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Michael Nagler: Story of Principled Nonviolence

Nonviolence: An Unstoppable Movement...

Our guest for the Forest call last Saturday was Michael Nagler, Professor Emeritus at UC Berkeley, who co-founded the Peace and Conflict studies program. He received the Jamnalal Bajaj award for promoting Gandhian values outside of India. He is the founder of Metta center which has a tagline: “Promoting nonviolence worldwide.” A student of Eknath Eswaran, Michael has read every single biography on Gandhiji and is himself an author of several books. What a wonderful way to start Saturday morning!

In the opening round of sharing, Michael expressed his excitement on recently getting to meet virtually the last person living who knew Gandhi, Narayan Desai, who lived with Gandhi for 23 years. He found having a human connection with Narayan Desai an amazing experience as well as listening to anecdotes that reveal the deep character of Gandhi.

Michael NaglerThis blog captures some of the thoughtful questions and insightful answers....

Q : How would you define non-violence? Why not “peace”? Why is a double negative used?

Michael – We haven’t been able to come up with an equivalent in English language. The closest equivalent term is in Tagalok which came up in 1986 during the uprising against Marcos in Philipines. The term means "to offer dignity”. It is not only positive but includes a sense of offering something. If you offer someone violence, you are degrading yourself. By offering dignity, you are refusing to accept violence.

Non-violence can be defined as the force released by the successful struggle with a negative drive.

If I express anger or run away, that is one reaction. If I dig my heels in and feel anger without acting on it, the anger  will convert into a positive force.
             In 1992 during a Hindu-Muslim riot in Gujrat, the Hindu mob was attacking a little village. A lady had hidden her Muslim neighbor and when the mob came looking for him, she was calm and said, "yes, I am hiding him. First kill me and then you may enter.” They were so overcome that they went away. She spoke to these people without hatred but without going along with their violent agenda. This was repeated in house after house.

The force that prevailed was non-violence. Non-violence is sometimes called “love in action”. It is an active force that touches the heart of people who are offering violence.

Q: Can you share a little about your personal history? Was this always your value or was there a particular moment or experience that made you a believer in non-violence?

Michael- I was the shortest boy in public school and did not like violence. I had an inclination for sympathy but was not as developed. One experience that stuck with me was during a rally during the civil rights movement. One African American person got angry and said, "they are using violence against us, why don’t we use violence." The moderator said, "because that is not who we are." From that time I was drawn to Gandhi but did not understand him. However, in 1966 I walked into the meditation room, in Berkeley to meet Eknath Easwaran who has had the deepest influence in my life. Getting to know Gandhiji through his eyes, I realized that he was much greater than I had thought. I think of him as an Avatar that came to rescue of humanity.

You clearly delineate between strategic non-violence and principled non-violence. Can you speak about this classification?

Michael – If you look at a fairly successful example of non-violence like Egypt, they got a lot accomplished and then it stopped short because they were practicing strategic non-violence. Their attitude was, “They cannot defeat us because we left our weapons home. “ But it is more important to leave your hatred home. Strategic non-violence can’t build a future.  Egypt brought down a regime but did not have to put anything in place.

In case of principled nonviolence you are going to avoid violence in act, in word and in thought. You are appealing to something deeper. You are in for the long haul. You may drop strategic nonviolence if it doesn’t work.

Q- Are there any circumstances under which violence is justified?

Michael: My definition of violence is intention to harm. If I were to shoot someone without the desire to harm, if I don’t flinch through the harm that comes my way or go away triumphantly saying "violence works." Instead I go away saying “how did we create this world where people are deranged and get angry and carry weapons?” and spend part of the rest of my life trying to fix this problem. There may be rare occasions where use of lethal force is called for but there are none where violence is called for…

PACSQ  – How do you frame non-violence for those who are at the receiving end and already seem to be completely inundated and overwhelmed?

Michael – Gandhiji’s approach was two-fold. To do everything to bring them out of destitution and to show them that there is a profound difference between voluntary suffering and involuntary suffering. If it is voluntary and done for a higher purpose, it becomes ennobling, positive and touches the heart of the oppressor.

We who are privileged have to take the lead. We have to create a system that will alleviate their suffering. It is also important not look at them as merely passive victims but understand that because they are used to suffering their force can me a powerful force in Satyagraha if they accept suffering with dignity.

Q – What were some of the tools we can use to scale the work each of us are doing?

Michael- Being true to your highest ideals and representing them in a coherent way throughout your life is important. Gandhiji and Vinoba started several institutions that are still working…And the first thing they looked for was finding the right person. In his book, Satyagraha in South Africa Gandhiji discovers 2 Laws of non-violence and speaks more about this: Law of suffering and Law of Progression.

In our present day, are there even small pockets of movement that have held true to the spirit of non-violence beyond strategy? 

Michael – There are hundreds of little movements that are Gandhian in spirit. Like Narmada bachao or Chipko movement. A wonderful example is Krishnammal Jaganathan, who is a gentle and powerful person. She described how land holders and thugs came to kill her and on one occasion when she saw them coming with gasoline cans and torches, she started meditating. She said,” I was not afraid to die but they were afraid to kill me.”

Most of what we have had since MLK have been constructive programs or obstructive programs and we have yet to see a movement like Gandhiji’s where they were both combined.  

Key Learnings..

Michael has come up with a list of 5 things that people can do.

  • Get a spiritual practice. Meditation is the best to build that convertor inside our psyche so negative drives are converted to positive equivalents.
  • Boycott Mass media. Those images will downgrade your consciousness.
  • Find out everything you can about non-violence. Non violence is a far deeper and far richer subject than we realize. Gandhiji believed that nonviolence has 2 components : to raise the old system to the ground and raise a new system.
  • Act out the change in your consciousness in your personal life.
  • Take a stock of your own strengths and weaknesses, where your passions are and find a way to tie with the peace movement.
[More: Gandhiji’s book on Vows and ObservancesLearning Passage meditationOccupy 2.0: The Great Turning, and coming soon on Metta Center website: "Strategy anyone” – from spontaneous protests to an unstoppable movement and a book on “Meditation and non-violence”]

[ServiceSpace Forest Calls are weekly conference calls where inspiring people are invited to speak about life journey. They are free and open to the public; to join or learn about the next guest, visit the Forest Call HomePage.]

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