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Even before you turn to the contents page of this book titled ‘Non-violence: The history of a dangerous idea,’ there is a longish quote from China’s first true philosopher Mozi, circa 470-391 B.C.: “To kill one man is to be guilty of capital crime, to kill ten men is to increase the guilt ten-fold, to kill a hundred men is to increase it a hundred-fold. This the rulers of the earth all recognize and yet when it comes to the greatest crime – waging war on another state – they praise it!”

This sweeping but concise book moves from ancient China to the American war in Iraq, describing how violence has never been very successful, while nonviolence has a remarkable record – the abolition of slavery, a united Europe and the United Nations.

The Dalai Lama in his foreword credits the Mahatma for taking up the ancient but powerful idea of ahimsa and making it familiar throughout the world. “Mahatma Gandhi’s great achievement was to revive and implement the ancient Indian concept of nonviolence in modern times, not only in politics, but also in day-to-day life.”

In a piece published in Los AngelesTimes, the book’s author Mark Kurlansky, says:  “In 1933, Mohandas K. Gandhi wrote this about his strategy of nonviolent activism, which he called the law of love: ‘The law will work just like the law of gravitation will work, whether we accept it or not.’ I think he was right. History, from ancient China and the early Christians all the way up to the dismantling of the Soviet Union and the end of apartheid in South Africa, shows that it does work.”

Kurlanksy seems to have written this book because he felt surprised that even after Gandhi’s non-violent uprising in India, and after Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights movement in a violent and hateful American South, the most common response to nonviolence, as though it has never been tried, is, “Nice idea, but will it work?”

But why does Kurlansky call nonviolence a “dangerous idea.” On pages 149-150, he narrates the story of a leader of the Pathan zone, which the British were trying to secure through violent means. The man called Abdul Ghaffar Khan or Badshah Khan was a follower of Gandhi and was urging the Pathans to rise up in civil disobedience. The British tried provoking the proud Pathans to break their vows of nonviolence – publicly humiliating them, even stripping them, and compelling some to kill themselves to avoid breaking their vows.

“For putting these dangerous ideas into practice, the ‘gentle British’ held him (Badshah Khan) for a total of thirty years, one third of his life, serving various prison terms, most of it in solitary confinement, usually under a charge of ‘sedition’,” Kurlansky concludes.

The Economist calls it “an erudite and eloquent book,” while the Dalai Lama hopes prays that “this book should not only attract attention, but have a profound effect on those who read it.”

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