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Non-violent protest

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Non-violent protest 

There is a philosophical difference between non-violence and non-violent protest.


In one of the ancient-most scriptures of Jainism, the Tattvārthadhigama Sūtra, violence is defined as “to hurt the prāṇas (vitalities) through vibration due to the passions, which agitate mind, body or speech (vii: 13).” So non-violence means not to do so. The prāṇas are the vital energies running through our body and the universe. They spring forth from the jīvas or ātma of all living beings. They invigorate the body and its energetic processes, but also support the mind, or rather its thoughts. They connect, like cords or streams, all beings with each other. Influencing the prāṇas means to influence the whole being, its health, its thoughts and emotions as well as all mutual relations. The word ‘emotion’ literally means ‘stirring up.’ Therefore no particular prāṇa can be influenced, positively or negatively, without affecting all beings in the universe.

Prāṇas are moved and empowered by emotions and passions. Emotions (literally: stirrings up) are aroused when the mind recognizes something that brings forth a feeling of recognition (from memory) of happiness or suffering. There are high emotions, like those which stir on recognition of beauty of the divine, compassion, inspiration, etc., and lower emotions which are stirred up when a personal attachment, the ego, is attacked or endangered. Neutral thoughts, if such exist, do not bring about emotions. Passions are great emotions which come about when the mind attaches itself to an the idea in the form of a thought, word, thing or feeling, and desires to unite with its object or to acquire it for one’s own ego. According to the Buddha, the believe in one’s ego as separate from other ego’s is the greatest heresy, the cause of all selfishness, and therefore the great ignorance giving rise to all suffering. In all cases the prāṇas of the souls are set into motion, and this what we call the experiences of emotion. If the thought is instigated by passion or desire the prāṇas are powerful, and lead to action, either for good or for bad. Then they attract and bind karmas of the coarsest kind, which cling to the Soul or jīva, and bring about its limitations in physical ability. More subtle and therefore more powerful are the karmas attracted by inner emotions. They cling to the soul as well and determine the souls emanations for good or bad. The prāṇas thus create a karmic veil or shield between our divine and our personal being. This shield can be made thinner or thicker depending on our ways of thinking and feeling. Karmas build a veil or shield between our personal consciousness on one hand and our inner knowledge, wisdom and perception, our pure universal consciousness on the other hand. The last is the consciousness, wisdom and perception of Truth which is our essence, which is the Universe itself.

Until the moment of awakening comes, a human being can hardly contain his thoughts and emotions. And once this moment arrives, we still have a long way to go to master all illusions and other karmas hanging on from the past. We could say that the first form is the higher side of man – the higher mind or manas, while the thoughts and personal emotions and passions represent the lower side of the human being.

The higher and the lower mind within man are in continuous struggle as long as people are still in bondage and blindness because of the workings of their lower mind and its karmic consequences. This continues until the moment one allows the first spark of awakening within oneself. Until that moment their struggle and violence will never stop. And continue as a reflection of that inner struggle (still unrecognized by the unawakened soul as being inner alone, in reality). ‘All family feuds, all class-struggles, all national wars, all religious crusades are but reflected ramifications of the eternal strife between the higher and the lower selves of man. One should realize the fact that battles in the outside world are but shadowy replicas of those which are fought within ourselves. The hands of men war against their heads, or their minds against theirs hearts, or their pride against their principles. The struggle between our material and spiritual selves is constantly going on.’

However one can curtail at least outer violence by the constant awareness and mindfulness that no living being should ever be made to suffer. Nonviolence is the key concept for a better world. It belongs to the core of the Soul.

How to accomplish non-violence? By self-discipline and mindfulness. However great one’s inner passions and desires, as long we have not reached inner nonviolence: watch them, acknowledge them. One must keep one’s mind in check in all circumstances, away from whatever thoughts of self-interest my arise in it.

A purpose of a yogi is to become free of passions and even of the possibility to have thoughts which can give rise to passions. He becomes unable to hurt himself or any other beings. All beings who have not reached that high state of liberation, almost human beings and all other creatures in the universe, are constantly influencing themselves and their environment – instantly and up to the remotest corner of the Universe, it is said.

External violence, whether in body, speech or, above all, mind is always a sin. The only exception would be when it arises from true inner calm and only for compassionate reasons. Karma itself works like that. Karma can, in some cases, be called “compassion-born violence.” Violence is there, in Nature, all around us. It is sometimes the only way in this period of cyclic evolution in which Nature can teach humans and other living beings, if they don’t listen to the wisdom of the gods or their own inner Self. Karma is the highest wisdom, the highest justice – to be respected by the gods themselves. But no human being possesses the wisdom of karma, and human violence should therefore in all cases be avoided.

Karma is the Law of laws and is not bothered by human standards of acceptability. It are humans who by their own free will choose to protest against the injustice in the world in a nonviolent way. And that is what counts. People like the almost archetypal examples, M.K. Gandhi, M.L. King, N. Mandela, V. Havel, the Dalai Lama, but also innumerable others on their own scale, are truly noble human beings – at least in that part of their nature. These people too will have their karma – they may even have postponed their own liberation of mokṣa, but it was out of true compassion, for the sake of others.

Violence can be manifest in its most obvious form, that means, on the physical level. It is than visible in the form of fights, war, destruction etc. On the vocal level it manifests as shouting and harsh talk, evil commands, insults etc. On a still more subtle, but its most powerful manifestation, is manifests as thoughts. Violent thoughts are carried by the prāṇas until their goal is reached, and thoughts travel fundamentally unlimited in the Universe. There are no boundaries for them.

The ultimate aim for all creatures is to reach mokṣa or nirvāṇa, and being all interconnected, they will strive for this together. It is absolute non-violence, absolute non-stirring of any prāṇas. In the universal sense all beings are there to help each other, because they have the same spiritual aim: that is to reach self-conscious awareness of their real imperishable innate birth right: which is jīva. Is that the highest aim?

But just as beings can help each other, they can also obstruct each other, and cause suffering to each other – at least temporarily. Ultimately karma will correct the obstructers or evil-doers by its own painful ways – of which we see millions of examples around and within ourselves in daily life.


Protest is defined as an expression of objection, by words or by actions, to particular events, policies or situations, etc. It is conscious mental and/or emotional awareness of a unwished for situation on which one usually takes action to make others aware of the same and/or counteract that situation in order to replace it by another situation. Necessarily, it involves the awareness of ‘wrong’ and the wish to correct this ‘wrong’ as well as the action taken to accomplish one’s wish. As such, protest can never be the same as non-violence, philosophically. Right and wrong can be impersonal, unstained by self-interest, as it should; or it can be measured to coarse or subtle forms of self-interest, as is often done in our society. Then right is not really right, but only a nice dress for a concealed evil. Then, protest itself becomes a weapon serving the lower side of man.

Protest in itself is not an ethical principle. Protests can be physically violent, by means of fists, weapons or power exertion by stronger entities (such as governments, the military, etc.). Luckily is now widely understood by large groups of people that violence as a means of protest leads not only to suffering for others as well as (unavoidably) for oneself, but even by the masses it is greatly understood, not only that violent action is often unsuccessful in its direct aim, but moreover tends to puts off the solution of the issue to an unknown future. Thus the reaching of one’s goal is rather hampered than furthered by taking refuge to violence. From a rational point of view non-violent protest is almost always a far better means to reach one’s goal than violence – certainly in the longer term view. By non-violence alone can ages-old cycles of violence upon violence be broken up and eliminated – at least for the time being, as long as the cyclic wave of the incarnated souls of a particular period can grasp that wisdom, and when karma allows.

Protest is not ethical in itself, but it can become so. People can protest against a conceived or imagined evil, however also against an obvious good. The impulse to protest can be unselfish, socially neutral, or socially selfish. The first category, the unselfish is exemplified by many actions against injustice towards others, to the society or the world as a whole, even if the protester may not directly be personally involved in the suffering (such as human rights violations, violations of universal justice and ecological issues at large). Com-passion means literally: suffering with others, either in reality or in realistic imagination. The second category (the socially neutral one) is exemplified by (most) strikes by employees or students for the betterment of their own situation. It is their civil right to use such means against suppression and maltreatment. Active civil disobedience and hunger strikes, etc. may be classified under the second category, the socially neutral one. The action then is non-violent, but the motivation is partly violent (one wants to destroy an unwished-for situation rather than transform it from within). Civil disobedience, non-cooperation and strikes belong under the category of protest without physical violence, but not under the category of absolute non-violence. These are rather ‘non-violent violence’ as contrasted with ‘violent violence.’ But when civil disobedience in constant contemplation of the higher good – the Gandhian approach – and the protesters are completely indifferent with regards the consequences for oneself, then, and only then, it belongs to the first and noblest category.

The third category, the socially selfish one, is exemplified by actions such as, for example, we have seen in India, where particular scheduled tribes or castes protest against privileges given to others (supposedly diminishing their own privileges). In such cases there can be no solution other than compromise – which is still nonviolent. Both parties have to be willing, for rational reasons, to sacrifice, to gave rather than to take. Then the protest may result in thoughts and deeds of altruism, even of group-altruism, which ennobles in stead of derides the human soul.

We know that protests of the second and third categories can be both violent and non-violent.

Non-violent protest can, in practice, be non-violent in the physical sense only. At the same it can be violent is language, emotion and thought, while the motivation can be unselfish as well as selfish. Can motivations ever justify the means, even if unselfish? This is a fundamental question. Justification is often but self-justification or justification of a limited perception of morality, such as sectarian moralities. Selfish action can even make use of very subtle means, apparently ‘clean’ and nonviolent: such as lobbyists belonging to industries or other interest groups ‘whispering’ attractions into politicians of other powerful persons. Such actions seem very non-violent, but in reality they are not so at all. It all depends on their motivation

It is clear that no form of protest can withstand the definition of non-violence given by the religions, even if the protest is performed by non-violent means. These is always a motive, a movement of the prāṇas involved, whether physical, vocal or mental.

The non-violence of Mahatma Gandhi is something different from protest. It is an ethical principle on its own. It is non-violence for the sake of non-violence. As non-violence is an innate noble property of the soul itself, practicing non-violence is a noble action in itself. It elevates the soul of the performer as well as that of the receiver. Non-violence in itself is not meant in the first place to accomplish anything for oneself, but to elevate the human soul in general, to enhance the people’s spiritual understanding of truth and reality. Gandhi was perhaps one of the few who had understood that the arousal of the latent nobility within the souls of the other – often by showing his opponent the other cheek – would naturally lead to a better situation for all souls involved – and that forever in foreseeable future.

Mohandas Gandhi was greatly influenced by several people and thought streams with which he came in contact. First, when still young (after a rather naughty youth) when in London, he met the Ukrainian born theosophist Mme Blavatsky and studied with the theosophists around them. It was through them that he became aware of the values of his own (Hindu) religion, notably the wisdom of the Bhagavad-Gītā, which he learned to appreciate as a book of inner courage and spiritual strive rather than a stimulus to warfare as it has been interpreted by many. A second major influence came from his youth, because he was, by his mother, given to a Jain mentor. Later he came in contact with a young businessman and friend Śrimad Rajchandra.

Gandhi has also said that Jesus played a great part in his life and he that was filled by the beauty of the Sermon on the Mount. And to Gandhi, Islam manifested the spirit of brotherhood as in no other religion.

It is noteworthy that the logon of the Theosophical movement: satyan nāsti paro dharma – there is no duty or religion higher than Truth, and one of the most important logons of the Jains is Ahisā paramo dharma – non-violence is the highest religion (or duty of way of life). The establishment of Brotherhood among all Humankind is the most fundamental aim in Theosophy, as it is (originally) in Islam.

The first purpose of Gandhi’s non-violence was always to find Truth – which naturally includes absolute justice, which is beyond the imperfect human ‘justice.’. His purpose was to raise the souls of all human beings, of whatever race or religion, of friend or foe. His second purpose, in India, was to liberate India from the their colonialists. For this last purpose he introduced and used the most absolute forms of non-violent action, such as non-obedience to unjust laws, personal fasting and indomitable will-power and preparedness to self-sacrifice. He won, at least as far as liberation from the British was concerned. Theoretically he could have lost: if the British would have been immoral and cruel enough to use large-scale armed violence against non-violent people – what would have resulted? Such as the Chinese did against the protesting student on Tiananmen Square (ironically meaning ‘the Gate of Heavenly Peace’). In China the ‘big bosses’ are still in power even today (2013). But as the Chinese themselves say: “the soft water will ultimately overcome that hardest rock.” It is a matter of time. Think, for example of the Chipko tree hugging movement, which had to wait for centuries after a massacre of nonviolent protesters by the authorities to gain success and world-wide sympathy when Bahaguṇa revitalized the idea.

One of the great followers, in that sense, of Gandhi is the present Dalai Lama – but the Chinese are keenly aware of that, and work in more subtle ways against the Tibetan ideal of freedom as the British did against the Indians.

Ultimately, however violent the opponent may be, non-violence will prevail because it touches the essence of the human heart, and the nobler goal will be reached. The good will win in the short or long term, and the evil will beat itself and submerge in its own hell.

The meaning of non-violence has become degraded and cascaded down several times since Mahāvīr, the Buddha and Gandhi. Sometimes non-violence itself has become a form of political violence, sometimes used for disputable objects. Still even then it saved a lot of human and other lives and suffering, of soldiers (the future fathers and servants of the society), their widows and orphans etc., and continues to do so. There is a tendency by certain regimes to ignore non-violent action entirely, thus draining out its energy – they just pay no attention, keep it out of the media, especially the foreign media. Of course authorities are always dead scared of majorities, and they will do everything in their power to destroy root and seed. But the power of Truth will ultimately win as long as there are enough human souls who carry it and support it. As long as there are enough human being who are the embodied power of nobility, even if watered down to an extent. Nowadays it has become the foremost weapon of the forcers for good. It can, however, possibly, also turn into more subtle levels of psychological warfare in the future.

If protest is by definition irreconcilable with the religious definition of the higher concept of ahiṁsā, should we support any form of protest at all? To my view the answer is emphatically YES. When it is cooperative with Truth and universal intuitive good. Besides Nonviolence exists Compassion, which naturally flows from our hearts and is supported by our minds: the wish to help others (independent of our own interests), to help a greater noble cause, to live justice. Inaction in a deed of mercy, KARMICALLY BECOMES A DEADLY SIN (as paraphrased from the Theosophical jewel The Voice of the Silence byH.P. Blavatsky).

A precondition for protest should ideally be unselfishness, genuinely felt com-passion (really felt suffering with others suffering). Vaclav Havel, the poet and self-sacrificing liberator of Czechia and Slovakia from the Russian yoke in Eastern Europe, spoke of thymos, a Greek word meaning, in this context, Holy Indignation, which gave him the impulse to utter self-sacrifice for the freedom of his people, and to inspire other European and global countries. In this present world more is needed than passive non-violence. It has to be in service of holy indignation. The protester should empty himself from any (hidden) selfish purpose or by-purpose. Mere good thought nowadays is not strong enough to reach the conscious mind of an opponent. It has to serve a mentally recognizable good. It has to constantly keep the noblest aim straight before the eyes, but also needs means to draw attention, to touch the mind of the opponent one wishes to address.

Even for those who wish to protest against something for nothing but their own aims, non-violence is the best means to reach the goal. Nevertheless, in such cases, the nobler opponent should never give in to whatever pressure, even non-violent pressure – out of cowardice or because of a ‘second agenda’ as governments or their officials often have.

According to Jeff Knaebel (a self-chosen American exile in India) in his Experiments in Moral Sovereignty1 some of the main precepts for ahiṃṣā – ‘the active form of love’ as he calls it are:

– That self-realization is the birthright of every human being

– That Ahiṁṣā is the only cognizable measure of a meritorious, moral act

– That nonviolent civil disobedience is a human birthright.

– That the concept of “just war” is morally invalid.

Therefore, to conclude, one should not say that every protest should be regarded as against what is right from a religious or philosophical point of view. Many non-violent protests nowadays show that people have developed a higher sense of self-consciousness, together with more insight, deeper thinking and also courage. Such people have made true strides on the Path of Noble Self-Sacrifice – which is greater than the Path to Liberation.

May Peace prevail on Earth.


  1. published by: Friends of the Gandhi Museum, Pune, Prakrit Bharati Academy, Jaipur, Gandhi Marak Nidhi, Jaipur. []