Non-violent Protest

Published: 10.01.2013
Updated: 30.07.2015

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


In 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. 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 or the divine, and compassion, inspiration, etc.; and there are lower emotions, which are stirred up when a personal attachment, one’s ego, is attacked or endangered. According to the Buddha, the believe in one’s own 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.  All beings are interconnected. 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.

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.

The higher and the lower mind within man are in continuous struggle as long as people are still in bondage and blindness because 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 the inner struggle and violence will never stop. And as a reflection of that inner struggle (still unrecognized by the unawakened soul as being inner struggle, 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: our minds against our hearts, or our pride against our 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 for all. True nonviolence belongs to the core of the Soul.

How to accomplish nonviolence within oneself? 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.

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 true Compassion. Karma itself works like that. Karma can, in some cases, manifest as “compassion-born violence.” Violence is there, in Nature, all around us.  It is sometimes the only way, in this period in cycles of evolution, in which Nature, the Soul, can teach humans and other living beings, if they don’t listen to the wisdom of the gods or of 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 avoided.

Karma is the Law of laws and is not bothered by human standards of acceptability. There are humans who by their own 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 or mokṣa, but it was out of true compassion, for the sake of others.


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 to 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.

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. 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. This was not always the case and will not be always the case.

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 1) unselfish, 2) socially neutral, or 3) socially selfish. The first category, the unselfish is exemplified by many actions against injustice towards others or to the society or the world as a whole, even if the protester may not directly or 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, in unification or in realistic imagination. 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 methods are rather ‘non-violent violence’ as contrasted with ‘violent violence.’ But when civil disobedience is done in constant contemplation of the higher good - the Gandhian approach - and the protesters are completely indifferent with regards the consequences for themselves, 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). We know that protests of the second and third categories can be both violent and non-violent.

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 of all souls involved - and that forever in foreseeable future.

Mohandas Gandhi was, when in London, greatly influenced by theosophist Mme Blavatsky. It was through her and the people around her that he became aware of the values of his own (Hindu) religion, notably the wisdom of the Bhagavad-Gītā. A second major influence came from Jainism in his youth. Also he was greatly inspired by L.N. Tolstoy. Jesus played a great part in his life and he 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 that 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. 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 far-reaching 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.

If protest is by definition irreconcilable with the religious definition of the higher concept of Ahiṃsā, 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. Compassion, politically and socially, rises from thumos, Holy Indignation, as Vaclav Havel called it. Inaction in a deed of mercy, KARMICALLY BECOMES A DEADLY SIN (paraphrased from the Theosophical jewel The Voice of the Silence byH.P. Blavatsky).

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.

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  1. Ahiṃsā
  2. Blavatsky
  3. Body
  4. Buddha
  5. Consciousness
  6. Contemplation
  7. Dalai Lama
  8. Dharma
  9. Fasting
  10. Islam
  11. Jainism
  12. Karma
  13. Karmas
  14. London
  15. Mahatma
  16. Mahatma Gandhi
  17. Mokṣa
  18. Non-violence
  19. Nonviolence
  20. Pride
  21. Prāṇa
  22. Soul
  23. Sūtra
  24. Tattvārthadhigama Sūtra
  25. Violence
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