IAS Gyan

Daily News Analysis

The meaning of Gandhi’s silence

5th August, 2020 History


  • The horrific bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 did not immediately draw condemnation from leaders across the world.
  • It was a deeply polarised world, very much in the throes of World War II and still largely under colonial dominion.

Gandhi’s stand:

  • Widely celebrated by then as a global apostle of non-violence and a critic of Western imperialism, he wielded immeasurable moral force. Yet for months, Gandhi refused to speak about the event.

The many possibilities

  • For Gandhi, desisting from speech had a specific meaning that was neither a poetics of revolt nor could it be universalised; it had to be experienced individually.
  • This leaves open two less commonplace possibilities. Many religious traditions link the abstinence from sound with divinity. Gandhi’s form of silence was neither a form of total obedience to a deity nor a way of discovering one’s relation with the world.
  • For him, life was lived in the domain of activity. It was through individual action that a vow of silence could be cultivated.

The meaning of mauna

  • For Gandhi, ahimsa and mauna were inextricably linked in a framework, wherein non-violence was about carrying out practical actions that entailed self-purification and self-control.
  • What differentiated mauna from mere silence was that it did not necessitate cessation of speech as much as controlled activity. The emphasis was on selfless and disciplined activity rather than negative abstinence of speech or action.
  • It is important to point out that in his periods of silence, Gandhi continued with his daily discipline, correspondence and selective interactions with visitors to the ashram.
  • The role of mauna in his ahimsa was a break from the circulation of violence and counter-violence. Gandhi intoned that while an atom bomb can cause physical harm, it cannot kill the soul.
  • Mauna enabled him to convert violence into a learning experience because like in any learning, it required making modifications on oneself.
  • The magical quality of unspoken-action is again revealed in an interview with Margaret Bourke-White on January 30, 1948, a few hours before he was assassinated.
  • He reaffirmed the practice of ahimsa in relation to the atom bomb and observed that he would not escape from the pilot dropping the bomb but confront him with wide-open eyes. Gandhi’s silence after the calamity suggests how he transformed a spectacular tragedy into spiritual action.