surrounded by radiating walls
graced with the names and quotes of noted pacifists, all deceased
now, for this is a memorial. Such names of former and famous
pacifists as Jesus, Buddha, the Native American Chief Seattle,
Albert Schweitzer, and John Lennon can be found there among
many others of diverse backgrounds and times in history. It
is in remembrance of their ideals and their work, attempting
to end all acts of violence.
The idea for this rather unique memorial was born in the agile
mind of Lewis Randa, the inspirited director of the Peace
Abbey and a soul-filled founder of a school for the handicapped
that lies adjacent to the Abbey. He wished to help out his
good friend, Arun Gandhi, grandson of the Mahatma. Arun Gandhi,
himself a noted proponent of nonviolence, was looking for
a fitting way to commemorate his grandfather's 125th anniversary
of his birth. While talking on the phone with Arun one day,
Lewis Randa looked out his abbey window, past the green lawn
of the abbey grounds, to a war memorial constructed on the
abutting Sherborn town property. And suddenly Lewis knew what
he had to do - construct this pacifist memorial on that abbey
lawn, honoring Gandhi on his 125th birthday - and also other
pacifists. This memorial would be not 100 feet away from the
town's war memorial, honoring Sherborn soldiers who had died
The war memorial's centerpiece has an 8 foot high statue of
a woman dressed in ancient Grecian attire. She has her right
hand to her cheek, with her head turned a bit, and she has
a haunted, forlorn, even anguished face. In her left arm,
she cradles a World War I helmet, representative of all the
Sherborn war dead whose names surround her. She is called
by the name of an ancient Greek goddess, "Lady Remembrance."
Well, this close juxtaposition of statues - and their symbolic
meanings - in the center of town at first created quite a
brouhaha with the townspeople. Some of you may recall learning
about it in newspapers or the Boston TV news stations. It
called for many people to examine their conscience, their
hearts, their intellect, their prejudices and proclivities,
and their sense of propriety in a way they perhaps never had
to do before. But in the end it was accepted.
And today, in the busiest intersection of this town of Sherborn,
Gandhi stands over it all with a slight, serene smile on his
face, a face which is turning toward Lady Remembrance, open
and accepting, almost childlike in its simplicity. I have
often fantasized about conversations they could have with
one another as the town traffic speeds by. Lady Remembrance
mourning the lost ones, lamenting the horrors of war inflicted
on the innocent and good souls. Gandhi responding by telling
her he too mourns and laments the same things, and had worked
in his lifetime at alternative ways to end conflicts without
violence, without killing or harming others, to end the need
for such war memorials.
Gandhi's belief in the essential importance of nonviolence
and acting to promote such ideals was not new. It was not
new to the people of India either. It comes from an ancient
religious group in India called the Jains. Jainism is believed
to be even older than Hinduism, the religion of Gandhi, and
indeed Jains are considered by some to be the mother religion
birthing Hinduism. The central spiritual tenet of the Jains
is something they call "ahimsa." "Ahimsa"
is a belief in a deep and profound reverence for life - all
life, animal or vegetable. They are all divine creations and
as such, Jains conclude, must be solemnly respected.
Thus, for the Jains, all kinds of killing, all kinds of violence,
are abominations, antithetical to life. They believe that
unless we live with nonviolence and a reverence for all living
beings in our hearts, our very souls, all our humanness and
acts of goodness, all our vows, virtues, and knowledge, all
our practices to give up greed and acquisitiveness are meaningless
and useless. They believe that this reverence for all life
begins by cultivating a genuine respect for oneself. We UU's
recognize this in a more simplistic sense when we claim in
our first UU principle the inherent dignity and worth of each
individual. Jains believe that the life force in each of us
is precious and that we are here to respect and reveal its
Thus, to this day, this small group in India, roughly only
1% of India's population, are all vegetarians, conscientious
objectors to all wars and fighting, are against the caste
system and any other injustices that harm people in any way
there. They have high moral practices that influence Indians,
somewhat like a moral conscience, to a far greater degree
than their small number might indicate. Sort of like us UU's
in America, I'd like to think.
When Gandhi was first confronted with racial discrimination
in the South Africa of a hundred years ago, he thought of
the ideal of ahimsa that he had learned as a child from his
highly religious mother. Now, as an Indian lawyer in South
Africa he was considered to be "colored," and had
many of the same injustices levied on him and his fellow Indians
as was levied on the Blacks there. And some of the Indians
and Blacks were advocating fighting back, using violence,
to correct these injustices, the evils of such a system.
But Gandhi soon objected to using violence even to correct
injustices "because," he said, "when it appears
to do good, the good it does is only temporary -- and the
evil it does is permanent." It was, you see, disrespecting
ahimsa, the Jain ideal of the ultimate and all-pervading reverence
for life, including the lives of one's oppressors, one's opponents,
one's "enemy," if one must use that term. Gandhi
felt that violence rarely achieved lasting results, for every
apparently successful act of violence encouraged the belief
that it was the only effective way to achieve the desired
goal. It developed the habit of using violence every time
one ran into opposition, never feeling compelled to explore
other alternatives. *
Even more importantly, thought Gandhi, was that each successful
use of violence blunted the community's moral sensibility
and raised its threshold of violence.* Thus, swords have given
way to cannons as acceptable means of violence, which have
given way to aerial bombs and missiles, which has given way
to the ultimate means of destruction we have to this date,
anyway, - nuclear warfare. And thus, too, in our urban jungles
of today, various gangs, and even loners in much emotional
turmoil, have graduated from using their fists with one another
to using knives and now automatic rifles at innocent crowds
Violence begets more violence, no matter what the cause or
provocation. It is all a negation of ahimsa, that all important
reverence for all life, no matter what sins a living human
being may have committed. Gandhi believed that one must distinguish
the sin from the sinner - hating the sin, hating the evil
being done, but still respecting, even loving, the sinner.
This idea may be one many parents can readily understand when
their children perform misdeeds, but which nations or groups
of individuals often fail to see.
So, how does one correct injustices, resolve conflicts, or
stop those who would do much harm to their fellow human beings
without using violence? In answer to this Gandhi developed
a new method which he called, in his native tongue of Hindi,
satyagraha. Translated into English, it is called "truth
force," or "soul force." This method started
with dialoguing with one's oppressors.
But he soon saw that rational, reasonable arguments alone
were not enough to change people's minds and right the wrongs
people do. He realized there needed to be a method that would
activate the soul, the heart, the essence of truth within
oneself, mobilize its enormous latent energy, and generate
a new kind of spiritual power not ever before used in political
life. It was developed as he dealt with oppression in South
Africa and honed even more when he returned to India to utilize
this new method against the British rule in the early part
of this century, and against such injustices in Indian society
as the caste system.
By reaching out to penetrate not just the rational mind of
an opponent, but the heart, or soul of an opponent, Gandhi
believed that one could penetrate the underlying barriers
of prejudice, ill-will, dogmatism, self-righteousness, and
selfishness. Satyagraha, truth-force, or soul-force, was a
"surgery of the soul," something that pierced the
soul of many a South African or Indian soldier or policeman
confronting a group of defenseless protesters passively resisting
the soldiers' weapons. And it pierced many a witness to such
proceedings as well.
But remember - the passive resistance, the civil disobedience
for which Gandhi became famous was not the first choice of
those practicing his new method of truth force. Dialoging
with one's opponent was. Gandhi was most willing to talk and
discuss possibilities, for as he once said, "I am essentially
a man of compromise because I am never sure that I am right."
It was only when this dialogue was denied or became an insincere
exercise that he resorted to such things as civil disobedience.
Even so, Gandhi still strove to maintain a good relationship
with his opponent, always trying to put his opponent at ease
and never trying to harass, embarrass, anger or frighten an
opponent. This sensitivity, he felt, would be more likely
to evoke a moral response from his opponent. If an opponent
ever showed a sincere willingness to resume a dialogue, Gandhi
would halt all civil disobedience.
Now it took high moral resolve to practice civil disobedience,
to stand up defenseless against a group of police or soldiers
wielding weapons which very well might be used, or to know
that one might end up in prison for disobeying the law. There
was the possibility of being seriously physically harmed or
even killed. It was imperative, Gandhi told his followers,
that those practicing this truth force must be of high moral
standing and must truly feel nothing but love and respect
for the opponent. He and his adherents needed to be willing
to practice an uncomplaining "suffering love," as
he called it. This "suffering love" Gandhi himself
took as far as fasting - to near death - from time to time
until various leaders could come to a mutually beneficial
agreement Satyagraha, truth force, was not for the faint-hearted
or the only partially dedicated.
Only actions performed in this spirit would truly disarm the
opponent, Gandhi believed, weakening his feelings of anger
and hatred, and mobilizing his higher nature. At the end of
his time in South Africa, Gandhi counted his chief opponent,
General Smuts, as his dearest friend. And he became good friends
with many a British and Indian leader later on as well.
One of the names on the Pacifist Memorial at the Peace Abbey
is that of a great Jain leader, called the Mahavira, who lived
500 years before the birth of Jesus. His quote says, "Whom
thou intendest to strike, or to govern, or to torture, or
to enslave, or to kill, is, in truth, none other than thyself."
Christians have heard something similar in the words of Jesus,
"Love thy neighbor as thyself."
Gandhi takes this Jainist ahimsa ideal, one Jesus purports
as well, and develops it within the framework of a shared
humanity. Yes, Gandhi agreed that every community needed a
widespread sense of justice to hold it together. But Gandhi
claimed even more was needed - a deeper and emotionally charged
sense of a shared humanity. He believed that people could
not sustain a communal life without a spirit of mutual concern
and love - even with those committing evil.
The slow and often painful task of cultivating and consolidating
this sense of a shared humanity, and thereby laying the foundations
for a truly moral community, was a collective responsibility.
It was this responsibility that those practicing satyagraha,
truth force, took upon themselves to discharge.* Those practicing
satyagraha were in essence returning not evil for evil, but
good for evil, thereby striving to overcome that evil. As
Gandhi once said about a passage from the Old Testament, if
everyone took an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, we'd
all be blind and toothless.
As different and novel as Gandhi's ideals were at the time,
truth force has met with quite a few successes. The South
Africans did make a few small concessions to Gandhi's demands.
India did achieve its independence with Britain fairly peaceably,
without the bloodshed of sustained fighting.
But more importantly, because of his widespread notoriety
in the Western world, his actions planted seeds with many
people around the world. The Civil Rights movement in our
own country is a prime example of this, one I will explore
two weeks from now on the last part of this trinity of ahimsa.
But one can also think of the leaders of Poland and Germany
who coordinated a peaceful dismantling of the Iron Curtain,
and the slow but progressive talks and agreements Israel is
making with its neighbors. Talking to one another, conducting
serious and sincere negotiations is becoming more the norm
now than a quick and hasty decision to use arms to resolve
But Gandhi's methods have met with criticism as well. Not
every opponent's heart can be softened and opened, no matter
how much soul force and "suffering love" may occur.
Sociopaths or those who believe in a very different kind of
humanity's well-being may never be moved to change their ways
or their thinking by a satyagraha. One can perhaps think of
Saddam Hussien in this light.
Gandhi himself said his methods of truth force failed to consolidate
a mutually loving and accepting community of a united India.
He watched in dismay the partitioning of the largely Moslem
states of Pakistan and Bangladesh from the Hindu body of India
proper. And I am sure we all can think of many instances since
Gandhi's time that negotiations in various parts of the world
were still never even considered - or considered sincerely
- before fighting ensued.
But the seeds have been planted. Change comes slowly, almost
imperceptibly sometimes. But change does happen. People do
take up and carry on ideals started by others. Margaret Mead,
another Peace Abbey Pacifist Memorial entrant, once said "Never
doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can
change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."
Although Gandhi is known for his dealings with the issues
of evil - from oppression and injustice - on a national scale,
his ideals for a right and just community began on his ashram.
And one must begin with small numbers. The ideals of satyagraha,
of truth, or soul, force, of engaging the nonviolent moral
force of one's heart's core in resolving differences, must
begin in each individual before it moves on in ever widening
Lewis Randa at his Peace Abbey erected his own personal satyagraha
when he "forced" people in that small town to reconsider
some hard ideas they may have had - and he continues to do
so with all who pass by that memorial.
Are there times when a satyagraha, a truth force is called
for in your own individual life? A time when you may feel
morally, soulfully, spiritually and nonviolently called to
resolve a difference, end a conflict, correct an injustice,
thereby showing forth your deep reverence for all life? A
time when you feel called to help create a community with
a deep and abiding sense of a shared humanity, no matter what
horrible deeds a person in that community may have done? Can
you love, not hate, such a person - and attempt to dialogue
with such a person? Is it possible that violence can truly
end, that heartfelt relationships can rule each small community,
each nation, and the world? Gandhi said, in our responsive
reading this morning (#577), that it is possible.
Let us all ponder these questions in our hearts, that perhaps
a satyagraha seed or two may be planted in our own souls.
So may it be.
"Gandhi", by Bhikku Parekh