Ahimsa (nonviolence) - Guiding Light For Martin Luther King Jr.

Tara C.

Martin Luther King Jr. was greatly influenced by the principle of Ahimsa (nonviolence) which brought a turning point at times of challenges during the American civil rights movement.

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Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.Photo bykinginstitute.stanford.edu

Let's take a moment on the occasion of Martin Luther King Jr.'s Birthday to understand and learn from his approach to civil movements. Mahatma Gandhi set an example to the world by practicing Ahimsa (nonviolence) during India’s freedom struggle. After learning about this, Dr. King followed the same path of nonviolence during the American civil rights movement.

“While the Montgomery boycott was going on, India's Gandhi was the guiding light of our technique of nonviolent social change.” - Martin Luther King Jr. in his Autobiography chapter 13.

Roots of Ahimsa

Ahimsa (nonviolence) is rooted in Hindu texts and Mahatma Gandhi got in-depth knowledge and admiration of these Hindu texts. Ahimsa (nonviolence) is the first of five Yama (ethical precepts), the other four are Satya (truthfulness), Asteya (non-stealing), Brahmacharya (Chastity), Aparigraha (non-coveting). Yama is one of the 8 limbs of Yoga which Sage Patanjali compiled around 200 BC. Two other widespread limbs of Yoga are Asana (physical postures), and Dhyana (meditation) which are benefitting most people worldwide today in one way or another.

Ahimsa beyond nonviolence

Translated, the Sanskrit word Ahimsa means nonviolence. However, this term implies more than just avoidance of physical violence. Ahimsa implies total harmlessness in both thoughts and actions.

Dr. King’s notion of nonviolence had six key principles as documented in Stride Toward Freedom.

"First, one can resist evil without resorting to violence. Second, nonviolence seeks to win the “friendship and understanding” of the opponent, not to humiliate him. Third, evil itself, not the people committing evil acts, should be opposed. Fourth, those committed to nonviolence must be willing to suffer without retaliation as suffering itself can be redemptive. Fifth, nonviolent resistance avoids “external physical violence” and “internal violence of spirit” as well. ...The sixth principle is that the nonviolent resister must have a “deep faith in the future,” stemming from the conviction that “The universe is on the side of justice”." - Martin Luther King Jr.

Mahatma Gandhi adopted both the negative and positive senses of Ahimsa as compiled in the letter he wrote which was published in the Modern Review in 1916.

"..in its negative form, [Ahimsa] means not injuring any living being whether by body or mind. I may not, therefore, hurt the person of any wrong-doer or bear any ill-will to him and so cause him mental suffering. In its positive form, Ahimsa means the largest love, the greatest charity. If I am a follower of Ahimsa, I must love my enemy or a stranger to me as I would my wrong-doing father or son. This active Ahimsa necessarily included Truth and fearlessness." - Mahatma Gandhi

Ahimsa and self-defense

Self-defense is everyone’s duty. There should not be any dilemma about self-defense and Ahimsa. In self-defense to protect self, sometimes one may have to hurt an intruder. Even then he would harbor no hatred in his heart. Another aspect to consider is the duty based on one's role in life. Ahimsa relates more to the thought behind action than the action itself. The action itself is often neutral. For example, a doctor cutting off a limb to cure cancer versus an evil person cutting off a limb.

The World Is One Family

In the case of a family, there is a better understanding, sensitivity, and caring for each other. It is easier to perceive Ahimsa if we consider extending this notion of family beyond the nuclear family. Together let's create a cohesive community encompassing all and supporting each other as emphasized by Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, a Sanskrit phrase rooted in Hindu texts, which means "The World Is One Family".

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