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Physical Training and Ahimsa – Mahatma Gandhi

Prof. Dr. Yogendra Yadav

Senior Gandhian Scholar, Professor, Editor and Linguist

Gandhi International Study and Research Institute, Jalgaon, Maharashtra, India

Contact No. – 09404955338, 09415777229


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Physical Training and Ahimsa – Mahatma Gandhi


Part of the course in physical training schools and gymnasia is training in the use of the sword, the spear and similar weapons. The Congress volunteers are taught various kinds of drill and in many places are given also the training I have mentioned. I have received a number of letters asking for my views on the subject from the point of view of ahimsa. Before I proceed to state my views, it is necessary to mention an important fact, viz., that physical fitness is the only thing examined in case of candidates intending to be recruited for a violent army. Old men, women, and raw youth are not regarded as eligible. Nor are those suffering from disease fit to be chosen. And it is necessary to insist on this rule in selecting these recruits. But the standard is quite the contrary for selecting recruits for a non-violent body. The chief thing to test is the candidate’s mental fitness. And so such a body may have old men, women, raw youth, the blind and the lame and even lepers, and it would bid fare to win. The ability to kill requires training. The ability to die is there in him who has the will for it.

One can conceive of a child of ten or twelve being a perfect satyagrahi; indeed we come across such in daily life. But for such a child to be recruited for a violent army is out of the question. In spite of the best will in the world he cannot have the physical fitness. But to say that lepers and children are eligible for a non-violent army is not to say that a non-violent person need have no regard for physical fitness. Ahimsa requires certain duties which can be done only by those with a trained physique. It is therefore most necessary to consider what kind of physical training a non-violent person should receive. Very few of the rules applying to a violent army will apply to a non-violent body. A violent army will not have its arms for show but definitely for destructive purposes. A non-violent body will have no use for such weapons and will therefore beat its swords into plough-shares and spears into pruning hooks, and will shrink from the thought of using them as lethal weapons. The violent soldier will be trained in the use of violence by being taught to shoot. The non-violent soldier will have no time for this pastime. He will get all his training through nursing the sick, saving those in danger at the risk of his own life, patrolling places which may be in fear of thieves and dacoits, and in laying down his life, if necessary, in dissuading them from their purpose. Even the uniforms of the two will differ.

The violent man will wear a coat of mail for his protection, and his uniform will be such as can dazzle people. The uniform of the non-violent man will be simple, in conformity with the dress of the poor, and betokening humility. Its purpose will be just to keep him from heat and cold and rain. A violent soldier’s protection will be his arms, no matter how much he takes God’s name. He will not shrink from spending millions on armaments. The first and last shield and buckler of the non-violent person will be his unwavering faith in God. And the minds of the two will be as poles asunder. The violent man will always be casting about for plans to work the destruction of his enemy and will pray to God to fulfil his purpose. The national anthem of the British people is worth considering in this connection. It prays to God to save the King, to frustrate the enemy’s knavish tricks, and to destroy him. Millions of Englishmen sing this anthem aloud with one voice standing respectfully. If God is the Incarnation of Mercy, He is not likely to listen to such prayer, but it cannot but affect the minds of those who sing it, and in times of war it simply kindles their hatred and anger to white heat. The one condition of winning a violent war is to keep the indignation against the enemy burning fiercely. In the dictionary of the non-violent there is no such word as an external enemy. But even for the supposed enemy he will have nothing but compassion in his heart. He will believe that no man is intentionally wicked, that there is no man but is gifted with the faculty to discriminate between right and wrong, and that if that faculty were to be fully developed, it would surely mature into non-violence. He will therefore pray to God that He may give the supposed enemy a sense of right and bless him. His prayer for himself will always be that the spring of compassion in him may ever be flowing and that he may ever grow in moral strength so that he may face death fearlessly. Thus since the minds of both will differ as the poles, their physical training will also differ in the same degree.

We all know more or less what military training is like. But we have hardly ever thought that non-violent training must be of a different kind. Nor have we ever cared to discover whether in the past such training was given anywhere in the world. I am of opinion that it used to be given in the past and is even now being given in a haphazard way. The various exercises of Hath Yoga are in this direction. The physical training given by means of these imparts among other things physical health, strength, agility, and the capacity to bear heat and cold. Shri Kuvalayanandji is making scientific researches in the technique and benefits of these exercises. I have no knowledge of the progress he has made, nor do I know whether he is making his experiments with ahimsa as his goal. My reference to Hath Yoga is meant only with a view to showing that this ancient type of non-violent training still exists, though I know that there is room in it for improvement.

I do not know either that the author of this science had any idea of mass non-violence. The exercises had at their back the desire for individual salvation. The object of the various exercises was to strengthen and purify the body in order to secure control of the mind. The mass non-violence we are now thinking of applies to people of all religions, and therefore the rules that may be framed must be such as can be accepted by all believers in ahimsa. And then as we are thinking of a non-violent army, that is to say of bringing into being a Satyagraha Sangh, we can but build a new accepting the old as our foundation. Let us then think of the physical training required by a satyagrahi. If the satyagrahi is not healthy in mind and body, he may perhaps fail in mustering complete fearlessness. He should have the capacity to stand guard at a single spot day and night; he must not fall ill even if he has to bear cold and heat and rain; he must have the strength to go to places of peril, to rush to scenes of fire, and the courage to wander about alone in desolate jungles and haunts of death; he will bear, without a grumble, severe beatings, starvation and worse, and will keep to his post of duty without flinching; he will have the resourcefulness and capacity to plunge into a seemingly impenetrable scene of rioting; he will have the longing and capacity to run with the name of God on his lips to the rescue of men living on the top storey’s of buildings enveloped in flames; he will have the fearlessness to plunge into a flood in order to rescue people being carried off by it or to jump down a well to save a drowning person. This list can be extended ad labium.

The substance of it all is that we should cultivate the capacity to run to the rescue of people in danger and distress, and to suffer cheerfully any amount of hardship that may be inflicted upon us. He who accepts this fundamental principle will easily be able to frame rules of physical training for satyagrahis. I have a firm conviction that the very foundation of this training is faith in God. If that is absent, all the training one may have received is likely to fail at the critical moment. Let no one pooh-pooh my statement by saying that the Congress has many people who are ashamed to take the name of God. I am simply trying to state the view in terms of the science of Satyagraha as I have known and developed it. The only weapon of the satyagrahi is God, by whatsoever name one knows Him. Without Him the satyagrahi is devoid of strength before an opponent armed with monstrous weapons. Most people lie prostrate before physical might. But he who accepts God as his only Protector will remain unbent before the mightiest earthly power. As faith in God is essential in a satyagrahi, even so is brahmacharya. Without brahmacharya the satyagrahi will have no lustre, no inner strength to stand unarmed against the whole world. Brahmacharya may have here the restricted meaning of conservation of the vital energy brought about by sexual restraint, and not the comprehensive definition I have given of it. He who intends to live on spare diet, and without any external remedies, and still wants to have physical strength, has need to conserve his vital energy.

It is the richest capital man can ever possess. He who can preserve it ever gains renewed strength out of it. He who uses it up, consciously or unconsciously, will ultimately be impotent. His strength will fail him at the right moment. I have often written about the ways and means of conserving this energy. Let the reader turn to my writings and carry out the instructions. He who lusts with the eye or the touch can never conserve his vital energy, or the man who lusts after flesh-pots. Those who hope to conserve this energy without strict observance of the rules will no more succeed than those who hope to swim against the current without being exhausted. He who restrains himself physically and sins with his thoughts will fare worse than he who, without professing to observe brahmacharya, lives the life of a restrained householder. For he who lusts with the thought will ever remain unseated and will end his life a moral wreck and burden on the earth. Such a one can never be a full satyagrahi. Nor can one who hankers after wealth and fame. This is the foundation of the physical training for a satyagrahi. The detailed structure of the course can easily be built in consonance with this foundation. It should now be clear that in the physical training of a satyagrahi there is no room for lethal weapons like the sword or the spear. For far more terrible weapons than we have seen are in existence today, and newer ones are being invented every day. Of what fear will a sword rid him who has to cultivate the capacity to overcome all fear real or imaginary?

 I have not yet heard of a man having shed all fear by learning sword-play. Mahavir and others who imbibed ahimsa did not do so because they knew the use of weapons, but because in spite of the knowledge of their use they shed all fear. A slight introspection will show that he who has always depended on the sword will find it difficult to throw it away. But having deliberately discarded it he is likely to find his ahimsa more lasting than that of him who, not knowing its use, fancies he will not fear it. But that does not mean that in order to be truly non-violent one must beforehand possess and know the use of arms. By parity of reasoning, one might say that only a thief can be honest, only a diseased person can be healthy, and only a dissolute person can be a brahmachari. The fact is that we have formed the habit of thinking along traditional grooves and will not get out of them. And as we cannot take a detached view, we cannot draw the right conclusions, and get caught in delusive snares. If I have the time, I hope to present the reader with a model course of training.



Harijan, 13-10-1940

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