Nonviolence Actualized: What is the meaning of “Mahatma” in Mahatma Gandhi’s Name?

Glen T. Martin 4 July 2022

Gandhi’s birth name was “Mohandas K. Gandhi.” But the course of his life changed both India and the world. Something entered the world in an explicit and manifest way that had hitherto only been implicit, hidden within spiritual traditions everywhere, but with Gandhi now open and overt: he showed the real possibility and emergent actuality of truly redeeming the world, of truly emerging from our “fallen and sinful” past to a future of freedom, justice, and truth.

In India (and after Gandhi worldwide) “Mahatma” means “great soul.” In Gandhi’s life the true self (the Atman that is Brahman: the divine reality within all of us) had emerged to transcend the ego of the man Mohandas Gandhi in an active and leadership way that showed how a new world is possible for us all—a world beyond war and violence. The transformational reality of the immanent divine is not simply for a few recluses and mystics on the sidelines of human civilizational advance. Our destiny is to actualize a human reality and civilization of freedom, justice, and truth. In a word, a planetary civilization of nonviolence.

This brief article sketches out a few aspects of this new dimension that Gandhi revealed to the world. Perhaps it is particularly appropriate at a time when the entire world is rabid for war, whether pro or con, in the Ukraine, and when a new so-called “Cold War” is raging between nations that would preserve a global empire and those who would foster a so-called “multipolar” world system. Both options ignore Gandhi’s revelation and the deeper truth he brought to civilization.

Both options hasten human descent toward oblivion and extinction. Nuclear war, like unstoppable climate disaster, immanently threaten humanity, while most people take this or that side in the on-going slaughter of the world’s local wars. It is so much easier to indulge our passions with local issues than to see the frightening big picture and direct our energies toward the human transcendence necessary for the very survival of civilization.

For a number of years, when in New Delhi, I would stay with Swami Agnivesh in the apartments he maintained there. Swami Agnivesh was himself a great leader in India in the tradition of Mahatma Gandhi. He repudiated all the rituals, temples, and dogmas of Hinduism and proclaimed universal truth embracing all religions and spiritualities emerging from the ancient scriptures of India and the world, a truth that embraced the untouchables, women, the poor, the landless, and those enslaved by bonded labor. In 2019, I was a guest speaker at a huge conference on the Vedas that he organized in New Delhi, attended by swamis and spiritual leaders from around India and internationally. My speech, one of the few in English, was about the inspirational legacy of Mahatma Gandhi.

In the same apartment complex where Swami Agnivesh lived there was an organization called “World Without Borders.” Intrigued by that name I knocked on their door and encountered their leader, not a person of religious colors but a person of deep thought and insight, who invited me in for tea. He told me that to explain the meaning of his organization would take some time. Was I willing to invest a couple of hours to learn about their work? I agreed, and during the next two hours I was treated to an incredible feast of both Indian and civilizational wisdom.

In their practice, they accepted young people into a program that involved retreats as well as sometimes living as part of a community they sponsored in the countryside. To go through their educational program could take months, even years. Using a whiteboard and marker, he showed me the worldview behind their program that transformed young people not into Gandhian activists explicitly, but into leaders who understood that our world has no borders, no borders that are real. Borders remain a collective illusion that destroy our human potential for a liberated life.

He went into an analysis of capitalism that showed the set of gigantic illusions on which that ideology is based, with negative consequences everywhere, and he went into the world of nations and nationalisms revealing that these national borders were all products of a human imagination lost in divisions and fragmentations. None of it was real. None of it was valid. A free person lives his or her life as a whole, as an integrated free being, not succumbing to this fragmentation of imagining the borders to be real. Borders are an illusion that leads to conflict, hate, fear, and war. The astonishing thing about my teacher during this encounter was that he appealed only to reason, to analysis, and not to any religious traditions or texts.

While listening in rapt attention to his presentation, I thought of many associations with spiritual traditions. In Buddhism, the borderless world arises from insight into pratityasamutpada, the interdependent co-arising of all beings. The deep reality of existence is a whole, a oneness that does not take sides in the fragmented chaos of ego-generated borders—those arbitrary distinctions and discriminations that engender eternal war, violence, and human suffering. All such violent discriminations lack, as 2nd century Buddhist thinker Nārgārjuna puts this, swabhava character—they lack reality or “own being” (see Martin 1991).

American philosopher Nolan Pliny Jacobson observes that the illusion of swabhava applies directly to “sovereign nation-states.” He writes: “The major obstacle [to planetary civilization] is the kind of selfhood in which the terrors of the modern nation are rooted. It is the archaic legacy of a self-substance, mutually independent of all others, which supports the entire superstructure of Western nations” (1982, 41). The free person sees through the illusion that these distinctions correspond to realities and therefore is free of attachment to them—the attachments that lead to violence, hate, fear, and other forms of suffering.

This presentation on a world without borders also reminded me of that collection of spiritualities called “Hinduism.” The ego-self must be transcended by finding the deep self (Atman) within—with the result that every human being, every person is then seen as a manifestation of God against whom violence cannot be used. Gandhi’s karma yoga arose from this realization. This includes of course the aggressors, the criminals, and murderers of this world. Their own ignorance of the truth within themselves is no ground for our doing violence against them. The Maha Upanishad declares vasudhaiva kutumbakam: the world is one family: all persons are brothers and sisters.

My friend teaching me about a world without borders was showing me the implications of freeing ourselves from the propaganda and ideological, deep ignorance of the world. He was showing that there are real, rational alternatives to violence. In every encounter, in every case, there are alternatives to violence even against the aggressors and the so-called “bad” people.

This was exactly Gandhi’s point as well. We can break the chain of violence not only in our personal lives but as groups, nations, and civilization. It is time we stopped accusing one another and crying out: “I will stop if he stops first. He is the aggressor. I am only using violence in self-defense.” Rather, we need to say: “The buck stops here. It stops with me. It stops with us. Neither I nor we will be a link in this endless chain of violence.”

Within my own life I was confronted by this choice early-on during the Vietnam War. The USA then had a military draft, and I was drafted to serve in the military. Legal application to be recognized as a “conscientious objector” to war was possible, but it was not enough to be against a single war that one did not agree with. One had to be against all war, all violence. I was forced by circumstances to think of principles that only later did I find in the philosophical literature on nonviolence.

Later, as Chairperson of the Peace Studies Program at my university, there would be occasions when people recognized and praised the fact that I had been a conscientious objector to war as a young man of college age. But this praise rang hollow as soon as they realized I was against all war, really against all war. My stance became incomprehensible to them. Most people want to make exceptions. They are unwilling to become borderless, to give up their ego attachments and consequent violence.

This presentation in New Delhi about a “world without borders” also reminded me of Christianity. I was born into Christian family. The first person in my life as a young man who appeared to me as truly educated was my pastor at Lake Avenue Baptist Church in Rochester, NY. I used to take notes in his sermons on Sunday mornings. He was non-confrontational in his sermons because the Vietnam War was raging, and sons of church members were in the military.

Nevertheless, he spoke of collective guilt, of realizing that none were innocent, of no “good guys” versus “bad guys.” He emphasized the story of the good Samaritan, the stranger from a foreign land who cared for the wounded, while those of the same background acted out of fear and distrust. He underlined the “great commandment” of Matthew 22 in which Jesus says that the entire law and the prophets are summed up in two related principles: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind. And, like unto it, you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Who is my neighbor? Everyone on the planet.

Mahatma Gandhi was profoundly influenced by Christianity. During Gandhi’s struggles against apartheid in South Africa, one of his friends was a Christian pastor who asked Gandhi to read the Gospels and also to read Tolstoy. Tolstoy was the great Russian writer who only realized, later in his life, what Jesus was saying. He realized that the Gospels were talking about real transformation, really getting rid of the borders, really seeing all men and women as brothers and sisters.

Gandhi did read the scriptures and got the message. He said that the message was also there in the Bhagavad Gita (his own favorite Hindu scripture), just as it was also there in Buddhism. The principle is called the golden rule and is found in all the world’s great religions and cultures. My latest book called The Earth Constitution Solution: Design for a Living Planet (2021) concludes with reflection on the golden rule. We will not only fail to solve the problem of war without the golden rule; we will fail to solve the problem of climate collapse as well.

Gandhi writes: “The basic principle on which the practice of nonviolence rests is that what holds good in respect of oneself holds good equally in respect of the whole universe. All mankind in essence are alike….” “It is man’s imagination,” he writes, “that divides the world into warring groups of enemies and friends. In the ultimate resort it is the power of love that acts even in the midst of the clash and sustains the world” (1998, 303). The Golden Rule means that “all mankind in essence are alike.” What “holds good” for me holds good for all.

Gandhi clearly understood the meaning of a “world without borders.” Man’s imagination creates the borders. In reality, love sustains the world. Unlike Jesus, who was deified by Christianity, Gandhi was just a human being who showed what is possible for all of us as ordinary human beings. All of us can embrace nonviolence. We can confront the unjust of the world not with weapons, but with our authentic bodies and voices. Nonviolence, for Gandhi, however, does not mean that we refrain from speaking truth to power and calling out the propagandists for what they are. Gandhi was clear on this point. Truth needs to be spoken.

You cannot have effective non-violence without rational analysis showing how the ideology of absolute borders and their implicit violence works. Gandhi wrote: “False notions of propriety or fear of wounding susceptibilities often deter people from saying what they mean and ultimately land them on the shores of hypocrisy. But if nonviolence of thought is to be evolved in individuals or societies or nations, truth has to be told however harsh or unpopular it may appear to be for the moment” (1998, 305).

Indeed, Gandhi called out capitalism for what it is. Capitalism (as opposed to the capitalist), he said, must be abolished and “the entire social order reconstructed” for under capitalism “the few ride on the backs of the millions.” Similarly, the modern state is “violence in a concentrated and organized form” (1972, 120-132). If the modern state is organized violence, organized around “imaginary” borders and absolute fragmentation of the world into warring parts, then it must be analyzed and repudiated. (My own writings name this as a “war-system” that is comprised of so-called “sovereign nation-states.”) If this is the case, then, nonviolence, the realization of the divine ground within human life, requires a complete transformation and demilitarization of the world system.

Under the world’s present war mania, an historically Christian Europe has divided itself into warring factions, Eastern Orthodox Russia versus Roman Catholic Western Europe, goaded by Protestant USA. But all this is clearly a travesty of Christ’s teachings. Jesus Christ was willing to die for the truth without doing violence to the forces of evil surrounding him and murdering him. He was willing to be a sacrifice so that others might live.

In the Hindu tradition, the word “sacrifice” translates as tapasya. Gandhi writes: “The tapasya of Jesus Christ, boundless though it was, was not sufficient for Europe’s need. Europe has disapproved Christ. Through ignorance, it has disregarded Christ’s pure way of life” (1998, 303). Europe, and by extension the world’s war-system, in tandem with its profit and power system (capitalism), has drowned the world in a propaganda of pure lies, pure violence, pure injustice. The only pure way of life is nonviolence.

The Constitution for the Federation of Earth treats the borders between and among peoples as human-created administrative districts, necessary to protect human rights and dignity but without the mythic reality now attributed to them. It protects their integrity under Article 14, as well as by creating a world peace system as a framework for that integrity. For this very reason, it can and does abolish all militarism from the world while providing democratic mechanisms for decision-making and resolving conflicts. The conception of absolutely “sovereign nation-states” only solidifies borders through lies and violence. Only the people of Earth are truly sovereign as stated in Article 2.

Gandhi himself called for a world federal system, a system in which nations were no longer “violence in a concentrated and organized form,” but were colleagues in creating a decent world for all God’s children. Article 13.12 of the Earth Constitution requires the democratic Earth Federation to “assure to each child the full realization of his or her potential.” We are all interconnected. Only a world without borders can make this happen. We must end the lies. Gandhi wrote:

The way of peace is the way of truth. Truthfulness is even more important than peacefulness. Indeed, lying is the mother of violence…. There is no half-way between truth and nonviolence on the one hand and violence on the other. We may never be strong enough to be entirely nonviolent in thought, word, and deed. But we must keep nonviolence as our goal and make steady progress towards it. The attainment of freedom, whether for a man, a nation, or the world, must be in exact proportion to the attainment of nonviolence by each…. The truth of a few will count, the untruth of millions will vanish even like chaff before a whiff of wind. (1998, 305)

“Lying is the mother of violence,” and the attainment of freedom is in “exact proportion to the attainment of nonviolence.” The violence of the present war and of all wars is premised on lies. The propaganda systems of capitalism and militarized sovereign nation-states are based on lies. There can be no genuine freedom under this system, only an endless chain of violence and war.

The truths that absolute borders are an illusion, that we are all one, and that the golden rule is the most fundamental principle of all human interactions, are the only possible framework for peace. All else, all the justifications for wars and violence flying back and forth across the world constitutes “the untruth of millions.”

This is why they called him the “Mahatma,” the great-souled one. He showed that entire nations and all of civilization can be based on nonviolence. “Clinging to truth, satyagraha, reveals our only possible way into a credible future. The Earth Constitution is our blueprint for making this happen.

Constitution for the Federation of Earth.  Found online at and in print with the Institute for Economic Democracy Press, 2010 and 2014.
Gandhi, Mahatma (1972). All Men Are Brothers: Collected Writings of Mahatma Gandhi. Ed. Krishna Kripalami, New York, UNESCO and Columbia University Press.
Gandhi, Mahatma (1986). The Moral and Political Writings of Mahatma Gandhi. Ed. Ragharan Iyer, Vol. 2., Oxford University Press.
Gandhi, Mahatma (1998) “On Satyagraha” in Social and Political Philosophy. James P. Sterba, ed.  New York: Wadsworth Publishing Company.
Jacobson, Nolan Pliny (1982) “A Buddhistic-Christian Probe of Our Endangered Future,” in The Eastern Buddhist, Vol. XV, No. 1, p. 41.
Martin, Glen T. (1991). “Deconstruction and Breakthrough in Nietzsche and Nāgārjuna” in Graham Parks, ed., Nietzsche and Asian Thought. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 91-111.
Martin, Glen T. (2021). The Earth Constitution Solution: Design for a Living Planet. Independence, VA: Peace Pentagon Press.
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