Gandhi and the ‘Three A’s’ of Jainism

October, 2023 by Cogen Bohanec

Gandhian Satyagraha and Jainism:

Many people have heard of Mohandas K. Gandhi’s (1869-1948) effective resistance to British colonialism which resulted in the latter’s withdrawal from India and subsequent Indian independence (1947). Moreover, people have a vague sense that Gandhi was able to mobilize Indians by their recognition of him as a spiritual leader, a Mahatma (“great soul”), and even fewer people realize that Gandhi applied Jain teachings, such as what is commonly known as the “three A’s” (ahiṃsā/nonviolence, aparigraha/non-consumption, and anekānta-vāda/manysidedness) to achieve his own exalted spiritual state and to achieve the political ends of Indian Independence.

Gandhian called his style of nonviolent resistance Satyagraha. For Gandhi “violence is the negation of this great spiritual force” of Satyagraha, “which can only be cultivated or wielded by those who will entirely eschew violence.” For one to endure the consequences of prolonged non-co-operation and civil disobedience, one must cultivate spiritual strength “so that a perfect Satyagrahi has to be almost, if not entirely a perfect man” such that we “can easily conquer hate by love, untruth by truth, violence by self-suffering,”1 all of which are virtues that are consistent with the spiritual cultivation of the Jain tradition.

Vratas – The Importance of Gandhian Vows:

In Gandhi’s early life he experienced the power of taking vows (vratas) in his own personal cultivation. Before Gandhi went to England for his studies as a barrister, his mother was concerned that he would engage in debauchery whilst there. But to quell his mother’s fears, Gandhi took three vows before a Jain monk not to “touch wine, woman and meat.” Only after that did his mother bestow her blessing.2

While in the UK he upheld these vows, and it was there that his initial spiritual cultivation and curiosity was piqued—notably due in part to his association with a Jain monk before whom he had taken these vows. Eventually this would help him realize the importance of vows for spiritual development and, given the essentiality of spiritual development for effecting social change as a Satyagrahi, he came to insist that all Satyagrahis take spiritual vows—included amongst them are two of the three Jain “triple-A’s,” ahiṃsā and aparigraha.

The Ahiṃsā Vrata of Satyagraha:

Gandhi sought to take recourse in the most powerful natural and spiritual principle that exists and is readily available to humanity: nonviolence, or ahiṃsā. For Gandhi, “Nonviolence is the greatest force at the disposal of mankind. It is mightier than the mightiest weapon of destruction devised by the ingenuity of man. Destruction is not the law of the humans.”3 Thus, following a strategy of nonviolence provides the greatest hope of victory.

But, for Gandhi, ahiṃsā was also a necessary means for spiritual development. Ahiṃsā is irrevocably related to the karma theory embraced by Jains and others. The course of social change and spiritual development coincide with the dictates of nonviolence such that one must never retaliate. For Gandhi, “Man lives freely by his readiness to die, if need be, at the hands of his brother, never by killing him. Every murder or other injury, no matter for what cause, committed or inflicted on another is a crime against humanity.”4 A Satyagrahi must not seek to “punish” those who we think “harass us” because that only creates “another victim” leading to a “vicious circle.” Rather, “it is better to endure the thieves than to punish them” especially since such “forbearance may even bring them to their senses”5 when through our willingness to suffer without retaliation we expose our deepest spiritual nature to be witnessed by the perpetrator, inspiring their own spiritual, and thus social, transformation.

The Aparigraha Vrata of Satyagraha:

For Gandhi, there were also social implications for the dharmic principle of aparigraha, “non-consumption,” or “non-possession,” one of the “three A’s” of Jain Dharma. Gandhi, like Jains, saw a relationship between violence and possession/consumption. All consumption involves violence and the accretion of negative karma because somewhere on any supply chain violence has been committed in the production of any product, and conversely, non-consumption/non-possession removes karma. For Gandhi “[l]ove and exclusive possession can never go together…when there is perfect love, there must be perfect non-possession.”  For extremely advanced Jain mendicants this implies eventually abstaining from all food, water, movement, and even breath, practicing the withdrawal of life from our last possession, our body, in the process of saṃlekhanā. For Gandhi nonviolence likewise implies a sacrifice of our bodies, but this sacrifice can be made in service of a social cause. For him, “[t]he body is our last possession” and to “exercise perfect love and be completely dispossessed” one must be “prepared to embrace death and renounce his body for the sake of human service.”6

Gandhi Practiced Anekānta-vāda as Interfaith Identity :

Gandhi, much like many Jains today, employed anekānta-vāda as a sort of “intellectual ahiṃsā” because it allowed him to move from a position of resentment for “the ignorance of my opponents” to a position such that he can allow the “whole world in the embrace of my love.” For him “Anekantavad is the result of the twin doctrine of Satyagraha and Ahimsa.” Thus, by invoking Anekānta-vāda, Gandhi accepted the seemingly contradictory positions of multiple.

Religions based on the Jain “doctrine of the manyness of reality” that he derived “[f]rom the platform of the Jains…” Anekānta-vāda leads him to the harmonious conclusion that “we are all thinking of the Unthinkable, describing the Indescribable, seeking to know the Unknown, and that is why our speech falters, is inadequate, and even often contradictory.”7 For Gandhi, this conciliatory approach to religious pluralism embodied by Jain anekānta-vāda was essential to quell interreligious violence and to allowing one to broaden the scope of one’s religious inquiry to realize the “fundamental truth of all great religions of the world.”8

Reference notes:
1Gandhi 1967, 34-35, Young India, 3-11’27.
2Gandhi 1993, 39.
3Gandhi 1972, 77, Harijan, July 20, 1931.
4Gandhi 1972, 77, Harijan, July 20, 1931.
5Gandhi 1967, 41, From Yeravda Mandir, chapters I to III and IV.
6Gandhi 1972, 118, Modern Review, October 1935.
7Gandhi 2015, 13-14, Young India, 21-1-’26.
8Gandhi 2015, 55; Harijan, February 16, 1934.


Gandhi, M.K. 2015. Truth is God. Gleanings From the Writings of Mahatma Gandhi Bearing on God, God Realization, and the Godly Way. Kindle Edition. Prabhat Prakashan Publishers.

  1. Non-Violent Resistance (Satyagraha). Kindle Edition. Mineola, New York: Dover Publication.
  1. Gandhi, An Autobiography: The story of My Experiments with Truth. Boston: Beacon Press.
  1. All Men Are Brothers. Published by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. New York: Columbia University Press.
  1. Non-Violent Resistance. Ahmedabad: Navajivan Trust.

About Author

Cogen Bohanec currently holds the position of Assistant Professor in Sanskrit and Jain Studies at Arihanta Academy and is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Claremont School of Theology (CST). He has taught numerous classes on South Asian Culture & Religions and Sanskrit language at the Graduate Theological Union (GTU) in Berkeley. Dr. Bohanec specializes in comparative dharma traditions, philosophy of religion, and Sanskrit language and literature, and has numerous publications in those areas, particularly in the fields of Jain and Hindu Studies amongst other disciplines. He has a PhD in “Historical and Cultural Studies of Religion” with an emphasis in Hindu Studies from GTU, where his research emphasized ancient Indian languages, literature, and philosophical systems. He also holds an MA in Buddhist Studies from the Institute of Buddhist Studies at GTU where his research primarily involved translations of Pāli Buddhist scriptures in conversation with the philology of the Hindu Upaniṣads. Currently he is engaged in publication and research on various aspects of the Jain tradition for Arihanta Institute, emphasizing translations and analyses of Jain Sanskrit, Prakrit, and Gujarati texts.

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