Nonviolence: Introduction

Working Definitions

Nonviolence is also known as “love in action.” As a constructive power, it’s unleashed when potentially destructive drives like fear or anger are converted into creative equivalents like love and compassion.

Nonviolence, when harnessed systematically and in an experimental, scientific spirit, can be used as a force for realizing greater security, justice and social unity. In the words of Mahatma Gandhi, “nonviolence is the greatest power at the disposal of humankind.”

A working definition of nonviolence is an important first step. Putting it into practice is another key step. We’ve outlined six guiding principles (PDF) to get you started.

The Power of Transformation

In 1992, terrible riots broke out in Gandhi’s home state of Gujarat when an armed “Hindu” mob descended on a rural village with the aim of killing Muslims. Almost all the village men had been out in the fields working. The women reacted quickly, however, and gave their Muslim neighbors refuge in their homes. As most of the villagers lived in one-room cottages, the women safeguarded their Muslim neighbors in near-plain sight, underneath their household altars.

The mob stormed up to one home screaming, “Are you hiding a Muslim in there?!” “Yes,” the woman inside calmly replied. Somewhat nonplussed, the men barked, “We are coming in to get them!” Then the woman with equal calm said, “First kill me, then only you may enter.” As though by some prearrangement, each of the village’s women responded the same way to the mob. Virtually every Muslim in that village—and some others who didn’t live there—was saved.

Book cover image

How can we explain the women’s power in overcoming the threat of armed men at their doors? In his book The Three Faces of Power, economist Kenneth Boulding coins terms for three kinds of power. “Threat power” is a coercive force that can be summarized as You do something I want, or I will do something you don’t want, and it’s this type of power that the crazed mob in the Indian village wielded. Threat power can be effective in achieving a result for the one wielding it, but it damages the relationship and creates distance between the two parties. In the long run, it always makes things worse.

A second type of power, exchange power, is neutral: If you give me something I want, I will give you something you want. The parties make a mutually agreeable trade in which no one is coerced, and while the two are not driven apart, they’re not brought much closer together. The third kind of power Boulding refers to is “integrative power,” and it’s what the village women in the story above tapped into. Integrative power is more subtle. Boulding formulates it this way: “I will be authentic, and it will bring us closer together.” Transforming conflict into strengthened relationships through persuasion rather than coercion is nonviolence.

Love & Wisdom

There is a source of love and wisdom operating in every person, in many ways and in all kinds of relationships. With the relationship of conflict at its core, integrative power, or nonviolence, evokes a deep response in an onlooker or an opponent, whether the response arises to the surface or not. In the last 20 years or so, science has found more evidence for the existence of nonviolent power within us as well as its predictable effect on others.

Biologist Mary Clark identified three basic human needs beyond the physical needs of food, clothing, and shelter: bonding, autonomy and meaning. That the village Hindu women above were willing to die alongside their Muslim neighbors unleashed a persuasive effect on the armed men. This true story illustrates the deep power of appealing to the human need for bonding and integration with others. It brings us to another good working definition of nonviolence, to add to the one we started with at the top of this page:

Nonviolence arises from the conversion of a negative drive, such as anger or fear, into constructive action. It can be cultivated systematically, and in this sense we could say that nonviolence is the science of appealing to the human need for integration.

Metta Center founder and president Michael Nagler gives this illustration in his American Book Award-winning The Search for a Nonviolent Future:

I am thinking of the anger Gandhi experienced that fateful night of May 31, 1893, when he was thrown off the train at Pietermaritzburg a week after his arrival in South Africa. This was no minor irritation; according to his own testimony, Gandhi was furious. That, along with the fact that Gandhi is more than usually articulate about his inner experiences, is what makes this event (among millions of similar insults human beings endure at one another’s hands) such an important window into the dynamics of nonviolent conversion. The first clue as to how he finally succeeded, after a night of bitter reflection, to see the creative way out is that he didn’t take the insult personally; he saw in it the whole tragedy of man’s inhumanity to man, the whole outrage of racism. Not “they can’t do this to me,” but “how can we do this to one another?” The second clue is the state of his faith in human nature. Already at that period he believed that people could not stay blind to the truth forever. He did not yet know how to wake them up; he just knew they could not want to stay forever asleep. That is how he was able to find the third way between running home to India and suing the railroad company. Imagine the old-fashioned locomotive carrying this “coolie barrister” from Durban up the mountains to Pretoria, standing at the station in Pietermaritzburg with a good head of steam. You could shovel in more coal and just bottle up all that power and even pretend it wasn’t there, until finally it exploded, or you could just open the valves and scald everyone on the platform—but surely you would want to use it to drive the train. This is what Gandhiji was going through with all the emotional power built up in him by the accumulated insults he had met since his arrival at the Durban pier. He chose neither to “pocket the insult,” as he said, nor to lash out at the immediate source of the pain. He launched what was to become the greatest experiment in social change in the modern world.

Following his experience at Pietermaritzburg, Gandhi went on to develop active nonviolence as a form of resistance that he came to call Satyagraha, literally “clinging to truth” (it’s sometimes translated as “truth force” or “soul force”). An excellent example of Satyagraha can be found in Richard Attenborough’s 1982 film Gandhi, the scene in which Gandhi gives a speech to Hindu and Muslim Indians in the Empire Theatre in South Africa, after the British Raj passed repressive laws requiring, among other things, fingerprinting of all Indians. The event portrayed in the film is historically accurate, but the speech in the film, though true in spirit to Gandhi, is not historically accurate. (Read an excerpt of the film speech below the video player.)

Excerpted film speech:

In this cause I, too, am prepared to die, but my friends there is no cause for which I am prepared to kill. Whatever they do to us we will attack no one, kill no one, but we will not give our fingerprints not one of them. They will imprison us. They will fine us. They will seize our possessions. But they cannot take away our self respect if we do not give it to them. I am asking you to fight. To fight against their anger, not to provoke it. We will not strike a blow, but we will receive them. And through our pain we will make them see their injustice. And it will hurt, as all fighting hurts. But we cannot lose. We cannot. They may torture my body, break my bones, even kill me. Then, they will have my dead body, not my obedience.

Gandhi’s Satyagraha was grounded in the ancient principle of Ahimsa, translated into English as nonviolence but in its original Sanskrit implies “the power released when all desire to harm is overcome.” In the nonviolent approach to conflict, we aim to resist wrongs without resisting people—no wishing them harm or doing anything to compromise their long-term well-being and fulfillment.

Explore Further

Gandhi called nonviolence “the greatest power human kind has been endowed with.” Learn more about the history, theory and practice of nonviolence by exploring the resources and materials on our site. We also offer workshops and courses (online and in-person).