Mahatma Gandhi: The Absurdity of “Pure” Pacifism

by Nick Gier,

Where there is only a choice between cowardice
 and violence, I would advise violence.
—Mohandas K. Gandhi

Every year at this time I write to honor M. K. Gandhi on his birthday. Indian admirers called him The Mahatma (Great Soul), and October 2, he would have been 154 years old.

I began my book on Gandhi—The Virtue of Non-Violence— while on sabbatical in India in 1992. It took me another sabbatical and a research leave in India to finish it in 2004. Selected chapters can be found here:    

A Village of Fools

There is a story about Gandhi that may be apocryphal, but it makes a telling point about the limits of “pure” pacifism. One day some elders came to Gandi to report that a disaster had befallen their village. Some bandits had attacked them, raped their women, and stolen their livestock.

The village leaders said: “We want to be non-violent like you, but it didn’t seem to work.” Gandhi answered: “You are fools! In such a case you must defend yourselves at all costs. It is preferable to be violent than to be a coward.”

In 1908, while he was in South Africa developing his principles of non-violence, he was brutally attacked. After the event Gandhi’s eldest son asked him what he should have done if he had been present. Gandhi answered: “I told him that it was his duty to defend me even by using violence.”

Euthanasia for Animals and Humans

In August 1928, one of the calves in Gandhi’s Sabarmati Ashram became fatally ill. Gandhi declared that the only compassionate way to deal with the animal was to end its suffering.

This decision caused consternation among his disciples and the wider Hindu community. Many objected that it was a violation of his own principle of non-violence. At first, Gandhi wanted the local policeman to use his revolver, but his disciples suggested that an injection from a veterinarian would be more humane. Gandhi even left open the permissibility of human euthanasia.

The Pacifist’s Dilemma

Pacifists may obviously object to war, and they should be allowed to forego military service as conscientious objectors. But, as the examples above show, what should these people do when their loved ones are threatened with death and they have the capacity to stop it?

I side with Gandhi on the right action to take. This means that in case of direct threats to our nation, I would take up arms to defend our borders. At the age of 79, however, I would ask for a support position behind the lines. The terrorist attacks on 9/11 required a firm response, and I supported specific targeted military action to find Osama bin Laden and his accomplices.

Gandhi created an ambulance service to retrieve casualties during the British war against the South African Boers in 1899. In that capacity he held the rank of sergeant major. 

Proud to be a British subject, he supported military action against the Boers, and he also praised the one million Indian soldiers who fought in World War I. However, Gandhi was definitely not pleased when British Indian soldiers and police were used against his non-violent campaigns in his own country.

Gandhi Loses it on the Nazis

Gandhi’s position on the war against the Nazis initially sounded like the pragmatic non-violence in the stories above: “If there ever could be a justifiable war in the name of and for humanity, a war against Germany, to prevent the wanton persecution of a whole race, would be completely justified.”

In a baffling about-face, Gandhi gave this advice to the British: “This manslaughter must be stopped. You are losing; if you persist, it will only result in greater bloodshed. Hitler is not a bad man.” He proposed that the British lay down their arms and surrender to the Nazis.

Gandhi’s advice to the Jews is nothing short of outrageous: “If the Jewish mind could be prepared for voluntary suffering, even the massacre I have imagined could be turned into a day of thanksgiving and joy that Jehovah had wrought deliverance of the race even at the hands of the tyrant.”

Just Wars and Pacifism Compatible

The absurdities of pure pacifism have led many scholars to the conclusion that, as Umang Kanwat contends, “just war theory should begin with a pacifist anti-war premise.” This is sometimes called “qualified pacifism” or “contingent pacifism,” that is, non-violent action depends on the situation. I call this “pragmatic non-violence.”

Most governments pursue anti-war policies unless they are attacked. Every nation has the right to self-defense, and non-violent practitioner Marshall Rosenberg agrees with Gandhi that sometimes “protective force” is necessary.

The criteria for a just war were first set out by St. Thomas Aquinas. The first criterion is that war must be waged only with the permission of a legitimate government. Second, the war must be executed for a just cause, in Gandhi’s example, to respond to Hitler’s aggression. Third, soldiers must have the right intent and protect the lives of noncombatants

British vs. Nazis: Obvious Difference

It is perplexing that Gandhi did not see the difference between the Nazis and the British. The latter did commit several atrocities, the most wanton being the massacre of protesting Indians in an enclosed arena in Amritsar in 1919. The British soldiers fired on the crowd until their ammunition was exhausted. As many as 1,500 were killed and 1,200 injured.

If a German Gandhi had stood up to the Nazis, he would have been summarily executed. In stark contrast, Gandhi was given due process and was superb at flummoxing British judges. He always pled guilty to the charges and demanded full punishment for his crimes. He thoroughly enjoyed his times in prison—reading, writing, and greeting visitors. The British, most of the time, had a conscience.

Gandhi and Nuclear Weapons

One of my mentors for my Gandhi research was the late Mahendra Kumar. He was professor of political science at Delhi University, and he was also a fellow at the Gandhi Peace Foundation. Twice I had the privilege of inviting him to the University of Idaho under the auspices of The Martin Institute.

During his second visit, the Indian nationalist government had resumed nuclear testing. During a panel discussion that I arranged, we all expected Professor Kumar to condemn this decision. Much to our surprise and dismay, Kumar defended India’s possession of nuclear weapons as a justified deterrent to threats from neighboring Pakistan.

Nuclear Armed India and Pakistan

One of Gandhi’s principal goals was to bring India’s Muslims and Hindus together in peace, but Muslim leaders refused. The result, much to Gandhi’s dismay, was the creation of a Muslim Pakistan in 1947. Since that time the two countries have fought four wars (India winning each one), and they have built up a frightening arsenal of nuclear warheads—170 for Pakistan and 164 for India.

Gandhi: No Brief for Hindu Nationalism

Returning to the story above, it appears that the Hindu nationalists are portraying themselves as the innocent villagers being attacked by Pakistani bandits. I think that Gandhi would find this political posturing totally contrary to his principled, pragmatic non-violence.

Gandhi would have been aghast that Hindu nationalists have no respect for Muslim rights, and he would remind them that the invention of nuclear weapons was the “most diabolical use of science.” Elsewhere he asserted: “As far as I can tell, the atomic bomb has killed the noblest sensation that has nourished mankind for aeons.”

Nick Gier of Moscow taught religion and philosophy at the University of Idaho for 31 years. He was coordinator of religious studies from 1980 to 2003. He was senior fellow at the Martin Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution from 1990 to 2000. Read his articles on Gandhi at Email him at

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