James Lawson Institute

Gandhi’s Paradox : The Warrior and the Pacifist

August 1, 2017 Recovering History 0

By: Lester R. Kurtz

CONVENTIONAL wisdom assumes that power grows out of the barrel of a gun, as Mao put it, or is given to those who steer a course down the mainstream. Mahatma Gandhi, however, is a “counterplayer” whose success lies not in accepting dominant paradigms but in challenging them. Most of the world’s religious and philosophical traditions have ambivalent guidelines for individuals and collectivities to use in deliberating about whether to fight or to flee. Most traditions embrace two opposing polar motifs regarding the use of violence, however, with intermediate taboo lines that allow the use of violence when certain criteria are met. On one end of the spectrum is the warrior motif that allows or requires the use of violence as a sacred obligation and on the other end is the pacifist motif that prohibits it with the same divine sanction. Ironically, most traditions include elements of both ends of the spectrum; established religions often emphasize the warrior motif while rallying the troops (and support for them) but promote the pacifist motif to facilitate the domestic peace. A similar theme appears in Hinduism. Despite some injunctions against violence in the ancient Vedic literature, the popular Hindu epics such as the Mahabharata are replete with violent battles and sacrifices. Virtually all spiritual traditions give contradictory advice on the use of force in conflict: the warrior motif advocates warfare as a religious duty (as in Krishna’s advice to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita), whereas the pacifist motif prohibits harming others (as in the concept of ahimsa). Gandhi takes from the warrior concept the duty to fight and from the pacifist principle the notion of nonharmfulness, to develop Satyagraha as a way of fighting without harming. Gandhi’s strategy was to confront existing assumptions, to seize alternative sources of power (not in order to hold but rather to disperse it) and to create a new paradigm of conflict based on ancient spiritual teachings. Gandhi emerges as a charismatic nonviolent leader out of the violence of the twentieth century and the colonial world system, and a proponent of freedom out of a context of oppression. Like the lotus rising out of the mud Gandhi does not so much echo as challenge the political culture of our time. He creatively addresses a wide range of conflicts by constructing a nonviolent approach to a context of violent conflict, from religious and communal to political and economic. His legacies do not provide techniques for fleeing to the mountains for solitary meditation or the withdrawal of a sanyasi from society. Rather, they play a major role in challenging the world system of European colonialism and establish the groundwork for a new kind of social movement that challenges systems of domination throughout the world.

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