The two most dominating personalities of India, Buddha and Gandhi, have dwelt on the notion Ahimsa
as the most important aspect of moral life. There is a definite commonality of ideas and sources of
the thought of Buddha and Gandhi. Several important parts of their thinking appear to derive from
similar or shared concerns. Both of them adumbrated extensive systems of ethics within which all
aspects of their thinking were organized.
Ahimsa is the keynote of the ethics of Buddhism. Non-injury in thought word and deed, love,
goodwill, patience, endurance, forgiveness, compassion, and self- purification are the virtues to be
cultivated. Buddhist morality is the mean between self-indulgence and self-mortification-the middle
way. Rama, Krsna. Moses, Zoroaster, Buddha, Confucius, Mahavira, Jesus, Nanaka, Vivekananda, and
other prophets and teachers taught mankind the sanctity and supremacy of spiritual and moral values.
Gandhi was intellectual continuum and growth of the moral effervescence represented by these
Gandhi revives Buddha's ethics of Ahimsa and applies it to social, economic and political problems.
He evolves a new outlook on life based on the doctrine of Ahimsa and seeks to evolve all social,
political and economic problems in the light of this principle.
Gandhi was a prophet of cosmopolitanism and internationalism. He transcended the spheres of
localism, sectionalism, casteism, provincialism, nationalism, and patriotism. The ethics of concord,
peace, harmony, moderation-the ‘middle way’, meditation, and conflict resolution, which are so
significant in Buddha's teaching, seem to be basic in Gandhian thought also. The difference between
Buddha and Gandhi lies not in their views of the ideal but in the manner in which they lead people
towards that idea.
Meeta Nath graduated and postgraduate in philosophy from Indraprastha College, University of Delhi.
She took her M.Phil. from the Department of Philosophy, University of Delhi, for a dissertation on
“The notion of religious belief in Gandhi and Wittgenstein: A Comparison.” She went on to study “The
study of notion of ahimsa in the teachings of Buddha and Gandhi: A Comparison” for her Ph.D. from
the Department of Buddhist Studies, University of Delhi. She was research associate at the Centre
for the study of Developing Societies, where she worked with Professor C. Douglas Lummis, chair
Professor at Rajni Kothari Chair in Democracy. She has been Assistant Professor of Philosophy at
Ramjas College, University of Delhi.
My main aim in this work has been to give a comprehensive account of the notion of ahimsa and its
relevance in the present world. In our times the world is teetering on the present world. In our
times the world is teetering on the brink of disaster because of the culture of intolerance and
proclivity to resort to violence in pursuit of objectives which are often of doubtful value, if not
althogether unacceptable in the broader world context. All over the world today there is growing
demand of ahimsa. Numerous societies and study-growing have come into being and scores of books have
appeared on the concept of ahimsa. But this is for the first time that some work has been devoted to
the comparative study of Buddha and Gandhi by taking a close look at their views on ahimsa. I have
chosen the notion of ahimsa only while comparing Buddha and Gandhi because this concept is central
to their teaching. Their whole philosophy revolves around the notion of ahimsa.
I resolved, therefore, that I should proceed to a comparative study of the concept of ahimsa in the
thought systems of Buddha and Gandhi and see what kind of guidance may be available for humankind
from these two great figures in the history of the world. It was highly gratifying to me and to my
way to thinking that I came to a major conclusion, among others, that Buddha and Gandhi preached
ahimsa as the centerpiece of their thought systems and that ahimsa is the only means which may
ensure tolerance, coexistence, and peace in the world. Much depends on how this message is carried
to the world and how the world is reminded of the teaching of these two great personages.
I shall begin by explaining why I have chosen to study V this subject. I will then go on to explain
the notion of ahimsa and its various dimensions, and the relationship between satya and ahimsa.
While explaining the concept of ahimsa in Buddhism, I shall try to elaborate Buddha’s views on the
notion of ahimsa with the help of Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, the doctrine of the Eightfold Path,
sila (morality), samadhi (meditation), panna (knowledge), and nibbana (or 1110/esa, emancipation).
Likewise, I shall try to explain the notion of ahimsa in Gandhism with the help of Gandhi’s doctrine
of cardinal virtues like satya, asteya, aparigraha, and brahmacharya, among others. While
considering Buddha and Gandhi together, I will try to compare Buddhist and Gandhian views on the
concept of ahimsa, how they differ and at the same time how they are compatible, the parallels and
divergences between Buddha’s and Gandhi’s systems of ethical ideas and the correspondences between
them in some areas, like the ideal of bodhisattva in Buddhism and the status of mahatma in Gandhi. I
shall conclude with a statement of the principal findings of the study.
It is pleasant to be able to acknowledge my debt to some of the persons who have contributed
directly or indirectly to the making of my work and in enabling me to carry it to completion.
Foremost among these are my teacher Dr. Inder Narain Singh, who steered me through the maze of the
intricacies of research and logical presentation.
Dr. Rajendra Prasad contributed in several ways to the whole project of my research. It was his
persistent encouragement that enabled me to get on with my study.
Words cannot express my gratitude to my ideal Mr. Rajpal Singh who has contributed in a big way,
often without his own realization, to this work, which would have been difficult without his
support, inspiration and encouragement.
I am grateful to my parents and my family for being kind to support and co-operation.
My son Apurva is responsible in may quiet and invisible ways for the completion of this work.
The history of mankind is the history of the endeavor of human beings to live a moral life. Moral
life has not always been the same. It keeps on changing from time to time. But there are some moral
principles, like Ahimsa, which do not change with time and place. What are those moral principles?
What are the constituents of a moral life? How to achieve it? Why do human beings struggle to lead a
moral life`? These questions have always occupied the human mind. The two most dominating
personalities of India Buddha and Gandhi, have dwelt on the notion of Ahimsa as the most important
aspect of moral life. The purpose this study is to highlight the parallels and divergences h the
mindsets of the two most influential persons of the world through a comparative study of the thought
of Buddha and Gandhi.
The proposed study aims to trace and establish, if Possible, commonality of ideas and sources of the
thought of Buddha and Gandhi. Several important parts of their thinking appear to derive from
similar or shared concerns. Both of them adumbrated extensive systems of ethics within which all
aspects of their thinking were organized. The principal aspects of the philosophical content of what
is Ahimsa in Buddha and Gandhi will be studied and an attempt shall be made to explain the salient
features of their ideas. After obtaining a detailed view of the philosophical ideas of each, the
study shall attempt to uncover common ideas underlying their formulations on the same or similar
A comparison of these two great figures in world philosophical thought is significant because they
derive from similar ways of thinking and cultural development. Each of them epitomizes the life and
culture of vast numbers of people. Even though they lived twenty—five centuries apart, there is no
doubt that each of them was, and continues to be, at the centre of philosophical and cultural
thought of his civilization which either followed his ideas or from which his ideas emerged. As
Raghavan Iyer said, "Gandhi was, in fact, following in the footsteps of the Buddha in showing the
connection between the service of suffering humanity and the process of self-purification", and even
more emphatically he speaks of "Gandhi's profound reinterpretation of Hindu values in the light of
the message of the Buddha".
One may try and indicate some of the ingredients of Buddhism and also show how the basic ideas
pertaining to Buddha’s thought underlie a family resemblance to Gandhi’s thinking. As Albert
Schweitzer said, "Gandhi continues what the Buddha began. In the Buddha the spirit of love sets
itself the task of creating different spiritual conditions in the world; in Gandhi it undertakes to
transform all worldly conditions."
Gandhi said that the Buddha was the greatest teacher of Ahimsa and that he "taught us to defy
appearances and trust in the final triumph of Truth and Love".
As in Gandhi, Ahimsa is preeminent in Buddhist ethics also. Not killing is the first of the Five
Precepts, and this prohibition includes all sentient beings from insects to humans. Buddhists
conceive of Ahimsa as a positive virtue or, more precisely, an enabling virtue preparatory to higher
virtues. Therefore, Buddhists usually speak of these other virtues rather than Ahimsa itself
Buddhism offered maitri (friendliness) and karuna (compassion) and made compassion the highest
virtue, along with generosity, good conduct, patience, courage, concentration, and wisdom.
But Gandhi allowed many exceptions to Ahimsa, based on some realistic and pragmatic considerations.
According to him "all killing is not himsa," and it is better to fight an aggressor• than to be a
coward. Gandhi's Ahimsa is reactive and flexible, not passive and absolute. Thus in Gandhi’s ethics,
Ahimsa cannot be rule based; rather, it must be based on the development of virtues that are formed
within the context of the person, his spiritual stature, his vocation, and the various situations in
which he finds himself.
The ethics of concord peace, harmony, moderation (the Middle way’), meditation, and conflict
resolution, which are so significant in Buddha’s teaching, seem to him basic in Gandhian thought
also. The difference between Buddha and Gandhi lies not in then views of the ideal but in the manner
in which they lead people towards that idea. Gandhi goes out of the way to emphasize the primacy of
means over ends. Therefore one can see that Buddhist humanism——a humanism of nonviolence and
compassion——may be the very best way to take Gandhi's philosophy into the 2lst century.
A lot of writing has taken place on the philosophical Views of these two thinkers. Each of them has
been separately studied and written about, but philosophical linkages between their thought have not
been explored in any systematic study. The study has philosophical and inter-cultural significance
and may open new areas of research for further study. A comparative study of Buddha and Gandhi on
the notion of Ahimsa may open new directions for further studies on morality. The study opens up
several possibilities for more specific comparison. In the examination of Buddha’s ideas, I shall
establish how Indian civilization has derived its values from Buddhist thinking. In my study of
Gandhi, I shall study Gandhi's thought and identify its linkages with traditional Buddhist thought.
Ahimsa, Buddha, and Gandhi
In spite of its appearance as a negative expression, the word Ahimsa or non—violence has a definite
positive s connotation which cannot be brought out by any rendering of the expression into English.
In fact even in Samskrit and Pali form, the word has the same drawback. The prefix a- in Ahimsa
certainly suggests the absence or the opposite of himsa. This does less than justice to the meaning
underlying this expression. While the Buddha taught that one had to inculcate and practice Ahimsa in
thought, speech, and action. Gandhi went further to say that the proper meaning of Ahimsa would have
to be nothing less than love for others, including those who are unfriendly or downright enemies.
Gandhi goes on to claim that it is important to reciprocate love with love but it is more important
to reciprocate hatred with love too. The reasoning is both subtle and straightforward: one cannot
remove hatred from human life by offering hatred in return for hatred. Hatred can be removed only by
love. Gandhi also says that one has to practice Ahimsa in thought, speech, and action, but he adds
significantly that Ahimsa necessarily must include the need to return love even for hatred, to
return gentleness for someone’s abusive behaviour, etc.
For our study we have to go deeper into the sources of the meaning of Ahimsa and how Buddha and
Gandhi derive their meaning system from Ahimsa by considering, in the case of the Buddha, his
teachings as contained in the Sutra portion of the Tripitaka, and in the case of Gandhi, his
numerous speeches and writings, all of which have come down to us in the Collected Works and in
other collections and Gandhi’s own copious writings. This should lead us to a rounded view of the
ramifications of the meaning of Ahimsa in the thought systems of the two thinkers.
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