On October 2, 1869—one hundred and fifty years ago today—Mohandas K. Gandhi was born in the city of Porbandar on the west coast of India. His cosmological worldview of the sacredness and unity of all life and his strategy of nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience are more relevant than ever as we strive to avert the worst effects of climate catastrophe. We don’t often think of Gandhi as an ecological voice, but in fact his philosophy of nonviolence, or ahimsa, was rooted in a profound sense of interconnectedness and reverence for all beings. “Underlying ahimsa is the unity of all life,” he said.
Gandhi’s politics and ethics emerged from his view of the universe and transcended the human realm to encompass all of nature. “My religion… embrace[s] all life,” he said. “I want to realize brotherhood or identity not merely with the beings called human, but I want to realize identity with all life, even with such things as crawl upon the earth.”
This ecological worldview speaks to our current emergency, with a million species facing extinction in coming decades. As the lit fuse of the climate crisis continues to spark fires and floods, heatwaves and hurricanes—and governments and corporations continue to block action—we will likely see increasing expressions of another Gandhian principle: the power and necessity of mass nonviolent noncooperation. From the planet-wide climate strikes of September 20, to Extinction Rebellion’s “International Rebellion” kicking off October 7, we may be entering an era of global civil disobedience.
Gandhi’s initial breakthrough—the genesis of what would become Gandhian nonviolence—came twenty-four years after his birth, during a cold night on a dark railway platform in South Africa. Within days of his arrival as a young, London-trained barrister, Gandhi came face-to-face with South Africa’s system of racial oppression and the violence that enforced it. Forcibly ejected from a train for being a “coloured” man in a first-class compartment (despite having a first-class ticket), Gandhi sat for hours on the platform at Pietermaritzburg, boiling with anger, fearing for his life, shaking from the cold. (One must note that it is disheartening that as a person discriminated against because of his color, Gandhi himself had a moral blind spot when it came to racism against Africans, a failing that was contrary to his own moral worldview.)
Reflecting years later on the discrimination he suffered on the railroad, Gandhi recounted, “I began to think of my duty. Should I go back to India, or should I go forward, with God as my helper and face whatever was in store for me? I decided to stay and suffer.” Looking back, Gandhi saw his traumatic night at the train station as his single most creative experience, the decisive flash that changed the course of his life. “My active nonviolence began from that day.”
Gandhi’s insight was that there had to be a “third way,” a path between aggression and acquiescence, between violent retaliation and submission. There had to be a nonviolent method to resist oppression. Thirteen years after he was forced from the train, on September 11, 1906, in Johannesburg, Gandhi and 2000-3000 others in a mass meeting declared their collective refusal to comply with the newly passed law which required all Indians to register with authorities and have their fingerprints taken. It is considered the first political application of mass nonviolence, though the first use of the term nonviolence, credited to Gandhi, would not come until 1920.
His philosophy of nonviolence—influenced profoundly by Leo Tolstoy, and founded on Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain teachings of non-injury, or non-harm, to living beings—was based on a view of the universe described by the term advaita, which translates literally as “not-two.” Advaita signifies non-duality, the view that all reality, and all beings, are ultimately one—interconnected co-participants in an interwoven matrix of existence, held together by the cosmological power of ahimsa. “The universe would disappear without the existence of that force,” Gandhi stated. “All society is held together by non-violence, even as the earth is held in her position by gravitation.” In his worldview, the ethical imperative for justice, harmony, and peace is inherent in the universe itself.
A cosmology of interconnectedness is apparent throughout Gandhi’s writing and speeches. We hear it when he speaks of the “all-embracing fundamental unity underlying the outward diversity,” or when he says that “all life in whatever form it appears must be essentially one.” For Gandhi, the aim of the devotee of nonviolence, and the goal of all religions, is to “realize this oneness with all life.”
Gandhi’s appreciation for the cosmos is evident as he speaks of gazing “at the star-sown heaven” and perceiving the “infinite beauty of Nature.” “To become divine,” he wrote, “is to become attuned to the whole of creation.”
The great truth of Ecology is that everything is connected, and this manifests in Gandhi’s refusal to separate the spiritual and the political, and his insistence on linking issues. Since all of humanity’s activities constitute “an indivisible whole,” he stated, “you cannot divide social, economic, political and purely religious work into watertight compartments.”
It is this unified cosmology that compelled Gandhi to embrace the teaching of ‘hating the sin, but loving the sinner.’ “It is quite proper to resist and attack a system,” he wrote, “but to resist and attack its author is tantamount to resisting and attacking oneself.”
At the sesquicentennial of his birth, Gandhi’s vision still resonates because he confronted many of the brutal realities at the heart of society: war, violence, oppression, injustice, colonialism, militarism, and imperialism. He faced dilemmas that still cry for solutions, such as how to stop violence and oppression with courage and love, and how to disobey and dismantle systems of exploitation without increasing hatred and enmity.
In recent months we have seen authoritarian politicians sidestepping parliamentary norms in the United Kingdom, and fanning the flames of deforestation in Brazil. The United States faces a serious challenge to its system of checks and balances, rising to the level of constitutional crisis. As the physics of the climate crisis and the biological reality of mass extinction and ecosystem destruction become ever more stark, what options are left to the global populace?
If the political and economic systems keep resisting structural change toward racial, gender, economic, and climate justice, toward a zero-carbon future of equality and democracy, what recourse do the people have? Will we see an increase of organized nonviolent action, of civil disobedience and noncooperation? The more the political system and the global economy resist democratic transformation, the stronger the case becomes for mass civil disobedience on a worldwide scale.
Gandhi reminds us that “civil disobedience is the inherent right of a citizen,” and that “never has anything been done on this earth without direct action.” There are times, he felt, when “non-co-operation becomes as much a duty as co-operation.” On the 150th anniversary of Mohandas Gandhi’s birth, the political technique he invented—mass civil disobedience and nonviolent direct action—may be our only hope to prevent the extinction of humanity and a million other species. With four million people recently taking to the streets in the largest climate protest in history, a new generation seems to echo Gandhi’s sentiment that “no one is bound to co-operate in one’s own undoing.”