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The reclining statue of the Buddha in the Mahaparinirvana Temple at Kushinagar, in Uttar Pradesh
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For many today, non-violence is a concept only associated with Mahatma Gandhi and India's freedom struggle during the early 20th century. However, Gandhi's championing of non-violent resistance, or satyagraha, to bring about political change relied on principles that were already deeply ingrained in Indian thought and culture. Non-violence or non-injury (ahimsa in Sanskrit) is a precept common to three faiths that originated in the Indian subcontinent—Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism.
Ahimsa is identified as an essential virtue in the ancient Hindu treatises the Upanishads. In Hinduism, adherents to the proscription against violence toward living things can escape from the cycle of rebirth and the doctrine also forms a basis for vegetarianism.
In Buddhism, non-violence is manifest in the Buddha's emphasis on compassion and is also part of the faith's moral codes. Buddhist principles of non-violence became part of the administrative policy of the Mauryan Empire during the reign of Ashoka in the third century, and reminders of these principles, such as this reclining Buddha, can still be found throughout India.
In Jainism, non-violence is a core religious duty and followed so strictly that the most orthodox devotees cover their faces with masks to prevent accidentally harming insects.
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948), known as Mahatma ("Great Soul"), was the great political leader and social reformer who founded India's nonviolent movement against British colonial rule. Born the son of a state minister in Gujarat in 1869, Gandhi moved to South Africa after studying law in London. While practicing law in South Africa, between 1893 and 1914, he became a social reformer and mobilized diverse South African communities to protest British laws, such as the poll tax, that discriminated against Indians. While in Africa, he developed the practice of satyagraha, or nonviolent protest, based on the ethical ideal of ahimsa ("no-harm" or non-violence) a precept deeply rooted in the three faiths that originated in India—Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. In 1909, he wrote his landmark work, Hind Swaraj, or Freedom of India, that discussed nonviolent non-cooperation as a means to end British colonial rule.
After returning to India in 1915, Gandhi organized satyagrahas against poverty and unfair taxes, championing boycotts and peaceful strikes. In the 1920s, Gandhi reorganized the Indian National Congress and wrote its constitution that prioritized Congressional representation for rural India and created a permanent committee to agitate for independence. He also adopted a simpler way of life, eschewing European clothes for the traditional Indian dhoti and shawl, which he spun on a charkha; adhering to a strictly vegetarian diet; and undertaking fasts that he also employed in social protest.
From 1920 to 1948, Gandhi organized a series of campaigns that successfully mobilized Indians across the country against British rule. A non-cooperation movement in the early 1920s that urged citizens to boycott civic services and withhold tax revenues led to thousands of arrests and a government ban on public meetings. In 1930, he led a satyagraha against the British salt tax, marching 240 miles from his Sabarmati ashram to Dandi beach, in Gujarat. After picking up a lump of sea salt on the beach, Gandhi was arrested for breaking the law and 60,000 to 90,000 others would be arrested over the next few months. Before Gandhi could organize a "Quit India" campaign against British rule in 1942, he was arrested and detained in jail for the duration of World War II.
On January 30, 1948, Gandhi was assassinated in Delhi by a radical Hindu nationalist, Naturam Godse. India's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru famously said after Gandhi's assassination: "The light has gone out of our lives." His methods of nonviolence would influence civil rights movements around the world and figures including Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela.
Hindi for "holding fast to the truth" or "truth force," satyagraha was a form of civil disobedience against British rule in South Africa and India advocated by India's Mahatma Gandhi. Satyagraha draws on traditions of non-violence in Buddhism and Jainism and influenced 20th-century activists including Martin Luther King, Jr. Peaceful marches, picketing, and non-cooperation are among satyagraha tactics used to persuade the opposition to accept the ideal or right way of behavior.
Gandhi's first satyagraha in 1918 focused on residents in Bihar who were forced to grow and sell indigo for very low prices. Organized protests and strikes against landlords in Bihar led to agreements between the British government and the farmers. In 1919, another satyagraha focused on excessive taxes levied by the British on famine-stricken peasants in Gujarat. After Gujarati farmers waged a tax revolt, the British government seized their lands. In the wake of continued protest, the government eventually met farmers' demands by suspending taxes for two years and returning their lands.
Gandhi's most famous satyagraha, in 1931, targeted the British-imposed salt laws that punished individuals who manufactured their own salt. At 61 years old, Gandhi and a group of followers marched 240 miles from Sabarmati to the coast at Dandi, encouraging people he met along the way to use their own salt. When he reached the coast, he picked up a lump of salt from the beach, breaking the salt laws. The crowd then marched on a salt depot, and Gandhi was arrested. Between 60,000 and 90,000 Indians, including the entire Indian National Congress, were arrested in subsequent months. The march mobilized citizens across India but failed to garner concessions from the British.
Another critical satyagraha, Gandhi's Quit India Movement, culminated in the All India Congress Committee's passage of a 1942 Quit India resolution that called for the immediate withdrawal of the British from India. Gandhi and many other protesters, including members of the Indian National Congress, were imprisoned. The British would begin independence talks with the Indian National Congress in 1946, and granted India its independence in 1947.
Practiced primarily in India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal, Hinduism is considered the world's oldest religion, with traditions originating in and before the Neolithic era, around 8,000 years ago. Hinduism may have had its beginnings in the Indus River Valley in modern Pakistan, and the word hindu comes from the Persian name for that river.
A heterogeneous philosophy, Hinduism has no one founder and includes many sacred texts, the most ancient being the Vedas. Among the variety of genres included in the Vedic texts, composed 1500 – 1100 BCE, are hymns to gods, descriptions of rituals and philosophical writings. Commentaries on the Vedic books, written between 800 and 100 BCE, discuss the transcendent principal of Brahman, the source of the universe. Also influential are the great epics of the Mahabharata and Ramayana written between 500 BCE and 200 CE. Among these epics, the Bhagavad Gita describes the central idea of moksha, or liberation of the soul from the cycle of perpetual death and rebirth. The primary principle of karma determines the character of the soul in this cycle.
Although Hinduism contains elements of polytheism, monotheism and monism, all gods within Hinduism are today considered manifestations of Brahman. Many Hindus practice devotion to one of three main deities: Brahma, the creator of the cosmos; Vishnu, preserver of the cosmos; and Shiva, destroyer of the cosmos.
In Hinduism, the nature of the universe and the structure of society are closely linked. Brahman is the ultimate reality and also the name given to the highest (priestly) caste. The concept of dharma describes both cosmic law and the conduct of individuals in society, including adherence to the social order. Castes in orthodox Hindu society distinguished among people of priestly, military, merchant, peasant, and untouchable (individuals with no social standing) castes—now known as dalits and the focus of positive discrimination legislation and job quotas in today's democratic India.
Approximately 80% of India's population today practices Hinduism.
Buddhism is a religion or philosophy founded in the 5th century BCE by Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, born a prince of the Shakya clan in northern India. Much controversy surrounds the Buddha's birth and death, or parinirvana (the reaching of nirvana); the traditional date of his death is 486 BCE but some believe he was born sometime in the mid-fifth century BCE and died at Kushinagar between 400 and 350 BCE. The Buddha, the Buddhist community, and dharma (or religious law), are considered the Three Jewels of Buddhism.
The first of Four Noble Truths that Buddhism teaches is that all life is suffering (dhukka). Siddhartha arrived at this truth by observing disease, illness, suffering, and death in the forms of an old man, a blind man, a dying man, and a corpse. On a quest to find a way to break free from this suffering, Siddhartha left his wife and child to become an ascetic, traveling across the Magadha kingdom in northeast India and studying under a number of teachers. How to liberate the self from a constant cycle of birth and rebirth, or samsara, was his principle question. After six years of wandering, he found his answer and attained enlightenment while meditating under a tree in Boghgaya.
The Buddha's insights are crystallized in the remaining noble truth—that suffering is caused by desire (trishna); that suffering can be overcome; that by following the Eightfold Path (imagined as a cyclic Wheel of Dharma), individuals can become free of attachment and reach nirvana. The Eightfold Path includes living with right understanding, thought, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration. He also advocated living according to the "Middle Way," a path between severe asceticism and heady indulgence. The Buddha lived the remaining 45 years of his life after enlightenment as a wandering ascetic, delivering discourses and gaining followers, among them Magadha's king Bimbisara, who became a patron and provided generous donations including a monastery at his capital, Rajagaha (found in what is now the Indian state of Bihar).
Buddhists currently number around 400 million worldwide, and the philosophy's two major traditions are Theraveda—practiced primarily in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos—and Mahayana—practiced chiefly in China, Tibet, Japan, and Korea. Wesak, the celebration that marks the Buddha's birth in May, is the most important Buddhist festival.
The Buddha is the title given to the founder of Buddhism, and means "enlightened one." He was born Siddharta Gautama, a prince of the Shakya clan whose small kingdom was located on the border between India and Nepal. Although exact dates for key events of his life are still in dispute, most scholars believe he was born sometime in the mid-fifth century CE.
Siddharta grew up in luxury in the palace of his father, Suddhodhana, a warrior-caste king, and in his late teens married the princess Yasodhara. On venturing outside of the palace, he was shocked by the misery he witnessed—of an old man, a sick man, a dying man, and a corpse—and began to contemplate renouncing his princely life.
When Siddharta was about 29 years old, he left his wife and young son to seek religious enlightenment. He spent the next six years in his quest to understand and break free of temporal suffering. He studied under a number of teachers and lived as a wandering, religious ascetic, practicing extreme forms of self-deprivation. He eventually decided to abandon such austere practices and resolved to sit in meditation until gaining enlightenment. One day when he was mediating under a pipal tree in the village of Gaya, later known as Bodhgaya, he reached enlightenment and came to be called the Buddha.
For the next 45 years, the Buddha spent his life preaching his doctrine of the Four Noble Truths throughout northern India and attracted disciples and converts. The Buddha died, achieving parinirvana (final nirvana), at the age of 80 in the town of Kushinagar, in Uttar Pradesh.
In 320 BCE, the Nanda dynasty was overthrown by an officer in its army, Chandragupta Maurya (c. 320-298 BCE), and thus began the Mauryan Empire. By around 300 BCE, Chandragupta's empire included India south of the Hindu Kush and most of northern India as far south as the Narmada River. Writings of a Greek ambassador, Megasthenes, provide insights into the wealth and splendor of the Mauryan capital at Pataliputra (Patna), India's caste system, and the king, who Megasthenes wrote was constantly vigilant, fearing attempts on his life. A book about statecraft, Arthasastra, written in part by Chandragupta's head minister (additions were added in later centuries), discusses practical advice for rulers about how to run a kingdom and provides a window into Mauryan bureaucracy. Legends about Chandragupta are many and claim his family was related to the Buddha, that he met Alexander the Great, and that he resigned his kingship to become a Jain monk.
Ashoka the Great (c. 269-233 BCE) is largely considered the greatest Mauryan emperor and ruled over a territory stretching from the northern Himalayas into peninsular India and across the widest part of the subcontinent. Known for his principles of non-violence and religious tolerance, Ashoka modeled himself as a cakravartin, the Buddhist term for a "universal ruler," whose rule was based on the principle of dharma or conquest not by war but righteousness. To advance this principle, Ashoka had edicts based on the dharma carved on rocks, pillars, and caves throughout his kingdom and sent emissaries abroad to disseminate his views.
After Ashoka's death, the empire declined and lost territory under a series of weak rulers about whom little is known. In 185 BCE, Pushyamitra Shunga, a general, assassinated the last king of the Mauryan dynasty, Brihadratha.
Ashoka (Asoka), the third emperor of the Mauryan Empire, reigned from c. 269-233 BCE, and his exemplary story remains popular in folk plays and legends across southern Asia. The emperor ruled a vast territory that stretched from the Bay of Bengal to Kandahar and from the North-West Frontier of Pakistan to below the Krishna River in southern India. The year 261 BCE marks a turning point in Ashoka's reign when, in part to increase access to the Ganges River, he conquered the east coast kingdom of Kalinga. By Ashoka's account, more than 250,000 people were killed, made captive or later died of starvation. Feeling remorseful about this massive suffering and loss, the emperor converted to Buddhism and made dharma, or dhamma, the central foundation of his personal and political life.
Throughout his kingdom, the emperor inscribed laws and injunctions inspired by dharma on rocks and pillars, some of them crowned with elaborate sculptures. Many of these edicts begin "Thus speaks Devanampiya Piyadassi [Beloved of the Gods]" and counsel good behavior including decency, piety, honoring parents and teachers and protection of the environment and natural world. Guided by this principle, Ashoka abolished practices that caused unnecessary suffering to men and animals and advanced religious toleration. To further the influence of dharma, he sent his son, a Buddhist monk, to Sri Lanka, and emissaries to countries including Greece and Syria. To some historians, the edicts unified an extended empire, one that was organized into five parts governed by Ashoka and four governors. After his reign, Ashoka has become an enduring symbol of enlightened rule, non-violence, and religious tolerance. In 1950, the Lion Capital of Ashoka, a sandstone sculpture erected in 250 BCE, was adopted as India's official emblem by then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.
The statue of the Buddha reclining on his right side as he attained parinirvana (final nirvana) is carved out of sandstone, probably from Chunar near Varnasi (Benares) and roughly 20 feet long. The serene figure, with gilded head and feet, rests on a stone couch, which includes three small sculptures of devotees of the Buddha on its front side and an inscription that dates the statute to the fifth century CE. The severely damaged sculpture was uncovered by a British officer during excavations at Kushinagar in 1876 and successfully restored by him. Kushinagar, where the Buddha died, achieving parinirvana, and was cremated, is now an important Buddhist pilgrimage site.
Derived from the Sanskrit word "jina," meaning "to conquer," Jainism teaches that all life forms have an eternal soul bound by karma in a never-ending cycle of rebirth. Through nonviolence or ahimsa, the soul can break free of this cycle and achieve kaivalya. Traditions and ideas central to Jainism can be traced to the 7th century BCE, but Mahavira, the last of Jainism's 24 great spiritual teachers, formalized them into the Jain religion in the 6th century. Some scholars see the roots of the faith as far back as the Indus civilization in Gujarat.
Central to Jainism are five vows: nonviolence (ahimsa), truthfulness (satya), non-stealing (asteya), chastity (brahmacharya), and non-possession or non-attachment (aparigraha). As a manifestation of ahimsa, Jain monks wear nets over their mouths and sweep the street with their clothing so as to avoid harming insects, thereby accruing karma from not injuring even the smallest life forms. Mahavira, whose teachings are recorded in the Agamas texts, taught liberation through the three principles of right faith (samyak darshana), right knowledge (samyak jnana), and right conduct (samyak charitra).
Between the first and second centuries BCE, the Jains divided into an orthodox sect Digambara ("sky–clad") in which followers claimed adherence to Mahavira's philosophy by going without clothes, and the Shvetambara ("white–clad") sect. Approximately four million Jains practice the religion worldwide, and important places of pilgrimage among observers include Mt. Abu in Rajasthan, site of five ornate Jain temples, and Sravanabelagola, site of a 57.5 foot statue of Gomateshvara (Bahubali), Jainism's first spiritual leader or tirthankara. Today Sravanabelagola is the site of the Mahamastak Abhishek, the biggest Jain religious festival which takes place every 12 years, the last one in 2007.
- How did Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism influence India’s tradition of non-violence?
- How does Jainism complement Hinduism?
- What actions must Jains undertake to achieve Kaivalya?
- While non-violent, how is the implementation of satyagraha not a passive movement?
- In what ways did Martin Luther King, Jr. employ the satyagraha method utilized by Gandhi?