Book Review: Gandhi on Non-Violence edited by Thomas Merton
By Chandra Ganguly
Gandhi on Non-Violence was first published in 1965. It would be hard for any book on Gandhi not to be full of Gandhi’s own seemingly rather intractable views on non-violence as well as the author’s views, either in support or not, of the activist. The author, Thomas Merton (1915-1968), was well-known in the fields of spirituality, philosophy and social justice. In this book he brings forth a collection of Gandhi’s quotes on non-violence along with a couple of essays with his own views, mainly in support of Gandhi and non-violence as a doctrine.
In many ways, regardless of one’s own personal take on the man or the doctrine, this book is a fascinating read because it brings together effectively for the reader so many of Gandhi’s ruminations, convictions and sometimes contradictions about non-violence as a political act of defiance. Non-violence as a revolutionary act can be an excuse for the weak who do not wish to protest or fight, and the book reveals how this troubled Gandhi. It is not oft-publicized and these little-known quotes are what makes this a valuable read. Morton ends the book with quotes that reveal a more vulnerable and unsure Gandhi — “I failed to recognize, until it was too late, that what I had mistaken for ahimsa was not ahimsa, but passive resistance of the weak, which can never be called ahimsa even in the remotest sense.”(p.143)
For proponents of non-violence and for those who support Gandhi’s doctrines, it will also come as a shock that he says that non-violence was a mistake. “I have admitted my mistake. I thought our struggle was based on non-violence, whereas in reality it was no more than passive resistance, which essentially is a weapon of the weak. It leads naturally to armed resistance whenever possible.” (p.142) I was brought up on the stories of Gandhi and his strict adherence to non-violence, and it was a shock for me to come upon these lines. What does a country that has honoured him as the “Father of the Nation” then do?
More than fifty years later, this book has stood the test of time. Morton declares his support for Gandhi several times. “Gandhi’s observations on the prerequisites and the disciplines involved in Satyagraha, the vow of truth, are required reading for anyone who is seriously interested in man’s fate in the nuclear age.” (p.62) It is also part of the lasting discourse on Gandhi, his place in the present day politics, and his rather complicated position in India’s fight for freedom from British rule.
The reviewer lives in Palo Alto, California. She writes about the clash of cultures, loss of identities and the search for meaning. She is a pursuing her MFA in writing at Bennington College.