Is a nonviolent world possible?

In a world of civil wars, terrorist attacks, populist polarization, human rights violations, hate speech, persecution of minorities, mistreatment of refugees, capitalist exploitation of people and natural resources, extremely unequal distribution of wealth, the industrial slaughter of domestic animals, extinction of species, massive deforestation, mass-destruction weapons – how can anyone be so naive to hold on to the possibility of a nonviolent world?

One possible answer to this ‘realistic’ question comes from the inventor of nonviolent communication, Marshall B. Rosenberg, who truly has no illusions about the human potential for violence, as he has mediated in many areas of conflict around the world. “If we humans have the ingenuity and energy to create high-tech arsenals and security systems, why shouldn’t we be able to use this energy to build a life-serving system?1

Sense of possibility

Indeed, the above-stated, ‘realistic‘ position is, as Judith Butler mentions in ‘The Force of Nonviolence‘, very widespread. However, it is not the only one, and even less the ultimate one. On closer inspection, the perspective described above, reveals itself to be conservative. It is so not by the intention of maintaining the status quo, but simply by its unimaginativeness and by its limitation.

You either see opportunities or you don’t. The impossible is another name for the not seen. […] The shadow, which lets you see a limited and frightening world full of threats and sinister possibilities, obstructs your view of previously unseen possibilities that you might become aware of if you extended beyond the shadow. Without this expansion, you inevitably have a blinkered vision.2

The ‘sense of reality‘, as Robert Musil calls this lack of imagination in contrast to the ‘sense of possibility’, in this case, presupposes that there is no probability for collective awareness of nonviolence. However, a transformation of the still prevailing, violence-promoting structures can only be initiated by human beings who are aware of their ‘wolfish‘ conditioning – through fear, feelings of guilt and shame, as well as judgmental language – and who do not allow themselves to be restricted by the prevailing paradigms.

A paradigm is a whole worldview, and it is only limited by what we view as possible. As old ways of looking at things are challenged, our worldview begins to stretch and expand. That which was previously considered to be impossible becomes possible and eventually is experienced as a new dimension of reality. There is the capacity to look within ourselves to examine our belief systems, ask questions, and seek new solutions.3


In the Advaita-Vedanta tradition, (jiv-)Atman (the individual soul) and Brahman (the world-soul and source of all existence) are not separate, they form a ‘non-duality’. This means that we potentially have access to all other living beings through our individual Self (Jiv-Atman). But most of the time this access is blocked by identifications of the ‘small’ self (ego). Avidya (lit.: ‘non-wisdom’) refers to the identification (Asmita) with thoughts, desires, ideologies, social roles, and other conditionings. By rejecting one limiting paradigm after the other, one illusion after the other, one conditioning after the other, we become permeable to the all-connecting energy of the world-soul. Sometimes this happens spontaneously when we empathize with another living being.

According to Marshall B. Rosenberg, it is nothing less than ‘unconditional love’ that enables us to connect with others when we are truly present and compassionate with them. This is possible even when we have very different worldviews, yes, even when we are on opposite sides of a bloody conflict.

When I empathize in contexts like this, my mind tells me, ‘Forget it, this will never go away,’ but if I just do everything in my power to connect the two parties, it will eventually happen: It is like a miracle. It’s not me who does that, I can’t heal these wounds. […] But the good thing is that we don’t have to do anything ourselves. When we are empathically connected, the divine energy flows through us and does it. I believe we all have this power in us, it is just there, we are not always connected, access is often blocked.4

Letting go

Only by letting go of limiting beliefs and emotional thoughts do we arrive at that lightness of existence, which is pure consciousness and bliss. Then we are finally connected with the divine energy, which is flowing through all of us. In this state of connectedness that is called ‘Sat-Cit-Ananda‘ in the yoga scriptures, we can no longer be controlled, manipulated, exploited, and imprisoned.

It is the inner emptiness that sets the ego strategies of desire in motion. It becomes noticeable as long as we can not feel the connection with our great self (Atman). As soon as we are in the state of Satcitananda, this feeling of inner emptiness disappears and our desires dissolve on their own, without having to force ourselves ascetically to do so.

Defense of the small self

Above all, the so-called ‘realistic’ view mentioned in the first paragraph, often serves as the ‘best’ argument to legitimize violence. Finally, we must defend ourselves against the violence that is omnipresent: “Because violence is already happening, the argument continues, there is no real choice about whether or not to enter violence through one’s action: We are already in the field of violence. […]Violence is happening against us, so we are justified in taking violent actions against those who (a) started the violence and (b) directed it against us.5

However, even if we are already in a force-field of violence: How should the circulation of violence be put to an end, if not, right now, we are precisely the ones who make the conscious decision not to contribute to its circulation?

The cosmopolitan attitude of Ahimsa

Furthermore, Judith Butler asks the crucial question: “Who is this ‘self’ that we defend in self-defense?” Who is included in this self-conception, and who is excluded? Are there people(s), who are less worthy of our compassion, less ‘grievable’? This is exactly the reason, why we should conceive ‘Ahimsa‘ as a cosmopolitan attitude. Hence, when we stop identifying with the small self – the nation, religion, ethnicity, race, or class – we are less likely to aggressively defend these extensions of the ego. Rather, we identify with the Self that is inseparable from the World-soul.

The Intention not to hurt

Ahimsa (Sanskrit: ‘the intention not to hurt‘), in Patañjali‘s eightfold path of yoga, belongs to the ‘Yama‘, the rules that govern the yogi’s relationship with others. Why one might ask, is it the intention that matters in the concept of ‘Ahimsa’, and not the deed, arising from this intention? Indeed, the success or failure of the intended action is not always in the power of the acting subject. In other words, deeds or acts of speech can be considered by others as violations without being intended as such.

Moreover, the assessment of an action or statement is determined by psychological or even cultural factors, that we can not always influence. However, we can influence our intention and the courage and attention with which we perform this action.


It is the feeling or intention [or mindset] (that is Bhava) with which an act is done which determines its moral worth. [] On this Bhava [] both, character and the whole outlook on life depend. Therefore, it is sought [by yogīs] to render the Bhava pure.”6

Intentions can also be considered from an energetic point of view. As emotions have different frequencies of energy, which can be felt by others, likewise the intention with which we are acting, can be unconsciously registered by others. This is why the intention matters.

Our feelings and thoughts always have an effect on other persons and affect our relationships, whether these thoughts or feelings are verbalized, expressed, or not. […] Almost everyone is brought up to believe that our thoughts and feelings are private affairs and nobody else’s business, that all minds are separated, and that emotions only happen within the confinement of the body. As we begin to investigate in this area, we find that often the set of feelings we hold about another person is mirrored back by their attitude and that, when we change our inner attitude about them, their attitude changes abruptly. Finding out what needs to be cleaned out is simple and easy. Just look at what you would not want others to know about you and begin to surrender it. 7

Potentiation of effects?

But another fact may have led Patañjali to site Ahimsa as the very first step on the yoga path. Intentions become reality all too easily when all the mental energy is focused on them. Hence, when the yogi, through concentration and meditation, develops supernatural powers, the temptation to use them to his/her own advantage also could grow. For this reason, the yogi should anchor Ahimsa firmly in his/her attitude, before s/he proceeds to higher states.

Moreover, hurtful intentions, thoughts, and hurtful actions lead to existential and emotional entanglements. Consequently, these intentions can throw the yogi back in his/her ability to deliberately end the mental modifications and fluctuations (Vrttis).

Intentions reveal themselves in action

Certain mental attitudes, such as prejudices, sweeping suspicions, or ressentiment inevitably influence our attitude and lead to corresponding decisions, even if these connections remain hidden at the moment of action. Therefore, T. K. V. Desikachar emphasizes in his interpretation of Patañjali’s Yoga-Sūtras that the development of such a sensitivity to the effects of violent intentions is a step-by-step process.

It requires effort, “[…] to find out the causes for wrong views and behaviors, and if we recognize the underlying Kleshas [mental and emotional afflictions] in our mind, our attitudes will change naturally and gradually. The Kleshas will lose their power and influence, and our dealings with the environment and our behavior with others will become clearer and more appropriate.8

Gradual investigation

In his Interpretation of the Yoga-Sūtras, therefore, Swami Harirananda Aranya points out, that the perfect realization of Ahimsa also requires concentration and meditation. Only in this way one can recognize, track down, and abandon more subtle forms of violence. Thus, he emphasizes that the eight limbs of Asthanga-Yoga (Sanskrit Astha: ‘eight’, Anga: ‘limbs’) – Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana, Samadhi – each relate to the other.

In other words, at the beginning one may have only a vague idea of what the practice of Ahimsa might look like. Thus, by gradually deepening this practice – through Pranayama, the regulation and lengthening of breathing that can change emotional states, through Asanas (yoga postures) that purify the nervous and Nadi-system, through Pratyahara, directing attention inwardly to emotions and sensations or disturbing thoughts that trigger them, through Samyama (the concentrated energy of Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi) that leads us to a deep understanding of the effects of these Kleshas – in short, through all eights steps of the yoga-path the profound practice of nonviolence can be established.

Finally, once the yogi has rooted Ahimsa deeply into his/her consciousness, all disturbing thoughts that might lead to violence will eventually disappear by themselves. However, only if these mental reactions do not reappear even when provoked, has one mastered the art of Ahimsa.

Ahimsa as a political term

The sensitization to the more subtle aspects of nonviolence, as described by T.K.V Desikachar and Swami Hariharananda Aranya, initially takes place on an individual level.

However, the attitude described by the term ‘Ahimsa’ has not only the potential to transform the lives of individuals. Moreover, it can affect the way we live together. Thus, it has political potential. Even though, if a protest movement uses nonviolent means to fight for its goals, each individual must support the nonviolent attitude. Indeed, it often takes only one violent reaction to bring about the escalation of a conflict. Both, radical groups, as well as the state, exploit this fact to discredit nonviolent resistance.

One major challenge faced by those in favor of nonviolence is that ‘violence’ and ‘nonviolence’ are disputed terms. […] In public debates, we see that ‘violence’ is labile, its semantics appropriated in ways that call to be contested […]. Demonstrations, encampments, assemblies, boycotts, and strikes are all subject to being called ‘violent’, even when they do not see recourse to physical fighting. […] When states or institutions do this, they seek to rename nonviolent practices as violent, conducting a political war as it were, at the level of public semantics.9

Marginalia of history

Indeed, an astonishing number of nonviolent revolts have successfully mastered the immense challenge of persuading individuals to adopt an attitude of nonviolence in order to stand up for the common cause. Nevertheless, for both the mass media and historiography, nonviolent movements are usually nothing more than marginal notes or footnotes. On the one hand, they are considered ineffective. While on the other hand, the state or state-near media publicly brand them as violent despite their nonviolent appearance.

Ahimsa as a unifying concept?

Although the predominant perception and the representation of the condition of the recent world in the mass media is one of continuous violence, the existence of a hidden undercurrent of nonviolent interventions can not be denied.

Mohandas Karamchand (Mahatma) Gandhi was not the first to cultivate this nonviolent form of resistance. However, he was the one who made a wider public aware of the power of these hidden forces. Indeed, the term ‘Ahimsaplays an important role in ‘Hinduism‘ as well as in Jainism and Buddhism. Gandhi’s fame was a result of transforming Ahimsa into a political concept, which he called Satyagrāha.

Actual relevance

Though many continue to believe that nonviolence is an ineffective instrument against dictatorship and genocide, in the last several decades many democratic initiatives, which are premised on nonviolent militancy and an affirmation of human rights helped to build a global civil society on solid ethical foundations.10

At a time marked by religious tensions fuelled by right-wing politicians both in India and in Europe, in the United States, and in South America, Ahimsa as a cosmo-political attitude seems to become very relevant again.

Ahimsa archive

An open and heterogenous Ahimsa archive shall offer an alternative to mass media representation, to make the many hidden forms of nonviolence visible. However, the aim is not to deny the violent and martial aspects of human beings. Not by ignoring and suppressing our dark sides, but precisely by confronting our shadows and demons, we can learn to resist their pull.

The shadow is a community project. Everyone can participate in its construction and needs nothing more than the ability to remain unconscious. […] We defend ourselves against our shadow and deny it because we have been thoroughly indoctrinated or we are simply under the hypnosis of social conditioning.”11

Emergence of violence

Violence often arises from individual or collective traumatic experiences. In order to overcome trauma, the traumatized person must first free him or herself from the rigidity of fear. Thus, through a catharsis of the stuck survival reactions s/he can gradually transform his/her interpretation of his/her story.

Each individual has his/her specific way of dealing with experiences of violence. In other words, everyone finds his/her own strategies to overcome feelings of helplessness, anger, fear, and grief.

What applies to the individual memory, as well applies to collective memory. As long as we consider ourselves as victims, the energy remains blocked and manifests itself in depression and fear. It turns into self-hatred or vengeance, manifests itself in anger and outbursts of violence, or simmers as ressentiment. Only when we can consider the suffered violence as irrevocably bygone, can the energies be released. As a result, they express themselves with creativity, spontaneity, and mental clarity.

Finding the language again

Not only has violence an immediate effect, but it also has a sudden, overwhelming impact. Therefore, a violent assault, a traumatic experience, or an aggressive provocation often leaves us speechless. It often takes hours or even days to figure out, what we could have replied to after we have been hurt. Hence, finding words to express what has happened is an important step to freeing ourselves from the spell of violence. This can happen in a conversation with a friend or therapist or by describing the emotions triggered by the injury.

Trauma let people fall silent. […] keeping traumatic experiences to oneself, however, maintains their impact. […] Breaking the silence is the first step in replacing automated reaction patterns with conscious decisions.12

Transformation of memory

In narratives the human brain processes experiences and transforms all components, such as impressions, feelings, intuitions, and thoughts into stories. This applies both on the individual and collective levels. Thus, the conscious confrontation with these individual or collective narratives leads to the transformation of the perception of the past.

Consequently, the aim of the Ahimsa network is to transform memory by consciously confronting prevailing narratives and discourses. Collecting new stories of nonviolent rebellion is another intention. Subsequently, by a transdisciplinary approach to the manifold aspects of nonviolence, an archive of nonviolent attitudes and strategies shall arise.

Author: Eva Pudill


Estimated reading time: 13 minutes

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